Where Europe Vanishes

Civilizations have collided in the Caucasus Mountains since the dawn of history, and the region's dozens of ethnic groups have been noted for "obstinacy and ferocity" since ancient times. Stalin was born in these mountains, and it was also here that the Soviet empire began to crumble. The story of the Republic of Georgia illustrates that the peoples of the Caucasus may prove as incapable of self-rule as they were resistant to rule by outsiders

ON May 17 of last year I completed a thousand-mile journey by train, bus, and taxi across Turkey from west to east, and crossed the border into the newly independent ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia. The first structure I saw was a customs building with a tall wire fence, guarded by a Russian soldier with a Communist hammer-and-sickle on his cap. Though Georgia is a sovereign nation, Russian soldiers controlled the frontier with Turkey, because of political pressure from Moscow. The soldier screamed at me and thrust a machine gun toward my stomach. He wore cheap sunglasses and was sucking a lollipop. He looked at my passport, found the Georgian visa, and marched me to a kiosk with mirrored glass. A slit opened in the kiosk, and I saw the bright-red hairdo of a Russian woman, who examined my passport and stamped it. She directed me inside the building, into a steel cage, and several Russian soldiers, also with lollipops, examined my possessions. Then they opened the cage, and I walked toward another kiosk, this one without mirrored glass, where a group of friendly Georgians glanced casually at my passport and welcomed me to Georgia. They directed me to yet another caged enclosure, where a heavy-set Georgian woman gave me a customs form to fill out. I lied on it, of course. Because there are no cash machines in the southern part of the former Soviet Union, I was carrying $3,500 in $20 bills in a pouch hidden under my trousers. Fearful of being robbed on the spot, I declared only $400. The woman directed me to another booth, the last, where a group of Georgian security police—in tight shirts, with muscular forearms and calculating expressions—looked over my passport and customs declaration.

"Give me twenty dollars," one of them said, in a mixture of Georgian and broken English. I played dumb and shrugged. He smashed his forearm on the table and repeated the demand. I shrugged. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then he let me through the gate.

I had entered Adjara, a small region of Georgia where a Georgian dialect is spoken and the population is mainly Muslim. Using religion to divide and conquer, Lenin created Adjara in July of 1921, splitting it off from the main body of Georgia and its Christian population. But such differences from central Georgia in language and religion have little to do with Adjara's current autonomy. Adjara is a fairly benign criminal warlordship run by one Aslan Abashidze, whose power over Aslanistan, as it is locally known, is made possible by the customs duties he extracts on legal and illegal goods entering by sea or over this land border with Turkey. People pay bribes to get jobs at the border posts, particularly at the port of Batumi, where they shake down others to earn back their investment and much more. It's like buying a taxi medallion and making the money back through fares.

Beyond the gate I met a gang of taxi drivers. One grabbed my arm and threw my duffel bag into his battered Lada. The Lada had a cracked windshield and roof, its doors lacked handles, dark stains were everywhere, and onions rolled back and forth on the floor beneath my creaking seat as the vehicle lurched over deep potholes. The car smelled of leaking oil and diesel fumes.

"Georgia beautiful, yes!" the driver exclaimed.

"Yes," I replied. Looking up at the mountains all around, I had to admit it was.

EUROPE and Asia fuse along the shores of the Black Sea, but the Caspian Sea is all Asiatic. Between these two bodies of water is a land bridge where Europe gradually vanishes amid a 750-mile chain of rugged mountains as high as 18,000 feet. This is the Caucasus—Russia's Wild West. Here Russian colonialists since the seventeenth century have tried unsuccessfully to subdue multitudes of unruly peoples. To the west and southwest of the Caucasus lie the Black Sea and the most undeveloped part of Turkey; southeast lie the mountains and tablelands of Iran; east, across the Caspian Sea, are the desert wastes of Central Asia; and north lies Russia, shattered like much of the Caucasus by poverty and chaos following seven decades of communism. The northern slopes of these mountains, properly called the North Caucasus, contain various ethnic chieftaincies that are now part of the Russian Federation; the region to the south of the highest ridges is called the Transcaucasus—the land of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Balkans border Central Europe. The Caucasus has no such luck.

Even before it did in Mesopotamia, civilization may have taken hold in the Caucasus, where there is an abundance of both water and vegetation, allowing for domesticable animals and agriculture. The mountainous terrain shelters miniature tribal worlds lost in time. The Greek geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-A.D. 23) noted that in the Greek Black Sea port of Dioscurias, now in the northwestern-Georgia region of Abkhazia, seventy tribes gathered to trade. "All speak different languages," he wrote, "because ... by reason of their obstinacy and ferocity, they live in scattered groups and without intercourse with one another." It was on Mount Caucasus, in Georgia, that Prometheus, punished by Zeus, was chained to a rock so that an eagle could continually peck at his liver. Prometheus, who created man out of clay, represents the pre-Olympian authority that Zeus toppled; the very antiquity of the Prometheus story, which is part of the creation myth of the Greek world, could be further evidence that the Caucasus was a cradle of civilization. One theory holds that the word "Georgia" comes from the Greek word geo ("earth"), because the ancient Greeks who first came to Georgia were struck by the many people working the land.

Today the Caucasus is shared by four countries and about a dozen autonomous regions with as many as fifty ethnic groups among them, each with its own language or dialect. Some are well known and numerous, such as the Georgians, the Armenians, the Azeri Turks of Azerbaijan, and the Chechens. Others are smaller and obscure, such as the Ingush, the Ossetes, the Avars, the Abkhaz, the Balkars, the Kalmyks, the Mingrelians, and the Meskhetian Turks.

In 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which all of the Caucasus had belonged, set off a gruesome pageant of warfare, anarchy, and ethnic cleansing that engulfed the region for years and simmers still, with 100,000 dead and one and a quarter million refugees. No other region of the Soviet Union equaled the Caucasus in demonstrating how bloody and messy the death of an empire can be.

In the 1990s the American media and intellectual community embraced the causes of the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovar Albanians, but they virtually ignored similar instances of ethnic cleansing in the Caucasian regions of Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. And even as the problems of sub-Saharan Africa have become known through sympathetic international media coverage, the infinitely complex and intractable Caucasus has truly tested the limits of Western knowledge of the world.

MY taxi headed for Batumi, the "capital" of Adjara. The pinnacles of the Caucasus, capped with bluish snow, towered above corrugated-tin huts and citrus orchards. Cattle reaching for eucalyptus leaves stood beside the road. Hideous apartment buildings of unfinished cinder block, splattered mortar, and makeshift iron balconies—built in the Khrushchev era, in a style prevalent throughout the former Soviet Union—announced the city. They were followed by a succession of examples of Russian provincial architecture: peeling white buildings, like rotting wedding cakes, in Baroque, Empire, and neoclassical styles, with lead roofs and wrought-iron gates and balconies filled with flowers, on wide, leafy streets distinguished by palms, cedars, cypresses, and fruit trees. Women on the streets wore short skirts and poorly made copies of European designs. Some carried umbrellas in the rain and walked like dancers. Russians and Georgians all had wondrously sculpted faces. Here in the site of the Greek Colchis—a near-mythical domain of wealth and sorcery—I had found a dilapidated and captivating Belle Epoque.

Batumi, a city of 137,000 named for the nearby Bat River, is strategically situated on the Black Sea where Anatolia meets the Caucasus. An ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Persian port, Batumi changed hands several times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Russia captured Batumi from the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Turks, taking advantage of chaos that was even greater in Russia than in Turkey toward the end of World War I, recaptured it in 1918. After the armistice 15,000 British soldiers replaced the Turks. They were gone within two years, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their control over the Czar's empire. Then the border froze shut for decades, with Turkey on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. The histories of Turkey and Georgia may have been interwoven for millennia, but the difference for someone walking across the border is vast. A time change symbolizes the extent of the transition: I set my watch ahead not one but two hours on the Georgian side (a legacy of the Soviets, who, like the Chinese Communists, established their own time zones).

Yet a mingling of cultures was set to resume. Within a few months of my visit the Russian border guards were to be withdrawn, under a new treaty between Russia and Georgia, and a new road on the Turkish side of the border would increase links. If the Georgian government, in the capital of Tbilisi, got its way, all the border posts would eventually be run by private Western companies, so as to help eliminate corruption and thuggery. States throughout the former Soviet Union are so corrupt that for now the only way to bring honesty to—and earn public revenues from—their frontiers is to all but sell them off.

The taxi ride cost twenty Georgian lari or $10, the dollar being well established in Georgia as an unofficial currency. The driver deposited me at the rear of the tenementlike Intourist Hotel. The cavernous, unlit lobby was paneled in cheap plywood. An old woman in a smock was sweeping the floor. Another old woman sat at the reception desk. Her transistor radio was playing beautiful, weepy hymns that seemed like an intoxicating blend of Greek and Russian music. Across the hall in the half darkness was a video-game machine, and next to it a souvenir shop where another woman was writing in a ledger. One of the shop's cabinets held pocket knives, hard candies, and a book with diagrams of handguns. Another cabinet offered brassieres and ornamental daggers. A few days later in a store in Tbilisi I would see beach balls for sale alongside assault rifles.

I used the hotel phone to call Eka Khvedelidze, my translator, who appeared a short while later. "Don't stay here," she advised me. "There are rats in the rooms. Let's walk to the new private hotel." The private hotel had ugly furniture and dark-brown carpeting, but it was well lit and clean. The Russian blonde at the desk wore a fashionable black dress and smiled, unlike the ancient automatons at the Intourist.

After depositing my duffel bag, I walked around Batumi with Eka. There were barefoot children, garbage-strewn streets, cracked sidewalks, and potholes everywhere. And there were Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes. The juxtaposition of luxury and scarcity was ever present. Shops where gilded mirrors and magnificent chandeliers hung sold nothing but bubble gum and ice cream; bars run by Russian women were decorated with shower curtains and old Christmas ornaments. The market area was well stocked with cans of paint and other goods from Turkey, and with imported whiskeys and perfumes. Unlike the convention-bound, drab towns of Turkey, with their grilled-meat stalls and men in dark woolen caps sipping tea, here I found a complete vacuum of tradition, as if everything—the interior decorating, the whole economy, in fact—had been improvised and might collapse tomorrow.

We went to the government offices to try to see the President. Aslan Abashidze had packed the local bureaucracy with his clan members. He is a small man with a large ego and a noble surname: his grandfather Mehmet played a significant role in brokering the agreement between Lenin and Ataturk that settled the border here. He likes to receive visiting dignitaries on the new tennis courts that are the pride of his fiefdom. I sought an interview with him several times but was told that he was busy and I should wait another day. I never saw him. His offices were generically Communist: enormous white-marble hallways and dark-red carpets. At the front entrance, by a metal detector and a cheap little table, a group of tough-looking young Georgians lurked with mobile phones and sidearms. They rubbed their unshaven cheeks as they inspected my Atlantic Monthly business card. Outside the office was a militiaman, also unshaven, with broken shoes, buttons missing from his uniform, and one of those grandiose visored caps favored by the Soviet military. His breath stank, and he asked me for a cigarette. The official face of government here was uncivil, untamed. Batumi was tacky and crumbling, nostalgically European and mock-Mediterranean, with an exotic hint of Tartary.

Tribe and Clan

TO understand the Caucasus, a good place to start is with the region's most famous twentieth-century personage: Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin. According to a 1948 book by the Russia expert Bertram D. Wolfe, the difference between Aleksandr Kerensky, the enlightened social democrat who took power after the Russian Revolution; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; and Joseph Stalin was the difference between the West, the semi-West, and the East. Kerensky and the Menshevik social reformers were extreme Westernizers; Lenin, a Russian from the Middle Volga region, was a "blend of Westernizer and Slavophile"; Stalin was a Georgian from the Caucasus Mountains. In April of 1941, when Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Japan, freeing the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, raised a glass to the treaty's success and, with hara-kiri in mind, declared that if the treaty were not kept, "I must give my life, for, you see, we are Asiatics." Stalin replied, "We are both Asiatics."

Of course, Stalin's despotism cannot be attributed solely to the culture and geography of his birthplace. Stalin's utter indifference to human suffering was a personal trait, not a cultural one. At the funeral of his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, Stalin told a friend, "She is dead and with her have died my last warm feelings for all human beings." But to say that the Oriental influence was merely incidental to Stalin's character is to ignore essentials. The monumental use of terror, the grandeur of his personality cult, and the use of prison labor for gigantic public-works projects echo the tyrannies of ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia. The liturgical nature of Stalin's diatribes, which became the standard for official Communist discourse, derived from the Eastern Orthodox Church, in one of whose Georgian seminaries Stalin studied as a youth.

Many of the methods Stalin employed, such as playing nationalities against one another until all were devastated, bore the influence of his early life in the Caucasus. What ultimately differentiated Stalin from the rest of Lenin's inner circle—Leon Trotsky, Nikolay Bukharin, Grigory Zinovyev, and Lev Kamenev, all Jewish except for Bukharin, and all from European Russia and Ukraine—and what allowed him to destroy them all was that they were cosmopolitan idealists and Westernizers, however savage and cynical their methods. Stalin saw the world anthropologically. For him a Jew was a Jew, a Turk a Turk, a Chechen a Chechen, and so on. Such thinking was, and is, far more common in the Near East than in the West. In the Caucasus, tribe and clan, not formal institutions, have always been the key to politics.

Georgia is a small country by American standards, with 5.5 million people, comparable in area to West Virginia. But it is the most sprawling and ethnically various state in the Caucasus, with a long, complex, and bloody history. Situated in the geographic and historical crucible where Russia meets the Turkic and Persian Near East, the mountain ranges of the Caucasus have allowed the Georgians to remain linguistically intact over the millennia. Though they make up only one one-thousandth of humanity, the Georgians created one of the world's fourteen alphabets. Its crescent-shaped symbols emerged around the fifth century B.C., possibly from Aramaic, the Semitic dialect spoken by Jesus. Saint Nino, a slave woman from Cappadocia, in central Anatolia, brought Christianity to Georgia in A.D. 330, when she converted the Georgian Queen Nana after curing her of an illness. The Greek colonies around Batumi may have been converted as early as the first century, making the Christianity here among the world's oldest forms, combined as it was with the Greek pantheon, Iranian Zoroastrianism, and various Anatolian cults.

The Georgians were caught in that archetypal East-West conflict between the Persian and Greek empires that forms the subject of Herodotus' Histories. Later, in the early Christian centuries, Georgia became another East-West battleground, this time for the conflict between Persia and Rome. A pattern emerged that continues to this day: although Georgia was superficially influenced by the West (Greece and Rome), its political culture became profoundly Eastern. The difference between Rome and Persia (and later between Byzantium and Persia) was the difference between semi-Western imperial officialdoms that were nonhereditary, and thus early prototypes of modern states, and a Persian society underpinned by tribal and clan relations. In Georgia it was the Persian clan system that proved more influential, and that system's remnants are visible today in the power of regional mafias and warlords. Despite the influence of European Russia in the nineteenth century, Georgia can be considered part of the Near East.

Another pattern that emerged in classical times and continues is Georgia's internal disunity. After a millennium of conflict, in 1555 Georgia was divided between an Ottoman Turkish sphere of influence in the west and a Safavid Iranian one in the east, while the mountains to the north cut it off from its fellow Orthodox Christian Russia. Iranian oppression was so extreme that in the early seventeenth century the population of Kakheti, in eastern Georgia, dropped by two thirds because of killings and deportations. In 1801 Czar Alexander I forcibly incorporated Georgia into the Russian Empire. What happened next was more dramatic than much of the preceding history taken together.

The czars quickly put Georgia on the road to modernity. Its population rose from 500,000 to 2.5 million in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were costs, however. The Georgian Church and nobility became subservient to Russian institutions, and Russian absolutism sparked peasant revolts.

The Armenians played the role in Georgia that the Jews did elsewhere: that of urban middleman shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Under Russia's modernizing rule the division of labor between rural Georgians and urban Armenians was accentuated. At the beginning of the twentieth century Marxism became attractive to Georgians because it provided both an analysis of and a solution to their condition that were non-nationalist on the one hand and opposed to czarist officialdom and the Armenian bourgeoisie on the other. Georgia, not Europe or Russia, was the real historical birthplace of mass-movement socialism, with support not just from intellectuals and workers but from peasants, too.

Utopian rhetoric by local Marxists notwithstanding, the weakening of czarist rule at the start of the twentieth century led to ethnic conflict among Georgians, Armenians, and Azeri Turks—exactly what would recur in the late twentieth century, when despite universalist calls by dissident intellectuals for democracy and human rights, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to chaos and ethnic cleansing. And there is another frightening similarity. In 1918 a weakened and defeated Russia spawned three new states built on old ethnic identities in the Transcaucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. All were destroyed in the 1920s, as Russia reasserted itself under the Soviets. Were Russia to reassert itself again under a new autocracy, the West would have to prove as muscular here as in Bosnia and Kosovo to keep these states alive.

Georgia embraced Russia in 1801 because Russia offered an opening to Europe along with protection against Turkey and Iran. Had the czars and the Menshevik socialists, with all their flaws, been allowed to continue and evolve in power, the Caucasus today might be a model of civility. What nineteenth-century Georgian would have thought that the Turks and the Iranians, however fundamentalist, would prove less destructive than the Europeanized Russians?

Another lesson of this tragic story is that although history, culture, and geography are the only guides to the future, they are still not determinative—because of extraordinary individuals. Turkish influence would have been better for Georgia than Russian, because Ataturk took a backward Turkey and made it modern, while Lenin and Stalin took a directionless Russia and made it backward.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His article in this issue will appear in somewhat different form in his book Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, to be published this month.

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