One day, as a consequence of inevitable demographics, China will own all of Siberia. The most populous, most dynamic nation shares a 2,607 mile border with one of the most sclerotic. Russia’s shrinking population continues to be decimated by multi-drug resistant TB, AIDS, and alcoholism. The male life expectancy is only 64 years, and Russia has more drug addicts than any other country. The Vanity Fair article pulls it all together with horrific details. Only 30% of babies are born healthy, the rest likely victims of maternal alcoholism and drug abuse.
All this signifies a deeply unhappy people, so unhappy that, paradoxically, they don’t realize how miserable they really are. Putin’s “success” is an increase of the birth rate marginally above the replacement level. But since the desire to procreate is so weak, and so challenged by the sense of physical and emotional privation, the sanctions now announced will eventually have a lethal effect on Russia. What remains of the middle class knows it, and is jumping ship.
Prior to the ascent of modern sociology, the only cure for national malaise was a stiff dose of some kind of nationalistic psychology: lebensraum (living room), manifest destiny, racial purity, cultural superiority , and what they call in Southeast Asia, “communalism”, the proclaimed right of an ethnic group to a hunk of territory and the right to be their own instruments of torture and corruption.
In the multicultural West, we are continually surprised that anyone would think this way, but even in Japan, mothers instinctively gather their children at the approach of a foreigner. Racial superiority is such an attractive notion that, during the period of Japan’s Asian colonialism, it was promulgated as an instrument of political control, this Japanese export readily absorbed by the Korean psyche. The most mild form of the infection is ethnic chauvinism, with the dark companion of xenophobia. The sense of “us” versus “other”, rooted in evolutionary sociobiology, is such an effective instrument of manipulation that practically no politician outside the West can resist the seductions.
The West has partially succeeded in elevating principles above ourselves. But as abstractions, principles require what child psychologist Jean Piaget called “the age of formal operations.” In preceding mental ages, the dominant thought processes are more instinctive, with the young mind in the process of uptake of what Vilfredo Pareto termed persistences and derivations, the mental furnishings of childhood that underpin all but the most sophisticated adult mind.
To Putin’s credit, many of his attempts to doctor his very sick patient are based on modern sociological and behavioral notions. The ban on public profanity, and restrictions on media containing pornography, violence, and profanity seem puzzling when we forget that the patient is in the ER. If you were defibrillating a patient, would you offer him a smoke?
So the modern Putin is at his wit’s end. For a thousand years prior, Russians were born into dark, cold poverty, fought life’s struggles to eat and stay warm, multiplied their descendants, and descended with the Sign of the Cross into the black chernozem soil. Yet now, when with central heat, flush toilets, and easy food, things should be better, Russians are failing to continue.
Perhaps all of us oscillate between modern and primitive, between scientific mindset and what gathers at the opposite pole: sensual and spiritual. What ails Russia? Is it too cold? Too dark? Too vast? In what chalice does the Russian spirit reside? Gathering steam with the analogies, the body of the individual has been called the chalice of the spirit. But is the Russian corpus a complete, functioning body? Or is it crippled by exclusions? Does it need fields of waving grain? Ports of warm water, facing into the sun?
These are the thoughts of any leader of any country when the picture darkens. By the solitary light of the weak lamp, when the window’s view is the blackness of night, in the trenches of 1918, or in the wake of a bond default, these thoughts grow, acquiring a kind of poetry that makes them seem beautiful, even when they are not, and contain the germs of great cruelty. In most harmless form, the “Volk” sing national anthems, such as “America, the Beautiful.” In the most harmful, genocide. In the intermediate, the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 becomes a tolerable cost of a “greater goal.”
This is one element of the mental childhood of Vladimir Putin, something hardly exclusive to him. His study of great world leaders reveals other mental childhoods, lauded by historians into mistaken greatness. Conquerors are parasites. But Putin’s own childhood stems from the tragic history of Russia, which became penultimately tragic in World War II. He was born in the post-war years, young enough to learn fresh from his elders of the genocide that came from within and without. To Putin, “Teutonic hoards” is not simply a quaint expression. As a student of history, he doubtless knows that the roots of Naziism start not with Hitler, not with Nietzsche or Strauss, but with the Teutonic Knights, whose genocidal proclivities date to circa 1200 A.D. One has only to dig a little to discover that “convert by the sword” actually meant genocide.
After World War II, the fear of a resurgent Germany was shared by the victors. The Western response was the Morgenthau Plan. The Russian response was creation of the satellite states behind the Iron Curtain. With the advent of the Cold War, the Morgenthau Plan, recognized as an invitation to Communist takeover, was replaced, for Western Europe, by a plan of redevelopment, the Marshall Plan,and the gradual political rehabilitation of West Germany. But the pain inflicted on the Russians had been too great for a similar gesture. It can only be appreciated in the context of their numbness to the self-inflicted horrors instigated by Joseph Stalin. It is little noted that Stalin didn’t kill anybody. He simply told others to.
So, from his early childhood, Putin inherited the terrible emotional scars of his elders. As a young man, in Piaget’s “formal age”, in the employ of the KGB, his acquisitions continued on a more sophisticated plane. In those days, a primary responsibility of the KGB was the defense of the satellite states against subversion by the West. East Germany, especially, was the bar to the ghosts of the past, the Teutonic Knights. After all, eight hundred years of history does not vanish in an eye blink.
It is hard to believe that Putin is still fighting that war, but it compellingly explains why, in violation of all the rules and instincts of balance-of-power politics, he seems blind to the indefensible 2607 mile border with China. By all tenets, he should seek alignment with countries that do not share land borders.
There is precedent for this in the mating habits of spiders, in which the male is almost inevitably eaten by the female after mating, as a good source of protein. But as Putin’s nervous system is larger than that of a spider, a more complex explanation seems required. Russian history provides one prior example: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact, signed in 1939. Twenty-two months later, Germany invaded Russia in a surprise attack, with disastrous consequences. In the West, this “Pact” is used as a classroom example of misplaced trust granted by one dictator to another. It is frequently generalized to, “Dictators trust other dictators.”
Perhaps they do. We really can’t know how someone like Putin, to whom democratic institutions are a foreign novelty, regards the Western democracies. The chaos, self-negation, contradictions, and inefficiencies hide (we hope) a remarkable capacity for self-regeneration. But it seems that a mixture of contempt for Western values, perceived to include hedonism and low tolerance for economic dislocation, have fueled a Molotovian mindset.
The strategy of gnawing away at Ukraine via a low intensity conflict might have worked, but all small conflicts are tinder for greater ones. In history yet to be written, MH-17 will be noted as the end of the “Peace Dividend.” And why? Because Vladimir Putin, Child of History, is fighting the wrong war. The most brilliant minds cannot ensure, by diplomacy, coercion, or otherwise, that the Teutonic Knights will not some time in the future spring back to life. But in his obsession with their ghost, and with the “spiritual sickness” of Russia, Putin has been nudging dogs that should be left to sleep.
Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.