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The Attitude of Empire
Moral superiority and insecurity are a deadly combination.
By Roland Merullo
The horrific invasion of Ukraine is now commonly referred to as “Putin’s war,” and one does wonder how much of the decision to invade grew out of the Russian leader’s sense of personal insecurity. Putin rules over a nation with a proud history, a rich culture, and a powerful military, but an embarrassingly weak economy and poor standard of living. His sense of affront at the breakup of the Soviet Union has been widely reported, as if he’s never recovered from the end of the Soviet Empire, as if the shame and fear the collapse inspired were actually part of his own physical, psychological, and emotional being.
If it is true that the invasion has its roots in Putin’s insecurity, I would not be at all surprised. Russians have long suffered from an inferiority complex vis à vis the West.
When I worked in the former USSR in 1977, at what might be considered the height of the Soviet Empire’s influence, my colleagues and I would often hear the phrase “Oo nass loochshe,” which means “We have better” in Russian. We were working on a United States Information Agency cultural exchange exhibition called “Photography USA,” and among the displays in our 10,000-square-foot show were many photos of American life—private homes, cars, grocery aisles, farms, middle-class neighborhoods, and skyscrapers. The exhibit also included a railed, circular stand where American guides took photos with the new Polaroid SX-70 camera, which developed the film in seconds. “Oo nass loochshe,” some of the people who crowded around those demonstrations would say, even though all twenty-five American guides and probably half the Soviet visitors knew that wasn’t close to the truth. Even in the big cities, the standard of living was pitifully low, with meager supplies in all but the special Party-members-only food stores. Construction was notoriously sloppy, and substandard manufacturing was visible in everything from shoes to automobiles.
On two later tours, from 1987 to 1990, with exhibitions titled “Information USA” and “Design USA,” my colleagues and I would hear that phrase much less frequently—by then, Gorbachev had started to open the windows to the more developed world, and exhibit visitors realized that they did not “have better.” They did not even have the same.
Trivial as the example of an SX-70 camera might be, the comments it and other exhibit displays elicited spoke volumes about the mindset of many Soviet citizens: an unhealthy mix of pride on the one hand, and pervasive insecurity on the other. That mindset, I believe, informed Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. History’s great empires—the Roman, the British, and, to some extent, the American—all believed they had better.
In many cases, that was true: It’s hard to argue that empires of the past didn’t enjoy technological and material superiority over the rest of the world. That technological and military prowess was precisely what enabled them to colonize other nations and peoples. Early-arriving European Americans were able to take land from Native Americans because of more advanced weaponry, a more powerful military, and a willingness to use that kind of lethal force. The British were able to dominate large swaths of the world for the same reason. The Soviet Union, however, possessed the military might without the accompanying prosperity—a terrible combination that whipsawed many of its citizens between a sense of pride and a nagging suspicion that the free nations of the world had outdistanced them.
One of the problems with any empire is that its rulers, and to no small extent its citizens, come to believe that military, technological, or material superiority equals moral superiority. Their supposed moral superiority then allows them to excuse all kinds of terror and abuse, up to and including genocide. In order to enslave, torture, or murder another human being, one has to diminish their humanity and inflate one’s own.
Adolf Hitler, who was clearly determined to create an empire, is perhaps the best example. He and his followers believed that their impressive military and technological achievements proved their status as a super race. That supposed superiority gave them the right, even the responsibility, to use whatever means necessary to subjugate and reconfigure the rest of the world. Similarly, early European Americans believed they were justified in “taming” the “savages” who’d inhabited North America long before they arrived. The Brits must have felt the same way about the nations they subjugated, and Mussolini certainly felt that way about Ethiopia.
We can see this sordid dynamic at work in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He believes that he has the moral right to do what he’s doing, and no amount of suffering of innocent Ukrainians, condemnation from abroad, or protests at home seem likely to change his mind.
Ironically, these would-be or actual empire-builders, by virtue of their willingness to torment, murder, and steal, actually demonstrate the opposite of moral superiority. The citizens of those empires, however, remain soaked in pride. Soviet exhibit visitors had to claim “we have better” because to do otherwise would have been an intolerable humiliation in the presence of American guests. What Putin is doing in Ukraine is rooted in a profound sense of personal inferiority, a burning shame that can be temporarily soothed only by murder.
But no amount of conquest ultimately silences the insecure man’s whisper of inferiority. Stalin died a paranoid, Hitler an abject failure, Mussolini buried in a deep, late-in-life depression, comparing his treatment to that of the crucified Christ.
Sadly, it’s too often the case that a leader’s inflated sense of superiority is passed along to ordinary citizens. Tens of millions of Russians, spellbound by state propaganda, are convinced they have the absolute right to invade and ruin Ukraine and return it to the glorious fold of a Greater Russia. Putin’s Napoleonic bluster is a more vicious extension of the “oo nass loochsche” of Soviet times, the latest in a long line of national egotisms sparked into existence by an insecure individual’s need to demonstrate his power.
Roland Merullo is the author of 16 novels and writes an essay series called On the Plus Side. More of his work is available at RolandMerullo.com.