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Putin's Dark Sibling Psychology and the Crisis in Russia

How being a semi-only child may be impacting Putin’s thinking

Once again we are faced with trying to understand the motives behind what seems to be some erratic maneuvers of a foreign leader. After countless theories about the inner workings of the minds of the leaders of North Korea, Syria, and Iran we are now grappling with the thinking behind the recent moves of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

As experts in international relations and political pundits attempt to understand Putin’s thinking from geopolitical perspectives I would like to offer a more basic and personal perspective to understanding Putin’s mind.

As I see in my research and practice, and as substantiated by over 30 years of research in developmental psychology, early family and sibling dynamics have a profound and long-lasting impact on our adult life. Future relationships, psychological well-being, and career choices have all been shown to be impacted by early family and sibling interactions.

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So as a family researcher and therapist I instinctively look towards a person’s early family life, particularly the sibling angle, to gain some insight into his or her thinking. After doing some research on the early years of Vladimir Putin, and assessing this information in the context of what we know from sibling dynamic research, I have discovered some interesting points.

You could imagine how much personal information is available on the family of a former Russian intelligence officer, but from the little that is available about his early family life it appears that Putin is dealing with a complex childhood dynamic.

Vladimir was born on October 7th 1952 in Leningrad, modern day Saint Petersburg, Russia to his parents Vladimir and Maria. His father worked for the Soviet Navy and later, during World War Two, for the NKVD, the infamous law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union. His mother was a factory worker.

Before Vladimir’s birth his parents lost two prior children. One of them, whose name is not known publically, died in infancy while the other, Viktor, died under terrible circumstances. Apparently, during the German 872-day siege of Leningrad during World War Two, one-year-old Viktor was taken from his mother for protection and placed in a children’s home. Viktor later died in this home from diphtheria, one of over a half-million people who perished during that time, and was then buried in an unmarked grave. His mother was impacted by the siege as well and was near death as a result of the starvation.

Putin rarely mentions the death of his siblings but does visit the cemetery in St. Petersburg where the mass grave exists during commemorations of the German siege. The siblings are not mentioned in his official biography on the Kremlin website. The repression of such a crucial part of his early family narrative can only lead to a complicated internal struggle with these memories.

Hence little Vladimir was born to parents with previous children but was in essence raised as an only child. Only children are typically, and understandably, overprotected by their parents. In Putin’s case his parents were not only parenting an only child but were doing so after losing their two first children. You could only imagine the level of overprotection Putin experienced growing up. In fact, Putin’s mother disliked his sport of choice, judo, a classic response from an overprotective parent.

Beyond being overprotected, only children have also been shown to develop difficulties in social relationships. Lacking early sibling dynamics and the lessons offered by these sibling exchanges in proper social interactions, only children are more comfortable working alone. Putin’s decision to pursue a non-team sport in judo is an additional classic only child move. His career is also littered with positions that do not require much collaboration. The speed at which he ascended to leadership positions that do not require much teamwork, from his grade school student organization to Russian politics, may highlight this “loner” tendency.

Put together the unspoken, tragic loss of his two siblings, being an only child, and his overprotective parents and we may have some glimpse into the complicated psyche of this recluse, with an inflated ego, and something to prove.

I am not sure if this information could inform President Obama’s next move in dealing with President Putin, but it does add an interesting dimension to this ongoing predicament.

Avidan Milevsky, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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