What could Putin possibly be thinking?
This is the question so many are asking as the world watches, in horror, the unfolding Russian assault brutally killing Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike. The more relevant question, however, might be: “what is going on in Putin’s soul?”
It may be hubris to try to understand what is going on in anyone’s soul, let alone that of a KGB veteran like Putin. This has not deterred American leaders from trying. George Bush claims he saw Putin’s soul the minute he looked into his eyes, while Joe Biden says that he looked in the same place and saw nothing at all.
I’ve never looked into Putin’s eyes, but I have spent several years living in Russia as a historian and cultural chameleon. With that background I would posit that one must look not into his face, but into history to understand the inner forces that are driving Putin to his most recent act of madness.
The history of Russia and the Ukraine is one that is messy and complex, but there are two physical objects in Moscow — that I recently discovered during my last visit — that can provide a window into the version of history that Putin is drawing on to pave his path into the pantheon of historical pariahs.
The first is a vast bronze figure rising from the concrete of a busy intersection at the focal point of several sightlines to the Kremlin. That high crenelated brick wall inspires awe. For over 850 years it has both shielded, and amplified, the machinery that designed and executed Russia’s imperial ambition. At its most visible corner now stands a five-story-high statue of Saint Vladimir, the founder of the first medieval slavic federation known as the Kievan Rus, holding an enormous cross symbolizing his historic achievement of Christianizing the territory that later became Russia and the Ukraine (and several other states).
Its stern visage did not speak, but I thought I could hear it declaring three bold and threatening statements: “Russia and the Ukraine are one. We are bound by a shared belief in Christ I, Vladimir, am the one who will guarantee that this unity and bond are preserved.”
It felt as if it was Putin himself speaking through this massive saint, broadcasting his messianic sense of obligation to the historic mission of this “other Vlad”. The media has described Putin in recent weeks as sitting alone and feeling isolated from his advisors. If that is true, I would wager it is because he feels like they don’t share his conviction that God is on his side.
The other object is a pen in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary History in Moscow. Having spoken with the museum’s education director about the power of museums to expose the complexity of history, I was given an enthusiastic personal tour by a young guide. We started the tour by looking at the replica of the hand-made bomb that killed the Tsar Alexander II, and he confessed that it was stressful to be giving tours these days because he never knew what version of history his visitors embraced. For some, this bomb was an artifact of the tragic end of a great monarchy, for others it was a symbol of victory over autocracy.
But the one object that he said everyone loved–and that was his favorite–was in the room of gifts to Stalin: a slender pen covered in tiny glass pearls. While I marveled at the delicate craftsmanship, he pointed out that this was made by a peasant woman as a gift to Stalin after the war. Not only had she lost both her sons in the war, she had lost her both her hands. She had made this piece of art with her toes.
I imagined her sitting there, painstakingly attaching hundreds of tiny pearls to a shaft of wood, and I felt like I could hear her voice saying: “20,000,000 dead in World War II were not in vain. In serving Stalin, and in fighting evil (the Nazis) we served a divine purpose. We can connect with the divine and elevate our suffering by creating a thing of beauty.”
While this time the voice wasn’t specific to Putin, it was a very Russian one. A voice distilled from 1200 years of a mystical faith never rationalized by an Enlightenment, a voice well versed in the all the ways that suffering can be a conduit to the divine. It spoke almost as clearly as the statue, telling all that in addition to the fight for unity of the fatherland, the fight against evil is core to the Russian sense of self.
These two driving forces – a messianic mission to unite the fatherland and a quest to conquer evil – are what lie behind the nonsensical and a-historical constructs and arguments in Putin’s speeches. But since they are deep, spiritual forces, the idea that we can combat them with reason, facts or bombs is folly.
Maybe these voices are figments of my historian’s imagination. Maybe Putin is just crazy. But when I read his rantings, when I see him speaking looking both chased and obsessed, I think of these objects and imagine, with horror, the tortured soul that drives him to commit his crimes.
With that, I hear one final voice coming not from these objects, but from Shelley’s canonical poem “Ozymandias.” I do not know how long the statue of Vladimir, Tsar of Tsars, will last, but I can imagine it, too, someday bearing the inscription: Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair.