To be clear, Alexander Smukler of Montclair sees Vladimir Putin clearly as monstrous.
“I think Putin has become absolutely crazy, and these moves” — the invasion of Ukraine— “will take him to his political grave,” Mr. Smukler said. “I don’t think he will ever be able to come back to the civilized world as a leader and an equal partner after it.”
But to understand is not to excuse, and no one is born a monster. It takes a combination of bad or misguided parenting, a bad or deprived childhood, bad or maliciously incompetent teachers, a bad or underfunded school system, and very bad luck, topped with the special sauce of a person’s inherent personality, inclinations, and characteristics, to end up with someone like Putin. Then you put him in the isolation that a covid-fearful dictator can— and did — create for himself, and hey, presto! You get a monster.
Or, as Mr. Smukler put it, “Putin’s invasion requires us to remember where he was coming from, in order to understand the nature of the conflict, and why he decided to make this move.
“It is stupid, terrible, and disgusting, but it’s what he did — and there’s a reason why he did it.”
We have no way of knowing what will happen in Ukraine; as this story is written, events change. They change minute by minute. But the forces that made Putin who he is, and therefore control what it is that he does, do not change, so we should understand them, Mr. Smukler said.
As he talked about Russia’s ongoing attempts to conquer and subdue Ukraine — attempts Russia tries to camouflage as liberation — Mr. Smukler dismisses facile understandings of Putin, replacing them with the insights he gained from his own similar-but-very-different childhood.
Mr. Smukler, his wife, Alla, and the older two of their three children came to the United States in 1990; since then they’ve thrived. Mr. Smukler’s a successful serial entrepreneur and he’s been very active as an advocate for Jews from the former Soviet Union in general, and for the visual artists among them in particular.
But Mr. Smukler was born in Moscow in 1960; Vladimir Putin, eight years older, was born in St. Petersburg in 1952. They both grew up in communal apartments with war-traumatized parents in the brutal and militantly anti-religion Soviet Union. It’s hard to understand unless you lived in it, Mr. Smukler said.
“Putin was born right after the Second World War,” he continued. “He belongs to the generation of children who grew up in Russia then.”
He’s the youngest son of older parents; one of the other children died in infancy, but the other “died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad,” Mr. Smukler said. “He’s buried in a huge public grave, which Putin visits every year.
“His father fought in Leningrad; he fought from the first day of the war until the last day of the war,” and of the soldiers he fought with, “it is known that only 2 to 3 percent of them survived,” Mr. Smukler said. Nonetheless, Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, remained a private in the army.
“It was like a miracle that Putin was born,” Mr. Smukler said. “It was a very late pregnancy for his mother,” Maria Ivanovna Putina.
“So he was born into a very simple working family, right after the war, to a family who lost their other children during the war, and to a father who had been fighting for five years.
“So Putin still is fighting this war,” Mr. Smukler continued. “It’s not over for him.
“This is so important to understand. For him, this war is not over. He was born into a generation for whom the Second World War has not ended yet. He is still fighting it.”
That’s why Putin uses the term “de-Nazification” when he talks about rescuing Ukraine from the corrupt villains and self-dealers now governing it, Mr. Smukler suggested. It’s not antisemitism; it’s because “he still is fighting against the Nazis.” And it’s a kind of fealty to his father, “whom he loved dearly, and who was always a model for him.
“Every year on Victory Day” — May 9, when Russia celebrates the Nazis’ surrender — “Putin joins the huge demonstration in Moscow. He leads the huge parade carrying his father’s portrait. The connection between him and his father and those who fought in that war — it’s a pillar of his country. He’s still back there.
“And the leaders of the Western European world — most of them are younger. They don’t understand. They can’t see it. Most of them are from a completely different generation. They were not born with those scars.
“So we can see why he uses the word ‘denazification.’ He truly believes that modern Ukraine is controlled by those who are trying to rebuild the Nazi ideology.”
Next, “I’m speaking on behalf of my heart, on something that has always bothered me so much,” Mr. Smukler continued.
His admiration for modern Ukraine is complicated by right-wing nationalism there. Those groups’ leaders join others in fighting for independence from Russia, but in doing so they have resurrected and cleaned up the images of brutal Nazi collaborators. Stepan Bandera was a hero to many Ukrainians as he fought the Germans and was imprisoned by them, but he also was an antisemite, a fascist, and at the very best indifferent to the Jews about whose deaths he profoundly did not care. “Stefan Bandera not only collaborated with the Nazis but was connected to the mass murder of the Jews,” Mr. Smukler said; his group was linked to the pogroms in Lviv, “one of the biggest and bloodiest pogroms of the Holocaust. “And by the way, Bandera’s people took a lot of pictures there. They’re all available on the internet. Just type ‘Pogrom of Lviv.’” (But do that only if you’re prepared for nightmares.)
“Now, 80 years later, people bring out Stefan Bandera and the Nachtigal Battalion” — another group of Ukrainian nationalist Nazi collaborators who murdered indiscriminately and killed many Jews — “and made national heroes of them in Ukraine. There are many monuments erected to their memories. There’s a huge one in Kyiv for Stefan Bandera, and a major avenue there was named for him.
“When I was the president of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry” — a post to which he was elected in 2008, and an organization that he represented on the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — “I always raised that issue with the Ukrainian leadership. I said that as a Jew and as president of the NCSEJ, I will never endorse the new democratic leadership of Ukraine as long as the Stefan Bandera monument is there.
“As a Jew, that always was my personal concern. It was always extremely painful for me, and every time I was in Kyiv — the last time was five years ago — it hurt.”
Those are his own feelings, Mr. Smukler said, but he thinks that they offer some insight into Putin’s calling Ukrainian politicians Nazis, even when he’s hurling that insult at someone like President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish and whose family had been decimated by actual Nazis, two generations back.
“Putin is trying to explain to the Russian population that he is fighting Nazis, and that he is not there for any other reason but that we have to continue to fight with the Nazis. It’s an absolutely natural move for him.
“I think that it’s crazy. And it sounds crazy. But I am trying to find the logic. Putin is not a man who moves without logic.” But logic based on an untruth remains not true.
“Lots of my friends are asking me, ‘What’s he doing? What the hell is he doing?’ This, I think, is what he’s doing.
“The problem is a huge distance between his generation and older ones and the generations who were born later, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They will never accept this. They know that the political map of modern Europe is so wide and so powerful that right-wing groups exist everywhere, and that they co-exist with the green movement, with left-wing groups, with moderates. That is called democracy. They’re all regular and controlled by the democratic procedures in their countries.
“This is why I think that the world leadership is missing a very important truth about Putin.”
The next factor that’s influencing Putin is Russian history, Mr. Smukler continued. “There is absolutely no substantial time when Russia lived with democracy,” he said. “It was always an authoritarian, totalitarian country. Before 1917, it was czarist. The czar was an absolute monarch. When the Bolsheviks took over, it was a dictatorship. There was just a very short time, after the collapse of the empire in 1991 and 1996, the time when Yeltsin still was capable, when they could breathe the air of democracy.
“So the Russian people have no idea how to live and develop with democracy. The democratic ideas are not available for them yet. It’s like you’re dealing with a child whom you’re teaching the values of the adult world. It will take years and years and years.
“You have to wait for one generation to replace the other before Russia will come to understand what democracy means. This is another problem that the Western world does not understand. They cannot demand the same values and the same understanding of the modern world from Russians, because their mentality is not ready for it.”
It’s like the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt, Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians need the Moshe who will lead them for 40 years, from slavery to freedom. But they never had that time, and nobody is willing to give them that time.
“That’s what is making me so upset, that the Western leaders do not understand that. I put equal blame on the European leadership and the U.S. administration as on Putin because they gave him enough strength to make the decision to invade. It’s because they do not understand the reality of modern Russia.”
That brings Mr. Smukler to his third point.
“The most important factor in all of this is the Russian Orthodox church, because the church is the center pillar of Putin’s power,” he said. “He brought the church back during the 20 years he’s been ruling the empire, and the church is playing a significant role in everyday life, and in this conflict.
“I listen to every radio station, to every podcast, but no one mentions the conflict between Russia and Ukraine — and particularly western Ukraine — as an ongoing 1,000-year-old conflict.” It’s a fight between the Russian Orthodox church, the predominant religious force not only in Russia but in eastern Ukraine as well, and the Roman Catholic church, which fuels not only neighboring Poland but western Ukraine as well. (It’s a far more complicated theological and hierarchical situation than we can describe here; we acknowledge that.)
“This is the battlefield between the Catholic church coming from Poland and the Russian Orthodox church,” Mr. Smukler said. “Lviv used to be Poland.
“So the conflict between the Russian Orthodox church and the Catholic church has thousands of years of history, and Ukraine always was the battlefield for that conflict. There were very bloody battles in the 15th and 16th centuries, until Peter the Great took over and expanded the influence of the Russian Orthodox church.
“As Jews, we have to understand that Kyiv is a holy city for the Russian Orthodox church.” It’s the home of Pechersk Lavra, the 1,000-year-old Monastery of the Caves, the center of ancient Russian Orthodoxy. “This is the city from which Russian Christianity, which came from Byzantium, was dispersed into the other parts of Russia,” Mr. Smukler said.
“Kyiv is the ancient capital of Russia, and Prince Vladimir, who adopted Christianity, spread Christianity and the Russian Orthodox church throughout the whole of Russia. So right now, the Russian Orthodox church is quietly staying behind Putin, and supporting him.
“For them, it’s like Jews coming back into Jerusalem and taking back the Holy City. Putin wants to be another Vladimir, the Vladimir of his generation.
“That’s why it’s important that he got the Russian patriarch’s blessing to retake Kyiv. It is their Jerusalem.
“My prediction is the Russians will not fight for western Ukraine, but they have to control Kyiv, to return it to the Russian Orthodox church.
“The church today quietly rules Russia. It unites the country. Its influence is so important and so strong. Putin is very involved in the church. He follows the patriarchs.”
During the communist era, religion was banned; that seemed to fall particularly harshly on Jews, but no one was exempt. The Russian Orthodox church also suffered.
“After the communist collapse, one of Putin’s ideas was to return Russia to being Greater Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “To make Russia great again. So he brought back the Russian Orthodox church; thousands of new churches were built, and major cathedrals. The church today is the most important pillar propping up his power.”
Volodymyr Zelensky is neither Russian Orthodox nor any other kind of Christian, but that isn’t why Putin detests him, Mr. Smukler said. “Putin has openly called him a clown. Putin does not accept Zelensky as an equal because he was an actor.”
Putin thinks of himself as simply better. “Putin thinks that he is a KGB-trained officer, which is the elite of intellectuality and education — and who is his opposition? An actor who a few years ago was conducting the birthday parties of Putin’s oligarchs? Now this guy is on the same level, and Putin is supposed to negotiate with him? To negotiate about holy places? Psychologically, to Putin, they can have absolutely nothing in common. It is impossible.
“Putin thinks that Ukrainians are out of their minds. They elected a clown to be their president, and this clown is going to negotiate with Putin?
“This clown who sits in the holy land?”
But Vladimir Putin is not an antisemite, Mr. Smukler said. “He is surrounded by Jews,” including many of the oligarchs. “His best childhood friends were Jews. He dedicated a whole chapter in his autobiography to the Jews who sort of adopted him — he was a tailor, she was a German teacher, and his parents worked all the time so they would pick him up from school for them, and they convinced him to go to law school.
“The Jewish community in Russia is flourishing, and Putin contributed to that. He always strongly condemned any antisemitic attacks. Jewish kids are wearing kippas openly in downtown Moscow; that city now is probably the safest place for Jews in the world.”
Mr. Smukler feels that he can understand Putin on a deep level because of the commonalities of their childhoods.
Like Mr. Smukler, Putin grew up in a communal apartment; a huge building where “you have long corridors with doors on both sides, and you share a kitchen and a bathroom and a toilet with other people.” The buildings were massive but the rooms were small and the overall affect was soulless. “So we all spent most of our time on the street,” Mr. Smukler said; that “we” includes Putin. “We were street boys,” he continued.
“Every street in every neighborhood had its own gang, and the boys in the gangs would fight other gangs for control of the street and of the neighborhood.
“You cannot survive on the street without becoming a fighter. Otherwise, you will be excluded. You will be like a white elephant in your school, in your neighborhood. This is something that every Russian who grew up in that time went through. We called it the school of the streets.
“I started to smoke at the age of 9. My parents left to go to work at 8 in the morning, and they usually came back at 8 or 9 p.m. I spent part of my days in school, and then after that on the streets, playing, running, doing” — he paused — “other things.
“One of the biggest components of our childhood was fistfights. The more you lose, the more your peers will put pressure on you.
“Remember, Putin is small. So he ended up learning martial arts. He was fighting from his childhood” — yes, it was a Napoleon complex, Mr. Smukler agreed — “and people like him — and I know this exactly — inside people like him, like us, if you put more and more pressure on such a character, he will find one way or another for revenge.
“This is very important for understanding his psychology. Physically he was not strong, so he had to find another way to show your friends, the members of your gang, that you are smart and strong. You have to get revenge on the ones who put pressure on you, who are trying to diminish you. That is in our blood. In his blood. This I know for a fact.”
That pressure helped Mr. Smukler connect with his Jewish identity; that was an opportunity not available to Vladimir Putin. “I chose my own path, but I know exactly the poison that he has in his blood.
“If somebody diminishes you and you cannot find a way to respond, to get revenge, then there is no rest. If the western politicians would understand his mentality, they would never conduct the policies against him that they are doing now.”
Mr. Smukler believes that sanctions are a bad idea “because they are hurting him, and he is always looking for revenge. It is in his cells. It is in his blood.
“I can see that his moves in Ukraine are emotional. He doesn’t see any logic in the sanctions; he said in a speech that ‘we have been trying to negotiate, but they implement sanctions.’ He is a political leader who doesn’t tolerate any pressure on him.
“That’s what is scaring me. How far can this go? I think that this guy could push the button. He has a nuclear bomb in his hand. The world is playing with fire.”
Mr. Smukler sees little but danger ahead. “Putin is a psycho,” he said. “These people who were raised on the Soviet streets — they don’t care how much blood will be spilled. We all had knives in our pockets. He doesn’t care.”
The way to deal with him is to “give him respect,” he said. But now, when he hears western politicians, “I think what the hell are you doing?” he said. “You are fighting with a nuclear superpower psycho man. We cannot speak to him like a normal person. He is obviously out of his mind. There is absolutely something wrong with his mental health. But if you corner a wolf, it will bite”
What we are doing now, however, Mr. Smukler warned, is “making China stronger.”
The sanctions won’t do much in Russia except make Russians suffer, “but they will never move.
“What they are doing now is making China stronger because the West built up an iron curtain, and now Russia is separate from Western civilization. Putin has only one market now, and that’s China.
“And China sits quietly, smiling and waiting.
“Putin has no choice to survive except to sell his mineral resources to China. China will dictate the prices. That’s what is making me sick to my stomach. Russia’s far east and Siberia are where all the mineral resources are, but 80 percent of all Russians live in the European part of the country.” The part of the country with the mineral resources, therefore, is sparsely populated. “The border with China is huge. It’s gigantic. And soon there will be 2 billion people in China
“China is quietly taking over the Russian far east and Siberia. In 20 or 30 years, the territories in the far east will be China’s.”
The west should have negotiated with Putin, Mr. Smukler said; now, it’s too late. “Putin crossed the red line before there was enough time to find common ground.”
What now? “It depends on what happens in the near future.
“We have made him an angry dwarf, and an angry dwarf will bite, and will fight to the end. Meanwhile China, the real dragon, sits quietly, watching and waiting.
“It is all so stupid.”
And, he added, “The world is in danger, because the angry dwarf controls the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.”