Otto Rank, President Putin and the Fear of Death

This morning I received a surprise in my e mail from a friend living in Hungary and teaching psychology there.  His favorite psychologist is also my favorite psychologist, Otto Rank, and we have collaborated on projects over the years, having taught a class together on Rank at the University of Creation Spirituality.

Otto Rank. (c) Picture archive of the Austrian National Library, Vienna. From AEIOU Das Kulturinformationssystem Austria Forum.

Robert Kramer has recently published an article on “Vladimir Putin and the denial of death” in the New European Magazine.  I think it has lots to say in understanding the forces driving Mr. Putin. 

He writes: 

In recent years, social psychologists studying Terror Management Theory have conducted over 1500 randomized controlled experiments to test Otto Rank’s most compelling hypothesis: The Death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed. 

Rank tells us that this quest for immortality has driven most of human history and we kill others to show that we can triumph over death and that a dream of immortality pursues us and today, “the nation-state is a universal symbol of immortality.”  Kramer recognizes that “apparent in every war fought since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the nation state’s insatiable urge for immortality has once again erupted on the world stage.”

Image of the Resurrection by Indigenous Artist, Ullrich Javier Lemus, which can by found in Matthew Fox‘s book, Stations of the Cosmic Christ.

This strikes me especially deeply as a Christian theologian, since all this drama and suffering is happening in Lent, the prelude to Easter and Resurrection, Spring and Passover, when supposedly Christians and others are invited to let their quest for immortality be sated by the promise of the Resurrection event which says we don’t have to worry about immortality any more, it is at hand for all people.  Rank actually called the idea of democratizing resurrection that derive from Jesus and Paul the “most revolutionary idea” that has come to humankind because it frees us of our immortality compulsions.

Kramer attributes to Putin the “clearest statement” ever uttered by a country’s leader “of Rank’s insight that the terror of death underlies the state-sponsored bloodletting of war.” Putin said in a recent talk, “for our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historic future and nation…a very real threat…to the very existence of our state.” 

Putin’s “holy war against the West” and his compulsion to expand his empire seems related to Putin’s fears as much as to his ambitions.   


See also: Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society.

See also: Matthew Fox, Stations of the Cosmic Christ

To read a transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Peace Activists holding a banner calling for an end to war on Ukraine. Originally posted to Flickr by Bohdan Bobrowski.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you see the nation-state as a universal symbol of immortality?  What are the dangers in that?  Does the Resurrection belief offer a needed alternative?

Recommended Reading

Stations of the Cosmic Christ
By Matthew Fox and Bishop Marc Andrus.

This is a book of meditations on the Cosmic Christ, accompanying the images of 16 wonderful clay tablets by Javier Ullrrich Lemus and M.C. Richards. Together, these images and meditations go far beyond the traditional Stations of the Cross to inspire a spirit awakening and understanding of the cosmic Christ Consciousness, Buddha consciousness, and consciousness of the image of God in all beings, so needed in our times.
“A divinely inspired book that must be read by every human being devoted to spiritual and global survival. It is cosmically brilliant.” — Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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11 thoughts on “Otto Rank, President Putin and the Fear of Death”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Your question for us today is threefold: “Do you see the nation-state as a universal symbol of immortality?” I do, because it seems that every civilization from Assyrians. Babylonians, and Egyptians to the Persian, Greek and Roman. All of them thought they’d last forever–that they were immortal–but they all eventually fell. In modern times we had colonialism to the point that it was said of the British Empire that the Sun never set on it! And then we’ve had the Nazi’s attempt to take over the world and the Soviet attempt, and we ourselves as a nation are only a few hundred years old. If anything all of these have had the “illusion” of immortality. Then you ask: “What are the dangers in that?” If they believe in the illusion, they will try to fight for world domination, believing they are immortal! Also, you say that Rank said that, “…. this quest for immortality has driven most of human history, and we kill others to show that we can triumph over death and that a dream of immortality pursues us and today” in the nation-state. And finally you ask: “Does the Resurrection belief offer a needed alternative?” It is an alternative to the “silver lining” in that the silver lining says that God can always bring good out of evil, but resurrection says that, even with death there will still be life immortal !!!

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    Recently, I have read several commentaries written by phycologists and psychiatrists with regards to Putin. They have all stated that Putin is concerned at this stage of his life, in creating a historical heroic legacy, which is a pathway to making oneself immortal in a sense. They also interestingly commented on the ego aspects of Putin, that Mathew has mentioned in today’s DM.

    And yet, in the midst of all this, I also see humanity no longer desiring to make monuments… tearing them down… inparticularly those carved iron images that glorified those that in truth were oppressive, suppressive, unjustly misusing and abusing the power and authority that they often gained corruptly and then attempted to hold onto through evil means, at the cost of many lives.

    When this tearing down of monuments of such people started happening, many believed that this would lead to the distortion of telling the stories of history and that it was important to keep these monuments in place… so that humanity would learn from their mistakes and perhaps not repeat them. Some believed that it was important to keep these monuments because the truth must be told, both the light and the dark stories within the history of humanity. These do appear to be intelligent and logical reasons for doing so.

    Now, having gained another perspective, through these DMs, we see another aspect to consider… causing humanity to perhaps rethink how and why we immortalize certain human beings regarding our collective evolutionary history.

    With regards to the resurrection I wonder if in some unconscious way, in creating these monuments, that we somehow leave open the door for this dark force energy to resurrect itself… into our present and future human history. Perhaps these monuments, themselves, in some strange way empower others to accomplish the same self-glorification, by the same means it was attained in the past… that in some dark negative way that these monuments perpetuate a false image… that actually takes root in the hearts, minds and souls of some within humanity. Also, if one does not believe in the resurrection that Christ has revealed to humanity… then to the inflaited ego, a historical heroic legacey, glorified with monuments seems to be the way to be forever remembered, keeping the spirit of such evil alive in some deceptive and delusional way.

    Perhaps we should creatively imagine another way of recording and remembering the collective shared history of humanity all together and reconsider not only how but why we immortalize our stories in monuments, and what legacies we aught to leave behind for future generations.

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      I think your thoughts on monuments are spot on. They can and do perpetuate a false image that takes root in the human soul and lead only to more violence, as we are seeing in the U.S.

  3. Avatar

    Timely meditation, Matthew, and to the point. In Putin, one finds not only an autocrat, but the all the autocrats who ever lived. Like goodness, evil has only one face, with many variations. Although evil is not as radical or foundational to creation as is the good, it is its deficiency, one that results in depraved indifference to the good. In the void left by good’s absence, evil rushes in, as darkness does in the absence of light. As nature abhors a vacuum, when goodness (Spirit) is eclipsed or absences, many evils rush in, chief among them self, self-enthronement and all of its manifestations, including nationalism and the nation state as god. So for Putin, the dissolution of the old Soviet Union was a double blow, to his ‘immortal’ ego and its outward expression as ‘motherland’ or nationhood as god. There is only one evil one, one dark energy, one deceiver appearing in many guises throughout history at all scales seeking to usurp the throne of the good, and with it immortality. And like the others who have lived by the self-glorifying sword, Putin too will die by it — but evil will not, not just yet. Others will follow, until the King of Glory ends their worldly dominance once and for all with his sword of righteousness, lancing the Prince of this world, the one responsible for those who stand in his stead as rulers of the darkness of this world. Things are not as they appear to be, not along geo-political lines, economic lines, military lines, or even psychological lines as framed on that definitional plane by Otto Rank. No, these are moral issues fueled by the powers of darkness that will reign on the earth pandemically, until “thy kingdom come.”
    I repeat, all the evil that has ever existed, and all those manifesting same are one in essence, appearing in many forms. Ditto the good. One pledges allegiance to the Devil, the other God. The others are lukewarm, or try to serve both masters, neither have place in “My kingdom.”

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Joe, I totally agree with you that evil has many faces–and I would add that much that is evil can only be spiritually discerned–its not always obvious because it is “deviant.” You write that Putin too will die and others will follow, “UNTIL (my emphasis) the King of Glory ends their worldly dominance once and for all with his sword of righteousness…”
      You also write: “… these are moral issues fueled by the powers of darkness that will reign on the earth pandemically, UNTIL (my emphasis) “thy kingdom come.”
      Now, your “untils” mean that it is not yet. I think that we can all agree with that. But the question is what part do we have to play in bringing the kingdom? Most Christians see eschatology (the study of “Last Things”) as having virtually nothing to do with us–other than preaching “this gospel to the world as a witness” (See: Matt. 24: ). In other words its entirely the actions of God. “Realized Eschatology” however doesn’t see it that way. Try googling “Realized Eschatology” and then you’ll see another approach to the views that you hold.

      1. Avatar
        Jeanette Metler

        Richard, thank you so much for your last sentence, regarding this response… that points to “Realized Eschatology”, which emphasizes the Love and Goodness of God; while rejecting the notion of judgement. Realized Eschatology, focuses on humanity being and living in relationship with God through the indwelling presence and essence of the Holy Spirit… actively engaged in the unfolding, evolutionary and emerging process of becoming Christ consciousness… rather than waiting for external and unknown forces to bring about destruction to the evil in this world.

        Paramahansa Yogananda, in his revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus, writes of this also, as the second coming of Christ, as the resurrection of Christ within humanity.

  4. Avatar
    Martha hamilton

    Thank-you for sharing this brilliant perspective. The obvious sometimes is not obvious until it is pointed out. An inflated ego will indeed go to whatever extreme measures necessary to avoid giving up control. This pathological quest for power to attain immortality by killing others just shows the extent of distortion that is possible within a human being. We have seen this tragedy played out time and time again, and the consequences are always the same. In the Divine design resurrection is the consequence of voluntary crucifixion.

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    Urgently worthy of our pondering in this time globally and in the USA. Then, acting in response with non-violence and love, including speaking the Truth in LOVE to evil. }:- a.m.

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    Not totally convinced with respect to Russia and Ukraine. I think that the world gave Putin unimpeded access to Crimea and effective control over the Donbass eastern regions of Ukraine. Thus I suspect Putin anticipated a relatively easy time of it with Ukraine. Not to be!
    In situations like this the cause or motivation is of major importance. I am always reminded of the recent two cases of serial killers in Ontario, Canada. In both cases the first death was of a close family member that was not premediated and for which they were never charged.

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    As Otto Rank observed, chasing to be immortal one way or the other does not really settle the anxiety for long. The more powerful answer to anxiety about mortality/immortality than religious reassurance or creating a legacy may well be the the Buddhist one – making peace with the finite nature of what we identify as self. Or, we might say, embracing our nothingness. I do believe that helps me. My study of Otto Rank was decades ago. I do not recall if his conclusion that the anxious search for immortality was universal included any observation of Buddhist monks and nuns.

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    Richard, according to Scripture, the responsibility of a redeemed soul, other than witness to the source of its salvation in character, spirit and conduct, is to be “salt and light” in the areas of his/her gifts and/or calling, and in the area of giving and receiving love, depending. Light doesn’t get rid of darkness entirely, it dispels it, makes it less pervasive. Neither does salt eliminate corruption entirely (as when meat was salted in barrels prior to refrigeration). Rather, it retards or deters its outworking toward decay. But the large-scale elimination of darkness and evil on the face of the earth, according to Scripture, will not be thoroughly accomplished merely by redeemed souls alone, foot-soldiers, who via the Holy Spirit, act as God’s hand extended as salt and light in a dark and imperfect. One light in a dark valley, one seed wisely and steadily planted and watered can accomplish much. But not the big stuff, that calls for the heavy machinery of direct divine intervention, the kind that only Christ and the reapers (angels) can accomplish “at the harvest,” referred to in Matt. 13, and as summarized in the apocalyptic writings of Scripture. And that will be during the consummation of this whole redemptive drama that the prophets, Christ and Paul refer to, as well as the cryptic Book of Revelation. And of that day and hour no man knows. But yes, we are to labor still on his behalf, and watch for the signs of his return. The more credible theologians on eschatology believe that time is near and may be sooner than we think. But if you study it closely, Scripture has little to say about the goodness of humanity, save as it is redeemed by God. Yes, as Matthew aptly writes about, there is much “original blessing” and grace (the wheat), but one must lay beside that the parallel growth of the earth that Scripture describes as heavily marked by sin, sickness, sorrow, evil, darkness and death. Both those polarities prevail, and will, as Christ declared “grow together until the harvest,” where the latter will be burned, and the former “stored in my barns.”

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