Psychopathy and Totalitarianism: A Review of Conquest’s The Great Terror

Psychopathy is usually analyzed as an individual psychological phenomenon. As we’ve seen, the term describes individuals without conscience, with shallow emotions, who are able to impersonate fully developed human beings and mimic feelings of love, caring and other-regarding impulses to fulfill their deviant goals: be that stealing your money,  stealing your heart or both. This phenomenon becomes all the more toxic, and dangerous, when such individuals rise to national power and manage to create totalitarian regimes ruled by mind-control, deception, lack of individual and collective rights and freedoms, and  arbitrary displays of power.

Psychopathic, or at least seriously disordered rulers, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu show what happens when (their) pathology spreads to a whole country. Given that psychopaths are estimated to be, at most, only 4 percent of the population, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage to rise to positions of authority over more or less normal human beings to impose a social pathology in every social sphere: from education, to the police force, to the juridical system, to the media. Few books explain this strange and extremely dangerous political and psychological phenomenon better than Robert Conquest‘s classic, The Great Terror. This book traces both Stalin’s rise to power within the ranks of the Bolsheviks and, concurrently, the spreading of the totalitarian system like a fatal virus throughout Soviet society (and beyond).

The book also exposes the underlying lack of principles even among seemingly ideological rulers like Joseph Stalin. When it suited his purposes, Stalin strategically oscillated siding with the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Kamenev and Zimonev) or the right of the Bolshevik party (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky), turning each side against the other, to weaken them both and consolidate his own power. He surrounded himself with equally ruthless, unprincipled and sadistic individuals who did his dirty work–Yakov, Yagoda and Beria–placing them in positions of power in the NKVD, or Secret Police.

Stalin engaged in arbitrary displays of power, sending tens of millions of people to their deaths in prison or labor camps. Even his army leaders weren’t spared. In a very poor strategic move that showed he cared more about acquiring total control than about his country’s victory, Stalin decimated the ranks of his army elite right before the war against Hitler, when the Soviet Union would have needed them most. Nobody was safe from the gulag; nobody could maintain ideological purity. Anybody could be accused of deviationism from communist principles at any time.

Totalitarianism is a pathological system imposed upon an entire country or area. Like a disease, it spreads through the healthy aspects of society. It conditions even ordinary human beings, through the inculcation of fear and through brainwashing, to lose their conscience, their empathy and their humanity. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror is a testament to human corruptibility. This magnificent book will continue to remain historically relevant  for as long as we allow disordered individuals to have power over us, our families and our social institutions.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

The Death of a Deadly Psychopath: Osama bin Laden’s Personality Profile

Now that Osama bin Laden has finally been killed, there’s a momentary celebration around the world that one of the most dangerous and reviled men in recent history can no longer harm the innocent. Of course, there’s no shortage of people like him, nor of his followers, ready to avenge his death. In the article below, Aubrey Immelman paints a psychological profile of Osama Bin Laden. This profile is one of a psychopath, with paranoid tendencies, similar to another notorious psychopath who attained great influence and power, Joseph Stalin.

The Hunt for Bin Laden: America’s “Second Intelligence Failure”?

Aubrey Immelman

Reprinted from the March 2002 issue 
of Clio’s Psyche (Journal of the Psychohistory Forum)

From the first moment I paid serious attention to Osama bin Laden—September 11, 2001—the man did not strike me as someone likely to martyr himself. Six days after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I posted my initial impressions on the website of the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics: that the mastermind likely fit Otto Kernberg syndrome of malignant narcissism, with its core elements of pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and unconstrainedaggression (see

More systematic analysis of biographical source materials in the ensuing months, using my standard psychodiagnostic procedure, produced a more nuanced portrait, compatible but more fine-grained than Kernberg’s syndrome. In the nomenclature of my Millonian approach (cf. Theodore Millon, Disorders of Personality: DSM‑IV and Beyond, 1996), Bin Laden emerged as a primarily Ambitious/exploitative (narcissistic), Dauntless/dissenting (antisocial) personality, with secondary Distrusting/suspicious (paranoid), Dominant/controlling (sadistic), and some Conscientious/dutiful (obsessive-compulsive) features.

Ambitious individuals are bold, competitive, and self-assured; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and often act as though entitled. Dauntless individuals are bold, courageous, and tough; minimally constrained by the norms of society; routinely engage in high-risk activities; not overly concerned about the welfare of others; skilled in the art of social influence; and adept at surviving on the strength of their particular talents, ingenuity, and wits.

Bin Laden’s blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of Millon’s unprincipled narcissist (or narcissistic psychopath) syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist’s arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality’s self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others (see Millon, cited above, pp. 409–410).

From the perspective of the so-called “hunt for Bin Laden,” the major implication of these findings is that, unlike hijack linchpin Mohamed Atta, Bin Laden does not fit the profile of the highly conscientious, closed-minded religious fundamentalist, nor that of the religious martyr who combines these qualities with devout, self-sacrificing features. Rather, Bin Laden’s profile suggests that he is cunningly artful in exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory.

Theodore Millon and Roger Davis (“Ten Subtypes of Psychopathy” in Millon et al., Eds., Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, pp. 161–170) explain that this psychopathic subtype—effectively devoid of a superego—is prevalent among society’s con artists. Akin to these charlatans and swindlers, Bin Laden likely harbors an arrogant, vengeful vindictiveness and contempt for his victims.

Far from directing operations and taking a last stand with his most loyal acolytes at Tora Bora, relationships for narcissistic psychopaths survive only as long as they have something to gain—and for these grandiose, self-enhancing personalities there is naught to be gained from martyrdom. What does, however, command their full measure of devotion is humiliating their adversaries in a high-stakes game of wit, and relishing their frustration, anger, and dismay.

In short, the extent to which U.S. intelligence and military operations against Bin Laden were framed as a hunt for a devout, dedicated religious fundamentalist might serve as a rough measure of the extent to which the failure thus far to kill or capture Bin Laden could be considered an intelligence failure.


Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Minnesota’s St. John’s University. He authored the chapter “Personality in Political Psychology” in the forthcoming Handbook of Psychology (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003).

Why Psychopaths Are Evil

We tend to distinguish between being evil and making wrong decisions in life that result in harmful consequences. This distinction applies to most people, who don’t engage in a pattern of intentional harm. However, in the article below, Dr. Liane Leedom explains why sociopaths and psychopaths ARE evil. In their case, there is no distinction between wrong choices and being evil because they systematically and intentionally choose to hurt others or to disregard their feelings. Their choices are an accurate reflection of their intent to harm others and of their malicious nature. For this reason, as Dr. Leedom explains in the article below, psychopaths ARE evil.

That gets me to sociopaths/psychopaths. These individuals do not just make “choices.” They, with malice and forethought set up situations where they will be able to gratify their deviant impulses. My former husband sought me out so he would have access to victims in addition to me. The choices he made started with his looking for his next victim on the internet. That victim turned out to be me. This situation is analogous to my eating the ice cream last night, because although I am trying to eat healthier, I did buy the ice cream and put it in the freezer myself. I would have eaten 250 less calories last night if I didn’t buy the ice cream in the first place.

It is clear that a person’s pattern of choices reflects that person’s drives and impulse control. Most sociopaths/psychopaths have a clear pattern of “choices” that show clearly what and who they really are. During psychiatry residency I was taught that the best predictor of what a person will do in the future is what that person has done in the past. This is because the past is a reflection of who that person is.

If choices are a reflection of our person and our drives are we without choice in the end? The beauty of it is that we do have choices because as humans we have some capacity to set up our environments and to modify our drives. If it was really necessary for me to avoid ice cream, I simply would stop buying it in the first place. I can also work on liking fruit or some other healthier alternative. As a human I can change what I like, what I want and ultimately what I do.

On the other hand, if you really understand the connection between what a sociopath/psychopath chooses and what he/she IS you will move from disagreeing with the choices to being disgusted by the person. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines disgust as:

1. to provoke to loathing, repugnance, or aversion : be offensive to

2. to cause (one) to lose an interest or intention

Notice that seeing the connection between choices, behavior and the nature of a psychopath, provokes loathing, repugnance, aversion and loss of interest in the person. I have stated before that I believe the people who are “fascinated” by psychopaths do not understand them. Understanding psychopaths breeds contempt not fascination.

The other difference between disagreeing with what a psychopath does and being disgusted, is that disagreeing is an intellectual exercise, while disgust is an emotion. If you are disgusted by psychopaths, that emotion means you comprehend WHAT THEY ARE with your entire being.

Can sociopaths/psychopaths get help or ever make different choices?

The problem with psychopaths is that they are so grandiose that they never examine their own behavior, nor do they ever seek to modify their choices. The choices they make are a deep reflection of their pathology. That pathology includes a lack of desire to be anything other than what they are. But why don’t sociopaths/psychopaths desire to change? The answer is that they enjoy their choices too much. They also do not have insight enough to comprehend that their drives are deviant. They think everyone else is as they are, only weaker.

The other problem is that drives are triggered by the things that remind us of our pleasures. Since people trigger the sociopath’s/psychopath’s deviant drives for sex and power, in order to begin to be different they would have to stay away from other people. Since sociopaths/psychopaths don’t want to be alone, they can never take the steps required for change. They will therefore never be anything other than what they are: dangerous to everyone.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

A Quest for Power: The Cases of Hitler and Stalin

It can be argued that psychopathy is the psychological root of evil. Psychopaths vary in what motivates them. Some psychopaths want money, power or fame. Others are sex addicts who have innumerable liaisons and may commit rape and even murder. Yet others are compulsive gamblers, scam artists or crooks. But they all share one thing in common: a quest for power. To control others, psychopaths seduce them. Seduction doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. The narrow definition of “seduce” is, indeed, “to persuade to have sexual intercourse.” Many psychopaths enjoy this form of seduction because it naturally combines physical pleasure with control over another person’s body and emotions. But the etymological root of “seduction” signifies, more broadly, “to lead away from duty, accepted principles, or proper conduct.”

In this sense of the term,  psychopaths enjoy exercising power not only over their sexual partners, but also over their parents, their siblings, their children, their so-called friends, their employees and their colleagues. Some of them become leaders of cults, luring members with their charisma, promises, isolation and mind-control. Through a fatal combination of opportunity and machination, a few become leaders of entire nations. They take over the minds and wills of the masses. Their lack of principles and disordered mentality can be contagious. It spreads like a virus throughout the country.

As a political theorist whose scholarship focuses on totalitarian movements and as someone who’s experienced first-hand, as a child, life under the psychopathic dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in communist Romania, I’ve studied ruthless leaders of totalitarian regimes. What I find most remarkable about such individuals is not only the vastness of their destruction of healthy social institutions and of fellow human beings, but also their unscrupulous and opportunistic methods.   Because psychopaths lack any underlying convictions and loyalties, they’re willing to get power by whatever means necessary. To give an example from my field, Allan Bullock shows in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives that Stalin only appeared to have a solid allegiance to the Bolshevik movement and to Lenin’s political legacy. In reality, however, he used communist rhetoric to gain control over Russia, then over the countries and territories that became the Soviet Union and eventually over the entire Eastern Europe. To him, the means—shifty allegiances, mass indoctrination, staged show trials, forced confessions as well as torture and murder of unprecedented proportions–always justified the ends, which was absolute control. This goal was only instrumentally related to communist ideology, as Stalin’s temporary alliance with Hitler, his former archenemy, would prove.

Nor did Stalin exhibit any loyalty towards his supposed friends and allies. He switched political and personal alliances, turning first against the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), then against the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky). In his insatiable quest for power, Stalin forged alliances and later broke them. He imprisoned, tortured and murdered former allies. He shrewdly reversed his position and retreated when necessary, only to charge forward again at a more optimal moment. Because he was a psychopath, Stalin could be more ideologically flexible than his dogmatic rivals, such as Trotsky (on the left) and Bukharin (on the right). He took everyone by surprise with the extent of his duplicity and ruthlessness. For psychopathic leaders like Hitler and Stalin, other people existed only as tools to be used in their quest for control or as obstacles to be removed from their path. As Bullock observes,

“Stalin and Hitler were materialists not only in their dismissal of religion but also in their insensitivity to humanity as well. The only human beings who existed for them were themselves. The rest of the human race was seen either as instruments with which to accomplish their purposes or as obstacles to be eliminated… Both men were remarkable only for the roles they assumed. Outside those, their private lives were insignificant and impoverished. And each of the roles was consecrated to a vision of a world that, however great the differences between them, was equally inhuman—a world in which whole populations could be moved about; whole classes could be eliminated; races enslaved or exterminated; millions of lives sacrificed in war and even in time of peace…”(Hitler and Stalin, 382)

Having done extensive research on the psychopathic dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for my last book on communist Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism: Post-Stalinist Romania, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that, given the choice between ruling over a nation of strong individuals and ruling over a nation of slaves, psychopathic leaders would much rather take the latter. This is the only way to explain the malice with which such dictators propose policies intended to ruin the country economically, isolate its people from the rest of the world and destroy any sign of individuality. To use my own childhood experience as an example, conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods.  There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police, colloquially called the Securitate, had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were  actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.” Strong, healthy individuals in a prosperous nation would pose a potential threat to psychopathic rulers. They might be confident enough to challenge their regimes. When people are reduced to fighting for survival and deprived of power, however, they’re much more likely to relinquish their rights and freedoms without putting up a fight. While Ceausescu preferred to rule over a nation of beggars, Stalin chose to govern a nation of slaves. His Reign of Terror not only undermined people’s spirit and independent thought, but also claimed many of their lives.

The human cost of psychopathic dictators, especially during the Hitler-Stalin era, is one of staggering proportions and unimaginable suffering. Bullock documents, “Not counting the millions who were wounded or permanently maimed, the estimated number of premature deaths between 1930 and 1953 reached a figure in the order of forty to fifty million men, women and children. Suffering on such a scale is beyond the imagination’s power to comprehend or respond to.” (Hitler and Stalin, 969) What makes such suffering particularly reprehensible, at least from a moral perspective, is that unlike natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and epidemics, the harm was deliberately inflicted, unnecessary and man-made. Granted, the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians can’t be attributed solely to the psychopathic leaders in charge. The wrongdoing of many individuals made it possible. As Hannah Arendt demonstrates in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian dictators are a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of complex historical, economic and social phenomena. Yet without a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Ceausescu–which is to say, without psychopathic leaders who attain total control of a country–this suffering would not have occurred, at least not on such a massive scale.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction