Is Russia suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

Ukraine is only the latest in a series of traumas. Over the last two decades, the encroachment of the West on former Soviet territory, the expansion of NATO into the Baltics, and perceived dilution of Russian traditional culture by globalization all reproduced the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of this arouses anxieties in Russian society, which are alleviated through attempts to reconsolidate Russia’s national identity: fervent patriotism, the fear of encroaching “fascism,” calls for vigilance against fifth columnists and traitors, the reassertion of Russian traditional culture against the decadent and corrupt West, and the urgent need for a Russian national idea. All of these reactions are the initial trauma of Soviet collapse displaced on new dangers. Given all this, it’s no coincidence that a group of politicians want Mikhail Gorbachev investigated for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to psychologists, one the cardinal symptoms of trauma is hyperarrousal. This is when the traumatized person lives on permanent alert fearing danger might return at any moment. The victim startles easily, reacts intensely to small provocations, and exhibits vigilance in the face of danger. On the societal level, this results from an event that shatters the bonds of social life and damages the sense of community. One way to overcome this state is to excise those representing threats and reconstitute the sinews of community through solidarity. As the psychologist Judith Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, “The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging.”

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