• Nicole Salter

Putin and the Psychology of Evil

Not many people know this, but I married a Ukrainian. It did not go well, not because he was Ukrainian, but because he was a narcissist (the two certainly don't go hand in hand). The current invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin of Russia has brought back memories and made me wonder how his extended family is coping with what's happening in their homeland, with which I know they feel a strong connection. I also wonder how many people my ex doesn't even like, are sliding into his DMs to say #IStandWithUkraine.


My ex-husband is third generation Ukrainian and had categorically rejected his heritage due to a string of narcissistic injuries. First of all his charismatic, popular uncle, who remains a big shot entertainer in Toronto and Manitoba Ukrainian communities, had once nurtured his formidable musical talents but then turned on him for (successfully) pursuing his own dreams abroad rather than staying in the Ukrainian community. Instead of going to work with his uncle, my ex moved to New York and traveled the globe, enjoying 'good food for the first time in my life'. The rift was never fully healed. Invisible thought-bubbles hovered over their heads at family gatherings, with my ex's reading 'buffoon' and his uncle's reading 'traitor'.


Once a student at Ukrainian elementary school, where he played soccer for Team Odessa, my ex-husband had never learned the language and quickly lost his taste for Ukrainian things, with the exception of pierogies. He felt his people were trapped in the past, and didn't join in when his relatives talked about Stalin's Great Famine or Russian imperialism. While I became a member of the Ukrainian National Federation and corralled our children into attending Ukrainian social events and dances so they could know their culture, he only laughed.


"It's not like we can ever go to Kyiv," he said. "Do you know how they'd look at us there?"


Presumably Eastern Europe had not caught up to the West when it came to interracial marriage. But I still enrolled my kids in Ukrainian sleepaway camp, where they were among the few children who didn't understand the language at all. On the first day, as I spread a sleeping bag over my daughter's cot, another parent walked into the girls' dorm and demanded to know where the mops were.


"This place is a mess," she declared, hands on hips. "Do you even know where the toilet paper is?"


"I think Anastasia is outside," I said helpfully as the parent stared at me, not comprehending. "But you work here," she said. My blonde, pale daughter ran into the room, playing tag with this woman's own blonde, pale daughter. The woman laughed nervously.


Girl in anime hat at The Real Jerk
Even in a Jamaican restaurant, she looks pretty Ukrainian, eh?

My kids returned from their week at camp singing and dancing to 'skibidi' like the little TikTokkers they had not yet become. They spoke of religious services like the ones their dad hated: holy water flicked at you while incomprehensible words were chanted by a man with a tall, pointy hat who said "Amen" in three syllables and as many tones. They had to do chores like cleaning the campers' bathrooms and serving huge communal dinners. They had to fold the Ukrainian flag - blue for the sky and yellow for the wheat - every day without goofing around, otherwise their teams would have to keep doing it until they could get through the exercise with the proper respect. My daughter still enjoys folding sheets with me this way.


All in all I thought a taste of Ukraine was good for them. Give them some discipline! But then COVID hit and camps were cancelled. I could no longer sell my soaps and bath salts at Ukrainian events, or capitalize on my spouse's uncle's name to get the best table in the house. The embroidered traditional dress I had purchased to wear at Toronto's annual Ukrainian Festival became a Halloween costume.


Two years later, one of the few countries my ex-husband has never visited finds itself invaded by a longtime enemy. If we had any personal contact, I would ask him how he felt about it. He always said he hated history and found it completely irrelevant, but I wonder if he has changed his mind.


Is Putin mentally ill?

The media has been going nuts speculating about Putin's mental state relative to his invasion of Ukraine. They say he has become rabidly paranoid about COVID (big similarity to my ex husband right there) and is completely delusional to trash his own country's reputation in an effort to capture lands that will never peacefully submit to Russian rule. They believe his actions are so irrational that it's about time someone starts questioning his sanity.


Vladimir Putin finger pointing
Putin and the mask of sanity

I didn't know much about Putin before all this except that he supported blood doping for elite Russian athletes and killed anyone who disagreed with him on it. After listening to interpretation and analysis of his latest moves from CNN, Tucker Carlson, Russell Brand, Konstanin Kisin, Richard Grannon and many others, I realized two things:


  1. Putin meets enough of the criteria to be a psychopath.

  2. Putin is not crazy, except maybe like a fox.

Just to recap some of the characteristics of our good old pals, the psychopaths:


-Impaired reality testing (believing their own version of events against all evidence)

-Superficial charm

-Poor judgment and failure to learn from experience

-Pathological egocentricity

-Lack of remorse or shame

-Impulsivity

-Grandiose sense of self-worth

-Pathological lying

-Manipulative behavior

-Poor self-control

-Criminal versatility


This list, while not complete, is taken from the work of Cleckley and Hare, leading experts in psychopathy. They didn't get their data from studying crazy politicians, but they easily could have.


Putin is not mentally unstable but banal in his evil

Vladimir Putin used to head up the KGB, Russia's most feared and powerful police force. He grew up in an environment of state-sponsored violence, watching his country shrink in status on the world stage from terrifying superpower to economically languishing gas and potash producer. He rose to power and, once there, rejigged the system so he could stay there basically forever. He ruthlessly squashes opposition and even assassinates his enemies by poison, sending a message to the world that he can do anything he wants. And what he wants is to throw his weight around, regardless of what anyone else, even his supporters, thinks. He reportedly doesn't even own a smartphone, but even if he saw all the yellow-and-blue thumbnails on Twitter, he probably wouldn't care. Yes, Putin is paranoid, but that comes with the territory when you're so hated that people are pouring your country's vodka down the sink and cancelling Tchaikovsky in 'protest' of your actions.


Everything Putin does, he can rationalize in his own mind. Psychopaths are goal-oriented, and Putin's lies, half-truths and propaganda are all aimed at securing his personal goals.


What frightens me about the situation (besides the obvious horrors of war) is that I could not think of a single world leader who does not meet the criteria for psychopathy, narcissism, or both. I have already asked whether Joe Biden is a narcissist and, with every lie and attempt to gaslight the public, he continues to prove the answer is yes; but he's got nothing on my very own Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who had the audacity to blame Putin's war on the 'slippage' of democratic values in the West. This is the same Justin Trudeau who, a few scant weeks ago, invoked emergency powers to disperse and hunt down peaceful protesters and freeze the assets of those truckers, their supporters, even the platforms that collected donations for the cause (in case you forgot what their cause was, because COVID is so two weeks ago, they were protesting the draconian vaccine mandates, mask mandates and vaccine passports imposed by Federal and Provincial governments in this country).


Democracy is slipping, all right, and there seems to be no safe haven anymore. Of course, while every country's leadership may engage in corrupt schemes, few are so overtly vicious as to invade and annex sovereign lands. Give it time. In this world of petty dictators with global reach, it could be easy to sink into an attitude of helpless despair. Let me save you from that, Ukrainian-style, with a Russia joke. It's an oldie, from the 60's, but a goodie.


An old Ukrainian farmer is outside cleaning his rifle when his grandson comes running up to him. "Dido! Russia has just gone to the moon!"


The grandfather puts down his gun. "How many? All of them?"


"No, just one."


The grandfather picks up the rifle and continues cleaning it.


Stay curious during these crazy times!