Little did I know on that spring evening how much I would learn about Russia on this particular trip but somehow I knew it would be significant. Earlier that afternoon when the Aeroflot captain announced that we were entering Russian airspace, I’d sensed a brooding darkness in the sea of forests below. Apparently I wasn’t alone in that feeling. The family sitting in the aisle across from my seat were from Yerevan, Armenia and the lady expressed feelings much the same. It was as if looking into the deep and dark forest below and seeing the vast power of a land controlled with an iron grip.
The man sitting next to me was from Georgia. He was a crusty old fellow and I wanted very much to dislike him. But I couldn’t follow through and he eventually won me over with his humour, sharing vodka from a real Soviet flask, and some very helpful conversation about understanding the Russian political landscape.
Why did I wish to dislike him? He had stolen my window seat. During that 15.5 hour flight we ended up trading window and aisle seating just to move and stretch, but I wanted that window for a couple of reasons, namely the view but also to lean against the bulkhead and sleep. According to the boarding pass in my shirt pocket the window seat was susposed to have been mine alone.
At first it irritated me when he began to return from the toilet leaving behind a trail of cigarette smoke. Right on his heels would be an angry steward scolding him for breaking the smoking ban. Of course he strenuously denied it each time, but with each incident he returned to our seats reeking of smoke. Its hard to deny something when you’ve set off the rear smoke alarms too.
Today he’d be arrested upon landing but at the time it seemed that the first punishment the steward offered was the insistence that he swallow some large and weird looking Soviet “anti smoking” pills. Being somewhat a rebel myself, I had to admire his courage, even though the stench of tobacco in such a closed environment was detestable. But each passing occurrence was kind of a humorous sideshow in human behaviour. Lets face it–Russian movies on long flights are boring. It seemed that the best Aeroflot could manage was a continual flow of Soviet television comedies and dramas from the 1950s-1960s. In black and white.
There was another reason I enjoyed his frequent trips to the toilet. That left the window seat open for me to reclaim. Unfortunately that usually lasted only an hour or so and when my legs began to ache and cramp, I’d get up to walk the aisle and you guessed it–that precious window seat was occupied upon my eventual return. Forget about getting the seat back for awhile, but at least he was more than willing to share the fiery liquid from his coatpocket flask.
As we talked over the hours another truth became evident: He really wasn’t smoking that much. Just a couple of puffs before he’d snuff it out. It set off the alarms nonetheless. In more that one ways than one. As the hours crawled at thousands of feet above sea level it became clear that he was a protester and the cigarette was not only a habit, it was a weapon.
He hated Russians just as much as the typical Russian hates anyone from the Caucuses. Oppressed and overrun historically by the big neighbor to the north, his cigarette was a poke in the eye of the invader. It also dawned on me that the Russian steward understood it too. I still don’t know who was responsible for dismantling the smoke alarm. Was it the Georgian out of spite? Or the Russian head steward who seemed to be growing tired of the constant irritation.
But one thing was evident: the hate was a swelling undercurrent from both sides. One could see it in their eyes. You could hear it in the way they addressed each other. Hate was present in the threats about what would happen upon landing, nonexistent as it turns out.
Finally I understood that the cigarette was a way to say “up yours, Ivan.”
Funny thing though, his name was Ivan.
I’m no expert by any means, but shouldn’t an ethnic Georgian have a name like Gorda, Djoto, or Shota? Or maybe Bakhva?
In this part of the world Ivan is traditionally a Slavic name.
And therein lies a problem highlighted with the deadly terror of recent events, namely that the animosity is deep within and comes from centuries of conflict.
In spite of a common religion, a common border, and even in cases of intermarriage whereby darkly pigmented ethnic Georgian men end up with names like Ivan, ethnic hate is a powerful force. Deep down inside the current problems in Georgia are not just the result of Ossetian independence, NATO membership, Russian peacekeeping, Georgian bombings, Israeli military training, or other such contemporary issues.
This is a continuing ethnic conflict between multiple nationalities. Just like they’ve done since 1783, the Tsar’s Army has ridden in to put a lid on the boiling kettle. But underneath that kettle the fires continue to smolder and the hate just keeps getting hotter.
Even if recognized by Georgia and every other country in the world, Ossetian independence is not the solution. Why? Because it’s not the underlying problem. That fact is neither understood in Washington nor accepted in Moscow.
Until Russia and Georgia find a way to settle problems peacefully, innocent bystanders will continue to get burned.