Raw, Raw, Raw Putin, Lover of the ‘Russian Gene’
His motive was impersonal. He had grasped a great ideal, and he served it with devotion, sacrificing everything to it, and not sparing himself. The absolute State was the ideal, or rather the idol, for which he toiled, the State as it had been devised by Machiavelli and Hobbes. To raise the country by the employment of its own internal forces was an unpromising and unprofitable enterprise. He, who was himself a barbarian, could only accomplish his purpose by means of aid from outside, by the instrumentality of those who had experience of a more advanced order of things. The borrowed forces could only be employed by the powers of a despot. (Acton-Dahlberg, 1906:282).
Lord Acton speaks here of Peter the Great. But his characterization applies equally to all those who succeeded him into our own day, almost as if there were a ‘genetic’ inheritance for Russian leaders, from Catherine, Nicholas and his son, Lenin, Stalin, and now, Putin himself. These leaders sought a raw absolute power, not for themselves, for they were only a vessel, a vehicle through which the completed State would become personalized enough for its citizenry to obey it. We mistake the autocrat as some kind of narcissistic nightmare, as is the wont of a contemporary psychology that must needs see everything as individual. No, the absolutist politician is no different from the being who founds a religion; he is possessed of a vision that transcends both what has been political and what has been the spiritual alike.
So Peter, so Putin. Yes, the personal element is one that is given to both projection and hallucination; one must be, after all, a visionary in order to have a vision in the first place. After the revelation, however, it is all about the person transfiguring himself to match its visionary content. No mere human will suffice. The great danger of any visionary is that he truly believes, but not in himself, as this selfhood is now to be discarded as ‘human, all too human’. Once shed of mortal aspirations, those which are attended at every turn by both hope and anxiety and to which the rest of us remaining mortals cling, the visionary enables himself to drive forward through faith alone. He now knows the truth of things, and he also knows what must be done in order to align the dishonest world with the revealed order.
In every case, there will be sacrifice. The visionary does not take this lightly. He projects his own special martyrdom on an unworthy world. After all, he has annihilated his own personhood, complete with conscience, and in so doing, he knows he has become a role model for we lesser beings; either we follow his lead, whether as martinets or martyrs, or we die a different death in the face of the truth. For death is now both a release from illusion – the disciple – or a penance for continuing to worship that same illusion – the victim. And wherever there are visionaries, victims abound.
So Putin, so Ukraine. Perhaps a millennia old, this conflict has time and again served as the ‘aid from outside’ that Russian leaders have needed to make their visionary claims material. The ‘bread-basket’ of Europe is Russia’s golden calf, Putin only the latest in a Mosaic lineage that understands the same truth and needs to express it once again. And if those unbelievers were more ‘advanced’ in the old order of things, in that new they shall be far surpassed. The first shall be last. That larger conflict, between Russia and the West, is also about competing visions of the world; we have victimized Russia, according to the vision, and indeed, that part of it has sometimes been historically accurate, Barbarossa included.
Even so, the visionary is deluded only by virtue of his absolute value, and not in assessing his material means. What he has at hand is not about to be wasted in a fight he cannot win. And yet the unbelievers defend! But since the vision itself cannot be wrong, it is merely the mortal means of establishing the new order of truth upon the earth that is wanting. And this is where things become the more dangerous for all. The means are there, even if victory is raw, Pyrrhic. And at the same time this is also what is saving us; Putin’s vision is not otherworldly after all. He seeks to establish the religion of today, the absolute State, and upon this world and no other. He is the messiah of modernity, the savior of citizenship, the pariah of perilous power unsullied by mere human feelings of empathy and compassion. For the visionary has himself been taken beyond humanity.
So Putin, so our neighbour. How many of those whom we know share that seeming ‘innate’ sense, that supposedly intuitive ‘gene’ that ‘something must be done’ lest all is lost? The evangelical, the ‘freedom’ fighter, the nationalist, the book-banning school board member, the tough ‘love’ parent, the demagogue, the uniformed officer seeking ‘respect’, the ‘Incel’ male desiring a slave; yes, after all Putin is a role model, a model for all workaday visionaries. Fascists of all nations unite! You have only your conscience to lose. You have a world to win.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.