Georgia on My Mind
The Georgian ambassador pushes back against Thomas de Waal's portrayal of his country.
Thomas de Waal’s article (“How Gogol* Explains the Post-Soviet World,” March/April 2012) is written with exceptionally fine metaphors and literary references. The comparison of modern Russia to that of Gogol’s The Government Inspector is indeed sadly apt. But the piece would have been truly brilliant if it had only paid more attention to real-world details about my country, Georgia.
De Waal describes the Soviet Union as a “monolith” that became 15 stories instead of one only after it fragmented into 15 separate countries. But that is a mistakenly Moscow-centered view. My country, like other captive nations inside the Soviet empire, is a separate story and has been for close to three millennia. True, we had intervals of foreign domination — most recently when the Bolsheviks invaded us in 1921. But we Georgians, like our fellow inmates the Armenians, Azeris, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and others, chose freedom at the first opportunity. One might describe the Soviet Union as a dungeon of nations or, in the case of the unlucky ones, a graveyard. But it was not a monolith.
That leads to the author’s second mistake. In pursuit of his Dostoyevskian analogy, he claims that all 15 republics (“save Russia”) were “patricides” that “killed their Russian father to gain their freedom.” That sounds nice, but it is not true. It was Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus who killed the Soviet Union by signing the Belavezha Accords in December 1991. More broadly, the Soviet Union was killed by its own incompetence and contradictions, not by Georgians or any of the other “restive nationalities,” as we were known so insultingly at the time.
De Waal then claims that Georgia’s aristocracy, church, and communist leaders had forged strong ties with Russia, making the separation uniquely hard. This is, at best, only part of the story. In fact, other countries have, for different reasons, found it far harder than we have to establish durable statehood. Russia did make great efforts to keep us in its sphere (not least in the 2008 war, which aimed, according to President Dmitry Medvedev, to block our NATO membership). But that reflects Russia’s wishes, not ours.
It is also wrong to state that Soviet or Russian history created a particularly close attachment with Georgia. For every Georgian aristocrat who flourished in tsarist times, 10 were repressed, including our entire royal family. The Russians abolished the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church-one of the oldest autocephalous churches in the world, which had survived Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, and Persian domination. For every Georgian communist who served in the Soviet hierarchy, tens of thousands perished in the Gulag.
The author also raises the hackneyed idea that Georgia has a “Stalin complex.” Yes, the notorious Joseph Jugashvili was born in the Georgian small town of Gori. But he dedicated his adult life to the cause of Bolshevism, not Georgia. His treatment of nationalities (including Georgians) was harsh: He was determined to prove that he was a Great Russian (in several senses, including the chauvinist one) who had overcome his provincial origins. Stalin is far more popular today in Russia than in Georgia.
De Waal is entitled to disagree with Georgia’s government policies, and I would be the first to agree that we are open to criticism on matters of substance and procedure. But he decries our internationally acclaimed reforms in defeating corruption and organized crime, as well as in
creating a world-class climate of business-friendly regulation and transparency, on the grounds that they were achieved without consensus and with too much conviction.
I can only point out that my government has enjoyed a democratic mandate throughout its time in office. I am not aware of any country that has introduced profound reforms based on the consensus of the entire society. My country’s leaders are proud to stand alongside other
reformers such as Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan and face the judgment of history about the priorities we have followed.
I would stress that I found de Waal’s article entertaining and, at times, informative. But facts must not be sacrificed for the elegance of a literary conceit.
Ambassador of Georgia
London, United Kingdom
Thomas de Waal replies:
The letter from Ambassador Giorgi Badridze, someone I have known and respected for years, throws me into a dilemma. My article was not a conventional piece of policy analysis, but an attempt to use literature to express some deeper truths about three post-Soviet societies. I could give a detailed analytical response by pointing out some of the less-than-stellar realities and perverse outcomes of the modern Georgian elite’s reforms — which, contrary to Badridze’s assertions, I do give credit to, especially those targeted against corruption. But that would not be in the spirit of my original article.
Let me only repeat that the contradictions in the current Georgian elite’s program between the pursuit of “reform” and the accompanying lack of democratic checks and balances — in the name of making that reform “irreversible” — are something that any 19th-century self-respecting Russian or Georgian radical would recognize and for which Fyodor Dostoyevsky is still an exemplary guide.
We will have a better idea of how this story progresses in Georgia in about a year’s time, when the current electoral cycle is over. But, as I wrote, there are at least warning signs that democracy is being sacrificed in the pursuit of a utopian goal. To give one example, an implacable crackdown on criminality has filled Georgia’s jails with many who should not be there. Last year, Georgia surpassed Russia to have the fourth-highest prison population per capita in the world. Here I would agree with Dostoyevsky that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
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