Sunday, September 28, 2008

Russia's Scorched Earth Policy in Georgia

See "Book Burning" post below, for it is certainly related. From The Wall Street Journal SEPTEMBER 24, 2008 What the Russians Left In Their Wake in Georgia By MELIK KAYLAN Having devastated vast areas of its own lands in the Caucasus, such as Chechnya and Ingushetia, in order to "protect" them from instability, Moscow's obliterating shadow has settled deep over Georgia -- with the usual consequences. The full barbarism of Russian actions in Georgia may not emerge for years; much of the evidence lies behind the lines in terrain newly annexed by Russia. But some details are now beyond dispute. Alongside the various human atrocities, such as the bombing and purging of civilian areas, the invaders looted and destroyed numerous historical sites, some of which were profoundly revered by the Georgians as sacred building blocks in their national identity. This is especially true of the region around South Ossetia that served as a kind of cradle of early Georgian culture. The Georgian Ministry of Culture lists some 500 monuments and archaeological sites now mostly under Russian occupation and out of sight. After the interminable Soviet decades, the Georgians from 1990 onward made a special push nationwide to reconsecrate churches and build local museums to revive their own interrupted national narrative. No doubt that in itself acted as a kind of provocation to Russia's hair-trigger sensitivities over loss of empire. Using satellite imagery and interviews with refugees from the August invasion, the Georgian government is in the process of identifying damage to the most important monuments. Thus far the destruction includes severe bomb damage to the Museum of Prince Matchabelli, which housed the personal effects of the Georgian royal family's famed anti-Russian rebel, who was native to the region; destruction by arson of the church of St. George in Sveri, a rare 19th-century wooden structure; shelling damage to the 12th-century Ikorta church with its graves of revered Georgians; and extensive bomb damage to the monastery complex of Nikozi Church -- dating from the 11th century, it is perhaps the most important site of all. This is an extremely selective list, but it gives the reader an idea of why the area matters deeply to Georgians, and in a perverse way to Russian-backed militias allowed to plunder as they drove out residents at gunpoint and, according to eyewitness accounts, began looting buildings. Satellite imagery shows that specifically Georgian villages were extensively torched and in some places are being bulldozed flat. Here one should firmly scotch any budding moral equivalency arguments comparing Russian conduct in Georgia with allied conduct in Iraq or Kosovo. Whatever other mistakes have been made, the U.S. has meticulously avoided bomb damage to ancient sites and never has encouraged any allies to attack or obliterate the culture of rivals. To be clear, the U.S. simply does not harbor that kind of targeted animus toward the cultural patrimony of others. I was in the Georgian war zone during a chunk of August and with the help of local friends I was able to traverse occupied terrain via country roads and over hills on foot -- a highly dodgy undertaking as one moved into South Ossetia without Russian permits. Georgian refugees were still streaming out. Bodies and burned vehicles were left behind. To view the damage to Nikozi, my friends got me to a hillside at dusk for a short spell, before it got dark enough for night-vision lenses to pick us out, making it suicidal for us to move around. One could make out rubble and destruction in the village and the church complex. The church itself seemed unharmed, but the equally historic bishop's palace nearby appeared roofless and fire-damaged. In the advancing twilight, visibility was bad. But what I saw has now been confirmed by multiple eyewitness and other reports. The site of Nikozi Church dates back to the fifth century and is known to Georgians as the Church of the First Martyr. The story goes that St. Rajdeny was a Persian soldier of high rank stationed in the area under the Sassanid empire. He converted to Christianity and was tortured to reconvert to Zoroastrianism. He refused and died under torture, and his grave became a center of pilgrimage around which a church was built by Vakhtang Gorgaseli, the fifth-century Georgian king who founded Tblisi. A bishop's palace was added and the church rebuilt in the 11th century. The Soviets expunged all religious activity there with particular force because Stalin hailed from the nearby town of Gori, where they built the Stalin museum in his lifetime. At the Soviets' demise, Nikozi became again a center of pilgrimage for Georgians. And as the national church came back to life, Nikozi reacquired a bishop who revived the annual mid-August festivities in honor of St. Rajdeny. The fiercest aerial bombardment of the village took place this year on Aug. 12 and 14. Bishop Andrea Gvazava of Gori, who was helping conduct services at the church at the time, later told me that he had organized the evacuation of villagers but the bishop of Nikozi had stayed to face further bombing. There is some confusion over the condition of the church -- some say it sustained some fire damage and little else -- but the medieval bishop's palace was gutted and everything inside torched. New outbuildings to house a school were destroyed. Bishop Andrea believes that the complex likely suffered looting, because in Gori and outlying villages he and other priests were later robbed at gunpoint by Ossetian militias. In contrast, Stalin's museum in Gori, which I visited during the occupation, went unmolested except for the Georgian flag flying on the tower above -- a sniper had shot out its red St. George crosses. In fact, the museum became a center of pilgrimage for Russian soldiers who daily stood around having their pictures taken. The custodian, a sturdy elderly lady, also had refused to flee. She told me that teary-eyed Russian officers, drunk by evening as most Russian soldiers were, kept turning up and complimenting her for watching the place. They had hugged her and said: "He was a great man. He kept our country unified." Had they mentioned that he'd done so by decimating an entire generation of Georgians and by settling Ossetians in and around Tskhinvali, the source of all the present trouble? "They were alcoholics," she sniffed. Why hadn't she fled? "Because it is a piece of history, whatever you think of Stalin," she said, "and we have a responsibility to preserve it." Mr. Kaylan writes about culture for the Journal.

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