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Inside Putin’s Mind: The Dream of Immortality

In recent years, social psychologists studying “terror management theory” have conducted over 1,500 randomized controlled experiments to test one of  Otto Rank’s most compelling hypotheses: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.”

Across many different cultures and populations, experimental findings have shown that human beings tend to project their  terror of death onto “the other,” thereby sanctifying group paranoia, hatred, scapegoating, and, in its most vicious form, leading to genocide.

We kill other human beings,  according to Rank, to show that we can triumph over  death.  What greater evil is there than that imposed on us, against our will, by the Grim Reaper?  Rank said that we seek to protect our immortality rather than our lives. Preserving our illusion of immortality is more important than preserving our bodies. “By projecting our nemesis, death, upon another whom we can kill,” writes E. James Lieberman in his introduction to Rank’s Psychology and the Soul, “we symbolically annihilate death.”

The denial of death, adds Ernest Becker in Escape from Evil, is “an expression of the will to live, the burning desire of the creature to count, to make a difference on the planet because he has emerged on it, and has worked, suffered, and died.”

The basic motive of mankind, said Rank, is self-perpetuation, reaching toward the dream of immortality, an immortality provided by the seductive blandishments of religion and the nation-state.  Today, like religion, the nation-state is a universal symbol of immortality. Each of the 193 member-states of the United Nations promises permanent safety, meaning and dignity for its citizens, gnats who wander on a tiny portion of a minuscule planet in a vast, unfathomable, frightening universe that cares nothing for human beings.

Apparent in every war fought since the Treaty of Westphalia,  the nation-state’s insatiable urge for immortality has once again erupted on the world stage. Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022 represents Vladimir Putin’s opening salvo in an existential struggle with the West.

In a blistering speech justifying the Russian invasion, Putin declared: “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. … It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state ….”  No clearer statement of Rank’s insight that the terror of death underlies the state-sponsored bloodletting of war has ever been uttered by a country’s leader.     

“Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and  transcend death,” writes philosopher Sam Keen in his foreword to Becker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Denial of Death, “every culture must provide its members with an  intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means  that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles  between immortality projects, holy wars.”

Today, Vladimir Putin is fighting a holy war against the West, not merely a war to return Ukraine to what he insists, with  righteous indignation, are its Russian origins. This is the meaning of his oft-repeated claim that the death of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

A messianic leader with Napoleonic ambitions, Putin dreams of being the great Slavic hero who saves the God-fearing Russian people from impending death at the hands of the decadent, atheistic West, a West dominated by ungodly gay rights advocates, a West that better be ready for nuclear war if it attempts to interfere in the sacred cause of Russia’s immortality project.

“I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside,” he warned in his speech. “No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Putin is saying that he is willing to fight to the last Russian for the sake of Russia’s immortality; he is willing to sacrifice the bodies of his own soldiers and ordinary Russian citizens, on top of murdering thousands of Ukrainians, for his dream of immortality.

About the Author
Robert Kramer, PhD, is an existential psychoanalyst in Budapest. He is editor of Otto Rank's "A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures" (Princeton University Press, 1996); co-editor, with E. James Lieberman, of "The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); and author of "The Birth of Relationship Therapy: Carl Rogers Meets Otto Rank" (Psychosozial Press, 2022).
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