At the 2001 Slovenia Summit, President George W. Bush gazed into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes for the first time and got “a sense of his soul.” Bush sensed that Putin was “straightforward and trustworthy”—which only proves that soul-gazing can be a fickle pursuit. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Putin loomed large in both the elite press and in conspiracy theories as the very opposite of straightforward and trustworthy: he was now the devious architect of America’s democratic dysfunctions.
Who is the real Putin, and what does he want? Attempts to examine the Russian leader’s inner life range far and wide. Was he seeking to quell the anger of his people? Were Russian frustrations the result of being reduced to “Drunk Uncle status in the global balance of power,” as the unhinged Twitter personality Eric Garland asserted last December in an agonizingly long tweetstorm? Was there a cross-generational conspiracy by people named “Vladimir” to disrupt, or even destroy, the global world order led by the conniving “Cyrillic autocracy” to Europe’s east? And what of his tools and methods? Inspiring racism? Commanding an army of bots?
Or, were the conspiracies even grander? Did Putin have Andrew Breitbart killed in order to install Steve Bannon as head of Breitbart News, so that Bannon would be able to aid Russian intelligence officers in electing Trump—who once hired prostitutes to pee on hotel beds in Moscow—all the while coordinating a nationwide dezinformatsiya (disinformation) [*] campaign that obviously caused Hillary Clinton to lose Michigan?
“Not a day goes by without a big new article on ‘Putin’s Revenge,’ ‘The Secret Source of Putin’s Evil,’ or ‘10 Reasons Why Vladimir Putin Is a Terrible Human Being,’” Keith Gessen wryly observed in the Guardian. But what would you expect? “Putin is also Russian, and the same angers and longings that permeate the wider Russian psyche are presumably his, too,” wrote Peter Savodnik in one of his many speculative essays on the heart and soul of Russia for Vanity Fair.
These exercises in half-assed Putinology are in keeping with a long, tired national pastime involving ill-informed speculations about the Russian soul, or psyche, or national character. Naveed Jamali, the author of How to Catch a Russian Spy and a one-time “real life James Bond,” explains that Russians are “devious motherfuckers” who are skilled at manipulating others. And Putin, as Ralph Peters—a researcher at the neoconservative Hoover Institution—opined a month after the election, was playing a long game. Putin kick-started his political career “by giving Russians back their pride. Now he is giving them the gift that Russian culture values above all else: revenge.”
Putin is giving them “the gift that Russian culture values above all else: revenge.”
In early June, James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, speculated from the stage of Australia’s National Press Club that apparent Russian meddling in U.S. elections may have deeper roots than previously supposed. “It is in their genes to be opposed, diametrically opposed, to the United States and the Western democracies,” Clapper said. On Meet the Press in May, he had observed Russians were “almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever.” Biology, he seemed to be saying, was preventing Russia and the United States from being allies—not, you know, that the two powers had divergent national interests.
But it’s always easier—and more dangerous—to render complicated national strategies and power struggles into simplifications about peoples and races. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, for example, led to the usual analysis about the timeless characteristics of the Russian people. Writing in The Daily Beast in May of 2014, Russian literature scholar Andrew D. Kaufman declared that “the drama being played out right now in Russia and Ukraine isn’t merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the national soul that’s been around for centuries.” Putin, as well, appeared to embrace the notion that his annexation of Crimea was but one installment in a centuries-long struggle over a Russian identity, noting in a March 2014 address that, “in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.”
Is there a “Russian soul”? The term was coined in the nineteenth century by literary critic Vissarion Belinsky in a discussion of Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. The Russian soul (Russkaya dusha)—or at least the ideals it represented—was a notion embraced by intellectuals in both the East and West, albeit for different reasons. For Russians, as historian Robert C. Williams explained in a paper published on the topic in 1970, the term was meant to “express the idea that Russia had the potential for a glorious future independent of the government, European influence, and the dead hand of the Russian past.” And for the West, observed Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, this notion of a singular Russian spirit was co-opted to explain how the country had managed to remain “completely transcendent, some sort of an alien East, which attracts by its mystery, whilst repelling by its barbarity.”
Russia was—and remains—Other. When it wasn’t viewed as a potential partner or recognized for its deep cultural roots, it was, as Sean Guillory pointed out in a recent presentation at the Kennan Institute, “a symbol of ignobility, a prototype of despotism, a barometer of backwardness and even evil itself. Where Russia stood on this spectrum had less to do with Russia as it did the United States.” It speaks volumes, then, that these days we’re all too eager to see the struggle between the two powers as eternal, perhaps even predestined.
Russia was seen as backward, even evil. But where Russia stood on this spectrum had less to do with Russia and more to do with the United States.
That insight is especially apt when you look back to the American Russophobia that was nurtured in the early days of the Cold War. Toward the end of February in 1946—some six months after the end of World War II—the United States chargé d’affaires in Moscow, George Kennan, fired off what would become one of the most consequential documents for U.S.-Russia policy in the decades to come. Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” an eight-thousand-word transmission in response to Western puzzlement over the Soviet refusal to join the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, not only laid the groundwork for so-called “containment” theory, but also became an ur-text for modern American probes of the Russian mind. In addition to summarizing the basic features of post-war Soviet policy, Kennan portrays the United States’ once-ally as afflicted by a permanent state of neurosis. Though he’s careful to note that these assessments don’t “represent the natural outlook of Russian people . . . [who] are, by and large, friendly to the outside world,” the distinction renders itself moot:
At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area.
These fears mostly afflict Russian rulers and not the Russian people, for the rulers “have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation [and] unable to stand comparison or contact with the political systems of Western countries.” The Soviets knew their vulnerabilities. But, as he wrote in an expanded meditation on Soviet conduct published in 1947 by Foreign Affairs, they opted to distract from these weaknesses and “justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.” Forward-looking engagement with the West wasn’t an option.
The policies born out of Kennan’s call for the United States to embrace a strategy of “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” didn’t exactly align with his vision for U.S.-Soviet relations—his later exhortation to refrain from seeing containment in solely militaristic terms may have fallen on deaf ears. Still, as The Atlantic observed in 1989, he became “known as farsighted—almost as a seer.” As historians began pointing out in the 1970s, Kennan’s contribution to the Cold War mentality shouldn’t be understated. Arguably, too, this oracle-like approach to Soviet leadership laid the groundwork for the bevy of inanities we’re besieged by today.
Undergirding Kennan’s realist assessment of Soviet leadership was a reactive tendency of his own: fear. Although the diplomat later attempted to walk back the more dire pronouncements inherent in both “The Long Telegram” and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan’s analysis is wracked by pessimism and metaphors of illness. The Kremlin’s vision of the world was “neurotic”; its sense of insecurity was “instinctive.” Even the very idea of “containment” implied the region was a disease worthy of quarantining. Kennan’s dismal outlook was veiled by a plea for civility, which, as Robert L. Ivie observed in a blistering takedown of Kennan’s worldview, functions as “the rational mask of realism worn to cover the fear engendered by his rhetoric.” Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to see him agreeing with Andrew Sullivan on democracy and tyranny.
According to George Kennan, the Kremlin’s vision of the world was “neurotic”; its sense of insecurity was “instinctive.”
Today’s amateur Kremlinologists are keyboard ninjas with high-volume Twitter accounts and enough social media smarts to hijack the airwaves for their own puerile observations. Some have taken up the hobby solely because their careers as romance novelists or photographers didn’t quite pan out. They feed off of fear and ignorance, passing off link roundups as journalism and conspiracy theories as fact. But their antics have betrayed a broader theme underlying popular perceptions of Russian leadership and national character—even from people who ought to know better—and that’s a thirst for a grand narrative.
What Cold War theorists like Kennan provided was a salient explanation for the behavior of Soviet leaders. Lacking any ideological framework to peg their assessment of the current U.S.-Russia crisis, the media, some analysts, and a whole bunch of grifters have turned to Putin as if his presence alone acts as a grand unifier. (Those lacking imagination fall back on calling him a Communist.) Putin comes out looking “much smarter than he is, as if he operates from some master plan,” Mikhail Zygar, the author of All the Kremlin’s Men, told Joshua Yaffa of The New Yorker. He appears more powerful, too—and when you’re an autocrat presiding over a country with a floundering economy, these characterizations are useful. Putin, Zygar continued, enjoys seeing himself “as a kind of Bond villain” and revels in the fact “that Fareed Zakaria calls him the most powerful man in the world. That’s what he has been aspiring for this whole time, that he is respected, on the top of the world.”
With even seasoned government officials bemoaning the new “Red Scare,” the drive behind this tendency toward fearful reductionism ought to be met with vigilant skepticism. To speak of the character or “soul” of an entire country—especially one that spans two continents—is to give up on understanding out of preference for feelings. “Fear . . . is a poor guide to sound policies, or even to proper understanding,” noted Dmitri Trenin in his latest book, Should We Fear Russia? “Fear could also be a problem in and of itself.” Trenin’s pronouncement is bound to be disregarded in a 24/7 media frenzy, especially because embracing it requires asking ourselves the hard questions that even Kennan—the pessimist who believed America’s main weakness lay within itself—struggled to grapple with. That is, what exactly are we so afraid of?