Image Source: Nine Inch News.
When there is a crisis of values, when consensus around a dominant narrative begins to dissolve, the world seeks an anti-hero. Vladimir Putin would like to be that anti-hero. This is a leader whose survival and success depend on ruthlessness, combined with a counter-factual gloss that obfuscates his darker acts (see the sobering details here, trumping the alleged Clinton body count (listed here, discredited here)). Where else could opposition leader Boris Nemtsov be shot this past February in Moscow's midnight, while business goes on as usual? That is the tip of the iceberg of the story of this man who is willing to do what others will not to steer Russia toward sole superpower status, combining with a friendly China in the race to the top, and supplanting the USA.
"Stories matter. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity." http://t.co/RhxogvsFlI— TED Talks (@TEDTalks) July 9, 2015
Putin is overtly a pragmatist and a strongman, and covertly a strategist and visionary. He uses whatever is useful from the western lexicon. For the rest of it, he speaks as the leader of the anti-western world. Putin's paradox depends on two psychological factors. First, western powers are blind to how and why opposition to the liberal democratic project works. Second, western powers depend on values of rationalized contracts, law and order, word of honour, rule of law. They have serious problems dealing with Putin's appetite for the counter-intuitive and anti-logical. In that realm, he can become a kind of Erlking, speaking the language of sane men in a primal context where such words have lost their meaning. Many of Putin's anti-logical acts make perfect emotional sense to his admirers. By any means, Putin intends to restore the international power of Russia and the dignity of the Russian people. Or so this counter-narrative alternate reality would have the people believe.
Erlking/After the Shower (2011) © Dominque Rey via SAAG. Image Source: Southern Alberta Art Gallery.
The Second World War and end of the Cold War established a now-contested consensus. These were western victories, only partly Russian. They created democratic liberal window dressing for global capitalism, combined with multicultural social welfare. Former Allies - including Russia - fought genocidal and tyrannical forces. Because the Nazi and Japanese acts to support imperial expansion were so horrific, it is inconceivable in the western mind that anyone would want to follow that path ever again. And because any alternative to this single-story consensus raises the Nazi spectre, the consensus created a bright, hard blindness about other ways of doing things. There is one way for civilized countries: the consensus. Anything else is beyond the limits. As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TED talk linked above, a single story is dangerous and becomes oppressive, even when the story is benevolent (or thinks it is) and anti-oppressive. A single story demands other stories for balance. When a single story becomes dominant, like the western consensus narrative, then its dominance invites rebellion. And the rebellious story, even if it is tyrannical and murderous, will sound like a anti-oppression narrative.