09/05/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Putin: The Psyche of the Modern Dictator

Dictators have always existed. They have taken many forms. We can go back to Rome, to the rise of Julius Caesar; an ancient democratic state that became psychologically convinced it was safer, and easier, to trust the power of a single person over the power of the people collectively. We can look to more modern examples, like Stalin, who took over a state that was already a dictatorship, and used his unwieldy power to oppress and murder an estimated twenty million of his own citizens. His psyche -- and his peoples psyche -- was driven by fear. Hitler. Mao. Pol Pot. The list continues indefinitely. These leaders ruled through both patronage and terror.

We often ask: how do these dictators gain power? In ancient times -- up to the founding of the United States -- we cherished the right to bear arms, preserving the ability to rise up against our government if they decided to suppress us. This was a fundamental aspect of citizens' security. We feared that violence, more than anything, could be the main weapon to oppress citizens.

But in the modern world, uprisings happen less through violence than through change of heart. Think of the Soviet Union, or South Africa. There were violent uprisings in these countries in the past, including the Velvet Revolution in the Soviet Union. The African National Congress (which later became a nonviolent political party), attacked many Afrikaners.

But the catalyst for change was that ultimately, almost everyone stopped believing in the prosperity of their nation (as with the Soviet Union), or that they could be maligned because of their race (as with South Africa). South Africa had Nelson Mandela. Russia, unfortunately, had no equivalent. And so today, we see the rise of Russia again as a dictatorship; Putin, in the minds of many Russians, is the strong man, the man -- despot or not -- who can free his nation from its declining fortunes.

There are numerous factors that have contributed to Putin's rise; but perhaps most pertinent is the psychological trauma Russians experienced, as their nation fell from world power status. There is no easy way to reconcile oneself to that reality. We, as humans, feel the need to be cared for, to experience safety. Though the Cold War produced its own traumas, none was greater for the Russian people than sensing they were defenseless against the political, economic, and social forces of other countries, particularly the U.S. and Western European states. Putin represents a class of people from the former intelligence agencies, like the KGB, called siloviki -- literally person of power -- in Russian.

Putin, for all the negative publicity he receives from the Western press, remains an idol to many of his people. Has he suppressed dissenters? Accounts vary -- but to some extent, the answer is yes. Yet this is not how the dictator takes power, not today. In the same way Russia's turn to democracy in the early '90s was almost entirely bloodless, so too was Putin's rise to power. We see, in the modern context, a turn back to feeding the public interest. In Russia (but not only Russia), we witness politicians acting to please the souls of their citizens; to do whatever is necessary, violent or not, that will lead their peoples to glory. But the violence is externalized. Shedding the blood of your citizens, akin to Mao or Stalin, is not considered a wise move.

The urge to be safe (and in a sense powerful) extends to all facets of modern life. As Russians continue to be immersed in the web of Putin's charisma, they also understand -- implicitly -- that their well-being is ensured. And this safety could very well come at the expense of another nation's -- like Ukraine's -- sovereignty. Re-establishing power in one nation usually comes by diminishing the power of another state. In this case, not only are the citizens of Russia psychologically ensured of their safety within the confines of the country, but they are also affirmed by what occurs outside it.

Western Europe and the U.S. can condemn Russia as much as they please. But by invading Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (and North Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia a few years ago), Russia both re-defines how the external world perceives it, and how its citizens perceive themselves. The faith for this transformation lies in Putin, who in essence remains the guiding force for Russia's self-determination.

An ancient Greek mantra, known as the Delphic code, states "know thyself." The dictators' code may very well be "know thy people."