The post is only an hour old and already I have an update.
Go over to Duck of Minerva and read Daniel Nexon's post. He links to the Washington Post which (finally) puts this story into proper perspective without getting all messed up with the Munich Corollary to Godwin's Law.
'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast.
Actually, the events of the past week in Georgia have little in common with either Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II or Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. They are better understood against the backdrop of the complica ted ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudges run deep and oppressed can become oppressors in the bat of an eye.
My post here will make better background reading once you have read these other links.
Like most Americans I can't make heads or tails out of this conflict that so rudely interrupted our enjoyment of the Olympics. Oh, wait... It really didn't interrupt much. After all, the president stayed on to enjoy a couple more days before he decided to return to work. Pesky Russians. Just when you you look into their eyes and they make you think they're eating out of your hand they go and get out of control. But I digress...
The map above helps. It's not easy to find a good map of the area since Google has opted to blank out all of Georgia and a couple other places in the region last time I checked. (Not a bad idea, in my opinion, since today's Google maps could have military use by all sides of any territorial conflict.) As I suspected, much of this conflict is deeply rooted in tribal/ethnic/religious/political history and like most contemporary international conflicts is the fallout of geopolitical maps dating from decades, even centuries ago, which we regard as canonical gospels in what we like to imagine is a modern, civilized world.
We have in this case yet another proxy war still simmering between the two super-powers of the cold war. As usual, the resolution will depend not on who is right or wrong, but on which side will successfully beat the other into submission. God's children could live together in peace, but something in their genes divides them into rival groups forever playing at King on the Mountain. There was a time in history when this kind of conflict derived from actual life-and-death contests over scarce but vital resources, such as food or water. But that era is now obsolete in a world which, thanks to science and technology, could feed, clothe and house the world population. The problem is that we still haven't learned to get along. But once again, I digress...
Here are a few links that I found this morning.
jotman.com is now in my blogroll. New to me, this independent journalist seems to have been doing a lot of homework for some time. This is just one of several impressive endorsements linked there.
When I nominated the English-language blog by Jotman for the Reporters Without Borders award, I wondered whether it would have a chance. It is written by an anonymous Westerner who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, who has written first-hand accounts of the Thai coup in 2006 and the Burmese protests and crackdown in 2007. But I figured he was not someone who had to worry about freedom of speech, as he was not Burmese nor Thai, and he probably didn’t grow up under a dictatorship that was censoring the media.near the top of today's blog entries.
[snip]Jotman used the tools of a citizen journalist — a camera, videocamera, blog and street smarts — to find Burmese monks who were hiding out in safe houses. He asked people to send in first-hand reports, and filed his own. Reporters Without Borders felt that this award might lead others to do the same thing, emulatingJotman’s pluck in such difficult circumstances.
. . In an interview with a Dutch magazine, Sandra Roelofs, the Dutch wife of the new Georgian president and hence the new first lady of Georgia, explained that her husband aspires to follow in the long tradition of strong Georgian leaders "like Stalin and Beria". Saakashvili started his march on Tbilisi last November with a rally in front of the statue of Stalin in his birthplace, Gori. Unfazed, the western media continue to chatter about Saakashvili's democratic credentials, even though his seizure of power was consolidated with more than 95% of the vote in a poll in January, and even though he said last week that he did not see the point of having any opposition deputies in the national parliament.
Uh, excuse me. This man doesn't seem to be any poster boy for democracy. We're told he's pretty tight with John McCain, but if stuff like this gets out I'm not sure it will be all that good for McCain's reputation. At the link you can find "a picture of the Stalin statue in Gori, Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin. The town has been in the news recently because Russian troops have occupied it. And just who is "Beria" -- the other person Saakashvili apparently admires? Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was the chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Stalin."
Enough of that.
My first impulse when I learned of the Russian conflict was to go to my old Russian history texts from college days (I once took a two-quarter sequence of Russian History) to see what I might find about Osetia. Wow. What a mess. Osetia is but one of a dukes mixture of "alphabet groups" that clutter the whole Southern edge of Mother Russia. In the case of Osetia, it may be most famous for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, although I notice that Gori, the town where he came from, does not appear to be inside the lines of what now is called "Southern Osetia." Just another of the muddy details of this story.
One thing seems clear. Joseph Djugashvili Stalin is not vilified around those parts as much as by the rest of the world. In fact, he's remembered in part by his association with a Robin-Hood-like character named Kamo with whom he ran as a youngster. Kamo seems to have been admired by the great unwashed in much the same manner that great numbers of ignorant but armed and dangerous counterparts today admire Che Guevara.
Last year's well-received biography of Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore which I read about in passing but didn't bother to read tells this story in a way sure to make a good movie script.
PROLOGUE: The Bank Robbery
At 10:30 a.m. on the sultry morning of Wednesday, 26 June 1907, in the seething central square of Tiflis, a dashing mustachioed cavalry captain in boots and jodhpurs, wielding a big Circassian sabre, performed tricks on horseback, joking with two pretty, well-dressed Georgian girls who twirled gaudy parasols–while fingering Mauser pistols hidden in their dresses.
Raffish young men in bright peasant blouses and wide sailor-style trousers waited on the street corners, cradling secreted revolvers and grenades. At the louche Tilipuchuri Tavern on the square, a crew of heavily armed gangsters took over the cellar bar, gaily inviting passers-by to join them for drinks. All of them were waiting to carry out the first exploit by Josef Djugashvili, aged twenty-nine, later known as Stalin, to win the attention of the world.
Few outside the gang knew of the plan that day for a criminal terrorist “spectacular,” but Stalin had worked on it for months. One man who did know the broad plan was Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, hiding in a villa in Kuokola, Finland, far to the north. Days earlier, in Berlin, and then in London, Lenin had secretly met with Stalin to order the big heist, even though their Social-Democratic Party had just strictly banned all “expropriations,” the euphemism for bank robberies. But Stalin’s operations, heists and killings, always conducted with meticulous attention to detail and secrecy, had made him the “main financier of the Bolshevik Centre.”
The events that day would make headlines all over the globe, literally shake Tiflis to its foundations, and further shatter the fragmented Social-Democrats into warring factions: that day would both make Stalin’s career and almost ruin it–a watershed in his life.
In Yerevan Square, the twenty brigands who formed the core of Stalin’s gang, known as “the Outfit,” took up positions as their lookouts peered down Golovinsky Prospect, Tiflis’s elegant main street, past the white Italianate splendour of the Viceroy’s Palace. They awaited the clatter of a stagecoach and its squadron of galloping Cossacks. The army captain with the Circassian sabre caracoled on his horse before dismounting to stroll the fashionable boulevard.
Every street corner was guarded by a Cossack or policeman: the authorities were ready. Something had been expected since January. The informers and agents of the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, and his uniformed political police, the Gendarmes, delivered copious reports about the clandestine plots and feuds of the gangs of revolutionaries and criminals. In the misty twilight of this underground, the worlds of bandit and terrorist had merged and it was hard to tell tricks from truth. But there had been “chatter” about a “spectacular”–as today’s intelligence experts would put it–for months.
On that dazzling steamy morning, the Oriental colour of Tiflis (now Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia) hardly seemed to belong to the same world as the Tsar’s capital, St. Petersburg, a thousand miles away. The older streets, without running water or electricity, wound up the slopes of Mtatsminda, Holy Mountain, until they were impossibly steep, full of crookedly picturesque houses weighed down with balconies, entwined with old vines. Tiflis was a big village where everyone knew everyone else.
Just behind the military headquarters, on genteel Freilinskaya Street, a stone’s throw from the square, lived Stalin’s wife, a pretty young Georgian dressmaker named Kato Svanidze, and their newborn son, Yakov. Theirs was a true love match: despite his black moods, Stalin was devoted to Kato, who admired and shared his revolutionary fervour. As she sunned herself and the baby on her balcony, her husband was about to give her, and Tiflis itself, an unholy shock.
This intimate city was the capital of the Caucasus, the Tsar’s wild, mountainous viceroyalty between the Black and the Caspian Seas, a turbulent region of fierce and feuding peoples. Golovinsky Prospect seemed Parisian in its elegance. White neo-classical theatres, a Moorish-style opera house, grand hotels and the palaces of Georgian princes and Armenian oil barons lined the street, but, as one passed the military headquarters, Yerevan Square opened up into an Asiatic potpourri.
Exotically dressed hawkers and stalls offered spicy Georgian lobio beans and hot khachapuri cheesecake. Water-carriers, street-traders, pickpockets and porters delivered to or stole from the Armenian and Persian Bazaars, the alleyways of which more resembled a Levantine souk than a European city. Caravans of camels and donkeys, loaded with silks and spices from Persia and Turkestan, fruit and wineskins from the lush Georgian countryside, ambled through the gates of the Caravanserai. Its young waiters and errand boys served its clientele of guests and diners, carrying in the bags, unharnessing the camels–and watching the square. Now we know from the newly opened Georgian archives that Stalin, Faginlike, used the Caravanserai boys as a prepubescent revolutionary street intelligence and courier service. Meanwhile in one of the Caravanserai’s cavernous backrooms, the chief gangsters gave their gunmen a pep talk, rehearsing the plan one last time. Stalin himself was there that morning.
The two pretty teenage girls with twirling umbrellas and loaded revolvers, Patsia Goldava and Anneta Sulakvelidze, “brown-haired, svelte, with black eyes that expressed youth,” casually sashayed across the square to stand outside the military headquarters, where they flirted with Russian officers, Gendarmes in smart blue uniforms, and bowlegged Cossacks.
Tiflis was–and still is–a languid town of strollers and boulevardiers who frequently stop to drink wine at the many open-air taverns: if the showy, excitable Georgians resemble any other European people, it is the Italians. Georgians and other Caucasian men, in traditional chokha–their skirted long coats lined down the chest with bullet pouches–swaggered down the streets, singing loudly. Georgian women in black headscarves, and the wives of Russian officers in European fashions, promenaded through the gates of the Pushkin Gardens, buying ices and sherbet alongside Persians and Armenians, Chechens, Abkhaz and Mountain Jews, in a fancy-dress jamboree of hats and costumes.
Gangs of street urchins–kintos–furtively scanned the crowds for scams. Teenage trainee priests, in long white surplices, were escorted by their berobed, bearded priest-teachers from the pillared white seminary across the street, where Stalin had almost qualified as a priest nine years earlier. This un-Slavic, un-Russian and ferociously Caucasian kaleidoscope of East and West was the world that nurtured Stalin.
Checking the time, the girls Anneta and Patsia parted, taking up new positions on either side of the square. On Palace Street, the dubious clientele of the notorious Tilipuchuri Tavern–princes, pimps, informers and pickpockets–were already drinking Georgian wine and Armenian brandy, not far from the plutocratic grandeur of Prince Sumbatov’s palace.
Just then David Sagirashvili, another revolutionary who knew Stalin and some of the gangsters, visited a friend who owned a shop above the tavern and was invited in by the cheerful brigand at the doorway, Bachua Kupriashvili, who “immediately offered me a chair and a glass of red wine, according to the Georgian custom.” David drank the wine and was about to leave when the gunman suggested “with exquisite politeness” that he stay inside and “sample more snacks and wine.” David realized that “they were letting people into the restaurant but would not let them out. Armed individuals stood at the door.”
Spotting the convoy galloping down the boulevard, Patsia Goldava, the slim brunette on lookout, sped round the corner to the Pushkin Gardens where she waved her newspaper to Stepko Intskirveli, waiting by the gate.
“We’re off!” he muttered.
Stepko nodded at Anneta Sulakvelidze, who was across the street just outside the Tilipuchuri, where she made a sign summoning the others from the bar. The gunmen in the doorway beckoned them. “At a given signal” Sagirashvili saw the brigands in the tavern put down their drinks, cock their pistols and head out, spreading across the square–thin, consumptive young men in wide trousers who had barely eaten for weeks. Some were gangsters, some desperadoes and some, typically for Georgia, were poverty-stricken princes from roofless, wall-less castles in the provinces. If their deeds were criminal, they cared nothing for money: they were devoted to Lenin, the Party and their puppet-master in Tiflis, Stalin.
“The functions of each of us had been planned in advance,” remembered a third girl in the gang, Alexandra Darakhvelidze, just nineteen, a friend of Anneta, and already veteran of a spree of heists and shootouts.
The gangsters each covered the square’s policemen–the gorodovoi, known in the streets as pharaohs. Two gunmen marked the Cossacks outside the City Hall; the rest made their way to the corner of Velyaminov Street and the Armenian Bazaar, not far from the State Bank itself. Alexandra Darakhvelidze, in her unpublished memoirs, recalled guarding one of the street corners with two gunmen.
Now Bachua Kupriashvili, nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper, spotted in the distance the cloud of dust thrown up by the horses’ hooves. They were coming! Bachua rolled up his newspaper, poised . . . The cavalry captain with the flashing sabre, who had been promenading the square, now warned passers-by to stay out of it, but when no one paid any attention he jumped back onto his fine horse. He was no officer but the ideal of the Georgian beau sabreur and outlaw, half-knight, half-bandit. This was Kamo, aged twenty-five, boss of the Outfit and, as Stalin put it, “a master of disguise” who could pass for a rich prince or a peasant laundrywoman. He moved stiffly, his half-blind left eye squinting and rolling: one of his own bombs had exploded in his face just weeks before. He was still recuperating.
Kamo “was completely enthralled” by Stalin, who had converted him to Marxism. They had grown up together in the violent town of Gori forty-five miles away. He was a bank robber of ingenious audacity, a Houdini of prison-escapes, a credulous simpleton–and a half-insane practitioner of psychopathic violence. Intensely, eerily tranquil with a weird “lustreless face” and a blank gaze, he was keen to serve his master, often begging Stalin: “Let me kill him for you!” No deed of macabre horror or courageous flamboyance was beyond him: he later plunged his hand into a man’s chest and cut out his heart.
Throughout his life, Stalin’s detached magnetism would attract, and win the devotion of, amoral, unbounded psychopaths. His boyhood henchman Kamo and these gangsters were the first in a long line. “Those young men followed Stalin selflessly . . . Their admiration for him allowed him to impose on them his iron discipline.” Kamo often visited Stalin’s home, where he had earlier borrowed Kato’s father’s sabre, explaining that he was “going to play an officer of the Cossacks.” Even Lenin, that fastidious lawyer, raised as a nobleman, was fascinated by the daredevil Kamo, whom he called his “Caucasian bandit.” “Kamo,” mused Stalin in old age, “was a truly amazing person.”
“Captain” Kamo turned his horse towards the boulevard and trotted audaciously right past the advancing convoy, coming the other way. Once the shooting started, he boasted, the whole thing “would be over in three minutes.”
The Cossacks galloped into Yerevan Square, two in front, two behind and another alongside the two carriages. Through the dust, the gangsters could make out that the stagecoach contained two men in frockcoats–the State Bank’s cashier Kurdyumov and accountant Golovnya–and two soldiers with rifles cocked, while a second phaeton was packed with police and soldiers. In the thunder of hooves, it took just seconds for the carriages and horsemen to cross the square ready to turn into Sololaki Street, where stood the new State Bank: the statues of lions and gods over its door represented the surging prosperity of Russian capitalism.
Bachua lowered his newspaper, giving the sign, then tossed it aside, reaching for his weapons. The gangsters drew out what they nicknamed their “apples”–powerful grenades which had been smuggled into Tiflis by the girls Anneta and Alexandra, hidden inside a big sofa.
The gunmen and the girls stepped forward, pulled the fuses and tossed four grenades which exploded under the carriages with a deafening noise and an infernal force that disemboweled horses and tore men to pieces, spattering the cobbles with innards and blood. The brigands drew their Mauser and Browning pistols and opened fire on the Cossacks and police around the square who, caught totally unawares, fell wounded or ran for cover. More than ten bombs exploded. Witnesses thought they rained from every direction, even the rooftops: it was later said that Stalin had thrown the first bomb from the roof of Prince Sumbatov’s mansion.
The bank’s carriages stopped. Screaming passers-by scrambled for cover. Some thought it was an earthquake: was Holy Mountain falling on to the city? “No one could tell if the terrible shooting was the boom of cannons or explosion of bombs,” reported the Georgian newspaper Isari (Arrow). “The sound caused panic everywhere . . . almost across the whole city, people started running. Carriages and carts were galloping away . . .” Chimneys had toppled from buildings; every pane of glass was shattered as far as the Viceroy’s Palace.
Kato Svanidze was standing on her nearby balcony tending Stalin’s baby with her family, “when all of a sudden we heard the sound of bombs,” recalled her sister, Sashiko. “Terrified, we rushed into the house.” Outside, amid the yellow smoke and the wild chaos, among the bodies of horses and mutilated limbs of men, something had gone wrong.
One horse attached to the front carriage twitched, then jerked back to life. Just as the gangsters ran to seize the moneybags in the back of the carriage, the horse reared up out of the mayhem and bolted down the hill towards the Soldiers Bazaar, disappearing with the money that Stalin had promised Lenin for the Revolution.
How about that for thrills, suspense, action?!
I came across a rave review of this book from the London Times. The reviewer said good things about the author, but also could not resist talking about his subject.
Much has been written about the beatings Stalin received as a child from his violent father and adoring mother. The townspeople of Gori, where he grew up, were addicted to violent street fighting, and the seminary in Tiflis helped turn this autodidact and poet into a confirmed atheist and rebel.
Stalin soon became a natural revolutionary and terrorist, shamelessly relishing the organisation of hold-ups, raids to capture weapons, and protection rackets. Extortion was not always necessary. The Georgian revolutionaries were sometimes also funded by tycoons and nobles opposed to the Russian Tsarist regime.
Theirs was a world of konspiratzia, with police spies and double agents from the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. Stalin showed no scruples in killing anyone suspected of treachery, and many more innocent comrades were wiped out in the process than genuine spies. There were even kidnappings and a couple of cases of piracy, when revolutionaries took over ships in the Black Sea and the Caspian delivering pay chests. The vast bulk of the proceeds from these "expropriations" were sent to Lenin to finance the Bolshevik cause.
The great Tiflis heist, the ambush of a coach full of money in the main square, became a scandal reported all round the world. Attacking with bombs and guns, Stalin's gang produced 90 casualties, 40 of which resulted in death. It was a huge embarrassment for the Bolsheviks, but Lenin, who was just as unscrupulous as his Georgian acolyte, did not want the money to dry up. Stalin's insanely violent henchman, Kamo, left for Finland with the equivalent of £1.7 million, which he handed over to the cause. The Mensheviks, who received none of the money, set out to destroy both Lenin and Stalin. Lenin truly admired Stalin's ruthlessness. "That is exactly the sort of person I need," he said.
So what has all this to do with today's conflict? I dunno.
But if America were in a similar conflict today with Mexico over, say, parts of the Southwest, maybe even Texas, my guess is that we would consider tales of the Spanish-American War to have some meaning. Hell, the war's been over for a long time and to hear Americans talk about the Alamo one would think it only falls a short way in history ahead of 9/11.
Meantime, I'm still doing homework.
Pat Buchanan may lack finesse, but he can see when someone is doing something really stupid. Like pissing on Russian boots. Or jumping to the defense of someone who did.
Mikheil did not reckon on the rage or resolve of the Bear.
American charges of Russian aggression ring hollow. Georgia started this fight – Russia finished it. People who start wars don't get to decide how and when they end.
Russia's response was "disproportionate" and "brutal," wailed Bush.
True. But did we not authorize Israel to bomb Lebanon for 35 days in response to a border skirmish where several Israel soldiers were killed and two captured? Was that not many times more "disproportionate"?
Russia has invaded a sovereign country, railed Bush. But did not the United States bomb Serbia for 78 days and invade to force it to surrender a province, Kosovo, to which Serbia had a far greater historic claim than Georgia had to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, both of which prefer Moscow to Tbilisi?
Is not Western hypocrisy astonishing?