Sochi Olympics Watch: Corruption? In the Russian Caucasus?


(Reuters) – Vladimir
Putin fired a top Russian Olympic official on Thursday after publicly
ridiculing him on a visit to half-finished sports complexes planned for a
winter Olympics dogged by reports of corruption and construction delays.

Recommended Reading: Where the West Ends

WherethewestendscoverFun new book from Michael J. Totten. Fun, that is, if your idea of thrills is a drive from Turkey into Iraq for lunch.

Where the West Ends expands on Mr. Totten's Dispatches blog for World Affairs Journal. There are sections roughly grouped as the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Black Sea.

Many authors seem to believe they won't be taken seriously unless their work is laden with ponderous history. When well written, like in some of my suggestions below, that's  worthwhile. When it's not, it's the reason tons of books are returned to the shelf half-finished.

In Where the West Ends, Mr. Totten mostly allows a cursory sketch of the past to suffice. I suspect that satisfies armchair travelers. Then he gets on with the travel writing I like best, what it feels like to get up from that chair and actually go to a place, and what it's like, personally, to be there.

Should Mr. Totten's book pique your interest, here are some suggestions for deeper reading:

Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War by Thomas de Waal

Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz

Georgia Diary by Thomas Goltz

Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya by Wojciech Jagielski

Bread and Ashes: A Walk Through the Mountains of Georgia by Tony Anderson

Rebel Land: Unravelling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town by Christopher de Bellaigue

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran by Christopher de Bellaigue

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue

Black Sea by Neil Ascherson

The Black Sea: A History by Charles King


Along the Georgia Military Highway, Republic of Georgia

And here, in five installments, are excerpts from Common Sense and Whiskey, the book,  about our trip through the southern Caucasus:

1: Getting to Armenia
2: Yerevan to Tbilisi
3: Tbilisi and the Georgian Military Highway
4: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border
5: Baku

Order the entire book for $9.99 at, at, or the Kindle version (just $4.99).

See many more photos of the South Caucasus in the Armenia,
and Azerbaijan
Galleries at


Sochi Olympics Watch #13

6a00e55294635288340133f119e447970b-320wiThe almost cosmic brilliance of the International Olympic Committee in picking Sochi as home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games is again on display. See the article Russia 'foils Islamist plot to attack Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.'

"They said the plot had been devised by the Chechen rebel Doku Umarov, the head of Caucasus Emirate, a rebel group that seeks to wrest the Caucasus region from Russia in order to set up an Islamist state."

"The committee said surface-to-air missiles, TNT and grenade launchers were among the weapons seized."

The Olympic city is less than 300 miles from Grozny. I'm just saying.

Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – The Southern Caucasus, Chapter Fifteen

Here is Chapter Fifteen of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, a very short trip through Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Track down previous chapters here. Click the photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia Galleries at Order the entire book for $9.99 at, at, or the Kindle version (just $4.99).


The Wien Flughafen stood disturbingly deserted at night, all the shops stocked like Christmas, but you couldn’t play with the toys. They glittered and blinked coquettishly behind glass doors pulled shut.

Our old buddy Austrian Airlines left Vienna on a beeline toward Budapest, then Timisoara, Bucharest, Constanta, over the Black Sea to Trabzon and on into Yerevan, all of it in blackness below. The flight tracking screen showed our destination tucked right in between Grozny and Baghdad: “Local time in Jerewan 4:31 a.m.”

Austrian’s corporate color scheme was brilliant red, the national color, and the cabin crew was dressed red hat to sensible (but red) shoes. Fetching, I thought.

Taxiing out (“We are number one for takeoff”), a wail arose behind us. A woman screamed “Go back, go back and check!” Crimson crew rushed to her and kneeled and huddled round our distraught Armenian. One of them came back forward and PA’d their apologies, “Dis is not Azerbaijan, ve know dis.”

The safety announcements were recorded, and they were for the wrong destination. This woman wasn’t by God going to Baku. Azerbaijan’s border with Armenia had been shut tight for fifteen years.

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Next Week: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia


14th century Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) near Mt. Kazbeg, Georgia.

Several days back we put up a list of links to reading about the Caucasus. Next week we'll publish our small contribution, the final chapter of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, ($9.99 at, at, or $4.99 for the Kindle version.) here on the blog. It's the story of our quick rumble through the southern Caucasus, from Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi, Georgia and up the Georgia Military Highway to the Russian border and Mt. Kazbeg, then over to Baku and the scary post-industrial Caspian Sea island of Pirallahi, in Azerbaijan. See previous CS&W chapters here.


More Good Reads, Relevant Links

EightPiecesOfEmpireLawrence Sheets covered the demise of the former Soviet Union for NPR. He writes his memoir in a brisk, non-academic style that's just right for the interested lay person. It's a quick read; Took me only a weekend and Monday. He includes what must be all his greatest hits, his quick trip to Afghanistan, a trip to Sakhalin Island in the Russian far east, visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but I'm particularly drawn to his Caucasus reporting.

He makes my modest story on the southern Caucasus, recounted in CS&W, appear callow, and I appreciate him for it. It's exciting to get background on some of the places we visited a few years after he did, in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia (even a tiny place we visited, Dzoroget in Armenia, athough he visited under entirely different circumstances). His coverage of Abkhazia's succession from Georgia is admittedly maybe not general interest, but I loved it.

He reported that little war along with his friend and fellow reporter Thomas Goltz, who has written his own books, and if you read their accounts alongside each other, you get a real, exciting sense of what went on at that fraying edge of the Soviet empire.

The books:

Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Scott Sheets
Georgia Diary by Thomas Goltz

Similarly, you can read Sheets on Armenia alongside Christopher de Bellaigue's Rebel Land, (earlier post) which is set just across Armenia's western border in Turkey, for a richer understanding of the Armenian genocide question, and Sheets on Armenia alongside Thomas de Waal's richly reported Black Garden (that's what "Karabakh" means), which is set just across Armenia's eastern border in Azerbaijan for a better understanding of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Go ahead and polish off your expertise about the southern Caucasus with:

Bread and Ashes by Tony Anderson. Travels in Georgia.

Also in the region, see
Towers of Stone by Wojciech Jagielski, reporter for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza,
The Man who Tried to Save the World by Scott Anderson, about aid worker Fred Cuny in the north Caucasus, 
Chienne de Guerre by Anna Nivat, incredibly brave war reporting from Chechnya,
Beslan: The Tragedy of School Number 1 by Timothy Phillips on the nightmare in North Ossetia,
– Thomas Goltz's other books Azerbaijan Diary and Chechnya Diary,
– Thomas de Waal's other book The Caucasus: An Introduction,
– and Christopher de Bellaigue's In the Rose Garden of  the Martyrs , a memoir of Iran. de Bellaigue writes beautifully, and after all, Iran borders Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

Finally, to stay up to date, there's the International Crisis Group's North and South Caucasus reporting. (Lawrence Sheets is ICG Project Director for the South Caucasus these days) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Caucasus section


The Southern Caucusus Part Four: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border


Earlier in this series:
The Southern Caucasus, Part One:
From the Eventual Book
& The
Southern Caucasus Part Two:
Yerevan to Tbilisi
& The Southern Caucasus Part Three: Tbilisi and the Georgia Military Highway

The sides at either end of Kazbegi square comprised nothing much, with a road wandering off in each direction, one the direction from which we’d come, from Tbilisi, the other to Vladikavkaz in Russian Ingushetia. On the fourth side of the square, opposite the hotel, a half dozen desultory kiosks all sold the same things, the petty little consumer goods necessary for life. All had tissues and matches and drinks, but not cold – there wasn’t refrigeration anywhere in the whole lot.

The wares on offer jammed all the window space, inside and out, so that the salespeople sat back invisible behind a little open window in the middle. You wouldn’t call the collective attitude among these six tiny kiosk capitalists sullen. Crestfallen might be the better word.

Kazbegi itself rose on a low hill behind the kiosks. A morning walk among the houses revealed bright flowers on windowsills and suspicious, smoking men in caps seated on low benches with a wary eye and a nod of the head to a stranger. No vehicle traffic. Massive amounts of trash just cast onto the ground in the street, and pigs snuffling through it.

Familytruck A dump truck sized Kamaz truck lumbered by, an unlikely family vehicle which disgorged a scarf-clad old woman and a basket down at the bottom of the hill.

At any particular time, six or eight or ten old Russian-made cars congregated at the center of the makeshift square, their drivers in little knots smoking and waiting for the odd passenger to here or there. Zaza hired a red Lada Niva, strong with a high undercarriage. Just the right vehicle to haul us up to the Holy Trinity church, way up at 2200 meters. We’d drive up and walk down.

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Tomorrow: A Trip to the High Caucasus Mountains


Coming tomorrow here on CS&W: The Southern Caucasus Part Four: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border. Catch up on the series in the meantime with parts 1, 2 & 3, covering Yerevan, Tbilisi and the Georgia Military Highway.