The mask slips

Has Putin finally revealed his true self?

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The mask slips

Photo: Contributor / Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent musings have been unusual even by his standards and have caused speculation about his mental state, not least his claim that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was appointed by the West specifically so his Jewish ethnicity could be used as a fig leaf for the country’s Nazi policies.

Putin also recently claimed that as few as 150 artists had fled Russia since the war began — just two per region, what’s all the fuss about? — adding that their departure was ultimately a good thing for Russia as they had been promoting “non-traditional values” anyway.

But he didn’t stop there, also finding time to claim that Boris Yeltsin’s former chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, was illegally residing abroad under the name Moshe Israilevich, having fled Russia, although Putin admitted he didn’t understand why he had done so, as he had no criminal case to answer. At least not for now.

Then, attempting a witty comeback to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comment that it took “two to tango” on peace in Ukraine, Putin said that in fact everyone would be forced to perform the barynya, a traditional Russian folk dance, instead.

Since these remarks go beyond the general level of exuberance Putin typically offers his audiences, some observers have coloured themselves concerned. Is he healthy? Is he still capable of carrying out his official duties? If not, it’s worth remembering that the Russian constitution still exists and contains a clause for just such an eventuality.

While I believe that Putin’s been incapable for quite some time, his health appears to be perfectly fine. In fact, he’ll probably outlive us all. 

What’s happened is that Putin has stopped holding back and has begun thinking out loud. The mask is off, but what caused its fall? There are three main possibilities.

The first is that he is experiencing age-related personality degeneration with psychopathic accentuation, resulting in declining self-control.

A second option is that he has simply ceased caring what anybody thinks: I’ll say what I want, and you’ll all applaud me for it anyway. Serfs only serve one purpose, after all.

A third possibility is the fragile grip on reality he has caused by a constant stream of flattery combined with the utter loneliness of his existence has resulted in profound delusion.

In any case, his comments weren’t intended to manipulate Russians — he actually believes everything he says, which is far worse. While we busy ourselves trying to fathom what’s behind his gnomic statements, it turns out it’s just Putin’s true self.

Putin once exhibited far better self-control, and at least when he didn’t he was able to reflect on his behaviour afterwards. In 1999, when he made his infamous comment about Chechen terrorists, promising to “wipe them out in the outhouse”, it was his personal contribution to the political discourse rather than the work of his speech-writing team.

When the crude phrase slipped out of Putin’s mouth during his first presidential campaign, one person with him at the time later told me that Putin had been furious with himself, certain his campaign would fail as a future president could not say such things. However, quite by chance it turned out that this was exactly what the Russian public wanted to hear after years of Chechen terrorism going unpunished.

Putin had inadvertently stumbled across Russia’s national idea: we’ll do whatever we want and screw everyone else. In many ways, this has become his ideology.

Putin’s desperate need to be liked has often led him to make poor decisions. When he took to the skies in a motorised hang glider to lead a flock of endangered Siberian white cranes on their migration route in 2012, an amused and bemused world looked on, wondering what the head of a nuclear power was doing flying around with birds.

The fact that Putin genuinely believed he would be admired for this undertaking and had no inkling he’d be ridiculed instead indicates just how removed he already was from public opinion over a decade ago. That he had nobody to warn him: “If you want to fly, sure. Just don’t televise it, don’t embarrass yourself”, is symptomatic of his isolation from public opinion.

Putin’s once-frequent PR stunts became legendary, of course — whether he was discovering ancient amphorae on the seabed that came complete with museum tags, or catching pikes the size of a human being — all the while genuinely believing he was being admired rather than mocked.

As Russia began preparing for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, things took a turn for the worse, of course. Innocuous statements about wind turbines causing worms to die en masse became stories about atrocities committed by “Ukrainian Nazis”, how Lenin had invented a non-existent country called Ukraine, NATO’s malevolent intentions towards Russia, and his military’s astonishing achievement in destroying more Ukrainian tanks than Ukraine had ever owned. The worst thing about it all was that he believed each lie.

Meanwhile, his obvious disdain for Zelensky and Ukrainian statehood led to Putin’s conviction that Russian forces could capture Kyiv in three days, convinced as he was that Ukrainians would put up no resistance. God only knows what he read while confined to his giant sterilised coffin during the pandemic or what primitive ideas about Russians and Ukrainians were drummed into him by the few people he spoke to at the time, such as the far-right ultranationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin.

Homosexuality is another favourite topic for Putin, whose worldview is fundamentally informed by his sincere belief that the only valid union is that between a man and a woman. Why is it so important to him? It could be down to personal issues, or it could simply be a function of the fascist need to regulate sex, dictatorships tending towards a very narrow understanding of sexuality.

Coincidentally, Putin’s enemies often turn out to be homosexuals! Once again, this is a genuine belief of his and something clearly at work when he said it was good for Russia that anti-war artists had left the country, as they promoted “non-traditional values”, using the Kremlin’s favourite euphemism for homosexuality.

His anti-Semitism is perhaps the belief that has taken the longest to fully reveal itself, but that skeleton couldn’t stay in the closet forever.

And when it did emerge, it was as a deluge that came pouring out of his ministers and propagandists.

Putin’s claim that Zelensky was “appointed by the West” is most notable for what it reveals about his understanding of democracy — the idea that presidents are chosen by an electorate is clearly unfathomable to him.

This combination of homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, ethnocentrism, conspiracy theories and disdain for anyone who doesn’t reflexively genuflect before authority might be given any number of scientific names. I personally term it being a foul human being.

Every day we get another peek inside the dark and rather horrifying world of Vladimir Putin. It has almost nothing in common with reality, but Putin is none the wiser. Wearing his mask or not, he continues making decisions and giving orders while the war rages on.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.