Editorial: You don't have to be mad to work at the Kremlin... but it helps

Take note – story published 9 years and 3 months ago

There is an episode of the 1970s TV drama Colditz in which an inmate of the famous World War II German prison camp comes up with a novel new means of escape: he will pretend he is mad.

He starts to behave erratically, begins making bizarre, irrelevant speeches and suffers violent mood swings completely out of his normally placid character. 

He has to stay 'crazy' all the time – none but a couple of senior officers know he is faking and if anyone were to see him acting 'normally' the deception would be finished and the whole camp punished.

Eventually even the German guards become concerned by his unusual behavior and send for a psychiatrist. The escape committee is worried: this will be the real test. The psychiatrist is one of the leading experts in his field and would detect the slightest hint of fakery.

Amazingly, after extensive tests, the psychiatrist certifies the escaping prisoner as clinically insane, meaning he can be repatriated, though the prisoner himself even fights to stay in the camp. Eventually he is forced into a car and driven away. It is one of the most sensational escapes ever accomplished.

A few weeks later the other prisoners get a letter saying he has arrived home safely. Just when the officers start congratulating each other, the letter continues that he has been committed to a mental asylum in England, a hopeless case.

The officers realise the truth. He started out faking but at some point the strain was too much and he really did go mad. None of them noticed – and worst of all, they were cheering him on in his insanity.

In the 1930s a lot of people thought Hitler was just an extraordinarily cynical statesman. A lot of people liked him for it. Naturally, he didn't believe in a lot of the things he said and all the uniforms, salutes and book burnings were no more than stunts for the stupid public – but he certainly got things moving, didn't he?.

Only it turned out he wasn't faking. The uniforms, salutes and book burning were Nazism itself, not its public relations wing  – he was a madman after all and when he said 'final solution' he really meant 'final solution'.

Watching the Munich Security Conference this week was a worrying experience – not because of what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and senior Duma member Konstantin Kosachev were saying, but the way they said it.

There wasn't the ironical sneer of the speaker who knows he is lying but has such contempt for his audience that he doesn't care. Nor was there the bravado of the provocateur who will say anything for the desired effect.

The most telling line was from Kosachev who claimed indignantly that the modern tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, rockets and other heavy weaponry the 'rebels' in Eastern Ukraine have at their disposal (and which have been well documented) plus the 'Little Green Men' had nothing to do with Russia:

“It does not exist. There is no evidence.”

Both Lavrov and Kosachev seemed genuinely affronted and upset that the well-informed and usually rather conservative audience found their claims about the way Russians have been oppressed and how Crimea was annexed in line with international law so outlandish that they openly laughed at them.

Some took a certain pleasure from the sight of them being mocked. But though I'm all in favor of taking politicians down a peg or two with well-placed laughter, on this occasion I wasn't joining in.

The reason was simple – for all the assurances from experts including Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves that Lavrov must feel pretty dumb having to peddle such trash, the look in his and particularly Kosachev's eyes was uncannily reminiscent of the Colditz escapee.

So, until proved otherwise it would be much safer if we treat Putin's gang not as misguided but masterful Machiavellian strategists probing and preying on the weaknesses of the West. 

Instead we should believe that they believe every word they say - a terrifying concept indeed.

When he started off in the Russian Presidency, Putin was apparently a clever man with a clever 12-year plan to make Russia a prosperous and stable democracy of sorts. But at some point, while playing his role of Peter the Great crossed with Napoleon, he started believing his own fantasy.

This late-period Putin of plastic surgery, finding ancient vases while scuba diving, riding barechested across the steppe and Novorossiya dreamland might not be a PR creation. It might not even be mere egomania. It might be the real Putin. These might be the real Lavrov and the real Kosachev too - in which case we'd be well advised to keep a closet full of straitjackets close at hand.

(Views expressed are the authors alone)


Seen a mistake?

Select text and press Ctrl+Enter to send a suggested correction to the editor

Select text and press Report a mistake to send a suggested correction to the editor

Related articles


Most important