Cuttino's Georgian Life

A journal of my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Georgia, 2006-2008.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Moving On...

The war was a sad and shocking end to my Peace Corps service, as these final posts reflect. The good news, however, is that the ultimate nightmare scenarios did not come to be. Things were tragically set back, but the resilient Georgians picked up the pieces and moved on with the rebuilding and reforming of their nation.

And I've moved on, too. Georgia has a way of drawing you back, though, and so I return for another year with another job. Please visit my new blog:

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Helping Out

I'm writing this from Cairo on my way through a pretty large chunk of the Muslim world, Central Asia and China. Unfortunately, due to the current problems in Georgia I'm going to have to delay my return to the country (I was supposed to go for a short visit in September). I have heard from a number of my coworkers, who have been allowed to return to Gori. Society Biliki is back up and running with minimal damage. Since they are in the thick of the relief efforts, they have their work cut out for them.

Since I'll be traveling, I'm planning to organize a project to help out with this work after the holidays. Hopefully by the winter we will have a better picture of the long term needs arising from this crisis. In the meantime, a group of former Peace Corps Volunteers have started an initiative to help out with the current basic needs of displaced people. You can visit their website here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Gori's Tragedy

This has been a very difficult few days. After a few days of intense fighting in South Ossetia, Russia invaded sovereign Georgian territory, including my former site, Gori. Apparently the mandate of Russian "peacekeepers" included bombing civilian targets outside of the conflict zone. I know for a fact that one of Biliki's children was killed in Sunday's bombardment. Today, despite a "ceasefire" Russian troops have surrounded Gori and have allowed Ossetian militants to loot and burn the city. I know a few people who remained to protect their property and homes, but I don't know how they are doing.

Peace Corps has completely pulled out of the country. All of the new trainees were sent home almost immediately and the remaining volunteers are safe in Armenia. I finished Peace Corps a week before the war began. The most frightening aspect of all this is how quickly the situation spiraled out of control. When I left the country two days before hostilities there was no indication that this would happen.

A few people have asked about my opinion of this situation, and I can give it now that I am a private citizen. As I see it, no side is innocent in this conflict. The Georgians were reckless to initiate the conflict in South Ossetia. The siege of Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital) was brutal and probably unnecessary. If the Russian statistics are true, the death toll of the battle will be around 2,000. Of course, the Russian response has been totally disproportionate and totally out of line with any international norms. The Russian regime has proven itself to be a brutal, oppressive 19th century-style power. The West owes it to Georgia and all emerging democracies to stand up to Putin and Medvedev.

In the meantime, the innocent civilians of Ossetia and Georgia are caught up in the crossfire. These people have been my friends and family for two years and it is heartbreaking to see what is happening to them. Fifteen years of progress is in jeopardy. I can only hope that there is something left of Gori when the dust settles.


More information:
BBC - Violence Flares in Georgian Town
New Republic - How the West Botched Georgia
NY Times - Georgia Says Accord Broken as Russia Occupies City
EurasiaNet - Russian "Imperialist Boots" Stomp on Georgia
EurasiaNet - Georgia: Scene of the Outbreak of Cold War II?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

"Heavy Fighting" in South Ossetia

I know its been a long time since I have updated this blog. I finished out my service last week and left Georgia two days ago. Work got very busy and things fell by the wayside and I apologize for that. In the near future I will post some blog entries reflecting on the positive times during my last days in Georgia.

For those of you who have seen the news in the last few hours, the South Ossetian conflict, which has been boiling for years now, has become very violent. The threat of a new war is growing. I have every confidence that Peace Corps will take care of its volunteers; for me, I am safe in Turkey. We can only hope and pray that this violence does not spread further and threaten the progress for which my friends in Georgia have worked so hard.

In the meantime, for those of you looking for updated news, as always, I recommend and

Friday, April 04, 2008

So Much for Winter

It was generally agreed that this winter was the worst in a decade. In December and January, the temperatures were well below freezing. I heard rumors of Siberia-like weather in certain areas of the country, but this goes unverified. What I do know is winter here can be no fun. My wet clothes froze almost immediately when I put them on the line. I could literally fend off attacks with my solid underwear.

Making life even more difficult was the fact that my water pipes froze in early January and did not thaw until February. Apparently insulating pipes were a little too bourgeois for Soviet planners. A single faucet in the courtyard of my building remained, thanks to the fact that it was kept running all day and night. Once a day, the residents of my block would trudge down, buckets in tow and fill up.

But, life hasn't been all bad. Before I moved into the apartment last year, my landlord installed a modern gas heater. This heater can make an entire room warm, in fact, that I could loose my long underwear (much to the envy of my other Volunteer friends). In March, as if the gods were feeling sympathy for us, the weather warmed suddenly. The snow and ice disappeared. I stopped using the heater. Life suddenly became more bearable.

Central heating is indeed a blessing, but an early spring...that is a miracle.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Stalin's Big Day

Nothing starts off the holidays here in Gori quite like Stalin's birthday. Every year on the 21st of December, nostalgic pensioners gather in front of the Stalin birthplace to hold speeches, wave flags and banners, and reminisce about the "good ol' days" of the U.S.S.R. My friends and I went to see the festivities. Despite the snow, some 50 people (a few were members of the Communist Party of Georgia--yes, it still exists) were milling around in front of the museum. It was quite possible that we Volunteers were the only ones there under the age of 60. Despite the fact that for most of these people's lives our two countries were enemies, the response to our presence ranged from curiosity to benign indifference.

I'm sure it seems strange to an American that Stalin would still be held in such regard, and I realize that so far I have written very little about the "Stalin cult" here in Gori and, to a lesser degree, in all of Georgia.

We all know what Stalin did while in power. Many Georgians here in Gori recognize that, though some either deny it or play it down ("He really didn't kill that many people...the capitalists are making it up...."). Its also important to realize what was accomplished during Stalin's time--the U.S.S.R. was taken from an underdeveloped cluster of nations to an industrial power rivalling that of the United States. They beat Hitler and got the bomb. So, for a lot of people, Stalin has come to represent what was once great about Georgia.

Here in Gori, of course, Stalin is alive and well. We have Stalin Street, Stalin Park, five statues of Stalin, the Stalin Museum and Birthplace... Gori's floundering tourism industry is just starting to understand the kitchy goldmine they're sitting on. Already, the Stalin Museum's admissions price has been raised to an outrageous 15 lari (about 8 dollars) and the giftshop sells Stalin busts and mugs. I'm holding out for Stalin tshirts.

Of course, Stalin continues to come up in everyday conversation here. At the supra table, we inevitably drink to his memory. How do I deal with it? Whenever it comes up, I always invoke the Big Three--a toast to Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. Its always a winning toast and one that always gets an approving nod from the nostalgic pensioners.

I am cold, but not dead...

Well, I've let this blog sit and languish over the winter for far too long. What's happened over the time away? Georgia has been in the grip of the coldest winter in a decade--leaving me without water for weeks (seriously, can insulation really be that hard?). Saakashvili was reelected, but the opposition remains unimpressed. We celebrated Stalin's birthday, American Christmas, New Years, Georgian Christmas, Georgian New Years, and Epiphany. And, finally, my fiancee Jessica came to visit.

I'll post more on all this meore...