Death Anxiety Could Play Role in Putin’s Ukraine Invasion

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What is the link between anxiety about death and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine? A Seattle-based organization is hosting a webinar Friday to discuss the connection.

The Ernest Becker Foundation seeks to advance understanding of its namesake’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Denial of Death.” Friday’s webinar starts at 10 a.m.

Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College and a panelist for the webinar, said Becker’s ideas about terror-management theory put forth that humans manage their fear of death by embracing cultural worldviews to give life meaning.

Solomon explained it convinces us we are eligible for immortality, sometimes literally with ideas of heaven or afterlives.

“Or symbolically, just the idea that you may not be here forever, but some indication of your existence will persist nonetheless,” Solomon remarked. “Maybe by having kids or amassing a great fortune or being part of a great state or nation.”

Solomon argued whether we are aware of it or not, we are highly motivated to maintain faith in our cultural beliefs since they give value to our lives as individuals, and will respond defensively and reflexively when our cultural beliefs or self-esteem is threatened.

Enter Vladimir Putin. Solomon noted Putin has been motivated since his days as a KGB agent when the Soviet Union collapsed, to bring back the golden age of the U.S.S.R., thus giving him a path toward symbolic immortality.

He emphasized Putin is an example of a toxic leader who might experience overwhelming waves of death anxiety.

“The superficial veneer of self-confidence is really a mask for massive insecurity,” Solomon contended. “A sense of always possibly being humiliated that in turn fosters, whether he’s aware of it or not, a constant sense of self-loathing.”

Michael McPhearson, executive director of South Seattle Emerald, is hosting the webinar. He is also a Gulf War veteran and member of Veterans for Peace.

“Death anxiety goes a long way at least in helping provide some understanding of why we put up with this terrible thing that we call war,” McPhearson stated.

Solomon believes the pandemic has been a pervasive reminder of our mortality and could be fueling the rise of authoritarianism around the globe, as people cling tighter to their beliefs. But he added a better understanding of death anxiety could play a role in ratcheting down these forces.

“One way — and it may be the only way — that we can overcome those very destructive tendencies is to go to great lengths to remind ourselves that as human beings, we have a whole lot more in common than we are different,” Solomon concluded.

Featured photo: Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. (Volodymyr/Adobe Stock)

Eric Tegethoff

Eric Tegethoff is a journalist covering the Northwest. Eric has worked as a reporter for KBOO, XRAY FM, and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon, as well as other print and digital news media. In 2012, Eric traveled to North Dakota to write about the Bakken region oil boom. He's also worked at a movie theater, as a campaign canvasser and quality assurance at a milk packaging factory. Eric is originally from Orlando, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2010.

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