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The Borderline State of Russia

The absence of support during adolescence and the ability to manage one's emotions often lead people to a tendency for black-and-white assessments of reality and a readiness to sharply change judgments, labeling others as either enemies or friends. Psychotherapist Olga Movchan believes that entire countries sometimes act in a similar manner, albeit for similar reasons.

Recently, the behaviour of Russian quasi-governmental structures has been particularly emotionally charged, impulsive, and inconsistent. The situation with the separation of the Russian Orthodox Church from Constantinople is a vivid illustration of this. Mount Athos was just recently one of the main holy places of Orthodoxy, a site of pilgrimage and significant spending by the Russian elite. Now, "laypeople cannot: baptize (and anoint) children, confess, and partake in the sacrament of communion, receive the sacrament of anointing from the priests and bishops of the Patriarchate of Constantinople," including representatives of the Athonite complex. Bartholomew himself, just yesterday the chief Orthodox hierarch, has been declared a heretic and schismatic. This sudden shift from friendship to enmity occurs without any serious reasons. Surely, the revocation of the anathema on a couple of hierarchs in a neighbouring state cannot be considered a sufficient reason to nullify the sanctity of the place, the wisdom of the Athonite elders and the common history.

In psychiatric practice, such a way of reacting is attributed to borderline personality characteristics or borderline organization. It is characterized by an unclear sense of self, problems in self-determination (the so-called diffuse identity), primitive defense mechanisms used to avoid coping with intolerable experiences, difficulties with trust, the need to control reality, and a tendency to organize emotionally charged, conflictual relationships.

One of the main factors in the formation of borderline personality organization is considered to be the absence of a stable adult figure in childhood to rely on, to trust, and who is capable of building trusting relationships. In the individual's experience with borderline organization, there is betrayed trust, the collapse of what he relied on as support. In the lighter version, this could be a recurring situation of adult unreliability. For example, a child wandered away from his mother to the sandbox and upon returning, did not find her there. He experiences confusion, frustration, and anger. But his need for his mother is comparable to his anger towards her. The child is unable to reconcile the conflicting emotions towards one person and experiences the leaving mother and the mother he needs as different people. This forms one of the primitive defenses—splitting. In the future, this perception mechanism is transferred to others. Consequently, reactions to them become polarized—depending on which of the split parts of the partner the person sees in front of them at the moment.

As a result, upon becoming an adult, a person views external subjects either as absolutely good or absolutely bad—momentarily. The world in borderline experience is black and white: "Russians are good," "Americans are bad," "Democrats are good," "Patriots are bad," or vice versa.

Another primitive defense mechanism characteristic of borderline personality organization is projective identification. If some experience of mine is unbearable for me, I begin to believe that it is not inherent to me but to another. It is easier to find an enemy than to figure out what I am doing wrong because the latter means facing my own imperfections. This is especially true for things that are really difficult to change.

This inability to integrate "good" and "bad" experiences to a significant extent explains the difficulties with one's own identity. In a healthy situation, we sufficiently define ourselves through social belonging—professional, national, political, as well as through intellectual characteristics, abilities, external signs, hobbies, etc. In borderline organization, self-identification is contradictory and inconsistent, perception of others and attitude towards them is similarly difficult. Diffuse identity and primitive defense mechanisms arise from a lack of support, but in turn, reduce the ability to rely on oneself and others. As a result, the ability to trust is lost, suspicion emerges, and reality is constantly tested. As a consequence, relationships in society for people with such problems are very emotionally charged and characterized by either idealization or devaluation.

When it comes to multiple individuals, groups, or communities where the behavior of different participants takes on borderline characteristics, we speak of a borderline field or situation. If we look at our country from a historical perspective, Russia has long had all the conditions for the formation of borderline personality organization and fields. Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have always faced the instability of reality, the inability to rely on either people or ideology. For many generations, we see the same patterns, stemming from years of experience with unpredictability and the unreliability of foundations, seasoned with a horrifying bloodthirstiness. In the context of our history, this collapse has occurred repeatedly even within the span of a single human life. The tsar, anointed by God, turned out to be an obstacle on the path to a bright future and was killed. (However, everyone got used to the declared fairness of such events, and he himself became revered as a saint.) The idea of faith in God was not just called into question—it was harshly stigmatized, and thousands of clergy perished in the struggle against faith. It became possible to believe only in communism. At the same time, "true and genuine communists and heroes" overnight became spies, enemies of the people, and even enemies of Stalin himself. And Stalin, the father of nations, suddenly turned out to be "not a father, but a bitch." Then communism and the idea of a bright future collapsed. Words changed connotation; "Western" came to be read as "developed," "high-quality." And "Soviet" ceased to mean "excellent" and became associated with something backward. We hurriedly set off after that same world, which not long ago showed us its monstrous capitalist grin. But something went wrong again. The concept changed again. The West once again catastrophically deteriorated.

The dichotomy of attitudes towards Russia's current conflict with the world maintains its monochromatic nature in the eyes of both the liberally minded part of the population and the so-called patriots. It's either "Russia is at fault, it is separating from the world," or "the world is at fault, Russia has no chance of reaching an agreement with it." In a borderline field, there is no possibility to assume that both the world and Russia are not perfect, and responsibility needs to be shared and opportunities to negotiate need to be sought.

This impossibility is exacerbated by the fact that in such situations, there is usually a hidden agenda and perceived falsehood at the subconscious level, which intensifies distrust. Unpredictability and unreliability of foundations are characteristic of systems in which what is officially presented as the foundation is actually a facade constructed by beneficiaries. Revolutions, changes of religions and ideologies, enmity with neighbors and friendship with them, changes in rules and orders, systems of definitions and ethics are presented as movements from false to true, from bad life to a bright future. However, they occur because elites (new or old) can earn during the process, secure themselves, or gain more power. This dichotomy often works on a personal level: as a result of the transformation of the communist hero into a spy during Stalin's time, someone could receive a dacha shed or even a room in a communal apartment, or a promotion at work—many informants had material motivations. The "cancellation" of communism in the 1990s and the return to old bonds in the 2010s, as well as the "ban on Athos," are of the same series, only the scale of these phenomena differs.

Unfortunately, members of society who are not beneficiaries of such dichotomy but live and develop within the created borderline field, support its existence and development: borderline traits exist in each of us, and when confronted with a borderline situation, we resonate with our corresponding reactions.

The recipe for change in society is not simple. For global changes, a change in approach at the institutional level is necessary. State institutions must become more predictable and rely on something immutable: law, constitution, tradition. Mechanisms ensuring transparency in decision-making should eliminate "dichotomy," explaining the real reasons for state actions. Then, individual members of society will develop a sense of greater stability and clarity. And until there are no global structural changes, it is difficult to form different patterns of personal behavior.

Living with borderline personality traits is difficult. People with borderline experience find it challenging to control anger and irritability. Their dissatisfaction is accompanied by global devaluation. Instead of saying, "you don't understand me right now," a person says, "you never understand me," instead of "please pay attention to me," "you are always inattentive to me." And they truly experience this "never" and "always" as truth. The "borderliner" doesn't notice much when they hurt others—feelings of guilt are unbearable for them, so situations where there is a risk of feeling guilty are likely to be ignored. The difficulties in building any stable relationships are a consequence of the aforementioned characteristics. This applies to romantic relationships, friendships, and interactions at work. Such individuals often feel lonely; they fear loneliness and tend to make serious efforts not to be abandoned, sometimes paying for maintaining attachment with part of their identity, building an idealized image of a real partner and refusing to notice their imperfections. But the ideal image is not reality, and after some time, people with borderline experience start to feel anger and devalue the other person, forgetting about their exaggerated but still existing good qualities.

Psychotherapy helps compensate for some borderline patterns and learn to live with them. A person begins to realize the strength and adequacy of their emotional reactions, learns to see and understand other people better, learns to accept their own imperfection and the imperfection of others without breaking relationships. This allows for building more comfortable and stable relationships, better achieving goals, finding, creating, and maintaining sufficiently strong, non-decorative supports.

I also want to find something reliable and unchanging. I risk trusting my immediate surroundings. It's much harder with a broader society. Turning my head in all directions, I still found the only thing that has remained absolutely unchanged in my not-so-long lifetime. It's Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Epochs changed, friends became enemies a couple of times and then friends again, the West and the East swapped places a couple of times in our politics, good and bad mean different things every couple of years, but he lies in the Mausoleum just as he did before, not moving, not changing. However, I can't look at Ilyich without a borderline perspective. However you twist it, he remains completely black. It wouldn't hurt to get some colored lenses.