Archives for posts with tag: The Soviet Union

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.


Flight from the USSR (Image from GoodReads)

Flight from the U.S.S.R. / ჯინსების თაობა (“Jeans Generation”) by Dato Turashvili  

Turashvili, Dato. Flight from the USSR. Trans. Maya Kiasashvili. Tbilisi: Sulakauri Publishing, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easily available in almost any book or souvenir shop in Georgia, in Georgian, English, or Russian. US/UK editions to be released February 2016.

The story of a group of young Soviet Georgians who just can’t take it anymore so they decide to hijack an airplane and defect to the West. This historical fiction novel is more on the historical side (per my quick Google research), and most of the fictionalization lies in giving personality and dialogue to the historical personages. The story was initially written as a play in 2001, while Shevardnadze (who makes an unflattering cameo in the novel version) was still in power. That was certainly a brave act of artistic resistance. The novel version of the story was published in 2008, though the play remains popular (but I haven’t seen it yet). US and UK versions of the novel are slated to be published in February 2016.

When I decided to start reading this, I didn’t realize how timely my choice of reading material was–I began just after the Paris attacks, and therefore the idea of terrorism was at the forefront of my mind while reading it. One of the main themes of the book is the oft-quoted idea that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is where you stand, and that the line between good and evil is not always clear-cut. The hijackers’ actions are not defended–everyone admits that engaging in terrorism is wrong, but they are all portrayed as sympathetic characters who are just trying to make the world better. As the novel tells it, the casualties of the hijacking were inflicted by the authorities, while the hijackers shared water with the passengers trapped aboard the aircraft. This brings into focus the harshness of life under the late-Soviet regime, and the upside-down reality that the terrorists took more care of citizens than did the officials whose duty was, theoretically, to protect them. The novel engages with the philosophical questions of violence, freedom, and the connection between the two. To me, Turashvili didn’t answer these questions; rather, he created an environment suitable for the reader to ponder them.

Though the book has a philosophical side, it remains a quick and enjoyable read. The action is fast-paced, and the prose is concise and readable. At under 200 pages, it’s also a quick read. Kiasashvili’s translation was quite good; it maintained a readable and colloquial style. The one real problem I found with this book was that the proofreading was terrible (/non-existent)! It was riddled with typos–some of them comically awkward (“shedding teats in the cemetery”) and some just bizarre (a Russian letter inserted in the middle of an English word). Note to Georgian publishing companies–I (and I’m sure plenty of other ex-pats) would be happy to check for typos in exchange for some lari. These errors prevented me from fully engaging with the book and immersing myself in it. I assume that the forthcoming US and UK editions of the book will fix these problems, making the book much more readable. I can’t speak to the quality of the Russian translation.

One last point to make is that the Georgian editions of the book (Georgian, English, and Russian) are published by Sulakauri Publishing, who have been in the news recently for an ad featuring a Hitler impersonator, which many feel is in poor taste. You may want to keep this in mind when deciding if you would like to purchase the book.


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!

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Young Stalin. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easy to find!  Available on both and  My copy came from a big box bookstore in the Midwest, so I assume it will be in the non-fiction sections of many local bookstores.  In stock at Prospero’s Books in Tbilisi last time I was there.  I’ve noticed Georgian-language translations in many of the bookshops along Rustaveli Avenue.  There seems to be a Russian-language edition in print, as well.

I’ve had this book recommended to me many times, and have been lugging it around for quite a while (thanks for sending it to Georgia, Mom!).  With the end of the school year I’ve had more time to read, and I finally became acquainted with Young Stalin. Overall, I was impressed with the book: it’s well-written, accessible, and is closer to the “brain candy” end of the non-fiction spectrum than most subject matter that grabs my attention.  I was also repeatedly amazed by the extensive research and (occasionally bizarre) sources that Montefiore found (side note: what a cool job!).  Though the book is, obviously, focused on Stalin’s early biography, his activities offer insight into a period of Georgian history (the late Imperial era) that is not often studied, making it difficult to find accessible sources on the period (and as a nerd for this sort of thing, my definition of “accessible” is perhaps a bit broader than most people’s).  If nothing else, I’m now full of Stalin stories to tell while strolling around Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue.  I don’t know the historical geography of Tbilisi well enough to pinpoint all of Stalin’s adventures (I wish the book had contained more detailed maps!), but I have an idea of where the major bank robberies and prison stays took place.

In addition to the lack of a city map, I had one other minor dislike in the book: the poetry.  Contrary to what you might think, I loved that Montefiore chose to include some of Stalin’s (or, more accurately, Soselo’s) poetry to introduce each new section.  However, I’m not much of one for figurative speech: metaphor often goes straight over my head, and my appreciation of poetry comes primarily from its form: I love analyzing poetic meter and rhyme.  The translations chosen for the book focused on the ideas of the poetry, not the music.  Of course I understand that translating poetry isn’t easy (believe me, I’ve tried and stumbled), and I admit that in the context of biography the content takes precedence, but if I had my druthers….

And as a funny aside: on p. 162, Young Stalin in involved in a pirate attack on (boat) Captain Sinkevich.  I assume none of the Captain’s crew or passengers were English-speakers…

As you see, my only criticisms of the book are things I would have done differently, and desires for even more information, and I still found the book both entertaining and highly informative.  I’d initially planned to sell or trade this book when I was done and keep myself in fresh reading material, but I just can’t part with it yet.  If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t really know what is.

Original Post (Approximately 4:30 PM, local time, May 16, 2012)
My region has been in the news quite a bit lately, so I thought I should fill you all in.  The Davit Gareji Monastery, a popular tourist site with great importance in Georgian culture and religion, has long been subject to a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan.  Recently, the dispute has become more major with the news reports that Azeri border guards are currently stationed on Georgian territory in the monastery.

Allegedly, the exact border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was drawn by Stalin back in the Soviet days, when it wasn’t so important exactly which territory was Georgian and which was Azeri, because ultimately all were part of the Soviet Union.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Soviet internal borders were maintained as national borders.  This border left the Davit Gareji complex split between the two countries.

When my friends and I visited Davit Gareji at the end of March, we knew we were very close to Azerbaijan, but we didn’t even realize where we entered Azeri territory.  There were certainly no guards there– we only encountered two other people on our trek up the mountain to the cave sites. Now that I’ve heard about the controversy, I’m quite sure that we were in Azerbaijan, but there were no obvious indicators of the fact. (I’m under the impression that the low fence is, in fact, the border–at the time I just thought it was a rather ineffective means of keeping people from tumbling off the mountain).  I recently spoke on the phone to a friend (a fellow foreigner living in Georgia) who had visited Davit Gareji in the past few weeks.  She mentioned at one point “You know the place where the guards are?”  So, clearly the situation for tourists there has changed a bit in the last month.  She said she and her friends were discouraged from lingering or taking photos of Azeri territory by the guards posted there (which is a shame, because it was a really stunning view).

According to the news, there are now Azeri soldiers at the border, including in the monastery complex, and the two countries have been discussing the border dispute with more urgency.  In an article dated May 15, The Messenger, an English-language paper based in Tbilisi, notes that Georgian border guards are now also present, and that tourists are prevented from visiting the full extent of the site.  An Azeri news website, Contact, reported on May 14 that Azeri guards had previously been barred from visiting the monastery, and have now entered Georgian territory.

Although I am in this raion, my knowledge of the situation is based on what I’ve read online and seen in the news.  It’s certainly been a major topic of conversation, but I haven’t gotten the impression that people feel unsafe, just worried about preserving their cultural heritage and making sure it stays in Georgia’s possession.

Update: 10 PM local time, May 16, 2012
Rumours are flying that the territory has been ceded to Azerbaijan.  At this time I haven’t found any official (or even somewhat reputable) sources offering this information.  Will update if and when I find out more.

Update: 11 PM local time, May 17, 2012
Still no actual updates on the subject–legitimate news sources suggest that negotiations between the two countries are still ongoing, while many Georgian interlocutors have told me “What a shame that place is no longer ours!”

Update: 4 PM local time, May 18, 2012
“Word on the street” remains the same.  Democracy and Freedom Watch has published a nice summary of the situation here.

Update: May 20, 2012
Meetings are continuing, and the situation feels far less tense.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (of Georgia) has issued a statement here. Meetings are scheduled to take place on the issue in conjunction with the NATO summit in Chicago.  As I understand it, the border remains the same as it always has, but Azeri guards are now enforcing it, blocking tourist access to the Udabno monastery.

Update May 24, 2012
The situation at Davit Gareji is resolved for the time being.  Though the legal border remains in dispute, Georgia and Azerbaijan have agreed to return to the status quo regarding tourist visits to the site. offers a full report on the May 20 agreement.  So if you stumbled upon my blog trying to learn whether or not you can visit as a tourist again, it appears that you can!  Enjoy!


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.

Elise is off doing wonderful things and making change as a Peace Corps Volunteer and English teacher in Ukraine.  She’s putting together a project to buy English books for her school.  Elise is really a great person–and she’s given me plenty of advice for preparing to go back to Georgia in an entirely different capacity and given me pointers on working and teaching in the Former Soviet Union.  You should visit her original post here, but I’m re-posting the entire post in its entirety so that the word gets out.  And, as she mentions, you should provide your contact info for a thank-you card from her kids–I got one for a box of books I sent and it was ADORABLE.

English Textbook Grant

Posted on December 21, 2011

I am very pleased to announce that my Partnership grant, which has been in the works for a very large part of my Peace Corps Service, has finally become a reality. We finished everything last week, signed it, and today I got an email from Washington, DC saying that it is available on the website for donations.

Please, if at all possible, make a donation to this grant! Every dollar counts. Just $15 will guarantee that one of the students will have a textbook to use until they graduate. However, any amount you can donate to this project will be greatly appreciated.  Also, please know that donations through Peace Corps are tax-deductible.

To donate, click here. It will take you to the official Peace Corps website, and to information about the project. It is called “English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential.” Then, enter the amount you want to donate and follow the instructions. 

You can also go to and click on “Donate to Volunteer Projects” on the left hand side. In the search bar, type in Stephens or 343-294 to get to my project. It is called “English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential.”  Then, enter the amount you want to donate and follow the instructions.  

***Please note, if you donate to the general fund of Peace Corps or Ukraine, the money will not go to this project.***

English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential

One of the biggest struggles for teachers nowadays is the lack of motivation among their students. Luckily, our specialized school for foreign languages doesn’t have that problem. Students specifically attend because they want to study English. They dream of becoming translators, journalists, diplomats – even actors and actresses.

With eager students, passionate English teachers and more lessons per week than a general school (5 compared to 2-3), our school’s potential for success is great. However, the reality is that motivated teachers and students are not enough, if the foundation of the educational curriculum itself is inadequate.

We don’t have enough books for our students. Students have to share them, so no one can take them to complete homework. Using them in class is problematic; in addition to having 2 or 3 students to one book, the books are outdated, disjointed and full of errors. Despite extremely low salaries, teachers try to supplement the books by buying additional materials. New textbooks are desperately needed but this community just can’t afford it.

This grant would allow us to buy new textbooks. With modern, relevant books, grammar and vocabulary lessons would build upon each other, ensuring that language skills are repeated and revised. Lessons based on new textbooks would result in a more cohesive curriculum with defined objectives. Teachers would be able to do their jobs better. Students would have no limits to their progress.

With your help, our school can maximize its full potential and propel its students towards a successful future.

If you can’t donate monetarily, I encourage you to read my colleague’s list of suggestions: If You Can’t Give Money.  Anything you can do to help with this grant project is greatly appreciated!”

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.


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. <>.

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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