With Putin’s barbaric unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, evil has been visited upon Europe on a scale, and at a level of threat, not seen since World War Two. Irish Prime Minster Michael Martin has called Putin an evil man, while Ukrainian President Zelensky has called on his fellow citizens to drive Putin’s evil out of their country.
Evil is a word that many people recoil from, with its metaphysical implications of demons and the Devil. But the reality of Putin’s evil is much more mundane. The source of his evil lies in the fact that Putin is an extremely damaged human being. That damage, which is variously called malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, or psychopathy, is manifest in one central aspect of his personality. Putin is incapable of normal human feeling. The damage that Putin suffered during his early childhood, when the essential capacities for relationships with, and empathy for, other human beings are usually formed, was such that he has been left bereft of any ability to see and relate to other people as people.
Putin’s mind, damaged beyond repair by severe abuse or neglect, has been frozen since childhood into a state devoid of empathy or love. Without these vital conduits for communication with the world of other people, and incapable of pursuing sustenance from the love and friendships that give life meaning, he has sought instead to force recognition and respect from others through terror, wealth and power.
Early in his career as a Communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong discovered his passion for cruelty. He realised that violence, which he found thrilling, terrified most normal people. This enormous advantage – his incapacity for human feeling and others’ terror at what came so easily to him – was something he exploited his entire life. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power, Mao’s first act was to order mass public executions in towns and cities right across China so that men, women and children could witness first-hand the mass terror one man can inflict if he is without feeling.
So too with Putin. His entire political career has been based on murder, war and the threat of terror. Now, with thousands of nuclear weapons under his control, he blithely threatens the world with nuclear war.
Our response to Putin is understandably to be terrified. But such a response plays into his hands. Putin is not an evil ‘genius’. Nor is he insane. He is simply an extremely damaged human being who is incapable of relating to other people with any semblance of humanity. His condition is untreatable. Only when we face this simple reality can we understand the nature of the threat we are facing.
When Putin sees the images of suffering coming out of Ukraine – of fathers in tears as they say goodbye to their wives and children because they have to stay and fight, of a female teacher splattered in blood because her apartment has been shelled, of a father weeping over the corpse of his teenage son – he does not feel sympathy or horror as we do. He feels contempt and satisfaction. He thinks, as Stalin did when he was signing the execution orders of tens of thousands of Russians, that no-one will remember this ‘riffraff’ a few years from now.
When Putin sees the bombed-out ruins of towns and cities, he doesn’t see the senseless destruction that we see. He sees beauty of a world bent to his will. While Ukrainians dream of reuniting with their families and living again in the peace they enjoyed before Putin unleashed his psychopathic violence, Putin dreams of the restoration of the Soviet Empire. This too is a reflection of his disorder. People with the dangerous personality disorder that Putin shares in common with Hitler have minds closed to change. Without the essential flow of benevolent and empathic human interaction with others, their minds do not grow. Instead, they fester for a lifetime on perceived injustices from decades past, fuelled by an unceasing paranoid hatred for the world. Hitler was fixated on Germany’s humiliation in the defeat of World War One, which he sought to rectify through the carnage of World War Two. Likewise, Putin is fixated on the ‘humiliation’ of the fall of the Soviet empire, the reversal of which he is prepared to pursue, quite likely, up to the point of nuclear war.
Commentators have suggested that power has corrupted him, or that he has changed in recent years. Both of these explanations miss the point. Putin’s damaged mind has been frozen, incapable of real learning or adaptation to a changing world, since he was a child. He has not changed, but the world has, leaving him more and more divorced from the reality around him – a 19th century mind in the 21st century as Angela Merkel described him. Rather than use his time in power to bring Russia forward into the future, his ossified mind is dragging it, and the world, back to the barbarism of its past.
Putin relates to the world by evoking terror because he lacks the human capacities to relate in any other way. The terror he evokes magnifies his power because it paralyses us and allows him to get his way. But the Ukrainian people, under President Zelensky, have shown us that beyond the terror, there is the need, and the will, to act. The world has allowed, yet again, a pathologically disordered man to rise to power and threaten the world. Such instances have been resolved in the past only through cataclysmic bloodshed. Let us hope that this time we can find another way. If and when we do get the chance to act, we must ensure, once and for all, that such damaged and disordered minds never again acquire power over us.
Ian Hughes is author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy