The Good Russian: Victor Erofeyev on the August War, Abkhazia, Stalin and More

EXCLUSIVE interview

Victor Erofeyev, one of Russia’s most prominent writers and thinkers, has a busy schedule. Shifting between Paris and Moscow, all the while writing modern bestsellers and remaining one of the few outspoken voices of reason in Russia, cannot be an easy task. Banned from publishing until 1988 in the Soviet Union, the former dissident author’s book ‘The Good Stalin’ was recently translated and published in Georgian by Intelekti publishing house – but the book was but one of the few subjects the celebrated author talked us through as he sat with GEORGIA TODAY for an exclusive interview for our Messages from Brussels series.

Ten years on, how you see what happened in 2008?

It started earlier than 10 years ago- it started way back with Abkhazia in the 90s. It was the “throes of the Empire” of the former Soviet Union, striving to engineer its own rebirth. And this is very evident in the belligerent speeches of people like Zhirinovsky and his party. I stand for European values and a European way for Russia: this is the only thing that can lead my country to becoming a modern state, with normal relations and mutual understanding with its neighbors. Georgia has stood for these values since becoming independent in the 90s, while Yeltsin’s Russia opted for imperial values and never looked back. The tragic and painful Abkhazian War was undoubtedly a part of Russia’s imperial policy too. Your beautiful country has all rights to be free, to make its own choices, but at the same time, considering the uneasy and mighty neighbor up North, you need to be reasonable in what you do – you need to be aware that the European values you share with the rest of the Western world clash with what Russia stands for, imperial values borne out of an archaic way of thought. Unfortunately, for many in the West, this remains a vague notion – that Russia adhered to a policy of expansion as a means to survival. Countries from the former Soviet Union are much more aware of what the bells toll for in the Kremlin.

You are in the minority of Russian people who doesn’t share the Russian narrative that it was Georgia who started the war.

It’s hard to imagine that a small country like Georgia would decide to wage war against a huge country geared up with every kind of arms and weaponry, including nuclear bombs, so I don’t even want to argue whether there was a realistic possibility that Georgia would attack Russia. What’s next – Estonia attacking Russia and seizing Moscow? This is yet another page from Russia’s imperial narrative.

Many maintain the 2008 War was a preemptive strike by the Kremlin to prevent NATO expansion and to create obstacles on Georgia’s European way. How decisive a factor was NATO and the EU?

The reasons may have been many, but Russia harbors an almost mythical, primeval fear of NATO - not only militarily, but also the values that NATO stands for. Russia is terrified of its neighbors becoming NATO members, therefore pursues a strategy of seizing strips of land from them, knowing that NATO would be wary to admit a country with unstable state borders to its ranks. One hope is that sooner or later, NATO will reconsider this position, but Georgia needs to be very careful, very reasonable. It doesn’t have the luxury of not taking into account a gargantuan neighbor state with distinctly different ideas on what is right or wrong. It needs to pursue its own policy, stand up for its values, but at the same time understand that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it has the neighbors it has. So, I’d rate for the reasonable political pragmatism of the Georgian leadership. They should understand that this might cause exacerbation of the fickle situation that we have now, and this was also echoed in recent comments made by Medvedev. I’d say be free and be wise.

You called the 2008 war “the August of Our Discontent,” paraphrasing Steinbeck’s famous novel, and stated your surprise it had happened at all. Why?

I’d consider every war in our times unimaginable. War is a dreadful legacy of uncivilized times of the past. When it comes to high culture, Russia and Georgia always understood each other. In Soviet times, me and my older colleagues, the so-called Sixties (Shestidesiatniki) thought Georgia was one of the freest parts of the Union. From my time there, I saw that Georgia was developing its culture not according to what Moscow dictated, but along the lines of what the high culture of Russia stood for back then: Akhmatova, Pasternak, Bulgakov and so on. These are the values that not only Russia and Georgia, but the whole world shares. So, how could there be a conflict between Russia and Georgia? When it comes to politics, I think Yeltsin made a huge mistake not siding with Georgia during the 90s territorial dispute. And I don’t think Putin’s Russia is going to reconsider this anytime soon. If, after him, a reasonable ruler shows up, we can hope for a positive decision, if not, it will go on…

Could things change for the better after Putin?

I don’t think it’s guaranteed. He might put up Kadyrov as his successor. Or Ragozin, or someone similar– he has no shortage of them. But if the next Tsar is sympathetic towards Europe, then yes, we might see a positive development. But I really wouldn’t bet on it. Putin’s policy of country-wide mobilization (mobilization is easier to carry out than modernization) requires a constant supply of victims, and he might start running out of those. It’s all rooted in our mentality, which hasn’t adapted to modern realities but still rests on archaic thinking.

What are your thoughts on the notion that the August 2008 War was a war between regimes and politicians, not between people and nations?

That’s a very difficult issue. You can’t unlock the Russian way of thinking easily – for example, there is a very strong impetus on friendship as a very important, core Russian value. Historically, simple folk in Russia have never had a political culture: there were the serfs and then there was a Boyar, a master, and the master was always right. If he was so wrong you could no longer close your eyes to it, then the master was murdered, and this was called “revolution.” Nobody voted for the Boyar; serfs weren’t supporters of his policies, they were just doing what they were told. That was the hierarchy. Putin saw that he doesn’t need to modernize the country to retain support, or to make it better – he just has to give them what they want and what they are used to. Georgia was the first example of this, and the people rejoiced, as they did in 2014: you tell them they violated international laws, but they wouldn’t even spit on it, because that’s how the imperial conscience works.

By Vazha Tavberidze

09 August 2018 18:38