The first anniversary of Putin’s “Special Military Operation” to envelop Ukraine back in the arms of Mother Russia has been the focus of much media attention. However, most of it has focussed on plucky and resolute Ukraine and the unexpected fact that it gave the Russian military juggernaut a bloody nose and cause to think again. Less coverage has explored why many Russians believe the grotesque narrative being put out by the Kremlin. Putin is not about to think again—and has public backing for this.
Admittedly, Western observers are not used to dealing with the scale of the Potemkin villages tyrants like Putin are forced to inhabit. Minor versions built by Johnson and Trump. Not to mention petty despots like Assad or Mugabe, have not prepared the West for a despot with superpower trappings. That puts Putin in a class all by himself.
The degree of self-belief and confidence displayed in his 2-hour-long State of the Union address a few days before the anniversary puzzles many commentators. He was full of piss and vinegar, despite his army having been fought to a standstill. His story was unchanged: Kiev is run by fascist paedophile puppets of America whose ambition is to destroy Russia. And, just like the Swedes, French and Germans before them, would also fail.
How could this nonsense become the catechism of one of the world’s great and historic peoples? How did the land of Pushkin and Tolstoy, of Tchaikovsky and Barishnikov fall so low?
To some extent, it is the effect of history on the culture. Seventy years of Communist authoritarianism and paranoia, on top of the invasions mentioned above, don’t make for the easy-going nature of the Dutch.
Putin’s own history as a cold warrior on the East German front line in the KGB is no breeding ground for a sunny disposition. Fighting his way to the top taught him to apply the ruthless brutality of his training. His low cunning was displayed when he perverted the principles of capitalism. Once installed as President, he used this power to breed oligarchs owing him allegiance as the price of their wealth. Deft control of media—learned under the Soviets—kept the prole majority passive and ignorant.
Despite railing against imagined fascism, Putin copied pages straight out of Hitler’s playbook:
- Unify the people behind you by stoking paranoia about internal threats (Chechen terrorists served as Putin’s “Jews”)
- Extend paranoia to external actors to build resentment (disloyal Ukraine, backed by aggressive NATO serve as Czech/Polish excuses did for Hitler)
- Offer uncompromising strong-arm leadership to deal with such “threats”
But how can anyone live 24/7 in an alternate reality that baffles objective observers? Simples!Putin is the reincarnation—or is at least channelling—the spirit of another influential Russian who came centre-stage at a pivotal time in Russian history: Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Putin began in St Petersburg, but spent time in the career gulag of Dresden—as
Rasputin wormed his way into the trust of influential socialites in Kazan, so Putin’s rise to influence in post-Soviet Moscow defies logical explanation. But a potent brew of iron self-belief, voodoo mysticism and opportunistic timing serves to explain both.
After his introduction to the Romanov royal family in 1905, Rasputin soon became the darling of the Czarina Alexandra through his apparent ability to “heal” her son Alexei, the Czarovitch (heir to the throne). He suffered serious bouts of haemophilia. Haughty as the Romanovs could be, Alexandra was especially so, being born a German princess and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. As such, she dominated Czar Nicholas, and thereby national policy. Taking Rasputin’s advice on matters well beyond the medical or spiritual reinforced prejudices against social reform. This contributed to unrest among the people, leading to the unsuccessful 1905 and successful 1917 revolutions.
Putin’s rise from the seedy obscurity of the KGB’s Dresden office was due to an ability he shared with Rasputinn of knowing which people, were influential and therefore worth cultivating. His equivalent to Kazan was returning to St Petersburg and making himself useful to his former professor Anatoly Sobchak, whom he helped engineer into the position of Mayor.
Upon Sobchak’s political demise, Putin used contacts made to transfer his Machiavellian skills to Moscow and the staff of recently appointed President Boris Yeltsin—Putin’s ‘Czarina’. Once Yeltsin had appointed him Head of the FSB (successor to the KGB), there was no stopping him.
The 15 years following the Soviet demise were a time of decline in Russia. Democracy was a novel concept; capitalism was equally novel and soon perverted by opportunistic oligarchs. Putin soon eclipsed his mentor in the Presidency and, by dealing ruthlessly with incidents like the 2002 theatre hostage and the Cjecjen rebellion, rapidly became popular as a strongman, such that he genuinely won elections. But, to remain popular, a strongman must have threats to be strong against.
“Communism is a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilisation”—V.V. Putin, 1999
His equivalent of Rasputin’s sorcery and mystique, Putin has conjured up Russia’s inalienable right and destiny to dominate the territory of the Russian Empire/ Soviet Union (take your pick; he’s never geographically specific), combined with an exhumed tenet of the Soviets: that the West/NATO is out to destroy Russia, just as Napoleon et al did. It is a more bellicose variant on Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
Such mythical constructs might have come from in uneducated serf like Rasputin, but Putin has a law degree, speaks German, and has written three theses on mining economics. This may seem strange. But dig deeper; fifteen pages of one thesis was plagiarised directly from an American doctoral thesis. Morals play no role in his world of myths.
What he relies on has served him well so far, as it did Rasputin; inspirational mythical mumbo-jumbo that is hard to disprove, delivered with a penetrating dead-pan expression and utter conviction, free of moral scruples. After a 2008 interview with Angela Merkel, to which Putin brought his dog, knowing she had a phobia of them, Merkel commented:
“I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”—Angela Merkel,
Mythical constructs do not last forever. Rasputin was found face-down in a canal with three bullets in him. With his experience and control of state security, such fate is unlikely for Putin.
In the meantime, it seems only right that his faintly redundant forename and patronymic of Vladimir Vladimirovich should be replaced with a more appropriate appellation, in homage to his spiritual forebear: Russia’s Autocratic Sociopath Putin
One day, such truth will out.