As the old saying goes, you cannot truly understand a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.
Perhaps Americans, a fortunate tribe, should try to see the world from the vantage point of the Russian people and Vladimir Putin, and, as the poet Robert Burns said, "see ourselves as others see us."
At 35, Putin was a rising star in the elite secret police, the KGB, of a superpower with a worldwide empire.
The USSR was almost three times as large as the United States. Its European quadrant was half of the Old Continent. The Soviet Empire extended from the Elbe River in Central Germany to the Bering Strait across from Alaska. It encompassed thirteen time zones.
North to south, the USSR reached from above the Arctic Circle down to the Middle East. Beyond the contiguous empire were Soviet bases from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam to Tartus in Syria to Cienfuegos in Cuba.
Consider, then, what the last dozen years of the 20th century must have been like for proud Russian patriots and nationalists.
First, the European empire suddenly and wholly collapsed. East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria all broke away to join the West. The Red Army came home, undefeated, but also unwanted and even detested.
The Warsaw Pact, the rival to NATO, dissolved.
Eastern Europe, which Russians believe they had liberated from the Nazis at a monumental cost in blood, turned its back on Russia, hailed the Americans as liberators, and queued up to join a U.S.-led alliance created to contain Russia.
Then, as Germany was reuniting, the Soviet Union began to break apart -- what Putin calls the great tragedy of the 20th century.
One-fourth of the nation he grew up in and half its people vanished. Tens of millions of Russians were left stranded in foreign lands.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia departed first, leaving Russia with a tiny enclave on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, the old Prussian city of Konigsberg, isolated and wedged between Poland and Lithuania.
Russia has no other outlet to the Baltic except St. Petersburg at the top of the tiny narrow Gulf of Finland. Russian warships must now pass between Helsinki and Tallinn even to get out into the Baltic.
The great Russian navy of Adm. Sergei Gorshkov is history.
This was but the beginning. With the disintegration of the USSR, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova were soon gone. Russia had now not only lost its Balkan allies Rumania and Bulgaria, but all its Balkan borders. Only tiny Transnistria, which broke from Moldova, remained loyal to Russia. But no one recognized it.
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