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Power but no glory


I keep watching the news about the continuing ordeal of Ukraine and then changing channels, and I know I am not alone in doing this: there is only so much the general viewer of TV can take. People who understand more about international affairs than I do tell me that the Ukrainian/Russian matter is complex, but to me the matter seems simple enough, involving the obsessions of a powerful man, and the suffering of an innocent population. As usual, it is the women and the children who are bearing the brunt of the conflict, while President Putin remains supremely indifferent to their fate. And, as so often, I wonder what makes him tick.

Figures who were prominent in the past have given their opinions about powerful men. I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve always been interested in history, as well as in scholarly opinions about the subject. Scottish historian, philosopher, and general polymath Thomas Carlyle believed that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ while Lord Acton, a Catholic historian writing in the generation after Carlyle, remains famous for expressing the idea that power tends to corrupt; he also believed that great men are nearly always bad men. Semantics are important: we are fairly clear as to the meaning of ‘powerful men,’ but the word ‘great’ is rather more layered.

Acton went on to opine that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and he also disapproved very strongly of the sanctification of ‘success,’ another nuanced concept. Acton had Oliver Cromwell in mind when he expressed this idea, but of course every generation produces similar men. I have learned about a long list: the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Milosevic are just some examples.

Of course millions of people have troubled early years, and very few of them become tyrants or dictators, but the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin and Milosevic all endured great unhappiness as children. So did Putin. All had to bear what is often referred to as ACE: Adverse Childhood Experience. And I think it is true to say that childhood never goes away.


'It is often said that people get the government they deserve, and even in democracies, many individuals act only out of self interest, and are quite content to have a so-called strong man at the helm.'


The Kaiser wielded immense power, but was erratic, highly strung and impulsive, and at the end of the First World War was often labelled a megalomaniac. His birth had been horrendous, and it was thought at first that he had died. His mother had been heavily drugged with the then new chloroform, which meant he was, too, so that he was quite possibly brain damaged, while one arm had been severely injured during delivery, and was always markedly shorter than the other. Throughout his childhood he endured painful treatments designed to correct this problem, but they never worked. His relationship with his parents was complicated, to say the least, and he seems to have spent much of his life trying to compensate for his deficits.

Hitler and Stalin both had extremely violent fathers, inevitably long-suffering mothers, and both experienced periods of poverty during childhood. Milosevic’s father committed suicide while Milosevic was still only a schoolboy, and later his mother, too, took her own life. He was eventually deemed a ‘crisis maker.’

And now the world is contending with Putin, whose childhood explains, I think, a great deal. He was born in 1952, in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, the city that had endured a Nazi siege lasting almost 900 days. Putin’s mother nearly starved to death, and his father returned from the war badly wounded. At the time of Putin’s birth, the couple had already lost two children. Putin was thus born to parents traumatised by grief, privation and loss, and the hardship continued for years in the shape of primitive, cramped living conditions and unremitting, low-paid work. Putin was bullied at school, and became a fighter in reaction, earning a black belt in judo along the way.

It is in childhood that the capacities for attachment and empathy develop, but trauma, abuse and deprivation inhibit such desirable progress, and the child learns to defend itself against feeling. (Milosevic could apparently be charming, but was more noted for his coldness, and Putin is reputed to be much the same.) As they grow, such children also develop a heightened sensitivity to the likelihood of threat, often thinking that threat exists when it does not. Aggression and ruthlessness serve as protection. They fight rather than take flight. Thus damaged people do more damage.

When leaders of dubious quality come to power, the question of the general population’s responsibility should be asked: it is often said that people get the government they deserve, and even in democracies, many individuals act only out of self interest, and are quite content to have a so-called strong man at the helm. But it was unnerving to see Putin’s huge rally of a few days ago. I wonder how many people in that apparently enthusiastic crowd saw the bizarre irony of the President quoting from St John: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I wonder what Lord Acton would have said.




Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Chris Johnson illustration

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Putin, Ukraine, Russia, Dictator, Power



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Existing comments

Vladimir Putin had a traumatic upbringing, but many others who had similar experiences to him did not turn out the way he did. It is a bit of nature and a bit of nurture. He seems to have grown up in a sort of semi-criminal area like some of the housing estates in London. 'The Bill' was realistic. He is ex KGB. When you say KGB to me, it's like saying Wafen SS. They are ruthless and live on in the FSB. I think he made a very bad mistake in invading the Ukraine. The area populated by mainly Ukrainians, not ethnic Russians, will never surrender to him. The Ukrainian Forces are fighting a modern war, with modern weapons against forces which are using old-fashioned blitzkrieg-style warfare and getting bogged down in the process. Russian communication systems enable the Ukrainians to pinpoint their leaders and target them specifically. My belief is that the circle around Putin, like that around Stalin, will eventually 'off' him as it was said with Stalin.

Edward Fido | 31 March 2022  

Thanks so much Gillian. You've hit the nail on the head as far as I can see. Much appreciated.

Jill | 31 March 2022  

Thank you Gillian for this article. You present some interesting food for thought here. I definitely believe that what people do in later life is a reflection of their childhood years. I suppose this begs the question as to what can we do about it.

John Whitehead | 31 March 2022  

Putin is undoubtedly a 'strongman', whose rise to power, easily transiting from KGB thug to neo-Czarist auto-didact, is better explained by the long history of autocrats who have commandeered Russia and developed a structure and culture of apparatchiks running the state-machinery from time immemorial.

Russia has always regarded itself as the 'Mother of the Slavs'. Might not an alternative analysis of the tragedy that has unfolded lie in the following explanation?

Since the collapse of communism Russia (and Russians?) feel vulnerable and their national pride, within Bouras' memory and mine, has taken a beating.

Eastern Ukraine has long been the epicentre of a Russian Federation and which on all available evidence is pro-Russian.

Why can't the rest of us accept that we badly misread the post-communist world map and saw it, in very reductionistic terms, as a crude attempt to pursue a by now anachronistic, and in nuclear-weaponised terms, fruitless global binary?

Jesuitical 'observers' would also attach some explanation to the split between Eastern Ukrainian Orthodoxy and a former Nazi-associated Western Ukraine.

Russia itself has expressed interest in opening her markets. Why was glasnost forgotten and replaced by a western armed intevention mindset that has noplace in the contemporary world?

Michael Furtado | 01 April 2022  
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There is no 'Russia' in all this. There is only Putin, Inc. Just as there is no 'China', only Communist Party, Inc., and perhaps not even that, just Beijing Clique, Inc.

It's probably just culture. West Germany enjoyed the fruits of Western European Civilisation, East Germany saw and learned, and Japan, for some reason, had no problem adopting in some sense the Western European Civilisation brought across by that military/missionary entity, the United States.

Some people, such as the Beijing and Moscow Cliques, just need to learn (or be taught) that the sun doesn't shine out of their backsides, no matter what kind of childhoods they had. Xi, by all accounts, had quite a good one, and a pleasant study tour in the US as a young man. Bouras doesn't include him because he hasn't yet done anything internationally noticeable (unless you're an overseas Uyghur), although the Taiwan Defence Ministry expects an invasion in 2025.

However, Scripture, as usual, is correct. The sins of the fathers do pass to their children and God's permissive will, his ways being above ours, remains a mystery.

roy chen yee | 01 April 2022  

Michael: I feel that how you put this matter is mostly how I perceive it, too - thanks.

Jim KABLE | 01 April 2022  

Do “people get the government they deserve”? Often, yes, especially if they ignore history.
In 2014, Nigel Farage blasted the EU’s “imperialist, expansionist” agenda: “Even the Commission President once himself said that we are building an empire…If you poke the Russian bear with a stick he will respond.” The globalists and anti-Brexit crowd ridiculed him.
How many defend free speech, the bedrock of a free society, now under sustained attack, often by the media themselves who act as advocates rather than giving objective news? Who are standing up against Big Tech censorship? And where are the feminists standing up for women’s rights against militant transgender activists destroying women’s sports and allowing biological male rapists into women’s prisons?
Biden’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Ketanji Jackson, couldn’t even define a woman; and British Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said it was “not right” to say only women have a cervix, and who couldn’t answer, “A woman can have a penis?”
Elect nincompoops and you might deserve chaos.

Ross Howard | 01 April 2022  

Thanks for your thoughtful article Gillian.

The trauma of Putin’s childhood seems profound, located within concentric circles of inter-generational trauma. Thus, the bullied child of the 1950s, now assumes a similar status in the ‘playground ‘ of nation-states, framed by the memories of Stalin’s 1930s purges and the massive national trauma of WW2 for the Russian people.

Hitler’s attempted invasion of Russia left a terrible trauma legacy, and Stalin’s insistence at the Yalta Conference in 1945, for a buffer against possible future German aggression was granted by Churchill and Roosevelt. For Putin, since the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. with its hundreds of European military bases, has stepped into the shoes of Nazi Germany.

Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book ‘ The Shortest History of the Soviet Union’ notes that war time losses were immense, far exceeding other nations : 28 million dead, with 12 million Russians re-patriated to the east during war. Additionally, five million ended the war in Germany as prisoners of war or forced labourers. These losses are Russia and Putin’s cultural and personal legacy

Putin’s personal history shapes his ideology that the West is the anti-Christ. No surprising that he should quote a biblical reference.

Michael Faulkner | 01 April 2022  
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‘For Putin, since the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. with its hundreds of European military bases, has stepped into the shoes of Nazi Germany.’

‘China’ is afraid of the West, Taiwan isn’t. Same race of people running each shop. Why is that? Japan was bombed with atomic weapons twice by the US. It’s not afraid of the US and gets along well with it. Why is that? There is no ‘China’ or ‘Russia’ afraid of the West but two political monopolies of a relatively few individuals who might not prosper under a political system which contains free expression and free and fair voting.


Shouldering closed a gate of the underworld is a guilty but stubborn conscience, both in this world by some political monopolists, among others, and in the next by the self-excommunicated of Hell.

roy chen yee | 04 April 2022  

Thank-you for another thoughtful article which provides a plausible explanation for the existence of bullies like Putin and even their subsequent rise to power. Like all bullies, Putin will continue his abhorrent behaviour if it 'pays off'. For the sake of Ukraine let's hope that there is enough resolve in the west to make sure that support for Ukraine remains steadfast.

Stephen Hicks | 01 April 2022  

I am always led to wonder what lies behind the behaviour. That comes from decades of teaching - but it was something I was aware of from the start of my career. No child acts up without cause. And some of the stories I came to learn about - tragic and horrifying both confirmed my thinking. But I was also remembering my own behaviour in my early years - my father 24 gone in a car accident, my young mother (widowed at just 21) coping with two little fellows (I was the elder at just two) acting out in 1st class (I hope this school burns down!" I cried. Where did it come from?) I've explained the context - some sadness and a wearied mother doing her best - and far from family. Your analysis of Vladimir Putin could well account for his attacks on Ukraine but I'd want to see a similar analysis of the US and Victoria Nuland in particular - because I think there are other actors in this war (four million people as refugees gone from Ukraine) who also have a cold-heartedness to the suffering of others - and if not - then round-table negotiations could have stopped this six weeks ago. But then, too, there are weapons to sell and trade to take over! Thanks, Gillian, for this differently-approached analysis of war and war-makers.

Jim KABLE | 01 April 2022  

A really interesting piece, Gillian. I had not reflected on the effect of Putin’s childhood on his cold cruelty in later life. It doesn’t change my opinion of him, of course, but I did learn from you. Thanks,

Juliet | 01 April 2022  

What an insightful piece!!!The aforementioned tyrants had one thing in common: they were male. We need to take a look at ourselves as men as social, police and historical data demonstrate that violence is a male 'privilege' to practice.

Stathis T | 02 April 2022  

Thank you, Gillian, for this very interesting and informative article, a great deal of which was new to me. But it does pose a problem: must one always use "Adverse Childhood Experience" not just to explain but also to forgive the evil 'that men do which live after them' ? In the present circumstances I can't see much good 'being interred with their bones'. Uncharitably, I could wish for at least one interment of a current "great" man....

Meriel Wlmot-Wright | 03 April 2022  

Thanks for an interesting commentary that may shed some light on the character and behaviour of Putin and others. However, I have to wonder what childhood traumas have led to Biden's willingness to rob the impoverished Afghanistan state causing millions to face starvation, Obama's willingness to perpetrate hundreds extra-judicial assassinations (with collateral damage) by drone, or Bush, Blair, and Howard's lying justification of their catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

Peter Albion | 03 April 2022  

Gillian, Putin's quote (no doubt under advisement by Kirril), is often ascribed to the military who are killed in action. Without stating the obvious, he is appealing to Russia's right wing national pride and attempting to paint the brutal invasion as an Orthodox religious re- unification crusade.
He is portraying Russian soldiers as heroes of the motherland. (in fact they are looting rapist murderers).

He said much the same thing when he invaded Crimea. "Eight years after Russian troops seized Ukraine's southern region of Crimea, the event is being celebrated with flag-waving crowds in Moscow's Luzhniki stadium and special lessons in schools.

President Vladimir Putin made a special appearance before the (200,000) strong crowd.

State workers said they had been told to take part. In schools, teachers held lessons marking the "Crimean spring".

The Russian army has used its bases in Crimea to seize towns and cities on Ukraine's south coast.

Mr Putin has regularly used the anniversary to highlight love of the motherland." BBC: March 18 2022.

He is clever. He knows which political buttons to push.
The "unnerving nature of his huge rally" echoes the emblems of the third Reich, and the uniformed flag waving fascism that glorified Germany's invasions of neighbours in WW2.
Has religion got anything to do with this?
Not a jot!

Francis Armstrong | 04 April 2022  

A Bully- is one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable and this trait is often manifest in tyrants and worldly ambitious men, men without consciences who often possess the manipulative power of evil who are then able to influence others to do (Whatever it takes as in the means justifies the end) evil. These men are not madmen but rather corrupt men many of whom are world leaders in politics, commerce, religion etc with their own agendas

Quote “Peace at any price is not really peace. It is simply cowardly capitulation to evil”

As a Christian, this capitulation should be understood as a cowardly capitulation to the evil values of the Prince of this world who gives mankind false peace, as it is a peace that realizes upon the ever-increasing capacity or weaponry held in the hands of worldly men (Many without consciences) aided and abetted by ‘Christians’ ..V.. As His true peace is given in our faithfulness to Him via the light of the Holy Spirit which cannot be taken from us.

This collusion with evil will eventually lead us into the Apocalypse.

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 04 April 2022  

One of the reasons Kiril, Head of Moscow Pariarchy, is supporting Putin in the latter's invasion of the Ukraine is because the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recently recognised an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church not subject to Moscow. Kviv was the birthplace of Russian Christianity. The Moscow Patriarchate feels it should have the prime role in Orthodoxy Constantinople is traditionally given. Kiril supported Russia's role in Syria because the sizable Orthodox Christian population there was in grave danger from Isis. Whatever happens, Russia is a major world power and Orthodox Christian nation. Because of previous invasions by Napoleon and Hitler, Russians don't appreciate moral preaching from the West, either from church or state. Sanctions are seen as an attempt by the West to crush Russia. They harm ordinary Russians. We need to pray for wisdom to accomplish the seemingly impossible here. Pat solutions and self-righteous preaching are counterproductive. I am reminded of a phrase in the short story 'The Resurrection of Father Brown': 'You silly, silly people. God bless you and give you greater sense.' This applies to all concerned in this dire situation.

Edward Fido | 06 April 2022  
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Edward the only practical response is a military one involving NATO, The USA and its allies. Sanctions don't mean a damn to Putin whilst he has the Chinese domestic market to fall back on.
Otherwise the atrocities will increase and continue due to the unholy Trinity of Putin, Kirill and Yergenev.

Francis Armstrong | 06 April 2022  

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