The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

To Catch an Unattainable Tatar

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New York- So the Lotus revolution has come and gone (sort of ) and the story has moved on to the more mundane and TWD has to comment on more important matters, namely the new cover model of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Irina Shayk is described to the American reader in a typically dumbed down fashion as ‘Russian’ but having what appeared to be an Arabic-to-Russian-to-English transliterated last name I doubted very much she was ‘Russian’ in the way ethnic nationalities are defined in Russia. In the Soviet era and in post-Soviet successor states today like, say, Kyrgyzstan, your ‘nationality’ (what Americans term ethnicity) is written in your passport and is ascribed to you by the state. Cultural diversity in post-Stalinist in Eurasia is not a concept dreamed up by left-leaning American university professors in the early 1990s blindly promoting multiculturalism but part of an oppressive system aimed at repressing the populace.

I assume her name was shortened by a modeling agency or talent scout early on in her career to enhance her marketability. Likewise, it probably wouldn’t be prudent to promote her Muslim background in light of what happened when certain pundits got ahold of the fact that Miss USA, Rima Fakih, was, gasp, an Arab and a Muslim.

Upon a quick gander of Irina’s Wikipedia page, as I suspected, her actual last name is Shaykhlislamova which is a Russified-version of the Arabic ‘Sheikh al-Islam’ (‘Scholar of Islam’), nothing vaguely non-Islamic about that last name. She says that her father is a Tatar (though she grew up in the Chelyabinsk Oblast on the border of Kazakhstan, to the east of Tatarstan) which is a Turkic Muslim ethno-religious group that inhabits the present day Tatarstan inside the Russian Federation in the Volga region. After the dissolution of the Soviet  Union, when the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was transforming into what would become today’s Russian Federation, it sent out a Federation treaty in the spring on 1992 to be signed and ratified by its 89 internal republics and regions: two republics refused; Chechnya and Tatarstan. While Chechnya spiraled into a violent rebellion that destroyed most of the nation and continues to this day, Tatarstan fell into line a couple of years later and flourishes today with its capital of Kazan having become one of Russia’s best destinations for investment thanks in part to its oil reserves.

So there you have it, Sports Illustrated has its first (nominally) Muslim cover girl. Hooray for progress!!! It’s time to throw the clash of civilization into the ash heap of history and move forward with over-simplified bikini diplomacy! The Kremlin currently demonizes Muslim women in the Russian Federation as so-called ‘Black Widows’ but a bombshell named Irina can help explode that myth. Wishful thinking on my part…

Written by derekhenryflood

February 16th, 2011 at 4:26 pm

A (Very) Dirty War

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My autographed copy of the English translation of Anna Politkovskaya's A Dirty War from 2001.

New York- I was looking through some boxes of old dusty books today and came across my now most treasured copy of A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya. Anna was killed by a so-called “control shot” in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006; the assassin still unknown. Her killing has been unsolved for over four years now and likely never will be. It is the Russian Federation after all. Many years ago now, I stumbled upon a semi-rare copy of her paperback book from England in the stacks of the Strand bookstore here in New York. I hurriedly went up to the register to pay for it knowing it was a score. Then when I went to leaf through it on the subway I noticed it was autographed. In December of 2003, I attended a conference on Chechnya in D.C. where she was supposed to speak. I disappointedly noticed she never arrived. An ally of hers, an American professor then stood up and announced to the audience that she had been notified by a crony of Vladimir Putin that if she traveled to Washington and spoke out against the atrocities of the second Russo-Chechen war, which she had every right to do as an American citizen (she was an ethnic Ukrainian born in New York holding US citizenship, the child of Soviet diplomat parents), she would be barred from returning to Russia. I have no way of ever knowing if that was exactly the case but I have no reason to doubt it either. Damn.

A Dirty War is one of the most serious books on the subject out there. Her second book A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya is hard to read. I’m not sure if I ever quite finished it. I still haven’t brought myself to read any of her posthumously published works. Вы все еще пропустили Анна… (на украинском языке: Ви все ще пропустили Ганна)

Written by derekhenryflood

October 15th, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Marsho (Маршо)

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New York- I finally found Marsho (“Freedom” in Chechen) by director Murad Mazaev  in its entirety online. Marsho is Chechnya’s first film shot on location in Georgia’s Pankisi valley in 2002. The film is notable in that it was shot with the permission and acquiescence the late warlord Ruslan Gelayev. Gelayev essentially ran the area at the time and anything that took place there required his ok. The other person helping the production along from afar was British stage and screen legend Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave later helped Murad take the film to festivals in Europe to showcase his work, an impassioned critique of the (still) ongoing Chechen wars. Murad made the film with Surkho Idiev who is shown playing the piano in the first scene. Murad’s costar is a half-Georgian, half-Kist actress named Mariam Kublashvili from Akhmeta. I joined Murad into this murky world in 2002. We almost got shot making a run out of the place ducking in the back of an old white Lada barreling through a Georgian checkpoint on the way out and then I was later grabbed off of a marshrutka (minibus) by the Georgian successor to the KGB. Sure, there’s lots more to tell in this story but that’ll be in the book.

For more, see Murad’s website: http://chechenfilms.org/ (in Cyrillic)

Written by derekhenryflood

September 22nd, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Another Katyn Tragedy

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Sun sets on New Jersey's Katyn monument as stoic local Poles gather for an evening vigil. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

A woman is overcome with grief at the decapitation of the Polish leadership in the Katyn forest as the grim coincidence reverberates with Poles around the world. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Many people who are not Poles or who lives outside of the western post-Soviet space were not previously aware of the Katyn forest massacre in the context of Russian-Polish relations. I myself used to know nothing about this Stalinist tragedy in the midst of the second World War until about five years ago when I happened upon a massive, dramatic bronze sculpture in Jersey City, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. The statue is dedicated to the Polish officer corps and soldiers who were slaughtered on orders of then NKVD (predecessor of the KGB-now FSB) Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s number two enforcer. Beria, a perennially cruel Mingrelian thug from Abkhazia, engineered the decimation of Poland’s military leadership. On April 10, Poland’s current president Lech Kaczynski was flying to the Smolensk Air Base in western Russia for the 70th anniversary of the massacre to honor Poland’s martyrs from April 3rd, 1940 when his plane went down in this same cursed forest. After it had been reported that all aboard were killed, I knew there would be a vigil of New Jersey and New York-area Poles at the Katyn Memorial.

©2010 Derek Henry Flood

New York-area Poles gather on the evening of April 10, 2010 at the Katyn forest massacre monument in Jersey City by sculptor Andrzej Pitynski after the death of Polish president Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash in Smolensk Russia while he was en route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish soldiers by Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 13th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Prisoner of the Caucasus

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The Bastara River valley, a route once used by Chechen resistance fighters and foreign terrorists to travel to the battle zone. ©2009 DHF

The Bastara River valley, a route once used by Chechen resistance fighters and foreign terrorists to travel from the Pankisi Gorge to to the battle zones of the North Caucasus. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Birkiani, Georgia- I returned to Georgia’s once infamous Pankisi Gorge yesterday after visiting the area seven years ago when it was hyped to be one of the most dangerous places in the world (which it sort of was). Revisiting the gorge to do fact checking for a book project was my impetus for this return trip to the Caucasus. A lot has changed since the flailing, quasi-failed state, late Shevarnadze period in 2002 when Pankisi was under the effective control of Chechen rebel commander/warlord Ruslan Gelayev (who was killed at a random checkpoint in Dagestan in early 2004).

Pankisi was once overrun by Chechen mujahideen and their Arab and Turkish epigones and was rumoured to have had the occasional spetznaz infiltration from north of the border. Pankisi was used a political football by both Moscow and Washington to advance their interests in a peripheral and weak Georgia. The BTC pipeline was more of an idea than reality at the time and the second Chechen war was still going very badly much to the consternation of Mr. Putin. Today the gorge exists as the quiet alluvial fan it once was before 1999 when Moscow came to Grozny in an attempt to demonstrate its will and refugees from Itum Kale and Shatoi poured over the mountainous border.

The refugee population has gone from somewhere in the range of 7-8000 at its height to just shy of 1000 today. The one prominent reminder of that era is the small, brick, supposedly Saudi-funded mosque in the center of Duisi. I found the house where I once stayed in the village of Birkiani which was a sort of mujahideen hostel at the time and found only a very senile, old Kist (ethnic Chechen, Georgian national) man who had no idea what I was talking about. I was taken to the region courtesy of Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs in part to demonstrate once of Mikhail Saakashvilli’s early tactical successes in reintegrating this very fractured nation.

Out of place Wahabbi mosque in Duisi. ©2009 DHF

Out of place “Wahabbi” mosque in Duisi. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Mother and child in Birkiani village. ©2009 DHF

Mother and child in Birkiani village. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 30th, 2009 at 7:27 am

Young Stalin

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Profile portrait of Stalin as a young Bolshevik after his arrest in the Stalin museum in Gori, Georgia.

Profile portrait of Stalin as a young Bolshevik after his arrest in the Stalin museum in Gori, Georgia.

Gori, Georgia-  This photo hangs in a museum that has not been updated since it opened thirty years ago at the twilight of the Brezhnev era. It is the B-side to the photo on the cover of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin. There has been a rather sizable reported uptick in revisionist pro-Stalin sentiment in Russia as of late and the BBC is reporting that this may create a small crack in Moscow’s otherwise unrepentant leadership.

Does it get much more twisted kitsch than this? Stalin having a smoke and chilling with Mao.

Does it get much more twisted kitsch than this? Stalin having a smoke and chilling with Mao.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 29th, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Posted in Georgia,Russia,Uncategorized

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The Tbilisi Terror Museum

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Tbilisi, Georgia- I had a meeting here with the Deputy Counter Terrorism Chief from the Ministry of Internal Affairs relevant to some book research I’m doing here. My contact there showed me the cornered end of the hallway where the MIA maintains and odd but fascinating display of their accomplishments related to combatting terrorism. They even had the dud grenade that was thrown toward George Walker Bush on his visit to Tbilisi.

The passport of a long dead young Saudi shaheed who I'll assume died in vain in Chechnya as Russian cannon fodder. His Georgian visa was dated 1999 and perhaps he served in Khattab's Arab unit? ©2009 DHF

The passport of a long dead young Saudi shaheed who I'll assume died in vain in Chechnya as Russian cannon fodder. His Georgian visa was dated 1999 and perhaps he served in Khattab's Arab unit? ©2009 DHF

A nail laden suicide bomb belt on display for few to see. ©2009 DHF

A nail laden suicide bomb belt on display for few to see. ©2009 DHF

An assortment of goodies including jihadi literature in Cyrillic script, anti-personnel mines and an IED. ©2009 DHF

An assortment of goodies including jihadi literature in Cyrillic script, anti-personnel mines and an IED. ©2009 DHF

"Oranges anyone?" A homemade bomb sans detonator. Do not attempt to eat contents! ©2009 DHF

"Oranges anyone?" A homemade bomb sans detonator. Do not attempt to eat contents! ©2009 DHF

And last but not least, the Black Widow suicide bomber mannequin! ©200 DHF

And last but not least, the Black Widow suicide bomber mannequin! ©2009 DHF

Written by derekhenryflood

October 21st, 2009 at 10:07 am

Hollywood Comes to Gori

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Actors (who may be actual Georgian soldiers playing Russian soldiers) rumble through Gori's town square atop very loud BRTs on the set of the new Renny Harlin film. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Actors (who may be actual Georgian soldiers playing Russian soldiers) rumble through Gori's town square atop very loud BRTs and tanks on the set of the new Renny Harlin film. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Russian-made Mi-24 "Hind" gunships rattle downtown Gori on the set of the new Renny Harlin film. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Russian-made Mi-24 "Hind" gunships rattle downtown Gori on the set of the new Renny Harlin film. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Gori, Georgia- I hopped in a marshrutka (giant, ubiquitous post-Soviet sphere minibus) today in Tbilisi to make the pilgrimage to the birthplace of the original “Man of Steel” Ioseb (Georgian (which is actually Kartuli in its endonym) Dzugashvili aka Joseph Stalin (“Stalin” means Steel in Russian). I’ve become a bit of a Stalin junkie over the past few years in studying the all too relevant partitions of Central Asia, particularly the Ferghana valley, and the Caucasus which took place in the early Soviet period under little known circumstances in Moscow. I thought I would simply go have have a look at Stalin’s little glorified shack in the center of the city and get on another marshrutka back to Tbilisi. But when I got dropped off, there was a scene of burning Russian-made Georgian armor in the town square. Finnish film director Renny Harlin (who like Stalin uses a stage name-Lauri Mauritz Harjola-not that I am comparing a Hollywood director to the biggest mass murderer in history this side of Mao in any other way) has come to Georgia in what appears to be a sort of artistic mea culpa/comeback effort. Harlin is filming on location here about an American journalist and his travails in the five-day guns of August war of 2008. Usually in Hollywood, when there is a war involving Americans, there is an understood time embargo where you cannot make a movie about a war unless it is either long over or Americans are mostly over it as was the case with many of the Viet Nam films I watched as a boy in the early 1980s. But this film involves neither American soldiers nor needs to wait. The location he employed in Gori today was an actual location from last summer’s conflict which you may recall from some photos that were published last August. Once the surreal excitement was over, I walked two blocks and stumbled onto what I read had been Stalin’s extremely modest birthplace. A brick and wood shack protected by flimsy padlocks stands as Gori’s centerpiece attraction. The shack is ensconced in a Soviet-tribute temple to preserve it for all to see. It’s a bit odd for the Western visitor to behold this enormous befuddling contradiction in terms. Here was a man who killed a hell of a lot of people, many his fellow Caucasians, who is still adored by many Russians, even though he was in no way Russian (but perhaps it can be said he was Russified) and sent many Russians to their deaths. Yet Gori, this small, otherwise insignificant city in the south Caucasus, doesn’t have much going for it other than one of the twentieth century’s greatest monsters was born there and now it is sort of a politically macabre tourist attraction. Then the Kremlin, who is promoting a renewed interest in Stalin’s legacy of late, invaded and temporarily occupied it last summer for about nine days. There are almost too many contrasts to digest here.

The "Temple" of Joseph Stalin in Gori. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

The "Temple" of Joseph Stalin in Gori. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

I’m curious to see how the Harlin film will turn out after accidentally watching an afternoon of filming. The last film of his I can remember seeing was the comical Deep Blue Sea with a weeping LL Cool J softening up his image.

kurdistan-imgIn other developments, I had a new piece on Kurdistan and the PJAK come out in today’s edition of Asia Times which can be read here.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 15th, 2009 at 11:26 am