poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 18, 2009

dreaming, tripping and reading through the Caucasus.

Contents: Gory Gori, Грозный Grozny and the Ecstasy of War.

I haven’t slept well for the past few nights. Thunderstorms, fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, a fickle cat and the fate of the public option have kept me awake. I finally managed to fall into a proper sleep (I think leaving Chopin on repeat all night helped) and had a bizarre dream. I was on an Amtrak with my little brother, Dmitry Medvedev, Anne Nivat and some strangers. The scene had an ominous feel, like when those tv people who were Lost got on that plane to return to that Island. But instead of a mysterious island where nothing makes sense, we were going to S. Ossetia. I didn’t have my papers in order, but Medvedev laughed like Santa Claus and told me it didn’t matter. When we returned, I had no memory about the place, and no stamps in my passport. But I was told I had been there. Nivat showed me photos of our trip. And yet I remembered nothing. It was like my memory of it had been wiped perfectly clean. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a Michel Gondry film. With a soundtrack by Chopin.

I should not watch the news before bed. Or at least not France24. Or at least not this:

I. A Video.

A few reactions:

1. I expect a one-sided story from the American mass media. I don’t think I ever did recover from the US reporting of the war last year. I was mortified. Not by war. We’ve been at war every day for over half a decade. It’s just no longer practical to be outraged by the killing of innocent civilians. (I am, but I’m not a very practical person.) I was mortified by the narrative. And it’s a damn shame, because if the coverage had been a little more nuanced, I’d probably be a lot more mad at Russia, which was the point of that coverage, right? It still frustrates and baffles, but no longer shocks. Except when the French do it. I have higher standards for the French. On the other hand, they had the good excuse that the Russian/S. Ossetian forces wont allow them to cross into S. Ossetia to see what’s up over there. I remember that being an issue during the war too. Reporters being unable to verify that Georgia had bombed Tskhinvali because Russian troops weren’t allowing them down the road.

Nevertheless, isn’t it the job of a professional reporter to attempt to confirm hearsay? Or do we live in a world where what people believe is true is deemed more important than what is actually true? The people of Gori say they have heard that Russia is gearing up for another war. Georgian soldiers with their Russian Kalashnikovs are shown training. The cognitive dissonance is makin’ me crazy. And has anyone yet provided us with a semi-believable reason why Russia would want to launch all out war on Georgia proper? That would benefit them how, exactly? Now, how could getting people to believe it benefit Georgia? Precisely. Thank you for participating in today’s logic excessive. A pony for you all.

2. A free two-bedroom house with a flat screen tv for Georgian refugees of last year’s war. They complain it is mediocre. Just what kind of palaces were what inhabiting in South Ossetia? I know Americans facing foreclosure who would snap up one of those homes with a flat screen tv in a second. Maybe in return for our military industrial generosity, Georgia can give Americans some free houses too.

For those of you who protest, “But they are very very little houses, poemless!” there is a short story by Tolstoy I recommend.

3. The old farmer fellow, Vassily, in the hat, is just brilliant. The war last year destroyed his crop. He lost 2/3 of his harvest. He goes on about Ossetians shooting in the fields, making it difficult for him to work. He weeps like a child. But you don’t see him demanding compensation for his losses. His lament? “If only they Soviet Union had never ended!” There was peace then. And bonuses. “Now we have freedom. We are free, with empty pockets.” Now he is praying to God for help. Well, to God and the President, but if it is peace he is after, I think he might have more luck with God. And I say that as an atheist. A God-fearing Georgian whose farm was ripped up by Russian tanks longs for the good old days of the USSR. Put that in your ideological pipe and smoke it.

II. An Article.

There is an article by Alexander Cockburn in The Nation titled, Myth, Meth and the Georgian Invasion.

On their website, it is hidden behind a subscription firewall. When I googled it, the firewall disappeared. The next time I searched for it, the firewall reappeared. So it is a good thing I saved a copy of it when I did. BTW, this world I live in, where The Nation is hidden behind subscription firewalls while hack journalists are peddling their propaganda for free everywhere, I don’t like it. Jeez, I can’t understand why the American public believes liberals are elitists… Anyway, I’m going “all property is theft” on Ms. vanden Heuvel and posting some subscription only bits here. (I bought her husband’s book. She should tell him I demand that he buy her a drink.)

A year ago, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent Georgian troops into South Ossetia on a murderous rampage, with civilian casualties put by Irina Gagloeva, the spokeswoman of South Ossetia, at 1,492. Much lower numbers have been offered by Western sources. Georgian soldiers butchered their victims with great brutality. Kirill Benediktov, in his online book on the invasion, reports that these soldiers were equipped–so subsequent searches of bodies and prisoners of war disclosed–not only with NATO-supplied food packages but with sachets of methamphetamine and combat stress pills based on MDMA, aka the active ingredient of Ecstasy. The meth amps up soldiers to kill without mercy, and the MDMA derivative frees them of subsequent debilitating flashbacks and recurring nightmares. Official use of methamphetamine and official testing of MDMA in the US armed forces have been discussed in news stories.

I am not downloading the pdf of Kirill’s book. Can anyone vouch for this guy? Because that is CRAZY. It is crazy because it would seem to back up Kadyrov’s claim that Western special forces have provided young would-be insurgents in his region with mind-altering drugs that turn them into killing machines and zombies! Which is CRAZY! Damn. Why are Americans so flipping mad about a healthcare reform bill that provides them with access to the types of drugs they actually need and yet go all “my brother’s keeper” (we’re all Georgians now!) when it comes to giving non-citizens halfway around the globe drugs that only a bastard offspring of Timothy Leary and Heinrich Himmler could possibly deem necessary?

Everyday I wonder how much more I can take. And every day I take it.

I’ve been thinking for a while that if Obama had framed the healthcare debate as, “The Russians don’t want you to have a public option!” we’d have had it before the recess.

Cockburn continues…

Here we are, a year later, the windowpanes still rattling from Joe Biden’s speech to the Georgian Parliament on July 23–whether assisted by a combat envelope of methamphetamine we do not know–proclaiming, “We, the United States, stand by you on your journey to a secure, free and democratic, and once again united, Georgia.” In other words, the United States remains implacably opposed to South Ossetia’s desire for independence and committed to Georgian claims: “Divided, Georgia will not complete its journey. United, Georgia can achieve the dreams of your forebears and, maybe more importantly, the hopes of your children.” Thus did Biden express US policy in linking hands across the decades with Stalin, who forced unwilling South Ossetia and Abkhazia into an enlarged Georgia.

I am reading a book about the history of the Caucasus, and while I have not gotten to the 20th Century yet, I’ll take his word for it. But it must be said that the whole entire history of the Caucasus seems to be a fluid one of smaller bits being forced into larger bits either by might or necessity, either by big bad empires or by small bad bandits.

Biden also told the Georgian Parliament that the United States would continue to help Georgia “modernize” its military and that Washington “fully supports” Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO and would help Tbilisi meet the alliance’s standards. This elicited a furious reaction from Moscow, pledging sanctions against any power rearming Georgia. The most nauseating moment in Biden’s sortie to Tbilisi, where he repeatedly stressed he was a spokesman for Obama, came when, on accounts in the New York Times and Washington Post, he brazenly lied to schoolchildren, claiming Russia had launched the invasion. Not two weeks later, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon repeated this lie in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

We should note here that from Clinton-time forward, Georgia has been regarded by the United States as strategically vital in controlling the oil pipeline to Azerbaijan and Central Asia, bypassing Russia and Iran. Also, Georgia could play an enabling role if Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear complex. The flight path from Israel to Iran is diplomatically and geographically challenging. And Georgia is perfectly situated as the takeoff point for any such raid. Israel has been heavily involved in supplying and training Georgia’s armed forces. A story in Der Spiegel remarked that “Georgia had increasingly made headlines as a gold mine for Israeli arms dealers and veterans from the military and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.” President Saakashvili boasted that his defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, and also Temur Iakobashvili, the minister responsible for negotiations over South Ossetia, lived in Israel before moving to Georgia, adding, “Both war and peace are in the hands of Israeli Jews.”

So the U.S. needs Georgia in case Israel declares war on Iran? Gosh, it seems like we’re spending an awful lot of money we don’t have on a very small, volatile country all to prepare ourselves for a hypothetical event so inane no one would ever seriously attempt it. Right? … Anyone run this plan by Russia? Because in the even of WW3, I think it would be of some grave concern if the U.S. and Russia were not on the same side. And I think the definition of WW3 is “Israel declares war on Iran.” So, if I were running things, I would concentrate on preventing that from happening, not fomenting unrest in that part of the world in order to score a good seat at the show.

III. A Book.

The truth is, I really don’t know much of anything about Georgia or Ossetia or much of anything south of Moscow. So I’m quite grateful to have stumbled upon Charles King’s Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus while browsing the DK stacks at the library. Last year my step-father and I made a pact that I would read more history, and he would read more philosophy. I really can’t stand reading history despite an insatiable interest in the subject. Most historians are bad writers who rely on your interest in their field to keep you turning the pages. Several acquaintances had only positive things to say about King, so I went for it. And I’m hooked. This book is exceptionally accessible and informative in a very helpful way. And well-written. Nothing tedious. So far. I’m still in the 19th Century, so I don’t think it is wise to write a review just yet. However, I really want to recommend this book! Fortunately someone else has written a review, and it very much sums up my feelings this far along:



Indeed, the Caucasus can be likened to the classic children’s finger-puzzle in which 15 little sliding squares, enclosed in a frame, must be reconfigured in correct sequence. This is devilishly hard to do. In the living puzzle of the Caucasus there are of course many more pieces, which King rearranges in various illuminating ways, while neatly summarizing vast amounts of history.

King begins at the beginning, 25 million years ago, with the collision of continents that forced up most of the mountain ranges of Eurasia, including the Caucasus and its deposits of oil and gas. (By the way, this geological train-wreck is still in progress, albeit in extremely slow motion.) There has been much cultural as well as tectonic grinding in the Caucasus over the centuries. Scores of indigenous peoples and invaders have collided, traded, and genetically intermingled, leaving remnants and pockets of themselves in valleys, among alpine meadows, and in isolated auls (aerie-like highland villages) between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Caucasus has paid the price of being a cultural crossroads, and has weathered incursions from every quadrant: Persians from the southeast; Greeks and Romans (plus Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and Turks) from the southwest; Huns, Avars, Mongols (and Russians, British, Germans, and so forth) from the north. The result–as cartographers soon discover to their dismay — is what King describes as “borders on the move” (a concept reminiscent of certain ancient Caucasus legends that describe a time when the mountains could actually walk around…on ’legs’ of clouds!)

Maps are never the territory, of course, but King’s “surfeit of borders” precisely describes a neck of land historically chock-a-block with feudal clans and feuding vassalages, suzereinties, satrapies, and client states–and their shifting alliances. Add to this the poking and prodding by great powers and no wonder Caucasus politics displays a certain operatic quality (Bolshevik Revolution here, Rose Revolution there, charming folk dances and drinking songs over yonder, while oil wheeler-dealers and ’frozen conflict peacekeepers’ wait in the wings). Readers of The Ghost of Freedom will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the maneuvering continues, the United States being but the latest partner (or padrone) active in the South Caucasus. Tomorrow–who knows?–that role may revert to Russia, Turkey, or even China, and once again we would need to redraw the maps.

Today’s nations can be old or spanking new. Azerbaijan, King writes, is only a 20th-century construct; but even ancient entities such as Georgia and Armenia can wink on and off over the centuries:

From King:

“Two hundred years ago the map of the Caucasus looked very different from the one that exists today. Unified places called Georgia and Armenia had long ago disappeared, the former in the fifteenth century, and the latter in antiquity. Both were geographical rather than political expressions. A place called Azerbaijan, when the term was used at all, was more likely to refer to what one would now call northwestern Iran [p. 14-15].

“Modern maps that show great swaths of colored territory as clearly belonging to one or another khanate, kingdom, principality, or empire are fundamentally misleading about the real nature of sovereignty on the ground. The goal of any political power was to control the locus of extraction, such s a key bridge, port, mountain pass, or fortress. When borders did serve something like a modern purpose, they were usually meant not to keep people out but to keep them in.” [ p.21]

See what I mean by “accessible and informative in a very helpful way?” I’m feeling my age these days, but I’m still fairly young and naive in the greater scheme of things. As a result, like most people, or most Americans, I have a vague concept of an ancient Christian country called Georgia which was taken over by the evil empire of the Soviet Union and which rejoiced when it was finally freed from oppression with the dissolution of the USSR. Now Russia wants it and everything else she controlled 25 years ago back. If there are other places in that area, like Chechnya, this narrative is also transferable to them. Just replace “Christian” with “Muslim” and you are good to go. Even if we all understand that nothing is so simple, we still want it to be. But to paraphrase a friend of mine, pretending to know the answer when you don’t is not actually very helpful.

And perhaps that is the reason why we pay immediate attention to those facts and events which confirm our narrative and ignore those that do not. As Nikolai Petro explains:

By-and-large, however, the mainstream Western media had no frame of reference within which to deal with Ossetians or Abkhaz, and was therefore unable to explain why they felt aggrieved by the Georgian government. As a result, this vital side of the story was simply folded into the “Russian” narrative, which the media had already instinctively labeled as the aggressors. Sadly, while the facts regarding Georgia’s aggression are somewhat better known today, Western pundits and politicians remain ignorant of the history of the region and it peoples, and hence of the deeper roots of the conflict.

Whether due to geo-political interests, intentionally or unavoidably biased reportage, or your garden-variety apathy, the result is profound ignorance about the Caucasus among most Americans and probably most people outside of the Caucasus. And the result of profound ignorance coupled with lots of weapons (and drugs) is usually some horrible tragedy. Throw in a few superpowers with nuclear weapons and something to prove and the result might be dead bodies everywhere and people howling, “Where was God?!”

God was right here. Telling you to read King’s book. And my blog!

Thanks for reading!


  1. Man, too frickin funny! I too think Katrina needs a good stiff drink every now and again…she’s got such a good rag (and really, the only one for a good five years in the states)…it’s no nlr but it get’s the job done…

    but humorless? man.

    there’s a good mag over here…pretty mainstream too, marianne, that got the georgian attack reported correctedly right off the bat. they’re spotty on internal french politics (the publisher is centrist modem bayrou that cyrille likes soo much) but on fp they get it right a lot. as with the nato war on serbia.

    you can usually get cockburn’s stuff at counterpunch…with patrick too who is also regularly in nlr (bet it is at your library…)

    keep up the good stuff and nice to see you blogging again!

    Comment by redstar — August 18, 2009 @ 3:30 PM | Reply

    • “keep up the good stuff and nice to see you blogging again!”

      Merci! It’s good to be blogging again. I thought I had writer’s blok, but I think I just had an overwhemling lack of incentive or something.

      Katrina’s pretty humourless. But you know, she’s a sexy strong liberal woman who runs a serious magazine. Being humourless is her perogative.

      As I noted elsewhere (the problem with posting on facebook is that half the comments end up over there), I stopped reading the Nation a long time ago. Then I think I started reading it again because a few of the eXile staff were writing there, and Cohen wrote that New American Cold War piece. I’ll have to pay more attention to Cockburn. What’s his story?

      Comment by poemless — August 18, 2009 @ 3:43 PM | Reply

      • Bitter grouchy Irish dude. My da hates him (my da is Irish too) for a variety of reasons mostly related to his ireland-related politics, though they both live in CA now.

        Thing about Cockburn is between the bitter bullshit sometimes you get a touch of brilliance unlike Hitchens where you just get the mean hangover of a dissolute guy who wasted his brain. Plus, he called Irak like 9 months before Bush got the morons to give him the authorization….and his son did topnotch reporting from there for nlr.

        Love katha pollitt too…that’s a hot liberal woman with a brain who doesn’t take shit from no one…and a better sense of humor than katrina vandenheuvel….

        Comment by redstar — August 18, 2009 @ 3:53 PM | Reply

        • I liked “Learning to Drive.” She has a great sense of humour and sometimes it hits a bit too close to home. …

          There must be an entire pastime devoted to hating Hitch. Here’s the thing, I’m pretty sure he was a drunken arrogant ass before he decided the war in Iraq was a good thing. Before he decided the war in Iraq was a good thing, we all just had a laugh and raised an eyebrow at his provocativeness. But after he decided the war in Iraq was a good thing, he was just a drunken arrogant ass. Here’s what I think. I think he’s an amazingly good writer, on the whole he has some very sound opinions, he is his own cat – no one’s ideological soldier, and is an asset. Yes. An asset. This country of mine suffers from a lack of subversive, and I don’t mean “ironic” but really just obnoxiously unapologetic liberal intellectuals who are not holier than thou and don’t give a damn what the rest of the world thinks of them. In the end, he’s getting paid to do my dream job. I may not like him as a person, and we all know he was wrong on Iraq, but I have a rather marked appreciation for Mr. Hitchens.

          Comment by poemless — August 18, 2009 @ 4:08 PM | Reply

        • I used to think the world (well, not quite) of Hitchens up to before he stopped writing for the Nation. He was as you said, pretty damn brilliant, entertaining too, and a lot of the time right.

          The last half-decade have not been too kind to him, and I, being sympathetic to what he was, think it’s the drink.

          Comment by redstar — August 20, 2009 @ 3:02 PM | Reply

  2. ps do you have france 24 over there or only on the net? their studio is right by my office, when you walk past you can see them doing the telecast. reminds me of my days in mpls.

    Comment by redstar — August 18, 2009 @ 4:03 PM | Reply

    • I watch it on tv. A local PBS station has a MhzWorldview digital channel. So it isn’t France24 24/7. It’s an hourly show broadcast 3 or 4 times a day. Same with Russia Today and a dozen other programmes. Though weirdly, as I blogged about once, NBC is airing RT on one of their digital channels.

      Comment by poemless — August 18, 2009 @ 4:14 PM | Reply

  3. […] post: dreaming, tripping and reading through the Caucasus. « poemless … This entry is filed under History, USSR History. You can follow any responses to this entry […]

    Pingback by World History » dreaming, tripping and reading through the Caucasus. « poemless … — August 18, 2009 @ 5:22 PM | Reply

  4. Every Georgian I’ve ever met has said great things about the USSR. My former taxi driver used to talk about it all the time. They also tend to have a very high opinion of Stalin.

    French media are just as shit as American media. I think there is a tendency among Americans of a left-ish persuasion to think that European media (the BBC, Le Monde, Spiegel, or whatever) must be way better than US media because they tend to take positions toward the US that correspond to those of Americans of a left-ish persuasion (on gun control, health care, how Bush was evil, etc.). ‘Tis not true.

    Comment by Von Doom — August 20, 2009 @ 7:51 AM | Reply

    • I knew a Georgian painter in Moscow who had a thing for Stalin. He also had a thing for Rasputin. He also had a thing for his young female students.

      BTW, you’re talking to someone who wrote for a European news blog for years. I hardly need a lecture! I think journalism everywhere has sunk to appalling new lows, though every country seems to have a spectrum. Nevertheless, the French media has NOT been as obnoxiously anti-Russia as the U.S. or British media, and the French do pride themselves on NOT being susceptible to the hysterical free-market ideology of the British or Americans, an ideology that has been at least partly responsible for the way Russia is portrayed in the English-speaking media, which handily conflates economic liberalism with social liberalism.

      All that said, I don’t think I’ve accused this report of being intentionally biased…

      Comment by poemless — August 20, 2009 @ 11:31 AM | Reply

    • This is utter bullshit. Sure there are serious problems with the press here in France, but compare to the garbage in the US? Way off.

      As I sit in my train going back home reading Huma Dimanche I wonder where in the US do Americans get that. They don’t.

      Where did I see what really happened in the Georgia-Russia conflict last year? In the decidedly centrist Marianne, our equivalent of Time (which is mostly utter garbage, unlike Marianne).

      Ditto what is happening in Kosovo and Bosnia.

      No, the US occupies a special place in the developed world for absolute shit journalism$. Shit, even the miserable Italians have La Repubblica…what do the Americans have? Amy Goodman an hour or so a day, broadcast to 3000 people. And that’s it.

      Comment by redstar — August 20, 2009 @ 3:21 PM | Reply

      • The language!

        Redstar, is it fair to say you have a personal hatred of my fair land and associate it with everything bad in the world? Given the infinite sources of news available in the US, representing every possible view of everything, I cannot share your negativity. Somehow, I am an American, living in America and -being an arrogant American and all- believe I am incredibly well informed. OTOH, if we are talking about only about mass corporate media, which I think Chris was, it is difficult to find anything that as appalling as some American media. The BBC does try… But there are quality media outlets in the US that don’t spring to mind because they are not shoved down your throat. Lots of stuff on PBS. Lots of magazines. Lots of free papers. Even some journalists associated with crap outlets. Remember that amazing Trib article A tank of gas, A world of trouble? And Aaron Brown from CNN? I saw him doing an amazing program on Burma last night on Wide Angle. The Chicago Reader does a weekly thrashing of Mayor Daley. Oh, and what about the Daily Show? There is non-crap journalism out there. And it is not hard to find.

        I have never listened to Amy Goodman.

        And I am perhaps singular in that my tolerance for broad-brush anti-Americanism is as low as my tolerance for broad-brush anti-Russia…ism. I don’t think that is a word… Anyway. We were talking about France24. I don’t watch it and want to tear my hair out. Neither do I watch it and feel terribly impressed. It is pretty cookie-cutter, and comparable to its peers in overall quality of journalism.

        Comment by poemless — August 20, 2009 @ 3:53 PM | Reply

        • Ps…oops, mis-posted down there…You try to do this with a phone!- the blogs over there…much better than here.

          Then, they have to be, if people actually want to know anything.

          Comment by redstar — August 20, 2009 @ 4:52 PM | Reply

  5. Hate America? That would make me a self-hating American, no?

    Crappy press, though. NPR sucks, as does all the corporate press with no exceptions. PBS can do good stuff, but mostly sucks too. Like France 24…some good stuff. Some not so good.

    Thing is we have France 24, France 2, France 3, France 5, Arte and France O as well, they’re all (mostly) free and broadcast, unlike PBS, pretty spotty coverage, and while they may not be properly funded, they’re still funded. No fund drives and wink wink sponsorships from UnitedHealth.

    And, actually, as you say not all is bad in America. But the world would surely be better off if it were taken down a few pegs power-wise. The world’s greatest source of instability, economic, diplomatic and military, supported en masse by one of the developed world’s most undereducated populaces.

    Comment by redstar — August 20, 2009 @ 4:28 PM | Reply

  6. The BBC swallowed the Georgian government’s propaganda hook, line, and sinker. Just like CNN.

    To be fair, they did change their line about a month later; but so did the New York Times.

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — August 24, 2009 @ 3:16 PM | Reply

    • So did Anne Applebaum. Now that they all ostensibly know better, it will be revealing to see how they interpret future incursions in the region.

      Comment by poemless — August 24, 2009 @ 3:41 PM | Reply

  7. Hey, I’d like to try out the Benediktov PDF. But I can’t find where to get it. Any ideas?

    Comment by andrew — August 26, 2009 @ 1:12 PM | Reply

    • If you click on the link to Cockburn’s article, he links to the pdf. It’s po-russki, though.

      Comment by poemless — August 26, 2009 @ 1:45 PM | Reply

      • Thanks. Pro-Russki is okay by me – we need an antidote to what we’re served up in the media. I know Russia hardly has clean hands.

        Incidentally, it may seem ungrateful to describe spiffing new houses with flat-screen TVs (all courtesy of Uncle Sam, no doubt) as mediocre, but isn’t the real point that these people should be able to go back home if they want to?

        Comment by andrew — August 26, 2009 @ 2:53 PM | Reply

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