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A psychiatric institution isn’t just full of patients. There are attendants, too. In Mr. Putin’s Russia, these roles are performed by government, defense and law enforcement officials, propaganda workers and wealthy businesspeople, all carefully controlled by security officials. Members of this cohort, sifted and filtered by the Kremlin, consider themselves the masters of the country and the country itself as their property. They have no ideology other than the servile worship of their superiors for their own gain.
Mr. Putin orders them to keep people in fear, to incite hatred, to stifle freedom of thought — and each of them contributes to that mission. Thanks to them, the state penetrates every corner. Across society, they build imitations of Mr. Putin’s regime — in local government, the charity sector, even volunteer associations — just to prevent anyone from starting something not subservient to the state. Mr. Putin forgives these people corruption, torture, you name it, as long as they successfully guard the ward. They all work in different ways, but together they sap citizens’ willpower and strengthen their obedience. As they say in Russia, half the country is in jail and half the country are the guards.
Of course, life is more complicated than any metaphor, especially in Russia’s atomized society. There are many people in Russia who are neither the patients nor the attendants in Mr. Putin’s penal asylum — as shown by the wide cross-section of society that immediately opposed the war. Scientists, students, charity workers, architects and even famous entertainers took to the streets and signed petitions. When this show of resistance was met with repression, many of the independent-minded left Russia altogether.
But the metaphor captures a fundamental truth about Russia today: Mr. Putin wields power not through consent but by coercion. Genuine enthusiasm for the president’s war, for example, seems to be missing. Otherwise he would not have called it a “special operation,” closed down the few remaining independent media outlets immediately after the war began, blocked social networks, introduced new draconian laws and persecuted people for the most trivial of antiwar gestures.
Mr. Putin also surely knows that he’s been sitting in the Kremlin too long and is losing some of his hold on the country. In February 2021, for example, 41 percent of respondents to a poll said they wanted the president to leave office after 2024 — an impressive result given the danger of speaking out. But Mr. Putin is not going to leave. He knows that no matter how great a historical figure he may have painted himself as, after his departure he will have to pay for his sins.
In just two years he will face another decorative election, for which he rewrote the Constitution. In Ukraine, he wanted a quick victory so that no one would even think of replacing him with someone else. His plan was to redirect the accumulated public frustration and aggression away from himself and toward his “enemies” — Ukraine and the West. That way he could validate his right to remain on the throne as a great leader who had changed the world order. But thanks to Ukraine’s stiff opposition, his bloodthirsty plan did not work.
It’s clear Mr. Putin plans to prolong his murderous war, in the hope of outlasting his opponents. The future is impossible to predict. But what can be said unequivocally is that Russian society, after so many years of Mr. Putin’s punitive psychiatry, will need a very long rehabilitation.