WASHINGTON — In 1992, in the Central Asian winter that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, I hit upon a slightly crazy, but also most unusual, path to adventure. I would spend the two months of January and February out there where nobody went, in what had been Soviet Central Asia, exploring the changes in the little "republics" of Tatarstan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
Since I rightly doubted that many other brave wanderers would choose this particular route to adventure, I was quite excited to see this huge landmass of snow-covered mountains and ancient tribes that Moscow had not easily "Sovietized."
I learned a lot. I saw for myself what a gigantic "country" the U.S.S.R. had laid claim to. But I also learned what an explosive mix of ethnic, nationalistic and angry peoples Moscow was sitting atop of — and where their loyalties truly lay.
My first day in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, a well turned-out gentleman down the hall from me in the hotel began to chat. He was Turkish, out there, at the dawn of this new age, to get in on business right away. The next man I met was a Turkish diplomat. After that, Turks seemed to be everywhere, while the rest of the world was, well, nowhere to be found.
When I managed to stumble out of my adventure, a Turkish professor in Istanbul clarified some things for me. "When I travel across Central Asia, as you did," Dr. Ilter Turan remarked kindly, "I am able to understand about 90 percent of their Turkish language and dialects."
Thus it is that, still today, when I read about the Russian plane being shot down by the Turks, I see different stories from other observers. I see some millions of Central Asians who identify not with the Russian Federation but with Muslim Turkey, the mother country that shot down the Russian plane. I see Eurasian heads thinking in Turkish and not in Russian.
And I also see Americans and others who think, despite their dislike for him, that Vladimir Putin is "one smart guy" or a "real strategist" or even "somebody we could learn from." We recite as fact the idea that Putin doesn't want to fight ISIS because he's supporting Syrian President Assad.
In fact, this moment is not unlike my winter's moment in 1992 when most of the world misunderstood the Soviet collapse for the simple reason that they did not understand the country from within.
For instance, Russian newspapers are filled with the news that there are thousands of North Caucasians (and other Russian citizens) fighting with radical Islamists like ISIS. Russian officials say 2,500 men; experts say it's more like 3,000 from Chechnya and perhaps as many as 5,000 from Dagestan.
Yevgeny Sysoyev, the deputy director of the FSB, the new KGB, has been quoted in the press as saying that the post-Soviet states are supplying 7,000 of the 80,000 foreigners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. Even from Azerbaijan, one of the countries on my trip, an estimated 1,500 people have gone to Syria and to ISIS; now they are returning home, but to employ their revolutionary tactics there.
Another interesting factor is that, according to the Human Rights Center of the World Russian Popular Assembly, at least 10 percent of the ethnic Russians who converted to Islam over the last decade have done so while in prison! They have turned to the most radical groups, most often starting with fascist ideas and bringing those ideas to Islamic statism.
Also, even pro-Kremlin commentators constantly note that Salafi Islam — the most radical form — is spreading so fast within Russia that it now threatens traditional Russian Islam. This collision has already resulted in the violent deaths of conservative imams and others.
What is occurring within today's Russia is a big story, even as it was when I traveled out there in 1992. But it is not the story of Vladimir Putin, the hero.
ISIS is growing within Russia. Islam is invading the Russian Orthodox state. Virtually all indicators are that the majority of the Russian population is against Putin's adventures in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. (The next targets are apt to be Lithuania, Moldova and/or Saudi Arabia.)
Whatever, it is clear that Vladimir Putin is not the "strategist" that so many Americans seem to think he is. At best, he seems to be a man thinking, "I'll try this ... then this ... and if that works, I'll ..."
It is surely in great part his leadership that prompted the prominent commentator Pavel Kazarin to write recently that Russians want to believe Russia is a normal country with islands of abnormality; but in truth, Russia is an abnormal country with islands of normality.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.