Putin’s character and his core beliefs, ingrained in his world view and behavior, stem from a conflicted mélange of Tsarist authoritarianism and Marxism-Leninism. In his struggle for legitimacy and power Putin reflects the same preoccupations that shaped the psychology and history of old Russia.Putin’s behavior fits a psychological pattern that was defined in the landmark work of sociologist Nathan Constantine Leites, a Russian émigré at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, who applied the principles of psychoanalysis to Soviet behavior. Leites’ two major works, The Operational Code of the Politburo, published in 1951, and A Study of Bolshevism, in 1953, analyzed Russian classical literature along with the speeches and tracts of Lenin and Stalin to describe and define the rules of Soviet political conduct, the value system of the Bolshevik Code.Pondering Putin’s erratic behavior, his actions become less mysterious when matched with and tested against the rules laid down in the Code. According to Leites, the Bolshevik Code denies the rule of law and replaces it with the rule of the Communist Party and the supreme leader, the Vozhd. A key adjunct to the Code is the doctrine of “the means justify the ends,” a precept clearly adopted by Putin.Leites argued that the Bolshevik self image formed before the October 1917 Revolution did not change even after the Bolsheviks took power. Soviet leaders “have continued to see themselves in the same position as they were in relation to the tsarist government , i.e., out of power and in a dangerous position.” Their self image was that they had no legitimacy.
To buy his own legitimacy Putin spent a record $51 billion dollars on remont, ( refurbishing,) and new building of sites in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics to demonstrate Russian prowess.
Let us examine how Leites defined the key elements of the Bolshevik Code and how Putin’s behavior and actions fit the Code:
- • Politics is war.
- • Push to the limit in any political encounter, such as a negotiation.
- • Assume deception by an adversary.
- • Pressure creates opportunities.
- • It pays to be rude to one’s counterpart or adversary. Rudeness intimidates and forces an adversary to seek acceptance by compromise.
- • Do not yield to provocations from one’s adversary.
- • Avoid the danger of allowing personal feelings to intrude into matters of policy (“the party line”). The party leadership (read Putin) knows best.
- • More force is better than less force. Annihilating the enemy and starting anew is better than trying to convert a class enemy.
- • Know when to stop.
- • Retreat before superior force.
- • Enemies cannot be persuaded to accept the Bolshevik position by rational means.
- • All politics is a life and death struggle of who will dominate whom.
Thus, Lenin’s formula of who-whom (kto-kogo)—the destruction of the enemy —is necessary not only for victory but also for the survival of the Communist Party. The interest of the Party and the enemy are so incompatible that their coexistence is unstable. In 1919, Lenin wrote, ”if the Party does not use violence against it enemies it lays itself open to violence from them; the question is only who will destroy whom.”
The doctrine of who-whom was exemplified in Stalin’s mass terrorism and purges, and Brezhnev and Andropov’s selective repression of “enemies of the people” by placing them in psychiatric institutions. Who will destroy whom continues through Putin’s brand of selective repression.
Perseverance, guile and opportunism are keys to conduct in the Bolshevik Code. “The Party leadership,” according to Leites, “need not be concerned with consistency in its public statements. Again, only effectiveness is important.”
Under Putin, just as under the Soviet system, when the communist leadership declared a new reality all the forces of the government, police , military and propaganda coordinated their efforts to create a new political line. Putin’s justification for the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine fits this pattern as do the words and actions of his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov.
In fact, the falsification of reality has an honored tradition in Soviet rule and even before the Soviets. It is doubtful that Putin, in his studies at the KGB’s Higher School Number 1 in Leningrad in the 1970s, ever read Sociologist Margaret Mead’s 1951 study of Soviet character, but it is worth noting. Mead wrote:
“In Tsarist Russia there were attempts to give an appearance of reality and solidity to matters of dubious truth, as in the insistence on written confessions as early as the seventeenth century or in the Potemkin villages…In Bolshevik doctrine, what the leadership decides shall be done is what history has already ordained is going to happen (although it is also what needs the utmost effort to make it happen)…Nevertheless a great variety of falsifications and theatrical enactments of the ardently desired or the deeply feared do occur.”
As a good student of Lenin, Putin follows Lenin’s definition of compromise as an act which can be exploited as part of a tactical moment and deception to weaken the opposition and create a new favorable reality. Any agreement can be canceled if the balance of forces changes to allow Russian advantage. There are no rules for agreed procedures, only pressure to gain immediate goals. Putin’s scenario for the Russian invasion and seizure of Crimea follow the Bolshevik Code. The invasion of Russian forces (“ little green men in unmarked uniforms and masks”) was denied despite concrete evidence to the contrary. The cease fire of February 15, 2015 is continually being violated.
When it comes to negotiating style the Russians, according to Leites, “strive to push to the limits of their strength, using verbal assaults as one of their means and trying hard and long for all their objectives, whether big or small. They fiercely resist anything which seems to be a concession unless a condition of duress requires them to retreat—then, perhaps, quite substantially.”
The readiness to falsify reality is the keystone of the Bolshevik Code. In 1968, under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet press portrayed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as an attempt to suppress “counterrevolution” and “German revanchism,” code phrases for the revival of German influence. In actuality the liberal government of Czech President Alexander Dubcek was advocating “ socialism with a human face,” an attempt to reconcile communism with modernization.
The readiness to falsify reality to justify repressive actions is an essential element of Russian behavior in extreme situations. Witness Boris Yeltsin’s public insistence in December 1994 that the bombing of the Chechen capital of Grozny had stopped even though the rest of the world was watching television footage of Soviet aircraft firing rockets at civilian targets in Grozny.
In September 1999 a series of bombings of apartment houses in Moscow, and other cities killed 300 people and wounded hundreds of others spreading a wave of fear across Russia. A similar explosive device was found and defused in the city of Ryazan on September 22. The next day Putin, then Prime Minister of Russia, praised the vigilance of the inhabitants of Ryazan and ordered the bombing of Grozny which marked the beginning of the Second Chechen War and Putin’s rise to the presidency, succeeding Boris Yeltsin.
In Ryazan, the three Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who had planted the explosive device were arrested by the local police. The incident was publicly characterized as a training exercise. However, suspicions were raised that the bombings were a “false flag” attack perpetrated by the FSB in order to legitimize the resumption of military activities in Chechnya and bring Putin to power. There has never been a satisfactory public examination of who was responsible for planning and executing the bombings. Putin denied he had any part in the bombings which aroused strong public anger and support for retaliation against Chechnya. The Russian people’s reaction to the bombings have been compared to the terrorist attack on the New York City World Trade Center in 2001.
In March 2014 Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory, with Russian troops and heavy weapons.
For a year Putin and his Foreign Minister continued to vigorously deny the presence of Russian troops and heavy weapons in Crimea despite photographic and intercepted signals evidence to the contrary. Only In March 2015, a year later, in a Russian TV documentary titled, Crimea: The Road Back Home, did Putin admit what had been obvious for months. Threatening more force, Putin even said he was willing to arm nuclear weapons if necessary. Read the Bolshevik Code: More force is better than less force.
In the view of human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky, ”Compromise is a bad word in the Soviet Union. In this, ideology reinforced cultural traditions. The traditional view of how a person should be is principled, strong, honest. Ideology reinforces this with the notion of no compromise with the class enemy. To the Soviet to call something a principled, uncompromising position is a compliment. In the West, it would be called rigid. There is a belief in Russia that there is one Truth, and that you are supposed to try and achieve it, not compromise it. This is reinforced by Marxism/ Leninism.”
The coup to oust Gorbachev in 1991 that led to the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin’s revival of the Bolshevik Code have brought forth new contradictions of income inequality in Russia between the broad masses and Putin’s allies who have amassed huge fortunes. Russians still claim moral superiority for their system over the evils of capitalism, but the return of the Bolshevik Code under Putin has forced living standards for the average Russian to deteriorate. Putin’s best defense has been to blame it all on the United States. In his March TV documentary Putin openly described the Ukrainian revolution to oust Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014 as an armed coup “masterminded by our American friends.” Putin has retreated to the cover of attacking the United States while defending Mother Russia and its historical destiny to defend and recover Crimea and the former Soviet naval base at Sevastopol.
Putin’s new Russian authoritarianism has revived the Hegelian dialectic that posits all events in an ever changing cycle of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. What was agreed upon by diplomatic consensus can be changed by the new objective reality of invasion by force to defeat an enemy who cannot be permitted to strike first— kto-kogo- who-whom. Kill or be killed—- expanding the rule of the Bolshevik Code.
Jerrold L. Schecter is an independent Cold War historian and the author and co-author of nine books including Russian Negotiating Behavior, Continuity and Transition, United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC, 1998