This past month, while the Russians occupied Georgia, I relived listening to the stories that I heard as I grew up in our village told by old men and young men about their war experience. We, as a geographic area did not only fight in almost every war, but we were also occupied by many people who were much stronger than us. We lived in an area that was constantly tossed around and was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the newly formed republic of Yugoslavia.
In addition to heroic stories, people talked about the burdens of oppression. Because we had so many oppressors, the conversation often turned to which oppressor was the most difficult and unbearable. Was it the Turk who often forced us to forsake our religion and took our best boys in his army? Was it the Austro-Hungarian who considered us Christians, yet inferior Christians because we were neither Catholic nor Reformed? Or was it the Russian who kept dreaming this dream of world domination without every achieving it.
Pan-Slavism, or the Slavic people dominating the world, was best expressed in the wishes of Peter the Great, but it existed before him and it continued after him. It found expression at the end of World War II and in the recent war among the various Yugoslav republics.
Since we lived in minority status in the Yugoslav state, we were glad that we were not under the Russian occupation. Tito confronted Stalin and Khrushchev and somehow succeeded to keep his country free. Our relatives from across the border in Romania and Bulgaria would tell stories of devastation after 30 plus years of Russian oppression. They would talk about fear, lands that were scorched, and leaders that were tortured physically or destroyed psychologically.
To be a neighbor to the Russians did not mean hearing the State Farm refrain, "Like a good neighbor State Farm is there! Instead, we heard and knew from experience that like an oppressive neighbor Russia was always making intrigues to conquer little areas that could not defend themselves. Stalin disliked Hitler but that did not stop him from making an alliance in order to divide Poland. After World War II, Russia took a large part of Romania because they had liberated us and today there is a country called the Republic of Moldavia where people speak Romanian, but once used a Cyrillic alphabet.
To paraphrase the expression, "with friends like these, who needs enemies", than "with neighbors like these who needs enemies?" No sooner did Russia attack Georgia then all the independent countries recently freed from Russia such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic came together as a sign of solidarity against Russia. However, in Russia, the vast majority of residents considered the attack on Georgia a defining moment for their motherland.