Rats. The story — the business about the young Vladimir Putin and the trauma of the rats — always sounded too pat. It involves his boyhood showdown with a rat that he supposedly chases into a corner. The rat, seeing no other way out, suddenly turns and — with rat-like cunning and leonine-like leaping — ferociously attacks him.
This tale has been circulating in the Western press as an insight into Mr. Putin’s rat-like psyche, fueling fears that Mr. Putin himself, if cornered, might, like a real Russian rodent, launch a desperate or even suicidal attack on America and our allies, potentially triggering a nuclear holocaust, or, in President Biden’s words, “World War III.”
Based on such thinking, Mr. Biden and his team have been dodging, weaving, and offering Mr. Putin “off-ramps” in a contorted attempt to “stand with Ukraine,” while visibly terrified of “escalating” directly against Mr. Putin. The result has been a failure to, say, provide Ukraine with MiG-29s or take other steps to deter Mr. Putin’s assault.
In such a situation Mr. Biden demurs, lest Mr. Putin deem these planes “offensive.” When Mr. Putin puts his nuclear forces on high alert, America, instead of readying its own forces, cancels a set of scheduled nuclear missile tests, lest Mr. Putin, in the manner of a trapped rat, fire intercontinental missiles at a frightened America.
To arrive at this rodentian view of Mr. Putin’s quivering whiskers means assuming that in the talk of the Russian’s own encounter with the rats Mr. Putin is intending himself to be the rat at the center of the yarn — prone, if cornered, to turn into a nuclear suicide-bomber. If one looks closely at Mr. Putin’s own words, though, that is not necessarily the lesson.
Remember, Mr. Putin is the author of this rodent encounter. His rat story turns up in a memoir published in English in 2000, the first year of the Russian dictator’s 22-year tyranny. Titled “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President,” the tome — brought out by Public Affairs Books — consists of a series of interviews with Mr. Putin, interspersed with commentary by persons who knew him.
The interviewers stress in the preface, “We have not added a single editorial line in the book.” Apart from their questions, the memoir “consists entirely of interviews and monologues” — meaning that anything attributed to Mr. Putin is what he himself said or at least wished to be quoted as saying. Which brings us to his memories of the communal apartment where he lived as a boy.
The building was in Leningrad. It was in that building, he tells us, “on the stair landing” that “I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered.’” Mr. Putin recalls that there were “hordes of rats.” He and his friends used to chase the rascals “with sticks.” One day, Mr. Putin says, “I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner.”
The aforementioned rat, Mr. Putin says, “had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me.”
Please mark that the lashing out was the response of the rat. What, though, did Mr. Putin do? As he tells it, he did not counter-attack. He certainly did not escalate. Instead, he turned and ran. “I was surprised and frightened,” he says. “Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose.”
In Mr. Putin’s own telling, he does not figure as the metaphorical rat. It is those who resist him whom he, in recent comments, calls the rats — “flies,” “scum and traitors,” and vermin who deserve to be beaten and bullied. Or, as Mr. Putin seeks to vilify Ukrainians — never mind their desire to join a liberal West, and their election of a Jewish president — “denazified.”
Look past Mr. Putin’s insults for a moment, and recall that when that old Leningrad rat suddenly challenged the Young Putin, the future Russian strongman ran and slammed the door. And there, one can speculate, the future man who might now be the world’s wealthiest kleptocrat slumped panting against the wall and quaking at his luck in finding a way out of a bad situation.
Now I am not a psychologist and, in any event, wouldn’t suggest that one rat story translates into a comprehensive guide to avoiding World War III. I am enough of a newspaperwoman, though, to suggest that if we are going to extrapolate from President Putin’s boyhood memories as a guide to his likely conduct in a 21st-century war, there is something to be said for paying attention to the text.