Vladimir Lenin, a Marxist theoretician, and architect of the 1917 Russian Revolution loathed the superfluous man, a person who lives in his head but refuses to act. Regarding international affairs, Vladimir Putin declines to be the superfluous man who would do nothing in the face of NATO expansion, a calculated effort to pull a noose around Russia. Putin is determined to preserve the Russian worldview even if it means going to war, like the one in Ukraine.
The idea of the superfluous man had been brewing in Russian literature for nearly a century, showing up in the works of Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Goncharov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and others before it entered the Marxist-Leninist lexicon. If the Spaniards invented Don Quixote and the English conceived Hamlet, the Russians created the superfluous man.
In 19th-century Russian fiction, the superfluous man is a man who imagines big ventures but does not act upon them. He is an aristocrat, landholder, and possessor of serfs, oversensitive to class distinctions, up and down; he lives off the land he rarely visits; seeks women of high status, but ineffectively; fights duels to save his honor but reluctantly; dies prematurely from a mysterious illness but lives a thoroughly pathetic and wretched life.
Among various protagonists capturing the superfluous man, Lenin’s beloved character for deriding opponents who talk and talk but do nothing was Oblomov, an iconic character Ivan Goncharov invented in a novel, Oblomov, in 1859, two years before serfdom was outlawed in Russia (and six years before slavery was abolished in the U.S.). The book does not invite a revolution to end serfdom but instead paints the hollow life of the landed gentry, living in leisure but unable to construct meaning.
Goncharov opens the novel with remarkable precision in describing the superfluous man: “there was lying in bed a gentleman named Ilya Ilyich Oblomov. He was a fellow of a little over thirty, of medium height, and of pleasant exterior. Unfortunately, in his dark-grey eyes there was an absence of any definite idea, and in his other features, a total lack of concentration. Suddenly a thought would wander across his face with the freedom of a bird, flutter for a moment in his eyes, settle on his half-opened lips, and remain momentarily lurking in the lines of his forehead. Then it would disappear, and once more his face would glow with a radiant (detachment) which extended even to his attitude. . .”
Oblomov epitomizes the idleness, inertia, and indecision of the feudal nobility that commands the resources but does little to cultivate them. Oblomov can think but cannot act, for he sees meaninglessness in activity, contributing nothing to his development or that of society. As the story develops, Oblomov loses the woman willing to marry him after repeatedly delaying the wedding. Later, his cunning friends blackmail him to steal his resources from the estate. Oblomov underscores the point that a dreamer is open to deception, and a man of no action is vulnerable to predators. That Oblomov is exploitable is a significant dimension of the superfluous man.
In 1922, in writing The International and Domestic Situation of the Soviet Republic, Lenin broadened the concept of the superfluous man beyond the feudal nobility into a commonplace Russian who can be found anywhere and everywhere: “There was a character who typified Russian life—Oblomov. He was always lolling on his bed and mentally drawing up schemes. That was a long time ago. Russia has experienced three revolutions, but the Oblomovs have survived, for there were Oblomovs not only among the landowners but also among the peasants; not only among the peasants, but among the intellectuals too; and not only among the intellectuals, but also among the workers and Communists.”
Lenin’s universalization of Oblomov forces everyone in Russia, particularly the men in office, to self-examine and make sure they are not superfluous men. So, the policymakers, generals, and presidents, no one wants to come across as a superfluous man, a mere talker, a non-actor, an underperformer, a coward, living under “the pale cast of thought.” Furthermore, they go the extra mile to make sure that they have the grit and can take robust actions; as Lenin had advised, “old Oblomov still lives; and it will be necessary to give him a good washing and cleaning, a good rubbing and scouring to make a man of him.”
First in the revolutionary politics of the Soviet Union and later in post-Soviet Russia, the superfluous man is a no-no man in the Russian culture, putting pressure on the leaders, from Lenin to Stalin to Putin, to do something if something needs to be done. Mere good intentions are insufficient. This pressure to introspect and “do good washing and cleaning, a good rubbing and scouring” to make yourself a man and act decisively gives rise to what may be called the Oblomov complex.
The Oblomov complex carries several implications for Russian leaders in political life. First, the leader is under cognitive pressure not to engage in overthinking, thus reversing the superfluous man on his head. This pressure may shortcut the due deliberation process needed to take sensible action. Second, the leader may engage in premature action, fearing that he is delaying action. Third, the leader may interpret the foreign intentions too suspiciously to avoid anyone taking advantage of the leader or the country.
Thus, the Oblomov complex does the opposite of what the superfluous man does. The superfluous man does not ever act, the Oblomov complex drives overaction; the superfluous man engages in procrastination, the Oblomov complex urges prompt action; the superfluous man is vulnerable to exploitation and double-dealing, the Oblomov complex compels extra vigilance against schemers planning to weaken Russian leaders or planning to seize Russian territory, influence, or competitive advantage.
The Oblomov complex urges action, not caution: It is better to err on the side of action, taking risks rather than playing safe. Consequently, the Oblomov complex may lead to wars since the leaders must save the Russian way of life, the nation’s independence, and foreign policy; they must be prepared to fight Western imperialism, containment, the NATO expansion, or the propagandistic rhetoric of human rights to condemn what Russia does to fight enemies. They must stand up to neighboring nations, including the former Soviets, which, taking cues from foreigners, soil the good name of Russia, its culture, its people, and its right to live as an honorable nation among nations. In some cases, the Oblomov complex leads to brutality, originating from pathological anxiety: “Are we doing enough to suppress the mischief” is a central concern of the Oblomov complex.
Who would take Lenin’s words against the superfluous man more gravely than Joseph Stalin? No one in Russia, Georgia, or elsewhere would accuse Stalin of being a superfluous man. In the 1930s, as a man of action, Stalin unflinchingly imprisoned and executed the enemies of the revolution, expanded the Gulags to teach the virtues of labor to parasites, fought and defeated Hitler, and in 1949, led the Soviets to explode an atomic bomb, vying for parity with the U.S., which had turned nuclear in 1945.
While he was never a superfluous man, Stalin may be charged with acting out the Oblomov complex. For example, Stalin’s agricultural policy in Ukraine resulted in a horrific famine in the 1930s, known as the Holodomor, for Stalin had no patience with Kulaks, the wealthy Ukrainian farmers resisting farm collectivization. American historians see the famine as a deliberate Stalinist policy to suppress the Ukrainian sentiments for independence. Likewise, the massive deportation of Chechens and Ingush to Siberia, accused of siding with the Germans in the Second World War, also fits Stalin’s Oblomov complex of punishing populations that betrayed Russia. (Roughly at the same time, the massive internment of Japanese Americans smacks of the Oblomov complex, perpetrating needless cruelty, even though the superfluous man is no part of American psycho-sociology. If anything, American presidents show the symptoms of hyperactivity syndrome.)
Unlike Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev was a boor, prone to verbalizing outlandish claims as the superfluous man with a touch of Don Quixote. Khrushchev was fined for banging his shoe on a table at a United Nations meeting. Unlike politicians, he did not want to build bridges where “there are no rivers.” Speaking to Western ambassadors at the Polish embassy in Moscow, he fantasized: “Whether you like it not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” Even though he was a critic of Stalin, after his death, particularly of his policies in Ukraine, Khrushchev would say: “When it comes to combating imperialism, we are all Stalinists.” He wasn’t.
Khrushchev celebrated big but acted small. He demanded twice that the Western powers withdraw from West Berlin but backed down on seeing Western resistance and built a relatively easy Berlin Wall in 1961 (brought down in 1989). In 1962, concocting a fabulous adventure, Khrushchev agreed with Fidel Castro to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to prevent any future U.S. invasion of the island after one failed in 1961. What Khrushchev planned could have triggered a war, as the U.S. reacted forcefully, enforcing a naval blockade to preclude the shipment of missiles. Khrushchev backed off, as a superfluous man would, after achieving a secret agreement to remove U.S. missile installations in Turkey and a commitment that the U.S. would not invade Cuba again. Two years later, in 1964, the politburo removed Khrushchev from office in a secret meeting.
Back in 1954, a bizarre move that made no geographical or demographic sense, Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, a “gift” that Putin retracted in 2014.
Putin is no Khrushchev. In annexing Crimea, Putin said, “Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride… In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia… Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer Crimean Region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, despite being a federal city. This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head, Nikita Khrushchev. The decision was made behind the scenes. Naturally, in a totalitarian state, nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol.” For non-Russians, the historical or “the people’s will” justification for reuniting Crimea with Russia matters less than Putin’s resolve to be a man of action and, at times, of overaction.
Unlike Khrushchev, who abandoned the demand that the West withdraw from West Berlin, Putin has waged war to stop the West from wooing Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. The Ukraine war, like most wars, has not been good for the Russian economy, inviting economic sanctions, disrupting trade, and activating United Nations condemnation. Putin argues that Eastern Ukraine, much like Crimea, is ancient Russian land that cannot be acceded to Ukraine.
But what were Putin’s options? Russia cannot afford not to act and passively hear Western sermons on human rights, territorial integrity, and the political independence of sovereign states. For Putin, letting Ukraine, with all its territory, quietly slip into the Western fold is equivalent to doing nothing, reincarnating the superfluous man. If the West invokes the rule of the gun, Russia can too. If the West abandons international law, Russia can too. “Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies,” says Putin, “but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe. . .that only they can ever be right. They act as they please.”
Professor John Mearsheimer sees Putin’s acts as Putin sees them: “The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” For similar reasons, China accuses the U.S. as the main instigator of the crisis by backing Russia into a corner. A former French presidential candidate reproaches Ukraine leader Vladimir Zelensky of using the Russian “war crimes” as part of propaganda.
One thing is clear: Putin is no superfluous man. The Western ruling elites, the media, and human rights organizations forcefully condemn Putin’s war in Ukraine. They will be willing to make a case that Putin, acting Stalinesque, suffers from Oblomov complex and that he is manic and brutal. In May, Ukraine’s spy chief claimed a coup to overthrow Putin was underway. The British newspapers seek to topple Putin, insinuating that the Russian defense minister might rebel. A pesky columnist at The Guardian beseeched Western powers to foster a takeover against “murderous” Putin. These wishes ignore that Russians cannot betray a leader reversing Khrushchev’s superfluity in Ukraine. The war is woeful but necessary from the Russian viewpoint. Putin’s imminent fall is unlikely.