The Tyrant's Solitude: How Dictators Lose Touch With Reality
The fundamentally irrational decision to invade Ukraine was the final proof that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been living in a world of illusions. He may be best understood by retracing the steps of history's other tyrants, and gauging how their stories ended.
KYIV — Feb. 21, 2022. This wasn't just the day when Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine became inevitable. This was also the day that two critical parts of Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime were made clear: his unconditional dominance even over his closest, highest-ranking associates, and his complete immersion in the world of his illusions, where even his associates are forbidden to enter.
When both of these features lined up, the result was his suicidal decision to attack Ukraine.
Tyrants and despots style themselves as the most knowledgeable among mortals. Supposedly, they have access to detailed reports from the omnipresent, omnipotent special services, who never miss anything. That is why the despot seems to know everything better than the average person. There is no need to ask the people anything: the giraffe is tall — it sees further.
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This could not be further from the truth.
In fact, each person has their own worldview. The more authoritarian a person is, the stronger the conviction that their view is correct; the higher the person, the more they are inclined to believe that they are doing everything right.
Having risen to the heights of power, the dictator falls into a vicious circle.
First, the heads of the intelligence services bring the leader more or less truthful information about the country's situation. Authoritarian states are always worse off than official propaganda says. For a while, the tyrant listens to such truthful information, but as long as it doesn't not concern his own decisions or, God forbid, the actions of loved ones.
The Lord is infallible. Caesar's wife must be above suspicion.
It is almost impossible for an authoritarian person to admit they are wrong; it is insulting to hear about the indecent behavior of relatives. Gradually, the despot comes to the idea that he can't be in the wrong, but instead the intelligence services either do not see the full picture of the world (the leader has a monopoly on the truth), do not understand the scale of decisions, or are deliberately misinforming.
The informer is the first to feel the whip's crack. The bearers of bad news are executed.
Lies and manipulation
Then, even in the best intelligence services, there is a breakdown. The honest ones simply stop telling the truth; the more mercenary among them start to lie. The truth loses value. Shares of sycophancy and servility grow. Service is replaced by subservience. From ordinary agents to the chiefs, everyone tells the leader what he wants to hear. The clueless end up on the scaffold.
The Führer cannot be wrong.
Meanwhile, other sources of the truth fail. It is pointless to watch the official media — they do not reflect reality, but manipulate it. Opposition media are shut down or pushed to the margins, and the tyrant cannot hear their voice. Western journalists and politicians are ignored — what can enemy agents say? Critical analysis is replaced by propaganda — and no one notices that the country is going in the wrong direction.
The longer you live in illusions, the harder it is to give them up.
The last bastion of truth is the personal friends of the leader, the "old guard." Those who have been there from the very beginning, and helped the leader come to power. Alone or in a small group, they still can risk objecting, pointing out mistakes, suggesting another method of solving problems. But even this obstacle will eventually fall. Inevitably, the tyrant becomes convinced of his divinity — and those who remembered him as a mere mortal become enemies. No one wants to be reminded of their own weaknesses and the mistakes of their youth. The autocrat gets rid of old friends and surrounds himself with new people, loyal not to an idea or tradition, but to him personally.
His loneliness becomes absolute; his collapse almost inevitable.
Someone holding a sign at a pro-Ukraine protest comparing Russia's President Vladimir Putin to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
From Nero to Ivan the Terrible and Stalin
In 65, Emperor Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide. A year later, Petronius killed himself — both were friends and mentors of the emperor. In less than two years, the madness of the ruler led to the revolt of Roman legions in Gaul, followed by the death of Nero himself.
In 1565, Ivan the Terrible launched the oprichnina, a state policy that included the oppression of Russian aristocrats. In a few years, he executed and personally killed hundreds of old associates — princes and nobles who tried to turn Russia onto the European path of a limited monarchy. As a result, Moscow was burned by the Crimean khan in 1571, the Livonian war was lost, and the country, ruined and mired in authoritarianism, almost disappeared from the map at the beginning of the 17th century.
Stalin reached absolute loneliness in 1938, when he shot the last friend who was not afraid to oppose him, Nikolai Bukharin, leaving only voiceless lackeys like Kalinin or smaller tyrants like Beria. The USSR made a deal with the devil and almost died in 1941. Let's face it: the USSR only survived because the West considered Hitler more dangerous (which is true) and helped the dictator with the long moustache, not the short one, to win.
The Naryshkin-Putin dialogue says it all
Three days before the full-scale invasion, we see Putin on the brink of the inevitable loneliness of the tyrant. A person — who believes in the supremacy of his sophisticated mind and still does not use the internet — has ascended so much over those who surround him, that he simply stopped even considering their opinions.
There are no independent central media, and the parliament is not a place for discussions. The new ultranationalist army is ready: the Rosgvardiya.
Nothing illustrates this situation better than the dialogue between Putin and the head of his foreign intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin.
Naryshkin: I would agree with the proposal of Nikolai Platonovich (Patrushev), that we could give our — how to say it — Western partners, the last chance. In order to offer them, as soon as possible, to force Kyiv to make peace and fulfill the Minsk agreements. Otherwise, we must make the decision that we are discussing today.
Putin: What do you mean by “otherwise?” Are you proposing to start negotiations?
Naryshkin: No, I...
Putin: Or to recognize the sovereignty of these republics?
Naryshkin: I will support...
Putin: Speak straight.
Naryshkin: I will support the proposal to recognize...
Putin: Will you support or do you support? Speak straight, Sergey Yevgenyevich.
Naryshkin: I support the proposal...
Putin: Just say yes or no.
Naryshkin: I am saying – yes. I support the proposal about the entry of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples' Republics into the Russian Federation.
Putin: We are not talking about that. We are not discussing that. We are talking about recognizing their independence. Or not?
Naryshkin: Yes. I support the proposal to recognize independence.
Putin: Good. Sit down, thank you.
Putin attending a Victory Day military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russia's lasting world of illusions
Naryshkin is Putin's eyes and ears abroad. At least, that is how it should be. But can the leader make the right decision with his eyes closed and ears covered? How far will a body go, with its head willingly made blind and deaf? Will it fall into the nearest hole? On Feb. 24, 2022, it became clear that Putin had made the biggest mistake in his life. The biggest and, most likely, the last.
Putin not only publicly humiliated Naryshkin, demonstrating his sole power over Russia, but he also defiantly refused to hear his opinion — what exactly should be done if Kyiv does not fulfill the Minsk agreements? The decision to attack Ukraine was already fully formed in Putin's head, and it was no longer possible for anyone to get through to him. Naryshkin was supposed not to argue, but to agree with the will of the leader. Even if it leads to disaster.
The fact that the head of intelligence unwillingly mentioned the plans of the Russian annexation of Donbas only emphasizes this thesis. Everyone in the Kremlin knew about the war, and no one could dissuade Putin from it. Precisely because of the degradation in the FSB intelligence service and the state analytical centers, the upper Russian leadership was confident Kyiv would fall in three days. And it is precisely Putin's overestimation of Russia and underestimation of Ukraine and the world that will eventually lead to the collapse of his regime.
Will Putin listen to those who disagree with him? Or will he listen only to those who speak in unison with his thoughts— about mobilization, about strikes on power plants, about a nuclear bomb? Will Russia crash into the outside world like a ship that has lost control? Will the collapse be preceded by large-scale repression?
In a word, will Putin remain in this world of illusions, detached from reality, and take all of Russia with him?
We will have the answer soon enough.
*Sergiy Gromenko, candidate of historical sciences expert of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.