Thomas Goltz 1954-2023
War journalist, educator, and all-round maverick Thomas Goltz died on July 29. He rose to prominence in Eurasia with his unique first-hand reports from conflicts in Georgia, Chechnya, and especially Karabakh, where he was one of the first to report the Khojali massacre.
Image: Onnik James Krikorian
Thomas Goltz was born in an elevator in Japan to an American military family, but later saw North Dakota and then Türkiye as home. In the summer of 1991, he found himself “boarding an aircraft bound for Baku… not even really aware of where I was going until I got there.” He ended up as one of very few Western journalists to witness first-hand Azerbaijan’s fitful emergence into independence. He visited Khojaly very shortly before the massacre of 1992, and his reports alerted the international media about that horrendous event.
In a statement yesterday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that Goltz had “made an invaluable contribution to conveying the true voice of Azerbaijan to the world,” but he was by no means an uncritical supporter of Azerbaijan. Indeed an early edition of his ground-breaking book Azerbaijan Diary was originally titled “Requiem for a would-be republic: The rise and demise of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.” Both books included excoriating critiques of all sides in the Karabakh conflict, the first suggesting most strongly that Azerbaijan was in imminent danger of becoming a failed state. The less pessimistic re-issue became part of a trilogy including Georgia Diary, covering that country’s tribulations in the post-Soviet world, and Chechnya Diary, recounting a mission during which Goltz miraculously escaped from the 1995 Samashki Massacre by being mistaken for a Buddhist monk thanks to his smooth-shaven scalp.
In 2000 he organized the bizarre Oil Odyssey, a 1700km journey through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye by old Soviet-era Ural motorbikes with sidecars. The aim was to follow (and publicize) the putative route of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, that was then still a hope rather than a reality, and deliver the first barrel of oil via that route. Although becoming a Professor of Political Science at Montana State University, Thomas continued to write with love and honesty about the region, covering subjects as diverse as the building boom in Baku in 2005 to the exciting if ultimately heart-breaking 2014 Europa League season of Azerbaijan’s ‘displaced’ soccer team FK Qarabag.
Meeting Thomas was always unforgettable. With his wide, bald scalp set off by bushy eyebrows and an even bushier moustache, he cut an imposing physical figure. It was impossible not to be as entranced with his storytelling, nor with his prodigious ability to down vodka.
When I interviewed him in 2022 for the Caspian Podcast, he was suffering from a wide variety of ailments and severely reduced mobility. Yet far from slowing down, he headed off to hitch-hike through Latin America (with a walking cane!). Since Covid, he’d published Türkiye Diary (aka 'The Bridge') and Zakhrafa on the ‘disappearing’ Middle East then, re-released the book Assassinating Shakespeare about his experiences as a drama student putting on one-man plays around war-torn Africa in the 1970s. As recently as May 2023, he visited Shusha and Baku, speaking about his experiences of the 1990s.
Thomas Golz was a larger-than-life character who brought unique and highly important perspectives to the understanding of Eurasian affairs through a remarkable life and a body of work that could never be duplicated.