πŸ”’ Andreas Kluth: What motivates Putin and his followers is resentment

By Andreas Kluth

One of the most powerful human motivations is resentment. If you’ve ever been humiliated, you may bear the grudge forever. It may shape your interactions with others in daily life, as well as your politics and worldview. That would explain a lot about Russians in the era of the Ukraine War β€” and even more about their president, Vladimir Putin. 

That, at least, is the thesis of Grigory Yudin, a Russian sociologist who was one of the few to predict Putin’s unprovoked attack against Ukraine in February of 2022. As Yudin sees it, many Russians connect with their leader at a psychological level because both wallow in “resentment β€” monstrous, endless resentment.”

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It’s this mental universe of bitterness and grievance that makes Putin and his Russian supporters uninterested in nurturing productive and positive relationships with other countries. In that way, Putin and the Russians Yudin has in mind resemble “a young child who gets deeply offended and then hurts those around him,” the sociologist says. “The harm grows greater and greater, and at some point, he seriously begins destroying others’ lives, as well as his own.”

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Where does this resentment come from? Much has been said about the humiliation many Russians felt when the Soviet Union collapsed, the event that Putin has called β€œthe greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Seemingly overnight, their country went from one of two superpowers to something resembling a developing country. 

The worst part, Yudin reckons, was that efforts by the US and Europe β€” “the West” β€” to include Russia in international institutions and help it prosper instead came across to Russians, including Putin, as lecturing. And nobody likes to be lectured, especially if you consider yourself a great power. The result was more humiliation.

Allowed to fester, this humiliation grew as Russia failed to flourish economically and as countries formerly in Moscow’s orbit threw themselves enthusiastically into the arms of the West by joining NATO and the European Union. If Ukrainians had been allowed to go that way, too, the shame in Putin’s mind would have been unbearable. So, like the surly boy in Yudin’s analogy, he began destroying. 

If resentment of the West, and especially the US, is the force that motivates Putin, a lot of seemingly illogical things start making more sense. Consider his shifting, confused and often outright bizarre war aims. Putin has claimed (falsely) that he was compelled to attack because ethnic Russians were under threat in Ukraine and because the Ukrainians are Nazis and Satanists, not to mention marionettes of the real enemy in Washington. 

The sharing of resentments between leader and led may also explain why so many Russians still support Putin, despite the disasters he has caused. Meaningful polling is impossible in a dictatorship. But Joris Van Bladel, a researcher at the Belgian think tank Egmont, has delved into the numbers and concluded three things. 

First, the invasion of Ukraine appears to have boosted Putin’s support at home, with maybe three in four Russians approving of his leadership. Second, war helps rather than hurts Putin and is “instrumental in the regime’s survival.” And third, the largest group among Russians aren’t those enthusiastically for or against the war (perhaps amounting to 20%-25% each). They’re instead the 35%-40% who are “conformists” and willing to go along with whatever narrative Putin serves them. That includes the big one, which says that their war in Ukraine is actually part of their apocalyptic struggle against the West.

Yudin isn’t the first thinker to see resentment as a primal force driving history. Most famously, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that ressentiment β€” he used the French term in his German writings β€” provided the creative energy that led to ethical systems such as Christianity, which he called “slave morality.”

In morally pristine cultures like ancient Rome, Nietzsche thought, people called “good” whatever was strong, healthy, powerful, noble or beautiful. They deemed bad (but not yet “evil”) whatever was weak, sickly, impotent, common or ugly. The masses who fit that latter description felt humiliated. So they began nurturing that same monstrous, endless resentment Yudin talks about. 

At its heart is a craving for revenge and its simultaneous frustration. The response is an evasive manoeuvre that Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of values.” Finding strength in numbers, the aggrieved simply turn reality upside down. Whatever was strong or noble is redefined as sinful; what used to be weak becomes virtuous. And a new concept shows up: evil. It’s them, not us. 

There are huge differences in the way Nietzsche and Yudin use the term resentment, but the similarities are striking. Putin and his propaganda machine have also been busy “transvaluing,” or flipping reality on its head. Ukrainian heroes defending their nation become Nazi Satanists. Russia’s own unprovoked and genocidal aggression becomes an apocalyptic kind of self-defence against an ever-hostile West. Perpetrators become victims, and vice versa.

Resentment as motivation is a human phenomenon, not a Russian one, of course. Whether you’re sitting in the US, Germany, Brazil, Israel or elsewhere, cast an honest eye at the populists in your country, whether they’re on the right or the left. In essence, populism is a political style that appeals not to hopes and ideals but to resentments as a way of mobilizing mobs in the pursuit of personal power. 

The truth is that resentment is one of the most powerful emotions and often wins out over hopes and ideals. This has frightening implications. One is that Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West, as long as Putin is in power, has no discernible end.

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