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The Intellectual Catastrophe of Vladimir Putin

The meaning of Russia’s war in Ukraine is its own national weakness.

By , the author of, among other books, Power and the Idealists.

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin may have gone out of his mind, but it’s also possible that he has merely gazed at events through a peculiar and historical Russian lens and has acted accordingly. To invade the neighbors is not, after all, a novel thing for a Russian leader to do. It is a customary thing. It is common sense. It is hoary tradition. But when he looks for an up-to-date rhetoric capable of explaining the whys of hoary tradition to himself or the world, he has trouble coming up with anything.

Vladimir Putin may have gone out of his mind, but it’s also possible that he has merely gazed at events through a peculiar and historical Russian lens and has acted accordingly. To invade the neighbors is not, after all, a novel thing for a Russian leader to do. It is a customary thing. It is common sense. It is hoary tradition. But when he looks for an up-to-date rhetoric capable of explaining the whys of hoary tradition to himself or the world, he has trouble coming up with anything.

He grasps at political rhetorics from times long gone. They disintegrate in his hands. He delivers speeches and discovers that he is speechless, or nearly so. This may have been the original setback, well before the military setbacks that have afflicted his army. It is not a psychological failure, then. It is a philosophical failure. A suitable language of analysis eludes him; therefore lucidity eludes him.

The problem that he is trying to solve is the eternal Russian conundrum, which is the actual “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” that Winston Churchill ascribed to Russia (and could never define, though he considered that “national interest” offered a key). This is the conundrum of what to do about a very odd and dangerous imbalance in Russian life.

The imbalance consists of, on one side, the grandeur of Russia’s civilization and its geography, which are massive strengths, and, on the other side, a strange and persistent inability to construct a resilient and reliable state, which is a massive weakness. Russian leaders across the centuries have tried to cope with the imbalance by constructing the most thuggish of tyrannies, in the hope that brutality would compensate for the lack of resilience. And they have complemented the brutishness with an unusual foreign policy not like any other country’s, which has seemed to do the trick.

People demonstrate against the war and the food supply shortages in Vladivostok in 1917.
People demonstrate against the war and the food supply shortages in Vladivostok in 1917.

People demonstrate against the war and food supply shortages in Vladivostok, Russia, in 1917. OFF/AFP via Getty Images

Brutishness and the unusual foreign policy helped the Russian state make it through the 19th century without collapsing, which was an achievement. But twice in the 20th century, the state collapsed. The first time, in 1917, led to the rise to power of extremists and madmen and some of the worst disasters of world history. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev returned the state to a stable condition.

Then it collapsed again. The second collapse, in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, was not as calamitous. And yet, the empire disappeared, wars broke out along Russia’s southern borders, the economy disintegrated, life expectancy fell. This time Putin led the recovery. In Chechnya, he did it with a degree of thuggishness that qualifies him alone, among the belligerents in the current war, for an accusation of something like genocide.

Yet Putin was no more able than Khrushchev and Brezhnev to achieve the ultimate success, which would be the creation of a Russian state sufficiently sturdy and resilient to avoid any further collapses. He worries about this. Evidently he panics. And his worries have brought him to a version of the same fundamental view of the problem that one after another of his predecessors arrived at in times past.

The view amounts to a species of climate paranoia. This is a fear that warm principles of liberal philosophy and republican practices from the West, drifting eastward, will collide with the icy clouds of the Russian winter, and violent storms will break out, and nothing will survive. It is, in short, a belief that dangers to the Russian state are external and ideological, instead of internal and structural. The first such collision, the original one, took a very crude form and was not at all characteristic of subsequent collisions. But it was traumatic. This was Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, which crashed the French Revolution in a debased and dictatorial form into the frozen medievalism of the tsars. The collision of the French Revolution and the tsars brought the French army to the embers of Moscow, and the tsarist army to Paris.

But the characteristic collisions, the ones that have taken place repeatedly over the centuries, have always been philosophical, with military aspects confined to a Russian response. A decade after the tsarist army’s entrance into Paris, a circle of Russian aristocrats adopted liberal ideas under influences from the French Revolution and the American Revolution. They conspired together on behalf of a new and liberal Russia. They were arrested and exiled, and their enterprise was crushed. But the tsar, who was Nicholas I, felt less than confident of his victory over them. And he reacted by adopting a policy that would forever more protect the Russian state against the subversive danger.

A new French revolution broke out in 1830, which sparked sympathetic and liberal stirrings here and there in Europe, notably in Poland. Nicholas I recognized that an upsurge of liberalism on the borders of his own country was destined to revive the conspiracies of the arrested and exiled liberal aristocrats. He responded by invading Poland, and for good measure he swallowed the Polish state into the tsarist empire.

Still another revolution broke out in France in 1848, which led to liberal and republican uprisings in still more parts of Europe—very nearly a continental revolution, in plain indication that a new civilization was struggling to emerge in Europe, no longer royalist and feudal, no longer obedient to the dictates of whatever church might be locally in power, a new civilization of human rights and rational thought. But the new civilization was precisely what Nicholas I feared. He responded by invading Hungary. Those two invasions of his—the invasions of Poland and Hungary—were, from Nicholas I’s point of view, wars of defense, which took the form of wars of aggression. They were “special military operations” designed to inhibit the spread of subversive ideas into Russia by crushing the revolutionary neighbors, with the added hope of stamping out the revolutionary inspiration in broader regions too.

The wars were successful. The continental revolution of 1848 went down to defeat continentally, and Nicholas I had a lot to do with it. He was the “gendarme of Europe.” And the tsarist state endured for another two or three generations, until everything that he had feared finally did occur and inspirations from the German Social Democrats and other liberal and revolutionary currents in the West penetrated fatefully into his own Russia. That was in 1917. His great-grandson, Nicholas II, was tsar.

Down went the fragile Russian state. It reemerged as a communist dictatorship. But the basic dynamic remained the same. Stalin’s view of liberal or liberalizing currents from the West was identical to Nicholas I’s, even if Stalin’s vocabulary for expressing his worries was not a tsarist one. Stalin set out to crush liberal or liberalizing inspirations in the Soviet Union. But he set out to crush them also in Germany, which was an early goal of his Germany policy, aimed at destroying the Social Democrats more than the Nazis; and in Spain during the Civil War there, where his policy aimed at destroying the non-communists of the Spanish left as much as or more than the fascists. When World War II came to an end, Stalin set about crushing those same inspirations in every part of Europe that had fallen under his control. It is true that he was cracked.

But Khrushchev, who was not cracked, also turned out to be a Nicholas I. In 1956, when communist Hungary decided to explore some faintly liberal possibilities, Khrushchev detected a mortal danger to the Russian state, and he did what Nicholas I had done. He invaded Hungary. Brezhnev came to power. He turned out to be the same. A liberalizing impulse took hold among the communist leaders of Czechoslovakia. And Brezhnev invaded. Those were the precedents for Putin’s small-scale invasion of a newly liberal and revolutionary Georgia in 2008 and his invasion of Crimea in the revolutionary Ukraine of 2014. Every one of those invasions in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries was intended to preserve the Russian state by preventing a purely philosophical breeze of liberal thoughts and social experiments from wafting across the border. And the same reasoning has led to the most ferocious invasion of all, which is the one going on right now.

Joseph Stalin (center) and other top Soviet officials stand at the balcony of the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow in 1926.
Joseph Stalin (center) and other top Soviet officials stand at the balcony of the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow in 1926.

Joseph Stalin (center) and other top Soviet officials stand at the balcony of the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow in 1926. AFP via Getty Images

Only, Putin has run into a problem of language or rhetoric that afflicted none of his predecessors. Nicholas I in the 1830s and ’40s knew exactly how to describe his own wars against the liberal ideas and movements of Central Europe. This was by invoking the principles of a mystical and Orthodox royalism. He knew what he was for and what he was against. He was the champion of the true Christianity and sacred tradition, and he was the enemy of satanic atheism, heresy, and revolutionary disorder.

His principles aroused a loathing among friends of the French and American revolutions. But they aroused respect and admiration among friends of royalism and order, who were, with help from himself, dominant in Europe. His principles were noble, solemn, grand, and deep. They were universal principles of a sort, which made them worthy of the grandeur that is Russia—principles for the whole of humanity, with the Russian monarchy and the Orthodox church in the lead. They were living principles, grounded in realities of the era, even if hidden behind smoke and incense, and they put the tsar and his advisors in a position to think lucidly and strategically.

Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev likewise knew how to describe their wars against the liberals and subversives. This was by invoking the principles of communism. Those principles, too, were majestic and universal. They were principles of human progress, with Russia still in the lead—principles for the entire world. The principles aroused support and admiration in every country where communist parties were strong and sometimes too among non-communists, who accepted the argument that Soviet invasions were anti-fascist. In those ways, the communist principles were likewise grounded in realities of their own era, and the grounding put the communist leaders in a position to make their own strategic calculations in a spirt of lucidity and self-confidence.

But what sort of philosophical doctrine can Putin claim? The pro-Putin theoreticians ought to have worked up one for him, something superb, capable of generating a language useful for thinking about Russia’s situation in our own moment and the eternal conundrum of the Russian state. But the theoreticians have let him down. He ought to have them shot. Perhaps the failure is not really their fault, which is no reason not to shoot them. A philosophical doctrine cannot be worked up at will, the way speechwriters work up speeches. Powerful doctrines exist, or do not exist. And so Putin has had to make do with whatever ideas are floating about, grabbing one idea and another and tying them with a knot.

He has drawn almost nothing from communism, except for the hatred for Nazism that remains from World War II. He has put a lot of emphasis on his anti-Nazism too, and his emphasis accounts for a good deal of the support he has succeeded in arousing among his Russian compatriots. But anti-Nazism is not, in other respects, a strength of his doctrine. The role of neo-Nazis in Ukraine in recent years has been a visible one, if only in the form of graffiti and occasional street demonstrations. But it has not been a major role or even a minor role. It has been minuscule, which means that Putin’s emphasis on Ukrainian neo-Nazis, which is helpful for his popularity in Russia, also introduces a major distortion into his thinking.

Here is a source of his deluded belief that large numbers of Ukrainians, frightened by the neo-Nazis, would be grateful to see Russian tanks rolling through the streets. But nothing else of communism survives in his thinking. On the contrary, he has recalled with regret that official communist doctrines of the past were encouraging of the autonomy of Ukraine instead of encouraging a Ukrainian submission into the greater Russian nation. Lenin’s position on what used to be called the “national question” is not his own position.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks prior the military parade
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks prior the military parade

Putin speaks prior the military parade of the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, in Moscow on May 9, 2005. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

From the mystical royalism of the tsars he has drawn, by contrast, rather a lot. He has drawn a sense of ancient tradition, which leads him to invoke the role of Kyiv in the founding of the Russian nation in the ninth century, and the religious wars of the 17th century between the Orthodox Church (the good guys) and the Roman Catholic Church (the bad guys). Royalism is not a nationalism, but Putin has given to his own reading of the royal and religious past a nationalist interpretation, such that Orthodoxy’s struggle against Catholicism emerges as a national struggle of the Russians, who, in his interpretation, include the Ukrainians, against the Poles. He invokes the heroic 17th-century Cossack rebellion of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, though he discreetly chooses to leave unmentioned Khmelnytsky’s additional role as the leader of some of the worst pogroms in history.

But there is nothing grand or noble in Putin’s nationalist reading of the past. His invocation of church history implies the greatness of Orthodox spirituality but does not seem to reflect it, quite as if Orthodoxy were, for him, merely an afterthought or an ornament. His nationalism resembles only in a surface way the sundry Romantic nationalisms of Europe in the 19th century and the years leading up to World War I. Those nationalisms, the ones from the past, tended to be versions of universality in which each separate nationalism, in rebelling against the universalism of the Jacobin dictators or the multiethnic empires, claimed a special mission for the whole of humanity.

But Putin’s nationalism claims no such special mission. It is a small nationalism instead of a grandiose one. It is a nationalism for a tiny country—a nationalism with an oddly tiny voice, like the voice of Serbian nationalism in the 1990s ranting about events of the 14th century. It is, to be sure, an angry voice, but not in the deep and thunderous fashion of the communists. It is a voice of resentment, directed at the victors in the Cold War. It is the voice of a man whose dignity has been offended. The aggressive encroachments of a triumphant NATO enrage him. He simmers.

But his resentment, too, lacks grandeur. It lacks, in any case, an explanatory power. The tsars could explain why Russia had aroused the enmity of the liberal and republican revolutionaries: It was because Russia stood for the true faith, and the liberals and republicans were the enemies of God. The communist leaders could likewise explain why the Soviet Union had aroused its own enemies: It was because the enemies of Soviet communism were the defenders of the capitalist class, and communism was capitalism’s undoing.

But Putin speaks of “Russophobia,” which means an irrational hatred, something inexplicable. Nor does he identify an ultimate virtue in his resentment. The tsars believed that if only they could defeat the subversives and atheists, they could offer the true faith to humanity. The communists believed that after defeating the capitalists and capitalism’s tool, the fascists, the liberation of the world was going to be at hand. But Putin’s resentment does not point to a shining future. It is a backward-looking resentment without a forward-looking face.

Here, then, is a Russian nationalism without anything in it to attract support from anyone else. I realize that here and there around the world, people do support Putin in the present war. They do so because they harbor their own resentments of the United States and the wealthy countries. Or they do so because they retain a gratitude for Cold War help from the Soviet Union. There are Serbs who feel a brotherly connection. But hardly anyone seems to share Putin’s ideas. There is nothing to share. Nor does anyone around the world suppose that Ukraine’s destruction will usher in a new and better era.

The doctrine does not offer hope. It offers hysteria. Putin believes that under the supposed neo-Nazi leadership that has taken over Ukraine, millions of Russians within Ukraine’s borders have become victims of a genocide. By “genocide” he sometimes appears to mean that Russian-speakers with an ethnic Russian identity are being forced to speak Ukrainian, which will deprive them of their identity—which is an implication in his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Other times he is content to leave intact the implication of mass slaughter. Either way, he appears to have been singularly unpersuasive on this important point. Nowhere on Earth has anyone held a protest to denounce the genocide of millions of Russians in Ukraine. Why not? It is because Putin speaks in the tone of a man who does not even aspire to be believed, except by people who require no convincing.

Still, he clings to his idea. It suits him. He considers himself to be a cultured person who thinks in the loftiest manner—someone who could not possibly invade another country without being able to invoke a magnificent philosophy. He does seem to crave reassurance on this point, which is why, I imagine, he has spent so many hours on the phone with Emmanuel Macron, the president of the motherland of intellectual prestige, which has always been France. But his attachment to the magnificent philosophy is the heart of the disaster. For how can a man think lucidly if he is awash in ideas as small and ridiculous as those? He knows that real-world problems and challenges beset him, but his imagination bubbles with resentments over medieval history, the religious wars and Cossack glories of the 17th century, the parallels between Polish Catholicism of the past and NATO’s “Russophobia” today, and the dreadful fate of the Ukrainian Russians at the hands of Western-encouraged neo-Nazis. And amid the bubbling resentments, the best that he can come up with is the foreign policy of Tsar Nicholas I from the 1830s and ’40s.

Now, it is true that from the standpoint of a traditional foreign-policy realism, everything I have just recounted ought to be dismissed as irrelevant. Realism is an ideology that stipulates the insignificance of ideologies in favor of attending strictly to power relations. This can mean only that Putin’s nationalist maunderings are pretty much meaningless, except for the complaint about NATO and its aggressions, which is deemed not to be ideological. That one part should attract the whole of our attention.

But should it really? People who take seriously the complaint about NATO always treat the danger to Russia as something so obvious as not to need an explanation. Putin himself points to NATO’s eastward encroachments, slams his fist on the table, and leaves it at that, without laying out the basis of his objection. We are supposed to infer that NATO’s expansion poses a danger to Russia because someday out of the blue NATO armies might pour across the border into Russian territory just as, in 1812, Napoleon’s army poured across the border.

Yet if we are to restrict the analysis to hard facts, as realism advises us to do, we might recall that during its more than 70 years, NATO has given not a single indication that it is anything but a defensive alliance. There is no reason at all to suppose that one day out of the blue, NATO, which is anti-Napoleonic in principle, will turn Napoleonic in practice. NATO’s purpose in expanding eastward has been, instead, to stabilize Europe and put an end to border disputes, which ought to be in Russia’s interest too.

Still, it is unquestionable that NATO’s expansion has, even so, infuriated Putin, and it has frightened him. Only, why? I think the answer is obvious. And it is obvious why no one wants to say it aloud. The European revolutions that frightened Nicholas I eventually did take place, in spite of his best efforts. The liberal republics arose. And in 1949, the liberal republics joined together quite as if they earnestly believed that liberal and republican principles do make for a new civilization. And they protected their civilization with a military alliance, which was NATO. In that manner, the liberal republics produced a military alliance that contained within it a spiritual idea, which was the beautifulness of the liberal and republican project. Here was the revolution of 1848, successful at last and protected by a formidable shield. And Putin sees the problem.

NATO’s eastward expansion infuriates and frightens him because it stands in the way of the sound and conservative Russian foreign-policy tradition that was established by Nicholas I. This is the policy of invading the neighbors. Where NATO expands, Russia can no longer invade, and the achievements of the liberal and republican revolution can no longer be undone—not by Russian armies, anyway. Opposition to NATO expansion amounts, then, to an acceptance of Russian expansion. It is an acceptance of the very strange Russian expansionism whose purpose has always been to impede the eastward spread of the revolutionary concept.

But Putin does not say this, and neither does anyone else. It is unsayable. Anyone who acknowledged an acceptance of the Russian policy of invading the neighbors would be saying, in effect, that tens of millions of people on Russia’s borders or in nearby countries should be subject to the most violent and murderous of oppressions for the simplest of reasons, which is to spare the Russian people from contact with ideas and beliefs that we ourselves believe to be the foundations of a good society. So no one says it. Instead, the supposition is allowed to linger that Russia is endangered by NATO because it faces the prospect of a Napoleonic invasion. “Realism,” in short, is a principal of intellectual fog, which claims to be a principle of intellectual lucidity.

People light candles while visiting a memorial dedicated to late Euromaidan activists
People light candles while visiting a memorial dedicated to late Euromaidan activists

People light candles while visiting a memorial dedicated to late Maidan activists along the Alley of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes during Maidan Revolution commemoration ceremonies in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 20. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why, finally, has Putin invaded Ukraine? It is not because of NATO aggression. And it is not because of events in ninth-century Kyiv and the Orthodox-Catholic wars of the 17th century. It is not because Ukraine under President Volodymyr Zelensky has gone Nazi. Putin has invaded because of the Maidan Revolution of 2014. The Maidan Revolution was the revolution of 1848 precisely—a classic European uprising animated by the same liberal and republican ideas as in 1848, with the same student idealism and the same romantic flourishes and even the same street barricades, except made of rubber tires instead of wood.

I know this because I am a student of revolutions—I have seen revolutionary uprisings repeatedly on different continents—and I saw the Maidan Revolution, at a three-month delay. I felt the revolutionary electricity in the air, and so did Putin from afar. The Maidan Revolution was everything that Nicholas I set out to oppose back in 1848–49. It was dynamic, passionate, capable of arousing the sympathies of vast numbers of people. Ultimately the Maidan Revolution was superior to the revolutions of 1848. It did not result in outbreaks of crazy utopias, or demagogy, or programs of extermination, or chaos.

It was a moderate revolution in favor of a moderate Ukraine—a revolution that offered a viable future for Ukraine and, in doing so, offered new possibilities to Ukraine’s neighbors too. And it did not fail, unlike the revolutions of 1848. So Putin was terrified. He responded by annexing Crimea and stirring up his wars in the breakaway provinces of eastern Ukraine, in the hope that he could inflict a few dents on the revolutionary success.

He had some victories too, and the Ukrainians may have joined him in inflicting a few dents of their own. But he saw that, even so, the revolutionary spirit went on spreading. He saw the popularity in Russia of Boris Nemtsov, his own opponent. He found it terrifying. Nemtsov was duly assassinated in 2015 on a bridge in Moscow. Putin saw Alexei Navalny step forward to offer still more opposition. He saw that Navalny, too, turned out to be popular, quite as if there was no end to these reforming zealots and their popular appeal. Putin poisoned Navalny and imprisoned him.

Even so, a new Maidan Revolution broke out, this time in Belarus. Still more revolutionary leaders stepped forward. One of them was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Minsk, who ran for president in 2020 against Alexander Lukashenko, the old-school thug. She won!—though Lukashenko succeeded in a Stop the Steal maneuver and declared himself the winner. Putin racked up another victory in his unending counterrevolution, on a small scale. Tsikhanouskaya’s success at the polls terrified him nonetheless.

And Putin was terrified by the emergence of Zelensky, who might have seemed to be, at first glance, a nonentity, a mere television comedian, a politician with a reassuringly accommodationist program. But Putin read the transcript of Zelensky’s phone call with then-President Donald Trump, which showed that Zelensky was not, in fact, a pushover. Putin saw that Zelensky was pleading for arms. The transcript of that phone call might even have given him the sense that Zelensky was one more heroic figure in the mold of the people he had already assassinated, poisoned, imprisoned, or overthrown—someone unyielding, therefore dangerous.

He concluded that Maidan’s revolution was destined to spread to Moscow and St. Petersburg, if not this year, then next year. So he consulted with the ghosts of Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and Stalin, who referred him to the master thinker, who is Nicholas I. And Nicholas I told Putin that if he failed to invade Ukraine, the Russian state would collapse. It was life or death.

Putin might have responded to this advice by coming up with a project to move Russia in a democratic direction and preserve the stability of Russia at the same time. He might have chosen to see in Ukraine the proof that Russian people are, in fact, capable of creating a liberal republic—given that he believes Ukrainians are a subset of the Russian people. He might have taken Ukraine as a model, instead of an enemy—a model for how to construct the resilient state that Russia has always needed.

But he lacks the categories of analysis that might allow him to think along those lines. His nationalist doctrine does not look into the future, except to see disasters looming. His doctrine looks into the past. So he gazed into the 19th century, and he yielded to its allure, the way that someone might yield to the allure of the bottle, or the tomb. Down into the wildest depths of tsarist reaction he plunged. The calamity that has taken place has been, then, an intellectual calamity first of all. It is a monstrous failure of the Russian imagination. And the monstrous failure has brought about the very collapse into barbarism and the danger to the ever-fragile Russian state that Putin thought he was trying to avoid.

Paul Berman is the author of, among other books, Power and the Idealists.

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