An engrossing piece of long-form writing, about a particularly complex—and relatively unknown in the West—part of late-20th-century history.
For me, I think, the most interesting takeaway of this piece was “political action doesn’t always come in the forms we might expect—nor do political actors”.
Why would Jaba Ioseliani, a professor and literary critic, known for an ironic and iconoclastic sense of humour, start a militia group? Why would violent young men follow him?
[Zviad] Gamsakhurdia, a droopy-eyed scientist and writer with a crooked moustache who led the Society of St Ilya the Righteous, played an important role in the Front. He attacked anyone who suggested compromise with the regime and pushed a hardcore nationalism. His hatred of the Soviet Union was deeply rooted. The literary critic, academic, and translator of TS Eliot and Charles Baudelaire had lived a double life under communism as a secret underground nationalist activist and samizdat publisher.
Asked once why he approved of a certain Mkhedrioni member, the militia boss listed four qualities: a prison record, no background in the Komsomol communist youth movement, the ability to fight with a weapon, and an education in the theatre.
In March Ioseliani convinced the other two to invite Eduard Shevardnadze to become Georgian head of state. A Soviet reformer, a Georgian, and an internationally famous figure, Shevardnadze was an ideal choice. White haired and pink faced, he looked like someone’s mildly embarrassed uncle. The trio, particularly the two warlords, had no intention of allowing him real power. Ioseliani pointedly took the office above Shevardnadze in the Parliament building. AK-47s were casually propped against the walls. “His hands must be held,” Ioseliani said.
(You can guess, no doubt, how this story ends…)