My Russian trauma trilogy and a thought experiment with Putin’s United Nations speech

William Echols

My latest article for The Intersection Project, The psychology behind Russia’s propaganda onslaught, was published soon after Putin spoke before the United Nation General  Assembly.

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It is part of a loose-knit series, all of which are essentially variations on one central theme: many Russians are suffering from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder; Russian state media has essentially weaponized that trauma as a means of maintaining social control and executing otherwise unpopular foreign policy decisions.

I have also covered the nature of Russian humiliation and power obsession as they are manifested through the concept of ‘Ressentiment’. Ressentiment, as previously stated, can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.

As a result, Russians are particularly at a loss to both face the dark chapters in their past, the driving idea behind “‘In other countries, it was more terrible:’ Why Russia won’t heal itself”. Nor can they psychologically assimilate the horrors being committed in modern times, an idea explored here: ‘One Year On: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17.

Russians have, by and large, already managed to turn their government’s decision to veto a United Nations resolution, which would have created an international tribunal to prosecute those who shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine last year, into a defensive measure. At this point it is easier to imagine the entire world is conspiring to bring Russia to its knees rather than accept that rebel fighters (or even Russian soldiers) could possibly have shot down a civilian airliner. That, despite the fact that Kremlin-friendly media reported that Russian proxies had shot down an AN-26 [military transport plane] in the area immediately after MH17 was downed.

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The “flywheel” for Ukraine’s manufactured civil war, Igor Girkin, admitted as much on the same day.

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Bearing all of that in mind, I’ve purposed something of a thought experiment. Keeping in mind the two primary sources of Russian trauma being manipulated by state media (the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union), Russia’s inability to accept responsibly for wrongs past or present (and more specifically, how that has manifested itself in Moscow’s decision to veto the establishment of an MH17 tribunal), and Russia’s overall obsession with power and national humiliation, read Putin’s speech and take note of just how many of these concepts were made manifest in the Russian president’s words. For, as much as the Russian elite might manipulate the masses, they are suffering from the same trauma. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Read Putin’s UN General Assembly Speech. 

‘In other countries, it was more terrible’: Why Russia won’t heal itself

William Echols

“Healing does not mean the damage never existed. It simply means the damage no longer controls our lives.”

Healing, in its multifarious forms, is something which often runs victim to self-help fetishism; an obsession that things can simply be left behind, forgotten, gotten over, relegated to the dustbin of history. But any false sense of closure, which denies the damage ever existed, will set individuals and nations alike down a perilous path.

There is a strong argument that that which we do not assimilate, we sublimate. And that which we sublimate, can be manipulated by those who understand us better, perhaps, than we understand ourselves. It is an idea at the heart of my latest article for Russia! Magazine, ‘Russia Has Weaponized Its National Trauma.’

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In 2007, a provincial history teacher, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, railed against the notion that Russian history could ever give cause to “self-flagellation.” It was a moment for Putin to step in as a statesman and offer Russia a chance to begin coming to terms with its deeply complicated, at times brutal story as a nation. Putin, it turns out, found a muse for his own resentment, arguing “in other countries, it has been said, it was more terrible.”

“We have not used nuclear weapons against a civilian population,” Putin said. “We have not sprayed thousands of kilometers with chemicals, (or) dropped on a small country seven times more bombs than in all the Great Patriotic (War).”

Regarding the purges of 1937, he added: ”We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance,” he said.

In Oliver Bulloughs historical travelogue ‘Let our Fame Be Great’,  he argues that “Russia’s actions in the Caucasus —independent of the politics or beliefs of its rulers over the centuries —have been destructive, murderous, brutal, and cruel.” The Circassian Genocide in 1864. The deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars and mountain Turks during the Second World War. Two brutal wars in Chechnya, which resonate throughout the region to this day.

It wasn’t just the Caucasus. Nineteenth century Siberian regionalists argued that imperial Russia’s actions in the region “had taken on genocidal proportions.”

And yet, one thing set Russia apart from other such European encroachments which left a trail of tears and blood. Nearly 70 years after Yermak kicked off Russia’s Siberian conquest, a legal amendment was introduced in 1649 (and yet another in 1658) which made many Slavic Russians themselves slaves in all but name. In this regard, Russia’s ruling class was perhaps slightly more ecumenical in turning his fellow man into property.

Bulloughs therefore argues that the suffering of Russia’s minorities is not well-known in Russia, “perhaps because Russians themselves have suffered so terribly that they prefer not to remember the horrors they have imposed on others.” 

This conflicted historical position of being both repressor and oppressed can only lead to a certain sense of cultural schizophrenia. The descendants of serfs now wave the Imperial Standard (actually, it’s the Flag of the Russian Empire for “Celebrations” but that’s an entirely different matter); the grandchildren of GULAG survivors herald the glory of a decontextualized Soviet Union that, like Imperial Russia before it, is reduced to nothing more than a symbol of greater Russian chauvinism.

Their greatness is a collective phenomenon that they, nor their ancestors, have necessarily benefited from in any concrete way. The private misery that accompanied it, on the other hand, was all theirs, to be suffered in silence.

And that unresolved suffering, which was never recognized in any substantive way, has now been repressed and channeled in ways that are often self-destructive.

The authorities have long attempted to channel that unassimilated fear, aggression, and shame through a state sanctioned cause. This time around, Ukraine has become the drainage ditch.

But even as nationalist rage allows for temporary displacement, the damage lives on. Generations of people whose neurons were reconfigured through trauma, and, who in turn, passed down that trauma behaviorally (if not epigenetically), have shaped their children in a pain long since divorced from its origins. All along, the government continually triggers that trauma, summoning imaginary wolves to the gates, creating a siege mentality, making sure the damage controls their lives.

It is abuse on a massive scale. It is heartbreaking.

Ultimately, we can forget history, but history does not forget us. To burn up the past is to create the fallow ground through which it will live again. Plant seeds in a cemetery long enough and you’ll get some strange fruit. It’s why Moscow is so terrified of spring.  It’s why Russia may be in for a long winter.