The posts I've been doing on Georgia come from my perspective of being an outside observer of the Soviet Union and now Russia and some of the republics. In the comments, we've had some different perspectives offered and I am asking some of those people to do a bit more.
First up is Olga, who grew up under the old Soviet system, and can provide inside perspective from first-hand knowledge of that system and what it truly was like for the people in it, as well as her take on the current events.
The events of the last 5 days, the Russian war on Georgia, brought up some bad memories that I mentioned in one of my comments, and LW asked me if I would like to share those memories with the rest of B5 readers, to give, so to speak, an additional perspective on the events happening in the somewhat remote area of the world.
These are my thoughts and feelings not an attempt to write a history paper so I will not go into too much detail. I’d rather you ask questions if you want to know more.
Well, where to start?? I was born in the USSR, and as a high school student I have lived through the Afghanistan invasion, Moscow Olympics, the state widely televised burials of Comrades Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, and saw the emergence of the ‘new’ Soviet reality: Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost. Quite a shock for a young mind, even the one that was always somewhat skeptical of the political and economic system she had been living in…You see, my maternal grandmother was persecuted during the post-WWII Stalin purges resulting in the loss of all rights and exile (na poselenie) of the mother of 4 underage kids, the WWII widow, and a Biology and Chemistry professor in one of the Moscow Institutes (College). She died there in 1955 not even reaching 50 years old. My paternal great-grandparents suffered from the Bolsheviks persecutions back in 1917-1918, surviving the sardine-like packed cells of the Petropavlovsky Fortress in St. Petersburg, being fed pickled herring and no water to ensure one’s cooperation in divulging the places where the family fortunes and jewels were stashed. Money and jewels that the Bolsheviks had already taken from the banks’ vaults were not enough to provide ‘just compensation to the victims of the evil capitalism’. Ironically, one of my mother’s great-uncles was an active revolutionist who worked to depose the Tsar Nicholas II and got himself a 20-year sentence in one of the Siberian prisons but got freed by the February Revolution of 1917; while my paternal great-grandfather was the financial supporter of the February Revolution of 1917. The February Revolution of 1917 was the one that actually caused the Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate and paved the way to the very first parliamentary elections in Russia, the one that the Bolsheviks resoundly lost. As the history showed, the Bolsheviks were sore losers.
But back to the more recent Russian history. In 1985, perestroika and glasnost opened a lot of old secret files and all kind of nasty skeletons started popping up. We finally began receiving real live broadcasts, the ones not related to the sporting events. One of the widely discussed and televised skeletons was the history of the Russian occupation and re-occupation of the Baltic Republics and the way the Soviet system treated all other republics. It was a Soviet occupation of the Baltic but since Russia and Russians dominated the USSR, this fine semantic point gets lost on people who had to live through it. And I do not blame them.
The Soviet ideology proclaimed that there were no separate nations, there was only one nation – the Soviet people. You were not Georgian or Latvian or Ukrainian or Tajik or even Russian, you were a Soviet citizen. You were allowed to keep some of your national symbols and history and some religion but everything was dominated by the Marxism-Leninism and Soviet ideology. Whatever came before November 7, 1917 (October 25 by the old calendar) was useless and as such was ‘thrown overboard of the unstoppable forward moving ship” of Marxism-Leninism and Soviet society. Economy wise, the Center – Moscow – took everything from the every republic and then dispensed it back by bits and pieces based on what the Center deemed an adequate compensation and a necessity for this particular republic. This combination of suppressed national heritage and complete economic subservience to the Center makes for a powerful desire for independence.
With the help of perestroika and glasnost, the Soviet ideology started to collapse on itself, especially in the republics, and the republics’ nationalist movements gained strength with every new file opened, with every new mass grave unearthed. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union started in 1988 when Nagorniy Karabakh region – an ethnic Armenian enclave inside the Azerbaijan – declared its desire to unify with Armenia. That started the bloody war that at one time or another involved the militaries of Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia and Ukraine, 1000 Afghan mujaheddins and the Chechen fighters, and said war continues to the present day despite the region’s self-declared independence, Azerbaijani recognition of the region as a full-blown 3rd party to the conflict and Russian and EU efforts to settle the issue to everybody’s satisfaction. But at the time this event gave momentum to the many nationalist independence movements in the republics.
By 1989, Georgian national movement for independence was using bona fide peaceful mass demonstrations to achieve its goal of declaring Georgian independence. On April 9, 1989 the square in front of the Georgian ‘parliament’ in Tbilisi was packed with people, civilians, including women and elderly. They were standing literally shoulder to shoulder from the morning into the night. We were watching Leningrad TV channel that had its cameramen on the location. (Leningrad has always been somewhat ‘independent’ from Moscow and, therefore, had 2 own TV channels that used the freedoms brought by perestroika to show stuff that the official Moscow TV won’t air). As the meeting progressed into the quite a cold night, all of a sudden a commotion started at one of the corners of the square…It was the Russian Army, the paratroopers (desantiniki VDV) of the Pskov division (outside of Georgia*) breaking up the demonstration using their tactical shovels, hacking their way from one end of the square to another. Since the square was packed standing room only, it was almost impossible for people to leave, through an opening offered by a couple of streets leading away from the square, quick enough to avoid the paratroopers with the shovels. I have no words to describe my horror as I watched that bloody scene on TV… By that time I already knew that the Soviet Government freely used the armed forces and armored vehicles against its own people**, but seeing it with my own eyes being done by the man who brought us perestroika and glasnost and freedoms, being done by the elite unit of the Soviet military was life-shattering and extremely traumatic. Why did the man who called for the socialism with a ‘human face’ give such an order?! I had numerous paratrooper friends! They were nothing like this, even when they brawl. Who were those paratroopers in that square hacking away at men and women who had nothing but their bare hands to protect themselves?! Why was my government doing this to my people?! Many summers were spent frolicking on the Black Sea beaches of Georgia, in Abkhazia and Adzharia regions, and in Tbilisi. Yes, I still considered them my people even though they were seeking independence… Next morning on my Metro ride to work, I heard many people actually support the way the demonstration was disrupted, arguing that the Georgians got their just desserts for daring to leave Russia that dominated them for 2 centuries. ‘They have always been part of Russia, what’s the nonsense of being an independent state! Never! They should know their place…’
As you can see, Georgian tree of freedom is being nurtured by the blood for the 2nd time now.
The bloody events of April 9, 1989 in Tbilisi pushed the Baltic republics over the edge. They were emboldened by the bloodless fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
In its history, Lithuania has already experienced what having the Soviet military bases on its territory really meant – complete annexation of the country. So on March 11, 1990, the republic announced its independence from the Soviet Union. In October 1990 both Germanies re-united without a drop of blood. Not so in the Soviet Union. On January 9, 1991, Moscow sent the troops to Lithuania. On January 13, 1991, the Soviet Army tanks went to take over the Lithuanian State Radio and TV building and Vilnius TV tower. Both buildings were surrounded by a bona fide peaceful demonstration. Again, we were watching it live on Leningrad TV channel. As the short winter day turned dark, the tanks moved into the square in front of the buildings. Let me share something with you. Watching the main gun of a main battle tank swing 270 degrees 6 feet away from the TV camera was…down right pants wet scary. Even if you were sitting a 7-hour-train ride away. They clearly saw that the square was full of civilians, including women and elderly. They clearly saw that the square was not big enough for people to move away when the tanks went in. And they did it anyway. After January 13, 1991 I know that a person being run over by a tank does not black out under the tracks and when a tank starts turning that person has enough life left to scream for at least a minute…After January 13, 1991, I know what real despair and hopeless feeling of complete helplessness are. My last illusions were broken that night. Fourteen (14) people were killed and 700 injured that night.
Moscow finally recognized Lithuanian independence in August 1991. Right after Moscow went through its own tank invasion during Aug 18-21 1991. But that’s another story.
The Soviet military system required that none of the conscripts would be serving in his home town or home republic. That system eliminated (in theory) the order-defying pangs of guilt from acting against your brothers and sisters, if and when the need to do so arises.
The Soviet government used the tanks against the miners’ strike in Novocherkassk in the 50s and against the prisoners’ revolt in Gulag when the multitude of WWII veterans, who were sent there just because they saw what even post-war Europe had to offer, staged an uprising in the 50s, to name a few. The Coup of August 1991 was not the last time the tanks were used in Moscow against its own people. In October 1993, President Boris Eltsin (God bless his tortured soul for he did more good things for Russia than the bad) used tanks to fire at the Russian White House, the Parliament Building, to evict the members of the Parliament who defied his power.
Some thoughts and a historical perspective on current events that is sadly lacking from the coverage. My thanks to Olga for taking the time to do this, and for providing a number of interesting and thought-provoking comments.