Psychotherapy for Vladimir Putin

Typically, we hear the suggestion that someone needs psychotherapy as implying that they are seriously disturbed or traumatised. Of someone in high office it sounds like a major criticism – a way of declaring them unfit for the job.

In fact, almost everyone could benefit from therapeutic help most of the time. The personality troubles of celebrities and politicians or tycoons do not mark them out as unusual. What we see in them is only our own difficulties displayed on a larger, more public, canvas.

In these pages, we don’t investigate the psychopathology of the famous and powerful with hostile intent. They offer us the chance to see how normal and widespread the difficulties of living are.

We believe that politics is a psychological arena. Good government requires widely distributed maturity. How we get that is the biggest challenge facing the planet.

Vladimir Putin is the most overtly authoritarian leader of a major country in the world today.

Russia has huge difficulties, and a history of quasi-dictatorial rule, so it is arguable that only someone with an intensely autocratic personality could lead it for long.

If this is the solution, what is the problem?

Putin makes sure his power is obvious. Unless he actually put on a crown it is hard to see how he could make it plainer that he is the top dog. He goes to great lengths to project himself as invulnerable, totally in control and irreproachably masculine.

You don’t need to be the President of Russia to worry about appearing weak. It’s one of the most basic and widespread anxieties. Putin’s relentless emphasis on status and strength – particularly the strength of his own body – is a way of reassuring himself, and everybody else, that he is absolutely not a weakling. Nothing you can do could hurt him. He is brilliant at martial arts and good with guns.

He isn’t even afraid of leopards

Putin over-compensates. He needs to stress his toughness. It is a defence against a threat. Not a threat from the outer world. These are real enough, but more a matter for his bodyguards than photo-ops. The threat is internal. He needs to guard against the re-opening of psychological wounds from long ago.

When journalists mocked the dire facilities provided for them in Sochi (the toxic tap water, floorless foyers and bizarre instructions for using the toilets), Putin had no sympathy, telling them they would have to ‘cry in their beds like babies.’ It is a strikingly harsh phrase – redolent of an imaginary world in which babies are miserable and must expect no help or comfort.

The phrase is so powerful and unguarded because this is of course what Putin is running away from himself: a baby-ish fragility he can’t bear to recognise within.

His drawing of a gingerbread house was not admired
Putin and his mother, 1958

Putin was born, in very modest circumstances, in Leningrad in 1952 – a city which had only recently survived near annihilation and a place where vulnerability of any kind could obviously be fatal. One of his elder brothers had died during the siege. For a delicate, intense child it was an early education in the dangers of weakness.

At a crucial juncture the young Putin was deeply hurt by rejection and felt himself to be pitifully inadequate to the demands made upon him. He was a rowdy schoolboy and was not allowed to join the youth branch of the Communist Party. His response was, in effect, to say: I’ll show I don’t want or need your approval. You didn’t turn me down, I turned you down.

The wounds to his self-respect were covered over by a shell of defiance. When a pain is very great it takes an especially elaborate and extensive protective covering to keep the injured part of the self safe. Eventually one may have to become President. Or CEO, or a tyrant of the dinner table. One may have to be unfaithful to demonstrate that one does not need the love of a partner, or relentlessly sarcastic or ironic, lest a treasured conviction be exposed to criticism. It may feel necessary to order an expensive bottle of wine, so the waiter won’t think you only have modest means. It may become essential to take a room on the top floor of the hotel (always at a higher rate) so that fellow passengers in the lift understand your status.

In 2013 Putin announced that his marriage was over.

Vladimir Putin and his then wife Lyudmila

Perhaps the idea that people would think of him as that woman’s husband had become intolerable. His current girlfriend, former gymnast Alina Kabayeva, is a political gesture, aligned with his opposition to what he calls homosexual propaganda. (Rather as if Prince Harry were to go out with Charlotte Crosby in order to reposition himself in the popular consciousness.) Alina is very pretty, but with a homely, even peasant, air about her. All the guys at the tractor factory fancy her. But she’s the President’s babe. He has to get all the prizes.

The hottest girl in the village

Understandably, Putin has needed other women for other audiences. His name has been linked with the delightful Russian spy and model Anna Vasilyevna Kushchyenko. Though he has ridiculed the association, it’s a flattering idea.

She’s the kind of woman who is attracted to me – for the good of the country I keep my distance

Around money, Putin has managed to keep alive two contradictory, yet plausible, images. One view has it that he is exceedingly wealthy – perhaps the richest man in Europe, with many many billions of US dollars in safe keeping. On the other hand, he insists that he has a humble economic position, with personal assets of only $100 000 or so.

So he holds two very different cards. If you are rich, Putin is probably very much richer. He wins. If you disdain money, he wins too. He has long occupied supreme power in a vast country and yet has not given a thought to personal enrichment. He’s better than you, whatever the game.

Pointing out Putin’s foibles isn’t to say he’s not an exceptional strategic thinker and a highly successful politician. Obviously he is, whatever one might think of his policies.

Authoritarianism is basically a defence. It arises because someone is terrified of what might happen if they don’t maintain strict control over their environment. And it is absolutely not limited to top leaders. There are authoritarian parents, football coaches, bureaucrats, owners of hairdressing salons. There are specialised authoritarians who are dictatorial around loading dishwashers or counting calories. They don’t see themselves as tyrants, just as put upon people, tragically inhabiting a world of fools.

When someone is defensive, it’s no good hauling them over the coals for it. That forgets that the authoritarian attitude is protection against fear and agitation.

Putin isn’t only a colossus on the world stage, he’s also the name for a part of many people, and quite possibly, of oneself. It is no sign of strength to need to emphasise one’s lack of weakness all the time. The sign of true strength is to be able to accept, without feeling scared or humiliated, that it is normal to cry like a baby sometimes – and to feel no need to get angry or stern with other adults who might feel like a cry as well at times.