Guns for Hire in Abkhazia

As a peace activist, I have gone out of my way to see films such as “The Grand Illusion” and “King of Hearts” over the years. Largely as a result of Hollywood’s incestuous ties to the Pentagon as reflected in films such as “American Sniper” and “Hurt Locker”, it has been more difficult to see anything in recent years with a pacifist bent except Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”.

This week I had the good fortune to attend a press screening of “Tangerines”, a joint Estonian-Georgian production that is being submitted as Estonia’s best foreign language film to the 87th Academy Awards ceremony being held on February 22nd. As far as I am concerned, it also deserves best picture, director and actor awards but what would you expect from an unrepentant Marxist after all?

“Tangerines” is set during the war between Georgia and Abkhazia in 1992-93, one that will probably only be familiar to those who keep a close eye on the politics and history of the former Soviet Union but not to the average viewer. It is to the everlasting credit of Georgian writer/director Zaza Urushadze to have made a film that is a universal statement about the evils of war that will be absorbing even to an audience member with scant knowledge of post-Soviet politics. Like William Blake seeing eternity in a grain of sand in his “Auguries of Innocence”, this is a film that will allow you to see the futility of wars of aggression throughout history, and all the more so in an epoch of thermonuclear weapons. As Blake put it in the same poem:

Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly

For the Last Judgment draweth nigh

He who shall train the Horse to War

Shall never pass the Polar Bar

The film’s lead character is an elderly Estonian carpenter named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) who makes most of his income building crates in his toolshed for his fellow Estonian neighbor Margus’s (Elmo Nüganen) tangerine crop when it is ripe for the harvesting. In their tiny village, these are the only two people who have not fled to Estonia as refugees. They are motivated by the need to make some money as well as to stay connected to a place they have made home. Abkhazia had an ethnically diverse population in the period leading up to the war, with Georgians making up 47 percent. Just as is the case in many of the former Soviet republics, ethnic tensions mounted as the Kremlin moved toward Perestroika and Glasnost, ideas that sounded good on paper but failed to materialize in a period of economic collapse.

The war was mostly fought between the ethnic Abkhazians and the Georgians, with smaller ethic groups that had settled there like the Estonians staying out of the fray. Ivo and Margus are exactly such characters.

Being sheltered from the front lines, however, ends abruptly when a jeep shows up in front of Ivo’s house one morning with a couple of Chechen mercenaries armed with machine guns and looking for food to eat and Georgian soldiers to kill. With a mixture of humility and good will, Ivo welcomes them into his house and offers them tea and a hot meal.

The next day when Ivo is consulting with Margus about the status of his tangerines, they hear an explosion and machine gun fire close to Ivo’s house down the road. They discover that a bloody confrontation between the two Chechens and some Georgians has left everybody dead except Ahmed the Chechen and a Georgian named Nika.


Demonstrating compassion not tied to any particular ideology, the Estonians carry the two badly wounded and semiconscious fighters into Ivo’s house and summon a doctor, another Estonian who has remained behind, to tend to them. When the two regain consciousness, they are once again ready to kill each other on the spot if only they had the strength to do so. But Ivo warns them that as long as they are in house and under his care, they will not touch each other. If there is any killing to be done, let them kill him first. Since he has saved their lives and shown no partiality, except to Margus’s tangerine orchard, they respect his wishes but vow to let loose the dogs of war once they are back on their feet and outside his house.

Most of the film takes place in Ivo’s kitchen, with him and the two sworn enemies sitting across the table glaring at each other, hurling insults and promising to kill each other the first chance they get. Old enough to be their father, Ivo acts as if he is mediating between two antagonistic siblings even though the family feud would end up with bullets flying rather than fists. Essentially, the film has the dramatic intensity of the theater with dialogue both wry and plaintive, particularly in the case of Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) whose homeland will be torn apart by ethnic fratricide just after the Georgia-Abkhazia war has wound down. He keeps insisting that Islam is a religion of peace against Ivo’s skeptical but good-humored reminders of the baleful threats directed at his housemate. With live theater becoming as extinct as newspapers and other forms of twentieth century art and communications, it is a rare opportunity to witness drama with such psychological depth and faithfulness to historical context for the price of a movie theater ticket. With the average off-Broadway play in New York going for $100 and having the intelligence of an Adam Sandler movie, “Tangerines” is a most welcome addition. Look for screening information over the next few months in your local newspaper if one still exists.

This is the third film I have seen now with a Georgian provenance. Based on the evidence of “Tangerines”, “In Bloom”, and “The Machine that Makes Everything Disappear” , I am ready to conclude that this beleaguered nation has joined Iran and Turkey in the filmmaking avant-garde. All three nations have incubated an industry that understands how much the particular and the universal complement each other, especially when the particular is referring to a farming village, so often disparaged (and misunderstood) by Marxists as expressing “rural idiocy”. The Estonian villagers would be much better equipped to move Russia and Ukraine forward now than the men in Kyiv and Moscow who are predisposed to sending a new generation of Ahmeds and Nikas to an early grave.

While it is beyond the scope of this review to go into an in-depth analysis of the Georgia-Abkhazia war of 1992-93, a few words would help you to understand the futility of a disaster that cost the lives of 3,000 Abkhazians and 20,000 Georgians, as well as the ethnic cleansing of 250,000 Georgians.

Like Donbas separatists today, ethnic Abkhazians were hostile to the nationalism of the republic they had belonged to historically. As the Stalinist system began to unravel, the Georgians fought for independence while the Abkhaz minority sought to retain ties to the Russian state. Even though Stalin ran roughshod over the Abkhazians and even engineered a colonizing mission of Georgians, Armenians and Russians into Abkhaz territory, they felt more of an affinity with the Russians than the Georgians whose nationalist longings gave little encouragement to those of another ethnicity.

As is the case today with the Crimeans and the Donbas separatists, hope was placed on unity with Russia and still lingers on despite all evidence to the contrary. On May 31, 2014 Russian journalist Yuliya Latynina, reported on Abkhazia’s problems for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper critical of Vladimir Putin:

There is collapse and devastation. Agriculture is finished; tobacco [manufacturing] is ruined; tourists living in rundown Soviet sanatoriums and ordering one portion of ice-cream for two people in beach cafes make a poverty-stricken segment; even maize has become an imported [product] in Abkhazia, where mamalyga [which is made from maize] is a national food. In addition to this, there is destructive logging of fine wood – as if it was happening somewhere in Papua New Guinea – which is exported to Turkey. However, even this business is coming to an end: Forests have been completely cut down.

There are no property rights whatsoever. Ruins of sanatoriums were given in possession (not ownership) to former field commanders. I remember Ankvab [the former president driven from office by Maidan type protests] explaining to me why they were not sold: Georgians might come and cunningly buy everything. Former field commanders receive 100 tourists, making them pay R100, of which 3 kopecks go to the state.

Buying real estate in Abkhazia is dangerous. I remember sitting with one of the veterans of the Abkhaz war [reference to 1991-1992 armed conflict in Abkhazia] on the veranda of his house in [the town of] Gagra and him bragging: “I sold this house, and that one, too. As for the one over there, I sold it twice”. Reality is that Russian buyers give money to the Abkhaz, so that they can buy houses for them. The Abkhaz take money and buy houses for themselves. Russians say: “How come?” The answer is: “We have already spent your money. However, we are ready to help: Bring us other shims, we will shake them down and give their money to you”.

Let’s hope that Yuliya Latynina escapes the fate of Anna Politkovskaya, another Novaya Gazeta journalist, who crusaded against Putin’s war in Chechnya. On October 7, 2006 her dead body was found in an elevator in her housing complex. Five Chechens were found guilty of her murder but like Ahmed in “Tangerines”, it is likely that they were only guns for hire. Whoever paid for this contract killing has never been found but I suspect that the man who likes to go horseback riding bare-chested and take people down using judo probably has a good idea.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.



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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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