Losing a country
If a politician has lost an election, he writes a book about it. If he has lost a whole country, however, you might expect him to keep it quiet. Nonetheless, over the centuries, a few men have taken on the task of explaining away the most enormous failure that a political career can end with.
Russia has tended to be the villain in these memoirs because of its habit of periodically swallowing its neighbours. As a result, it looked as though the genre might die with the Cold War, when Moscow finally lost its empire. In previous centuries, exiled ex-leaders of briefly-independent Georgia or Ukraine committed their excuses to paper, but those states are free now. So who could be left to remind us how we abandoned their small nations to Russian vengeance?
Chechnya’s ex-foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov. His unusual memoirs could perhaps best be understood as an extended "case for the defence"
Enter Ilyas Akhmadov, who ably fulfils that role on behalf of the Chechens – for whom he was briefly foreign minister, although he lacked a ministry even before he lacked a country. And his memoir does so in bewildering detail. I already knew the names and biographies of many of the people he mentions, but even I struggled with sentences like this one: “it must have been when I was praising his house that Aushev asked me about the cement factory in Chiri Yurt”.
I found a small stock of books like Akhmadov’s, written by frustrated exiles with too much time on their hands; forced to debate why they lost their homelands. They are spread over more than a century, but are more or less identical.
How could anyone be interested by that? In fact, that sentence – like the whole book – appears not to be really targeted at English-language readers at all, which is strange since it is published in both Britain and the United States. It is intended for the future; for Chechens living in a free Chechnya who will judge their one-time leaders. It is a 246-page case for the defence.
I became intrigued by Akhmadov’s concentration on hundreds of minute details, as if they could swarm together and block out the one glaring fact that he and his generation lost Chechnya. The separatist politicians he describes are now dead, in exile or in the mountains, hiding from Russian troops and the militia of Moscow’s Chechen ally Ramzan Kadyrov. But Akhmadov obsessively repeats tiny disagreements with them that prompted forgotten political clashes. The memoir that resulted is unlike any I had ever read. Looking for books to compare it to, I started to dig back into the memoirs published decades earlier by the defeated leaders of other nations.
I found a small stock of books like Akhmadov’s, written by frustrated exiles with too much time on their hands; forced to debate why they lost their homelands. They are spread over more than a century, but are more or less identical. Akhmadov, unknowingly, was echoing the laments of generations of men just like himself.
Noah Zhordania, for example, briefly led an independent Georgia before it was crushed by Lenin’s Soviet Union in 1921. Like Akhmadov, he plunged into details that no conceivable reader could possibly care about.
“Grisha Uratadze was sitting with me when a telegram came. ‘Gerechkori has not been elected’. We almost fainted. But on the second day we found out it had been a mistake: Yevgeny Gerechkori had been elected.”
But, as the book goes on, these tiny irrelevant snippets merge like dashes of paint to create a picture, not of the time being described, but of the man doing the describing. I could see Zhordania as a bitter man, grey-haired, wearing an old suit and battered hat; smoking cheap cigarettes; stewing in exile. Zhordania’s book was published in Paris, and he had plenty of time to ponder the past and to justify his own actions, despite, or perhaps because of, the constant spur of being a president without a country.
In Zhordania’s memory, nothing is ever his fault. When he retreated across Georgia in the face of the advancing Red Army, he saw abandoned position after empty trench, and never blamed himself or his government. On the contrary, the state was well-organised and protected its citizens, who apparently were not worthy of it.
Noah Zhordania, the Menshevik leader and head of Independent Georgia before 1921. Zhordania's memoirs read as an attempt to absolve blame for defeat at the hands of the Red Army
“There was only disorder in the financial sector,” he conceded, as if that was a small thing. “The only revenue for the treasury is taxes. But no one thought of gathering them. This was delegated to the counties, the city administrations, but they did not take any measures to collect taxes.”
Sadly for Zhordania, he was not the only Georgian exile to pen his account of the surrender of his homeland. Zourab Avalishvili, whose memoirs came out in English in 1940 in a vain attempt to capitalise on interest in the Soviet Union, blamed Zhordania’s pro-peasant policies for the loss of Georgia.
Avalashvili, who was part of the team trying to negotiate Georgian independence with the Western powers, and Zhordania did not have to squabble in perpetuity, however. They both agreed on who else to blame: everyone.
Britain above all was at fault for caring more about trade with Moscow than about its Georgian allies. “From that moment, both Armenia and Georgia were doomed,” he wrote, in a perennial lament repeated by all refugees from Russia’s empire.
Britain’s indifference to Avalishvili’s cause appears to have been shared by a reader of his memoirs in the British Library. The anonymous reader made fierce marginal notes – “wrong”, “no, towards Georgia”, “true” – for the first dozen pages before disappearing altogether. I missed him. It was a stodgy read without his passionate interjections.
The British Library as a whole seemed uninterested in its collection of exile memoirs. A thriving scene of journals and pamphlets kept up ever more minute versions of Zhordania and Avalishvili’s disputes throughout the 1920s and 30s, but readers in London could not access them this winter.
Prometheus, Free Caucasus, Free Cossackdom and Sakartvelo were all journals listed as “unavailable” by the Library’s computers. When an attempt to order up The Information Bulletin of the Polish Government in Exile also ended in the message “check availability”, I turned to a bearded man behind the reference desk.
“You may be the first person who’s tried to read that,” he said bluntly, before telling me they were being moved to a new storage facility in Yorkshire and could not be accessed.
A collection of documents from the Association of Ukrainians of Great Britain was miraculously still available, however. They were tucked into a shabby brown envelope and mainly consisted of faded flyers for folk dancing troupes at the Llangollen Eisteddfod. After a small wad of potted histories, the bundle continued with two forlorn appeals to Prime Minister Harold Wilson asking him to raise the issue of Ukrainian independence at the United Nations in 1967; and again in 1969.
Last of all was a leaflet from 1980 marking the 60th anniversary of the Ukrainian National Government in exile, and containing the sentence: “it should be noted that, not having signed any instruments of peace, truce or surrender in 1920, this Government is actually in a state of war with the USSR”. Perhaps the exiles hoped this would provoke an angry response or even military action from Moscow. But if so, they were disappointed. The Soviet Union did not bother to respond publicly to the overtures of conflict.
Stuck in dispiriting exile, with Moscow ignoring even threats of war, the émigrés tended to squabble over the past as much as fight the Soviet Union, undermined no doubt by agents from Moscow sent to make them do precisely that.
Akhmadov in his new book follows in this rich tradition of passing the blame for losing the homeland on to his erstwhile comrades.
Akhmadov in his new book follows in this rich tradition of passing the blame for losing the homeland on to his erstwhile comrades. “The resistance made a terrible mistake, by aligning itself with a multi-national jihad and splitting into two rival camps that don’t recognize each other,” he writes from exile in the United States, where he is bitter about his American hosts’ stance towards Moscow. What London was for Zhordania, Washington is for Akhmadov.
“The Chechens never asked for money or weapons, not to mention recognition – we asked for much simpler things. Here was the starting point: we wanted the United States and Europe to call things by their proper names… I am recounting this because there are legitimate grounds for Chechens to be frustrated with Western institutions, and I have felt that frustration myself.”
There certainly are legitimate grounds. Among the most depressing moments in the book, which is relentlessly gloomy, is a meeting between Akhmadov and a State Department official who kept looking at his watch. He got up and left when 59 minutes had passed, so he could tell journalists the encounter had lasted less than an hour. It is heart-breaking to imagine how carefully Akhmadov must have prepared for such a crucial meeting, only to be so fobbed off.
“He didn’t ask me what our side wanted. Why we were fighting, and what could make us stop,” Akhmadov wrote of the meeting. Akhmadov could have told him about mass kidnappings, murder, and other human rights abuses inflicted on his people, but had no opportunity. The American only wanted to talk of the Chechens’ foreign financing.
His comments would have won a nod of recognition from “Captain LFS”, a Polish officer whose London-published but undated book The Burial of Poland recounts the fate of his unhappy nation’s ill-fated uprising of 1830.
“It is known that the wives and daughters of Polish nobles, whose ancestors had been invested with royal splendour, were forced into an infamous alliance with common Russian soldiers, and obliged to follow them as their husbands to distant climes,” he wrote in words that, translated into modern English, could find their way into an Amnesty International report on rape as a weapon of war.
He saves his rage for France, however, which he accuses of encouraging the Poles to rise up and then abandoning them.
“However hateful Russia may appear as a cruel and barbarous conqueror, the policy pursued by France, namely that of a double-tongued friend and adviser, is still more contemptible,” he wrote.
Ex-politicians from ex-countries have indeed been betrayed by the West, though they have themselves unfaithfully flirted with a number of countries as the geopolitical position changed.
Poles in 1941 were suddenly forced to embrace the Soviet Union, which had extinguished their homeland in alliance with Nazi Germany just two years before, to win support from Britain and America. Likewise, Ukrainians had to ignore the oppression of their fellow-nationals by Poland in the 1930s to win Warsaw’s support against the Soviet Union.
An unfortunate Azeri called Mammed Amin Rasulzade was but one of many exiles to ally himself with Adolf Hitler’s cause and see his own cause collapse as a result, just as the few Chechens who have flirted with the international jihadist cause have blackened the name of their whole nation.
Zhordania, the embittered ex-president of ex-Georgia, avoided the Nazi trap despite being ignored by the West between the wars. As soon as the Cold War started, however, he was back in favour in Western capitals – an insight we owe to Kim Philby, a British spy who worked for the KGB and wrote his own memoirs after defecting to Moscow.
Philby, presumably relishing the irony of his role, was entrusted with despatching two émigrés into the Soviet Union to undermine Stalin’s rule from within. Zhordania, referred to by Philby as a “silly old goat”, was courted until he provided two young Georgians for the lethal experiment.
“The two agents had been put across at such-and-such a time. So many minutes later, there had been a burst of fire, and one of the men had fallen – the other was last seen striding through a sparse wood away from the Turkish frontier. He was never heard of again,” Philby wrote.
Philby does not mention whether he himself betrayed the men to his Soviet handlers, but it seems likely. Even before the betrayal, the British government and Zhordania regarded each other with “deep mutual suspicion”, and Philby’s actions are unlikely to have improved matters.
Who is to blame?
From the progression of the exiles’ memoirs, you can trace the development of the world order, as the leadership of the Western world swings away from Europe. The Polish captain blamed the French in the 1830s, while Zhordania and many others blamed the British in the 1930s and after.
“For the 250,000 Polish Servicemen who fought under British command, the Yalta agreements came as an unbelievable shock,” wrote Kazimierz Sabbat, Poland’s last president in exile before the collapse of communist rule, in Polonia Restituta, with admirable restraint considering the vastness of Poland’s betrayal at the Yalta conference.
Writing today, Akhmadov blames the Americans.
“The lack of a principled assessment in the West contributed to the radicalization of the Chechen resistance; the West was seen as acquiescing to Russia, leaving only two available paths: submission to (Russia’s ally) Kadyrov or jihad,” he writes sadly.
“It is either Kadyrov or extermination and that choice is being hailed by the outside world, somehow, as a sign of progress.”
What lies ahead?
So, on balance, can Akhmadov take hope or despair from the experiences of those exiles who penned memoirs before him to share his same thoughts and sadnesses? Well, there is good news and bad news.
Of all the countries described in the memoirs I read while looking for parallels to Akhmadov’s work, every one of them eventually became independent.
Of all the countries described in the memoirs I read while looking for parallels to Akhmadov’s work, every one of them eventually became independent. That is surely reassuring for a Chechen nationalist such as him. History suggests that independence will come. Chechens in a free Chechnya will read Akhmadov’s book and judge him an honourable man.
That is what happened to Poland. Sabbat’s successor as Polish president in exile, in 1990, handed the insignia of state to a freely-elected Polish government. Ukraine too is free, and the Ukrainians in Notting Hill have a thriving connection with their country’s embassy in Holland Park. Any Georgians left in London can dine in one of the capital’s four Georgian restaurants, and fly directly to their capital in Tbilisi.
So, if all the nations won their independence in the end, what is the bad news for Akhmadov? None of the memoirists lived to see it.