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.
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.
I WAS walking in a park beside the Black Sea in Batumi with Eka, my translator, when a rainstorm forced us to take refuge in a café. It was a small place, with blank walls, an old and wheezing refrigerator, loud electronic music, and a group of men in tight black jeans, smoking and talking on mobile phones. We sat as far from the sound system's speakers as possible. To pass the time, I asked Eka about the first democratically elected President of post-Soviet Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
"The whole phenomenon with Gamsakhurdia was psychosexual," Eka began. "Zviad was like a rock star. You can almost see the psychological scars on the faces of his female followers: by their expressions you know that these women are ruined, as though they were his concubines. Most are single or have unhappy marriages. They expect Zviad to come back from the grave on a white horse—I'm not kidding."
This was the central narrative of Georgian politics in the years during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region's leading Communist-era dissident—"the Havel of the Caucasus," as Gamsakhurdia was known—led Georgia into bloody chaos; the former secret-police chief and Communist Party boss of Soviet Georgia (and a former Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union) Eduard Shevardnadze brought Georgia out of that chaos and into a condition of semi-stable partial democracy. In Georgia an idealistic dissident all but destroyed his country, and a realistic old secret-police man rescued it. This happened not because dissidents are bad and secret-police men are good, or because realism is better than idealism, but because of Georgia's particular circumstances and because of the personalities of Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze. The story of Zviad Gamsakhurdia shows that Shakespeare is a better guide to politics than any political scientist. This is what happened, according to those I talked to in Batumi and later in Tbilisi:
Gamsakhurdia was the son of the great Georgian writer Konstantine Gamsakhurdia. In the 1970s the younger Gamsakhurdia, a lecturer in American literature at Tbilisi State University, led a protest movement against Soviet oppression that resulted in his imprisonment and exile. His dissent was a matter of radical nationalism, not moral opposition to communism; his nationalism was inspired by his literary sensibilities and the peasant surroundings of his native Mingrelia, in western Georgia. Then there were personal circumstances. He was the weak son of a famous and bullying father, so although he was a national hero, he lacked confidence. This vulnerability, combined with his good looks and literary reputation, made him attractive to women. His jealous wife, Manana, described by everyone I spoke to as a low-class, unattractive woman who dominated Zviad much as his father had, was enraged by this. Rarely has there been a political leader more susceptible to delusions of grandeur yet so easily manipulated.
Gamsakhurdia rose to power as the Soviet Union began to collapse, which was (popular memory in the West aside) before the Berlin Wall fell, not as a consequence of its falling. It was in the Caucasus, not Eastern Europe, that anti-Soviet protests got started in unstoppable earnest. The protests that rocked Eastern Europe in 1989 emphasized democratic freedoms; here they were purely nationalistic. In 1990 Gamsakhurdia defeated the Communists in parliamentary elections; the following year he was elected President. It soon developed that the Georgians had chosen Macbeth. Gamsakhurdia, relying increasingly on his wife, surrounded himself with bodyguards and vicious guard dogs. He imprisoned his erstwhile nationalist allies, and employed Georgian mafiosi for muscle. He showed a fondness for arson, as politics by other means. By late 1991, a few months after his election, Georgia was engulfed in a civil war that made internal travel impossible and ruined what existed of an economy.
In January of 1992 a military council ousted Gamsakhurdia, who fled to nearby Chechnya. Pitched battles followed in western Georgia between troops of the new military council and Gamsakhurdia's supporters, known as "Zviadists"—a term that suggests how little the civil war had to do with ideas and how much to do with personalities and regional loyalties. In fact the civil war was a battle as much between rival mafias for territory as for legitimate political control.
"Georgians were passionate against the Soviets and passionate against each other," Professor Levan Alexidze, a former adviser to Gamsakhurdia, later told me in Tbilisi. "Gamsakhurdia destroyed the Soviet spirit more than anyone, but in Georgia a civil war may have been necessary, because of the kind of people we are. The real cause of the war is our medievalness: our knights simply quarreled and fought each other." These knights were Gamsakhurdia; the Georgian National Guard chief Tengiz Kitovani, who was described by one observer as "a vulgar thug"; and the commander of the Mkhedrioni ("Horsemen") paramilitaries, Jaba Ioseliani, a dapper professor and convicted bank robber who promised to blow out the brains of anyone who opposed him. Kitovani and Ioseliani were part of the military council that toppled Gamsakhurdia.
From his exile in Chechnya, Gamsakhurdia maintained links with Zviadist sympathizers in western Georgia. He also fell under the influence of the Chechen leader, Dzokhar Dudayev—another volatile warlord, who in 1994 led Chechnya into a war with Russia that ended two years later with 40,000 dead, among them Dudayev himself. Eventually the increasingly desperate Gamsakhurdia positioned himself alongside Georgia's historic rivals: Muslim Chechnya, Abashidze's Adjara, and even Abkhazia, where a Russian-backed separatist rebellion caused 10,000 deaths and the cleansing of more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians from Abkhaz territory. Because the main road out of Abkhazia into Georgia proper was blocked, half the refugees—Gamsakhurdia's own Georgians—had to detour through the mountains, where many died of starvation and exposure. This happened in 1993, when the West was preoccupied with Bosnia. And Abkhazia's was not the only separatist rebellion that brought about ethnic cleansing. Also in the early 1990s South Ossetians were cleansing their territory of thousands of ethnic Georgians.
Kitovani and Ioseliani invited Eduard Shevardnadze back to Georgia from Moscow to provide international legitimacy for their hydra-headed gangland regime. Shevardnadze accepted. Kitovani and Ioseliani came to regret their success: Shevardnadze played the two men and their associates off against one another until all were in jail. Then Shevardnadze brought reformers into government, while keeping enough gangsters in power to prevent the formation of a unified opposition. He consolidated power by trial and error and by surviving one assassination attempt after another.
At the end of 1993 Gamsakhurdia returned from Chechnya for a last stand. In late December of that year, at the age of fifty-four, he died, was killed by an assassin, or committed suicide. Two months after his burial his wife had his body exhumed for reburial in Chechnya. There was even a rumor that Gamsakhurdia had converted to the Islam of his Chechen allies, as he lost all sense of who he was.
Alexidze told me, "Our society is rotten, the mafiosi are strong, and while the West worships laws, we worship power. We leaped from the darkness in the late 1980s. We did not have the kind of social and economic development Central Europe had. So these dissidents were never enlightened."
IT was a mystical landscape I saw as we drove north in a taxi along the Black Sea coast from Batumi to Supsa, the terminal of a new oil pipeline from the Caspian. As a backdrop for the brutish ugliness of concrete tenements and filthy black freight cars were thickly forested hills, orchards, cedars and cypresses, and gentle tea bushes on the terraced red earth. There was a jungly, Africa-like stillness and torpor; farm animals wandered across the potholed road, and young men idled everywhere. Two roadblocks signaled the end of Adjara and the beginning of Georgia proper. The taxi pulled over to a cluster of young men blocking the road, in black jeans with unshaven faces and predatory expressions, like switchblades ready to snap. Some had tattoos. One seemed drunk; the muzzle of his AK-47 rested on his toe, the safety latch off. The distinction between security and thuggery was lost. We paid our small tribute and continued along.
The oil terminal did not look dramatic—just four circular storage tanks in the middle of a field with a nest of pipes emerging from the ground, an air-conditioned office, and a security fence. It was a little piece of the West in the middle of Georgia. The handful of expatriates who run the facility have their own electrical generator, purified drinking water, and living quarters. Though the soil for miles around the enclosure is, reportedly, environmentally ruined, Scott Bates, a friendly technician from Los Angeles wearing a construction helmet, assured me that alarms go off if more than ten parts per million of oil is detected in the groundwater. Bates showed me the twenty-two-inch-diameter green pipe that runs underground from Baku, in Azerbaijan, 515 miles to the east on the Caspian shore. The pipe was carrying the equivalent of 105,000 barrels daily from the Caspian oil fields to a nearby offshore loading buoy, from which the first tanker to ship Caspian oil to the United States had left on May 16, 1999—the day before my visit. Bates took me to the small computer room. "Three to five of us are all it takes to operate the terminal at any one time," he told me. "You can do it all from that desktop." Strategy can be such an abstraction, I thought. That desktop computer and the twenty-two-inch pipe it controlled represented something the West might be willing to fight a major war over.
The journey eastward across Georgia from Batumi to Tbilisi took nearly seven hours in a crowded minibus that was filled with cigarette smoke and loud rap music. It was raining, and our shoes were muddy. We passed through lush farm fields, deep canyons, wooded valleys, and mountains half hidden in mist, and we crossed wide rivers that cut through gravel beds and soft red soil. How magnificent this fertile, majestic land must have appeared to the first Russian adventurers who had been plodding south across the monotonous Ukrainian steppe! It was easy to understand the tenacity with which Russia has attempted to retain the Caucasus.
As we neared Tbilisi, I began to see BMWs and other expensive cars, modern gas stations, cafés sporting new red-and-white umbrellas with Coca-Cola logos. I was gradually entering another outpost of the West. I left the minibus at a chaotic, noisy lot outside town and took a taxi to the home of Lawrence Scott Sheets, the Reuters bureau chief for the Caucasus. My first impression of Tbilisi that evening was of a Balkan town, historically suggestive and with a heart-rending rusticity. I saw leafy birch and horse-chestnut trees in a park where Cossacks slaughtered striking Georgian workers a century ago, near the theological institute where the young Stalin studied for the Orthodox priesthood.
Over a dinner of heavy food and rich wine in a small basement restaurant, Sheets, who covered every war in the Caucasus in the 1990s, told me that during the past winter there had been only four hours of electricity a day. To keep from freezing he had kept a fire going constantly. I later learned that the electricity shortages were, of course, the result of corruption and dirty politics. Local distributors had been selling electric power to Turkey in return for hard currency: in Georgia's barter economy the companies that repaired the electric grids received rights to sell the electricity to whomever they wanted. As if that weren't enough, kerosene suppliers were rumored to be bribing the distributors to cut power so that the population would be more dependent on kerosene, and to block Armenia from selling its electric power here. So despite $100 million in foreign aid, there was less electricity in the peaceful winter of 1998-1999 than there had been in the winter of 1994-1995, when the civil war was winding down. Corruption here was less a moral shortcoming than a survival mechanism for a poverty-stricken people who had been dominated for centuries by outsiders.
In Sheets's house the next morning I woke to the sound of opera coming from the conservatory across the street. Walking downhill to Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Prospekt (named for Shota Rustaveli, a twelfth-century Georgian poet), I saw flower stalls, dark-haired women in black dresses, and verdant hills in the distance; the countryside is always close by, because of Tbilisi's medieval compactness. Rustaveli Prospekt was a late-nineteenth-century architectural confection with touches of Budapest, Ljubljana, and Prague. There was a Neo-Moorish opera house and city hall, an Italianate highschool in happy pastel shades, a Neo-Baroque theater, another building in the Empire style, with caryatids, and another that was neoclassical and painted a fabulous pink. Statues of two nineteenth-century poets, Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli, stood sentinel near two symbols of former Russian rule: the nineteenth-century viceroys' palace—a delicate Empire-style symbol of the bourgeois mentality that oversaw the emergence of modern European institutions—and, next to it, the vulgar gray-brown brutalism of the mid-twentieth-century Soviet parliament.
Tbilisi (from the Georgian tbili, meaning "warm," a reference to the hot sulfur springs by the Kura River, which runs through town) was founded in A.D. 458, by the Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali. Byzantines, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Seljuks, Ottomans, and North Caucasian tribes all destroyed or looted it; each time, Tbilisi was rebuilt. Though the city center around Rustaveli Prospekt looks European, in past epochs Tbilisi looked wholly Oriental. The architecture of the Old City tells the story: a Persian caravansary topped by Russian domes; Turkish baths; a Shi'ite mosque with dazzling faience like a transplant from Isfahan; the yellow-and-white Art Nouveau former Russian patriarchate, next to a quiet park lined with linden trees; and, towering above everything, the Persian fortress that King Vakhtang occupied in the mid fifth century. By the river stood the mustard-colored Sioni Cathedral, which I entered in time for the noon mass.
Named after Mount Zion, in Jerusalem, Sioni was founded sometime in the late sixth or early seventh century by a Georgian prince, and it has been often looted and destroyed. Inside, the women were covered by brown head shawls. Some had the faces of harem beauties in oil portraits. Herodotus suggested that every place touched by classical Greece was civilized, and here the ancient Greek style (not Saint Paul's Christianity) was responsible for Eastern Orthodoxy's sensual radiance.
Assyrian monks spread Christianity throughout Georgia after Saint Nino's fourth-century conversion of the royal family, and in Georgian churches one finds an eclectic mixture of Assyrian, Hittite, Persian, Greek, and other styles. In the eleventh-century cathedral of Sveti-tskhoveli ("The Life-Giving Column"), north of Tbilisi, amid dark rugs and lighted candelabra, were icons and frescoes of a savage Christ familiar to me from Serbian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.
At the Samtavro Monastery, a few miles from Sveti-tskhoveli, a nun showed me where the Russians had covered all the Georgian frescoes with whitewash. The style of Russian Orthodoxy is imperial: whitewashed walls to highlight the accumulated icons, censers, and silver chandeliers. The Georgian church, with its primitive and austere frescoes, is a fighting peasants' church whose aim is sheer survival.
ON a narrow street in Tbilisi, I entered a dilapidated house with exposed mortar and peeling walls and an awful, eaten-away Soviet-era hallway. A door opened, and Zaal Kikodze, an archaeologist, invited me inside. Old books crammed every inch of wall space. Kikodze had a wiry ashen beard and wore a dark woolen work shirt. I asked him what Georgian history says about Georgia's future.
He said, "At the stage of technology we have reached, nations work only if they float in the larger world. And what you have in this part of the world is fossilized nations—dead societies that have yet to revive. There are a group of young reformers in our parliament, educated in the West. But today Georgians only want heroes. And we will never be able to rely on the United States or NATO. We are too far from Europe, too close to Russia. NATO will not drop bombs for ten weeks to save Georgians from ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia, the way it bombed to save Albanians in Kosovo. Yet we still look toward Europe."
Kikodze criticized the Soviet Union but defended Russia, which developed Tbilisi in the nineteenth century as the capital of Transcaucasia. "On this street where I have lived since 1958," he said, "there used to be Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Russians, and others. It was a golden age. We had no idea what nationalism was. Then it destroyed us. The Jews left for Israel, the Armenians for Armenia, the Russians for Russia, and so on. And the Russian language is barely being taught, which is a disaster for us. English is still only for a rarefied elite, while the loss of Russian cuts the average Georgian off from the outside world. All our books of learning, our encyclopedias on art, literature, history, science, are in Russian, not Georgian. Young Georgians can no longer communicate with Armenians and Ossetians. This illiteracy is promoting ethnic separation."
Americans, I thought, are triumphalist about the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is fine given the crimes of communism. But throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia I experienced firsthand how the Soviet collapse, although a blessing in the long run, has ruined millions of lives. Communism, however disastrous, provided pensions, schooling, social peace, and physical security for a multitude of people who had no recollection of anything better. The collapse of that system has left a chaotic void that so far has made life here much worse.
GEORGIANS are a very old ethnic entity, but we have no experience of modern statehood," said Alexander Rondeli, the head of a research institute connected to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We are a quasi-state." Rondeli, the doyen of Georgian intellectuals, is fifty-seven but looks older. With a grave and sardonic voice, a large physique, striking white hair, and thick black eyebrows, he was like the voice of history itself. Rondeli's viewpoint was both wise and ironic, but also overburdened by the sheer accumulation of knowledge and events.
"Nations often get what they deserve," Rondeli told me with a slight smile when we met at his office, "so to see what kind of government Georgia will have in the future, it is merely a matter of dissecting our national character. We are nominally Christian, but we have never been fanatics. We know how to survive, but not how to improve. Our church is pagan, politicized, and thus unable to move forward."
"Remember," Rondeli went on, "we had seventy-four years of political-cultural-economic emasculation under the Soviet Union. Three generations of Georgians were spoiled. The West concentrates on the crimes of Hitler, but the Nazis ruled for only twelve years."
Rondeli was bursting with stories. Later that night we moved to a restaurant, where he talked for hours. "My mother's family, all educated people, graduates of German universities, were shot in the purges of 1937," he told me. "You see, Stalin would never have been promoted in a democratic society; he would have ended his life as a marginal criminal. In the 1930s, when Stalin arrived at the Tbilisi railway station for an official visit as the Emperor of Russia, it was the first time in years that he saw his mother. You know what he jestingly asked her—'Are you still a whore?' People my father knew well were there. They heard it."
Rondeli continued, "My father had a friend, a prominent actor, Spartak Bagashvili, whom Stalin invited once to the Kremlin. Spartak sat with Stalin late into the night, drinking and speaking in Georgian. Spartak wanted to leave, but Stalin wouldn't let him. Finally he left. At the door Stalin said, 'Come live with me here—I have no one to talk to.' Stalin, Spartak said, was looking at him with the eyes of a child."
Rondeli's voice and expression suddenly lost all trace of wit and irony; his manner was merely sad. "Let me tell you another story," he said. "I knew this old Georgian who as a young boy had lived at a collective farm in the 1930s. There had been an election at the farm, and the man nominated to run the farm was not very good and everyone knew it, but of course no one said anything. But my friend spoke up from the back of the hall and remarked, 'You know, this man is not qualified.' There was some small rumbling, and an older fellow sitting nearby said gently, 'Come with me, young lad.' My friend went with the man. The man asked to see his identity card. The card showed that my friend was seventeen. The man changed the seven to an eight, because you couldn't imprison someone under eighteen, according to the law." Rondeli said the word sarcastically. "This older fellow was with the NKVD [secret police]. My friend spent the next ten years in a labor camp on Novaya Zemlya, an island in the Arctic, from the age of seventeen to twenty-seven." Rondeli snapped his fingers. "Like that—ten years. That's how those things happened.
"Well, my friend was tough and he survived. His job was to drive the cart each evening that transported the bodies to the common grave. They weren't always dead—nobody was careful about these things—but it didn't matter, since the cold and the dirt would kill them soon enough. Anyway, one night my friend was driving his cart full of bodies, singing a tune in Georgian. Suddenly, amid the howls of the wind, he heard a voice faintly crying in Georgian, 'Help me, help me.' This startled my friend, because he hadn't heard Georgian spoken in a long time. One of the bodies was still alive: an Armenian from Georgia, who, when he heard my friend singing, had called out for help. My friend took him out of the stockpile of bodies and managed to save him. Years later, after they were both released, they met in Kutaisi, where the fellow insisted that my friend come to Batumi and meet his family. They spent days drinking and honoring my friend. Both my friend and this other fellow died a few years later, still relatively young. The years in the camps had done something to their health. You multiply this story by fourteen, twenty, or thirty million, you will have an idea what Stalin was able to accomplish." Rondeli raised his thick eyebrows.
Like everyone else in Georgia, Rondeli was obsessed with Russia. Echoing the archaeologist Kikodze, he told me, "After Kosovo, the West will not intervene east of the Carpathians. Kosovo was a very expensive and lucky victory for NATO, so we in the Caucasus know that we are alone against the Kremlin."
Along with the hatred of Russia went a dislike of Armenians. Listening to other Georgians talk about Armenians gave me the chilling sensation of what Old World anti-Semitism must have been like: Armenians are "usurers who ruined Georgian families, who are now allied with Russia against Georgia and Azerbaijan." "The Armenians are always claiming that they are the best, that they are fighting with nothing, even while Russia supports them." "I don't like Armenians; the Azeris are nicer people." "The only good-looking Armenian is Cher."
YET in Tbilisi I felt hope. Whereas the economy had declined by double digits each year in the first half of the 1990s, since 1996 it had been rebounding by double digits. Traffic had doubled within a year. A city that in the mid-1990s had few cars now had traffic jams everywhere downtown. Art galleries had opened. New apartment buildings were rising near the parliament in an area that had been destroyed by the civil war. Tbilisi in the late 1990s seemed to me like Beirut in the early 1990s, when a rise in property values indicated that confidence had returned.
The intellectuals view these developments skeptically, because they know from history how Georgia has experienced one revival after another, only to be crushed by Turkey, Persia, or Russia. Yet although history follows familiar patterns, precise repetitions are rare.
During my stay in Tbilisi it was announced that the latest in well over a dozen conspiracies against Shevardnadze had been uncovered. The next morning Shevardnadze called a press conference, where he calmly told the journalists that the latest plot was more than a planned assassination attempt against him—it involved a military coup "to remove the entire leadership," including cabinet members and parliamentarians. Of the reported conspiracies at least two were full-fledged assassination attempts: a car bombing and a gun-and-grenade attack. I noticed that Shevardnadze wore a hearing aid: the car bomb had damaged his ear.
"The chieftain of this new plot is located abroad, in Russia," Shevardnadze told us. This was predictable. With Georgia gradually stabilizing; with democracy, however tenuous and corrupt, beginning to take hold; and with the country becoming a strategic corridor for Western oil companies, killing Shevardnadze—who was tying Georgia more closely to the West—was the only game the Russians could still play here. For the Russians, Georgia, which served not only as a buffer state but also as a listening post for the Muslim world, was vital. No Western diplomats I met had any doubt that Russia was behind the assassination attempts.
Shevardnadze, seventy-two, is a burly man with curly white hair and a ruddy complexion. It was clear from how haggard he looked that helping to run the world as Soviet Foreign Minister had been a lot easier than running Georgia. His voice was deep and gruff but patient, as though he were conducting a fireside chat with us—twenty local reporters and me. Shevardnadze had a simple strategy: personal physical survival. A few more years without dying or being killed would mean time for more political stabilization, more reforms, more institution-building. At that point his personal survival, or that of his successor, might no longer be synonymous with the survival of the state itself.
Shevardnadze was careful not only to confront the Russians but also to make deals with them. He knowingly kept gangsters in power, and he had many lines of communication open to old friends in Moscow. George Washington fought the British by essentially running away from them, fighting skirmishes, until they got tired of the war and left. Shevardnadze's strategy is similar.
Morality is a funny thing, I realized. In the 1970s and early 1980s it seemed that Gamsakhurdia—an intellectual who had brought Shakespeare's wisdom to his native Georgia through his own translations—was a moral man, whereas Shevardnadze, a Communist hack, was an immoral one. But Shevardnadze, the Machiavellian, sniffed out the rot in the system he was a part of; he and his allies Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexandr Yakovlev tried to reform that system for the sake of their own survival. They failed, and the Soviet Union collapsed. But Shevardnadze's survival game continued in Georgia.
How long can Shevardnadze survive against his enemies? The Kremlin has an imperial mentality; Washington does not. America's attitude is, to a significant extent, fatalistic: It's their game, they've got to reform the tax system and the police, end corruption, and so on. Of course, corruption is deeply rooted—perhaps the most corrosive ultimate consequence of communism. It will continue at high levels long after Shevardnadze's death. The West cannot hope that in a few years Georgian society will unlearn all the bad lessons of many decades, even centuries. "We'll be walking along the edge of a razor blade," Revaz Adamia, a member of the parliament and the head of its defense committee, told me, "until enough oil is flowing through here to give the West the selfish interest it needs to fight for us. Russia will do everything to destabilize Georgia before that happens."