The premise of this view is, that “normal” people do not do such things, and also that there is a clear line between “normal” and “not normal”. The first mistake lies actually already in this misunderstanding of reality. “Normality” is a rather fluid notion, very much determined by socio-cultural norms and values, which in turn can change considerably with time. What is considered “normal” now might have been considered quite abnormal half a century ago. A perfect example is that of homosexuality, which until 1973 was classified as “mental illness” by the World Health Organization. Although it is now considered fully normal in civilized societies, there are still plenty countries where it is seen as “abnormal” and even punishable by death.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a Dutch patient organization had a wonderful anti-stigma campaign, in the course of which posters were put up in bars and cafes throughout the country. The poster had the form of a mirror, and on it was written: “Have you ever met a normal person? And did you like it?” When in 1987 a Soviet psychiatrist, for the first time in the West, saw the poster he asked me to explain it because he could not understand. For him it was black and white: either you are normal or you are not. I pointed outside and told him: “Listen, half of Amsterdam is crazy, but does that mean they are not normal?” This was too much for him to grasp.
History has shown that persons involved in vile things like mass-murder and torture are often, or maybe even most of the time, not mentally ill. This is easily explainable: persons with mental illness, or psychopaths, are uncontrollable, they go berserk when given the chance. A murderous regime needs people it can control, people who carry out orders and stick to them, and for that purpose one needs “normal” people, mentally healthy persons. Most people who engage in mass murder are standard citizens, middle-of-the road, persons who are unassuming and would otherwise never have attracted any attention. And even the masterminds of criminal regimes are usually horribly “normal”. The leaders of Nazi Germany on trial in Nuremberg were all psychiatrically examined, and all found to be perfectly “normal”. One of the psychiatrists involved in the examinations even exclaimed: “they were much more normal than I was after examining them!” Most had even high IQ’s, the lowest being 122 of Secret Service chief Alois Kaltenbrunner, while two of them were even geniuses with IQs of 146 and 148. Also, most of the leaders of the murder battalions that in 1941 killed hundreds of thousands of Jews and Communists after the invasion of the USSR were intelligent men, and quite a few of them were actually lawyers with a PhD. In other words: intelligence is no guarantee against being evil.
Coming back to Putin, there is an interesting historical repetition in his case and that of his spiritual godfather, KGB-chief Yuri Andropov, who led the KGB during its active campaign against “ideological diversion” in the years 1967-1982. Andropov, who started his career in 1940 in recently occupied Karelia and was subsequently actively engaged in liquidating all bourgeois elements and other potential opponents of “Soviet legality”, became Soviet Ambassador in Hungary in 1956. As a result, he found himself entrenched in the Soviet Embassy in Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising. From the windows of his fort, he could see how agents of the Hungarian secret service were hanged from lampposts across the street. This was undoubtedly a highly traumatizing event for him. He promised himself never ever to allow that to happen again, and this traumatic memory guided him through the rest of his life.
Vladimir Putin, who started his KGB career under Andropov and reached a rather mediocre position at the KGB station in Dresden in Communist East-Germany, found himself entrenched at the KGB residency in that city in late 1989 when demonstrators attacked and occupied the building of the East-German secret service Stasi across the street, and then turned onto the KGB residency. They were already on the territory when the physically rather unassuming Putin stepped out and warned them not to go further. “My men are armed and will open fire if you continue,” he allegedly said. The demonstrators reconsidered and left, leaving a badly shaken Putin and his fellow KGB officers behind. In no time the DDR collapsed, and everything that was certain and holy disappeared overnight. In the end, Putin and his family left Dresden for Leningrad with as their main possession a second-hand refrigerator. This end to his KGB career could hardly have been more demoralizing, leaving Putin probably as traumatized as his spiritual godfather 23 years earlier.
Yet Putin seems to lack the intelligence of Yuri Andropov, who saw that his country was almost irreparably ill and during his last months acknowledged that the invasion into Afghanistan had been a very bad mistake, a “bridge too far”. Where Andropov realized that his country should refrain from costly foreign adventures, Putin uses them as the main elements in his foreign policy. While Andropov realized how hollow the slogans of Communism had become, Putin embraces such slogans, and his rule has become a culmination of emptiness.
Putin is very normal, believe me. Sure, his behavior is influenced by a messed-up youth and a basically failed KGB career, by believing in something that turned out to be not more than a Potemkin Village. His reaction is to long back to such a façade, and in order to feel secure he set about to create one himself. His character is in fact perfectly described by awell-known British psychiatrist, coincidentally the cousin of “Borat” who in extenso ridiculed rulers of the Putin-type. Simon Baron-Cohen is the author of the book “The Science of Evil”, that describes the multiple factors that influence the behavior, and crimes, of people like Vladimir Putin. Putin perfectly fits the person with no empathy, or even negative empathy, and when reading the book I cannot escape the constant image of Russia’s current president before my eyes.
Yet lack of empathy is no mental illness. Alas for us there is no easy escape, no easy way out of the painful realization that Putin is just one of us, and that mankind is full of little Putin’s who when given the chance can create immense pain and suffering, to which they themselves remain immune.