The Blog

Kafkaesque Caucasus: The Interplay of Fear and Paranoia

Recently I have become very popular among my London circle. During a recent trip to South Ossetia I had been interrogated by the security services, who publicly accused me of espionage and of sharing with the people my supposed "skills" in preparing for a "colour revolution". On my return, my friends and colleagues queued up to meet me, concerned to know how I was and what had happened.

We managed to be both amused and saddened by this episode. I joked with my friends that deep down I suspected they only wanted to meet me to learn my "skills". But I am a humanitarian and happy to oblige, glad for the opportunity to dine al fresco and enjoy London's beautiful summer evenings.

But then I received a more unusual invitation from an old friend to go to the theatre. Having complete faith in her good taste, I did not even ask which play and was quite surprised when I turned up a production of Kafka's The Trial. Initially, I was confused as to how such a philosophical novel could be adapted for stage, but I watched a very subtle psychological drama unfold, a tragedy, depicting a human life as an constant process of being blamed of undefined charges, made by accusers who hide their own vices and crimes but publicly call for global justice.

If for Shakespeare, all the world is a stage, then for Kafka it is a courtroom. As I watched the performance, I felt that Kafka had written it for me, about my own life experience, and about South Ossetia, the society where I was accused of being a spy and attempting to undermine the authorities. I realised that Kafka was raising those very issues that I had myself been mulling over ever since the interrogation.

In The Trial a young banker is accused of a crime. Of what crime nobody knows - neither him nor the judge - but the main thing is that he is accused. He gets signals from both the authorities and from friends that it is only an allegation, and that he can get on with his life as before, living, working and, indeed, loving. He thinks the accusation is a misunderstanding or even a hoax, but he gradually becomes immersed in the parallel reality of the prosecutors and discovers that a number of his colleagues are implicated and collaborating with the prosecutors. Everyone is polite and respectful, but they know his "case" in depth. Some want to help him avoid heavy penalties. An absurd, but realistic bureaucratic process begins as he strives to refute that which has not happened.

According to La Chaussée, if everyone is mistaken, then everyone must be right. The case in The Trial takes us to such depths of paranoia that the hero, seeing how society is so fully consumed by suspicion that it has become their reality, begins to doubt himself. Digging into his memory, frantically looking for his guilt, he delves into his childhood memories, remembering times when he might have misbehaved.

Kafka skilfully reveals the mechanisms by which paranoid thinking is propagated in society, nevertheless leaving many questions unanswered.

The roots of paranoia

I am writing this not just to relate the story of Kafka's The Trial or of my own process of recovery with close friends after a stressful trip. I would like to emphasise an important point. Kafka wrote The Trial at the beginning of the First World War. In my mind, this raises obvious parallels between Kafka's society and today's post-war South Ossetia, judging by the nature of public discourse there.

I had been mulling over a lot of questions and the play added a few more, some of which are particularly relevant in today's era of open information: how does paranoia arise in the minds of ordinary citizens? More importantly, how is this possible? Where are its roots? Is there a public demand for such paranoia, and if so, then why?

I believe that it is primarily a defence mechanism. But from what? I think that post-conflict societies fear a return to war. They suffer from the fear of the absence of reliable partners. The fear of the new, the unfamiliar, the unknown. The fear of the prospect of opening up, of any disruption to their isolation, which has become entrenched over the long years of conflict. The fear of disappearing amid global trends and developments. The fear of losing one's identity and of having to find a new one - a painful process even for communities used to living in peace, never mind those emerging from war. The fear of shifting from a victim's mind-set to a rational one. The fear of losing their uniqueness, a major part of which is about maintaining a high level of alert and constant vigilance. The fear of the 'stranger': which can include both outsiders and insiders, depending on what perceived danger they bring. The fear of losing their warrior skills and experience - an important identity marker. The fear of not being on an equal footing with communities whose development has not been so severely arrested by war. The fear of critical thinking, which is otherwise disproportionately applied to the outside world.

All this adds up to the fear that the ideals for which they fought - resulting in so many lost lives and altered fates - became lost or obscured; and that the price paid starts to seem immeasurably higher than the value of the result, by any objective means of measurement.

A defence mechanism can often play a regressive role in society and history provides many examples. But nobody wants South Ossetia to fall into that trap.

Despite everything, I still believe South Ossetia can avoid crossing the thin line between the rational and the paranoid, from beyond which it is hard to return safely. There are many people who are striving hard to rebuild the social fabric, destroyed by war, isolation and lack of opportunities, and they deserve support.