The President is stuck between past and present. Credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

February 20, 2022   5 mins

All infants are conspiracy theorists. They think that the whole world revolves around them, and that if they are denied something it’s because bad forces in the world have it in for them. This is, essentially, the theory of Melanie Klein, the pioneering child psychoanalyst. According to Klein, in the early stages of infancy we can only think about the world in terms of objects, and can only think about those objects in relation to themselves. The complex, nuanced lives of others are reduced to primitive binaries: the mother, for instance, is reduced to a “good breast” that feeds the mewling child and a “bad breast” that denies the child its satisfaction. The infant cannot perceive that its mother is a subject in her own right.

I kept thinking about this idea last week, as I was trying to make sense of Vladimir Putin’s paranoid new essay, “On the Historical Unity of the Russian and Ukrainian Peoples,” which the Russian President published on the Kremlin’s website (so, essentially, self-published). Putin fancies himself as something of a historian, and the gist of the 5000-word ramble — so poorly-composed it’s unlikely to be entirely ghost-written — is that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, cruelly separated by scheming foreign powers who want to turn Ukraine into the “anti-Russia”. Kiev, known as “the mother of Russian cities”, has been split from Moscow over the centuries by dark forces: the Tatar Mongols, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, Austro-Hungary, the Nazis, and now “the West”, who turn the “mother” into a weapon against Moscow.

It’s rare for Putin to publish something so long, and historians, Kremlinologists and cultural critics have all been working out what it can tell us about the Russian President’s ideology and geopolitical intent. The BBC Russian service pulled together comments from eminent Russian and Ukrainian scholars, who accused the President of “school boy errors”.  Putin claims, for example, that Russians and Ukrainians are all descendants of a single medieval kingdom from Finland to Kiev that was unified by one language, one Orthodox Christian faith and one royal family. The early Kiev Kings supposedly adopted Christianity and then moved to Moscow. In Putin’s simplistic vision the identity is stable, the lineage unbroken. In fact, Medieval Rus was multilingual, has always been multi-confessional, and the descendants of Kiev kings ruled over areas outside of Moscow.

The Russian President also dismisses Ukrainian efforts (and huge sacrifices) for statehood over the centuries. The mother could not possibly be an autonomous subject. Putin claims the first Ukrainian republic of 1917 was just a German “construct.” Stalin’s enforced famine of Ukrainian peasants and slaughter of Ukrainian intelligentsia, he says, had nothing to do with the Generalissimo’s fears about Ukrainian nationalism undermining the Soviet project. Indeed, independent Ukraine, “is entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era, and was to a large extent created at the expense of historical Russian lands.” Putin’s take utterly ignores the Soviet rationale for formalising a Ukrainian Soviet republic completely controlled from Moscow. It was a way to control nationalist energies.

Sergey Radchenko, Professor of Cold War History and International Relations at Johns Hopkins University dismissed the essay as “deranged” — but frightening all the same. Rather than a serious scholarly account, its aim is to give a rationale for continued aggression. After all, if Ukraine and Russia are “one”, then invasion and other forms of colonial subjugation are just an internal matter. Putin often invokes “history” when he needs propaganda cover to send in the tanks. To justify his annexation of Crimea and invasion of East Ukraine, Putin argued in 2014 that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” Since then, there’s been something disturbed about the way Kremlin propaganda has conceptualised Ukraine: either deifying it as “the mother” or castigating it as a whore who has sold itself to the West. There’s the good breast and the bad breast, and nothing in between. This latest essay, too, circles around metaphors of family relations, identity and possession; that’s why it’s so tempting to read it through the framework of psychoanalysis.

Because Ukraine isn’t just another political issue for Putin: it cuts to the quick of how he, and many of his compatriots, make sense of Russia’s sense of self. One of the tragedies of post-Soviet Russia is that its rulers have never surrendered their vision of the nation as an Empire, intrinsically destined to be a Great Power, a force around which the world revolves. And historically this identity has always been formulated via Ukraine. In the 16th century the tsars of Muscovy grandly declared their kingdom to be the “third Rome”: the inheritor of the divine mission of Rome and then Constantinople; the next city destined to unite politics and Christianity and establish God’s Empire on earth. But this claim was always based on Muscovy’s connections to Kyiv: it was the Kings of Kyiv who brought Christianity to the region, and married into the Byzantine royal family. As descendants of the Kyivan kings, Moscow’s rulers now claimed to be the epiphany of that lineage. Russia can’t quite live up to serious Empire billing if it doesn’t control cities like Odessa, Kharkov and Kyiv, the jewels of the old Russian Empire.

Internalising the idea that the “mother of Russian cities” is autonomous would mean Russia having to grow out of its self-perception as an Empire. That’s something that Putin and his clique refuse to do. Part of the protest movement against the President that swelled dramatically in 2011-12, demanded that Russia become a “normal”, modern European nation state. It called for economic and political reforms, and relations with neighbouring countries that recognised their rights as independent actors. Such a mature Russian nation would not need a tsar-like figure to rule it. Putin’s response was to stoke Imperial nostalgia and a grandiose sense of identity by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine — and to elevate himself to de facto monarch. He just can’t let go.

“Growing up is realising that not everything, good and bad, revolves around you,” says the literature professor and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, who introduced me to Klein’s theories. Infants who receive enough care and love should start to recognise the mother as an actual person, and so enter what Klein calls the “depressive position”: “the belated perception of the mother as whole object,” to quote Cohen; “the realisation that the good and the bad breast are actually the same breast.” Ukraine is neither Madonna nor whore. “Ultimately that’s how you get to complexity and nuance and beyond facile splitting between the idealised and demonised object.”

Unable to come to terms with the complexity of the real world — unable to separate from the mother — some infants become increasingly disturbed. Putin is stuck in what Klein would call the “paranoid-schizoid” position, in which the infant becomes resentful, full of suspicion about the world, and can compensate with over-weaning ambition and sadism. The feelings towards the mother, both the obsession with and the hate towards her, can be displaced onto all sorts of things. Many people have some sort of residual resentment of such nature. The skilful propagandist will use it. Conspiratorial propaganda feeds the screaming infant inside all of us, allowing us to retreat back to before we had to grow up.

The irony is, no one has done more to alienate Ukrainians from Russia than Putin. There is a self-destructive, irrational streak in his politics. His invasion re-orientated Ukraine towards the West to a previously unimaginable extent. His need for the mother country could be the death of her. When, in his latest essay, he likens post-Soviet Ukraine to a weapon of mass destruction aimed at subverting Russia, he is laying the groundwork for a violent response. Lashing out, like holding on too tight, can’t ultimate succeed in keeping another close.

First published on 20 July, 2021

Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
He is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University and at the LSE