Sunday, 17 April 2011

Chattanooga Choo Choo diplomacy

'The Chattanooga choo choo probably did more to spread democracy than the CIA'

This view was recently expressed not by a disc jockey or film critic, but the eminent Georgian diplomat and politician, Gela Charkviani.

He was introducing the 1948 film 'Keto and Kote', a romantic, musical comedy about the obstacles faced by a young couple, divided by class and wealth. It had a limited showing in Georgia, but was banned in Russia by Stalin. Historians stated that Stalin disliked the film, but Gela knows that the opposite was true, because his father was present at the first screening. Stalin's advisers decided that the film was too subversive. Love that triumphs over all is much too threatening to a dictatorial regime that destroyed the Georgian aristocracy and intelligentsia and shifted ownership of production from private businessmen to the state.

Gela is familiar with state oppression and censorship. His father was First Secretary of the Communist party and exiled for 6 years by Beria.

Gela ran a tv travel programme for 18 years, which was closely scrutinised by the regime for subversive content. He learnt the rules and introduced aspects of other countries focussing on culture and customs, rather than commenting overtly on democracy. Each programme had to have an obligatory segment on a Russian town to satisfy the authorities. The USA could not be featured, except for a brief shot of New York during New Year celebrations. Today many young Georgians talk about how profoundly they were influenced by this series, as it opened their eyes to the wider world and alternative ways of living.

Gela Charkviani applied Pinchot's 6th commandment:

Work underground as long as you can - publicity triggers the corporate immune mechanism.

As an academic Gela wrote a groundbreaking book on diplomacy and his students included the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Gela became the first foreign minister under Eduard Shevardnadze, when the first president of the newly independent Republic of Georgia was forced into exile. This was the most difficult time for the country, making the transition from communism to democracy and building a modern infrastructure. Shevardnadze is not well regarded at home, in the same way that Gorbachev gets a bad press in Russia compared to his successor, Boris Yeltsin. 'A prophet has no honour in his own country' seems to be true in these cases and radical change agents are not welcomed with open arms.

Some of my students complain about the constraints that they face in bringing about change in bureaucratic organisations with directive leaders and say that some of the course examples look easy in comparison. Gela Charviani and his colleagues never had an easy time. His father did much for the Georgian economy and culture and to unite the regions of the country. He was compassionate and defied Beria in avoiding unnecessary bloodshed by reflecting before punishing anyone for alleged misdemeanours, but paid for it with exile and demotion.

Each person worked in their own sphere, but all of them made a contribution to the eventual shift to independence and democracy. The country now has a stronger banking system and clear government budgets.

There are still threats to the borders and Russia is clearly not happy to have lost control of its neighbour.

Gela shows how to play the long game. He also pays attention to the soft aspects of climate and culture in changing minds. 'You trap more flies with honey than vinegar' is another way to characterise this indirect approach to change.

He also reminds us of the Stockdale Paradox, where blind optimism may kill, but faith and awareness of brutal reality may get us through to the change we desire. One thing is certain, it takes time and has little connection with neat and tidy planned change.


How did the Chattanooga Choo Choo make such a difference to Georgia specifically?

Stalin allowed jazz films into the country, such as 'Sun Valley Serenade' (which features the song). The government raised a lot of money by showing these films but underestimated the power of human psychology.

Marxism focuses on socio-economic analysis and a rational view of human motivation. It ignores the unconscious mind and irrational motivation, such as love. Hunger and poverty may drive people to desperate measures but aren't the only catalyst for revolutionary change.

After the release of 'Sun Valley Serenade' young people went around singing the song, subliminally exposed to a different culture and mindsets slowly changed. Voice of America broadcasts also included a jazz programme which contributed to the effect, slowly chipping away at the invulnerability of the state and official dogma.

As my colleague, Peter Cook, demonstrated an audience can recall the words to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which is more than 35 years old, but are unable to recite the company Mission Statement (usually much shorter).


  1. I like the idea of this Suzanne!! :-)))

  2. Thanks Peter. It fits with Nassim Taleb's idea of random events having profound consequences and goes against the idea that change is neat, orderly and planned.