In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter proposed establishing a group of physicians to ascertain the mental health of a sitting president. A panel was assembled to consider the proposal, but the idea withered. During the Trump presidency, some U.S. lawmakers suggested that the vice president and the cabinet hire experts to evaluate the mental health of the president due to his erratic behavior, but that proposal went no further, either. It's clear that it would be useful to develop some guidelines for leaders, especially before they start inflicting abuse on the people they lead.
So, what to do when a powerful leader such as Russian President Vladimir Putin invades and attacks a nation of 40 million people just because he believes his own big lies that they’re not a country? And they commit genocide? And they're Nazi's? (What???) The reality is that Ukraine didn’t attack Russia, had no plans to attack Russia, and why would it? Russia’s military is 10 times larger AND they have nuclear weapons. It’s clear that Putin has created his own reality about the situation, one that isn’t shared by people who operate in facts. Besides, his actions cannot be justified merely because he believes his reality. He’s a damaged person who needs to stop what he’s doing before he shatters the lives of millions more.
Of course, smarter people than I are doing their best to wrestle him to impotence, as country after country piles on sanctions to encourage people in the Kremlin to stop him from murdering any more kids or blow up more hospitals. I’m one of millions around the world who are cheering them on. But what I can do is this: encourage and educate people to not create more Putins.
Putin had a bad childhood. Okay, okay, okay. Before I go into the relevant details, I can hear the mutters and see the comments already. LOTS of people have difficult childhoods, you’re probably thinking, and most of them never attacked or even THINK about attacking a nation of 40 million people to intentionally destroy their lives. True. But stay with me.
The facts as we know them: Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, a city that lived under a nearly three-year siege by the Nazis during World War II that wiped out most of the population of more than three million people. One million people starved to death. The siege has been termed a genocide and is described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. His father was badly injured in the war; his mother nearly died of starvation. Before Putin was born, his parents had lost two children, one from diphtheria. Leningrad had not yet recovered, and life was extremely difficult. His parents had a room in run-down apartment with two other families. The details are sketchy, but they had no hot water, no bathtub, perhaps little or no heat. Both parents worked as much as they could to support themselves and him, his father in a factory, his mother any odd job she could get. One report says they left him with another family. But it was clear that he was left to fend for himself in the company of other kids in the apartment building. He was bullied, no doubt severely.
But at least two experiences kept him from living on the streets his entire life: He probably had support from a coach, because he learned judo to defend himself, and, after a rough time during his elementary school years, a sixth-grade teacher reportedly took interest in him. She brought out his intellect. He excelled in high school. He eventually got a law degree and joined the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was obviously done. It produced a “macho, distrustful, unpredictable, a cultivator of half-truths and disinformation…a former KGB officer who remains culturally and psychologically tied to a Soviet Union that no longer exists.”
By inference, when you look at Putin’s early years, the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) pile up—lack of food, inadequate housing, bullying, neglect, parental depression, etc. And he obviously inherited a bunch of ACEs from his parents, including wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces that threatened their existence and their homeland. But what’s also evident is what he didn’t seem to get: appropriate attachment—the strong and requisite bond between a parent and a child that leads to a healthy life and without which children can die or be damaged. That was because his parents had to work most of the time, or because they didn’t know how or were too preoccupied with their own issues to be attached parents. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to be part of Putin’s world.
Nobody’s born bad
A friend sent me an essay that psychologist Alice Miller wrote called, “The Ignorance or How we produce the Evil”. It’s remarkable, and I encourage everyone to read it. She said that although evil exists, people aren’t born evil. How they live their lives depends on what happens after they’re born (and also before, as epigenetics is teaching us).
Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness, and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse, and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator in the formative years of all the dictators I have studied. The result is that these children will tend to glorify the violence inflicted upon them and later to take advantage of every possible opportunity to exercise such violence, possibly on a gigantic scale. Children learn by imitation. Their bodies do not learn what we try to instill in them by words but what they have experienced physically. Battered, injured children will learn to batter and injure others; sheltered, respected children will learn to respect and protect those weaker than themselves. Children have nothing else to go on but their own experiences.
We actually don’t need the details of what happened to Putin as a child to understand the roots of his current actions. People who hurt people have been hurt themselves, as Miller pointed out. Even if they’ve had just one ACE, but don’t have enough positive experiences characteristic of a healthy human being, they’re likely to have problems.
“All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty,” Miller wrote, “although they themselves steadfastly denied this. And in this they are not alone. Large sections of society are apparently determined either to deny or to ignore these facts.”
How Putin’s childhood is playing out
Madeline Albright, who served as U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, met with newly appointed acting president Putin and outgoing president Boris Yeltsin in 2000. In an opinion piece in the New York Times on February 23, 2022, she wrote:
Whereas Mr. Yeltsin had cajoled, blustered and flattered, Mr. Putin spoke unemotionally and without notes about his determination to resurrect Russia’s economy and quash Chechen rebels. Flying home, I recorded my impressions. “Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.”
In the 20-odd years since we met, Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook. He has collected political and economic power for himself — co-opting or crushing potential competition — while pushing to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance through parts of the former Soviet Union. Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason. He is sure that Americans mirror both his cynicism and his lust for power and that in a world where everyone lies, he is under no obligation to tell the truth. Because he believes that the United States dominates its own region by force, he thinks Russia has the same right.
Alice Miller had some observations about other dictators that are pertinent to understanding Putin’s particular actions over the last month. Adolf Hitler was beaten mercilessly during his childhood by a father who was illegitimate and of Jewish descent, both of which, during those times, brought him constant and overbearing shame his entire life.
In the entire history of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews, no other ruler had ever hit upon the idea that, on pain of death, every citizen in his country must provide proof of non-Jewish descent extending back to the third generation. This was Hitler’s OWN PERSONAL BRAND OF MANIA. And it is traceable to the insecurity of his existence in his own family, the insecurity of a child constantly living under the threat of violence and humiliation. Later millions were to forfeit their lives so that this child – now a childless adult – could avenge himself by unconsciously projecting the grim scenario of his childhood onto the political stage.
Stalin was also brutalized by his father when he was a child, she pointed out.
Stalin was an only child. Like Hitler he was the first child to survive after three siblings who had died in infancy. His irascible father was almost always drunk and laid into his son from an early age. Despite the fame and power he later achieved, Stalin suffered throughout his life from a persecution mania that drove him to order the killing of millions of innocent people. Just as the infant Stalin lived in fear of sudden death at the hands of his unpredictable father, so the adult Stalin lived in fear even of his closest associates. But now he had the power to fend off those fears by humiliating others.
China’s Mao Zedong and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu also had brutal childhoods, with consequences that, in Mao’s case killed 35 million people, and in Ceaucescu’s case, forced women to have unwanted children, Miller pointed out. We can add others: the members of Myanmar's junta who have murdered millions, mostly Rohingya as well as other minority groups; the Chinese leadership that is imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in prison camps....the list goes on.
Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon wrote that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.”
Stalin killed nearly a million people per year in the quarter century of his rule. Khrushchev and Brezhnev both served apprenticeships under Stalin, not by distributing food stamps or serving in a Peace Corps, but by efficiently eliminating those whom Stalin saw as threats to his power. Khrushchev was sent to the Ukraine by Stalin in 1938 to conduct a political housecleaning. Within a year 163 of the 166 members of the Central Committee there had been liquidated. Khrushchev was then promoted to full membership in the Politburo.
Acting out unresolved issues
In Putin’s second speech on Feb. 23, he said:
The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.
To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.
When I first read this, I couldn't figure out why Putin used the words "genocide" and "denazify". But, in light of his childhood, now I do.
In Putin’s mind, he feels threatened by Ukraine and considers himself a victim. He must defend himself, just the way he had to do by learning judo as a child, and thus has come up with a plethora of reasons to justify his invasion. But it’s clear he’s acting out the suffering, deprivations, and existential threats experienced by his family and community during the Second World War, experiences buried so deep in his mind that he’s not conscious of them, and he is now inflicting those same circumstances on the families in the cities of Ukraine.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and that’s what the PACEs Connection community is dedicated to preventing. “Having the power to destroy doesn’t mean being strong,” Miller pointed out. “Real strength means being able to understand our feelings and our history so that we become free to act from conscious motives instead of being driven by unconscious fears like Stalin, Hitler, and others.”
Dr. Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist and expert in the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences at Drexel University and founder of the Sanctuary Model and Creating PRESENCE, notes that unless people resolve their early experiences and heal, they are doomed to repeat their childhoods.
However unconscious that may be to Putin, it’s painfully obvious to the rest of us.