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.