Of the many memorable images to have emerged from American involvement in World War II, a handful stand out in ways both poignant and arresting. They include American soldiers hoisting the flag after the ferocious but ultimately successful defeat of the entrenched Japanese on Iwo Jima, one of the Volcano Islands. There is also the deeper-than-grim visage of Dwight Eisenhower, commander of all Allied forces, who was compelled to reckon with the sight of mounds of emaciated corpses at Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, following its liberation. On the more cheering side is a picture of a sailor in the throes of a swooning kiss in broad daylight — by then the war’s end was imminent and a bedlam of joy arose in raucous Times Square. Perhaps fittingly, the worst, Auschwitz and Times Square both came in 1945, after years of exhausting, deadly conflict not known before or since. Every history buff has his or her favorite image, with the flag shot usually topping any consensus list.
But there is another, far less notorious photograph, this one taken at the Yalta Conference held in February 1945, when Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt, the so-called Big Three, gathered in a Crimean palace to attempt to parse the future of Europe when it had become clear that Nazi Germany and its allies were on the brink of defeat.
That the conference was held on Russian soil — ironic now, following the annexation of Crimea, then in independent Ukrainian hands, and the ongoing full-scale Russian invasion — should not be lost on anyone interested in pride and geopolitics. The former Russian province of Ukraine was territory deeply seeded with Russian milestones. It was at Yalta that Stalin made clear what he expected in return for having repulsed the Nazis, and the price was very, very high, including much of Eastern Europe. But that is a complex story for another day. However righteous the Ukrainian cause, the recent history of Russia flows through it in ways so seminal that current events could have been very easily foreseen.
But let’s turn to the image, in which Churchill is to FDR’s right, in fine bulldog form; FDR, under a typical polio-covering blanket is at the center; and Stalin, ferociously robust and scowling at FDR’s left, in full military uniform.
Stuck between a churlish Englishman and a no-nonsense Russian (whose Red Army had lost millions of men) is FDR, forcing a smile while at the same time looking fragile, wan, weak. Like a man who’d had his fill of life and was not long for it — as was in fact the case. Roosevelt, long ailing, died less than barely two months after Yalta, and it was his successor, Harry Truman, who pulled the trigger on the end of the Pacific war by authorizing the dropping of two atomic weapons on Japan. The United States still remains the only nuclear nation to have used such weapons during a war.
Many shots of FDR in this period suggested he was deeply unwell, but the careful, censored media of the era never permitted the gravity of his condition to leak out publicly. The American political hierarchy feared his adoring supporters — he was into his fourth term when he died — might turn anxious and fretful about the future of the not-yet-over war. Propaganda may be deplorable in general, but at times it has some measure of common sense on its side; sometimes it is a matter of preserving public morale.
Why this lengthy Yalta preamble? Why does the look of a leader even matter, when deeds, not looks, are what rule the world of strategic thinking?
Because some eighty years later another leader looks as if he’s on the verge of mental and physical collapse. His name is Vladimir Putin, and in many respects Stalin is a leader he still holds in high esteem, since it was Stalin who all but created brutal postwar Russia and delivered his demands at a conference in a place that Putin, in his KGB youth, considered pre-eminently Russian, and a key part of the Soviet Union — in effect its southern border abutting the Black Sea and acting as a shield against Western interlopers.
For years seen as something of a placid grandmaster with a macho side, the post-invasion Putin resembles an entirely different man. His posture is askew, his face bloated. Terrified of COVID, he meets rare visitors at a distance, as if afflicted by a paranoia caused by an outsized fear of sickness.
This is very likely because Putin himself is sick, perhaps with cancer, perhaps with a neurological disorder, his face likely distended by steroid usage and his bizarre behavior attributable to a series of internal breakdowns that have in essence removed him from any reality other than giving orders to be executed by yes-men, who in many cases have no love for what they’re being told to do. Yet a wounded animal is more fearsome than most, and no one dares to vex this rogue version of Putin.
Several intelligence services have already speculated that Putin is gravely ill, but none have been able to penetrate the matrix of secrecy that keeps all that goes on inside the Kremlin under lock and key. Since the invasion began, military officers have been shuffled or dismissed, or have simply vanished. Exiled oligarchs have died suspicious deaths. And Putin, when he does appear in public, appears to have aged twenty years in recent months, or been replaced, as some conspiracy theorists contend, by a look-alike. The assured Putin who took on American director Oliver Stone in a series of interview sessions less than seven years ago — a polished, witty man at the top of his game — no longer exists, just as the FDR of radio chat 1930s was nowhere to be found in Yalta.
Roosevelt had not yet turned 70 (in fact, he was 63), nor has Putin, but he seems stuck in a sort of personal twilight, which is also where FDR was stuck back then. For FDR that twilight was one of sadness, for Putin it is one of hostility and aggression. To paraphrase George Saunders’ 2017 novel, Putin is in the bardo, the Asian religious zone that is midwife to life and death at once.
The FDR and Putin facial and physical tics stand out because of their weight in the political worlds of their different eras. But other leaders have also seemed to have lost either their minds or bodies in visible ways.
French leader Georges Pompidou, who replaced the embattled Charles de Gaulle in the turbulent France of the late 1960s, also depended on steroids to keep him functioning while under siege from cancer. His face and body were bloated, and the reason soon became clear to all. At times, his public presence was that of a balloon-faced clown. He died in 1974.
Even John F. Kennedy, at the time of his inauguration and many times thereafter, looked either too fat-faced or too hunched, his own woes inflicted by the extreme pain from what is now speculated as autoimmune disease and exacerbated by a back injury sustained during the war, for which he used voluminous amounts of a cortisone derivative (among other medications). To insiders he confided that there was rarely a time in which he was not either in extreme pain or anxiously awaiting the return of pain after a course of corticosteroids. Some suggested the drugs affected his judgment. No one will ever know for sure because JFK, like Putin, had a screen protecting him and his presidency from intense scrutiny. That screen long ago vanished in America but remains alive and well in Putin’s Soviet Union, which he only reluctantly calls Russia. When he announced his invasion, he insisted Ukraine had never been a legitimate nation, behaving as if the year were 1945.
Putin’s justifications consisted of an inner conviction that provinces such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia had acquired independence only at Russia’s low ebb — the mid-1990s under Boris Yeltsin — when all was in chaos and no stern Stalin-like figure existed to rein in the rogues. But this is a madcap interpretation, even for Putin, since he spent the better part of a decade, starting in the early aughts, attempting to rehabilitate Russia’s image and repair its economy, succeeding in creating a flourishing middle class and a country that, while still disliked by the U.S. and troubling to Western Europe, rose in stature. Major energy deals were forged with Germany, the same country that had betrayed Stalin in 1941, placing “Mother Russia” in harm’s way. This did not dissuade the cash-hungry Putin. He even joined the West’s War on Terror — perhaps because his own dealings with Muslims were less than satisfactory. In his youth, Russia had invaded Afghanistan only to come out, as the U.S. would 40 years later, humbled and empty-handed. He fought but did not win the war to keep Muslim majority Chechnya under Russia’s total control. He did not challenge the energy-rich former Soviet provinces to Moscow’s east, preferring instead to reach trade deals.
In a word, Putin was no madman. Instead, he was the stable leader of a pretend democracy who was mostly reasonable in the give-and-take of international negotiation. At once shrewd and opportunistic, he enraged Washington with his hacking gambits and occasionally hostile rhetoric but was very much within the global fold.
The reason he is no longer in that fold is of course of his own making, but the central component of sanity plays a real part. FDR was already flirting with death at Yalta. Though it may not seem so, Putin may well be flirting with death, and before it dementia, as the present months unfold.
Unlike FDR, he offers little in the way of a wan smile and a tucked blanket. He is fading in a state of rage, not surrendering to a broken body. Rage is among a demented autocrat’s most common tools. Putin himself may not know just what’s happening to him, and who would dare play medical messenger to such a man in such a time?
Perhaps, as spring turns to summer and summer to fall, Putin’s illness will declare itself more openly, or perhaps, like Soviet leaders before him, he will disappear from public sight until Kremlin insiders feel more comfortable in pulling his plug, announcing his disability and replacement by an interim leader who may or may not pursue his reckless Ukrainian ploy. By then, his troops may be in full retreat, with Ukraine in charge of the future, its own future and in part that of Russia, thanks to massive war aid mostly from the U.S., which has allowed the American military to deploy all manner of new digital toys it would otherwise fail to test under battlefield circumstances. Ukraine is like Franco’s Spain in reverse, since it was Nazi Germany that came to the aid of the Fascist Spaniard during the 1930s Spanish Civil War, when Hitler sent troops and planes that tilted the war in Franco’s favor and allowed the German military to play with an air force that for nearly three years would control the skies of Europe, the Luftwaffe. In these gambits, Hitler was anything but mad.
The Russian case, and that of Putin, is pathetic by contrast. Many of his troops are starving. Their behavior has turned wanton and vicious, further motivating the Ukrainian fight-back. And in Moscow, behind the Oz curtain, a strange new Jekyll roams, no one very cognizant of what cells stream through his marred thought processes, but still in charge, and determined like Nero and others before him to carry his imagined torch forward until he has smitten all imagined enemies. If only he were Don Quixote, the most benign of demented soldiers, but intimations of mortality tend to vex all things benign, transforming righteousness into a mission and making folly seem ― in the mind of the beholder ― a task of noble magnitude that only those who cannot see the obvious fail to understand. These are the wheels of governing paranoia, and one look at history is enough to recognize for how long they have spun, and will likely continue spinning, well into the self-mutilating human future.