When reacting to wars and terrorist attacks, people are often in search of quick explanations, and such words as madness, inhumanity, hubris, power struggle, and others easily come to mind. Such initial impressions may still be far away from grasping the developmental, psychobiographical, group psychological, and psychohistorical roots of utter violence. Is Putin like Hitler (“Putler,” as they say in Russia), an actor forcing people to war, suffering, and collapse? Why does he mix sacral and military imagery? In this article, I trace some psychohistorical aspects of the war in Ukraine by analyzing Putin’s leadership and his savior mindset from the point of view of his childhood, “secret services” experience, and the collective traumas of WWII re-enacted.

Saint Vladimir, Savior of the Land of Rus’

The Russian Primary Chronicle, also known as The Tale of Bygone Years, spans from Biblical times to depicting life in Kievan Rus’ from about 850 up to the year 1110. This Old East Slavic Chronicle was compiled in Kiev (the spelling used here in historical contexts; in 1995, the Ukrainian government approved the legal modern spelling Kyiv) around 1113. The chronicle starts: “These are the narratives of bygone years regarding the origin of the land of Rus’, the first princes of Kiev, and from what source the land of Rus’ had its beginning.” This unique chronicle testifies the earliest

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history of the Old Slavic people.

Researchers have critically assessed the historical truthfulness of the chronicle and found incongruence and outright fictional passages. Dmitry Likhachev (1993) wrote: “No other country in the world is cloaked in such contradictory myths about its history as is Russia, and no other nation in the world interprets its history as variously as do the Russian people” (p. 70). Different rulers with their purposes and agendas have used the Russian Primary Chronicle to justify their political positions. Vladimir Putin is no exception in this regard because he uses the history of the land of Rus’ in his fabrications and bases his self-justification narrative and the reason to go to war against Ukraine on the myth of the united land of Rus’. For the Russian audience, Putin chooses well-known sources from literature and uses suitable quotations from the mythical histories that Russian people can further assimilate and share as group fantasies.

The Russian Primary Chronicle includes stories depicting fratricidal wars among three brothers, with Vladimir who converted to Christianity dominating. Moscow, from the beginning of the 14th century, was to be sacralized as the Byzantine-based realm, defending and enhancing Orthodox Christianity against the eastern enemies. Moscow as the Third Rome continued the work of Vladimir the Great, the emancipator and the savior.

Reminiscing Denied: Traumatic Re-Enactment

Putin’s reconstruction of the history of Rus’ is also his personal re-enactment of the collective traumas of the Soviet Union and current Russia. To his savior mindset, Russia has been deceived by the hostile countries. He sees Russia encircled and strangled by the enemies. In his scenario and bunker mentality, the enemies to be terminated multiply, leading to the obsessive fears of contamination, contagion (COVID-19), and conspiracy. He is becoming lonelier than before, sitting at a distance from his closest circle, suspicious of their loyalty, irritated and enraged, blaming, and ridiculing them because of their incompetence and stupidity. Stalin, too, had his comrade-wolves waiting for the end of his grandiose and persecutory leadership. Putin’s attacks fail to attract respect; his terminator stance clings to national relics, not advancing transformations within the open international space where different histories and visions could peacefully co-exist and interact. His love affair with the world is bittersweet, the untrustworthy anchor of love being Mother Russia.

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In Putin’s circle of self-justification (at the same time, self-victimization), the only friends are other dictators from Belarus, Syria, and North Korea. His own mission is to threaten others; to justify, without regrets, any brutal action by false history; and to safeguard the “politics of eternity” by the military-tactic operations. However, history does not justify anything, and nobody has the right to plan eternity. The inevitable disposal of the leader—first the savior, finally trash—has been one of the main traumatic transitions in Russian psychohistory.

Reminiscing, as the process of remembering one’s past, has been controlled and censored in Russia: Not only the oldest human-rights organization Memorial was banned in Russia, but memory politics erases large parts of Russian collective memory, simultaneously sharpening the conflicts and the harmful effects of the untouched and untold traumatic past. The Great War and the heroic Victory over Nazi Germany are sanctified and ritualized. Such a memorial is full of forgetfulness, petrified time. Current harsh realities are displaced by the government-led media’s “infotainment” programs that contain misinformation, scornful comments about the West, and manipulations in an entertainment style.

Putin, the master of judo and sambo, has practiced reeling the balance of his adversary and watching what will happen. He also wants to control history; for example, on December 9, 2021, Putin gave a public answer to a journalist’s question about Memorial, stating that he “used to believe that Memorial was a humanitarian organization but had recently learned that it was defending Nazi collaborators as well as present-day terrorists and extremists” (Gessen, January 6, 2022). The same kind of argument was used by him against imagined right-wing nationalists, neo-Nazis, and addicts when starting the war in Ukraine—a strange case of obsessive “denazification” of Ukraine indeed. The small fringes of neo-Nazis exist in some countries, including Russia and Ukraine, but it is out of proportion to claim that they are in power positions in Ukraine, the President of Ukraine being Jewish-born with relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust.

A recent Russian attack in Kyiv caused damage near the memorial site of Babyn Yar (in Russian Babiy Yar) where German death squads shot about 33,000 Jews in just two days and where altogether 100,000 people (including non-Jewish Soviet prisoners and Romas) were murdered. The trauma of WWII has resonance in most Ukrainian and Russian families. At the beginning of WWII,

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there were collaborators with Nazi Germany among both the Ukrainian nationalists and the Russian Communists. Even later, some groups of Ukrainian nationalists took part in the executions, but they were a small minority in comparison to the millions of Ukrainians who joined the Red Army and fought against Nazi Germany.

Putin was also a gopnik, a street boy and a hooligan. Now, as the aged and lonely terminator, he still has traces of the street boy’s ways of threatening and defending against becoming bullied as a lonely boy. His former teacher Vera Gurevich once said that the small Putin was locked by other schoolmates in the girls’ toilet where the girls slapped him. The crying Putin swore to his teacher that one day he would retaliate and scare his attackers. Today, his strategy is to prevent changes and mourning of the loss of power. The smooth and inevitable transition of leadership to the next generation is unthinkable to him. Instead, the traumatic re-enactment of WWII and the ancient Rus’ war history takes place in Ukraine where the young soldiers are sacrificed. Even the radioactive landscape and the atomic power plants must be seized by force to ensure the revival of the mighty inseparable Russian realm without any individuation.

As an ex-spy, Putin knows that strategy governs the tactical turns. Peace talks mean war; breaking agreements is necessary to guarantee victory. Masked words are used to save the official face, but when the words fail, the war must be faced and made totally destructive. The leader’s bitterness, indifference, and ruthless revenge echo the domestic violence experienced by many supporters of Putin. They belong to the same psychoclass (defined by personality characteristics that arise from a shared mode of childrearing) as Putin while most of the younger citizens are in favor of democratic and liberal reforms.

Two Statues

Putin, who sees himself as the double of Vladimir the Great, was baptized to the Russian Orthodox belief by the initiative of his mother Maria Ivanovna Putina. In the same way, Vladimir the Great chose the Orthodox religion for Rus’ and was baptized in 988. The ruler of Kievan Rus’ adopted the sacred mission to unite the core people of Rus’ (“Great Russians,” “Little Russians,” and “Byelorussians”), Kiev being the Mother of Russian cities.

In Ukrainian, Vladimir is Volodymyr, like the current

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President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy (born 1978, President since 2019). Vladimir and Volodymyr are now fighting. Grand Russians want to show the Little Russians that their independence is against the Ruler’s will. The Bolshevik regime propagated the policy of Ukrainization under the umbrella of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics and declared the Little Russian identity old-fashioned and illegitimate. Soviet ideology started to stress Ukrainian identity and nation as “brotherly” to the Russian. Soviet history books reinterpreted Ukrainian history as containing the strong drive toward political and cultural rapprochement with other Soviet nations and finally toward unification with the Russians.

The symbolic legacy of Saint Vladimir, or Saint Volodymyr for the Ukrainians, is now claimed by both nations. Fighting about the historical founding father was launched when both Russia and Ukraine commemorated the 1000th anniversary of his death in 2015. The monument to St Volodymyr in Ukraine was built in the 19th century, but it became even more important when Putin, on National Unity Day, November 4, 2015, unveiled in Moscow the 52-ft statue of St Vladimir, ominously reminding the people of the Thousand-Year Empire (Tausendjähriges Reich) of Nazi Germany. At first, the monument was planned to be even higher (82.5ft), but with the reduced height, it was erected outside the Kremlin, a World Heritage Site.

The attempts to steal a historical figure from Kyiv to Moscow are a provocative part of the ongoing information war that aims to rob the right of the Ukrainians to their own history. In Russia, the annexation of Crimea is symbolized by the supporters of Putin as returning the place where Prince Vladimir was baptized back to the Motherland. In Ukraine, commentators have ridiculed Russia’s “patriotic-ecclesiastic fervor” and warned against fighting a senseless fight and idolizing the medieval prince, who was merciless to the tribes that inhabited the territory of present-day Russia, led cruel “anti-terrorist operations” against them, and resorted to help from foreigners, such as Vikings and Normans.

Putin’s “Normal” Childhood

Vladimir Putin was born on October 7, 1952, in Leningrad. His mother, Maria Ivanovna Putina (1911-1998), was a devout Russian Orthodox believer. Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (1911-1999), was traumatized and severely wounded during World War II. He was stern and domineering, “a man of the staraya zakalka” (“old stamp”); Putin’s father is said to have beaten him

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with a belt, the son always fighting back, “kicking, biting, anything” (Baker & Glasser, 2007, pp. 41-42). His father was also against democratic reforms and never said one kind thing to his son. He died in 1999 just a few days after Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin to the post of prime minister.

In the official biography of Putin published on the Kremlin page, the narrative simplifies and normalizes his childhood memory: “I come from an ordinary family, and this is how I lived for a long time, nearly my whole life. I lived as an average, normal person and I have always maintained that connection.” In Russia, it is typical to claim that everything is “normal” when things are getting worse. Even the collapse of the living conditions is “normal.” The script of total control and terror was inscribed as a “natural” trance on homo sovieticus (“Soviet Man”).

Putin’s hard-working and traumatized parents were uneducated, but they invested as much as they could in their only son (two other sons had died young). The boy was left to hang around the violent streets, fighting and becoming victimized. Regularly, he was late for school—a habit he has maintained. At school, he was an outcast from the age of 10 through 14, not even allowed to join the Young Pioneers organization, which he was later admitted to and became the head of a Pioneer detachment in his class. He also joined Komsomol (the Communist Youth League).

Thus, Putin dragged himself off the streets, excelling at judo and sambo, and later in his law studies at Leningrad State University. Bullied at school and ridiculed for his small stature, Putin is psychically sensitive to hints of bullying and neurobiologically wired to the fear of its re-enactments. His traumatic personal history reflects the inscriptions of violence in the memories of most of his Russian contemporaries, many of whom have likewise gone through ambivalent and intrusive childrearing modes.

Putin and the Secret Services

It was the K.G.B. that finally rescued Putin from hooliganism and transformed the bullied child into an official of the State. During his K.G.B. years (1975-1991, of which the period of 1985-1989 was spent in the German Democratic Republic), Putin learned to internalize the ways of intelligence and counterintelligence, to display the poses of orderliness, to manage the fears of citizens, and to be loyal to siloviki (the men who make the rules and greedily seize power and assets to themselves, supported by security services,

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intelligence, the militia, the army, and the business-legal system). Of course, Putin himself was a nobody in the ranks of the K.G.B., but gradually, he turned into somebody; first in St. Petersburg as Anatoly Sobchak’s right-hand man, and, with Yeltsin’s retirement at the end of 1999, taking presidential command in Moscow, as a “new Tsar” (Myers, 2015).

Russian secret services served people by keeping the secrets of abuse (bullying, neglect, crime, corruption) in store for the survivors of terror and torture, to be revived in the retrials of the psychologically numbed victims. The relentless, retaliatory, punitive, deceptive, and corruptive official system of secrecy embodies the abandoning leadership and supports the totalitarian parenthood that does not respect the rights of children and bypasses their emotional needs by shaming and humiliating, thus excluding the children from democratic and reciprocal human contacts. The ensuing quest for ideal and complementary alters is doomed to lead to entrapment in solitary and narcissistic mirroring.

When asked in an interview what he liked about being in the Kremlin, Putin (2000) answered, “Nobody controls me here. I control everybody myself” (p. 131). In the black-and-white Soviet spy serial movie, The Sword and the Shield (1968), the favorite movie of the young and aloof Putin, the quiet hero Yogan Vais expresses the same attitude. Putin has also mentioned that “it’s better to be hanged for loyalty than for betrayal” (Baker & Glasser, 2007, p. 47). The secrecy and veiling of the atrocities of Communism, especially during the Stalin and K.G.B. era, are specific features of Putin’s personal relation to that grim history, which has been replaced by a glorious history, revised consistent with the retroactive and patriotic interpretations of historical legacies. The beating and slaughter of millions (e.g., four million Ukrainians) during the Stalin Terror have been reinterpreted in certain Russian history textbooks and manuals as a “necessary evil” because the State was preparing for the Great War. Millions of corpses were needed as a rehearsal for the war efforts. “Necessary evil” has turned out to be liquid or liquidating evil.

The Russian archives (especially those of the K.G.B. and other security services) have become, during Putin’s rule, more closed than in the 1990s, making it difficult for researchers to document the details of State atrocities, to embark on the path of negotiating the issues of historical truth, justice, and responsibility, and to start the reconciliation process that has been carried through in

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many other conflict-ridden countries. For example, there is very little discussion about the forced deportation and killing of millions of Soviet citizens during the Stalin era. Russian historical archives are not yet fully open to the future. However, in 2004-2005, the most important archives of the country, the National Archives of the Russian Federation [GARF], published the seven-volume History of Stalin’s Gulag and had Alexander Solzhenitsyn cooperating with this publication.

During his presidency, Medvedev issued a decree on May 15, 2009, that established the Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests and ordered the Russian wartime archives to be digitized, so that all who are interested can access these documents through the Internet. Just before Putin’s third presidential term, the decree was invalidated, and the commission was dismantled. One more step to counter openness and memory work was taken.

Replacement Child and Doubling

Psychoanalyst Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin shared her interesting idea of Vladimir Putin being a “double replacement child.” His brother Albert was born in the mid-1930s and died of whooping cough before the war; his other brother Viktor Putin (born in the mid-1930s) died of diphtheria during the siege of Leningrad sometime between September 8, 1941, and January 27, 1944; and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born on October 7, 1952, in Leningrad. Referring to Rita Battat Silverman and Dr. Abigail Brenner’s (2015) Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script, Kobrin argues that Putin’s unconscious script contains an intergenerationally transmitted trauma because his mother could not adequately mourn the deaths of her two sons. Of course, we cannot know the personal motives of Putin’s parents in this regard, but several demographic surveys have given strong evidence of a replacement child effect after genocides and other violent conflicts (e.g., Kraehnert et al., 2017). The replacement child effect is heterogeneous, extending to shorter or longer periods after the violent conflict, and depending on the type of violence experienced by the woman, her age cohort (Putin’s mother was 40 when giving birth to Vladimir), and parity.

To this script must be added that the intergenerational traumatic chain included Putin’s maternal grandmother who was killed and uncles who disappeared during WWII. Consequently, Putin is entitled to praise the Victory Day over Germany, to gloomily resurrect his dead brothers and relatives, and denazify Ukraine, so that

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the “brother” nations would finally be united against the “lies” of the Western “junta.” As Vamık Volkan (2004) has stated in works such as Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror, the “failure to mourn” (loss, separation, death) is followed by emotionally approved “entitlement to revenge” against the enemies. Putin’s childhood experiences of vulnerability and his memories of humiliation form the unconscious personal and collective (psychobiographical and psychohistorical) basis of his strong leader’s armor against aging. The illusions of invulnerability ward off loss, mourning, shame, fear, and depression—as well as love that only hurts and does not promise pleasure.

Fantasy and reality, mother and child, are fused and confused through obsessions and projections. The fantasy of the dead child being alive is kept by Putin, who secures himself and Russia from humiliation through rage, war, and, ultimately, annihilation. I am afraid this annihilation urge is tied to the suicidal hijacking drama and the vicious circle of fratricide of no return—here, fratricide means not only the killing of one’s brothers and sisters but also nuclear fratricide where nuclear warheads embrace and destroy one another.

A double is both an unconscious alter ego and a social alter, formed through early developmental and attachment relations. There is uncanniness attached to the double and there is our universal fascination with twins (real or symbolic). In infancy, the twin (not necessarily the real twin) is the alien, the other. But later in childhood, the twins provide psychic retreats for each other to defend against difference and separation and individuated mature object relations. Psychologically, “twinning” includes very early unconscious processes between the infant and the nurturing “breast” (the first imaginary creation of the infant) followed by more conscious later childhood fantasies of an ideally attuned imaginary companion who alleviates loneliness and offers hoped-for perfect understanding in the absence of the primary caretaker.

“Doubling” involves splitting objects into good and bad parts, inserting into and projecting onto the other the unacceptable aspect or quality of one’s self. Doubling is used to destroy in fantasy the bad split-off part of one’s self and to preserve the good self-object against annihilatory threats. Doubling is never complete: The permeability of the armored ruler-body/self is revealed through non-verbal expressions. The infantile fears of becoming encircled, ensnared, engulfed, defiled, putrefied, and emptied leak through the

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armor. (On doubling and twinning, see Ihanus, 2011.)

It is not exactly Mother Russia that is threatened; it is rather the child that is re-dramatized and re-enacted on the political scene, displaced to current political relations where the surrogates of the “Terrifying Mother” loom large, embedded in the enemies. In crisis and conflict situations, the psychic retreat of twinning for Putin and some other leader can include resisting change. But it could also start to install confusion about the order and the roles of the leaders, call forth rivalry, dueling and revenge, suggest splits, or force destructive forms of folie à deux. Behind the smoothest division of power are hidden separations and the need to individuate.

Masks of Power

The rhetoric and choreography of power try to hide and twist the realities of abuse. The leader personifies both the guarding and the persecuting parental authority who is fascinated at witnessing the abuse done to others by exclusions and censures and who, at the same time, promises to shelter from the worst horrors if the leader’s requirements are completely followed. For the infantilized followers, as manipulable objects, unquestioning obedience, and dependence are the rules. The right to think otherwise is prohibited in any stabilized mental gulag; the dirtiness of the traitors of the Motherland is legally doomed so that the “pure” self can be saved from filth.

There are masks of power, evasions and displacements, as well as a battery of military and personality defenses for hiding something that demands to be expressed and has been compensated for with the displays of toughness and ruthlessness in the enemy chase during the fight against the annoying other. That hidden something has to do with excluding personal vulnerabilities, weakness, helplessness, the memories of humiliation and shame, and the need to be cared for, caressed, and loved. The mask is the armor, the macho pose, the poise, the sunglasses camouflaging the crying, the reverberations of childhood fears of being lost, being hit, of not being fit enough for the stronger parental and punitive figures (see Ihanus, 2014).

On several occasions, such as in his article “‘We Should Not Tempt Anyone by Allowing Ourselves to Be Weak,’” Putin (February 20, 2011) stressed the need for Russia to be strong without falling back on “diplomatic and economic methods alone to settle contradiction and resolve conflict.” At megalomanic heights, the

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macho-paranoid mind dissociates and projects shame, self-contempt, and grief while having poor mentalization capacity, which results in the ideas of reference and projection of intent onto identified enemies: You (the enemy, the deviant, the abnormal) intended for me to have this horrible feeling; therefore, you must be punished. The words of the famous WWII Soviet song “The Sacred War” echo the dedication to utmost wrath and cleansing: “This is the people’s war, / a Sacred war! […] For the scum of humanity / we shall build a solid coffin!”

In his illusory visions, Putin may have assumed that at the arrival of the Russian soldiers Ukrainians would meet and hail them as liberators, in the same vein as at the end of WWII. Now that this kind of respect is totally absent, Putin is again offended, his sense of honor wounded, and his dream of Victory and the reunification of Rus’ may demand serial fratricidal sacrifice.

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References:

  • Baker, Peter, & Glasser, Susan (2007). Kremlin rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the end of revolution. (Updated ed.) University of Nebraska Press.
  • Gessen, Masha (January 6, 2022). The Russian memory project that became an enemy of the state, The New Yorker.
  • Ihanus, Juhani (2011). Putin and Medvedev: Double leadership in Russia. Journal of Psychohistory, 38(3), pp. 251-284.
  • Ihanus, Juhani (2014). Putin’s macho pose: On masculinity and psychopolitics. Journal of Psychohistory, 42(2), pp. 110-129.
  • Kraehnert, Kati; Brück, Tilman; Di Maio, Michele; & Nisticò, Roberto (2017). The effects of conflict on fertility: Evidence from the genocide in Rwanda. (Working Paper No. 481.) Centre for Studies in Economics and Finance, University of Naples.
  • Likhachev, D. S. (1993). Russian culture in the modern world. Russian Social Science Review, 34(1), pp. 70-81.
  • Myers, Steven Lee (2015). The new Tsar: The rise and reign of Vladimir Putin. Knopf.
  • Putin, Vladimir (2000). First person: An astonishingly frank self-portrait by Russia’s President (Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Trans.). PublicAffairs.
  • Putin, Vladimir (February 20, 2011). “…We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak.” Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
  • Volkan, Vamık (2004). Blind trust: Large groups and their leaders in times of crisis and terror. Pitchstone Publishing.

Authors:

Juhani Ihanus

Juhani Ihanus, PhD, is Associate Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Helsinki, and Associate Professor of the History of Science and Ideas at the University of Oulu. He is also an international member of the Psychohistory Forum who has published books and articles on psychohistory, cultural and clinical psychology, and the history of psychology. Dr. Ihanus may be reached at juhani.ihanus@helsinki.fi.

How to Cite This:

Ihanus, J. (2022). Putin, Ukraine, and fratricide. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 300-311.

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