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Is Russia Suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

In Collapse of an Empire, Yegor Gaidar, the Russian economist and 1990s shock therapist, wrote that “the identification of state grandeur with being an empire makes the adaptation to the loss of status of superpower a difficult task for the national consciousness of the former metropolis.” Gaidar likened the loss of the Soviet empire to Germany’s defeat in WWI and warned, like Weimar Germany, Russia could thirst for a strong national leader to right the wrongs of the Soviet collapse. Empire, after all, was “an easy-sell product, like Coca-Cola” to a parched population. Gaidar turned out to be premature though prescient. Only now, with the crisis in Ukraine, is the opportunity for Russian revanchism—and the collective trauma that serves as its foundation—fully revealed. 

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is a reaction to a trauma experienced by millions of Russians: In his speech to Russia’s Federation Council, Putin called Nikita Khrushchev’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine a robbery that made Russians on the peninsula feel “they were handed over like a sack of potatoes.” Crimean Russians simply “could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice.” This trauma redoubled when the Soviet Union collapsed. “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” he said. 

Putin made similar statements about eastern Ukraine during his recent call-in show. “I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days—Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. . .  Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.” Like the Russian Crimeans, Russians in eastern Ukraine were also victims of the Bolsheviks’ willy-nilly mapmaking. “I’ve just mentioned this area, New Russia, which has intertwined its roots with those of the Russian state,” Putin stated. “The local people have a somewhat different mentality. They found themselves part of present-day Ukraine, which had been pieced together in the Soviet period.”

This talk reverberates in Russian society. “From a clinical standpoint,” Andrew Kuchins recently wrote, “Russia has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for the past couple of decades. Putin resonates with many Russians because he is seen as the embodiment of the humiliation, status deprivation and grievances that the country has purportedly suffered.” Alexandr Konkov, a lecturer at Sakhalin State University, likened Russia’s reaction to Ukraine as “post-traumatic syndrome” where “an individual often relives a traumatizing experience he or she once had in their life. Something of the kind can be spotted in the Russian societal consciousness, at least in a considerable part of Russians. [The collapse of the USSR and the rise of a diminished Russian state] looked humiliating for many people and hurt their pride in their country. In the 2000s, when talk of restoring Russia’s lost position in the world and a renewed respect for this country reemerged, the seeds of this rhetoric fell on fertile ground.”

Ukraine is only the latest in a series of traumas. Over the last two decades, the encroachment of the West on former Soviet territory, the expansion of NATO into the Baltics, and perceived dilution of Russian traditional culture by globalization all reproduced the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of this arouses anxieties in Russian society, which are alleviated through attempts to reconsolidate Russia’s national identity: fervent patriotism, the fear of encroaching “fascism,” calls for vigilance against fifth columnists and traitors, the reassertion of Russian traditional culture against the decadent and corrupt West, and the urgent need for a Russian national idea. All of these reactions are the initial trauma of Soviet collapse displaced on new dangers. Given all this, it’s no coincidence that a group of politicians want Mikhail Gorbachev investigated for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

According to psychologists, one the cardinal symptoms of trauma is hyperarrousal. This is when the traumatized person lives on permanent alert fearing danger might return at any moment. The victim startles easily, reacts intensely to small provocations, and exhibits vigilance in the face of danger. On the societal level, this results from an event that shatters the bonds of social life and damages the sense of community. One way to overcome this state is to excise those representing threats and reconstitute the sinews of community through solidarity. As the psychologist Judith Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, “The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging.” Through these misguided and over-the-top reactions, Russia, as a traumatized society, is simply attempting to recreate a sense of belonging as a nation in order to heal.

Given this, how should the West respond? In a way, trauma only makes the West’s relationship with Russia more precarious. Seeing Russia as a traumatized society can help us understand its perspective. In this sense, Putin is living “in another world,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it—a world where reality is governed by existential threats. But isolating Russia will only feed its traumatic responses. At the same time, Russia should not be excused for its behavior simply because of the trauma it endured; understanding its perspective does not mean condoning it. Whichever course of treatment the West chooses must have one desired result: to convince Russia that, as Yegor Gaidar stated, “the dreams of returning to another era are illusionary.”