It is hard to put yourself in Putin’s mind. But how hard ? Is it impossible ? Maybe not.
He looks out at the world and is much concerned with maintaining control and his own footing and security there. Consequently, he has always been pre-occupied with strengthening and extending borders, creating safe distance between him and Other ; and he thinks and talks quite a lot about his own racial and national identity and history, his place in it, his belonging, his base. And so on.
It can be argued that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a particularly extreme and murderous version of similar tendencies and behaviours elsewhere in the world, in these tumultuous times. What about the fantastical and nostalgic joys of ‘sovereignty’ and an expectation of (and psychological need for) ‘world-beating’ UK achievement, post Brexit ? And Trump’s ‘Build that Wall’ to protect gun-toting Americans from all sorts of dangerous foreign bodies ? This ‘We’ safe in here, huddled in Delusion-land ; and that ‘They’ held at bay out there – not human beings in need and with something to give – on the contrary, just dehumanised threat.
What is the psychological implication, for instance, of the UK’s replacement of descriptive titles such as ‘Customs’ and ‘Immigration Control’ etc by the emotive term ‘Border Force’ ?
Surely some of the strongest ‘feelings’ associated with the present time are anxiety, confusion and uncertainty, amid ever more rapid change. In such a time, an emphasis on Borders and Force and the creation of separateness, is psychologically unsurprising, perhaps. But at least in a democracy, however flawed and unfit it has become, the Brexiters can at length be challenged or unseated or discredited, having revealed their vacuous delinquency and incompetence, in the damage they have done.
By contrast, Putin is a pretty effective, but also a vastly isolated, tyrant. He is still able to ensure that people fall out of windows if they criticise/question him. Therefore, the ambitious courtiers around him are careful to butter him up and not challenge. On the contrary, they help to confirm him in his ideas/delusions and therefore his sense of omnipotence, his lone status and infallibility. So his fantasies and fears, projections and delusions have no firm reality to brush up against or be grounded by.
And he is 70. And he controls everything in his vast country but he doesn’t seem able to control time and aging. Time and age are invading his own personal borders, despite the yacht, despite the palace. His borders are giving way. Nonsense, he would say. His borders giving way ? He simply won’t let them. On the contrary, he is extending his borders with unstoppable force. In doing so, he is extending himself, his range, his span, his very life span. Surrounded on all sides by death, the deaths of Ukrainians and the deaths of Russians, he himself will live on and on. Russia/Putin will consume the enemy. Russia/Putin will grow and grow. He is Putin the Great.
Cut to Earl’s Court in south west London, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Behind the Earl’s Court Road itself, is a mass of flats and bed-sits. The area was famous, once, for being a kind of stop-over for travelling young ‘Aussies.’ But behind the scenes, the Earl’s Court ‘community’ was always a lot more complex than that. For years, it was a destination for people of many nationalities, many of them refugees and exiles from regions of conflict elsewhere. (The UK was once rather more welcoming and open to the stranger than it is at present). About twenty years ago, the local Social Services Department calculated that 65 nationalities were represented in the population living in the Earl’s Court area, a significant proportion of them elderly.
I used to work for the care services and once conducted a project in this same area. The project involved piloting a record to be left in the homes of lone elderly people living in the area, many of them quite confused and frequently visited by a wide range of different professionals, such as home help and district nurse and social worker. Let each visitor write something brief in this record, to keep all the other helpers up to date and in sync. The pilot went well and proved the worth of the idea and the design.
In the process of doing this work, I got to know not only a number of the local inhabitants, but also of their visitors, including various home helps, the value and importance of which occupation particularly impressed me. Let this poem continue the story :
It may be different now, but our low-paid
Home Helps did much for a while
to keep this nation civilised
and years ago, I talked to one who worked
among these flats, a young woman
who said she was assigned each morning
to attend a White Russian princess.
But before she could gain entry
she had to force her way
through a small dark vestibule
always piled to the ceiling with chairs.
For the aging princess had spent most of the night
stacking them up as a barricade
against malign intruders
with supernatural powers,
she knew were swarming
all around her tiny home.
She would not have slept very much.
Once the young home help
had forced an entry, the princess
would always greet her with arms
wide open, grateful for rescue.
Every night, the old princess was alone with her tormentors. Every morning the home help rescued her, as if for the first time.
And this is not an uncommon story. It was as if the walls of the princess’ flat became porous when she was alone. And those hostile forces came through the walls entirely at will, stealing precious belongings, lifelong companions, links to her past. They were projections of threat, of the loss of adult powers and grasp, unresolved hurts and fears. They were harbingers of death itself.
So the princess spent all and every night awake and haunted, seeking to strengthen her barricades to keep the Hostile Force at bay. Whatever It was and whoever They were. All her fears. Death itself. The sense of something coming for her, depleting her.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is surely rather similar, in some dreadful sense, to that old refugee princess, stuffing her hall with chairs all night, lost in nightmare. She at least wasn’t killing people in order to keep the enemy at bay. For her it was piles of chairs, not piles of bodies and shattered apartment blocks.
But this leads to another thought. Like the old princess, in her small flat in Earl’s Court, Putin is surrounded by Death, but I do believe that, unlike her, he won’t accept that it is reaching for him too. He is sure he is different. Everything that has happened in his life has told him so.
Death is the autocrat’s tool and weapon. And distance and Borders and the deaths of others are what keep the autocrat safe and feeling always different. Death is what happens to others, says the autocrat ; and it is I who wield death.
The autocrat must hold power and have control. The autocrat’s own death is unthinkable because it is not his to control. Therefore he will not die.
So, for a while longer, I believe we are safe from any real prospect of Putin resorting to nuclear weapons. This does not mean that he would hesitate for one moment from killing millions at a stroke, if that would suit his purposes. But the prospect of being killed in the retaliation that would follow, still deters him. For remember, Putin doesn’t do dying, only killing.
But what if, one day, Putin finally accepts that there’s no escape ? That he cannot detach himself from his own mortality ? From the years as they pass and as his manifest decrepitude increases ? The failures as they pile up and leave him isolated and without cover ?
In those moments of realisation, all of humanity will be at risk. All borders could burn. All futures could evaporate.
For if Putin comes to realise he has to die, then what motivation will he have to allow others to outlive him ?
And, in those moments of Putin’s realisation, it is indeed all people everywhere who will be at risk of annihilation – not just those millions of mortal beings living outside the Putin borders, but the millions living within them too, his ‘own’ people, the old and the young.