The occupation of Gori

Gori Travel Blog

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Train from Bakuriani to Gori

We caught the train down from Bakuriani to Gori, to visit the Stalin Museum. As the birthplace of Stalin, the city abounds with Stalin’s presence -the main street is Stalin Street, the Stalin Museum is almost the only tourist site and until 24 hours before we arrived a giant statue of Stalin stood in front of the town hall. This statue, one of the few giant Stalin statues that survived Krushchev’s de-Stalinsation program, was taken down in secret in the early hours of the morning, to prevent the outcry that occurred when the newly independent Georgia tried to pull it down in 1991. The Stalin Museum is really one of memorabilia, rather than an objective look at the man who turned rural poverty-stricken Russia into an industrial powerhouse and murdered millions of people in designed famines and the Gulags.

Train from Bakuriani to Gori
The museum was built just outside the house where Stalin was born, which now stands beneath what could best be described as a shrine. Next to the museum stands Stalin’s personal plate-armoured train carriage, his sole form transport (as he refused to fly). 

Gori is not only famous for producing one of the largest mass-murderers of all time, paranoid Stalin, but also as an epicentre of the recent South Ossetian War between Georgia and Russia. Despite the reflexively anti-Russian assumptions of the Western media, the situation in South Ossetia does not paint Georgia in a good light. Before the break-up of the USSR, South Ossetia operated as the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, an autonomous region within the Georgian SSR. Despite different ethnicities, cultures and languages, Georgians and Ossetians lived rather peacefully side-by-side during Soviet times, with a high rate of interactions and intermarriages (interestingly, the same can be said of most large empires, where a shared nationality blurs the boundaries of ethnicity).

The newly empty space where Stalin's statue stood
Unfortunately, when the USSR dissolved, ethnic tensions throughout the Caucuses flared, as smaller ethnic groups wanted to take the opportunity to gain independence, and resisted being incorporated as minority regions within the newly formed states. Within months of Georgia declaring itself independent in 1991, South Ossetia declared itself an independent identity. With a much closer relationship with Russia (especially with the North Ossetians living just over the Russian border), ex-Soviet military units aided the South Ossetian separatists, allowing the region to become de-facto independent, although officially still a part of Georgia. A large exchange of population made both Georgia and South Ossetian more ethnically homogenous, entrenching positions and reducing any chance for future reintegration.
Stalin's personal carriage

This situation was maintained for the best part of twenty years. In 2006, South Ossetians had a referendum on independence, where 99% of voters supported full independence from Georgia. More than 85% of South Ossetians acquired Russian citizenship, allowing closer ties with North Ossetia in Russia, and Russian became the predominant second language of the region, far ahead of Georgian.

Everything changed on the night of the 7th of August 2008, when Georgia launched a large-scale military attack against South Ossetia. It still isn’t clear why President Saakashvili decided to try to reclaim territory long-lost, but perhaps he was emboldened by his success in facing down the President of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, when Russia did not intervene.

The Stalin temple
For whatever reason, Saakashvili not only authorised Georgian troops to attack the position of the combined South Ossetian militia and Russian troops, but he personally commanded troops in battle, despite having no military experience.

Predictably, the Georgian military were outclassed, and the Russian troops defeated the attack and countered on the 8th of August, occupying Gori and destroyed a substantial proportion of the Georgian military’s offensive hardware. Just as predictably, the response of Western media and government was superficial. Saakashvili, skilled at media manipulation, presented himself as David battling Goliath, even though he was the aggressor in the war and anti-democratic at home - during Saakashvili’s rule, Freedom House downgraded Georgia’s democracy ranking.

Stalin's forgotten first son
George W. Bush even toyed with the idea of starting WWIII, considering launching air strikes on the Russian military, before settling on issuing a laughably ironic statement: “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” A year later, the independent report commissioned by the Council of the European Union (prepared by a group of 30 military, legal and history experts), analysed all the evidence and found that the Georgian strike into South Ossetia “was not justified by international law” and that there was no evidence for the Georgian claim that Russia struck first. To be fair, the report also found that the Russian reaction to the Georgian attack was disproportionate. Unfortunately, the report did not also assess the hysterical response of Western media and governments, who happily parroted Georgian misinformation at the time.
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin

The effect of that ill-advised venture can be seen across Georgia today. On the road between Tbilisi and Kutaisi we passed the refugee village from Georgians who fled Gori and the border region. Row upon row of identical small houses laid out on a grid pattern, covering a vast area. No roads, shops or employment opportunities, not a real city, just a holding area for displaced people. And yet, while many Georgian people can see the stupidity of Saakashvili in attacking South Ossetia, they do not see a resolution of the war, insisting that South Ossetia should be part of Georgia. I really can’t stand to see historical claims to be used as justification for war. Yes, for a period of time a few hundred years ago, people in Georgia ruled over people in South Ossetia.

Stalin's original office
Why should this give the President of Georgia today the right to cause death and mayhem in order to control South Ossetia today?

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The house where Stalin was born

Since the South Ossetian War, only a handful of countries have recognised the independence of South Ossetia. The blockade against recognition makes practical sense, in that most states uphold the grounds of territorial integrity, where only the state has the right to allow division rather than the right of self-determination existing for each people. Morocco doesn't want Western Sahara to be allowed to declare unilateral independence, Spain doesn't want Catalan to be allowed to declare unilateral independence, China doesn't want Tibet to be allowed to declare unilateral independence - and these countries consistently apply the same principle to other nations. Less understandable are those countries that treat Kosovo and South Ossetia as somehow different circumstances.

Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years old outside Gori
The parallels between the two could hardly be more striking, both were once integrated into a larger multi-ethnic country, both ended up being a minority in a heavily nationalistic state after post-USSR statehood used defunct borders to define nations, and both have overwhelming majorities with a distinct culture and language that want independence. It is hard to find any principle of self-determination theory that would allow a country to support Kosovo but not South Ossetia, or vice versa. Yet of the 65 countries that have recognised Kosovo, only one has recognised South Ossetia. Likewise of the 4 countries that have recognised South Ossetia, only one has recognised Kosovo. So kudos to Nauru for being the only country to consistently apply self-determination theory.
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years old outside Gori

As I have been thinking about self-determination theory today, there is one strongly detrimental theory that jumps out to me. Self-determination promotes the fragmentation of countries into every smaller packages of humanity, divided by ethnicity, language and religion. Obviously the case can (and, I think, should) be made that this is the right of a community, but having a right does not always mean that using that right is a positive move. One of the striking features of large multi-ethnic countries is the high rate of interactions, internal migrations and intermarriages. When you look at countries such as the USSR, the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia, the Indian Empire and so forth, one notable feature is the relatively high rates of interactions and intermarriages across language and ethnic barriers.

Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years old outside Gori
Whatever flaws these countries may have had, they did facilitate heterogeneity. And in each case, when the country was broken up into more homogenous nationalist blocks, ethnic tensions rose up into violence. As part of the USSR, South Ossetia was only 2/3rds Ossetian, but in the violence following the independence of Georgia ethnic Ossetians across Georgia migrated into South Ossetia, and Georgians in South Ossetia migrated into Georgia, leaving both regions far more homogenous than before. During the violence of the Partition of India, 15 million Hindus and Muslims migrated from mixed communities to generate more homogenous countries. At the breakup of the Ottoman Empire the Great Powers forced ethnic Turks and ethnic Greeks to migrate from to Turkey and Greece to create homogenous states.
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years old outside Gori
The theory was that heterogeneous states have internal tension. That may be so, but internal tension is not always a bad thing. Being in a diverse state challenges the population to recognise that there are multiple ways to live, that acceptance of diversity works both ways. Besides, internal tension is clearly better than external tension. Muslims and Hindus may not have had a perfect relationship within the Indian Empire, but who would argue that the partitioned situation is better, with nuclear-armed Pakistan and India facing off across a border? What happened to Europe when the rise of ethnic nationalism created relatively homogenous states, where the State could command loyalty from the people and the coincidence of political, language, ethnic and religious boundaries made it so much easier to identify "us" and "them"?

Today there are 192 members of the United Nations. Of these, 109 countries became sovereign only within the last 50 years, by splitting off from larger entities. In the same period there have been only a handful of unifications - Germany, Yemen, Vietnam, Tanzania and the UAE. A large part of my admiration for the European Union comes from the solution it poses to the conflict between self-determination and diversity. By reducing the isolating impact of national borders, the EU encourages migration, diversity and interaction, while at the same time allowing political self-determination. If Flanders split off from Belgium or Catalonia split off from Spain within the umbrella of the EU, it would not really be such a big deal in practical terms. Self-determination would not necessarily result in homogenisation. The EU allows individuals to have multiple non-overlapping identities, making the "us" vs "them" dichotomy difficult to maintain.

Train from Bakuriani to Gori
Train from Bakuriani to Gori
Train from Bakuriani to Gori
Train from Bakuriani to Gori
The newly empty space where Stalin…
The newly empty space where Stali…
Stalins personal carriage
Stalin's personal carriage
The Stalin temple
The Stalin temple
Stalins forgotten first son
Stalin's forgotten first son
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin
Stalins original office
Stalin's original office
The house where Stalin was born
The house where Stalin was born
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 year…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 year…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 year…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 years…
Uplistikhe, a cave town 2100 year…
Gori
photo by: jose28