“A fish begins to rot from the head,” Russians say, “and society descends into insanity following its dictator. His personal paranoia becomes that of society, and propaganda infects the entire country with it,” Igor Eidman says. “Thus it was in Stalin’s USSR; such it has occurred in Putin’s Russia as well.”
There is only one principal difference, the Russian commentator for Deutsche Welle says. “Stalin’s paranoia was directed inside the country. He was pathologically afraid of conspiracies, didn’t trust even his closest entourage and sought to destroy all he suspected of disloyalty” (facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1540269132702727&id=100001589654713).
Mr. Putin’s paranoia, in contrast, is “directed abroad.” He believes that the West and, “above all, the U.S., wants to overthrow and destroy him.” Indeed, he appears to view himself as a Russian bear “that the West and the U.S. ‘never will leave in peace,’” but will always try to seek out and destroy.
As a result, “Putin views any world event, be it the revolution in Ukraine or the elections in France, through the prism of this paranoid fear”; and his propaganda machine spreads this “xenophobic hysteria and hatred” through the population. “Thus, for the second time, the illness of one man has become the source of an epidemic of mass psychosis,” Mr. Eidman comments.
There are certainly data that support this argument that the problem has spread from a Kremlin leader to Russian society, including recent polls showing that Russians rank Stalin number one as a leader of all times and places, and that nearly half of them think that without his harsh policies order couldn’t have been preserved (fedpress.ru/news/77/society/1814748).
Other evidence for this view comes from a new Levada Center survey which found that a third of Russians want their president to be even more harsh toward the population and the West than Mr. Putin has been up to now, with only one in eight favoring any kind of liberalization (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2017/07/05/709429-uzhestocheniya-vnutrennei-politiki).
But some experts, like Denis Volkov of the Levada Center, say that “it is impossible to say just what [Russians] understand” by such statements or whether they are in any way prepared to have such harsh measures apply to themselves as opposed to individuals and groups that the state has identified as enemies.
And still others, like commentator Sergey Rakhmanin, argue that those who see the problem emanating from Mr. Putin and spreading downward have gotten things exactly backward. Instead, he says, the population has in Mr. Putin exactly the kind of leader it wants (glavred.info/politika/effekt-putina-zhurnalist-obyasnil-beshenuyu-populyarnost-prezidenta-rossii-444860.html).
In his view, the commentator says, “ ‘the Putin effect’ is based on the fact that he is a politician of a type which most completely corresponds to the mental, political and psychological needs of Russians, to their views of the world, their tastes, their so-called ‘mission of Russia,’ and also corresponds to their prejudices, myths, phobias and expectations.”
In short, “Russia is the way it is not because Putin is president… but because the current generation of Russians needs precisely such a leader.”
Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia who has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau, as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The article above is reprinted with permission from his blog called “Window on Eurasia” (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/).