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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Post-Traumatic Politics

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Why would an administration with a 70 percent approval rating resort to rubber truncheons to quash small, marginal political demonstrations? Was the recent suppression of rallies and marches in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod part of the turn toward authoritarianism or just pre-election jitters?

It was a bit of both, but behind both lies a deeper cause. President Vladimir Putin and his generation were shaped by the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union, just as previous generations were shaped by revolution, terror or war. Their own personal relationship to the Soviet Union and its demise -- their sense of loss, regret and acrimony -- is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the event itself. Their shock resulted from seeing that something as mighty and gigantic as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics could vanish so suddenly and so easily. The Titanic of empires, it was the biggest ship of state that ever sank.

Putin's often quoted and often misunderstood remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" should be understood as much psychologically as politically. People will argue for years to come about the cause of its demise, but for people like Putin who were on board the ship of state as it began sinking, the one lasting lesson is that if something so seemingly invincible as the Soviet Union can go down so swiftly, there's no reason the same thing can't happen with the new Russia, which is smaller and less fearsome.

A great deal of Putin's behavior -- the brutality in Chechnya, the fear of a Ukraine-style revolution and nongovernmental organizations, the centralization of authority, the control of the media and the beating of demonstrators -- makes more sense if seen as a pattern stemming from the trauma of the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin himself said in his book "First Person": "[M]y mission, my historical mission -- and this will sound lofty, but it's true -- consisted of resolving the situation in the Northern Caucasus ... and Chechnya [which is] a continuation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. ... If we don't put an immediate end to this, Russia will cease to exist."

Russia has collapsed calamitously twice in the last 100 years, once in 1917 and again in 1991. (It has also rebounded vigorously both times, but success always leaves less of an impression than disaster.)

It's not only the new Russia that can seem a shaky enterprise -- the current administration may not have much faith in itself. A 70 percent popularity rate leaves plenty of room to fall. At least 20 percent of people participating in any poll are probably going to respond positively about the president either because Soviet experience or simple savvy tells them that they have nothing to gain from speaking out against him (especially when dissenters are being clubbed in the streets). Putin and Company may figure they only really have half the country on their side and that this support is contingent on their ability to continue delivering the goods -- stability, prosperity and international prestige. Ultimately, that ability is based on the price of gas and oil, which current reasoning says will stay high, but which past history shows to be iffy. Much of Putin's support is solid and real, and for some has a fierceness that transcends the utilitarian. It is not the actual strength of that support that matters so much as the Kremlin's fear of how fast it might fade.

The trauma of the Soviet collapse explains but does not excuse the strangulation of the media or the truncheons in the street anymore than the wound of Sept. 11 excuses Abu Ghraib. In fact, both countries are suffering from a form of post-traumatic politics. The presidents Russia and the United States will elect in 2008 will have a better chance of repairing relations if each takes the other's trauma into account.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."