Let’s not call Putin ‘crazy’

Let's not call Putin 'crazy'

“Madness”, “paranoia”, “patriotic hysteria”… so many words with which Vladimir Putin has been able to deck out since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.

The use of these terms to qualify the Russian president soon came to be contested: that would amount to psychiatrizing the question or, at least, to psychologizing it, and recourse to this field of understanding would not be legitimate here.

However, it is for the wrong reasons that it is denied all relevance, as if the slightest reference to the psychic dimension could only lead us back to a dubious psychologization that would only lead in fine only to dehistoricize and depoliticize the question.

madness and logic

The categorical refusal to use this lexical register borrowed from psychopathology rests, however, on a curious understanding of madness, assimilated to irrationality, thereby unintelligible – as we know, in a way it always goes with madness as ‘A taboo. The presupposition would be the following: summoning Putin’s “madness” would consist in renouncing to produce meaning, in considering that his acts are totally devoid of coherence, unpredictable and even absurd. In short: it would not be possible to seek to to understand by digging up their reasonsgiving them meaning.

The real has no effect on delirium. Worse: it is refused, denied.


However, as has been pointed out many times, Putin is anything but inconsistent. For observers of his domestic and foreign policies, this war had actually started a while ago: Putin had long been saying exactly what he was doing. What we have witnessed is much more an acceleration (admittedly staggering) than a sudden change in geopolitical strategy.

Should this reading exclude any reference to psychopathological traits? There would be there, it seems to me, a confusion that the slightest attention to the pathologies of the psyche comes to undo: the discourse and the acts of the “madman” – and in this case, since that is what it would be, the “paranoid” – are anything but irrational and absurd. They are even, from this point of view, ultra-significant.

Delirium obeys a perfect logic, and it is moreover this absence of flaw that constitutes it as delirium, because it signs its perfect impermeability to the reasons of the other, constituted as an enemy. The real has no effect on delirium. Worse: it is refused, denied.

Psychophobia?

But one could also consider that by referring to this type of psychiatric category, it would be a matter of unduly making a diagnosis, of doing “wild” psychiatry (although not addressed to the first person concerned), in defiance of the ethical rules who define the clinic, and even in defiance of these patients with psychiatric disorders, who would find themselves identified despite themselves with a criminal.

In fact, we come up against a philosophically very classic problem, that of the rationalization of evil.


That would be making a bad case. Firstly because it seems difficult to identify patients who are most of the time extremely vulnerable because of their pathologies to a man responsible enough to choose to be guilty of war crimes. That ethically speaking we cannot make a diagnosis from a distance, no one disputes that, but is that what it is all about? Obviously not.

This is not an accusation (except considering that these psychiatric terms are only anathemas – would we still be there?), but rather words that point if not to a psychic “structure”, at least a characterization of the psychic dynamics of an individual, one that can shed light on how a feeling of humiliation turns into hatred which, in this case, because its author is in a position to declare a war, an entire people pays the price.

These terms therefore have a heuristic function: they seek to suggest what precisely resists a certain understanding (this famous Putinian or even Russian “rationality” that Western “rationality” would struggle to grasp).

Madness and ideology

Beyond Putin’s geopolitics, it is also a question of producing meaning in the face of the horror scenes we are witnessing: “justify” what cannot be. In fact, we come up against a philosophically very classic problem, that of the rationalization of evil. And we must not conclude too quickly that it would be a question of psychologizing the question or, worse, of “doing morality”.

Everything happens here again as if choosing to shed light on what of the psyche and its meanderings can, in well-determined historical and political circumstances, manufacture a dictator and a criminal, amounted to reducing genocidal violence to the status of an isolated act of a “madman”. As if a “madman” had no logic, had no her logic.

It is only by harnessing ourselves to the human in all its dimensions that we will be able to give meaning to history.


This type of objection strangely leads to dissociating madness from ideology, to refusing to question how the intellectual always feeds on the affective. Still it is necessary to concede that our acts admit psychic springs which engage also, if not primarily, psychic dynamics, which some would say existential. Because we have to think about the force of ideology, the one that leads a man to make the choice of the false and that of hatred, as Sartre underlined about the anti-Semite, in a text with formidable topicality.

It seems to me in this respect that it is urgent to get out of the monomania of investigations: the Ukrainian war which still confronts us today and despite our history, with the unthinkable, poses to humans that we are a question which does not is not reducible to a geopolitical analysis, nor to that of the permanence of the Tsarist myth of Great Russia: it also obliges us to think about the very thing that works for this eternal return of the tragedy of history, which of the human always makes it possible and probable. It forces us to think this “passion of evil” that inhabits Putin, but also that which leads (very) young men to barbarism, as evidenced by the abuses committed in Ukraine.

To think not only of war, but of violence and cruelty, on the scale of a man, on that of an army. In this respect, if Arendt was no doubt misguided by taking a little too much at the word Eichmann who claimed not to have acted “by ideology”she nevertheless pointed to an essential problem which remains mutatis mutandis today: beyond the conditioning of propaganda, what leads men to stop thinkto adhere to a lie, even to commit crimes in its name?

The psychic and the political

Resentment, hatred, revenge, and the way in which they are shaped by an individual history are therefore not screens that would condemn us not to think “seriously” about the roots of war. On the contrary, it is only by harnessing ourselves to the human in all its dimensions that we will be able to give meaning to history: in this sense, the psychic is already political.

This is what Antoine Vitkine’s remarkable documentary succeeds in showing. Putin’s Revenge which reconstructs the temporality of this implacable individual passionate need until the tragic episode that the Ukrainian people are experiencing today (this documentary was originally made in 2018, and in this respect one cannot but be struck by its prophetic content…).

Seeking to understand the human psyche in order to think about the constitutive risk of barbarism is also to pursue this infinite task of culture and law by which we must keep the violence that resides in each of us at a distance – a process always to be replayed. which, as Castoriadis pointed out after Freud in already troubled times, is always a miracle.

To maintain at all costs the essential validity of this division between culture and violence is to escape what Arendt had called the “banality of evil”, this psychic regime where this border no longer makes sense. In this sense, no offense to those who refuse to summon “values”, Putin is also waging war on democracy, this regime where the institution sets itself up as a safeguard against the fantasies of omnipotence with which we will never be finished, this regime which constitutes violence and hatred as taboo.

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