A psychological portrait of Putin

PHOTO: Erakogu

A psychological portrait of Putin, as painted by Tiit Kärner, senior research fellow at Institute of Physics, University of Tartu.

Dusk is descending upon a camp at Gulag, one of the many. A bunch of privileged criminals (the Blatnoy) have gathered around a higher echelon Thief in Law (vor v zakone, in Russian). The guys are about to play cards. «So what’s the stake, eh?» asks the chief. Grinning, a player points at a tiny thin man in the corner. «A deal!» The cards are split. The game over, a loser rises to his feet and heads towards the little man. «Hey, bro,» he says with a friendly pat on the slumping shoulder. «Personally, I ain’t got a thing against you. But, the cards …» Pulls a knife, cuts his throat.


Not a description by an eyewitness, the above episode. Reading the first memoirs of this sort, it felt just too grisly to make notes. The more so that I had no idea I’d ever need these. How wrong I was.

«Dear friend, as you surely know,» said he (Putin to Saakashvili – T. K.), «We can’t help but react to the West; alas, you’re part of the answer! I wouldn’t like it, but nothing doing – geography.» (Mart Laar, The Empire Strikes Back /Impeeriumi vastulöök, page 28) And so Russia took its troops to Georgia; the Russia-Georgia war commenced, for the latter resulting in loss of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, and hundreds of thousands of refugees of war.

No telling which Thief in Law CV Putin was inspired by. Was it, perhaps, the infamous Sasha Sever who spent 30 of his first 40 years behind bars. Or someone else, perhaps. Makes no difference, though, as the list is long and their fame is spreading over Russia via songs, books, movies (there’s even a documentary where the aforementioned Sasha Sever shows off his mansion, not a bit inferior to that of Yanukovych), as well as via Internet. Interested? Go to www.yandex.ru and, in Cyrillic, type vor v zakone in the search engine (вор в законе). You’ll have plenty to read.

Vor v zakone is a phenomenon purely Russian; nothing of the kind is known outside of Russia and its satellites. Vor v zakone, you see, means the highest caste in a highly organised criminal hierarchy, something to the tune of medieval knighthood to get into – only the «worthy» will ever qualify.

Broadly, the terminology applies both to the organisation with its detailed and strict code regulating the thief’s behaviour and inter-inmate relations both in prison  («law of the jail») as well as at liberty («law of the thief»); also, it applies to the related subculture with its manners and language (blatnoy speech, blatnoy music).

The jargon is especially popular among Russia’s youth and has even infiltrated the Estonian language (ment – meaning a cop). Via Putin, certain expressions of it have made it to international media, the most prominent being zamotshit v sortire (to make wet in the toilet i.e. kill) and povesit za yaitsa (hang by the balls, as said to Mr Sarkozy with Mr Saakashvili in view). In the Russian internet, a few minutes long video episode is uploaded, summarising the blatnoy jargon use in Putin’s official addresses.

To understand the following, however, law of the thief is crucial to be grasped (vorovskoi zakon). For a thief, this is an unwritten aggregate of mandatory rules and regulations – a peculiar incarnation of the Russian binary cultural system in the criminal world. Pursuant to it, the whole world is split into «ours, our own» and «strangers», while the «strangers’» sole meaning and worth lies in being fodder for the «ours». This, for the thieves, is the single touch point with the world «strange» for them. According to the law of the thief, no thief may ever engage in any cooperation with any authority structure, explicitly not with any law enforcement establishment; and he may never acknowledge his guilt. He may never engage in politics (which always granted them an advantage, in prison camps, over political prisoners); he may never ever do any work; and he may never ever have any permanent relationship with any woman. 

The thief code also includes clauses as if copied from a medieval knights code: mutual respect, honouring parents (especially Mothers) – with one exception: this only applied to the «ours» while Code of Chivalry made no such distinction. Among the thieves, there is a clear distinction. So, as a card game among thieves was honest and fair by necessity, in the scene above the loser was surely settled in a fair game; somebody losing his life due to that was a detail irrelevant. 

Now we come to an important point. I claim that the only way to understand Russia’s behaviour since the Ukrainian conflict (at least) is to assume that mentally Russia is positioning itself this same way towards the outside world. The outside world is viewed as material, as an object, not a subject (regarding Ukraine and Estonia, Putin has also stated that), and in relations to them no ethical categories such as honour, keeping one’s word etc may apply. This attitude was conclusively shaped in the timeframe from Russia-Georgia war till the escape of Yanukovych.

Let us recall analysis by Kadri Liik («What’s in the Balance, in Ukraine»; Diplomaatia, March 2014). «In Georgia, Russia broke the rules, but did not contest them. /---/ In Ukraine, Russia never even bothered about the context.  /---/ Russia takes no interest in whether the world believes its versions of the events. Actually, it rather wants them not to believe.» In other words, Russia has a message to preach, and that is: «I do what I want, just so you know.»

This is not opposing the world, rather a conviction in its exceptionalism. The conviction is sincere, as evidenced by the way Russia reacts to West’s timid sanctions. Russia protests these and is deeply offended – which, considering what Russia has done, seems unbelievable. But that’s because we weigh the events according to the Western ternary law-based culture space; in our accounting, both debit and credit apply. In the blatnoy world, there aren’t any obligations and restrictions.

The Western sanctions, for Russia, are foreign intervention hindering them from exercising their legal rights (as they see it). Should this seem strange, let me remind you: in the previous century, people groups and nations were placed outside law and ethical norms as well. The recent legislation by Russian State Duma on the supremacy and exclusive living space (Lebensraum) is an idea that has been exercised before.  

As Drittes Reich was the embodiment of Hitler’s ideas, so Russia takes on the face of Putin. «Rodina! Svoboda! Putin!» (Motherland! Liberty! Putin!) chanted a Russian Duma member, in front of masses of people, at a rally in Eastern Ukraine. Since the servitude era of Stenka Razin, the blatnoy world was associated not only with – or not so much with – crime, but with freedom, independence, and daring, for which the closed Soviet world provided fertile ground.

Thence the strong influence of said criminal subculture among the Russians, as acknowledged by all who know the Russian culture regardless of political views; and as evidenced by the great popularity of related songs, films, and books. This was an option for those feeling suppressed or abused to find a feeling of freedom and self-worth. Highly likely that this was what Putin felt while a skinny youth of small stature; surely, this is the way Russia feels in wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The result is as described above: a Russia denying the current international law and customs, while recognising the justice of raw power. To which degree Putin has entered his role, and whether this is a psychiatric problem – as some are inclined to think? Too early to tell. Putin divorcing his wife and all links to the marriage deleted from his biography, as leaked into media – is it a coincidence that this coincided with events in Ukraine?

What should politicians of the world conclude? Main thing to acknowledge: makes no sense to negotiate with Russia, as the talk talked by Russian politicians and the agreements entered by them will have no effect whatsoever on the behaviour of Russia. Russia will always behave just as it sees expedient at the moment; to guess what that would mean is next to impossible.

Russia has done exactly what a multinational state with low concentration of an aging population was never expected to do: citing the will of the people, it has embarked on a mission to redistribute territories and to shape (formally, but still) new states (Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, wisely but vainly resisted by Russian foreign ministry). 

Was it a Chinese proverb that told us what to do with an enemy: sit by the river till you see his corpse coming downstream. The end of Putin will be far worse than that of Gorbachev.