Vladimir Putin has enjoyed a stunning variety of incarnations in the American imagination in his nearly 15 years as Russia’s leader. He started out as an economic reformer and a budding democrat, held those misapplied titles for years — aided by President George W. Bush, who “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul” — before the U.S. media and its consumers noticed his authoritarian tendencies.
His graduation to dictator took years. In that time, he dismantled Russia’s electoral system, took over its media, saw many of his opponents killed, jailed or forced into exile, created one of the most ruthlessly corrupt government systems in history, made peaceful protest punishable by jail time, waged a long and brutal war on his own country’s territory and a short one against a neighboring country, Georgia, a piece of which Russia bit off in 2008.
But it was only after he invaded Ukraine last month that Americans’ image of him took another drastic turn. German Chancellor Angela Merkel ostensibly told President Obama that Putin was out of touch with reality. And then former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton compared him to Adolf Hitler.
So is Putin insane, is he Hitler, or is he both? He is none of those things. In fact, he may be unlike any politician the world has known.
What did Merkel mean when she said Putin was living “in another world”? She was probably commenting on the fact that he has grown so isolated that he believes his own television.
Russian television, for its part, parrots back what Putin has been telling the Russian people for more than a decade: Russia is a country under siege, surrounded by enemies, perennially on the brink of catastrophe, from which only Putin can save it. And the latest: Putin is a defender rather than an aggressor in Ukraine. There, and everywhere, he is defending poor besieged Russians, not to mention the history and honor of the U.S.S.R., which have been unfairly trampled.
Putin expressed this world view long before he became president, and he has consistently acted on it whenever he saw an opportunity, such as during political unrest in a neighboring country.
The day after Merkel’s statement became public, Putin held a news conference in which he denied that Russian troops were in Crimea and made so many other fanciful statements that the State Department issued a fact sheet exposing 10 of his most blatant lies. “The world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘The formula “two times two equals five” is not without its attractions,’” said the document, posted to the department’s website.
Many analysts concluded that the bizarre news conference proved Putin had indeed lost his mind. They were wrong. Putin was acting the way he always has, like a playground bully. It was the last thing an American audience expected. The dramaturgy of war would seem to dictate that Putin issue a rousing call to arms. But bullies do not aspire to lead through rhetoric; they dominate by intimidation. When confronted, they either lash out or they obfuscate.
Putin said the troops occupying Crimea weren’t Russian, then promised to deploy the Russian military to protect civilians in Ukraine, then disowned deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. He was like a bully caught wearing a younger boy’s jacket — first claiming it was his own, then saying he got it from a friend, then that he wasn’t friends with that guy anyway. This is a tried-and-true intimidation strategy: Bald-faced lies render opponents helpless.
There was nothing insane about it, and it worked all the better because it was so unexpected. It left Western politicians sputtering and Russian markets recovering.
So if Putin is not insane, is he Hitler?
There are some eerie similarities: his obsession with imminent catastrophe, his total distrust of the rest of the world, his paranoid scapegoating of particular minorities, and his appetite for annexing new territories. But then, these traits also make him similar to many other tyrants big and small, including Josef Stalin and Slobodan Milosevic.
Knowing that Putin is similar to many 20th century dictators is not very useful or even interesting. He does, however, have one trait that sets him apart from the rest. History’s dictators have generally tried to convince themselves and others that they were good people fighting the good fight. But Putin has no positive spin for his aggression — or his actions in general.
The political culture Putin has created in Russia is based on the assumption that the world is rotten to the core.
This was first evident in the way Putin talked about corruption. In his official autobiography, published in 2000, Putin told a joke in which President Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev compare notes: Both are embezzling, but Brezhnev embezzles twice as much, blatantly. This is the line Putin’s officials have taken in response to all accusations of graft over the last 14 years: Corruption is endemic to all governments; Russian corruption is just less hypocritical.
The same goes for Russia’s treatment of minorities and political protesters, as well as violations of international law: Putin and his officials are always quick to point out that Western countries are also imperfect on these issues. More than a rhetorical device, this is an expression of the Putin world view: He believes that all governments would like to jail their opponents and invade their neighbors, but most political leaders, most of the time, lack the courage to act on these desires.
A corollary is Putin’s conviction that his opponents act out of self-interest rather than on the basis of political conviction. When members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail, he said they got what they wanted.
This belief that everyone, without exception, acts solely out of base self-interest is what has led Putin to ratchet up the aggression, meanness and vulgarity of both his public statements and political actions over the years. When he threatens to castrate a journalist, when he invades other countries, Putin is showing the world that he has the courage of his convictions.
For American culture, which relies heavily on a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, this is an impossible world view to absorb. It is another world indeed. But that does not make it crazy.
Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist and the author of the political biography “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”
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