Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus --- updates when time permits

Book review: Georgia Diary by Thomas Goltz

Georgia Diary — A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus Thomas Goltz
M.E. Sharpe, Armonk
June 2006
(second edition: February 2009)
296 pages
(second edition: 342 pages)
ISBN: 978-0-7656-1710-1
(second edition: 978-0-7656-2416-1)

Georgia Diary is the final episode of a series of three books in which Thomas Goltz has chronicled his experiences as a journalist in the early nineties in the Caucasus — the other episodes being Azerbaijan Diary and Chechnya Diary. While partially a travelogue, it is also a portrait of early 1990s Georgia, starting with the transition to independence and ending with the defeat in Abkhazia.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part introduces the background and covers the beginnings of the Georgian civil war. In the first chapter, Goltz describes how in 1992 he sets off for the first time to Georgia, to find Zviad Gamsakhurdia for an exclusive interview (in vain). In the second chapter, he takes a step back and traces Georgia's history from the mythical figure of Medea up until the terror of Beria. The account then organically proceeds with a chapter devoted to the rise of Eduard Shevardnadze through the Communist party and events in Georgia after the fall of Beria. Next, Goltz introduces Abkhazia and recounts his visit there in the spring of 1992, in which he meets Vladislav Ardzinba, the Metropolitan David and a group of Zviadists. In the last chapter of the first part, Goltz gives a first-hand account of the fall of Zugdidi in the Georgian civil war.

The second part of Georgia Diary forms a sort of interlude, with chapters on Tbilisi and its history (the book's weakest chapter), on Adjara and the Meskhetian Turks and on the beginning of the war in Abkhazia. Its last chapter covers both the mysterious death of Freddie Woodruff and Goltz's arrival in besieged Sukhum in September 1993, onboard Shevardnadze's plane. This then sets the stage for the third part, the book's highlight, which contains Goltz's account of Sukhum during the last days before its recapture by Abkhazian troops and the subsequent flight of much of its Georgian population. The last part wraps things up, with chapters on subsequent events in Georgia, a visit to Abkhazia in January 1998 and the Rose Revolution.

Thanks to its in-depth war reporting, Georgia Diary could be read as a book not just about early 1990s Georgia, but more specifically about its traumatic defeat in Abkhazia. It is not a complete account, as Goltz's perspective is mainly that of the besieged Georgian troops, but a healthy dose of cynicism prevents it from becoming overly one-sided.

Another recurring theme throughout the book is Goltz's frustration with his disinterested media employers, who have little patience for obscure wars in the Caucasus. After Goltz leaves besieged Sukhum as one of the last journalists present, the New York Times manages to misplace his photographic films. And when (as described in the book's prologue), after the May 1998 war in Abkhazia, Goltz navigates potentially mined roads to be shown ammunition dumps that implicate the Georgian government in the White Legion/Forest Brothers invasion, belying the official line of non-involvement, the New York Times refuses to publish the resulting article.

A definite boon to the book are its many interesting characters, foremost the staunch Gamsakhurdia supporter Nunu Chachua and her sister Nana and mother Lamara, but also Professor Alexander Rondeli, Giorgi Janjgava (Shevardnadze's Chief of Protocol, later Consul in Trabzon) the doctor and former champion shooter Marlen Papava[1], the actress and political activist Margot Kidder, the journalists Lawrence Sheets and Alexis Rowell (who went on to become a local politician in Camden) and not in the last place Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikhail Saakashvili. A special place is reserved for CIA station chief Freddie Woodruff and his mysterious death in the back seat of a car driven by Eldar Gogoladze, Shevardnadze's Chief of Security. Goltz convincingly draws a warm, personal portrait of Woodruff irrespective of his professional activities.

At times, Goltz's characterisations come across as rather stark, even unnuanced. At the same time, his insights ring true, and the gist of his judgements is right most of the time. For example, Goltz effectively captures superficial attitudes in the West. Thus, in 1991, the West becomes increasingly critical of Gamsakhurdia, at least partially because he is an enemy of Gorbachov and Shevardnadze, whom the West sees as the 'good communists'. Many Georgians however thoroughly disliked Gorbachov and Shevardnadze, simply because they formed the latest exponents of the central regime in Moscow — all the same, Goltz acknowledges that Gamsakhurdia's politics can be characterised as 'lukewarm fascism'. Subsequently, in the years running up to the Rose Revolution, while Shevardnadze became ever more hated in Georgia, the West continued to see him as a cold war hero.

In another instance, Goltz points out that while the complicated federal structure of the Soviet Union is often seen to be predesigned so as to hinder the independence of Georgia and other Soviet republics, the historical alternative, had Stalin and Ordzhonikidze had their way, would have been a unified Soviet state with forceful russification of all nationalities — there would simply not have been any union republics to become independent.

Also worth singling out is Goltz's warm account of the fate of the Meskhetian Turks, who in the last century have repeatedly ended up on the wrong side of history. They, like the supporters of Gamsakhurdia, are condemned to the position of the underdog, a role Goltz sympathises with.

One thing that becomes clear from Georgia Diary is that Goltz has experienced more than many of us will in a lifetime, including getting fired upon, almost having his car slip into a ravine in the Svanetian mountains, surviving the front lines along the River Gumista and in Zugdidi and having to take a CIA lie-test in Turkey — the agency suspected him of being a spy. The deaths of Alexandra Tuttle (in a similar plane that Goltz uses to fly into besieged Sukhum) and Rory Peck (only two days after Goltz last talks to him in Tbilisi) serve to remind that the danger Goltz has at times been in was quite real.

One might criticise Georgia Diary for not being sufficiently academical, but that would miss the point, since it is simply not meant to be an academical treatise, but a personal account. Thomas Goltz is in the rare position to have been present on the ground in the Caucasus during the early nineties, not shying away from many dangerous situations. It is this unique perspective which makes Georgia Diary a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile book, a perfect entry point for anyone wanting to understand the origins of pre-Rose Revolution Georgia.

Lastly, Georgia Diary exists in two editions. The second, revised edition was released in February 2009 and includes an extra appendix on the August 2008 war. Regrettably, this edition still contains some spelling mistakes and small errors (like labeling Nino Burjanadze a former Foreign Minister) and notes are missing from a number of chapters. The appendix, it has to be said, is overly long, and Goltz's intuition is not as sharp as in the rest of the book. Goltz praises Paul Goble's reporting on the conflict, but singles out one instance where he considers Goble naive, buying into a story detailing how the Russian leadership was caught off guard by Georgia's attack. Ironically, it seems that it is Goltz who in this instance all too eagerly accepts the propaganda of the Georgian government, assuming that it was all one big Russian plot (even including the granting of Russian citizenship to the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), somehow interpreting preparation for war as evidence of culpability. The appendix is mostly worthwhile then because it adds another set of interesting stories to what is already a colourful and exiting book, including the alleged narration by Angela Merkel (at a state dinner in her honour) of her holiday to Georgia in Soviet Times.

[1] In the book, Papava is quoted as claiming to have won a bronze medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics shooting event, but this seems to be wrong. Papava died on 19 April 2010, and in the Apsnypress obituary it was instead claimed that he had won a silver medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics shooting event in Montreal. However, that too is false, since he finished 26th, and this fact is better reflected in another obituary by Vitali Sharia. What does seem to be true is that Papava became European Champion in 1976 and, more generally, that he was a well-known, successful shooter.

Category: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Georgia

Tagged: August War, conflict, Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze, travel, war