Several years ago, I watched a documentary film which recounted the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Japan by U.S. air forces in the summer of 1945. The film described in great detail the emotions of American soldiers who participated in that operation as well as the feelings of Japanese residents of Hiroshima who miraculously escaped death. I remember being surprised that so many participants were then still alive to recount one of the most tragic events in modern world history. Among those witnesses to the first-ever use of a nuclear weapon was the American soldier believed to have been the last person on the plane to have touched the bomb before it was dropped to extinguish the enemy below.
That documentary film was fascinating not only for the historic story it told, but also because it tried to explain how such a horrific event could have happened. What had led humanity to the extreme step of using a nuclear weapon to obliterate a major populated city? What had forced the very country that defends the ideals of liberty all over the world to condemn tens of thousands of innocent civilians to instant death?
In the documentary, Japanese who survived death on 6 August 1945 recalled the horrendous scenes they had witnessed – family, friends and neighbors annihilated in one-tenth of a second; the lethal air wave; burnt bodies; black rain; so on and so forth. For those survivors, there could be no possible justification for what happened in Hiroshima in the mid-Twentieth Century; no argument could ever exist in nature to explain such an atrocity.
The documentary also presents the other side of the argument from American soldiers directly involved in that operation. Do they have any guilt or qualms about what they did those many years ago? Perhaps the most remarkable part of the film is that none of the American soldiers said they felt any remorse for what they did. Quite the contrary, each and every one of them, interviewed in their old age, insisted there was absolutely no other way left to end the war but the nuclear attack. The main reason for that tragic calculation was that Americans and Japanese existed in different cultural spaces and, therefore, could not possibly understand each other.
By August 1945, the United States had actually already won the war against Japan. The Potsdam Declaration signed 26 July 1945 by the United States, Britain and China demanded that Japan unconditionally surrender. In the documentary, American military personnel recalled that they had expected a statement of capitulation from Japan at any moment. That did not happen, however. A bit later, U.S. intelligence sources learned that the Japanese deemed capitulation as an offence to the dignity of the Emperor and would never agree to that. To avoid further casualties, the United States changed its condition and, instead of wide-scale capitulation, demanded that only Japanese armed forces surrender. That would spare the dignity of the Emperor from offence. Japan, though, did not stop military actions even after that. Days later, U.S. intelligence received quite a disturbing piece of information – the Japanese military leadership perceived the change of condition on the part of the United States as an expression of U.S. weakness. That misperception was followed by Japanese calls to fight to the end because they believed the victory of Japan was within sight. In the documentary, U.S. war veterans recalled that, at that point, everyone realized that the Japanese would never stop fighting and that the death toll would be incalculable. It was precisely that calculation that led the United States to believe the only resort left was use of a nuclear weapon.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the documentary’s chronology of historic events, but I was reminded of that film when I read the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia on 2 March 2012. In that statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded to the Georgian President’s announcement of a unilateral initiative to abolish the visa regime for Russian citizens.
Simplifying the entry of Russian citizens into Georgia is advantageous for us. Each entering foreigner means money spent here, thereby producing income for Georgian families. It has been years now that Russian products, as well as Russian capital, have entered Georgia barrier-free; that is because the former as well as the latter increases the welfare of Georgian citizens – by diversifying the market and by creating new jobs. Lifting additional barriers to the movement of Russian citizens across the border means that we are proposing completely open relations with Russia. And what is more important, we do that not because we are a “kind” country or because we expect any reciprocal step from Russia, but rather because it is to our own advantage to do so. It is beneficial for Georgia even if the border on the other side is closed tightly.
So how has the current leadership of Russia perceived Georgia’s abolishment of visa requirements for Russian citizens? Moscow apparently sees the unilateral initiative unveiled by President Saakashvili in his annual address to the Parliament as an expression of Georgian weakness. The Kremlin seems to assume that Georgia is so eager to resume visa-free travel with Russia that Tbilisi is ready to abolish the visa regime unilaterally and then wait for a similar step from Russia. And Russia has started doing what it is good at doing and always does at such times – trading. The Russian statement of 2 March is nothing else but an offer to Georgian citizens to exchange visa-free travel to Russia for consent to the opening of a Russian consulate in Tbilisi. At a glance, it is a ridiculous proposition. But Russia is still in the regime of waiting and it has been waiting for Georgia to fall into such a predicament that it would be ready to exchange its own national interests for “earthly benefits” bestowed by Russia – for example, visa-free travel to Russia or opening of the Russian market for Georgian products.
It is precisely these circumstances that demonstrate that Georgia and today’s Russia exist in very different cultural spaces. Like the Americans and Japanese interviewed in that documentary film, Georgians and Russians do not understand each other either. Or to be more precise, we do trust Russian motivation because it was not long ago that we were part of the space of that Soviet Empire. But Russia does not understand us because it is bogged down in an entirely different world – in a world where there is no understanding that, by closing its market, it first and foremost harms its own citizens; where it is believed that NATO membership of a neighboring country is a threat; and where it is hoped that visa-free travel can be bartered and exchanged for occupied territories.
In short, Russia stands somewhere else.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 91, published 12 March 2012.