“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union
“You must draw a white-hot iron over this Georgian land!…You will have to break the wings of this Georgia! Let the blood of the petit bourgeois flow until they give up all their resistance! Impale them! Tear them apart!” — Vladimir Lenin
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, looks as though it might never have been a part of the Soviet Union. It is perhaps the least communist-looking capital in the nine post-communist countries I’ve visited.
So much oil money has been pumped into the city that its revival and transformation is nearly complete. The countryside, though, is much rougher and poorer, and my trip across that landscape to Georgia from Baku felt in many ways like a trip backward in time, as if a year were being subtracted from the date for each of the 18 hours I sat on the train. By the time I reached the outskirts of Gori in central Georgia and ran into Russian soldiers carrying Soviet era equipment marked with the Soviet Union’s insignia, the trip back in time to the days of the empire felt all but complete.
Baku Azerbaijan from the Caspian Plaza Hotel
First, though, the journey:
At least I wasn’t in any danger the first time I encountered a relic of the communist era in the Caucasus region. I was merely annoyed. But I was also intrigued: the train link between the two countries has been barely, if at all, reconstructed.
I bought a sandwich, orange juice, muffins, and large bottles of water for the long slog by ground to Tbilisi just a few kilometers from the edge of the Russian occupation zone. At the train station in central Baku I set down my bag of food in front of car number one, which was to be mine as soon as boarding began. Two feral cats crept up to my bag and I gently shooed them with my foot. They returned when I wasn’t looking and in an instant managed to rip open my package of muffins and tear pieces off. I shooed them again, but felt slightly bad. I have cats of my own at home, and these two were hungry. I had six muffins and could spare one. So I broke one into pieces and fed it to them.
A young Azeri boy leaned over and watched the cats eat, but his father told him to stay away from the animals. He turned then to me.
“Where are you from?” he said.
“United States,” I said.
“You are going to Tbilisi?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “You?”
“Yes,” he said. “I am from Azerbaijan, but I live in Georgia. Now there are no flights.” The airport was shut down at the time because of the Russian invasion. Georgia was only accessible by ground. “It is stupid, but this is Georgia. Comfort is only zero.”
So far he was right. The train had sat all afternoon on the platform in the sun, it was broiling hot when I climbed aboard, and it was even hotter inside my assigned compartment. The climate control is turned off when the train isn’t moving. The air was so humid it practically tasted of water. My clothes almost instantly stuck to my skin. The window in my compartment was sealed up and wouldn’t open, so I stepped into the hall next to one that did open. A Georgian man introduced himself as Levan and joined me next to the window and lit up a cigarette. He beamed when I told him I was a journalist.
“We love you,” he said. “You are doing such a good job showing the truth of what is really happening. They are animals, imperialists. They can’t admit the Soviet era is over. We really appreciate the international media.”
“Thank you,” I said, although I hadn’t yet written a word about Georgia and didn’t deserve any credit for anything he had read.
“Are you going to the region?” he said. I knew what region he met. He meant the region taken over by Russia.
“I don’t know,” I said, which was true at the time. I did, however, venture as far inside that region as the Russians allowed.
“The Russians are shooting at journalists,” he said. “They are shooting at everybody. They don’t care who you are.”
Levan was the only person on the train who smiled at me even once. Everyone else, Georgian and Azeri alike, wore their “poker face” and seemed suspicious of everybody. I adapted and only let myself stare at other people without saying hello or even nodding or smiling.
“Five years ago we had a much better train,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to it.”
“This looks like a Soviet train,” I said.
“It is,” he said. “It was built in East Germany in the 70s.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but the train I took from Baku to Tbilisi is identical to the train you’ll see in the nail-biting thriller Transsiberia currently playing in theaters and starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley. The film takes place almost entirely on a Russian train from Beijing to Moscow. Whoever wrote and directed the movie is familiar with the train system in the former Soviet Union and took pains to get even the small details right. The film was shot on one of the these trains. I recognized the cheap wood paneling, the formica tray tables, the broken light switches, and the dirty windows that wouldn’t open.
The private compartment I bribed my way into on the train from Baku to Tbilisi
The severe and bullying women who run these trains and watch over the passengers like prison guards are portrayed with precision. They bark orders at every passenger and seem beaten down as if they’re treated the same way by their superiors. They stare holes through you if you smile and act as though your very existence is an offense that may get you thrown off the train at any moment.
Half the compartments in my car were empty, yet I had to share one with an elderly Georgian woman who could not understand what it meant that we had no language in common. She kept speaking to me in Georgian. I kept telling her that I don’t speak Georgian, but she insisted on talking to me anyway as though I might learn her language on the fly if she just kept at it. I leaned back and cracked open a book, but that didn’t help. She just kept talking. “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Georgian,” I said again and shrugged.
I stepped out of our shared compartment and into the hall as the train left the station. Levan, the English-speaking Georgian, joined me there. He stuck his head and arms outside an open window and lit up another cigarette.
“Levan,” I said. “Can I get you to ask one of the attendants if I can move to an empty compartment?”
“You can move in with me if you want,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate that. But I’d rather have my own space. I need peace and quiet so I can write.”
“Of course,” he said and did not seem offended that I did not want to share space with him.
He summoned the angry attendant and spoke to her in Russian.
“She wants to know if you have ten manats,” he said. Ten Azeri manats is about twelve American dollars. I sighed, pulled a ten manat note out of my pocket, and handed it over. Then she nodded as if to say I could move wherever I wanted without being harassed.
I walled myself off in my private compartment and edited a long essay that will soon appear in a quarterly magazine. The air conditioning had kicked on and the train was finally comfortable. Then I let myself be rocked to sleep by the wide swaying of the old communist train as we slowly made our way to the border with Georgia.
The attendant shook me awake and hollered at me in the morning.
“What?” I said, momentarily forgetting where I was and wondering who on earth was screaming at me in a language I did not understand. I squinted. Behind her loomed a uniformed man with a rifle. Oh, I thought. This was Azerbaijan’s border with Georgia.
The man with the rifle was an Azeri soldier, and he asked to see my passport. I handed it over. Then he asked me to open my luggage. I did so. He rummaged through it briefly, then left me alone. Another soldier stepped into my compartment with a bomb-detection kit. The attendant glared at me through all this as though I had done something wrong and was about to be punished.
After they finally left me alone I stepped bleary-eyed into the hall. Levan was there in his usual place smoking a cigarette out the window. He saw me cast an irritated glance at the rude attendent.
“Is this your first time on this train?” he said.
“I can read your thoughts,” he said.
“These women act like they had the same job in the Soviet days,” I said. Not much in Azerbaijan made me think of the communist era, but the train experience from beginning to end seemed as though little had changed.
“I’m sure,” he said and laughed. “I’ve taken this train all over the Soviet Union, from Tbilisi to Moscow to Siberia. It’s always the same women.”
The women running the train weren’t the worst of it. The Azeri soldiers were calm and professional when I crossed into Georgia, but when I returned to Azerbaijan for my flight home from Baku I had a very different experience. My luggage was searched by hand just as before, but this time the customs agent — he wasn’t a soldier — completely lost his cool when he found my Lonely Planet book.
“Armenia!” he bellowed and stabbed his index finger at the title. Then he turned to me and narrowed his lizard-like eyes.
“Armenia,” I said and made a thumbs-down gesture to signal my disapproval in sign language.
I have nothing against Armenia or Armenians. Their close alliance with Russia is a bit dubious, especially now, but it’s also understandable in its historical and regional context. Armenians, like everyone else in the geopolitically volcanic Caucasus region, feel threatened and turn to Russia for protection. My thumbs-down verdict was manufactured for my own good to appease the Azeri official who was understandably furious at Armenia but absurdly paranoid about me and my Lonely Planet.
The Armenian military occupies Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and has de-facto annexed it and the surrounding area to itself. The conflict is morally ambiguous at best, and hypercomplex as ethnic-nationalist disputes usually are. It’s an obscure conflict that I’d rather not get sucked into as a partisan. But I wasn’t about to say or even suggest anything of the sort to this pissed off and armed Azerbaijani official and let him believe I felt any differently about the whole thing than he did.
Not that it helped.
He summoned a half dozen colleagues on his radio, waved the book in their faces when they showed up, and said God-only-knows what about me and his suspicions about what I might be up to.
“Do any of you speak English?” I said.
None apparently did.
“Can you help me?” I said to a nearby Azerbaijani civilian whom I hoped might be able to translate.
“I speak little English,” he said. That was enough.
“That book,” I said, “is for tourists.” I tried to keep it simple. “Hotels. Restaurants.”
“Ah,” he said and nodded. Then he translated for the officials.
The man who discovered the book screamed at him and he backed down.
“For tourists,” I said to the officials, hoping they might get a clue. “Hotels. Restaurants.” I threw my hands up in the air to show I was frustrated with them instead of afraid. I had nothing to hide, and they needed to know that.
They passed the book around, thumbed through it, and paused and stared intently when they flipped to some of the pages with maps. Then they deliberated amongst themselves for several minutes before finally handing the book back to me. “Welcome to Azerbaijan,” said the chief officer as he firmly shook my hand. They departed and left me alone.
“So much trouble,” said the Azeri civilian who witnessed all this, “over that little book.”
“In the Caucasus one could be optimistic in the capital cities, but in the provinces one confronted the hardest truths.” – Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary
“Compared to [South Ossetia], rural Georgia was like Tuscany.” – Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary
Getting into Georgia on the train was easier than getting out. As soon as the Georgian customs officials stamped my passport and finished hand-searching my luggage, I stepped off the train and into a taxi. “Thomas Goltz”:http://www.thomasgoltz.com/, author of the Caucasus trilogy Azerbaijan Diary, Georgia Diary, and Chechnya Diary, warned me in advance that the train sits at the border for hours, yet an inexpensive taxi ride would get me to the capital in less than 45 minutes. So I took his advice and arrived in Tbilisi long before any of my fellow train passengers.
The taxi ride was my introduction to Georgia, and it wasn’t pretty. Azerbaijan’s countryside beyond the booming capital Baku reminded me of Iraq in some ways with its bad roads, walled off houses, general poverty, and its vaguely Middle Eastern characteristics. But this part of the Georgian countryside was rougher and poorer. It looked brutally Stalinist. It had been thoroughly Sovietized and appeared to have progressed not an iota since the curtain came down on communism. I really did feel like my 18 hours on the train set me back 18 years as well as sending me sideways a few hundred kilometers. Actually, this portion of Georgia might look even worse than it did when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. Nothing had been fixed up or repaired, and the buildings and cars have had more time to deteriorate. The photos below don’t capture the dreariness.
Communist era housing, Georgia
Communist era housing, Georgia
Hideous smokestacks made up the skyline. Nothing new had been built in decades. Homes were falling apart. Public housing blocks looked monstrous as they always do and in desperate need of paint, new windows, and general repairs. Many of the factories were shuttered. Very little economic activity was evident as though the area were still operating under a command economy, even though it is not.
Smokestacks, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan
More than half the cars on the road were banged up Russian-built Ladas. Nearly all had cracked windshields, including the taxi I rode in. These Ladas are tiny. They have tiny doors, tiny steering wheels, tiny dashboards, tiny seats, and no seat belts. These are among the last cars you’d want to crash in.
A thick film of gray ash from the skyline of smokestacks covered everything, including the leaves on the trees. This blighted region of Georgia looked like an apocalyptic dystopia where everything modern was broken. My heart ached for Georgia.
Skyline of smokestacks from inside a Russian-built Lada, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan
The Stalinist apartment blocks were uglier and more dilapidated than any I’ve seen in post-communist Europe, including Albania which was nearly as oppressive as North Korea under its tyrant Enver Hoxha. This barely reconstructed corner of the Soviet Union gave me an idea how nasty and oppressive that system was. You can’t always learn much about a country’s past political system by looking at its current physical infrastructure, but in this part of Georgia you can.
Most Eastern European countries were in no better shape immediately after the communist era ended, but they’ve been able to pull themselves up in the meantime with help from Europe. Georgia is a distant outpost of Europe that is actually located in Asia, too far away to be rescued by the European Union or NATO.
Smokestack, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan
“I remember how some of the Eastern bloc countries looked just after the fall of the wall,” independent journalist Michael Yon said to me in an email shortly after I arrived in Georgia and told him what I had seen. “East Germany was like zombie land but quickly emerged because of West Germany; Poland was too, but quickly emerged; Czechoslovakia (or now Czech Republic and Slovakia) was nothing like what you see today and was nothing but gray and shortages; Romania was like HELL. Hungary was okay but it had started to emerge ahead of the rest. Any of these countries that you have seen in the last 15 years were nothing like that 18 years ago.”
Tbilisi itself, though, is better.
Aside from its geographic location, Tbilisi could be any European Mediterranean capital — though with an Eastern twist.
Aesthetically exquisite in some places, and at least average in most other places, Tbilisi is a pleasurable city to visit despite the fact that it’s still a bit rough around the edges much as Beirut is.
The post-communist recovery in Georgia’s largest city is far more advanced than the border area I saw when I first arrived. Seeing it was a relief.
But Tbilisi felt tense, as though the air were electrified. Russian soldiers were decamped just a few minutes drive outside the city. And my stay in the capital didn’t last long.
I emailed Caucasus go-to author Thomas Goltz who arrived in town a few days before I did and hoped to set up an interview. “I’ll be at the Marriott at 6pm,” I wrote, “and if you’re there at the same time we can do this.” He hadn’t answered by a quarter to six, but I took a taxi from my cheap hotel to the expensive Marriott anyway in case he got my message at the last minute.
Marriott Hotel lobby, Tbilisi, Georgia
My taxi driver pulled up in front of the main entrance at exactly the same moment Goltz’s taxi pulled up in front of the same entrance. Good, I thought. He showed up. I stepped out of my taxi and waved hello as he stepped out of his.
Thomas Goltz on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
“Let’s go to Gori,” he said, referring to the city in Central Georgia near South Ossetia that was still under Russian occupation. I thought he must be joking. Gori was closed. Russian soldiers rarely let anyone in. “Stay there,” he said before I could shut my taxi door. He came over, motioned for me to get in, and sat next to me in the back seat. Apparently he wasn’t joking about going to Gori. It’s a good thing I had my camera with me because we were off .
Georgia appeared much more prosperous, or at least much less blighted, on the western side of Tbilisi than it did on the eastern side near the border with Azerbaijan. It’s natural that economic development and post-communist repair wouldn’t be geographically even, but for a while there I was worried it might have barely even existed outside the center of Tbilisi.
“How does it feel to be in Free Georgia?” Goltz said.
“Good,” I said, although I was feeling less good by the minute. Traffic was thinning. Gori is only an hour’s drive from the capital, and the Russian occupation began well short of that distance. Free Georgia wasn’t going to last very much longer.
On the road to Gori, Central Georgia
We approached a checkpoint manned by Georgian police. Our driver spoke to them for a few moments and told them we were journalists from America. They waved us through without checking our passports or any other pieces of identification.
“What was that about?” I said.
Our driver didn’t speak English, so Goltz asked him the question in Georgian and translated.
My driver on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
“It’s the idiot’s checkpoint,” he said. “They asked where we’re going. If we said we’re going to Gori as though we have no idea what’s going on, forget it. If we say we’re going to get as far as the Russians will let us, okay. As long as we know what we’re doing.”
We drove a few minutes in silence. This portion of the highway to Gori hadn’t been cut by the Russians, but we were the only ones on it.
Empty highway on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
I hadn’t seen a country so depopulated since I drove with Noah Pollak “in Northern Israel under Hezbollah rocket fire”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001235.html after more than a million refugees fled south toward Tel Aviv and emptied the cities as though it were the end of the world.
“That hill to the right is the edge of South Ossetia,” Goltz said. I snapped a photo. “That’s how close to Tbilisi the Russians will be permanently based.”
The edge of South Ossetia, Georgia
We had only left Tbilisi 15 minutes ago. It would take almost no time at all for the Russian military to reach the capital if the order were given. That’s how it’s going to be in Georgia for a long time. Maybe forever.
“There are probably Russian positions on top of that ridge,” he said.
My camera is equipped with a zoom lens which doubles as a small telescope when I need one. I studied the top of the ridge through the lens but didn’t see any Russian positions — yet.
After another fifteen minutes of driving I knew we were near the end of Free Georgia, as Goltz had earlier put it. The first Russian checkpoint must be just up ahead.
Someone planted an American flag on the side of the road.
American flag planted near the first Russian checkpoint between Tbilisi and Gori, Central Georgia
“Look at that,” Goltz said.
It isn’t likely that an American planted that flag. Georgia was one of the most pro-American countries in the world even before Russia invaded. According to “Gallup International’s 2004 survey of global opinion”:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fextranet.gallup-international.com%2Fuploads%2Fvop%2FFINAL_GALLUP_DRAFT-edited%2520WEF%2520version.doc&ei=ZIbESM7_OKqYoQT5vdTgBg&usg=AFQjCNGzhcEyWANX9x3HSZyXBHWIrtM6-Q&sig2=HsJjNvldIm4IUPZhOFWeRA, the world’s most pro-American countries, in the following order, were Kosovo, Afghanistan, Israel, and Georgia.
That’s it, I thought after we passed the American flag. The Russians should be right up ahead.
Instead a gaggle of journalists and locals congregated on each side of the road just around the next corner.
Journalists and locals congregate around the corner from the first Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
We weren’t interested in joining the herd. We wanted to get as far as we could, so we kept driving. Nobody paid us much mind, but nobody wanted to follow us up the hill and around the corner where we were about to face Russians.
We rounded the corner and saw a roadblock up ahead. Tires were placed in a line across the road. A half dozen armed and uniformed men stood on each side of it.
First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Gori. (Unknown civilian of unknown nationality on the left.)
First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
“Are they Russians or Georgians?” I said.
“Russians,” Goltz said.
It was too late to back out. Whatever would happen would happen.
Our driver slowed and pulled over the car a hundred or so meters before the roadblock.
I stepped out of the taxi and slung my camera around my back instead of over my chest, opened my hands, and slowly turned around so the soldiers could see what I carried. The last thing I wanted to do was make them nervous.
Goltz and I slowly but confidently approached them as though we had already done it dozens of times and had nothing to worry about. He spoke to them in Russian. I flipped open a pack of cigarettes and offered them to whoever wanted one. A young brown-eyed soldier nodded and helped himself.
Russian soldier, Georgia
I produced my lighter and lit the cigarette for him. Our hands touched as we shielded the flame from the wind. He softly nodded in thanks and seemed less threatening than he did from a distance. He was relaxed, didn’t seem to mind that we had shown up, and seemed unlikely to point his weapon at me.
I slowly paced back and forth while Goltz spoke jovially to the soldiers in their own language. The Russians joked and laughed with Goltz. They were very nearly the only people I saw in the entire country who laughed or smiled. The Georgians certainly had little to smile about. Honestly, though, the Russian soldiers didn’t have much to smile about either, and I was slightly surprised to see it.
Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea, but I heard from many Georgians that some Russian soldiers were furious when they came upon Georgian military bases and saw that their Georgian counterparts had superior food, clothing, and living conditions. I might be tempted to dismiss this as self-serving propaganda that makes the Georgians feel better, but Russian soldiers really are notoriously underpaid and underfed even inside their own country.
Russian soldier, Georgia
My sometimes traveling companion Sean LaFreniere visited Russia a few years ago, and he saw uniformed Russian soldiers begging for money and food on the streets. And he met a Russian woman who told him about the ordeal her younger brother endured in the army.
“[She] told me that her little brother had recently returned from his first few months of ‘boot camp’ in the Russian army,” “he wrote”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html#6147992795552048136#6147992795552048136. “When he arrived home for a holiday dinner, his family found him a broken shell. He had been physically, psychologically, and even sexually abused as part of his ‘training.’ His parents and siblings refused to let him return. They have been hiding him for months while trying to acquire papers to get him out of the country. Many Western newspapers have documented similar suffering by Russian soldiers. The BBC and the Guardian recently ran stories on one Private Sychev. He lost his legs and genitals to gangrene after ritualized abuse by the comrades in his unit. Other recruits are forced into pornography and prostitution to enrich their superior officers.”
I never heard any expression of hatred toward the people of Russia by Georgians. I didn’t even hear any complaints about, let alone hatred for, the Abkhaz or Ossetians in the breakaway regions. Georgians are, of course, unhappy with the Russian invasion, but they didn’t seem to be making it personal. I heard much more serious denunciations of Armenians from Azeris every day in Azerbaijan than I heard even once from anybody in Georgia toward anyone. Azerbaijan’s anger toward Armenia is understandable, though a bit unhinged and over the top in some quarters, so the muted reaction toward Russians among Georgians surprised me.
Some even told me that some Georgian civilians took pity on the underfed Russian soldiers and cooked meals for them in their kitchens. I don’t know if it’s true. What I do know is that many Georgians believe it is true and think it a plausible thing for Georgians to do. And I didn’t detect anything in the Georgian character that made me believe the rumors had to be false.
“Go ahead and take pictures of whatever you want,” Goltz said.
“They don’t mind?” I said.
“No,” he said, “it’s fine.”
So I took a few pictures and carefully studied the faces of the soldiers as I pointed my camera at them. None seemed to mind even when I zoomed in.
Russian soldier, Georgia
“Want to go to Gori?” Goltz said.
“They’ll let us?” I said.
He summoned our driver who gingerly drove up to meet us from his parking space at a safe distance.
“I guess they’re going to escort us?” I said.
Russian military truck at the first checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
“I don’t think so,” Goltz said. “Let’s just go.”
“We can just drive there by ourselves?” I said.
We got back in the car. Our taxi driver slowly drove past from the road block as though he expected us to be stopped at any moment. But nobody stopped us.
After we rounded a corner we had the road to ourselves again and we headed straight toward the occupied city of Gori.
“What’s going on, Thomas?” I said. Whatever he said to those men in Russian apparently worked, but we were really supposed to be driving toward Gori?
I know of at least one journalist who was allowed to “embed” with Russian soldiers for 24 hours in Gori. They drove him around and let him sleep at their base. I would have pounced on the opportunity if it were offered, but almost no journalists from any country were allowed inside the occupied city without a visa from Moscow, as though Gori were now part of Russia.
“This sure feels strange, doesn’t it?” Goltz said.
Yes, it felt strange. And totally wrong.
“I once walked in the neutral zone between Iraq and Iran,” I said, which is true. Goltz laughed.
There’s a strange little wooded area along a stream in Biara, Iraq, along the Iranian border where no one is really sure where the line is. Walking there felt powerfully wrong even though I had Iraqi guides with me, and I didn’t dare linger in that zone for even a full sixty seconds. I didn’t even know I had crossed into the neutral zone until after it happened. I could have run into an Iranian border patrol at any moment and would have had nothing to say for myself. I quickly retreated back to Iraq.
Driving inside the Russian occupation zone without an escort felt exactly the same, like the atmosphere was crackling with danger. What would we say if we came upon a Russian patrol who demanded to know what on earth we were doing? At least Goltz speaks fluent Russian and isn’t easily cowed by men with guns.
“We’re going to keep driving through as many checkpoints as we can,” he said.
We passed a Russian truck whose driver paid us no mind.
A Russian truck on the road to Gori, Central Georgia
I relaxed slightly.
The road was otherwise empty until we came upon another Russian checkpoint. Two soldiers stood next to an armored personnel carrier and a Russian flag they had erected on a pole. The American flag we had passed earlier was perhaps only five miles behind us. An American flag and a Russian flag were planted just a few minutes away from each other inside a third country. Georgia felt like the center of the world.
Our driver approached the checkpoint very slowly, but the Russians waved us through before he even stopped.
I felt better. Apparently it was sort of okay for us to be on that road as long as the soldiers at the first checkpoint had let us pass.
Village, Russian-occupied Georgia
The countryside still seemed entirely depopulated except for birds overhead and in the trees who carried on as though nothing were out of the ordinary. I found that profoundly eerie for reasons I can’t quite explain. Some think animals have a better sense of danger than humans, but I have my doubts about that. Everything was wrong in this part of Georgia, and it wasn’t just because the only people around were those of us in the taxi and the well-armed foreign invaders. I saw scorch marks in some of the farmland. Trees and ground on the side of the road had been burned.
Scorched roadside, Russian-occupied Georgia
“There was fighting here recently,” Goltz said. “Those burns are from the war.”
We approached a third Russian checkpoint clocking in at 65 kilometers from Tbilisi, nearly at the gate to the city of Gori. The soldiers manning this one were not at all happy to see us. One stepped into the road and fiercely pointed his finger in the direction we came from. He yelled something in Russian. Our driver quickly turned around and got us out of there.
“I guess we aren’t going to Gori,” I said.
“We had to try,” Goltz said.
I carefully studied the landscape using my zoom lens.
A tank perched on a hill in the distance next to some houses kept watch over the road.
A tank on a hill near a house from a distance, Russian-occupied Georgia
The Russians were no longer shooting at people, but they could have shot us at any time if they felt like it. No one would have been able to stop them or save us.
I turned my lens back onto the road and faintly made out a vehicle with a gunner in a turret barreling toward us at top speed.
Speeding gunner, Russian-occupied Georgia
“That one has a gunner,” I said and quickly put down my camera before he got close enough to see with his naked eye that I was pointing something long and narrow at him. Unless he was watching us with binoculars, I could see farther than he could.
“No sense getting ourselves shot if we don’t have to,” Goltz said.
Off to the left was a small ad hoc Russian base.
Russian army base, Central Georgia
“Did you get that?” Goltz said.
“Got it,” I said.
The driver said something to Goltz. Goltz translated.
“He wants to get back,” he said. “He said it’s especially dangerous out here at night, that the Russians want a provocation so they can take his car.”
It would be dark soon and we were almost an hour outside Tbilisi. The sun was just about to go down.
“I need to get back anyway for a radio interview,” Goltz said. “If you have any other plans in this area, say something now.”
I laughed. “By myself in the dark with no car?” I said. “I don’t think so.”
We passed the second Russian checkpoint without incident, then approached the first one again where we had stopped earlier and I had taken some pictures.
There were more people at the checkpoint this time, and two of them were clearly irregular militiamen. Goltz told our driver to stop.
The irregulars were not wearing full uniforms, but they were armed with rifles and had unsheathed hunting knives tucked into their belts. Unlike the uniformed Russians, these two had blonde hair and blue eyes. They didn’t look remotely Asian like some of the others, nor did they quite look like Slavs. I couldn’t place them ethnically. One had shaved his head over his ears and wore what looked like a wide mohawk. He was built like a heavyweight wrestler.
Both militiamen triggered every one of my danger signals short of actual fear. They were clearly bad news. “Bad vibe” doesn’t quite say it.
Goltz started blabbing at them in Russian. He sounded strangely foolish to me, as though he, unlike me, did not sense we might be in danger. In hindsight, though, I think he did. He just didn’t show it. The only words I understood were “Dagestan” and “Montana.” He kept repeating “Dagestan” and “Montana” and sounded like an awe-shucks oblivious American tourist. What was he doing? I wanted to get out of there. The uniformed Russian soldiers laughed at whatever Goltz said and seemed perfectly relaxed and non-threatening, but the out-of-uniform irregulars looked unimpressed and barely able to contain their aggression.
I did not even think of taking their picture. These men narrowed their eyes and stared holes through me. They looked distinctly like psychopaths, as though they wanted to kill us and only didn’t because they did not have permission. They said nothing and kept back a bit from some of the uniformed Russians, as though they weren’t the ones in charge, but I knew it was time to leave when one of them wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his blade.
Goltz told our driver to go. And so we drove off.
“I was making stupid jokes,” Goltz said, “about how Dagestan means the same thing as Montana.” Dagestan is a Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus across from Azerbaijan and next to Chechnya. Goltz lives in Montana. “Both mean country of the mountains. What I was saying was stupid but I did it so we could stall and get a good long look at those Chechen militiamen. It’s one of my tricks.”
“They’re from Chechnya?” I said. “How do you know?”
“I don’t,” he said. “But they probably are. They’re definitely not Russians. I have a bit of a sixth sense about ethnicity in an ethnic-conscious place like the former Soviet Union,” he said. “I know the Chechens. I hung with the Chechens.”
Chechnya Diary, by my traveling companion Thomas Goltz
“If I could have stalled us just ten more seconds,” he continued, “I would have said I’m a Chechen who lives in the United States in Chechen to see if I could get one of those toughs to fucking smile.”
I had noticed something while stalled at that checkpoint that didn’t even register until after we left. The letters CCCP — the Russian abbreviation for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — were written in black ink on the rifle slings the militiamen carried. Of course it didn’t mean much aside from the fact that their weapons and gear were old. But that didn’t even occur to me while I was looking at them and their communist era equipment. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the time. Communism, of course, is over. Yet during our day trip in Central Georgia — and even a bit on my train ride to Georgia — I felt distinctly like the Soviet Empire was back or had never left.
“I can’t imagine a more serious geopolitical situation anywhere in the world than where we are right now,” Goltz said as we reemerged inside free Georgia. “Despite the fact that everything looks calm and we can joke with the Russians, this is as big as it gets.”
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