R.I.P. Leslie Nielson

This weekend, Leslie Nielson died.  When I was a kid I called him the “funny guy with white hair,” which seems apt given the films of his I saw.  He was 84 and had a long career of dramatic acting dating back to the 1950s which got superseded by his comic turn starting with Airplane!  Here’s a really well done obituary by the Onion AV club.  I highly recommend you read it and watch some of the clips!  I’ve never seen the Police Squad television show, but from those epilogues alone I know I’d have liked it!  Alas, sorry Leslie Nielson, you will be missed.

Why am I writing about Leslie Nielson, anyway?  I mean, sure, he’s a funny guy and all, but this is a blog about my adventures in Georgia.  What possible relevance could he have to my time here?  I think I’ll finally share with you about my internship.

I have an internship at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS) in downtown Tbilisi.  It’s a thinktank that’s focusing on building bridges with the West by hosting scholars and interns from abroad to do research in Georgia.  Months ago, I wrote about my efforts to show up on Day 1 of my internship.  They didn’t bear fruit.  Since then, I’ve had much more luck!

I showed up to my internship in mid-September to meet the president of the Foundation.  Tata Tsereteli gave me a tour of the facilities, pointing out the balcony, the kitchen (Where we make tea and coffee!), the library, and the computer lab.  “You can go in here and do some work now.  I’ll be upstairs if you need anything.”

I had ridden in to town with Koba, Tata, and Manana that morning on their ways to work.  Koba, who works at Parliament, dropped me off on Chitadze St. which is right behind Parliament.  I passed through the Italian Embassy and entered, expecting to be put to work.  When Tata told me to “go do work” in the computer lab I understood that it was a really self-directed kind of internship.  I didn’t have any concrete work plans that day so I sat and putzed around on the internet for a few hours.

I was supposed to be meeting with Alexander Rondeli that day to discuss my internship.  He was finally available to meet me at 3pm, when I was packing up to leave.  He invited me in to his office and gave me some chocolates and some Turkish coffee, explaining that “I had a heart attack in 2003 and my doctor told me not to drink any more coffee.  ‘But doctor!’ I said, ‘I love coffee!’  ‘Then you must drink only Turkish coffee because it is weaker and it will spare your heart from failure.’  And ever since I have drank only Turkish coffee.  Drink up; it’s good for you!”

We discussed our prior careers, with me talking about Georgetown, Stanford, and my work at the Kennan Institute and him describing his upbringing by his Russian mother and his passion for Persian literature and poetry.  Apparently he’d even recently been invited to work as a visiting professor at Tehran University!  Dr. Rondeli told me that I was more or less free to come and go as I pleased, even in the middle of the night, if I wanted!  “There will be a guard here then, but he’ll be sleeping, so just let yourself in!” Rondeli insisted.  I haven’t tested that theory yet, but if I’m ever stranded on Rustaveli in the middle of the night, maybe I will….

One of the things I noticed right away about Dr. Rondeli, besides his cheery demeanor and his firm handshake, was his striking resemblance to Leslie Nielson.  I kid you not, it’s uncanny.  He’s got the stark white hair and the bushy eyebrows of Nielson.  At first I worried about noticing this and taking Rondeli seriously despite his doppelganger’s ridiculousness.  When Dr. Rondeli stepped out to greet a visitor briefly, I glanced around his office and noticed an out-of-place poster on the wall beside some paintings.

I was thrilled to see this poster on his wall. If you're unfamiliar with the Naked Gun series, you should probably check that out too.

Sure enough, Rondeli was not only aware, but proud of his resemblance to the comic actor.  That put me at much greater ease!

At the time, I had planned on helping Paul Greengrass with his research into Nestor Lakoba, an Old Bolshevik from Georgia.

Charming fellow, that Lakoba!

He had been killed in 1936 by Lavrenti Beria, another secret policeman whose rise to power spelled doom for all his predecessors.  Both men were from Georgia, but neither was Georgian.  Lakoba was an Abkhaz from outside Sukhumi and Beria was a Mingrelian from Samegrelo.  Stalin had this habit of promoting minorities to antagonize the majorities of a region.  He also had a habit of hiring murderers and rapists (I’m looking at you, Beria!)

Who me?

When I proposed the project to Rondeli he seemed very interested.  “Lakoba is a controversial figure these days.  The Abkhaz use him as a sort of ‘founding father’ while others try to treat him more objectively.  Since the 2008 war, however, Georgians have been biased against him because of his Abkhaz roots.”  Very interesting, I thought.  “If you want to research him and/or interview people from his town you’ll have to tell your professor to contact any friends he has in Russia.”  “In Russia?”  “Yes, you’ll have to get some Russian scholars to pressure the Russian/Abkhaz governments to give you permission to enter Abkhazia and you might have to enter from Russia.  It’s pretty dangerous and closed off, but I bet you can get in!”

Here’s an excerpt from the State Department Website on Georgia and another from WikiTravel:

“The situation remains tense, with Russian troops and border guards stationed in both separatist regions. Due to the volatility of the political situation, reported high levels of crime, and inability of Embassy personnel to travel to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, the U.S. Embassy urges American citizens not to travel to these areas. The restricted access of U.S. officials to Abkhazia and South Ossetia significantly limits the ability of the U.S. Government to assist American citizens in these regions, even in emergencies. … In addition to the August 2008 conflict, a number of attacks, criminal incidents, and kidnappings have occurred in and around the separatist regions over the past several years. The situation near the separatist areas is unpredictable.” –The State Department

“For the common traveller the country is relatively safe, but you should strongly avoid any place near the border to Georgia. Some minor unregistered minefields are reported near the border, this should be an additional reason to delete it completely from your travel list. Keep in mind that Abkhazia is, in the view of international law, still a part of Georgia. Further military confrontations are unlikely but you should closely follow the international and independent news incase the situation changes. Travellers who have visited Abkhazia and intend to visit Georgia can be questioned, refused entry to Georgia or in the worst case be imprisoned by Georgian immigration officers as entry to Abkhazia is seen as illegal immigration.” –WikiTravel

That’s where I was supposed to go.

I emailed the information to Paul Greengrass whose response was, “I guess I’m not that interested in Lakoba.”  Case closed.

Since then, I admit I’ve been less diligent than I should have in terms of my internship.  What with the excitement of being in Georgia and the rigor of teaching so many hours per week, I’ve found it very hard to motivate myself to work.  I have managed to clean up my Masters thesis somewhat and start some tentative research in that vein.  I’m hoping it will turn into something real nice by the end of the year, that is, if Leslie Nielson will rehire me for next semester….

NEWSFLASH!  Just got word that I’ve been rehired for next semester as well!  Here’s to making real progress in the coming months!

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