June 8, 2022
Hitler, Stalin, Mao. The Big Three. Greatest monsters of the 20th Century. Or GOAT? Well, Genghis Khan; Tamerlane; Ivan the Terrible; and others. But such figures lacked the scope to kill at modern industrial scale. And anyway, they’re too far back to be vivid to us like our “Big Three.”
And now Putin. Quite the achievement, breaking into those rarefied ranks.
But nobody sets out to become an historic villain. No, the ego soaks up adulation. Being treated like a god, and actually considering yourself one. Stalin’s mind is opaque to me, don’t know if he really saw himself on some epic mission (“building Communism”) or simply loved cruelty. But Hitler and Mao definitely had the grandiosity thing. Messianic to the max, believing themselves achieving Great Things, and sustained by mass idolatry.
Where does Putin fit in? A totally cynical Stalin-like self-aggrandizing opportunist? Partly, to be sure. But he also does have the messianic syndrome. Himself a victim of his own propaganda, apparently believing his murderous destruction of Ukraine fulfills some God-ordained historical destiny. Though one doubts he actually believes in God. He believes totally in himself. It comes to the same thing.
Is he a “madman,” as often said? The word can hardly fit such extreme psychological phenomenology. His success (thus far) bespeaks a certain rationality in what he’s doing. He may yet ultimately win in Ukraine, or win enough ground to claim victory, simply by refusing to quit. Some Western voices (the “peace” camp; Kissinger, Macron, others) urge giving Putin a face-saving “off-ramp.” Others (the “justice” camp) say that would only encourage him and other such villains; they must be crushed.
And rationality and morality are two different things. Though perhaps we can say such a total moral disregard necessarily bespeaks a kind of insanity. Yet of course Putin would deem his actions of the highest morality — reasoning so perverted, it too could be considered insane. Monsters never see themselves as monsters.
Stalin ruled by terror, but like with Hitler and Mao, Putin’s horror show is bolstered by a population cheering its support. Or at least much if not most of Russia’s citizenry. What are they thinking? Critical thinking it’s not. Of course they’re marinated in pervasive propaganda, painting Putin’s alternate reality (heroically fighting to “denazify” Ukraine), with all other information sources blocked. Still, it defies sense. When it’s obvious other information is stifled, and all you see is what the regime spoon-feeds you, how much brainpower does it take to realize something’s wrong with this picture? That you’re being played for fools. Worse, made complicit in atrocity.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao — so 20th Century. Now we’re in a new century, and its big monster is Putin. So far. But this century is young, with much history to unfold.
And when that history is written, with all the wisdom of hindsight, it may turn out that Putin was not, after all, the monster who damaged human civilization the most. Trump is not done yet.