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Soso Mtskeradze
Soso Mtskeradze. Photo: Tim Judah

Soso Mtskeradze worked for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on plans for economic rehabilitation for the region around Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's main town. In the wake of the war these plans fell apart, and he lost his job. He was born in 1974. He lives in Gori, which was the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator.

My father was an actor and my mother a mathematician. They are Georgian and they came from the village of Dvani, which lies right on the border of what was then the Soviet oblast of South Ossetia.

I grew up in Gori, which is nearby, but I was born in Tskhinvali, the oblast's main town. Actually, I was born there by chance. My mother just happened to be visiting her sister and then I arrived!

My school was right opposite the Stalin museum and the house where he was born, which is preserved. Sometimes our school took us on visits there and the guide would explain things to us, but they never said bad things about him. There were also quite a few foreigners who came to visit the museum mostly, but not exclusively, from communist countries.

During the Soviet period the question of Stalin was a bit special. For my grandparents' generation, and even that of my parents', he was the man who had won the Second World War. So, for those whose families who had not been affected by his repressions for peasants, workers and simple people he was quite a positive image. In my family no one had been affected, but that didn't mean we liked him!

Still, the subject was not discussed that much. That only came with perestroika and glasnost.

Some Ossetians say that Stalin's real name, Dzhugashvili, is an Ossetian name that has been Georgianised, but I don't care. For me Stalin was a Georgian, but I am not proud of that.

I was 11 years old when things began to change in the Soviet Union. I remember that before people did not talk about things and that there were endless Party meetings broadcast on television. Now, there were new words, like glasnost, "pluralism", and "democracy", and debates about Stalin. They were very limited, but by 1987-88 you could hear people talking about independence and free elections.

Before that we did not even know that Georgia had been independent from 1918 to 1921. They tried to hide that from us. They did not teach us that in school.

I was 17 when the Soviet Union broke up. Before that, however, we had become very used to hearing that Georgia should become independent. Teenagers like me were very politically opinionated, and I was for independence.

As for Ossetians, there was no difference. Everyone was for independence. There was a kind of euphoria, but when the war began in South Ossetia in 1991 a few Ossetian families moved out of Gori.

I felt it was an incomprehensible war. On one side there was the idea of Georgian independence, but at the same time the idea of Ossetian separatism was gaining strength. Ossetians and Georgians had been living in peace and many of my friends came from mixed families. Now, however, all of a sudden, there was fighting. I couldn't understand why we were supposed to go to war with them.

My aunt was obliged to leave her house in Tskhinvali. She then bought a new one in Tamarasheni, which was a Georgian-controlled enclave in the region claimed by the South Ossetian separatists. Now she has lost that and is a refugee living in a school here.

From 1992 to 1997 I was at university in Tbilisi. I studied international relations and the head of the department was Alex Rondeli. He used to make fun of me because of my name. Soso is a diminutive of Iosif which was Stalin's name, so he would say, "Ah, it's Soso from Gori." But I was named after my grandfather, not Stalin.

In Tbilisi I lived with my aunt. It was very hard. There was no gas, no petrol, no oil and no bread. There was also incredible inflation. We were still in a period of euphoria, though, and we knew it would be difficult, but not that difficult.

In December 1991, during the university holidays, fighting broke out in Tbilisi. It was a war to get rid of the president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. There were people firing at everything and armed irregulars on the streets. We did not know who controlled whom. It ended on January 6th.

At the time I did not like Gamsakhurdia, but I was 100% against the war. In March Eduard Shevardnadze, the last Soviet foreign minister, took over.

Meanwhile at university there was no heating in the library. Getting a book was a problem, as was photocopying, since there was no electricity.

In 1996 I went to France for four months to learn French. My mother was not working anymore, but my father had become the deputy director of a big bread factory which supplied Gori. It was my first time out of the country. I was very happy and I liked the way Paris was so cosmopolitan.

Soso Mtskeradze - Pointing at Gori
Soso Mtskeradze - Pointing at Gori. Photo: Tim Judah

I came back, finished my degree and then worked in a research unit at the Foreign Ministry for a year. Then I won a scholarship to study at Sciences Po in Paris and I started there in 1998.

Soon I got into the rhythm of life in Paris and after two years I began my doctorate. It was about democratisation in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.

While I was doing that I got a part time job with a Japanese company which looked after tourists. Mostly they were Japanese, but they also had Russians and so I was taken on to organise their tours. At the beginning it was interesting, but then I got bored, and I had always intended to return to Georgia.

In 2004 my parents were in Gori, but alone, since my sister was also in Paris. My mother was not well, though. At the end of 2003 there was the Rose Revolution, and that was a catalyst. I came back and began to work for the state ministry which dealt with issues related to the conflict in South Ossetia.

Back then I was optimistic that we could find a solution. I had excellent relations with my South Ossetian colleagues. At that time, there was dialogue. I stayed with the ministry until August 2007 and then I joined the OSCE.

By that time the situation had changed and there were less and less political contacts. Also the OSCE salary was better. We were working on economic rehabilitation and this was interesting and useful, but now all the projects have stopped.

I never expected a war like this. I could not have foreseen it. Now a lot of things no longer depend on us, because we have become part of a global political game.

When it started I stayed for three days in Gori during the bombing, so I saw with my own eyes a Kremlin-style peacekeeping operation. Then I took my parents to Tbilisi. My father is very ill. Now I have taken them back.

I have heard from my colleagues from Tskhinvali, but only "how are you" e-mails, that sort of thing, no politics. They are now in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, in Russia..

I had such good relations with them that I was teaching three of them French. We were also trying to organise some tango dancing classes. In Paris I had got to know some professional Argentine tango dancers and I learned from them.

Here in Georgia there are about a dozen of us. We have a place in Tbilisi where we go twice a week. We dance and teach tango and salsa there. Our temperament is quite similar to the Latin one. We are southerners, like them.

September 2008

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