#153: The Monstrosity of Vladimir Putin: We Have Learned Nothing From History

A monster is something at which you point because it stands out. It is different, deviant, grotesque; you cannot stop being fascinated by it. It is negatively attractive, holds our attention, draws us in, mesmerizes, makes us trying to understand it – a task at which we typically fail.

When speaking about human beings as monsters, we usually point at those who blatantly violate any sense of decency, any sense of being civilized, but who can also enthrall us with their very being. In fiction, Hannibal Lecter is more interesting than his pursuers – especially when portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen or Anthony Hopkins – and Bond villains certainly are more interesting in their deluded fantasies than the rather bland secret agent himself. What would Star Wars be without Darth Vader, or Shakespeare without Macbeth. Serial killers continue to fascinate spectators, not victims, in both fiction and reality.

That which is attractive is the ease with which the criminal and deviant mind of these monsters transgresses everything we have ever learnt about how to be a good person. Secretly, we may yearn for this freedom while at the same time being repulsed by their actions. We may also be curious about our own suppressed or repressed potential for monstrosity. Yet this presents us with a problem: Are we inviting such monstrosity into our lives, or are we exorcizing it through confronting it? Because wherever we look, be it in fiction, news, history, or daily life, monsters exist. Our fascination with predators even extents to our pets: most pets are either cats or dogs rather than bunnies or guinea pigs. As a cat person, I am deeply aware of the murderous instinct in my furry companions, and yet, purring furballs can be forgiven anything. Mea culpa.

History is frequently pushed to its limits by such monsters. Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders continue to dominate our media. Nazis sell. The audacity of evil, the ability to not care about their victims, the absolute rejection of humanity both frighten and enthrall in an unhealthy mixture of condemnation and almost adoring fascination. These monsters should be punished with a damnatio memoriae, but instead, we continue to make movies, write novels, magazine stories, etc. Hitler has become a superstar, an evil genius that we cannot do without. Stalin probably should complain that his own villainy is almost secondhand, same with Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and the entire gallery of cruel megalomaniacs.

We know all this, and we have come to delude ourselves that we have moved on in history. And yet, genocides continue to happen, dictators continue to terrorize and kill their people and their neighbors, but somehow, we believe we have arrived in the 21st century – as if this means anything – and we are somehow smarter and have learned from history. After all, is not the point of all this morbid fascination with Hitler et al. that we are supposed to learn from history?

Along comes Vladimir Putin, and we are reminded of Hegel’s saying that “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. [1] Have we become too civilized, too mannered, too tame, to domesticated to understand that evolutionarily, we are the same as our ancestors thousands of years ago? Certainly, not all of us behave like monsters – indeed, our very selfishness may eventually lead to cooperation as an evolutionarily stable strategy, as Richard Dawkins so brilliantly illustrated (based on the research of Hamilton and Axelrod). Yet that does not mean that once in a while predators emerge. Does culture hold us back? Few countries were more cultured and educated than 1930s Germany, and plenty of leading Nazis were rather educated and intelligent, albeit immoral. Russian society is highly cultured and educated, and yet, it has also produced several monstrous leaders. Intellect may indeed be much more useful to excuse certain crimes in order to fulfill an allegedly higher purpose. Maybe the reason we still are puzzled by the Holocaust, for instance, is that we simply cannot believe that something like this could have happened – because we are, again, repressing our monstrous capacity.

So now, we are again faced with a strongman leader finally showing his true colors. Actually, they were visible all the time – but somehow, he was able to charm us. In the land of Lenin, Stalin, Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, how bad could he possibly be by comparison? The real question should be, why not focus on Russia as the country of Gorbachev, Solzhenitsyn, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky – and not tolerate even the slightest attempt at strongman-ism. Putin’s answer to a few Chechen terrorists was total war against Chechnya – putting anything the West has done in Iraq and Afghanistan in perspective (while not excusing it either!). His answer to Assad has been to support him by bombing hospitals. His answer to civil rights leaders and institutions was to poison, kill, exterminate them. All of this has happened in front of our eyes – and yet, we seem to have enjoyed the show. As usual, Donald Trump, the enfant terrible of American politics, still cannot help himself from expressing some strange fascination for Putin – but so have a lot of politicians on both the right and the left, such as former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who famously called Putin a crystal-clear democrat (“lupenreiner Demokrat”) and serves on boards for both Gazprom and Rosneft, after having pushed through both the North Stream I and II pipelines meant to circumvent Ukraine (in order to prepare for its destruction). Putin-adoration is wide-spread.

Putin’s easiest tool is simple mendacity. He lies. People like to believe liars, because they seem unable to believe that people can indeed lie. We want to be lied to. The monstrous lies that Putin has consistently told follow the pattern of blaming the victim for their victimhood. Ukraine wanted to protect herself from Russian imperialism and sought entrance into NATO – like many former countries who have been victim to Russian and Soviet aggression. And yet, when Putin lies by claiming (wrongly!) that NATO has threatened him and that therefore Ukraine needs to be punished for it, his narrative continues to be repeated time and time again (even I have sometimes struggled with this). Just like Nazi Germany claimed that it was the victim of Polish aggression, then faked an attack on the Gleiwitz radio station, and used it as an excuse, so has Putin’s Russia demonized the resistance against Janukovich’s aggression on Maidan Square in Kyiv to distort it into a Nazi movement. Yes, the resistance movement included people from all parts of society. But a country that elects a Russian Ukrainian Jew as President is not necessarily following a Russian-hating Nazi script.

The lie is the tool Putin uses to hide his crimes – the deliberate genocide of Ukrainians, the bombing of citizens, and now even of a nuclear plant. Gladly, the world seems to be waking up to this. It is late, very late, and we should have seen it earlier. Was it our fascination with the monstrous that led us to tolerate him? Was it our denial of the possibility of evil that prevented us from seeing the truth? Hannah Arendt has warned us about the banality of evil – and there is nothing more banal than an old drabby KGB officer with the desire to leave a grandiose legacy.

The truth about monsters is that they are actually not fascinating at all. Hannibal Lecter is fiction. Dexter Morgan is fiction. Darth Vader is fiction. In contrast, real monsters are boring little men (mostly men) with an inferiority complex, a penchant for cruelty and a lack of conscience who are simply really good liars. That’s it. That’s all it is.

The only question now is who will be able and willing to stop the monster and create a society that has strong enough institutions to prevent such personalities from causing too much damage. Here’s hoping that some sense still exists in Russian leadership circles that Putin is a danger not just to Ukraine but also to Russia herself.

Ceterum censeo Ucrainam esse defendam. Слава Україні!


[1] “But what experience and history teach is this, that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present.”

(G.F,W. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Section 2.2 – for more context, see also https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3128840/what-hegel-really-wrote, as well as https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/chanakyas-chant/what-we-learn-from-history-is-that-we-do-not/).