Putin’s War of the Mind

A celebrated Ukrainian psychiatrist and Soviet dissident explains the KGB officer’s psyche

Putin’s War of the Mind
Vladimir Putin (L) / 1990s / Ambor / ullstein bild via Getty Images

If the Russian tanks come to Kyiv, would Semyon Gluzman, a dissident who served 10 years in the gulag for daring to condemn Soviet abuse of psychiatry, pick up a gun and fight?

My old friend let out a deep sigh and said: “I cannot be a soldier at my age. I have never killed anybody. I don’t know how to use a gun. But I know what I will do. I will go to the street to protest. Of course, I will be arrested. I prefer not to be killed. I don’t like our president, Zelenskyy, but this is my country. We need to think about getting a new president, but not the president of Russia. So I will protest.”

In Vladimir Putin’s war of the mind, Semyon, 75, is still a crack shot for the other side. In 1971, he was the first psychiatrist to open fire on the Soviet Union’s weaponization of his branch of medicine to suppress dissent, and he paid a heavy price for his courage. He did his time in a penal colony for political prisoners in the Ural Mountains near the city of Perm. He and his fellow convicts were pitifully clothed for the intense cold, which, on one occasion dropped to minus 50 below zero. Semyon was a regular in the punishment cell, where it was cold to the bone: “I didn’t follow the rules of how we’re supposed to behave. I didn’t want to change my ways. I didn’t want to fall in love with the KGB.” But the officers who ruled over them said, ruefully, “You have created a university for yourselves here,” to which Semyon replied, “But we didn’t buy the tickets.”

I would like to thank the Church of Scientology for bringing us together. Six years ago, I was invited to Lviv by the Ukrainian Psychiatric Association, which Semyon heads, to talk to the country’s psychiatrists about the dark nonsense spread by that space alien cult. We hit it off. This time we talked for three hours straight in his book-lined apartment, off Hero of Stalingrad Street; his building is just one of a series of concrete boxes designed by the rulers of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for others, but not of course themselves, to live in. But the mind within the concrete box soars, a thing of beauty.

Semyon Gluzman / Courtesy of author

When we spoke on Saturday, the first hour was filmed by producer Oz Katerji. Then Semyon cracked open a bottle of cognac. With typical self-deprecation Semyon said he speaks “pidgin English,” so every now and then an interpreter stepped in to convey complex nuance. If anyone claims to understand the mindset of a KGB officer like Putin better than Semyon “Ten Years” Gluzman, I don’t believe them.

Putin is threatening war against Ukraine. Is he mad? The wrinkled face opposite me clouded. A stupid question. Still, he gave me an answer: “No, he is not mad. He is very bad. I am certain he is totally healthy. He has a very peculiar personality. Not that of a KGB officer. He’s different, sadistic, not thinking about other people, not even the Russian people, only himself. He has these predecessors like Hitler and Stalin. We can say they did bad things but that they didn’t do them because a voice told them to do it. They were evil doers. They were sadistic people. But they weren’t insane.”

Is there a problem with people like me thinking he’s mad? “As a psychiatrist I strongly dislike this question,” Semyon began. “I get asked it also by Ukrainian journalists. If we say that a person is insane, by doing that, we also distance this person from liability for their actions. This person is no longer responsible for what they do. They’re just sick, and they committed incredible evil because of voices inside their head or hallucinations. In this case, this person is evil, not because of voices inside his head, but because of his own actions.”

Angela Merkel’s reflections on what goes on inside Putin’s head interest Semyon: “She said that the arguments she used did not resonate with Putin. He could understand them, but he didn’t let them into his mind. It’s easy to explain away Putin’s specific personality from his experience, that he used to serve with the KGB. But, in fact, he wasn’t a typical KGB officer, the kind who used to work with dissidents.” Semyon knew their type all too well.

While he was in the gulag, Semyon got to know three ex-KGB officers who had been locked up for political crimes, too. Semyon studied the psychology of the KGB prisoners and KGB guards, and when he was freed and returned to Kyiv, he got to know ex-KGB officers as well. All this KGB face time led him to conclude that, like everyone else, different KGB officers have different personalities. But Putin is a one-off.

Semyon explained that he has a woman friend whom Putin tried to recruit as a KGB informer back in the day when he was a runt working in St. Petersburg. His approach was dogged, unsubtle and maladroit, so much so that the woman ended up despising him, not just because he was KGB, but also because he was so clumsily KGB. The officers Semyon tangled with were more sophisticated.

I asked him what effect the pressure from all this Russian heavy metal around Ukraine is having on people’s mental health?

“It’s having the opposite effect than the one intended,” Semyon explained. “Many people are repulsed by what Putin is doing. I believe his first attempt to invade Ukraine” — the seizure of Crimea, then masked invasions of the two Donbas regions in the east, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 — “was caused by the fact that his own intelligence service had lied to him. He thought people would welcome them with flowers and parades. Well, that did not happen. Today, if he invades our country, he would have trouble because many people have learned to shoot and they will resist.”

I asked Semyon about Putin’s inner circle. Do the people around Putin actually live in the real world? Or do they live inside some other strange alternative universe, their own reality?

“What I can say for sure is that most people around Putin are afraid of him. They cannot express themselves freely. In Ukraine, it is possible for the president’s former advisers to say, ‘No, I don’t want to work for you anymore.’ In Russia, this is not possible.”

The long table that we saw between him and French President Emmanuel Macron. “What’s that about?” I asked

“The distance between him and his death.”

I sat in silence, in awe of this beautiful mind. Semyon continued: “He’s afraid of meeting foreign politicians, of them getting closer to him than 6 or 7 meters. This is not schizophrenia. He’s afraid his life, his physical life, might end soon. And on those rare occasions when he leaves Russia, he tries his best to limit contact. We can all see from television that he always has a small flask filled with water with him at all times. He doesn’t eat the food. This is not paranoia, but he’s apparently afraid of everyone around him, especially of his own people that he surrounded himself with.”

And the oligarchs — what about them, I asked.

“Putin gave his old friends the chance to steal millions or billions of dollars from the Russian state. So they use that money to buy property in London, Paris, Washington and that’s where their families live or used to live in these fancy houses. They have had to come back to Russia because of his political actions, and I think they hate Putin for that. They don’t want to live in Russia.”

Doesn’t Putin understand that if the tanks roll, then thousands of people, men, women, children will die?

“Today he is hated by most of the civilized world, and this hatred comes out of the fear that he has instilled himself. Just like Hitler wasn’t thinking of Jewish or Roma children who were killed due to his actions, in the same way Putin is not thinking of the children here who will die. People like this can always convince themselves that they are forced to act: ‘It’s not my fault. I’m a good person.’”

Does Semyon think Putin will attack?

“I don’t have the information that the American president has or British intelligence has. Personally, I think no, he will not attack directly. He’s not a schizophrenic living in a different world. It’s true, he doesn’t have moral feelings, but he’s aware of the possible outcome that this might lead to Russia falling apart, just like the Soviet Union fell apart.”

It is hard to work out what is going to happen next. On Feb. 15, the Kremlin announced a withdrawal of troops but within the day Western officials said there was no indication this was happening. In fact, Putin was shuffling his military closer to the Ukrainian border. Then on Feb. 17, a Ukrainian kindergarten near the front line in eastern Ukraine was hit by a shell, amid a scaling up of the fighting in the east. Fortunately no one was in that part of the building at the time. Now there is talk of a peace summit between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden, but preparing for the worst is always a good idea as far as the current master of the Kremlin is concerned.

Semyon fears that the younger generation of Ukrainians do not properly understand what will happen if Putin succeeds. “I am too young to remember Hitler’s occupation, to really understand Stalin’s time.” Semyon was born in 1946 and has a faint memory, when he was 7, of his father saying that Stalin should have died a long time before, and his mother pulling a face and saying, “Don’t say that in front of the child.”

Semyon knew the gulag, he knew the Soviet prison from the inside. “If I am going to return to prison, I will train a new generation on how to resist.”

This is something I suspect the master of the Kremlin and the sniveling creatures around him don’t get. He may think that the break-up of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. But then, he never spent time in the gulag.

At least, not yet.

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