Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates.
And while we can’t change the Russian president, we can encourage and educate people not to create more Putins by recognizing how childhood adversity impacts us throughout our lives and by integrating solutions into our healthcare, education, justice and economic systems.
Born in 1952 Leningrad, Putin was a street kid in a city devastated by a horrific, three-year siege by the Nazis during WWII, a genocide described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. Most of the population of three million people died, one million starving to death. Putin’s father was badly injured in the war, his mother nearly died of starvation. Living in a rat-infested apartment with two other families, the family had no hot water, no bathtub, a broken-down toilet, little or no heat. His father worked in a factory; his mother did odd jobs she could find. A small child, whose two older siblings are believed to have been lost to war and disease, Putin was left to fend for himself, severely bullied by other children.
From his parents he inherited their wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces threatening their existence, ravaging their city and killing their friends and family. With his parents struggling to survive, they were absent or too traumatized to be attentive to their son. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to have been part of the child Putin’s world.
While the experiences of childhood adversity piled up, two positive experiences changed his trajectory: After years of being labeled a troublemaker in school, a sixth-grade teacher helped him realize his potential. He excelled in high school, learned judo to defend himself, got a law degree and was selected to join the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was done. It produced a machismo man, distrustful and unpredictable, and who cultivates disinformation to advance his own agenda at any cost.
In her essay, “The Ignorance or How We Produce the Evil,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote: “Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator….All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”
Research shows that early abuse and neglect damages an infant’s developing brain. If a child suffers abuse and neglect for years without intervention, the consequences can be dire. As Dr. Bruce Perry, co-author with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, says, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
But without that love in their childhoods, abused people in power can do serious damage. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedung all suffered years of merciless beatings and other unconscionable abuse in childhood and went on to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. In Mao’s case, 35 million people. Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon pointed out that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.” Stalin killed nearly a million people each year he was in power; in 1938 he sent Khrushchev to Ukraine where he proved his ruthless ways by eliminating 163 out of 166 members of that country’s Central Committee. Of course, not everyone who has an abusive childhood grows up to abuse others; but it’s safe to say that all abusive dictators and autocrats had a childhood filled with abuse and/or neglect, and not enough love.
So, Putin’s statements on and after Feb. 23, are chilling and revealing: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by
the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and deNazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”
In light of his childhood, this confusing statement about “deNazifying” Ukraine—a country whose president is Jewish—and defending against genocide makes sense. In Putin’s mind, he feels threatened by Ukraine and considers himself a victim. He must defend himself, just the way he did by learning judo as a child. He’s acting out the suffering, deprivations and existential threats experienced by his family and community during WWII, experiences buried so deep in his mind that he’s not even conscious of them. And he is now inflicting those same circumstances on families in the cities of Ukraine.
Dr. Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist and expert in the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences at Drexel University and founder of the Sanctuary Model and Creating PRESENCE, notes that unless people resolve their early experiences and heal, they are doomed to repeat their childhoods. However unconscious that may be to Putin, it’s painfully obvious to the rest of us.
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