How Vladimir Putin’s childhood is affecting us all – ACEs Too High

In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter proposed establishing a group of physicians to ascertain the mental health of a sitting president. A panel was assembled to consider the proposal, but the idea withered. During the Trump presidency, some U.S. lawmakers suggested that the vice president and the cabinet hire experts to evaluate the mental health of the president due to his erratic behavior, but that proposal went no further, either. It’s clear that it would be useful to develop some guidelines for leaders, especially before they start inflicting abuse on the people they lead.
So, what to do when a powerful leader such as Russian President Vladimir Putin invades and attacks a nation of 40 million people just because he believes his own big lies that they’re not a country? And they commit genocide? And they’re Nazi’s? (What???) The reality is that Ukraine didn’t attack Russia, had no plans to attack Russia, and why would it? Russia’s military is 10 times larger AND they have nuclear weapons. It’s clear that Putin has created his own reality about the situation, one that isn’t shared by people who operate in facts. Besides, his actions cannot be justified merely because he believes his reality. He’s a damaged person who needs to stop what he’s doing before he shatters the lives of millions more.
Of course, smarter people than I are doing their best to wrestle him to impotence, as country after country piles on sanctions to encourage people in the Kremlin to stop him from murdering any more kids or blow up more hospitals. I’m one of millions around the world who are cheering them on. But what I can do is this: encourage and educate people to not create more Putins.
Putin’s childhood
Putin had a bad childhood. Okay, okay, okay. Before I go into the relevant details, I can hear the mutters and see the comments already. LOTS of people have difficult childhoods, you’re probably thinking, and most of them never attacked or even THINK about attacking a nation of 40 million people to intentionally destroy their lives. True. But stay with me.
The facts as we know them: Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, a city that lived under a nearly three-year siege by the Nazis during World War II that wiped out most of the population of more than three million people. One million people starved to death. The siege has been termed a genocide and is described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. His father was badly injured in the war; his mother nearly died of starvation. Before Putin was born, his parents had lost two children, one from diphtheria. Leningrad had not yet recovered, and life was extremely difficult. His parents had a room in run-down apartment with two other families. The details are sketchy, but they had no hot water, no bathtub, perhaps little or no heat. Both parents worked as much as they could to support themselves and him, his father in a factory, his mother any odd job she could get. One report says they left him with another family. But it was clear that he was left to fend for himself in the company of other kids in the apartment building. He was bullied, no doubt severely.
But at least two experiences kept him from living on the streets his entire life: He probably had support from a coach, because he learned judo to defend himself, and, after a rough time during his elementary school years, a sixth-grade teacher reportedly took interest in him. She brought out his intellect. He excelled in high school. He eventually got a law degree and joined the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was obviously done. It produced a “macho, distrustful, unpredictable, a cultivator of half-truths and disinformation…a former KGB officer who remains culturally and psychologically tied to a Soviet Union that no longer exists.”

By inference, when you look at Putin’s early years, the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) pile up—lack of food, inadequate housing, bullying, neglect, parental depression, etc. And he obviously inherited a bunch of ACEs from his parents, including wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces that threatened their existence and their homeland. But what’s also evident is what he didn’t seem to get: appropriate attachment—the strong and requisite bond between a parent and a child that leads to a healthy life and without which children can die or be damaged. That was because his parents had to work most of the time, or because they didn’t know how or were too preoccupied with their own issues to be attached parents. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to be part of Putin’s world.
Nobody’s born bad
A friend sent me an essay that psychologist Alice Miller wrote called, “The Ignorance or How we produce the Evil”. It’s remarkable, and I encourage everyone to read it. She said that although evil exists, people aren’t born evil. How they live their lives depends on what happens after they’re born (and also before, as epigenetics is teaching us).
Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness, and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse, and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator in the formative years of all the dictators I have studied. The result is that these children will tend to glorify the violence inflicted upon them and later to take advantage of every possible opportunity to exercise such violence, possibly on a gigantic scale. Children learn by imitation. Their bodies do not learn what we try to instill in them by words but what they have experienced physically. Battered, injured children will learn to batter and injure others; sheltered, respected children will learn to respect and protect those weaker than themselves. Children have nothing else to go on but their own experiences.
We actually don’t need the details of what happened to Putin as a child to understand the roots of his current actions. People who hurt people have been hurt themselves, as Miller pointed out. Even if they’ve had just one ACE, but don’t have enough positive experiences characteristic of a healthy human being, they’re likely to have problems.
“All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty,” Miller wrote, “although they themselves steadfastly denied this. And in this they are not alone. Large sections of society are apparently determined either to deny or to ignore these facts.”
How Putin’s childhood is playing out
Madeline Albright, who served as U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, met with newly appointed acting president Putin and outgoing president Boris Yeltsin in 2000. In an opinion piece in the New York Times on February 23, 2022, she wrote:
Whereas Mr. Yeltsin had cajoled, blustered and flattered, Mr. Putin spoke unemotionally and without notes about his determination to resurrect Russia’s economy and quash Chechen rebels. Flying home, I recorded my impressions. “Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.”
In the 20-odd years since we met, Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook. He has collected political and economic power for himself — co-opting or crushing potential competition — while pushing to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance through parts of the former Soviet Union. Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason. He is sure that Americans mirror both his cynicism and his lust for power and that in a world where everyone lies, he is under no obligation to tell the truth. Because he believes that the United States dominates its own region by force, he thinks Russia has the same right.
Alice Miller had some observations about other dictators that are pertinent to understanding Putin’s particular actions over the last month. Adolf Hitler was beaten mercilessly during his childhood by a father who was illegitimate and of Jewish descent, both of which, during those times, brought him constant and overbearing shame his entire life.
In the entire history of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews, no other ruler had ever hit upon the idea that, on pain of death, every citizen in his country must provide proof of non-Jewish descent extending back to the third generation. This was Hitler’s OWN PERSONAL BRAND OF MANIA. And it is traceable to the insecurity of his existence in his own family, the insecurity of a child constantly living under the threat of violence and humiliation. Later millions were to forfeit their lives so that this child – now a childless adult – could avenge himself by unconsciously projecting the grim scenario of his childhood onto the political stage.
Stalin was also brutalized by his father when he was a child, she pointed out.
Stalin was an only child. Like Hitler he was the first child to survive after three siblings who had died in infancy. His irascible father was almost always drunk and laid into his son from an early age. Despite the fame and power he later achieved, Stalin suffered throughout his life from a persecution mania that drove him to order the killing of millions of innocent people. Just as the infant Stalin lived in fear of sudden death at the hands of his unpredictable father, so the adult Stalin lived in fear even of his closest associates. But now he had the power to fend off those fears by humiliating others.
China’s Mao Zedong and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu also had brutal childhoods, with consequences that, in Mao’s case killed 35 million people, and in Ceaucescu’s case, forced women to have unwanted children, Miller pointed out. We can add others: the members of Myanmar’s junta who have murdered millions, mostly Rohingya as well as other minority groups; the Chinese leadership that is imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in prison camps….the list goes on,  
Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon wrote that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.”
Stalin killed nearly a million people per year in the quarter century of his rule. Khrushchev and Brezhnev both served apprenticeships under Stalin, not by distributing food stamps or serving in a Peace Corps, but by efficiently eliminating those whom Stalin saw as threats to his power. Khrushchev was sent to the Ukraine by Stalin in 1938 to conduct a political housecleaning. Within a year 163 of the 166 members of the Central Committee there had been liquidated. Khrushchev was then promoted to full membership in the Politburo.
Acting out unresolved issues
In Putin’s second speech on Feb. 23, he said:
The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.
To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.
When I first read this, I couldn’t figure out why Putin used the words “genocide” and “denazify”. But, in light of his childhood, now I do. And his compulsion to avoiding looking weak, and equating being good with power is also clearer, in the following quote.  
During a press conference reported by the Washington Post, Putin said that using military might to resolve problems was a good thing. The main thing, he added, was to avoid weakness. “Well, why do you think that the good must always be frail and helpless? I do not think that is true,” Putin said. “I think good means being able to defend oneself.”
In Putin’s mind, he feels threatened by Ukraine and considers himself a victim. He must defend himself, just the way he had to do by learning judo as a child, and thus has come up with a plethora of reasons to justify his invasion. But it’s clear he’s acting out the suffering, deprivations, and existential threats experienced by his family and community during the Second World War, experiences buried so deep in his mind that he’s not conscious of them. and he is now inflicting those same circumstances on the families in the cities of Ukraine.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and that’s what the PACEs Connection community is dedicated to preventing. “Having the power to destroy doesn’t mean being strong,” Miller pointed out. “Real strength means being able to understand our feelings and our history so that we become free to act from conscious motives instead of being driven by unconscious fears like Stalin, Hitler, and others.”
Including Putin.
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Very powerful and thought provoking piece Jane. Thank you for taking the time to research and write this when so many are trying to make sense of what is happening in Ukraine.
Thanks, Warren. I hope you and yours are well.
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Trump’s father brutalized his sons, too. Makes sense that he’d gravitate toward dictators of his own ilk.
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Not only that he had an absentee mother, due to the health issues she dealt with.
My thoughts as well. It’s a surprise the press isn’t picking up on this to connect Trump with Putin regarding Ukraine and their far reaching agenda.
These articles are thought provoking, and begs the question of why is the focus so much on putin , and not the politburo, and the political machine of Russia
Who for decades since demise of the USSR ,
Have been looking on the global arena, and seeing
The west brutalities on Iraq , Yemen , Libya , Palestinians genocide and endless wars ?!!!
Should not analysis of this leaders be brought into questions too ?!!!!
I am opposed to war ,
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I know abusive people whose parents tried everything to help their violent children. They got help from professionals, family, friends, teachers, etc. Nothing worked. It can’t always be blamed on the parents. Working in the social services, I know of parents who gave up violent children to be wards of the state. They were afraid for their lives and afraid for the lives of their other children. I have been told “Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” In a few cases, the genetic gun is loaded so heavily that the best families cannot stop a child from going bad. Most people disagree with me, stating that nobody is born bad. I think maybe two percent of people are born to be violent and no interventions can turn the tide.
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Susan Hilde, I agree with you. Others can get a sense of people like this by reading books by Martha Stout like “The Sociopath Next Door” , or watching the movie “Unfit” by the organization Duty to Warn.
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I have the genetics (it runs in the family), I had the abuse. It takes tremendous effort to not give in to the anger. And even more to banish it. It can be done. Leary’s experiments showed the way.
BTW the parents almost always trigger the PTSD with some form of child abuse. I never met an angry one who wasn’t abused. Mostly the parents, but sometimes, outside agents. Outsiders get all the press. It is relatively rare. Parents.
I agree. From my own experiences, I believe that analogy of genetics and environment to be accurate.
Insightful article.
Continued evidence that in order to heal our worlds people, we must address trauma.
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Others writers mention that Putin’s father lived through WW 1 as a child in a district where “everyone was starving”. Putin said in his memoir that his father was characteristically a “silent man” who, after a spell in the navy, served in WW2 in a “sabotage battalion behind enemy lines”.
Wikipedia: “[Putin’s] father was a conscript in the Soviet Navy, serving in the submarine fleet in the early 1930s. Early in World War II, his father served in the Destruction Battalion of the NKVD”
Putin senior had much to be silent about. The NKVD of course was the secret-police/ideology-enforcement forerunner of the KGB. Its wartime Destroyer/Terminator units were an infamous “mopping up” and occupation-force in Finland, the Baltic countries and parts of Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belorus. (Later, Estonia formally declared them guilty of war crimes.)
Here are their official instructions for imposing military and ideological control after invasion: Plainly these are meant for an occupying force, not saboteurs…
“In every village and settlement, the destruction battalion has a number of tasks in addition to directly breaking the enemy. With bolshevist grimness, everybody who imparts provocational rumours or generates panic, must be extirpated. Everybody, who directly or indirectly helps the enemy, must be found out and exterminated.”
Obviously, any “Terminator” soldier who showed the slightest reluctance would be executed out of hand the same way. How does a man come back from being that brutal (and that terrified?) to find his sons dead of starvation (!) and disease — and then go on a few years later to raise a late, lone new baby (Vladimir Putin)?
As for Putin beating a class of 100 to get into the KGB — well, it wasn’t all brains. He had impeccable family connections. An apt career choice to prove you’re as hard as the old man.
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Really support your view that kid learn from their experience but not from words. It’s really true and parents like us need to be aware anytime when we are facing our little kids, especially when they are so naughty that no words can stop their non sense behaviours. Childhood with violence and humiliation would only create future devil. It’s easy understanding. Yet we’ll need more better ways and skills to manage our emotions as parent when handling the child when they are out of control. Cheers
Excellent and very informative…it is so very sad to witness innocent people being the recipients of one mad man who has played out his evil his entire life. He has no feelings for other humans besides hate. He has reached the point of no return..I don’t think he will live very much longer as the world wants him stopped BUT how many more people will be killed at his threat of nuclear war on any and all countries that try to stop him.
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I sometimes wonder how much immense long-term suffering might have been prevented had the parent(s) of a future tyrant received, as high school students, some crucial child development science education by way of mandatory curriculum. After all, dysfunctional and/or abusive parents, for example, may not have had the chance to be anything else due to their lack of such education and their own dysfunctional/abusive rearing as children. If nothing else, such curriculum could offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.
Regardless, countless people will procreate regardless of their questionable ability to raise their children in a psychologically functional/healthy manner. Being free nations, society cannot prevent anyone from bearing children; society can, however, educate all young people for the most important job ever, even those high-schoolers who plan to remain childless. …
If physically survived, emotional and/or psychological trauma from unhindered toxic abuse usually results in a helpless child’s brain improperly developing. If allowed to continue for a prolonged period, it can act as a starting point into a life in which the brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammation-promoting stress hormones and chemicals, even in non-stressful daily routines. I consider it a form of non-physical-impact brain damage.
The lasting mental pain is very formidable yet invisibly confined to inside one’s head. It is solitarily suffered, unlike an openly visible physical disability or condition, which tends to elicit sympathy/empathy from others. It can make every day a mental ordeal, unless the turmoil is treated with some form of medicating, either prescribed or illicit.
Owing to the Only If It’s In My Own Back Yard mindset, however, the prevailing collective attitude (implicit or subconscious) basically follows: ‘Why should I care — my kids are alright?’ or ‘What is in it for me, the taxpayer, if I support programs for other people’s troubled families?’ While some people will justify it as a normal thus moral human evolutionary function, the self-serving OIIIMOBY can debilitate social progress, even when social progress is most needed. And it seems this distinct form of societal penny wisdom but pound foolishness is a very unfortunate human characteristic that’s likely with us to stay.
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May God will punished putin for what he has did to Ukrainians and whole world.
A few decades ago I learned from two Latter Day Saints missionaries that their church’s doctrine teaches that the biblical ‘lake of fire’ meant for the truly wicked actually represents an eternal spiritual burning of guilt over one’s corporeal misdeeds. Accordingly, I concluded, upon an atrocity-committing monster’s physical death, not only would he (or she) be 100 percent liberated from the anger and hate that blighted his physical life; also, his spirit or consciousness would be forced to exist with the presumably unwanted awareness of the mindbogglingly immense amount of needless suffering he personally had caused.
I believe that the human soul may be inherently good, on its own; however, trapped within the physical body, notably the corruptible brain, oftentimes the soul’s purity may not be able to shine through. While the heart may be what keeps the soul grounded in this physical world, I believe that it is the brain and any structural or chemical-imbalance flaws within that, unfortunately, essentially defines one’s character/behavior while the soul is confined within the bodily form.
It may be the case that the worst mass-atrocity-committing people throughout history had been thoroughly corrupted by a seriously flawed cerebral structure thus mind (or state of mind). Though, admittedly, that would be, even if true, no consolation to their countless brutalized victims.
Interesting, I do and I don’t agree, and I am by no means an expert in psychology. I feel it necessary however to point out, after having met many people the world over, some in less fortunate countries, that I have met “putin style” people from pristine backgrounds and on the other end, “mother theresa” style people who have had it really hard. I think this may explain part of the issue, but not all of it.
You make me laugh reading your article. In how many ways right now we teach our children with violent movies and games how to create millions of Putin?
Putin has forced foreigners to test for HIV and syphilis since dec 2021! Could the reason be that he is suffering from tertiary syphilis explaining his erratic behaviour?
Anders Löfqvist
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I wish you had a broader platform for your excellent analyses of the connection between
adverse childhood experiences and their long term effects on a person’s character, temperament and personality.
Yeah, there are facts. Thanks.
Excellent article.
Thank you for this clear analysis. German sociologist Sven Fuchs has written an eye opening book named “Die Kindheit ist politisch!” (Childhood is political!), digging into the childhood of many other politicians (including Putin) – maybe you want to exchange views : his blog is kriegsursachen dot blogspot com.
Thanks, Franz! I’ll take a look.
I appreciate the role that ACEs play in shaping personality, but there are plenty of people who had tons of ACEs, and instead, choose a different path. Some like myself become healers.
As a neuroscientist, we can’t forget that specific parts of the brain regulate empathy (for example the anterior insular cortex), and that psychopaths show differences in sizes of those areas (meaning underdevelopment). These areas can also be injured later in life, due to toxins or pathogens.
So I respectfully disagree. Some people are born bad. There can be epigenetic causes that determine whether the empathy circuits work, or toxins/pathogens in utero that can arrest the development of specific areas.
If you have plenty of ACEs, and yet you make a conscious choice to work on you and not harm others (in the way you’ve been harmed), you can experience post traumatic growth, and contribute positively to the world.
But some people w/ACEs don’t think they need help (or their ego is too fragile to admit it), and they just pass their pain along to others.
Either way you have a choice about your legacy in this world.
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People that have been emotionally abused usually abuse their children. If they work to avoid abusing their children by keeping their anger inside they become depressed people.,
If they are provided with positive childhood experiences, and acknowledge their ACEs, they can heal. Many have.
Dr. Huang, Are you suggesting that anyone born with a deficient anterior insular cortex or a damaged empathy circuits is “bad”?? Do we remove them from society? Do we imprison them because the “might” do something bad due to actually “being born bad”? Is there ever a person with these deficiencies who leads a perfectly “good” life? And if so, what is it more than a tendency? I think it is exceedingly dangerous and foolish to dismiss someone as “bad” from birth.
I’m not labeling anyone as good or bad. But if you have damaged empathy circuits (as seen with psychopaths), these people don’t seek help to change, and don’t believe they need to. And if they did, traditional Western medicine doesn’t have a way to address the problem. Experts in the field of psychopathy don’t believe there is anything that can be done.
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Thanks for this thoughtful, insightful analysis. Of course it begs the question, how does one restrain such mania and its incredible danger for others? What are the rational and effective interventions — even now — to restrain Putin? I don’t have nor expect a simple answer…but with compassion one must ask such questions. Your thoughts? Warm regards, Vic
I’m not educated in the ways of diplomacy or arm-twisting or whatever happens at that level where world leaders work things out. The only thing I can work for is a society that integrates policies and practices based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences so that people can’t gain a foothold into autocracy. It’s actually pretty much up to us, isn’t it? With the worldwide reaction to Putin, I have great hope that we’re on our way.
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There must be a broad movement for a legal ban of child corporal punishment in every country in the world to establish peace right at the foundations of a society. There are many initiatives out there led by UNICEF, WHO, , , – and for the USA the hashtag #ratifycrc seems to be the one for discussing this issue on social media platforms …
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The title of the article caught my attention because I am familiar with ACEs research through my work with virtue-resources for child caregivers. In response to your question about effective interventions, I refer you to the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. It offers a free certification program called The Brain Story. They want to spread the word so health care providers and others can can stop ACEs. They have the tools to help do it.
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Thanks for the suggestion, Vera. The folks at Palix Foundation are friends. The sister social network to is, where there’s lots of information about interventions, for humans between pre-birth to death.
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