Putin’s drift as seen by Giuliano da Empoli: paranoia, Stalin and the death drive

The Russians struck by the partial mobilization I am in

For more than five years, he immersed himself in the ruthless world of Russian politics. Selected for the Goncourt Prize*, The Kremlin mage, the novel by the man who was an adviser to the former President of the Italian Council Mateo Renzi, tells of the irresistible rise of an insipid KGB officer, propelled to power by men from the shadows. Against all expectations, the creature will escape its parents. We know the rest: Vladimir Putin took power in 1999 and would never let go. While Putin continues, day after day, his bloody and deadly drift, the writer gives us some keys.

Putin, this great paranoid

“Putin worked for a long time in counter-intelligence, that is to say, his job was to thwart conspiracies. Being paranoid is a quality required for the position! It is through this prism that Putin looks at the world – and most notably Ukraine. He was convinced that the West was manipulating kyiv and that this political house of cards would crumble within days of the February 24 invasion. But his hyperconspiracy mentality shattered on a very different reality. .

This error – historical – is also explained, in my opinion, by the neurological effect of power which, over time, “forms around princes a kind of cloud which abuses them”, to use Chateaubriand’s words. Neuroscientists have studied this phenomenon. They showed that, in the case of people who have been in power for a very long time, the parts of the brain related to relationships with others are damaged by the exercise of power. And that is the paradox. We do not conquer power without relational intelligence, but the more we lead, the more our neurological capacity to exercise it erodes! It is for this reason that we limit the duration of mandates in democracies. Reigning for more than twenty-two years, like Putin, necessarily alters his ability to assess situations correctly.”

Stalin, get out of this body

“When we analyze the way Putin locked his power, we see the shadow of Stalin. In a scene from the book, I tell how the master of the Kremlin, one night, said to his adviser: “There is a character much more popular than me in Russia, it’s Stalin.” Because he knew how to channel the anger of the people. When the people complained that the railways were not working properly, Stalin summoned the director, organized his public trial and had him shot. This does not change the problem, but this scapegoat allows Stalin to restore the verticality of power. Putin did the same with the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. By accusing them of being responsible for the dysfunctions of the system, he eliminates the opposition and, at the same time, makes himself popular. In the provinces far from Moscow, one often hears residents say: “If Putin knew, he would put things in order. He gave himself the image of a person benevolent and fierce.

Like Stalin, his power is based on violence. The turning point took place in September 1999, when he had just become head of government. A month later, attacks attributed to Chechen separatists killed more than 300 people in Moscow. His terrible sentence, “we’ll go to butter them in the toilet”, immediately establishes his domination. In The Karamazov brothers of Dostoyevsky, the Grand Inquisitor explains that Russia needs three ingredients to seal its power: authority [Poutine a été nommé par Boris Eltsine]the mystery [personne ne connaît son passé d’espion] and the miracle. These attacks, of which we still do not know, twenty years later, who ordered them, are the miracle, bloody and sordid, which consecrates his transformation into a tsar.

Putin, real fake ideologue

“I do not subscribe to the idea that Putin is an ideologue. Above all, he is a man of power. For years, he pretended to adapt to the codes of the West, he played the game. Did he really believe in a rapprochement between the two blocs? Was he disappointed? Mystery. Today, he has returned to the skin of the imperial Soviet leader, even the tsar, with, it seems, he, relieved. He no longer needs to pretend, he acts according to his nature – a precept which he applies, with some success, to his population. It’s a bit like saying to the Russians “We have fallen back into a compartmentalized, closed world. We will have fewer resources, it will be hard, but we are used to sacrifices, they will allow us to regain our ancestral values. Everything we do is for greatness of our homeland, in order to be respected and feared by this weak West, which is not used to suffering, to making sacrifices and does not have our collective strength.’

There is no doubt that part of the population can subscribe to such a discourse. That said, Putin’s power is initially based on a form of demobilization, that is, he tells the Russians that they can trust him and that he is there for them; he takes care of everything, he guarantees order and a certain prosperity. Except that the situation has changed drastically in recent weeks. The Kremlin must now adopt a rhetoric of mobilization, it is not obvious.”

Politics, a matter of life and death

“It’s funny, all these people who, after February 24th, discovered that he was an extraordinarily violent warlord… War is a founding element of his power. From the beginning, brutality has been a component of his regime. For him, politics is a matter of life and death. Politics “Putin style” touches on existential nations: life, death, power, the meaning of a nation and honor – his own and that of his people. It is very different from the idea that we have of it in the West.

With us, politicians compare solutions to find compromises, based on statistical curves and PowerPoint presentations. All that is very nice, but it doesn’t touch on the essential. What is politics, really? It’s the way to stop people from killing each other. This is his real mission. When politics reaches its limits or does not work, people kill each other. Putin is in this logic.

Putin, a casting error

“In Russia, when a leader dies, they always look for a harmless and controllable successor, that is, as gray as possible. After the death of Boris Yeltsin, the choice fell on Vladimir Putin, because that he was reputed to be reliable. He had in fact rescued Yeltsin from several bad spells. Nobody, at the time, had suspected the ferocious political animal that lay dormant in him… Today, Putin has cleared the air , he only relies on weak people who are completely dependent on him. For a worthy person to emerge from this system, it would take another casting mistake!

What would post-Putin look like? Someone tougher than him? What is certain is that the war will not stop as long as he is in power. Even if negotiations are held one day, Putin will stick to his logic of creating chaos wherever he cannot impose his deadly order, as he is doing in Russia or in the regions of Ukraine still under his control.

In the book, I am inspired by the writer Elias Canetti, who explains that a man of power, in his purest and most absolute form, is condemned to extreme brutality, because he has no only one way out: outlive everyone. In the end, this drive is so strong that the only way to do it is to kill others – even those around you. The man of power is someone who, in the end, stands alone in the middle of a cemetery. That’s what could happen to Putin.”

* The Kremlin mage, by Giuliano da Empoli (Gallimard editions).