Monday, August 11, 2008
The year was 1991. The Soviet Union was nearing its final gasping breaths. By year's end the hammer-and-sickle red flag would fly no more over the Kremlin or elsewhere in the Evil Empire.
Six years earlier I had traveled to the Soviet Union to write my award-winning newspaper series about Jewish Refusniks—Soviet citizens who wanted to flee their motherland for life in either Israel or the United States but were held back by persecution and sometimes imprisonment. I traveled incognito as a tourist in a group of Texas Jews supposedly vacationing in the land of their ancestors. By day we visited tourist sites; by night we ventured from apartment to apartment for our clandestine meetings with the Refusniks. These Soviet Jews were genuinely scared to death of their political keepers; their paranoia was contagious—something we visiting Americans experienced vicariously for the first time.
This time—in December 1991—I now was among my own Baptist people. Our small delegation traveled by way of Moscow to the Republic of Georgia, one of the new countries that was emerging from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Frankly, I'd never heard of the Republic of Georgia until I was invited to join the group.
We were invited there by Georgia Baptist leaders, who feared their Orthodox brethren almost as much as they had feared their former communist masters. Georgia's Baptists wanted the five of us U.S. Baptists to talk directly with Georgia's Orthodox leader about ending what they perceived as persecution by Georgia's Orthodox majority against their tiny Baptist minority. In short, they wanted us to bring American influence to bear on the patriarch, who in turn would influence his people to be nicer to the Georgia Baptists. For our part, we never could figure out how much influence we had, except that we were there physically. And we were Americans.
On arrival in Tblisi we thought our proposed talk with the Orthodox patriarch was our goal. Little did we realize the Georgia government was eyeing us with great curiosity and a much bigger game plan.
I tell this story now because I believe it illustrates the dilemma the U.S. faces in light of the overreaction by Russia starting last Saturday against the little nation of Georgia over Georgia's efforts to reclaim land—called South Ossetia—it believed was stolen from it about the time we visited by revolutionaries aligned with Moscow.
As soon as we arrived in Tblisi in 1991 we started hearing "We love America. We love Americans. We want to be allied with you Americans. Please, can't you get your country to begin diplomatic relations with us?"
Within a few days of our arrival these messages were being delivered by top Georgian government officials, who seemed more than eager to clear their calendars in order to welcome a band of wandering Baptists from America. Each day the top Georgia government official wanting to meet us seemed to be a little higher up in the ranks.
To everyone we met we kept saying, "We are here representing a large group of Baptists in America, not the U.S. government."
We decided we must be five of only a small handful of Americans in the entire country of Georgia that year. We also decided Americans were certainly greatly loved in that small, faraway country—or else somebody there sure thought they needed us awfully much.
Finally the invitation arrived for a command performance in the office of Zviad Gamsukhurdia, the country's first elected president. I must readily admit that even though I've traveled in more than 45 different countries, I'm not accustomed to spur-of-the-moment invitations to visit heads of state in their executive offices. This was a total surprise.
Richard Land, our group leader, tried to explain to the Georgian president about our interest in Orthodox persecution of Baptists. Gamsakhurdia was much more interested in whether we had connections with George H.W. Bush, then-President of the U.S, and influential people in the U.S. Congress. He specifically wanted to know if we could help him secure diplomatic recognition of Georgia by the U.S. government. Richard finally told him we would do what we could to help him—which wasn't much.
Returning in a taxi from the president's office/palace to our hotel, we were astonished to see so many military tanks and personnel on the Tblisi streets near the capital.
The next day we flew out of Tblisi to Moscow during the worst snowstorm I've ever seen on the smelliest and worst-maintained Soviet aircraft that I could possibly imagine.
Days after we met Gamsakhurdia, a coup ousted him from office. A few weeks later he and his family members all were murdered as they fled the rebels. In the upheaval the office in which we met him was burned.
In so many ways, the Baptist trip was more unnerving than was the previous Jewish trip, which itself was hair-raising. Georgia was a strange, strange place. Men walked around holding hands with each other. They even kissed each other goodbye in very unmanly ways. The military looked like something straight out of World War II. Why the government officials thought a tiny band of visiting Baptists from America might help them unlock their political fortunes in the U.S. would have been laughable had they not seemed to be so desperate.
Still, in 1991 the Georgians communicated beautifully several important messages: We love America. We need America. We will do anything we can to align with America.
Why did they love and need us so much? Probably because they hated the Soviets (translate today: Russians) so much.
Those are the messages they still are communicating this week.
My heart goes out to the Georgians now as the Russians have taken out their pent-up frustrations on those poor people. I just wish, however, that Georgia's government had not acted so stupidly last Friday night. Didn't it know the bully in its back yard was still a real threat and the country its people love so much was half a world away mired down in its own problems including Iraq and Afghanistan?
But now that the Russians have over-reacted so severely, maybe the Georgians will still get what they've sought for so long—the reciprocal U.S. interest in them accompanied by sympathy, awareness, and massive financial aid. Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. In this situation, Georgia still may turn out to be the big winner in its losing war with the Russians.