A psychiatric institution is not only full of patients. There are also attendants. In Mr. Putin’s Russia, those roles are played by government, defense and law enforcement officials, propagandists and wealthy businessmen, all carefully vetted by security officials. The members of this cohort, scrutinized and filtered by the Kremlin, consider themselves the masters of the country and the country itself as their property. They have no other ideology than the servile worship of their superiors for their own gain.
Mr. Putin orders them to keep people in fear, to incite hatred, to stifle freedom of thought – and each of them contributes to this mission. Thanks to them, the state penetrates into every corner. Across society they are building imitations of Mr. Putin’s regime – in local government, the charity sector, even voluntary associations – just to stop anyone from starting anything that is not subject to the state. Mr. Putin forgives these people corruption, torture, etc., as long as they manage to keep the neighborhood. They all operate in different ways, but together they undermine the will of citizens and strengthen their obedience. As they say in Russia, half the country is in prison and the other half is in custody.
Of course, life is more complicated than any metaphor, especially in the atomized society of Russia. There are plenty of people in Russia who are neither patients nor aides in Mr. Putin’s prison asylum – as shown by the wide spectrum of society that immediately opposed the war. Scientists, students, charity workers, architects and even famous artists took to the streets and signed petitions. When this demonstration of resistance was met with repression, many independent spirits left Russia altogether.
But the metaphor captures a fundamental truth about Russia today: Mr. Putin wields power not by consent but by coercion. Genuine enthusiasm for the presidential war, for example, seems to be lacking. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have called it a “special operation”, shut down the few remaining independent media outlets immediately after the war started, blocked social media, introduced draconian new laws and persecuted people for anti-war gestures. the most insignificant.
Mr. Putin also surely knows that he has been in the Kremlin for too long and that he is losing some of his grip on the country. In February 2021, for example, 41% of respondents to a poll said they wanted the president out of office after 2024 – an impressive result given the danger of speaking out. But Mr. Putin will not leave. He knows that no matter how great a historical figure he paints himself, after he leaves, he will have to pay for his sins.
In just two years, he will face another decorative election, for which he rewrote the Constitution. In Ukraine, he wanted a quick victory so that no one would think of replacing him with someone else. His plan was to redirect the accumulated public frustration and aggression away from himself and towards his “enemies” – Ukraine and the West. This way he could validate his right to stay on the throne as a great leader who had changed the world order. But thanks to fierce opposition from Ukraine, his bloodthirsty plan did not work.
It is clear that Mr. Putin plans to prolong his murderous war, hoping to outlive his adversaries. The future is impossible to predict. But what can be said unequivocally is that Russian society, after so many years of Mr. Putin’s punitive psychiatry, will need a very long rehabilitation.