Juhani Ihanus does a fine job in his revealing articles on Putin, Zelenskyy, and Ukraine. While I’m inclined to emphasize somewhat different elements in Putin’s life and the horror that is occurring in Europe’s second-largest country by area and seventh by population (before over five million Ukrainians became refugees as a result of Putin’s aggression), I will focus my thoughts on Putin being shaped by his childhood and K.G.B. experiences, his drive to restore the millions of Russians (or are they mostly Russian speakers?) to their Motherland, and his traumatic reenactment of the Nazi siege of Leningrad in Ukraine with Russia as the murderous besieger rather than the victim. I will also examine Nazis real and imagined, as well as war as an atrocity-producing conflict.

As an Eriksonian participant observer, I identify strongly during these dangerous events with the besieged inhabitants of the area in which my mother was born and fled with her family as a hungry young Jewish teenager hoping for a better life in America. As a former draftee in the United States Army who marched extensively against the war in Vietnam and hesitates to even use militaristic terms such as bullet points and task forces, I am profoundly ambivalent about my support for the Ukrainians. They are fighting for their country but have and will inevitably commit more atrocities in what I mostly see as a “good war.”

Despite mostly seeing the merits of the Ukrainians fighting

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for their independence at the moment, I’ve increasingly been reaching the conclusion that war itself, no matter how just the cause, is an atrocity-producing situation. Even when necessary, it generates atrocities on all sides. Yes, Hitler’s atrocities were of an incredible magnitude and contemporary Russian war crimes are horrifying! It is also true that some U.S. soldiers shot German prisoners of war out of revenge for the death of their brothers-in-arms, sadism, or because they did not want to be separated from their unit and reassigned, which was what followed after being ordered to take a few prisoners to a collection point while their unit moved forward. At the moment, we in the democratic world are overwhelmingly rooting for the Ukrainians in the face of Russian atrocities. Thus far, the atrocities perpetrated on Russian prisoners by Ukrainians pale by comparison.

Casualties of war include subtlety, complexity, and often truth. Regarding the complexity of human history, take the issue of Nazis in Ukraine. In Ukraine, Putin fights mostly fantasy Nazis as he seeks to reenact his family and societal trauma of the siege of Leningrad, but with Russia on the side of the besiegers this time rather than the starving bombed residents of the city in which his brother died and both of his parents almost lost their lives. There are pro-Nazis in Ukraine, a country in which 73% of the population voted for a Jewish president in 2019, a leader more interested in defending his nation than confronting those who continue its long and sometimes murderous anti-Semitic tradition.

My mother was born in Ukraine in a small Jewish shtetl that the U.S. Holocaust Museum listed as destroyed. While the common presumption is that the Nazis murdered its inhabitants, was it the Christian Ukrainians or the war itself doing the killing? My father’s small city in Poland was in a war zone; when I visited it in 2002, I was told that there were only five people still alive from the prewar period (and all traces of the 2,000 Jews who had lived there were destroyed with gravestones turned over and used as paving stones). As a historian, I am aware that the suffering of Ukrainians has been incredible and some took their pain out on their Jewish neighbors.

Following the overthrown of the Tsar in 1917 after the communists seized power from the democratic socialists, the new government had little support in Ukraine, although its Jews were inclined to be more open to the communist takeover than their Christian neighbors since, in theory, the Bolsheviks opposed prejudice. Indeed, Joseph Stalin even wrote and stated that anti-Semitism is

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a form of cannibalism. Of course, that makes Stalin a cannibal by his own standard, but he was a secret anti-Semite who publicly denied this aspect of his menu, even in his most paranoid final days. Much of the surviving Ukrainian Jewish community worried when Zelenskyy was elected president (with a Jewish prime minister initially) because they feared that pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) would follow a few years later. My wish is that Zelenskyy will die quietly in his bed of old age; however, the likelihood of this at the moment is not great, especially since the Russian intelligence service has a history of poisoning those it sees as enemies and the Russian military inclines to bomb cities back to the Stone Age.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who speaks English, Russian, and Ukrainian, knows how to use modern communications effectively. As the “Servant of the People” TV show president, he was elected to the actual presidency. In the face of the Russian invasion, he keeps using modern communication to reach out for support. He addresses the British House of Commons, the U.S. Congress, the French Parliament, parliaments around the world, the U.N. Security Council, the Grammy Awards, major news programs, and any groups that he asks to send more help and make the Russians pay for their aggression. His angry, demanding manner with foreign leaders is striking, and he has the moral high ground as he asks for more. He says the world is morally responsible and should give us more. I wonder if he was a demanding kid. (I also worry that American and Western democratic support for Ukrainians may result in opening Pandora’s jar of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.)

As a comedian, Zelenskyy knew he could say almost anything in the right context. As a war leader, he has been quite effective in rallying his nation in the face of a halting Russian invasion. It is well-known among historians that the Russians are notoriously slow starters when it comes to fighting wars. Despite this fact, they have an incredible history of success, making them the largest landmass in the world with 57,510,000 square miles and 11 contiguous time zones. However, even before sanctions went into effect, Russia’s economy is a basket case, smaller than that of Texas.

Vladimir Putin, an intelligence agent well-trained in subterfuge, at the end of the last century presented himself to the world as a committed democrat ready to take Russia down the path of Western democracy. It would be good to know much more about the seductive quality that enabled both his gaining power and convincing

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the German Bundestag of his sincerity, as well as how it led President George W. Bush to look into Putin’s eyes to get “a sense of his soul, and found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” The formerly richest man in Russia, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who served a decade in a Siberian penal colony because he made the mistake of thinking he could become involved in politics, said: “Putin orients himself very precisely to a person, if he wants you to like him, you will like him” (Cohen, March 27, 2022, p. 16).

Putin’s real values came forth as he consolidated his presidency and then dictatorship, declaring that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, which in turn revealed his enormous envy and hatred of the U.S. and the West generally. Indeed, he appears to be an injustice collector as grievance after grievance piles up in his mind. Initially, in the U.S. it was thought that he was joining in the Syrian Civil War on the side of lessening the bloodshed; instead, he used Russian power to assure the continuation of the Assad murderous dictatorship. He was utterly ruthless in leveling Grozny and in dealing with Armenia. Of course, these now seem like dress rehearsals for a quick overthrow of an unfriendly Ukrainian regime and perhaps reincorporating it into the Russian Federation.

Vladimir (the Savior) Putin’s fantasy and plan is to restore as much of the Soviet Union as possible to his control, bringing back the 25 million Russians who were not included in the Russian Federation when the U.S.S.R. dissolved. As stated above, Putin was reenacting his family’s trauma with him in control. This is an extraordinarily important issue to him. In tracing his path from a very small street urchin and hooligan who was beaten up by the other kids and ostracized so much that he wasn’t even allowed in the Young Pioneers, to becoming a good student and the ultimate dictator of his country, one wonders what in his childhood helped make this possible. Did he learn to stand alone in his period of being ostracized? His study of law does not seem to have had much impact, but the lessons of the K.G.B.’s lying and subterfuge certainly did.

In seeking to resurrect Mother Russia, psychologically Putin is working to restore his mother, Maria Ivanovna Putina (1911-1998). In doing this, he is also symbolically emulating what his father may have done during the siege of Leningrad when Putin said the senior Vladimir came home from active duty to spot his wife’s shoes in a pile of corpses on a truck that was collecting the dead. He pulled his barely-breathing wife from among the dead and

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nursed her back to health before returning to the war in which he would be most grievously injured. In another version of this story, his mother fainted from hunger and was thought to be dead, but was restored to health with the help of Putin’s uncle. Even if both of these versions represent the Russian leader’s fantasy, their focus is on restoring the mother from near death as Putin seeks to restore the great Russian Motherland.

Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (1911-1999) was a quiet, hardworking, harsh, and stern father to his namesake—the last and only one of three children (all sons) to survive early childhood. He beat his son, who fought back vociferously, kicking and biting. The Putins were an emotionally cold family. Marie was a devote Christian who had her son baptized.

Volodymyr (Ukrainian for savior) Zelenskyy’s fantasy is to fight like his ancestors, the Maccabees, did against impossible Roman odds. Is the Ukrainian President’s struggle suicidal or is he somehow a David who will bring down the Goliath with only the equivalent of a slingshot comprised of courage and stinger missiles? Does our identification with the Ukrainians and their leader mean that we are willing to risk the suicide of a nuclear war against the world’s most powerful nuclear-armed country? Before Putin seized Crimea in 2014, there was only a minority of Ukrainians who wanted to join NATO; now, it’s a majority. Hitler, who was unconsciously empowered by the allies in the 1930s, was self-defeating in the end. If he hadn’t been, then he would not have attacked Russia and declared war on the United States because, in his fantasy, Roosevelt was a Jew. Is Putin in fact self-defeating or did he just misjudge the Ukrainians and the initial might of his own forces?

There is the danger of blundering into a nuclear war. Might Putin think that he could get away with simply using tactical nukes? President Biden is very sensible about not wanting U.S. air or any other forces to come directly into contact with Russians, but as Americans and other westerners become increasingly confrontational (e.g., demanding no-fly zones), Biden’s popularity remains low. Continuing to try avoiding a nuclear war that would kill or deform us all will probably lower his popularity. The American public’s endless viewing of some action hero saving the world at the absolute last minute from nuclear destruction leads many of us to confuse fantasy with reality. The last time we were at the nuclear brink was when America found it unacceptable to have Russian

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nukes 90 miles away in Cuba. How do we think the Russians feel about Ukraine joining NATO and all the aid that the U.S. and other NATO nations are shipping into Ukraine? Putin’s approach is total war, destroying cities and terrorizing civilians.

Again, I wish to express my thanks to Juhani Ihanus for his fine work that has deepened my knowledge and prompted this essay.

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References:

  • Cohen, Roger (March 27, 2022). The evolution of an enigma: Tracing Putin’s 22 year slide from statesman to wrathful dictator. The New York Times, pp. 1, 16-18.

Authors:

Paul H Elovitz

Dr. Paul H. Elovitz, PhD, began organizing scholarly meetings when he started as a faculty member at Ramapo College and then as convener of the Institute for Psychohistory Saturday Workshops (1975-1982). In 1982 he founded the Psychohistory Forum to nurture psychohistorical research and continues to lead its Executive Council. In 1994 he created Clio’s Psyche (cliospsyche.org) to publish its scholarship, of which he is Editor-in-Chief. Prof. Elovitz is a historian, psychoanalytic researcher, and author of about 400 publications, covering presidential psychobiography, teaching, documenting the field of psychohistory, and much more. After taking his doctoral degree in history, he trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst, and in 2019 was made the first Research Psychoanalyst by the New Jersey Institute for Psychoanalysis. Elovitz is the author of The Making of Psychohistory, editor of The Many Roads of the Builders of Psychohistory, and edited or wrote eight other books. He is a founding member and past president of the International Psychohistorical Association (1978-) who serves on its leadership council and presents at all meetings. Prof. Elovitz is a founding faculty member at Ramapo College who previously taught at Temple, Rutgers, and Fairleigh Dickinson universities. He may be contacted at cliospsycheeditor@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Elovitz, P. H. (2022). Mother Russia’s savior, traumatic reenactment, and the atrocities of war. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 320-325.

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