Diagnosing the World’s Most Dangerous Man

Vladimir Putin, the world’s most dangerous man, is a figure that has intrigued many from a mental standpoint. His current mental state may be a direct result of his upbringing in post-siege Linnenberg.

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By Vanessa Huang

Vladimir Putin, the notoriously powerful president of Russia, orchestrated the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine in fear of the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, as well as a thirst for power. Even with the vast majority of world leaders condemning the invasion, Putin remains adamant that Ukraine is the enemy. Though recently amplified, Putin's poor reputation is far from novel. Former President Barack Obama recalled Putin passionately insisting—without a shred of evidence—that Russians were being harmed by Ukraine’s pro-Western government in 2014. Later that year when Russia had occupied Ukrainian territory, Obama contemplated how to challenge Putin. Obama got on a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who described Russia’s president to be in another world.” This other world may in fact be the result of Putin’s childhood experiences.

Unprovoked, Putin attacked Ukraine in hopes that the Ukrainian president would flee, the government would collapse, and the Ukrainian people would join the Russians. In his TED talk “The War in Ukraine Could Change Everything,” Professor Yuval Noah Harari describes this sequence of events as Putin’s “fantasy.” This fantasy is far from the truth; Ukrainians have continued to resist Russian forces for over a month with most of the world allying behind them. So, how can one be convinced of something so illusory? In a superiority complex, an individual is convinced that they, as well as all they stand for, are superior to all others. Symptoms of a superiority complex include unwillingness to listen to others and boastful claims that aren’t backed up by evidence—two qualities that certainly are characteristic of Putin. This complex can also be caused by an underlying sense of low self-esteem, something that Putin’s early childhood may have instilled into his very being.

Putin was born in Linnenberg in 1952, a city that had been under siege for 900 days since World War II. He grew up in a cold, communal apartment without hot water or a bathtub. His father served in the war, returning with several severe injuries. While he was away fighting, Putin’s mother nearly starved to death. As the city of Linnenberg crumbled, his parents worked around the clock trying to support the family. Putin spent lonely days in the courtyard with other boys. Putin, who was small for his age, was bullied, sparking him to learn Sambo and later Judo. A fighter on the streets, he was scrappy, ambitious, and ravenous for power.

Putin’s childhood is not the only factor contributing to the person he is today. Though unique to this era, the circumstances of his upbringing were rather common. His journey afterwards—the rise to power—was also important. After completing law school, Putin was recruited as an agent for the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), a Russian intelligence agency. In December 1989, subsequent to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin was in charge of the Dresden headquarters as a mob closed in on the building. The 37-year-old junior agent called Moscow for help, but was told that he was on his own. Feeling betrayed, Putin grew bitter. After precautionarily burning several KGB secret files, Putin lied to the crowd, declaring that there were guards inside the building who were ready to open fire. It worked. In this high-pressure situation, Putin realized the efficacy of fear—a tactic that he continues to implement today.

In his autobiography, “In First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait,” Putin wrote about the time in his childhood when he was taught the meaning of the word “cornered.” He was chasing a rat with sticks, a game that his friends would often play, and cornered it when suddenly, the rat attacked him. This is a metaphor for the experiences of his actual life. Having lived through post-World War II, Putin, along with countless others, lived with constant paranoia of being cornered by Nazis, one that he likely carries to the present day. Trauma instilled from such fear can affect a person long after the event ends; this response is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as constantly being on guard as well as responding to triggers similar to the event. Because the event isn’t fully processed, a person in a safe situation may be triggered and think that they are in the similar circumstances to that of their traumatic event. The slight thought of the Ukrainian President and Government as “Nazis” could have triggered Putin’s recollections and caused him to launch this drastic attack which he claims has a purpose of the “de-Nazification of Ukraine.” In response to belligerence about Russia emerging victorious, with the West supporting Ukraine, Putin cryptically referenced his childhood by saying, “A cornered beast, if you will, can be dangerous.” Merkel’s words describing Putin as “in another world” may be legitimate; perhaps his reality is melting back into the broken post-siege streets.

Vladimir Putin’s past is something that has drastically molded him into the notorious person that he is today. In letting the past dictate his future, Putin lost a sense of himself, confusing it with who he was.