So many human qualities can be inversions of what they seem. Hatred of someone else can be hatred of oneself. To punish another can be to engage in self-punishment.
The subject of inversion came up the other evening during the rebroadcast of Dick Cavett’s 1970 interview of Peter O’Toole on the Decades channel. O’Toole claimed he was shy, but then, touchingly and comically, suggested that shyness is a sign of self-importance. I’d come to a similar conclusion after fighting for decades through my own shyness. To be shy is to assume someone cares and is watching. How presumptuous is that?
Serendipitously, that same afternoon, I’d been reading James Wood’s essay, “Dostoevsky’s God,” about inversions in the behavior of Dostoevsky’s characters. Here’s a striking passage:
Dostoevsky shows us that pride and humility are really one. If you are proud you almost certainly feel humbler than someone in the world, because pride is an anxiety, not a consolation. And if you are humble you almost certainly feel better than someone in the world, because humility is an achievement not a freedom, and the humble have a way of congratulating themselves for being so humble. Pride, one might say, is the sin of humble people and humility is the punishment for proud people, and each reversal represents a kind of self-punishment.
Vladimir Putin is spoken about in terms of his grandiose vision for a greater “Mother” Russia. To a man who thus glorifies patriotism, anyone with opposing views is a traitor. Armed with such a world view, Putin has no qualms about harassing, imprisoning and even torturing and killing journalists who reflect a different vision and former supporters who change their minds. To him, tormenting Alexei Navalny and poisoning Salisbury in order to take revenge on a Russian exile aren’t crimes.
When a man sees his understanding of patriotism as tantamount to sacred dogma, he can’t make distinctions. The best we can do is appeal to what we’d like to believe is Putin’s better nature. It’s why Emmanuel Macron accepted the intended humiliation of being seated at the opposite end of Putin’s aircraft carrier-long table. It’s why diplomats plied back and forth between Moscow and various capitals in the West rather than impose sanctions in advance, and why they continue to even now as Russia sends cruise missiles from inside Russia to targets inside Ukraine.
Now that Putin has encountered stiffer resistance than expected, many see the fundamental obstacle to a solution as his need to save face. Indeed, all current options would require him to make concessions he’d deem unacceptable, whether territorial, political or personal. But even if he succeeds in subduing Ukraine and installing a Russia-aligned leadership, his Mother Russia and face-saving compulsions won’t be satiated. Next target: tiny, isolated Moldova? The Polish corridor separating the Russian mainland from its Baltic port at Kaliningrad? For each such assault, he would conjure up arguments for its righteousness. Inside the fortress of the dictatorial powers he has accumulated over two decades, convincing himself is all that’s required.
In reality, the justifications Putin gives for occupying Ukraine are ludicrous. If Ukraine is run by Nazis, how can its president be Jewish? If Ukrainians long to be reunited with Russia, why are they fighting so fiercely and bravely? Why endure the Russian assault on hospitals, apartment buildings and rescue convoys? Why not give in?
The notion of restoring a former version of Mother Russia was an illusion of grandeur from the start. His neighbors don’t want him. It was akin to a leader in London claiming that disrespect of proud Albion called for the United Kingdom to invade Canada, New Zealand or India in order to restore the British Empire. The stupidity of the claim and impossibility of carrying it out would make it immediately obvious that some other motivation was behind the suicidal aggression.
So, what if Putin’s patriotism stems from a cauldron of professional resentments and private guilt: professional resentments from his career in the KGB and government as the USSR reverted to Russia; private guilt from his complicity in KGB cruelty? What if it’s a psychological concealment of self-hatred?
In that same essay, referring to the patriarch in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, James Wood writes:
In Fyodor’s case – and perhaps it is the case with any colossal egotism – other people appear to have become himself. He dislikes his neighbor because of something that he, Fyodor, did to him: ‘I once played a most shameless, nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.’ Clearly, Fyodor longs … to punish himself, because he hates himself. But since other people have merged with himself, he punishes himself by punishing other people, hates himself by hating other people.
Putin has played Fyodor Karamazov’s trick on his neighbors, the Ukrainians, and he regrets it. Regretting it, he hates himself. He must now punish them because to do so is to punish himself.
I wonder whether psychotherapy can offer treatment for this disorder outside the consulting room that doesn’t require the patient’s cooperation. Either way, it looks like deeming Putin’s self-hatred as anything else can only lead to even worse and longer-lasting disasters. There’s no appealing to his better angels. To his guardian devils, perhaps? Is there a more rational and powerful enough voice within Putin’s orbit who could take over?
We are in that 1938 Munich moment when well-meaning Neville Chamberlain, determined to avoid restarting the Great War that ended just twenty years earlier, permitted Adolf Hitler to seize the largely German-speaking Czech region of Sudetenland. Chamberlain succumbed to the fantasy that Hitler really meant he intended only to unite the German people. But in being forced to abandon Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia lost its only defense line, and Hitler soon broke his promise by occupying the rest of the country. Today, to concede Ukraine would be akin to giving up Sudetenland. The fear that any action by the West, in particular implementation of a no-fly zone, would make things worse is nonsensical. The future couldn’t be more bleak unless we stop Putin here.
Beyond Putin are the Russian people. Many disapprove of the war, but apparently many more are content to tow the party line about Ukrainian Nazis and maltreatment of Russians within Ukraine. True, Putin has shut down all sources of information not within his control, but his monopolization of power and information has proceeded over two decades, an entire generation, during which he leveled much of Chechnya, attacked the republic of Georgia and invaded parts of Ukraine. An opposition press existed during that time, but it didn’t dissuade Russian voters from keeping Putin in office.
During the Cold War, I could despise the Soviet Union without hating Russia, even though I viewed the USSR as a Russian empire by another name. I loved the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and later of Chekhov and Pasternak. I had the great good fortune of taking a course taught by Joseph Brodsky, a Russian expelled by the USSR. Yet, with Putin’s accumulation of power over the past two decades, I have to wonder if there isn’t something about a significant number of Russians that lures them back to the Czarist days. Did Dostoevsky too accurately diagnose the Russian soul? Is it a country of self-haters? Would they rather be led than think?
In America, during the last administration, we got glimpses of what it might be like to live under a comparable regime. Migrant children were mistreated and separated from their parents, ethnic divides were cultivated, and attempts made to manipulate elections. We put a stop to a lot of it in 2020, but we’re hardly through the woods. America must yet face up to its own particular neuroses. At least the pushback is strong.
Through Putin, Russians have foisted a time of reckoning on Ukraine, which has lived up tragically but magnificently to the challenge. Do Russians have the courage to confront the reckoning their infamous invasion ought to spark?