By Oleg Panfilov, Professor, Ilia State University (Tbilisi, Georgia)
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
For two months now I’ve been thinking whether I should write or should avoid scaring the Crimeans after all. I was talking myself into it, convincing myself that perhaps the Kremlin would come to its senses, that it would not make the same mistakes. Now I have realized: this is not an error at all, it’s a technique developed a long time ago, inhuman in its essence and Nazist in its origin. Only two months have passed and everything fell into place–hatred came into Crimea, the very same national policy of Russian occupiers that had been tested long ago in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and now–in Crimea.
Six years ago I was heading for Sukhumi to conduct an OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] training for Abkhaz journalists. On the bridge spanning the Inguri river, there were concrete blocks to prevent vehicles from passing, so people walked on foot, hauling heavy bags; some of them looked back, crossed themselves, and walked toward occupied Abkhazia. On the other side, an Abkhaz border guard in sweatpants, a dirty t-shirt of an undetermined colour and sneakers on his bare feet was scrutinizing my Tajik passport for a while, but he didn’t dare to not let in an OSCE expert.
Sukhumi was over 120 kilometers away along a road that had gone the last 30 years without repair, so the armoured OSCE SUV was maneuvering between the potholes and ruts. There was nature outside the window: long-abandoned fields, herds of feral horses, ruins of burnt houses, remnants of some plants and factories. And so it was, all the way to Sukhumi, which looked a little better. And posters everywhere–“Thank you, Russia.”
In my pocket, I had a long list of my friends’ requests, refugees from Abkhazia–to have a look at their houses, whether they had been seized and if so, whether they are taken care of. Everyone who asked me spoke with hope that I could save their houses and bring the refugees back. For a moment, I became their eyes and a part of their hearts, and honestly confess that I deceived a lot of them, saying I didn’t manage to see their house. In fact, I couldn’t tell them the truth–their house had burnt down and collapsed, was overgrown with weeds and there were strangers’ goats around.
In the morning and in the evening, I watched TV in a Sukhumi hotel. There were two channels: a state Abkhaz one and an independent one–Abaza. The latter even broadcast in Abkhazian a little, but the former, as if copying Russian [TV], lied non-stop, every half hour reminding [viewers] of “the Georgian fascism,” calling the war of 1992-1993 “the Great Patriotic War with Georgia.” A lot of photos, newsreels, ran constantly to ensure that people would not forget whom to hate.
Sukhumi is full of hatred. It is rare to see an inscription in Georgian that wasn’t knocked down from the pedestal of a monument, or the cautious whisper of a waitress explaining that the menu says “khachapur” because it’s forbidden to write in Georgian–”khachapuri.” Everything that can remind of Georgia is removed from the walls of buildings, from streets and monuments. For example, there was a statue of the Communist Ordzhonikidze: the monument itself has been removed and the Georgian letters knocked off, and only the granite-clad pedestal remains.
Abkhazia was conquered by Russia a while back–21 years ago. Russian planes bombed, mercenaries fought. Then, they were not called “little green men;” mostly they were “romantics” in old sneakers and shabby pants. But Russia supplied plenty of arms, enough for everyone. As a result, half of the Abkhazian residents were expelled–Georgians; they were followed by Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians and residents of two Estonian villages. Lots of Abkhazians from mixed families left too, their fear was due to a specific cause: ethnic cleansing had started in Abkhazia.
Sukhumi is an incredibly beautiful city, where nature and people always lived in harmony; now the air is filled with hatred for Georgia and Georgians–in posters, on television, [evidenced by] inscriptions that have been knocked down and by newspaper publications. And only the elderly Sukhumi Armenian lady in a waterfront coffee shop, having looked around first, said, “I wish everyone would come back soon, or we will all die.” With Russian support, hatred has become the state policy of Abkhazia, despite the fact that most Abkhazians have Georgian surnames and names, to say nothing about mixed marriages–there are lots of them.
Hatred is the Russian weapon. To create a conflict, weapons are not needed; they may become useful in the end. To start a conflict, hatred is needed–of Armenians for Azerbaijanis, Russians for Ukrainians, Abkhazians for Georgians, the Ingush for Ossetians, Uzbeks for the Meskhetian Turks or for the Kyrgyz.
Stories are invented, propaganda is working: an image of an old enemy is created, false historical “facts” are presented, and there you go, people who not so long ago invited neighbors over for borshch, shashlik, or plov are starting to look askance [at each other], to look for a reason for an argument, fueling their hatred.
Once, the late Russian journalist Andrei Cherkizov bragged about being the first official censor during the Ossetian-Ingush conflict. But it was already too late–the opposing sides already had guns. In the Soviet Union, hatred was planted from the beginning, becoming entrenched through the arbitrary creation of Soviet republics, when Stalin drew the borders as he willed, creating the motives for future conflicts. By calling the republics “national,” communists began to create the “histories” of titular nations, in which the dates, events, and heroes were distorted.
In this strange way in Central Asia, there appeared a Tajik SSR [Soviet Socialist Republic] with ethnic Uzbeks making up a quarter of the population, and an Uzbek SSR with several million ethnic Tajiks. And if you compare the history course books, they differed only in ethnonyms: the Tajik [history books] [referred to] “great Tajiks,” and the Uzbek [ones]–based on the same facts–to “great Uzbeks.” Although before the Russian Empire, both [Uzbeks and Tajiks] were living in the Emirate of Bukhara.
Historians tried their best. [They] invented explanations for the aggrandizement of some and the denigration of others. Russian history in its contemporary interpretation may seem no worse than the Chinese Yin Dynasty, which has been in existence starting from 8,000 BCE [Editor: note that the original text appears to err, the Yin or Shang Dynasty existed from about 1760 at the outset by some accounts]. The search for greatness would reach absurdity: about 25 years ago I witnessed a dispute between two academics, an Armenian and an Azerbaijani, trying to convince each other to whom a find in the Azykh cave of a proto-Neanderthal’s jaw fragment belonged: to an ancient Armenian or to an ancient Azerbaijani.
There are few mono-ethnic countries in the world, but in the post-Soviet space, as a result of numerous wars and state alterations, the foundation for ethnic conflicts was laid. To restrain them is the duty of any state, but to make use of them and support them is a serious crime. In the Russian Empire, there was a resettlement strategy, which made it possible to solve demographic, economic and geopolitical problems. In 1751, Bulgarians were resettled to Bessarabia; in the 19th century, Ukrainians to Georgia; Circassians and Abkhazians to the Ottoman Empire; Greeks from the Ottoman Empire to Georgia; Russians to Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The Soviet Union has been developing this tradition on a large scale, evicting part of the population, and starting in 1937, entire nations have undergone deportations. Between 1918 and 1925, Cossacks who didn’t accept Soviet authority were evicted; in the 30’s, Ingrian Finns from Leningrad Oblast; later Ukrainian Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. [Editor’s note: the Soviet Union was formed in 1922, Ukrainian kulak families were being deported already in 1929, thus the dates and details regarding Soviet deportations are a little inaccurate here].
The deportation of nations began in 1937, when the Koreans of Sakhalin and the Far East were sent to Central Asia. In 1941 all of the Volga Germans were evicted, and starting in 1943, Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens and the Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Muslims were subjected to deportations. Azerbaijanis were being evicted from Armenia and Georgia, Kurds and Armenians from Azerbaijan, and Pontic Greeks and Armenians from Krasnodar Krai.
The monstrous totalitarian machine was destroying the lives of a huge number of people, who lost their homes and their land. They found themselves in a foreign land, in a foreign culture, with a foreign language, but this was exactly what the initiators of deportation wanted–a dissolution [of cultures] and an aquirement of a new culture, the Soviet one, and a single language: Russian. Afterwards, there would be a dreadful return back home, after being pardoned by the Soviet government, and pain–from [seeing] the captured homes and the abandoned cemeteries of their ancestors.
The Soviet government hated the people and wanted the people to hate each other. The post-Soviet regime continues the tradition of hatred. It is a time bomb. For many more years, people will be recovering, trying to understand what was done to them. And while they are thinking, politicians are happy to use their hatred, explicit or implicit. And, unfortunately, so far successfully.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty