Understanding Putin and the Russian psyche

In times of crisis, Russian leaders have tended to seek oppressive control instead of peace talks

Updated - March 24, 2022 10:37 am IST

Published - March 24, 2022 12:15 am IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference in Moscow. File

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference in Moscow. File | Photo Credit: REUTERS

In January 1547, Russia was in the depth of a harsh winter. Lakes and rivers were frozen and visibility was low with raging snowstorms. Yet, inside the Cathedral in Kremlin, there was a blaze of lights and warmth. Oriental splendour put Russian orthodox rituals on sensorial steroids. It was the coronation of 16-year-old Ivan as the autocrat of Russia. If anyone thought the boy could be easily manipulated, they were wrong. To restore the economy of one of the largest landmasses in the world, Ivan unleashed a reign of terror against anyone who went against him. A painful nerve ailment in his spine gave him moments of rage that made him Ivan the Terrible. He first quickly conquered the Caucasus (including present-day Georgia) and then went on to occupy what is today Ukraine.

So, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to invade Ukraine seems to have been Russia’s strategy for more than 400 years. Ukraine and Russia share the same patron Saint. They spell it differently just as they see their history differently. Russia has always seen and will perhaps continue to see Ukraine as its own. When Ukraine began to achieve greater autonomy in the 1950s, it was an aberration — Nikita Khrushchev, the then Russian leader, had spent his formative years working in Ukraine.

A brief history of Russia

History repeats itself for those who are condemned to ignore it. The world needs to read Russia’s history to understand why Mr. Putin is doing what he is. For, any Russian leader who is under pressure will only do this. Khrushchev or Mikhail Gorbachev were the only exceptions.

Mr. Putin’s inspirations must not only be Ivan but the greatest of the Romanov Tsars who is feted even today — Peter the Great. From the stories of Ivan, Peter the Great, and the other Tsars of the past, we can get a consistent pattern of how a Russian leader is likely to respond to a crisis.

Ivan’s death brought more confusion and chaos in Russia. Again, on a freezing day during winter in February 1613, another 16-year-old boy, Mikhail, was selected as the first of the Romanov kings. His family would rule for about 300 years. The last Romanov Nicholas II and his family were assassinated in the early hours of July 17, 1918.

Among the 18 Romanov kings who ruled, the famous ones who are remembered to have created an impact in the country share a common pattern. The ones who failed and those who were unsuccessful in taking power also share a common pattern. Perhaps this is true elsewhere but it surely is true in Russia and can help us understand the current President.

Between the first Romanov and the fifth there was a lot of trouble, mainly with Russian occupation of what is modern-day Ukraine and the wars with Poland. Russian autocracy and armies ensured victory though there was always tension. Peter the Great was the Tsar who Mr. Putin probably identifies with the most. If today we see images of Mr. Putin showing off his rock-hard abs and swimming in freezing waters, history books tell us how Peter could bend an iron rod into knots. At a height of seven feet with a proportionate build, Peter must have been a magnetic personality. He had an iron constitution to match – endless bouts of drinking had no effect on his liver and he pushed himself to move out of the comfort zone, live a life incognito in Europe and learn everything there from carpentry to administration. Peter’s ambition was to gain access to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea for Russian maritime trade — a relevant reason for Mr. Putin to invade Ukraine today as well. He used the same strategy as he did for Europeanising Russia. Whether it was prohibiting men to have beards or conquering land, Peter was ruthless, swift and forceful. If Mr. Putin today speaks with military tanks, Peter did that with his gigantic personality and the bayonet. He had no compunction in killing his own son to justify his dream of modernising Russia.

The only other ruler to be recognised as ‘great’ was Catherine, Russia’s longest ruling queen. Catherine came to Russia as a 15-year-old lonely girl to wed the heir. Her husband proved no match for her ambitions and in 1762, after a coup and his death, she became queen. Her period was one of enlightenment. With her careful policy, she walked the tightrope of reforming Russia and still being in power. She pushed further west and fulfilled the Russian dream of occupying much of Sweden and all of far-eastern Europe including Ukraine.

A succession of less powerful Tsars navigated Russia into the age of colonisation and industrialisation. It was still not easy to conquer Russia. Napoleon’s observation of how Russia reacts with “Asiatic Scythian ruthlessness and determination that surfaces in the Russian character at times of threat and crisis” is valid today as the United Nations watches Russia silently.

Successors swung between implementing reforms and increasing the pace of industrialisation to undoing all of it and taking Russia two steps back. The old pattern of quelling any dissenting opinion with ruthless force that Napoleon saw continued. It happened elsewhere in Europe too, but not so brutally and certainly not to fellow subjects (as opposed to natives in the colonies). The last Romanov inherited Russia at a time when it was far outranked by other European powers. A gentle, family man, he was the right person in the wrong place. The Second World War engulfed Europe, and Russia, though ill prepared, joined. Disaster after disaster forced Nicholas to blunder by taking over personal control of the army and leaving his anxious wife to administer the capital. He followed the old Russian Tsarist way of dealing with a crisis, but sadly, his personality was not like his predecessors. Every successive defeat was blamed on him and the unprepared communists found it easy to take over power and end the monarchy.

Russian psyche

What patterns can we see from the Russian past, including its period of communist rule? In times of crisis, Russian leaders have tended to seek oppressive control instead of peace talks. Today, it is unlikely that Mr. Putin will make concessions during talks. Russia’s expansion westwards will always exist; this war is no surprise. It is likely that other states along the Baltic and Black Sea will see a threat to their sovereignty. In all the past Russian conquests, we have never heard their side and this will likely not change. Contexts have changed, but the psyche of Russian leaders seems to remain the same. Economic dependence of the world today has only made it more important for leaders to learn to accept Russia the way it is and deal with it rather than expecting it to change. Wars such as the one Mr. Putin is fighting may be an exception. If he is prevented now, the war will continue in the new military theatre of our times, which is the economy and not the battlefield. If the West comes out in full support to balance Ukraine and its neighbours, which will soon be similarly threatened, perhaps Russia may resort to other forms of control. But given the supply of Russian gas, that seems unlikely as it has been in the past when the world looked the other way when Russia controlled the countries along its western border.

Pradeep Chakravarthy is a historian and author of ‘Leadership Shastra’

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