Saturday, August 30, 2008

A bomb from Russia

All of Saturday, I still felt the motion of the train, that gentle swaying back and forth. It was a long trip – nearly 11 hours – from Baku to Zaqatala. But the train ride itself was uneventful and even pleasant.

Of course, not everything is pleasant. The smell form the toilet down the hall, for example. But the people in general are friendly, and I frequently have interesting conversations on the train.

I met one man – a native of Zaqatala – who was returning after working in Baku. My acquaintance was not working in his profession exactly, so he didn’t really regard what he did as a real job. But it was a job.

He was quite open about his criticism of the government’s penchant for hanging posters of the president and the president’s father everywhere. He seemed to have some knowledge about how much each poster cost. I’ve wondered about this myself. He said that a small one costs 300 manat and they go up considerably from there – into the thousands of manat. This sounds realistic, and if you do that math – multiply how many such posters hang around the country – it is hard to escape the conclusion that a great deal of money is being spent on this propaganda.

My traveling companion wondered about different ways this money might be invested more profitably for the population.

Of course, the conversations nowadays nearly always turn to Georgia at some point, and today’s chat was no exception. My friend was full of nostalgia for the Soviet system – the equality, the social spending, the fact that people had reasonable jobs – but he was deeply suspicious of the Russians. In the ‘90s, he said, the Russians fired a missile of some sort at Zagatala, and it landed not far from the train station. Because the earth was so soft, it landed but didn’t explode immediately. The authorities detonated it specially, and it created a huge explosion.

As we rode by, he pointed out the crater. To be honest, I wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise. But the impact it made in people’s minds was deeper than the hole it created in the earth. People remember that Russia sent a bomb into Azerbaijan, and this colors their perception of the country.