The Georgia (and Russia) Off Our Minds

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On our show two weeks ago about the death of Anna Politkovskaya we ended up learning not just about the life and work of a brave Russian journalist but about some of the recent stories she was covering. The most urgent one, as outlined by Masha Gessen, was the worsening (and fascinating) relationship between Russia and Georgia.

Some of the threads here, in no particular order: the round-ups, arrests, and deportations of ethnic Georgians in Moscow; the arrest of a Russian spy-ring in Georgia; Georgia’s NATO aspirations; Georgia’s early independence from the Soviet Union — an independence that still sticks in the Russian craw; the subsequent loss of Georgia’s provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia, possibly fomented by Russia; the recent completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which takes oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey; and, mixed in with all of this, how the tensions between Russia and Georgia illustrate some of the broader realities of the post-Soviet, post-Cold War world.

But to begin: Have you been following this escalating tension? What’s your own take?

Edward Lucas

Central and Eastern Europe Correspondent, The Economist

Blogger, Edward Lucas

Stephen Cohen

Professor of Russian Studies and History, NYU

Author, The New American Cold War, The Nation, 21 June 2006

Sean Guillory

Blogger, Sean’s Russia Blog

Graduate student in Russian history, UCLA

Ella Paneyakh

Blogger, Ella’s Journal (in Russian)

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  • Let me start by saying I live part time in Moscow, and I kinda like it there. I see Russia’s potential, like their people and their culture and hope for a good future for Russia.. now… getting that out of the way:

    In the year following the fall of the Soviet Union, I first visited Russia. Russia in that time all but knelt to the west, and looked to the west (that’s us) for giudence and change. We gave them nothing but grief. We sent Harvard MBAs and Texas oil-men, to fill them with bad advice, fill their own pockets, then drive around in expencive western cars and had sex with countless beautiful young Russian girls, of which there are countless. That was the begining of what we see in post Soviet Russia. It set the tone. American business resented the Russians for not doing things their way. The MBA’s got beat up in back allys after all night drinking by Russian Mafia or Hooligans (doesn’t matter which) and many ran home, with tales of horror. The Russian economy crumbled, continuously, crime went nuts, and anyone who had money sent it abroad in hopes of piling up more of it and joining it someday. A nation that had been defeated, now had it’s face rubbed in it. We could have acted differently, but all the US could thing to do is scorn them further for their not “getting with it.” It was the comunuist party hang over, all of Eastern Europe had it, but Russia was “doing shots” at said party, and just couldn’t get out of bed for weeks.

    Everyone seemed to long for the peace of Soviet times. Things got bad. Then came Putin, a right wing, ex-KGB, tough on crime, pro-Soviet, karate enthusiast, in the right place at the right time, co-incidence? Some say his party helped create the moscow havoc, in order to rise to the top. He instituted imediate, sweeping, and downright nasty reforms. By re-taking a few key oil companies (wait, that’s uncapitalistic, and subsiquently in America’s eyes, un democratic) he’s managed to create a huge budget surplus, which woudl make Bill Clinton have cigar envy, and stablize the currency which now floats freely againt the dollar and is gaining value.

    So what’s so bad about that? Because now it’s time for “stage two”: the comback special! It looks like Elvis got a haircut and lost 20 pounds, and is ready to put the old show back on the road. What’s the best way the pick a nation up out of the gutter? reinstill national pride! Remind them that things were good, and can be good again. Reliving Soviet glory, keeping Soviet traditions and just behaving more and more Soviet. How is this done? Disagree with America! check. Re-invigorate Soviet sentiment, remember the 60th anual “victory day” celibrations, attended by W and the rest of the world leadership? A uniquely Soviet holiday brought back to life, and soon the streets were full of red stars, and and Soviet style propiganda congratulating the “nation of heros” at every turn. Most of them remain there two years later. National pride and pride in the past have been welded together. Bluring the line between the Soviet Union and Russia, making them seem like one of the same, and rallying people to be proud and carry on the great tradition of the Soviet Union. Next, push around the former Soviet states. Remind them that Russia is “in charge.” This is Georgia’s situation. It’s part of the return of Sovietism. This Georgian situation is just a symtom of the terrible things that are going on, and may still come.

    What happens next? Will Putin step down? maybe. Will he be suceeded by a hand picked man, to continue his work? I would bet my last rouble on it. Will the rapidly shrinking nation drink itself off the face of the earth? Maybe, the adverage age of death of a Russian man is now 59 and falling. Will this have much effect? Little, the Kremlin has the power, and now has the oil that everyone wants and the piles of money that come with it. It’s as if the government could do things that were very unpopular with it’s people and the people of the world, and get away with it, imagine that. Russian people were taught throught the Soviet time: either get on board the party line, or go read a book and stew in your own juices, because there is NOTHING that you can do to change things. Most Russians will claim to be absolutely un interested in politics, and that an interest in politics will only make you miserable.

    So the comeback of the Soviet Union is on it’s way! But Russia will be our “second Darin” seamlessly stepping in for it. Expect Russia to exert it’s power, attempt to enlarge it’s power, and use it’s acumulating oil wealth to fuel it. And Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakstan, Belorus, and other former republics are all having their own inside post Soviet strugle, as well as pressure from Russia.

  • Old Nick

    Marc McElroy, that’s a terrific, enlightening post.

    I’ve got a question though: what the heck is “second Darin”? I googled it to no (comprehensible) avail.

    Thanks in advance.

  • Potter

    Here is a link to a post by “Georgian” from the Anna Politkovskaya show thread. “Georgian” shares a letter from a close Georgian friend who has been living in Russia for the last 12 years..

    Marc McElroy, thanks for the above.

    Nick- perhaps the “second Darin” means Bobby Darin’s second Atlantic Records session produced by Ahmet Ertegun where he beings to “ooze confidence”. 🙂

  • Sorry… It’s Bewitched! Remember the male lead suddenly changed to a virtual look-a-like, about half way through the series.

  • nother

    I did some research last night and today and it became apparent rather quickly to me that the conflict with Georgia is part of a larger conflict with Western ideology. Putin is resurrecting the Cold War and in doing so he is resurrecting the strident Russian nationalism we should have all known was laying dormant just under the surface. Russia took a stab at Jeffersonian Democracy but ultimately refused to be America lite. Of course the end game for Putin in this play is the ultimate prize- power.

    First read Solzhenitsyn’s take:

    “Former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn has accused the U.S. and NATO of seeking to encircle Russia and praised President Vladimir Putin for working to restore a strong state, the Associated Press reported.”

    In the interview published on Friday in the Moscow News, he lamented

    that “Western democracy is in a serious state of crisis”.

    He pointed to the pro-Western opposition victories in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine as evidence that Nato’s influence was spreading closer to Russia.

    “This involves open material and ideological support for the ‘colour revolutions’ and the paradoxical forcing of North Atlantic interests on Central Asia,” he said.

    The Moscow Times reviews a book called “Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States”

    Here are some quotes from the book:

    “Physicist and critic Anatoly Barzakh blames ‘the idiocy of ‘political correctness,’ the marginalization of culture, the flourishing of subcultures’ on democracy in general, which undermines rigor and hierarchy by giving equal precedence to all walks of life.”

    “Linor Goralik, one of the collection’s younger writers and a repatriated emigre herself, from Israel, launches into a tirade about “true” Americana — Crayola crayons, plastic lunchboxes, contraception, anorexia, depression, born-again religion — ‘that neither a green card, nor language, nor your little blue passport … nor the Fourth of July fireworks and hot dogs can grant me.'”

  • jazzman

    A former ROS poster named Elric living in the Netherlands is a Georgian. If he’s still contactable I bet he’d have something to say about this. You can read his thoughts in the Morality thread. He states that he is an infrequent visitor to ROS but maybe Brendan can find him.

  • Igor

    Marc’s post makes sense, but the whole picture is somewhat more complicated, e.g. not only old-type, stalinist, KGB, etc. types call for new russian imperialism, a couple of years ago Anatoly Chubais, a noted reformer and student of Jeffrey Sachs, published a manifesto calling for building a “liberal empire” in which he called to russian domination of post-soviet region and beyond by cultural, economical and other means.

  • SputnikLee

    Cohen says that Russia is encircled–duh. Ever since the satrapy of Muscovy, the Russians have felt encircled and sought security by conquest of surrounding territories and peoples. It helped build empire (starting with Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of the Khanate of Kazan) but always created a larger, more vulnerable perimeter. The notion that this is somehow NATO’s fault ignores a lot of history.

  • Igor

    I’ve been out of Russia for 7 years but recently I’ve spent a whole day talking to a relative from Russia here on work-and-travel visa, and I found that typical attitude in Russia is: if US can do stuff in Iraq end elsewhere why Russia cannot? I guess Mr. Chubais’s inpirations are of the same sort.

  • Igor


    How exactly Ivan the Terrible is relevant to current events? How about B*sh the Terrible?

  • Igor

    Ancient memory? What ancient memory? It has been rewritted several times according to dominant ideology of the times, we don’t need to read Orwell, we lived it… It’s all ideology and propaganda, the same as everywhere, maybe even more.

  • SputnikLee

    Igor, Ivan IV (the ‘Terrible’) was the first tsar to move beyond attaching neighboring ethnic Russian satrapies to Moscow, and to conquer an adjacent, non-Russian polity. This was in large measure to secure the eastern frontier. How is this relevant to current events? Well, the process continued for a few centuries, the 20th century USSR’s experience as heir to the Russian Empire proceeded on the same basis, and today the Russian Federation is treating Georgia (among other nations, such as Ukraine) in the same fashion. Russia hasn’t learned a basic lesson of its own history, and has continued to repeat it.

  • Igor

    Kudos to Stephen Cohen, he really knows his stuff, which is rare, and he is also not afraid of talking straight, which is even rarer 🙁

    In all, without him the program would be a total waste of time.

  • Igor


    I know who Ivan the Terrible is. The question is, is it relevant today? Like, to compare, USA have being built on genocide of native indians, is it still relevant today? You don’t trace Iraq to indian wars, do you?

  • I got to speak on the show this evening, thanks. It was quite a heated debate. Anyway, the one thing I would have liked to mention that I forgot to is, it’s all about the OIL. Russia refused to let us do whatever we wanted in the 90’s and we took our ball and went home. Kazakstan is jumping to give us cheap oil to support their regieme, and a deal with Georgia makes this all possible. Folloe the money, and the oil.

  • Johnny Wharton

    Just listened to the show this morning, thanks very much for an extroadinary account of the going ons in Russia and Georgia as explained and debated by two very eleoquent guests. If only political debate was normally at this level!!

  • Katherine

    jazzman: Great idea to contact Elric — i’m sorry it was too late to track him down.

  • enders_e

    Mr. Cohen seems to be fighting the last war – where it was easier for us to deal with one large power, rather than many small powers with individual concerns. He glosses over the conflict in Abkhazia as a “massacre” of Abkhazian nationals, without mentioning that the political support for that conflict came from mercenaries purchased by Moscow and including Chechens; without mentioning the 300,000 internally displaced persons from Abkhazia now living in the rest of Georgia without reparation; and without discussing the colonization of Abkhazia by Russia through passports, pensions, and troop monitoring of an artificial border in Gali – and it is colonization, since Abkhazia is a territory not recognized independently by the United Nations or indeed any other organization/place besides Russia. His arguments proceed without mentioning the illegal break by Abkhazians of the cease fire in that conflict and the murder of unarmed Georgians in that conflict, and without acknowledging that conflicts have two sides.

    Mr. Cohen argues from a historical perspective, not from the current benefits perspective. It’s all well and good to say that he’s afraid of an American empire and its effect on the growth of Russian psychological anger toward the west (if one can speak about an underlying ethos of an entire nation), but this worry on behalf of Russia, about Russia encirclement feels like pandering to a great power/small power dichotomy. Or maybe our concerns about that rump state’s nuclear threat. Instead, the US should and seems to be looking to the reality that there are, as Edward Lucas reports, sincere, real benefits both security-wise and economy-wise for former satellite states joining NATO and other western institutions.

    It’s unacceptable to say that the US should sacrifice any more of its credibility in supporting democratic principles (as it did with captive states during the cold war – cf Hungary) simply because it doesn’t want to hurt Russia’s feelings and make them tense. If Russia stopped being such a bad partner for the states it wants to influence, instead of creating badly-managed relationships that don’t work. Georgia has the right to progress toward its goal, and the US has sincere strategic interest in exploring this possibility – indeed for the very reason Cohen wishes to pander to Russia – oil interests from the Caspian, exiting through western-managed, western-friendly routes based on BUSINESS PRINCIPLES and transparency rather than a country that will use pipelines and nuclear threat as a way to make a land-and-power grab.

    And by the way, Stalin may have been Georgian, but the Russians created the system that put him in place. It’s absurd to say that all Georgians are responsible for the acts of one man, educated and functioning in a Russian-created bureaucratic machine.

  • phyrefly

    It seems worth mentioning that Politkovskaya’s Vtoraia Chechenskaia in the original Russian, as posted at

    is incomplete in relation to the Chicago edition of the same work. Thus, her written material has been tampered with. The chapter Zheltoe i Chernom (‘Yellow On Black’) also interestingly includes referrals to Zakayev, London cafes and Soviet spy films, which the original Russian text lacks.