Among the world’s many politicians to be regularly called a narcissist, Vladimir Putin may be given the label the most, and with the most serious intent, especially since the Sochi Olympics and the Russian invasion of Crimea. During a recent segment on the PBC NewsHour, for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks stated that U.S. attitudes toward Putin have “hardened to an amazing degree” and the current administration now views him as a “narcissistic autocrat.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, has accused Putin of “narcissistic megalomania.” The Financial Times referred to the Sochi Olympics as “Putin’s narcissistic self-tribute.”
Photos of the Russian president scuba-diving, piloting a plane, behind the wheel of a race car, demonstrating his skill in martial arts, and baring his chest on horseback only contribute to this view and evoke the predictably derisive response: Putin is a narcissist.
But is it accurate to describe Putin as a narcissist in the clinical sense of the word? Can an understanding of the psychological roots of narcissism help us to gain deeper insight into the man and how we should respond to his aggression, rather than using the label to deride him?
Narcissism is a severe psychological disorder that always takes root in childhood, where family life is marked by trauma and emotional chaos. When his earliest experiences drastically depart from what is normal or expectable, a child grows up with a painful feeling of internal defect. He comes to feel that there is something damaged and shameful about himself, an “ugliness” that must be concealed. He may grow up feeling that he is a “loser.” And so he develops a defensive identity to hide his unconscious shame and to “prove” that he is a winner instead. The Russian leader comes from a background similar to what one might find in a narcissist’s history.
Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1952, eight years after a siege that laid waste to the city, resulting in the death of more than a million people. The city bore physical and emotional scars for decades afterward. Putin’s parents had survived the siege, but his father was severely disabled and disfigured by injuries sustained in a battle not far from Leningrad; his mother nearly died of starvation. The Putins had previously lost one son who died during infancy several years before the war began and their one surviving son died in an orphanage not long after it ended. Vladimir was born into this atmosphere of hunger, disability, and profound grief.
Due to the advanced age of his parents (both turned 41 in the year of his birth) and the fact that no one seems to remember him before he began attending school, there has been a persistent but unproven rumor that Putin was actually adopted at the age of 9 or 10—which might have been a cause of further childhood trauma. But Putin’s childhood was almost certainly marked by trauma in any case. In her recent biography of Putin, Masha Gessen paints a grim picture of the Leningrad complex in which the family lived, typical of the city during the post-war period. Crumbling stairwells and courtyards strewn with trash. Cramped, filthy, and crowded rooms. Families piled one on top of the other, sharing and fighting over a communal kitchen in the hallway. Post-siege Leningrad was “a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children.”
Another important detail from Gessen’s biography that captures the emotional chaos of Putin’s childhood environment: He spent a great deal of time with an elderly Jewish couple who lived across the hall and told his official biographers that he “did not differentiate between his parents and the old Jews.” His father worked at a train car factory and his mother took a series of “backbreaking” jobs: night watchman, cleaning woman, truck loader. Though they doted on their child, the parents were desperately trying to survive, childcare was virtually non-existent, and Putin passed an increasingly large part of his time in the communal courtyard below, a space dominated by drunken thugs, cursing, and fistfights. In the personal mythology he has created, Putin takes special pride in having become one of those thugs. According to Oleg Blotsky's Vladimir Putin: The Road to Power, childhood friends support this view.
In exploring the past of prominent figures who seem to display features of narcissistic personality disorder, I have found that many of them were childhood bullies who may also have been bullied by others. The bully is a special type of narcissist who offloads or projects his sense of defect into the victims he persecutes. I’m not a loser, you are. I don’t feel vulnerable and afraid, you do. Though younger and smaller than many of them, Putin fought back against the courtyard thugs and became something of a bully himself. With an explosive temper and thin skin, Putin regularly took offense, instantly lashing out with violence. According to Gessen, one childhood friend recalls that if anyone dared to insult Putin, he “would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump—do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.”
The bullying narcissist is in flight from himself. His entire personality expresses an ongoing, relentless battle to ward off unconscious shame and a sense of internal defect, which accounts for his inability to take criticism or tolerate the smallest of slights. To deny the unconscious sense of being small, defective, and vulnerable, he projects a self-image that conveys his superiority. He establishes his own power and prestige by humiliating other people and filling them with the shame he has disavowed. For the bully, social interaction is all about proving himself a winner by making other people feel that they are the losers.
Though his history suggests, certainly, the possibility for narcissism to take root, it’s impossible actually to diagnose the man at a distance. But while a courtyard thug may inspire fear, the notion of a narcissistic bully with a large army and an arsenal of nuclear weapons is terrifying. Is that what we’re looking at? Some of Putin’s behavior might support the narcissism theory—but there’s always competing explanations:
- Putin’s apparent desire to reunite former Soviet republics could suggest he harbors fantasies of unlimited power. But it’s also at least in part clearly a political response to the dispersal of ethnic Russians in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- He shows difficulty tolerating criticism, which could be because his pride is easily injured. But it’s also clearly a method of maintaining control of his government that has strong precedents in Soviet and Russian history.
- His invasion of Ukraine could be seen as the move of a man who feels he's entitled to have what he wants. But it could be a cool-headed political strategy aimed at ensuring Russia’s regional dominance and ability to challenge the West.
- All those action man photos could be a symptom of a grandiose self-image. But maybe he just took his shirt off because it was hot that day.
A lot of Putin’s seemingly narcissistic behavior, meanwhile, gives expression to attitudes shared by many of his fellow citizens. A large percentage of Russians look back with nostalgia on the Soviet era; they feel humiliated by the loss of power and prestige that came with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and admire their president for standing up to the West. According to official polls, a large majority of Russians approve of Putin’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine as well as the annexation of Crimea. His current approval rating stands at an astonishing 80 percent. As the voice of his people, Vladimir Putin offers to avenge their injuries and restore their feelings of pride.
Still, applying a deeper understanding of narcissism to our understanding of Putin could be useful. Diplomacy, after all, always take place in a context of uncertainty, and assuming Putin is a narcissist may help the United States’ foreign-policy establishment mitigate risk in the ways it deals with him.
For example, to the extent it’s plausible that we are dealing with a narcissist, it may make sense to avoid inducing shame, so as to avoid provoking a defensive response in retaliation. In which case, President Obama’s remarks during his March 25th press conference at The Hague might not have been the best approach. Whatever impression of power and confidence he intended to convey, Obama’s reference to Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength, but out of weakness” is the sort of remark that a narcissist would experience as humiliating. President Obama may want to project a sort of indifferent self-confidence in the face of Putin’s aggression, but it could be heard as Obama telling Putin he is a loser. The risk, in that case, is that Putin could then take drastic steps, supported by a country also longing for glory and an escape from shame, to prove Obama wrong.
Putin may or may not be a clinical narcissist, but it may be wise just to treat him like one either way.