At this moment, I find myself in Tbilisi, Georgia. I have been here for a few days, having just emerged from the ancient strangeness of Central Asia.
Before arriving here, I spent a few days in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was quite different from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Almaty is a very modern city, and from all the construction I saw, seems to be on the move.
However, the Soviet boot print is still present. Some of their ugly memorials are still standing.
I was taken up a ski slope to check out the view. I went on a 22-minute cable car ride up to where you gear up and hit the snow. It was quite beautiful and full of good-looking, obviously affluent people of all ages with skis and snowboards.
I sat in a very upscale coffee shop among sleek, perfect people. In this establishment I met a Kazakh who spoke great English, and we got to talking about our respective countries.
We somehow got on the topic of Vladimir Putin, a man I strongly dislike. My chat pal got slightly defensive, standing up for Putin, which I have never heard anyone besides George W. Bush do before. He told me Putin was good for Russia because he was better than Yeltsin, who let the people run amok!
The logic ran something like this: “If you don’t have someone strong in charge, all Russians will do is drink vodka and not work.”
Things are much better in Russia now, he insisted. I didn’t bother to comment on the state of the ruble, but I did ask if the name Anna Politkovskaya rang a bell.
Politkovskaya was an incredibly brave journalist who reported from some of Russia’s hairier locations, such as Chechnya. She was an excellent writer who never flinched. She was critical of Putin. In October 2006, she somehow ended up dead, shot four times in the elevator of her apartment building. No one wonders who is behind the assassination.
I asked this Kazakh man for an opinion on Politkovskaya’s demise. His reply was pretty much that if you have a big mouth, someone will shut it for you. He said that people who have spoken out against Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev also have met unfortunate fates.
I asked if that wasn’t troubling and his answer was no, that certain restrictions were a small price to pay for security.
The almost reflexive defense of the “strongman” leader came up repeatedly in conversations I had in all of these countries. We as a species are so easily trained that it sometimes takes generations to wake up and come up with a better plan.
One thing I found interesting in Almaty was a visit to a multilevel appliance and media store. I wanted to see what Kazakhs were watching and listening to, in order to see what version of America they are getting.
When I walked in, The Stooges’ “I Need Somebody” from Raw Power was on the store’s sound system. Stunned, I tried to explain my amazement to the guide, who I don’t think got it.
While the DVDs and games were the usual blockbuster fare, the music section was incredibly eclectic. The LP bins featured British, European and American popular music acts but also had some serious jazz titles and some actual gems. Original Beatles albums, used but in really good shape; unopened copies of Tom Waits’ Night on Earth and Bone Machine albums.
All in all, it’s been a fascinating couple of weeks. It was like being on another planet at times, but for a serious history lesson with some excellent visuals and friendly people, it was first-rate.
My present accommodations in Tbilisi are at the Marriott on Freedom Square. The square has a large statue of St. George slaying a dragon. I had to look that up. For two days, I thought it was just some guy on a horse sticking a spear into the mouth of some mythical winged reptile, perhaps to memorialize the days when that’s how you took care of the little bastards.
Where St. George currently resides used to be a huge statue of Lenin, because Georgia was yet another place under Soviet domination until 1991. Why, Joey Stalin was born right down the road from here!
This is the same square where, in 2005, a man lobbed a live grenade at President Bush and then-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Thankfully, it did not detonate.
Mr. Saakashvili apparently makes his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., these days. He’s probably better off there than here, where he faces charges that could land him in prison for more than a decade.
Since Stalin was once a local, I wanted to see if anyone in town was still rooting for him all these years later. I wandered over to the Dry Bridge flea market to check out the stuff for sale and see if there were any images of the hometown thug turned genocidal maniac.
The Dry Bridge is just a brief walk from Freedom Square. Only several paces into my search I encountered a man selling World War II–era stuff from a sheet on the sidewalk. Leaning on the front bumper of his car was a big painting of Stalin, another behind glass on top of that.
I took a few photos while the vendor glared at me. I wondered what aspect of Stalin appealed to him the most. I was tempted to ask but wasn’t interested in potentially causing a stir.
Humans are incredible! You can kill millions of your own people and thousands will mourn your passing. Years later, some guy will proudly display your likeness.
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The last few weeks have been like living in a Sean Connery–era Bond film. Via Istanbul, I will soon be back in Los Angeles to start 2015 with you.
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