Let’s pick up from Fiona Hill, Putin’s Apology; Analysis Part 3 with an examination of KGB culture, which changed over the lifespan of the Soviet state. Nikita Khrushchev’s “Thaw” actually presaged Gorbachev’s Perestroika, weak in the absolute sense, but profound compared to what had come before.
When a totalitarian leader experiments with liberalization, one of the inevitable scripts is that the beneficiaries end up threatening the leader on either an emotional or physical level. In Khrushchev’s case, it was emotional. The fragility of his thaw shows in how it came to an end. He visited a modern-art show, was shocked out of his wits by the “avante-garde”, and called an end to it.
But it kept melting. Samizdat, the self-publication, typically by carbon copy, and distribution of banned literature, began during the Thaw, and accelerated after. After Khrushchev was deposed, replaced by a troika, and the troika, eventually by Leonid Brezhnev, the “period of stagnation” set in. Stagnation was partly the consequence of the post-Khrushchev leadership that everything should stay the same, echoing the sentiment first voiced by Plato in The Republic — “if we could only avoid change.”
The fear of change, the emotional basis of conservative sentiment, is the root of repression in all societies not actively in the throes of revolution. The prevention of change reached the highest technical level in East Germany under Erich Honecker. Under his aegis, the Stasi replaced the lethal methods of Walter Ulbricht, pursuing the development of nonlethal methods of social control. The breakthrough was Zersetzung, “disintegration”, the total psychological destruction of the individual as an opponent to the state. Quoting from Directive 1/76 (via Wikipedia):
…a systematic degradation of reputation, image, and prestige in a database on one part true, verifiable and degrading, and on the other part false, plausible, irrefutable, and always degrading; a systematic organization of social and professional failures for demolishing the self-confidence of the individual; […] stimulation of doubts with respect to perspectives on the future; stimulation of mistrust or mutual suspicion among groups […]; putting in place spatial and temporal obstacles rendering impossible or at least difficult the reciprocal relations of a group […], for example by […] assigning distant workplaces. —Directive No. 1/76 of January 1976 for the development of “operational procedures”
Unlike their distant relation with external spying, the internal security branches of the KGB and the Stasi collaborated closely, inter operating, and sharing files. Putin’s service with the KGB in East Germany spans the latter part of this period, till the Wall came down in 1989. It does not define him, but it takes an extraordinarily insular personality not to absorb at least some of the corporate culture.
Even though Putin’s vision of Russia is closer to the West than East Germany, familiarity with Zersetzung is like one of the tools of a trade that you keep handy, even if you’re not sure what to use it for. It also defines an attitude that can come out under pressure. Today, Russia is under pressure.
Zersetzung did not work as well in Russia as it did in East Germany. Every society has different nerves and pressure points. In old Vienna, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis in a world hotspot of the psychological syndrome of hysteria. Not before or since has hysteria been so colorfully popular. It almost seems that in the rest of the world, a cigar is just a cigar.
Among the tricks of Zersetzung were to go into someone’s home, rearrange the furniture, switch the knick-knacks, spoil the food, etc. The Soviets found this was hard to do because Soviet living standards were so low, space so intensely shared, there was no expectation of privacy. Somebody was always there.
The Soviets found that when they tried to embarrass the hell out of Soviet citizens, nothing happened. For example, one of the favorite “techniques” of the Stasi was to mail a sex toy to someone’s wife. Enough of that totally destroyed some Germans. How would you react if you or your partner received one in the mail? Would you be totally destroyed?
The Soviet solution was to remove the individual from life, place him in a psychiatric hospital, and inject him with drugs. Quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn,
“The incarceration of free thinking healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder, it is a variation of the gas chamber, even more cruel; the torture of the people being killed is more malicious and more prolonged. Like the gas chambers, these crimes will never be forgotten and those involved in them will be condemned for all time during their life and after their death.”
This, not murder, was the principal form of Soviet repression during the time of Leonid Brezhnev/Andropov, during Putin’s career with the KGB. Assassination was just occasional. The techniques were justified by communist ideology, which Putin rejects. But the Russians appear interested in possible uses of Zersetzung, even though it hardly seems effective in the post-Soviet Russia. The application against American diplomats seems experimental. American diplomats, as a population, are not susceptible to the end results achieved by the Stasi. It didn’t work against journalistic muckrakers either. Russia has been lethal to them.
This was Vladimir Putin’s professional environment. He appears to have rejected much of it. He exhibits impulses of personal kindness, as well as a ruthlessness towards perceived threats that the West finds troubling and fear-inspiring. Professional exposure such as his works on the mind in ways unknown even to the recipient. These things occupy mental space.
In part 1, Fiona Hill, Trump’s Putin Advisor, I wrote
One problem I perceive with the psychoanalytic model itself is that it is a model of a mind, not of a mind embedded in society. Hill’s analysis is referent to Freud and Jung. Mine is referent to Vilfredo Pareto, and his work, The Mind and Society. In my analysis, Putin is inseparably bound into a matrix of unconscious influence that flows both from him, and to him.
There’s a modern saying, “You work at the job, and the job works on you.” Putin’s job is Russia.
Next: How the job works on Putin.