Why Americans struggle to understand Putin

Knowing that Putin is similar to many 20th century dictators is not very useful or even interesting. He does, however, have one trait that sets him apart from the rest. History’s dictators have generally tried to convince themselves and others that they were good people fighting the good fight. But Putin has no positive spin for his aggression — or his actions in general.

The political culture Putin has created in Russia is based on the assumption that the world is rotten to the core.

This was first evident in the way Putin talked about corruption. In his official autobiography, published in 2000, Putin told a joke in which President Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev compare notes: Both are embezzling, but Brezhnev embezzles twice as much, blatantly. This is the line Putin’s officials have taken in response to all accusations of graft over the last 14 years: Corruption is endemic to all governments; Russian corruption is just less hypocritical…

For American culture, which relies heavily on a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, this is an impossible world view to absorb. It is another world indeed. But that does not make it crazy.