My host brother’s grandfather has been staying with us for a few days now. He’s nearly ninety years old and is very frail, so I expect that they’ve decided to bring him here to die. With two barriers between us—age/senility and language—I couldn’t rightly say that we’ve gotten close, and he doesn’t seem to have much interest in talking to me, but I find the old man’s presence at once troubling and comforting.
Last night I sat outside with my host brother, mother, father, and grandfather, and my host brother being the only one of them who spoke English, he selectively translated some of what they were saying about the grandfather. I learned that he had fought in World War Two in the Soviet army at seventeen years old, being decorated for bravery, wounded in action, and celebrated as a hero. Evidently his story is included in a lengthy book about Georgian soldiers in the War, and there may be (it was unclearly explained in three languages, two of which I don’t understand) a documentary about his service. What was completely clear was that he had received medals from the Soviets, receives a pension to this day, and everyone in the family is extremely proud of what he did.
But what he did was for the Russians. The country these people hate—or at least hold a grudge towards. It was clear that this pride was not for the Russian military action, it was for this one brave man’s courage and loyalty, but there was none of the same framing of heroism you sometimes hear about American Vietnam veterans. They say “He showed bravery in the face of danger and loyalty to protect his fellow soldiers,” but choose to leave off the requisite statement that “The war was evil and the purposes pointless, and he performed his actions out of pure determination for his fellow [Georgians/Americans/etc.].”
It could be the language barrier, but my experience with Georgians is that they take every opportunity to be as specific as possible about their views on the past. That they choose in this instance to leave off the usual disclaimer, I find significant. I can’t help but see this as contradictory towards their usual indictment of Russia: when a Georgian family member fights alongside Russians, then Russian actions are as unassailable as Georgian actions. I can’t help but be troubled by this reasoning.