Psychiatric Views on the Daily News - Episode 196

Considering National and Personal Character in Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

It could be a long and cold winter for Russia…

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

I caught a brief interchange of the September 27th “Late Show” when Stephen Colbert was interviewing the well-known foreign war correspondent Clarissa Ward. She seemed to be concluding that Russia has an unusual propensity to tolerate suffering, so that a long war would not be all that psychologically difficult for the country as a whole.

Her comment reminded me of how long Russia was able to hold out, starvation common by the end, to the siege of Leningrad by the German Nazis in World War II. They ultimately shifted the whole tide of the war.

There are many jokes about Russian tolerance for suffering, and the role of vodka in coping with it. Take Woody Allen in his 1975 film “Love and Death,” when the antihero Boris Grushenko said this about human suffering, in a sort of word play like that of the psychiatrist and writer, R.D. Laing:

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love, but then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy then is to suffer but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore to be unhappy one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.”

That led me to wonder, too, about the possible commonality of a national character, say “pushy” Americans or “compliant” Canadians or “somber” Scandinavians. As it turns out, whatever research I could find was inconclusive. That also seems to fit the difficulty of describing an individual with one characteristic, like he’s a “good guy” (though I hope that is often said of me!).

As far as individuals go, Vladimir Putin has also been thought to have a high tolerance for pain and suffering. Moreover, the well-regarded expert in political psychiatry, Jerrold Post, MD, once upon a time did analyze Putin’s character, as I discussed right after the Ukrainian invasion began on February 24, 2022 in the column “What Would Dr Post Say about President Putin?”1 Ignoring the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule, in a 2015 article in Newsweek, “Putin is ‘Playing Madman’ to Trick the West,” Dr Post said that Putin had a steely surface and would not be bullied like he was in childhood.2

In a parallel sort of process, suffering is also common in psychiatric disorders and can be severe and chronic, sometimes with suicide becoming the option to relieve it. But, like Russia in World War II, relief is often ultimately possible and to be hoped for. Clinicians have to remain empathetic to the suffering and keep searching for ways to decrease it.

Occasionally, though, masochistic tendencies psychodynamically produce some perceived enjoyment of the suffering. If Putin and the bulk of Russians have that sort of masochistic suffering, that will add to the challenge of defeating them. The winter may be brutal for both sides. Some negotiated and face-saving settlement seems psychologically indicated.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

References

1. Moffic MS. What would Dr Post say about President Putin? Psychiatric Times. February 24, 2022. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/what-would-dr-post-say-about-president-putin

2. Braw E. Putin is 'Playing the madman' to trick the West. Newsweek. April 1, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.newsweek.com/2015/04/10/impeccable-logic-behind-putins-madman-strategy-318529.html