Phil Jones’s Diary: Summer in the Caucasus, shadowy neighbours and a grandmother’s love for Stalin

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My beloved mother Helen Jones died last year. Some time ago she gave me a treasured wallet embossed with a picture of the Kremlin, given to her by an uncle, who had received the gift from Joseph Stalin. Whether the dictator handed over the wallet personally, who knows, but her uncle, Karl Kreibich, was certainly the Czech ambassador in Moscow post-1945, when Stalin was at the peak of his powers.

Helen grew up in a little spa town in Bohemia. At the age of 11, as German troops marched into the Sudetenland, she was wrenched from her comfortable bourgeois life forever, first moving to Prague and then escaping Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by train just before war started. She travelled with her nine-year-old sister, Hana, eventually meeting her father at Liverpool Street Station. Despite losing her memory in old age, she could always bring the story back to life. When the train stopped at the German border, soldiers removed everyone from the carriages at gun point, except her and her little sister. I shudder to think what happened to those who were taken from the train. Days later my grandmother also fled, walking over the mountains into Poland, Sound of Music style. Another uncle, Oskar, and a grandmother, Fried, were less lucky. He was murdered in Auschwitz, she died in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Alfie’s lucky football trick

I’m visiting Georgia in the Caucasus and reflecting on relatives scarred by the terrible events of the 20th century. After the war, my family returned to a liberated Czechoslovakia, eager to help “build socialism”. Less than a decade later, Alfie, my grandfather, was arrested as part of a Jewish purge. His year in jail affected his health and he died prematurely. Sadly I never met him, but I share his love of football. As a Sparta Prague fan, whenever his team were losing, he’d swap seats with his friend to bring on better fortune. My son Billy now does the same when watching his team, Arsenal. Apparently it never fails to work.

Don’t mess with Putin

What is it about dictators? You can be responsible for tens of millions of deaths but you still have your admirers. Here in his birthplace, Stalin is something of a local hero, certainly among the older generation. They look back on his time with nostalgia and admire his strong leadership.

Modern Georgia, however, is desperate to distance itself from its association with Russia, its giant neighbour. As recently as 2008, it was humiliated in a five-day war with Putin’s forces over the separatist regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia. In both cases, tens of thousands of Georgians were ethnically cleansed and thrown out of their homelands. The message is clear: don’t mess with Putin. I met 16-year-old Asa, who speaks perfect English. Before she was born her family were forced out of their beautiful home in Abkhazia, leaving everything behind. She told me with great humanity that she didn’t hate Russia or its people, “only its leaders”.

A cushy job on the border

I travel to the small provincial town of Oni, near the South Ossetia border. EU flags are everywhere, on all public buildings, alongside the Georgian flag of St George. The European Union dangles the prospect of membership in front of Georgia, encouraging it to reform and take on a pro-Western stance, but I suspect there’s very little prospect of it joining any time soon. I start to realise the flags are really “two fingers” of defiance at President Putin. Enjoying a quiet drink in the town’s only hotel are two Greeks from the European Union Monitoring Mission. They say they’ve been here since the 2008 war, monitoring the border with South Ossetia. It seems quite a cushy assignment. I guess we won’t be paying for their drinks for much longer if Boris Johnson has his way.

My wife and two friends from Cardiff are travelling in the remote mountain area of Svanetia, famous for its incredible ninth- to 12th-century towers that still dominate the villages. My 30-something friend is pondering when to have children. I offer some advice: “Have them now so your own parents can know them and love them, and your future children can know and love their grandparents.”

A drunken ride down the mountainside

Mount Elbrus, in the Caucasus Mountains, is the highest peak in Europe. Forming a great natural barrier from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, lush green alpine meadows rise to spectacular soaring peaks covered by ice-blue glaciers. The Russian Federation is on the other side. We’ve been hiking for several days, camping in those meadows awash with wild orchids.

Finally we meet a road where there is no right for a road to be, running precipitously down a half-washed-away dirt track. A tiny pickup truck appears with two men in the cab and three drunken, singing Georgians in the back. They offer us some very salty cheese and a hair-raising lift 8,000 feet down into the valley. Two hours later we’re deposited outside a house that looks like something out of Tolstoy’s rural Russia. Verdant fields full of green beans and sweetcorn surround a ramshackle house and garden, where chickens, pigs, kittens and children run amok. We’re welcomed by the large family who promise to feed us, entertain us and put us up for the night, but refuse to take any money. We’re treated to a lavish feast of homegrown produce, followed by several bottles of the local liquor, chacha, the drinking of which seems to be compulsory. By the early hours, in our drunken state, I begin to realise that we are the “entertainment” for them.

Before bed, the old, Russian-speaking grandma brings out her ancient picture of General Stalin, resplendent in his uniform. She hugs the frame and kisses his portrait.

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Joseph Stalin. 

Phil Jones is editor of BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler