What Vladimir Putin’s War Is Teaching Me

Before I get into the body of this piece, I’d like to say that the conflict in Ukraine is especially interesting and tragic because I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland during the mid-nineties, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I was sent to Rzeczpospolita Polska—I still remember quite a lot of Polish—to do teacher training and help establish and develop a new kind of educational institution that would produce teachers of foreign languages in that part of the world.

During my time in Eastern Europe, I fell in love with the region.  In fact, if given the opportunity, I’d return there in a second.  It doesn’t matter what country, really.  Just about any locale east of Germany would do.

Please take note of my title.  I did not call this “Russia’s” war.  I certainly think that Putin has his followers, but I feel—and this is confirmed by much of what I’m reading and learning about the situation—that the average Russian is horrified by what Putin is unleashing next door.  And I am sure that this will become truer over time.

It is my nature to observe and attempt to learn something of value from all the things I see going on around me.  I’d like to share some of what I’m learning—“learning” is probably not the right word because I already knew these things but hadn’t (perhaps) thought about them very much recently—while watching what’s taking place in a part of the world that is beloved and used to be very familiar to me.

Lesson One

Too much power and wealth can make us sick and stupid.  There’s lots of speculation about Putin being “unhinged.”  That may well be the case.  Even if he’s still “all there,” he’s in possession of too much might and money.  These things can intoxicate, and Putin appears to be “drunk.”  The uber-powerful and wealthy can come to see themselves as being extraordinary and thus in possession of special powers of insight and such.  In fact, though, Putin is showing us that these things have blinded him, have caused him to behave irrationally and to miscalculate.  (This can happen to countries too.  In fact, Superpowers always end up thinking of themselves as exceptional.)

Lesson Two

Living in extreme isolation is psychologically unhealthy and poor preparation for making important decisions.  We see scenes of Putin talking a lot on TV, but he comes across as someone who doesn’t listen very often to very many people.  We see him having meetings at very large tables with him sitting at one end and his interlocutor sitting at the other.  There is physical separation that symbolizes other kinds of distance.  To remain connected with others (and with reality too), we need closeness.  We need to open ourselves and to hear other voices and opinions.  Putin appears to be someone who’s stuck inside his own mind.  He’s listening only to himself and trapped inside a very tiny echo chamber. 

Lesson Three

Most people are drawn to good things and repulsed by ugliness.  The Trump years confused me.  I began to think that the world really was equally divided between those who were attracted to bullies and bullying and those who wished to stand against these things.  In fact, I see the entire world coming together against Putin and the horror he is unleashing on his undeserving neighbors.  The situation in the Ukraine is restoring my faith in human beings.  Unfortunately, lots of people are going to die and suffer during this period.  Why does it so often take tragedy and bloodshed to bring countries and peoples of good will together?

Lesson Four

Violence never pays off in the long run and violent people never prevail.  Aggressors may have the ability to harm and kill others, but they almost always end up losing.  Their nasty behavior causes others to rise in opposition.  Their opponents grow in number and become more and more determined.  Even if their antagonists or the law don’t end up getting them, they become emotionally and spiritually scarred by their sadistic behavior.  They may begin their lives as predators, but they eventually become prey, and they often die at the hands of someone who was seeking revenge.

I want to finish by declaring that I stand with the brave people of Ukraine as well as ask what this conflict is teaching you? 


34 thoughts on “What Vladimir Putin’s War Is Teaching Me

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Why not post a direct link to the article you mention in your comment? I think many of us would like to read it. Yes, we must all play our part. Speaking out is an important part to play.

  1. Thank you, Troy, for sharing your insights with us. What is this conflict–and conflict in general–teaching me? It’s not really teaching, but it’s confirming that until we see one “another” on a deeper level (of all emanating from One), there will, unfortunately, be conflict and war. 🙏

    1. I agree. It’s more accurate to say that the conflict is reminding me of things I hadn’t spend enough time thinking about recently. During my many years living abroad in Europe, Asia, and Africa, I came to think of the idea of the “nation” as something that holds us back. Lines drawn on maps create lines of separation in our minds. If you look at the world from outer space, you see no such lines. Nationalism, nationality–these are artificial constructs that emphasize difference. If we could stop thinking of ourselves as Americans or Canadians or Indians or whatever, we could feel that sense of “oneness” you speak of. Thanks for such a wise comment.

      1. I agree, Troy, “nationalism, nationality–these are artificial constructs that emphasize difference.” Thanks for sharing your writing with all of us!

  2. Lovely post. It definitely is teaching me that as you said, and as most of us know, too much of a good thing makes you think you’re someone you’re not. He has too much. My heart breaks for those suffering at his hands.

    1. Thank you for your comment. One of the problems with those who have to excess is that they lose touch with those who have too little. Like you, my heart is breaking…

  3. Great and important post, Troy. If there’s one thing that this situation taught me is how ignorant I used to be. There was always war but somehow this one feels too close to home. I’m from Poland and even though I don’t live there now, it makes me feel proud of Polish people leaving their prejudice behind and helping the ones in need.

    I also have a student from Moscow who tells me about her experience and it does make me feel compassionate. She’s scared of losing her job and lives in fear. Different type of fear, but as important.

    I was impressed with your background. It always shocks me when someone from outside of Poland speaks Polish! Dobra robota 😊

    1. Hi, Joannaesl. While I was living in Poland, I read a few books about Polish history during the 20th century. I always thought the Poles had a heroic history, so I’m not surprised that they are so helpful right now. As I mentioned in my post, the US government sent me to Poland to work at a Nauczycielskie Kolegium Jezykow Obcych. There were NKJOs all over the country at that time, but I don’t think such institutions still exist.

      I lived and worked in Tarnow. I loved the job and loved Tarnow. Are you familiar with the city? It is located near beautiful Krakow.

      Yes, Russians are victims in this too. Putin will end up destroying Russia and cause his own downfall.

      It is nice talking to you. I think we talk once before and you said you now work in Spain. Is there lots of work for ESL teachers in that country?

      1. You probably know more about Polish history than I do! I remember learning Polish history at school and suffering. It was one of my least favourite subjects. I’m glad that other people take more interest in that matter, though 😊

        My grandma was from Sandomierz, very close to Tarnow, but she moved to the north of Poland, so most of my family lives close to Gdynia. I visited Tarnow a handful of times as a child.

        Yes, I comment on your posts every now and then 😊 I enjoy your posts and often feel the need to comment.

        It was easy for me to find a job in Spain. I moved to Extremadura in 2018. It’s the least discovered part of Spain with only a few foreigners, so I was treated like a queen! Now I teach online and enjoy every bit of it 😊

  4. Thank you for your post and an opportunity to comment. Putin has reminded me that life is sacred and peace is fragile. Also by living in a democracy I might at times disagree with who is put into power in my own country, but I also have the opportunity to speak out and vote against those I disagree with. I also hate disinformation and lies. It’s vital to try and get to the truth of a matter.

    Although Putin will continue to argue his deeds are the right course of action for him and Russia what it really appears to be to me is a fight for power and a will to dominate others. To invade Ukraine as a show of what he is capable of is pretty short sighted, but if his bigger picture is to create a new Russian empire then for him and his agenda then his actions are only slowly being revealed and his power games have yet to be played out in full. Putin is a truly dangerous man in dangerous times indeed.

    1. Hi. If Putin’s dream is to reestablish Russia as an imperial power, then his actions will have the exact opposite result. As I write this, Russia is becoming poorer and more isolated and despised. Of course, most Russian people are powerless so I don’t blame them. I think you’ve read the situation perfectly and we are in total agreement. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Putin reinforces the notion that the “elite” in terms of money and power place no value on life. There are a few exceptions of course, but this statement isn’t just a comment on Putin. The are people in every country content to treat anyone save themselves as canon fodder.
    In Putin we finally have someone willing to threaten the end of all life on earth to get whatever he wants. Diplomacy is useless. I suspect he would be willing to conduct a “nuclear demonstration” to cower the rest of the world, and we may soon see that. I don’t see any solution short of his death.
    However, if not Putin, there would be someone else taking his approach. North Korea doesn’t have Putin’s arsenal but certainly leans that way. Conversely, China may be rethinking its alliance because of the risk of Putin turning this tactic against them.
    The question has been asked: What would have happened in 1938 if Hitler had nukes? Now we’re getting to find out.
    If cornered, would Putin choose mass death over surrender? Is there a point at which the Russian general staff says “no more”?

    1. Hi, Vic. I think we may be closer to that “Russian general” taking action than any of us realize. Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing, many ordinary Russians are being fed all kinds of states-sponsored propaganda and eating it up like there’s no tomorrow. (Think those who regularly watched FOX news during the previous American administration.) The question is, how long can Putin and his ilk keep the Russians ignorant and pacified? I think the Russian people will ultimately solve this problem themselves, but it will likely take a long time, but who knows. Someone very close to Putin could solve the problem at any moment. Thanks for the insightful comments.

      1. The closing of US retail stores in Russia may clue the masses that something is amiss in the Putin narrative. At least we can hope.

  6. “Violence never pays off in the long run and violent people never prevail.”

    Oh really? Tell that to the violent people. The psychopaths and sociopaths. See how they respond. Over the long haul, violence and cruelty may not prevail but the “long haul” is often longer than the natural life of the violent and cruel person. Stalin would consider himself a winner. The Ayatollahs consider themselves winners. Every ruler of North Korea would consider themself a winner. For each who is destroyed, there is another who lives out their life unshaken and unbowed.

    Violent and cruel people don’t get emotionally and spiritually scarred because that requires a level of feeling they lack. They consider enemies plotting to kill them just part of the life of the successful. Maybe even adds spice to the game. The main problem with Putin – and perhaps Trump – is that they lack the ability to feel empathy.

    Our empathy is what gives us a sense of right and wrong. That is what all the various Golden Rule interpretations derive from. Lacking empathy, people are just disposable tools to be used to a personal end. It is unfortunate that this kind of psychopathy is often coupled with a masterful ability to manipulate. Autocratic systems are more amenable to psychopaths than are democratic systems but democracy itself is still vulnerable.

    Some psychopaths are masters at masking and can be extremely charming when they want.
    Such a person is perfect for the KGB. We’ve seen plenty who grew up to be serial killers, serial rapists, billionaire fraudsters, or ruthless CEOs. Putin is what you get when one gets to be head of state of a major nuclear power.

    From Psychology Today:
    Psychopaths are under the category of “antisocial personality disorders” as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
    Research has found that roughly 1 in 5 people with antisocial personality disorder is a psychopath.
    The core set of criteria for psychopathy includes a lack of empathy, shame, and remorse.

    Read this article and see if it doesn’t describe Putin almost to a “T.”


  7. Thank you Troy. I actually watched an interview by Putin yesterday and what said was that the West have betrayed Russia and the former USSR, that he’s blaming the West and wanting to protect his country. There is no excuse for war and his blatant disrespect for human life. I do feel sorry for him and kmownthat his childhood must have been horrendous, it is also important to send him and his staff healing energy, even though it’s hard…for the sake of humanity, we do not want war and GoD forbid nuclear war. God bless us all .

    1. Hi. I understand that NATO’s enlargement has made Putin nervous. But most of those who live in that part of the world have made their choice. They’ve turned westward, not eastward. They see themselves as western Europeans and don’t want to be part of some larger political project that isn’t rooted in liberal, democratic values. One wonders about these dictators. What made them the way they are? They crop up from time to time and capture the world’s attention. Yes, let’s hope that there ends soon and that peace prevails. Thanks for the comment.

  8. I hate guns, war, and violence! But I discovered how much I approve of the Ukrainians defending their country. At the same time I feel sorry for the Russian people, many of whom are kept in the dark about what is really happening in Ukraine. I feel sorry for the Russian soldiers who are forced to kill and be killed when they have nothing against their Ukrainian neighbors. In fact, they may have family ties in Ukraine.

  9. This is horrifyingly awful, though unavoidable given who Putin is. Did the people at the top think his ambitions stopped with murdering opponents and taking over Belarus and Georgia? And 45’s aggressive determination to withdraw from NATO is really starting to reek.

    Equally devastating is the difference in response to this compared to other wars, and the aggressive racism that is showing up in the reporting. War is apparently not something white people do, forgetting that our history is of little else.

  10. Being half Russian-German, I’ve always wanted to see Russia. Of course, it’ll never come about, but dreaming about it is one of my pastimes. I hope you find a way to go visit one of those countries Yes, I, too, believe Russia itself would rather not be in a war.

  11. Great and thoughtful piece, Troy. But we in the west also need to reallise that our governments bear some responsibility for the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine – both by NATO’s tweaking the nose of the Russian bear and by encouraging (certainly in the UK) the semi-criminal financial antics of Russian oligarchs. Putin is evil and must be stopped, but we also need to learn big political lessons. I doubt if our politicians will, though.

  12. Excellent piece Troy, thank for making clear that it is Putin’s war. I think that we as human kind never learn from history. As someone in the comment box said, we as Western people have our own responsibilities in this war, that has started slowly in 2010. We closed our eyes and here we are. Though I still dream of peace in the world, and will never give up to my dream.

  13. Excellent article Troy. What I have learned from Putin’s war on Ukraine is that racism isn’t just an American problem. It’s a European problem as well. That even in the midst of missiles being dropped, with everyone running for dear life, people still have time to be racist! That black people are turned by law enforcement officers while their white colleagues are allowed through is the real conflict here. Unbelievable!

  14. Very good information. Well done. It’s too bad the USA can’t see their own faults while forever seeing what’s wrong with everyone else, however. And then there’s Biden and Hunter making millions in Ukraine while Biden was VP of the USA. But no biggie..nothing to see here. Just a lot of people in our US government who make and have made millions with dirty dealings while we all suffer and keep voting them in. Well actually we didn’t vote Biden in. He was swept in with the most simple trick of all. Swiping the same ballot with Biden votes multiple times until it got him over the hump to victory. And we wonder why this administration isn’t blessed. It’s cursed because it’s a lie.

  15. Thank you for always interesting insights. My biggest hope is that this proves to be ENOUGH for the Russian people and they rise against Putin. You wrote “Why does it so often take tragedy and bloodshed to bring countries and peoples of good will together?” and it made me think of another Pointless Overthinking post I read the other day, about the Yin-Yang. The dark side representing the bad, but you may still find some good that came from it. I hope good comes from this tragedy. https://pointlessoverthinking.com/2022/03/05/the-meaning-of-yin-and-yang/#respond

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