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Interview “ I need The Nobel Prize” 

Vladimir Kanlelaki is a well-known artist with a weapon collection. He has also written a book. It is about how got “trafficked” to America and im­prisoned in England. A. Spurling spoke to him about why.

It is New Year's Day. Again. I've . .arrived on Orthodox New Year and the table is laid. Judging from the bottles, there were evidently some celebrations on the eve last night. 'Volodya' is having several vodka hairs-of-the-dogs with his breakfast. V/e are offered champagne and liqueur. A huge ashtray is produced for me. Almost four years ago al­cohol and cigarettes became an arrestable offence for Kandelaki. He grasps my hand in greeting and then jokes' about not kissing it... In the light of what happened to him after he did this to an English airline stewardess, I agree that this would not be a good idea.

This is the story of how one man in a general's uniform was ar­rested coming off a British Airways plane. He shows me the offending item: a honey-colored suit with epaulettes and brass buttons Vladimir Kandelaki then spent 36 days in Wormwood Sciubs London prison.


Kandelaki is an artist, who also founded a Fund named after himself. It exists to promote ( Georgian art and he has published several  according to his wife) rather beautiful books and catalogues. He also has "the biggest collection in Georgia" he says, of around 2,000 antique Georgian weapons. "You may not be interested, but some people are" he says, producing a long curved silver saber in a beautifully carved sheath from a cupboard. Since Kandelaki clearly lives far from extravagantly, I wonder where the Fund's funds come from, lie says from his pictures, sold for thousands in the States. He also has a "sponsor" in America called Norton Dodge, who is a collector of non-conformist art. Kandelaki's wife Lali has a folder with a letter from Dodge to the then-state minister - Avtandil Jorbenadze. It is a sort of character reference, ending with the wish that Kandelaki's stay 'at her Majesty's pleasure' will he duly investigated.

Kandelaki is currently working on a prison-inspired series, but due to illness and depression it is progressing slowly. After prison and the "stress-mess", he says his legs seized up  He's had operations on them: he's had heart problems: he's had concussion. And he's currently going through a court case. He's suing the former president of his Fund, whom he accuses of fund-embezzlement. This is not all that he suspects him of, as becomes clear later. There is also a conspir­acy theory. "[In Georgia], they can deceive you the whole time, so watch out. At least. I'm deceived the whole time."

He is described as a non-con­formist artist. Why?

"I've never conformed," he says not very descriptively.


In answer, he gets up and (licks through an American-published catalogue of his paintings. I say that the style actually looks quite traditional, He says it's realism, but realism with surrealism.

"Is that traditional?" he asks. I sec the realism of a townscape, but with the surrealism of an enormous kuvshin wine-jug towering over buildings. This proved to be very non-conformist, explains Kandelaki, because at the time central Moscow was in the midst of Prohibition. He shows me another in a similar vein: only gaming equipment (dice and billiards) has re­placed drinking vessels. Gambling was also forbidden

"Is that traditional'" he asks again, pointing to a Lenin head in a light bulb, from a series called "IIych Bulbs".

Is he someone who enjoys risk - he seems to get himself into some rather extreme situations?

Not a gambler, says Kandelaki, but "by the time I think, it's al­ready too late. I was always sure of myself, but people have brought me down...I need a Nobel Prize," he says. The later observation is one which will recur.

Before he ended up in an English prison.in 2000, Kandelaki . found himself in  another extreme situation in America. In l990, he was selected from other Georgian artists by an organization called Lileo-Art. They apparently promised accommodation in the States, a studio, an interpreter, a car and publication and promotion of his works. Even if the percentage was high, wasn't he rather native to believe in all this? Didn't it sound too good to be true?

"Yes," he agrees, "but it was official", it was organized through the Georgian Union of Artists. He thinks his lack of English was prob­ably a decisive factor in them de­ciding to manipulate him. It is only recently that Georgians are learn­ing to be wary of similar 'white slave trade' scenarios.


Kandelaki's book about his American and English experiences is called "Queen of Spades". He has written that he has always been followed by the spade Queen. Was he perhaps referring to Fate and extreme situations?

"To bad women," he says more specifically. In fact, Kandelaki seems to have come into contact with a more-than-average number of bad apples in his life. Apart from personal relationships with 'witches', there was of course - the air­line stewardess.

Kandelaki was flying Tbilisi-London (en route to America). He was arrested for apparently com­mitting three offences aboard the BA flight: smoking, being drunk, and sexual harassment (of a stew­ardess). He just happened to be in Cossack uniform at the time. "Not guilty," he says on all three counts:

I. He wanted to smoke. He asked permission repeatedly; but says that though he had a cigarette in his fingers he didn't actually smoke it.

2. He wasn't drunk. He says he was "in a good mood" after a drinking send-off in Tbilisi with champagne. He then proceeded to drink two mini airline-sized wine bottles aboard. For a Georgian man, he does not consider this serious alcohol consumption:

- "Georgians know how to drink”  he says mentioning horns and producing one the size of half a human leg. "Even if I'd wanted to, I wouldn't have had time..." he says about the four-hour flight and Georgian quantities.

3. What happened next was ap­parently that after asking the stew­ardess for permission to smoke ("smoke, cigarette, toilet"), she ended up sitting down next to him and looking through his catalogue for an hour. By the time she got up to leave, he'd kissed her hand, said "very good woman", put his arm around her shoulders and also kissed her cheek...

Despite the fact that the charges have since been dropped and that the stewardess has withdrawn her statement; still, I say, it doesn't quite add up. People don't generally get arrested for asking to smoke, drinking, and being friendly to stewardesses. Was he perhaps be­ing over-friendly? At any rate, according to him, no warning to de­sist was issued, lie therefore had no inclination of what was await­ing him on British soil. Lali thinks that the stewardesses just "got tired of him... asking to smoke all the time." But if he'd had sexual har­assment in mind, Kandelaki implies that he would at least have chosen a less scarecrow-like stewardess.

Perhaps it was the Soviet uniform that put their guard up?

Even if he'd had a sack over his head, it shouldn't have mattered, he says.

Why was he wearing the uniform anyway?

In the book, he says he hadn't wanted to crumple it in a suitcase. Now, he adds that he's an artist. And what better example could  there be of non-conformism?

I try again to find the missing link: Being drunk aboard isn't a crime in itself. Though being drunk and disorderly or disruptive is. Since incidents with football hooligans, perhaps the airline was being oversensitive? 

"I don't think so", he says. And then comes his conspiracy theory.

Husband and wife think it was a planned set-up. Planned by the former president of his Fund to get him out of the way.

I am skeptical. For a start, how could they reach BA stewardesses?

He thinks - through their Tbilisi hotel. He thinks she was paid off. He also thinks the woman in the next row, who had promised to help with customs-declaration in­terpreting, instead gave him up to the police.

"Nothing comes from nothing," Kandelaki quotes his Wormwood Scrubs cellmate on the matter. But he's not referring to an aberration in his own behavior; he still thinks it was a set-up. "I can't convince you... But have you ever received half a million?"

Obviously not. Nor likely to either, I say. Here, he's referring to the president accused of embezzlement. He apparently blames him more than the stewardess, whom he describes as just "abusing her position."

,, Kandelaki missed his flight on to America. He missed a UNESCO forum he'd been invited to in Paris. Not to mention all the earnings he lost and the expenses he incurred from living in London for six months on bail, before the charges were dropped. Isn't he going to claim for compensation then? At least for lost earnings?

"The [Georgian] ambassador said I should do it from America, but I was so tired of the whole situation, I just wanted to be set free." And: "who's going to represent me?"


As to his 36 days in prison, the impression I get from the book is that it was more boring than anything else?

"No one will allow you to be bored you're looking over your shoulder the whole time. There were unpredictable moments, you never know what to expect...." The most boring thing, he says, was the waiting. The waiting to be let out.

From Kandelaki's literary descriptions, it seems that lack of activity in prison reduces you to being a kind of one-cell creature. When Kandelaki wasn't forcing himself to watch the football, he spent the whole time hunting down tobacco and lighters.

"It's the prison system." There were no other substances available to him to calm the nerves (though he says he did see various kinds of marihuana being used).

Apart from learning how to make roll-ups, did he gain any other skills in prison? 

He refers to something m the book - how to light a cigarette when your lighter's run out, with the help of cotton wool.

Did it feel dangerous?

"Have you seen the films? Do you feel the danger?" But worse than that, he says, is the physical lock-up: The bars, the lack of win­dows, the not being able to go out when you want to and the having to go out when you don't (i.e. to the exercise yard when it's raining).

And then there were the cell­mates.. . In the book, Kandelaki describes sharing one cell with a "her­maphrodite", which felt pretty dan­gerous. And despite the fact that he got on very well with his most per­manent mate (a Russian Jew called Bikov); Lali reminds us that "he had actually killed someone."

Is there a kind of brotherhood between prisoners?

"It depends on who's afraid of who. You've got to have authority."

"And not to show fear," adds Lali.

The Georgian ambassador apparently joked that if Kandelaki had been given a three-year sentence he would have become one of those jail authorities. ' " . •

The food sounds pretty bad. Kandelaki seems to have existed on bog-like stews and boiled potatoes. "I can't complain because never filled out the menu order-sheets in advance: 1 always thought I'll be out tomorrow'." He didn't sleep well either, due to the general  prisoner racket.

Nevertheless, Kandelaki has managed to get something out of the whole experience - by writing a book on it. While in prison, he also collected memorabilia to use in his up and coming painting series. So, in a way, was prison advantageous?

"Well it will be if I get the Nobel Prize," he says, not for the first time. I have to laugh. He shows me a wooden box, containing a key the size of a cricket bat and a football-sized medallion. This is his Georgian Honored Citizen award. "Bui I need the Nobel Prize," he says. He wonders if an exchange would be possible.

As soon as things are resolved with the embezzlement court case, Kandelaki plans to return to America, where he has secured a Green Card. Would he ever go back to England?

He was invited to some official occasion, but says that he still had the airline-prison after-taste, so declined.

Does he hate England now? "England remains England. Prison is prison. Stewardesses are stewardesses."

They insist on seeing me off, right into a taxi. After all, Vladimir Kandelaki wouldn't now want to get embroiled in a case of. say. 'Missing Englishwoman' would he. "Queen of Spades" (published in Russian and Georgian, with an English version due out soon) retails at around 7 lari.