Archives for posts with tag: Russia
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Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin (image from GoodReads)

Wettlin, Margaret. Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union. New York: Wiley, 1994. Print.

Maybe I’m a little bit nosy, but I’ve always liked books that give me insight into other people’s personal lives. When I was a kid, I read my way through the biography section of the library and preferred novels that were written in diary form. I read more broadly now and will accept non-realistic elements in my books, but I still love a good memoir.

Margaret Wettlin’s story of planning to visit the Soviet Union on a one-month tour and ultimately staying 42 years certainly resonated with me now that I’ve been in Georgia longer than expected. (But I have no intention of staying THAT long!)

I think the most valuable part of this book is her recounting of her experiences during the war. Though I’ve read a decent amount of material about Russia and the Great Patriotic War (/World War Two), I haven’t before come across any first-hand accounts of the civilian experience outside the major cities or of being evacuated. Her short time in Tbilisi during the war was particularly interesting to me. I found it funny that they found a cheap “peasant’s house” in Bagebi “five miles of climb from Tbilisi”(196). Bagebi BARELY counts as a suburb these days, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cheap anything there. It was a good reminder of the huge changes Georgia underwent as part of the Soviet Union, and the further and faster development I’ve seen even in my few years here.

The greatest weakness of the book was also the most interesting part: Wettlin’s underdeveloped and unsupported political views. She never joined the Communist Party, but she certainly supported the proclaimed Soviet ideals of equality and reform. She even became an informant for the secret police in support of this dream, but when she became disillusioned that her work didn’t seem to be making things better, she quit. She is critical of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev because they made people’s lives worse, not better. She never would have gotten a good grade on a political science term paper, as she offers no evidence to support her beliefs…but who does, really? How many Americans could give real, evidence-based reasons to explain why they are a Democrat or a Republican? Of course there are many people who can, but I would wager that for the majority of people, it just feels right, as the Soviet dream initially did to Wettlin. Her opinions in this field really shed a lot of light, for me at least, on why so many people continued to support the Soviet Union for so long, despite the hardships they faced.

The book is far from perfect, but that’s a large part of why it’s so interesting. Definitely recommended reading for those interested in Soviet history.

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Heretics and Colonizers (image from GoodReads)

Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus by Nicholas B. Breyfogle* 

Breyfogle, Nicholas B. Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK in physical editions; formerly available at Prospero’s, but currently out of stock. Check your local academic library.

Let me begin by saying that this book is a little different from most of the others I have reviewed here. This is a true academic work, not a non-fiction book for the general public, and it assumes a certain amount of background knowledge. Since I have a solid background in the history of the region, I had HEARD of Dukhobors, but I was coming into this book without much specific background information, and I found it fascinating. The writing is interesting and accessible–not the snooze-fest that sometimes plagues academic writing. The research explores the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks (sometimes referred to in English as Spirit-Wrestlers, Milk-Drinkers, and Sabbatarians respectively) in the South Caucasus. These religious sects were composed of ethnic Russians, but they were not Russian Orthodox, presenting a challenge to the traditional idea of Russian nationality. Some were exiled and others chose to move to the South Caucasus, where the regime thought they would be less likely to spread their “heretical” beliefs to other Russians, but they could be of use spreading Russianness to other areas of the empire. The tsarist regime’s treatment of the sectarians and their legal status was in near constant flux. In some ways and at some times, the sectarians achieved great successes in their new homes, while the (spoiler alert) Dukhobor Movement and weapons burning resulted in retaliation and exile/immigration for many of the Dukhobors.

This was one of those books that raised a lot of questions for me and encouraged me to look up some more information and learn more. I’d be interested in reading a biography of “Queen” Lukeria Kalmykova, for example, and I’m very interested to find out what’s going on with those who remained in Georgia at the end of the time frame covered in the book. (I asked a Georgian friend, and his reply was “Yeah, there are Dukhobors in Kakheti and Molokans on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. They’re still Russians. I don’t know about Subbotniks.”)

This book is perhaps not something with widespread popular appeal, but if you are curious about the topic I strongly recommend that you read it.

*I studied under Professor Breyfogle, so you may consider me biased. I don’t think knowing him changed my opinion of the book, but it did encourage me to read it, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

 

The Ghost of Freedom (Image from Goodreads)

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King 

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Availability: Available in both the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions. Often in stock at Prospero’s in Tbilisi.

There’s a bit of a funny story regarding how  I read this book at this moment, but if you’re not interested, feel free to skip on down to the next paragraph. The town where my parents live, and I spend lots of time on vacation, has an excellent used bookstore, so whenever I’m in town, I make a few stops there to see what I can get. I usually also volunteer to search for things for friends, since the prices are so good. An acquaintance from university is now teaching elementary school in a low-income community in the US, and she had posted on Facebook asking for donations to her classroom library. Since I had access to a good used bookstore, I figured I would pick up a few things for her kiddos. I also looked at her personal wishlist which contained lots of Russia/Eastern Europe titles, so I thought I’d try to find something for her, too. Imagine my surprise when I saw a book on the Caucasus on her list, and my shock when this was her only request that was in stock at the bookstore! So I picked it up, and I read it first before I sent it along to her.

Now, on to the book itself. I know that back in grad school, I’d checked this book out of the library many times, but I hadn’t read it cover to cover. At that point, I used it as a reference when writing papers–what year was that treaty signed? who was the leader during that event? Although it worked very well for that purpose, that didn’t allow me to appreciate just how good this book is–the writing style and structure are excellent. One of the best parts of the book is the chapter on the creation of the Caucasus in the Russian imagination–King goes beyond the usual discussion of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy (all of course, very important) and also discusses the effects of mountaineering, ethnographic missions, and the role of Circassians as sex symbols in Europe and the US in this chapter. I also learned a few new stories from this book–the Armenian Archbishop murdered in New York, and Queen Mariam’s refusal to surrender to the Russian military (which I can’t believe no one had told me before). Even though this book was published in 2008 (just before the Russia-Georgia war) it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Verdict: Read it. Read it all!

Unlike Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on SNL, I honestly can see Russia from my house, as it turns out.  It’s been amazingly clear the last few days (moving my roommate S to wax poetic).  Sunday afternoon we realized that off in the distance, past the edge of Tbilisi, behind Jvari and Mtskheta, far far off on the horizon, we could see snow-covered peaks, and thought it must be the Greater Caucasus themselves.  Lo and behold, it was!  The past few days have offered stunning glimpses of Mt. Kazbegi and the other Caucasus peaks roughly 150 kilometers to the North.

View from my apartment, Metekhi Church and Presidential Palace in foreground, Greater Caucasus in background

View from my apartment: Metekhi Church (left) and Presidential Palace (right, behind roof) Greater Caucasus in background

 

Focus on the Greater Caucasus, from our apartment window

Focus on the Greater Caucasus, from our apartment window

 

(Photos taken and post updated May 21, 2013)

Different sets of these photographs have been floating around the internet for a few years now, but I particularly like this collection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs of the Russian Empire circa1909-1912 from the BBC.  There are some lovely shots of Central Asia, and Picture 7 shows ethnic Greek Georgians working on a tea plantation in West Georgia (I would guess Guria).

Thomas de Waal (I’ve posted his articles before; he’s one of my favorite Georgia-watchers) has a fascinating new piece in Foreign Policy magazine (yes, another favorite of mine) on using great Russian literature to better understand the  political situations of the Former Soviet Union.  He uses Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” as his analogy for Georgia.  Now, unfortunately I’ve never read Karamazov (my apologies to my many excellent Russian literature professors, I’m more of an early-19th-century girl: Pushkin, Lermontov, and Durova!) so I can’t offer an opinion on de Waal’s literary parallels, but based on his description I agree that he is on to something.  Maybe I’ll read The Brothers Karamazov and be able to share more.

And, in other thoughts on the article, I think de Waal’s format of using literature to talk about politics really shows the importance of Area Studies as an academic field. I studied East European Studies in graduate school and received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, and am a big proponent of the program.

5 Days of War

Language: English, some dialogue in Russian and Georgian (quality varies)

Availability: Readily available in the US.  Netflix: DVD rental. Amazon: Instant Video rental and DVD for purchase.

After all the moaning and groaning I’d heard about this movie I was prepared for (and maybe even hoping for) the worst.  I have to say that actually, it’s not bad.  I don’t recommend you rush out and buy every copy in the store, but if it’s available as an in-flight movie, or you’re particularly attached to one of the actors, or have some other reason compelling you to watch it, it’s OK.  I’d say it’s 3 stars out of 5.  It is, however, very, VERY graphically bloody.  You have been warned.  Most of the criticism I’ve heard of the movie has been about its (lack of) accuracy, to which I have to say “Well, what did you expect?”.  Yes, the movie is fictionalized–it’s a Hollywood film.  Yes, the movie is one-sided–it was sponsored by the Georgian government (actually it wasn’t as one-sided as I expected–there were some good Russians).  The movie does have some good, very basic introductory information for people who have never heard of Georgia before–where it is, what the major political issues are, et cetera.  It also features some really lovely montages of Tbilisi, and some nicely performed traditional Georgian song and dance.  The (mis)pronunciations of various words and phrases bothered me a bit; it took me quite a while to figure out where the “Skin Valley” was (FYI–it’s Tskhinvali)  As a shallower comment, Rupert Friend, the male lead, has impressive cheekbones and brooding looks.  Be forewarned–there’s a “documentary” section at the end  that I was not remotely prepared for.  The subtitles also seemed to be in a smaller font size than other films (is there a way to change that?)

Hopefully this movie, which I assume has a wider audience than most Georgian films, will serve as a starting point and inspire people to learn more about the region and the real issues that are fictionalized in the movie.  I have my doubts that this will happen, but I hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Georgia’s geographical location between the Black and Caspian Seas and between Europe and Asia has made it a strategic and therefore contested location throughout history.  The area which is now the Republic of Georgia has been linked to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.  This land has changed hands many times, and each ruling power has left some mark on the modern Georgian nation.  All three of the regional powers in the Caucasus—Turkey, Iran, and Russia—have controlled all or part of what is now Georgia at some point in its history.

Though Georgia was long a part of the sphere of influence of the great Muslim Empires of the medieval period, it was the Peace of Amasa in 1555 which formalized Persian and Turkish control over the region.  This treaty “divided Georgia into spheres of influence.  Kartli, Kakheti, and the eastern part of Samtskhe saatabago were declared to be Iranian, while Imereti, its ‘vassal’ states, and western Samtskhe were to be Turkish” (Suny, 48).  All told, the period of Persian influence in the Georgian lands lasted nearly a thousand years (de Waal, 24).

In the late sixteenth century, Muscovy began to gain power and exert its influence southward into the Caucasus (Suny, 49).  The successor state to Muscovy, the Russian Empire, became a power in the Caucasus in the eighteenth century when it became involved in a series of wars with Turkey.  The Georgian monarchs saw an opportunity to better the position of their state in the regional order, and arranged for protection from their co-religionists in Russia against the Muslim Turks and Persians (Suny, 57-59).  In 1783, the Treaty of Georgievsk was signed which officially made the Georgian kingdoms a Russian protectorate (de Waal, 38).  In 1828, the Persians signed the Treaty of Turkmenchai which solidified this relationship between Russia and Georgia (de Waal, 38).  A year later in 1829, the Treaty of Adrianople was signed by both the Turks and the Persians, who ceded all claims to the Caucasus and made the region an undisputed part of the Russian Empire (de Waal, 40).

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the countries of the Caucasus enjoyed a brief period of independence.  Though short-lived, this period profoundly influenced political thinking in the region (de Waal, 64).  Georgia was an independent, parliamentary democracy from 1918-1921.  Thomas de Waal, a scholar of the Caucasus from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes this system as “fairly democratic” (de Waal, 64).  The leader of the Democratic Republic, Noe Zhordania, “believed in ruling by consensus” and “was genuinely popular and earned the support of the peasantry” (de Waal, 65).  Despite its democratic features and many positive traits, this system was also marked by an antagonism toward Georgia’s national minorities and was built upon a foundation of strong ethnic-Georgian nationalism (de Waal, 64-65).  This nationalistic streak became a source of trouble for Georgia later.  Georgia, the last independent holdout of the independent states of the Caucasus, was conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1921 and subsumed into the Soviet Union.

Though Georgia’s position in the Soviet Union was in many ways parallel to its position in the Russian Empire, de Waal cautions against seeing the Soviet Union as a mere continuation of the Russian Empire.  In the Soviet Union there was less of an emphasis on Russianization, and nationalism was at times encouraged as a political tool.  In fact, many high-ranking Bolsheviks (most notoriously Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria) were Georgians, illustrating the possibility for social advancement in the Soviet Union (de Waal, 72).  Georgia, in particular its Black Sea coast, was billed as “Soviet Florida”.  This status as a vacation destination coupled with the climate which allowed the cultivation of luxury crops such as tea and citrus made Georgia one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. (de Waal, 89).

Ethnic Georgian nationalism was on the rise in the late 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing instability exacerbated the situation.  Ethnic conflicts broke out in the Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  South Ossetia initially asked for autonomy within Georgia, and then declared independence in 1990.  The ensuing violence developed into an inter-ethnic war.  During the conflict, the South Ossetian separatists saw the Soviet troops in the region as their allies against the Georgians (Mackinlay and Sharov, 74-75).  The war in Abkhazia also started as a result of a desire for post-Soviet independence from Georgia.  Fighting broke out in August of 1992, and over the course of this conflict 11,000 people were killed and 300,000 were displaced (Boden, 56).  Abkhaz separatists called for Russian assistance against the “Georgian aggression” and Mountaineers and Cossacks (Russian citizens of ethnic minorities from the Russian-controlled North Caucasus) travelled across the border and joined the fighting either as mercenaries or to support their fellow Caucasians against the common Georgian enemy (Dale, 124).  The degree of official Russian involvement in the conflict in Abkhazia is still debated, though these conflicts made it obvious from the beginning of Georgia’s independence that the Russo-Georgian relationship would be a fraught one.  Following these conflicts, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia and was elected President.  Though the conflicts remained under control, a period of corruption and stagnation characterized the Shevardnadze period.

In 2003, a new generation of reformers ousted President Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution.  The three leaders of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, implemented a program of anti-corruption, democratization and Westernization. However, their coalition did not last.  Nino Burjanadze departed the Rose Revolution coalition and became a leader of the opposition while Zurab Zhvania, died in February of 2005.  The post-Rose Revolution political environment, led by an increasingly-powerful President Saakashvili, is characterized by a fragmented party system and an opposition focused primarily on nationalism and personality rather than on a particular political agenda.  The most recent developments in Georgia will be the topic of subsequent posts.

References:

Boden, Dieter. “The Role of the UN in the Settlement of the Conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia.” Promoting Institutional Responses to the Challenges in the Caucasus:     the OSCE, UN, EU and the CIS; Analyses, Case Studies, Outlooks; International Peace Academy, 31st Vienna Seminar, Diplomatic Academy Vienna 5-7 July 2001. Comp. Vienna School of International Studies. Wien: Diplomatische Akademie Wien, 2001. 56-60. Print.

Dale, Catherine. “The Case of Abkhazia (Georgia).” Peacekeeping and the Role of Russia in Eurasia. Ed. Lena Jonson and Clive Archer. Boulder: Westview, 1996. 121-38. Print.

de Waal, Thomas. The Caucasus: an Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Mackinlay, John, and Evgenii Sharov. “Russian Peacekeeping and Operations in Georgia.”Regional Peacekeepers: the Paradox of Russian Peacekeeping. Ed. John Mackinlay and Peter Cross. Tokyo: United Nations UP, 2003. 63-110. Print.

“Protests in Georgia: On Rustaveli Avenue.” The Economist [London] 2 June 2011, Print Edition ed., Europe sec. The Economist. The Economist Group, 2 June 2011. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://www.economist.com/node/18774744>.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Making of the Georgian Nation. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.

 

Due to its brevity, many interesting parts of Georgian history have been glossed over or omitted entirely.  If there’s something you feel should not have been forgotten, please share in the comments!  Likewise, I’ve tried hard to be accurate while also being brief, but if there are any factual errors, please let us know!

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