As a lawyer, I long ago learned an important lesson: If you want to settle an argument, take time to figure out how the other side sees the facts. You're asking for trouble if you don't. Especially if you're dealing with Russia, a nation that has several thousand nuclear weapons.
Through our Western window, we see Russian aggression in Crimea and Ukraine. And what do Russians see, from Vladimir Putin to the man and woman in the street?
May 8, 1945 -- That day means nothing to Americans; it is not a holiday on our calendar. To Russians, it is the holiday -- their 4th of July, Battle of Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, D-Day and Memorial Day, wrapped in one. Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8, three and a half years after invading the Soviet Union. In between the invasion and the surrender, 26 million Russians died.
How many people is 26 million? It's a number too large to grasp. Unless you imagine a line of people standing single file, five feet apart -- one thousand per mile. A line of 26 million human beings, standing like that, runs all the way around the Earth.
No one in Russia has forgotten. So when Putin spoke on May 8 in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, every Russian knew why: In 1941, for 250 days, Soviet troops clung to the city against the Nazi onslaught -- all eventually being killed. And exactly 70 years before his speech, in 1944, the Red Army drove the Nazis out, and pushed them all the way to Berlin.
When we look at Ukraine, we think we see a pro-West rebellion overthrowing a pro-Russian president. When Russians look, they think they see a revolt led by descendants of the Ukrainian fascists who fought alongside Hitler's troops.
A friend just wrote me from Moscow:
"My mother-in-law, who is 93, was in Gorky Park yesterday, a traditional event for war veterans. My son accompanied her and he could not carry home the 30 pounds of flowers that she got from ordinary folks who did not know her. These people were children and grandchildren of veterans who are no longer with us."
A New York Times article on Russia's Victory Day celebration carried a photograph from St. Petersburg. For one thousand days -- three years -- that city was blockaded by the Nazi army. Despite airlifts and a winter ice road over Lake Ladoga, very little food or medicine got through. In the winter of 1941, the daily ration for children was 4 ½ ounces of bread, 3/5 oz. of fat, and ½ oz. of meat. Most did not receive it. People ate glue from walls, and sawdust. One million people died, most from starvation. But they fought on, refusing to surrender.
The Times article has a photo taken May 8. It shows a river of St. Petersburg citizens stretching to the horizon. Each man, woman and child is carrying a photograph -- of a father or mother, a grandparent or relative, who fought or died in the war.
Find and look very carefully at that photograph. We may agree or disagree with the lessons that everyday Russians draw from what they call The Great Patriotic War. But we had better not make the mistake of doubting the rock hard depth of what they believe, and what they feel.