1st Edition

A Psychoanalytic Study of Political Leadership in the United States and Russia Searching for Truth

Edited By Karyne E. Messina Copyright 2024
    162 Pages 3 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    162 Pages 3 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    A Psychoanalytic Study of Political Leadership in the United States and Russia: Searching for Truth provides psychoanalytic insight into the motives of this complex and contradictory figure.

    The contributors, from different professional and academic backgrounds, use a range of methods including quantitative research and literary analysis to shed light on Putin’s background, outlook and current actions. Reflecting a range of perspectives on how Putin’s background may have informed his beliefs and his actions, particularly with respect to the invasion of Ukraine, the book brings together diverse viewpoints.

    A Psychoanalytic Study of Political Leadership in the United States and Russia will be of great interest to psychoanalysts and to readers seeking to understand the complex dynamics of populist leadership.

    PART 1: Looking Within

    1.Why the Truth is Essential in a Democracy:  Pivoting Toward Evidence 

    Karyne E. Messina

    2.Observations, Knowledge, and Speculation:  What We Know and Don’t

    Know About Vladimir Putin

    Karyne E. Messina

    PART 2: Understanding Vladimir Putin from an Eastern European Perspective

    3.Interpreting Vladimir Putin from Afar Leads to Over-Simplification of Very Complex Relationships

    Harry Gill

    PART 3: Investigating Vladimir Putin’s Personality: How Trauma Affected His Development

    4. Zeitenwende: Vladimir Putin’s Effort to Reestablish the Russian/Post-Soviet Empire

    Peter W. Petschauer 

    5. Invasion of Ukraine: Observations On Leader-Follower Relationships

    Vamik Volkan and Jana Javakhishvili

    PART 4: Quantitative Research Conducted by a Preeminent Researcher

    6. Measuring the Mental Functioning of Putin, Trump, and Zelensky

    Robert Gordon

    PART 5: A Scholar Looks at Vladimir Putin through the Lens of Russian Literature

    7. Dear Vladimir Putin: If you’ve Read Dostoyevsky, You’ve Tragically Misunderstood Him—Austin Ratner on Russian Imperialism and Misreading The Brothers Karamazov

    Austin Ratner



    Karyne E. Messina, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist and psychoanalyst, and is on the medical staff of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. She is a Training and Supervision Analyst at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis. Her books include Misogyny, Projective Identification and Mentalization: Psychoanalytic, Social and Institutional Manifestations and Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Blame-Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy.

    A Psychoanalytic Study of Political Leadership in the United States and Russia: Searching for Truth presents an important approach to political discourse. Edited by psychologist and psychoanalyst Karyne E. Messina, the book’s essays explore the need to seek truth and reasons for behavior of political actors.

    Messina provides essential contextual setting in American and Russian history that led to the current situation of a new Cold War and a hot war in Ukraine. She also stresses the need to distinguish what we know and do not know about Vladimir Putin.

    Dr. Harry Gill looks at the war from the perspective of Eastern Europeans, who have seen many internecine conflicts and shifting borders. He warns of the danger of oversimplifying the relationships by fitting them into solely Western constructs of how the world works.

    The historian Peter W. Petschauer delves into Putin’s biography for clues to his behavior. Childhood traumas and a longing for a stable regime, evinced in his reading, influenced Putin’s development.

    Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan and psychologist Jana Javakhishvili examine leader-follower relationships and Putin’s leadership style. Does he follow in the footsteps of such dictators as Stalin and Milosevic?

    Quantitative research by psychologist Robert Gordon compares the mental functioning of Putin, Trump, and Zelensky, presenting a matrix to judge authoritarian behavior and intellectual stability.

    Novelist Austin Ratner looks at Putin through the lens of Russian literature, showing that The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky is not a paean to Russian imperialism and should not be seen as a paradigm for modern politics.

    An important aspect of this study is that the authors are women and men who come from backgrounds that give them a different point of view on both America and Russia, an experience of war and confrontation that many writers about Putin lack. Their combined insights, coming from various angles, build a picture that teaches us that we must examine not only the psychology of world leaders but our own as well, to understand the reasons for our willingness to accept easy and incendiary answers instead of doing independent research and thinking.  Reason and respect may yet save the world.”

    Antonina W. Bouis is an award-winning translator of Russian literature. She was the founding director of the Soros Foundations during perestroika in the Soviet Union. She is on the board of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy at Esalen. Member of the Council on Foreign Relations and PEN.


    A Psychoanalytic Study of Political Leadership in the United States and Russia: Searching for Truth, edited by Dr Karyne Messina, who also contributes several chapters, is an important study. The book begins with a psychoanalytically informed exploration of why truth is essential in a democracy. Messina makes the case that we can use factual and even historical evidence as well as external expressions of leadership such as documents and treaties to understand world leaders and their underlying psychology. This forms the backdrop for understanding what is going on in present day Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, as well as his relationship to the United States and the war he instigated in Ukraine. One of the strengths of the book is that it uses multiple methods of inquiry ranging from historical to quantitative analyses, qualitative case history, and literary analysis.”

    Kevin Volkan, EdD, PhD, MPH, Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands; Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology, California Lutheran University; Medical Education Faculty, Community Memorial Health Systems


    “Psychologist-Psychoanalyst Karyne Messina takes us on a personal odyssey from youthful illusionment to mature disillusionment with American political leadership. Becoming aware, at least by the time she studied at university, that her generally honest father was capable of ‘unnecessary’ narcissistic lies,  she eventually realized how widespread such lying was among major American political ‘parent figures.’ She usefully informs or reminds readers of the lies President Truman told ‘justifying’ US atomic bombing of Japan, claiming we were attacking military bases, as opposed to terrorizing civilian populations to undermine morale, much like Putin does in Ukraine. She also reminds us of the lies President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara told to justify our killing over 5 million people in Viet Nam; Reagan’s lies denying sending illegal weapons to Iran; lies about the My Lai rape and massacre; lies about torture at Abu Ghraib; President Biden’s lies; and on it goes. Dr. Messina ends with a passionate plea for truth-telling, very much including facing up to lies and atrocities we have already perpetrated. Her opening chapter is almost a page-turner, almost a murder mystery. In fact, it is a murder mystery. In it, disturbingly, we meet the mass murdering group, and we are part of it.

    Messina’s second chapter provides a balanced overview of the personal, historical, and sociopolitical motives for Putin’s serial invasions of Ukraine. She underscores NATO’s betrayal of Russia via not living up to promises to not expand NATO “one inch” beyond Germany into countries formerly controlled by the Soviet Union.

    Historian Peter Petschauer situates Putin in long-term temporal context. He provides interesting hints of possible effects of the Russian President’s possible identifications with Russian historical figures, some of whom were extremely brutal within and outside their families. Petschauer notes that Putin abused his first wife.

    Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan and psychologist Jana Javakhishvili contribute a chapter on leader-follower relationships. They usefully remind us that Soviet officials in 1932-1933 confiscated the entire grain supply from eastern and central Ukrainian villages and closed the roads to restrict movement. In this Holodomor (Ukrainian term meaning ‘to kill by starvation’), approximately four and a half million people died. (Putin follows in this ‘strongman, savior’ tradition, favoring genocide to acquire resources.) Volkan and Javakhishvili wonder if Putin aspires to become more well-known and ‘important’ than Stalin, his house of horrors predecessor. They place Putin in the context of other totalitarians, like Milosevic, who foster a sense of victimization, followed by a sense of entitlement for revenge, leading to genocidal acts.

    Stating that malignant mental illness of autocratic leaders causes the worst possible, avoidable suffering, psychologist Robert Gordon argues that it is the duty of experts to educate and warn of such dangers. Approximately 190,000,000 died due to the leadership of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and our tendency to follow these idealized, charismatic, alpha males. Gordon and his colleagues’ rating scale research points to extreme liabilities in Putin and Trump (versus mental health assets in Zelenskyy).

    In a very creative essay, novelist and physician Austin Ratner looks at Putin through the lens of Russian literature, lamenting that if only Putin could have learned more about psychological development from these brilliant authors, we would not be suffering his horrific invasion of Ukraine.

    Harry Gill, a physician and neuroscientist of East European origin, stresses the disastrous consequences of not understanding opponents’ psychological, historical, cultural, religious, and economic perspectives. Our preference for simplistic narratives has cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars. We are slow to learn from history and experience. Gill pleads with us to give up our fondness for simply demonizing our opponents. We must replace that stance with communication, validation, compromise, empathy – a willingness to walk a mile in their shoes – ingredients that have proved so important in all therapeutic relationships.

    Messina bookends this volume with a plea for evidence-based truth-telling to establish trust. She usefully reminds readers of Bion’s concept of alpha function needed to transform others’ anxiety and our own into something workable. A Truth and Reconciliation process may be required as a container for promoting this necessary transmogrification and evolution.

    Dr. Karyne Messina has brought together a welcome diversity of voices, creating a powerful conceptual choir. This volume contains something for every reader interested in the never-ending geopolitical crises we create and encounter as we blunder blindly from one disaster to the next. This chorale’s diversity will challenge those of us whose position may be insufficiently comprehensive, and likely will be constructively stimulating, expanding understanding in necessary ways. In the diverse views of this multidisciplinary group, there are similarities and differences – a state of affairs calling for what I have elsewhere termed a comparative-integrative perspective. Messina’s collective offers us a wealth of facts, ideas, perspectives, and crucial concepts needed to help us emerge from our otherwise endless repetition compulsion in which we continue destroying millions of lives, and squandering trillions of dollars’ worth of valuable resources. The gauntlet has been thrown down in front of us. Will we rise to the occasion, or opt to continue in our catastrophic ways?”

    Brent Willock, Ph.D. has a distinguished career as a psychologist and psychoanalyst. He is the Chief Psychologist at the Hincks Treatment Center in Toronto and has been an adjunct faculty member at York University as well as an associate faculty member in the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto.