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Alexander Rondeli
Alexander Rondeli

Alex Rondeli is head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He used to head the Department of International Relations at Tbilisi State University. He is one of Georgia's foremost commentators on international affairs.

I was born on January 7th, during the cold and dramatic winter of 1942. My mother was like Mother Mary because, according to the Orthodox calendar, this is Christmas Day, so she delivered me into this world at a very special moment.

My mother hated Stalin and everything having to do with him. In 1937, during the Great Purge, her parents and brother had been taken away and shot. I had an older brother, but now she thought she might like a daughter and became pregnant.

Then, on 22 June 1941, Hitler attacked. My mother went to see her sister and asked her what to do. "Don't have a baby now," she said. "There's war." But the propagandists claimed that the Soviet army would never have to fight the enemy on its own territory – so she thought the war would not be very serious because the Germans would soon be pushed back. So it is thanks to Stalin's propaganda that I was born!

One of my very first memories, like a flash really, is Victory Day on 9 May 1945. I remember that the neighbours told me to go on the balcony. Up on Mtatsminda Mountain behind Tbilisi, there were fireworks.

Then I remember that there were many German prisoners in 1947 working here in construction. They built a couple of buildings near my house, the parliament building. They built things like the film studio where my father worked. He was a film director, making feature films and documentaries and my mother was a film editor.

My mother's parents had studied in Germany and she herself respected Germans. Whenever people said "German Fascists" to the prisoners, she'd always tell me, "They are human beings just like you."

I wondered why they were here. I could not imagine what they had done. In 1948-49 they would come to our yard selling lighters and wooden things they had made, like chairs. Actually, despite the fact that Georgia had lost some 300,000 people in the war people were quite friendly towards them. .

Tbilisi was much more cosmopolitan back then than it is now. In our courtyard there was an Armenian family, a Kurdish family, two Ukrainian families, four Russian ones, four or five Georgian families, two Polish ladies who spoke Russian – and Elena Blum, a very good looking elderly Jewish lady who had green eyes.

In 1950-51 I had a friend who was two years older than me. We used to like to mess around with radios. One day I came back from school and shouted: "Gogi!" But another neighbour made a sign for to me to be quiet. Their door was boarded up. That night they had come for them and they had been sent to Kazakhstan. Three or four years later many of those who had been sent there came back.

I remember when Stalin died in 1953. My mother said: "The bloody dog is dead!" She thought her family could still be alive and might still come back. Before, she had written to find out what had happened to them. The replies came on paper like cigarette paper: they said that they had been convicted and had no right to correspondence for ten years. People told her that meant they had been shot.

Still in 1956 she went to Orenburg in the Urals to find out. She went to the local KGB office and they told her that her family had been "mistakenly" executed – but that it was ok, because they would be rehabilitated!

I remember Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation speech of 1956. People talked about it, saying that what he said was the truth, but not the whole truth. They also said that Khrushchev had been part of everything. But people said these things in private.

For me though, 1956 marked one of the most exciting moments of my life. There was a decision to make schools co-ed. I could have hardly imagined sitting next to a girl before that!

My father's family lived in western Georgia. My grandfather, who died aged 103, was a good, sensible peasant and worked on a collective farm. I asked him about it and he said that such a thing was "against human nature" and "would not last". My father said to him: "Don't say such things to him. He will repeat them!"

Once, when my father was making a documentary in Kazbegi, there was a young man, an assistant to the director of photography. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany. After his release, he was sent to a Soviet camp, but then freed. We were standing by a fountain. Two men arrived in a black car. They asked him, with smiling faces, "Are you so-and-so?" He went absolutely pale. They took him with them and we never saw him again. Every time I go there I remember that moment.

In the 1950s there was plenty of fruit and vegetables. But in 1948 I remember my mother bought a can of the first condensed milk produced in the Soviet Union. What was "condensed milk"? I had no idea what it meant. My mother measured out the tin and because I was the youngest, a third was left for me. I felt this limitless pleasure – it was a kind of spasm.

Alexander Rondeli
Alexander Rondeli. Photo: Tim Judah

Gradually other things began to appear, too. First there was lots of fish; then sausages appeared, then chocolate, and then candies.

The Soviets attached great importance to movies. After the war we got these American films from before the war, which had been seized in Germany. They put up posters saying "feature film", but you did not know what the film was until it began.

In the cinema on Rustaveli Avenue there was a four- or five- metre statue of Lenin on one side of the screen and one of Stalin on the other. Then you would watch Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart between them.

I was not the best pupil at school. I was good at history and geography but not English. Once I had to repeat the year. When that happened it was the bleakest day of my life. Still, I read a lot and knew a lot. When I finished I wanted to go to university but I did not know what to study, but I was influenced by a friend of mine to read Oriental Studies.

It was a small but excellent department at Tbilisi University. You could get a good education there, and I learned how to work and study. Then I wanted to do postgraduate studies and my supervisor – who wanted to create a good group of orientalists working on neighbouring countries like Turkey and Iran – said that I had to join the Party. Otherwise, there would be no chance. It was a bit strange. It was a formality, not very nice, and no one believed in it. Still, Marxism was in our livers. You were influenced by it and many still are.

Intellectually, this was the best time of my life. Trying to understand what was happening in life and politics. People read a lot then, they didn't just click about on computers.

In 1968 I went to Iran. The Shah had decided to ask the Soviet Union to build iron and steel plants, coal mines and grain silos. I went as an interpreter. It was hard work, but I was happy because I saw the country I was specialised in and I became fluent in Farsi.

In 1970 I came back to teach. In 1976-77 I went to the London School of Economics on an exchange programme. It was interesting, but it was not a very nice experience in the sense that you thought one thing, but had to say another. One always lived two or even three lives.

In my circle of friends we knew things could not continue in the country like this forever, but it was difficult to predict what would happen. When I would teach I would say: "Study the Middle East – nothing is eternal."

Amongst friends we discussed everything. We even discussed an independent Georgia, but still it was very difficult to imagine such a thing because in the Soviet Union everything was so interconnected. We all thought about the future, though, in one way or another. We talked about samizdat literature, such as Andrei Amalrik's essay, "Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?", published abroad in 1970 and quite widely distributed amongst friends. For many that was quite a strange prediction.

Also, when the Soviet Union did begin to collapse it was not clear what would happen. I was happy, but there was also a feeling of fear. I was professor of economic and social geography at the time and in my profession we studied processes. We understood that this would be a very long one. Still it was very exciting!

After independence we lived through a terrible period and it was no surprise when we discovered that Russia would try to stop us from becoming a normal country. I never thought we were doomed, though. I knew it would take two generations and a generation is 25 years.

I think as a pessimist but act as an optimist. I think our European future is inevitable. I strongly believe in it. But our country has a harsh history and when you are confronting a polar bear like Russia who wants your land it is not easy.

People like me want to integrate with Europe and the EU because it is our strategic imperative. This is a multiethnic and multi-confessional society – and the only way to become a modern, viable state is as a democracy and that is why our chance is with Europe.

If we stay with Russia we won't become a democracy but only an autocracy manipulated by the Kremlin. That is why our pro-western orientation is not just a show. It is a serious understanding of Georgia's future.

September 2008
Tim Judah

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