Russia's Borderline Personality

By Arias-King, Fredo; De Arias, Arlene King et al. | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Russia's Borderline Personality


Arias-King, Fredo, De Arias, Arlene King, De La Canal, Fredo Arias, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: Russia behaves in a fundamentally different way. The authors compare Russia's international behavior with the clinical diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder. They describe various traits of this disorder with an emphasis on handling those suffering from it.

Keywords: Borderline Personality Disorder, codependence, countermoves, inferiority complex, interpersonal sensitivity, insularism, limit-setting, maladaptive traits, Manichaeism, mirroring, narcissism, neurosis, projection, projective identification, rationalization, situational competence, split cultural identity, sponging, syncretism, undefined boundaries, unstable identity, victimization

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Any outsider who comes in contact with Russia soon realizes that it behaves in a fundamentally different way. Sometimes Russia reminds us of people we know, leading us to speculate that it must somehow have a collective personality, which makes it all the more challenging and alluring. We speak of Russia's mysterious "deep soul" (even "slave soul") gleamed by reading Fyodor Dostoevsky or listening to Aleksandr Skryabin. Fyodor Tyutchev famously remarked that Russia cannot be understood with the mind, only emotionally. Winston Churchill even more famously regretted that Russia "is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." A Gorbachev supporter once praised the former Soviet leader as a master psychoanalyst who knew how to change Russia whereas others would have failed. (1) A leading Western Sovietologist, Fiona Hill, once mentioned that Russia "resembles a paranoid individual." (2) Another one, Peter Rutland, warned that any attempt to dissect Russia's enigmatic personality is bound to raise more questions than answers. "Expect the unexpected," he advised. (3)

The observation that nations behave as individuals is anecdotal yet widespread, not really grounded academically, though both the realist and liberalist schools of international relations to some extent assume it. Development economists and even political scientists speak of whether a country has "matured." Using Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories, Arthur Koestler spoke of the "political neuroses" of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom before, during, and after World War II. (4) Russian analysts routinely use these tools to describe Russia, as have some Western specialists. (5) Ambassador George F. Kennan in his 1946 "Long Telegram" and 1947 "X" article--probably the most influential early Cold War documents--spoke about "psychological analysis" in his attempt at dissecting the complex interactions of elites, history, and peoples that produced the Kremlin's "neurotic" views and actions. (6)

In this spirit, we propose that Russia's behavior has a striking resemblance to what is known as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is one of the ten personality disorders recognized by the psychological and psychiatric academy. Whether this resemblance is purely coincidental or the result of some dynamic we dare not speculate about remains beyond any discipline or theories of which we are aware. But the parallel is so obvious that it would not be surprising if by stating it we accidentally plagiarized someone else. According to the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV), a person can be diagnosed with BPD if they suffer from five of the following nine symptoms:

1. Frantic effort to avoid real or imagined abandonment;

2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation;

3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self;

4. Impulsivity in areas that are potentially sell-damaging;

5. Recurring suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior;

6. …

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