A GEORGIAN SUMMER
Whenever I talk of Georgia I have to say Georgia-Russia. Naturally Georgians will say that they are not Russians though they have been under Russian domination nigh on two centuries. Through the nineteenth century their language and culture were suppressed. They have a similar relationship with Russia as the Irish do with England or Mexicans with the United States.
Last century Georgia was the repository of soul, the romantic destination of writers and artistic Russians as Byronic Greece was to the English. Like its American namesake, it is warm, southerly and deeply Christian.
God has a hand in most things in Georgia and has been here long before Russia or even Rome. Christianity came here in the fourth century and hasn’t gone away.
I almost met God head on when a young taxi driver taking me down T’bilisi’s great Rustaveli Boulevard crossed himself seven times passing the cathedral. As he kissed his plastic Jesus we swerved sickeningly into the oncoming traffic. Felicitously the driver in the car heading straight for us was crossing himself too and swerved blissfully out of our way.
The story goes that God saved Georgia for last. He had parcelled out the rest of the world when he found some Georgians doing what they know best, having a party drinking and toasting, eating, singing and dancing. He joined them and had such a good time that He gave them the luscious jewel He had saved, the gorgeous fertile valley of orchards and vineyards with its massive mountain borders that links the
Caspian with the Black Sea, Asia with Europe, Christianity with Islam.
When the Georgians say old they mean it.
Their script and language – Kartvelian, one of the South Caucasian group which includes Mingrelian, Svan and Tat – is ancient and unique. T’bilisi’s Old Town lives up to its name and is a dusty leafy maze of narrow twisting streets, shady squares and faded brick and wood houses with balconies and courtyards festooned with vines. I am addicted to it and walk mindlessly for hours through the back streets, entranced by the rickety balconies, until hunger calls. The Turkish Moslem quarter, cheek by jowl with the Jewish area, has tea rooms for a lazy brew by the old cupolas of the sulphur baths.
T’bilisi’s boom years were at the turn of the century and most of the town has elegantly tall dilapidated buildings and boulevards full of trees and birds. Though times are hard right now, it is a joy to walk through and to eat in.
Georgian food is wonderful and very cheap. T’bilisi’s gigantic food market is spectacular with everything from sucking piglets to mountains of fruit. Some tastes are rich, like the walnut sauces served with aubergines, meat and fish, and others clean and sharp like redcurrants, or the astringent sweetness of black pomegranate sauce on fried sturgeon. They liberally use chili, garlic and herbs known and unknown.
Of all the startling tastes, T’Qemali, a sour plum sauce unlike anything we know, is The One. Made by everyone and their granny it differs from house to house, some more chillied, some with more herbs, some green, some red.
T’Qemali. Remember, you heard it here first.
God also gave the Georgians Joseph Dzjugashvili who changed his name to Stalin.
Being brought up in an orthodox Communist family, we always had Stalin on our kitchen wall. Where our neighbours had a picture of the Pope, we had Uncle Joe. He looked benignly over us, a twinkling in his eye. His abundant moustache and glancing smile was reassuring and avuncular. An occasional pipe added to his aura of dependability.
Joseph Stalin had a great image. He looked awesome when I saw him forty years ago as a kid, stuffed and salted and laid out beside Lenin in an orange glow in the Red Square.
A fine pair of unholy relics indeed.
Now, innocence jaded by the passage of time, I wanted to see where he came from.
Gori is a couple of hours outside T’bilisi. Apart from being the Man of Steel’s birthplace it is unremarkable. In the centre, the shack he was born in has been renovated and had a Soviet Acropolis built as a bizarre canopy over it.
Behind is the Stalin Museum, a hagiographic account of the great man’s life and works. Naturally it emphasises the positive, the five year plans and winning the war. No gulags.
Walking past all the black and white photographs of the Bolsheviks, the Supreme Soviet and smiling girls in headscarves driving tractors, was like passing through the family album. It was all so familiar and reassuring. Everywhere there was the caring sharing smile of Uncle Joe.
Nowhere, however, was there a picture of Trotsky to be seen. Sixty years on since the Mexican ice pick and the museum in Gori is still not ready for redemption.
Fair enough, for would the old tyrant forgive and forget? Absolutely not. Trotsky still has no place in Uncle’s version of history so stuffed with the threat of counter revolution. In old shots of the Bolsheviks he is just a space crudely rubbed out.
In many pictures Stalin’s chum Kalinin sported a Trotsky-like beard. When I pointed at the third picture of Kalinin our guide called my bluff.
“Kalinin again” she said “Not Trotsky. You are looking for Trotsky? He is not here. Yet. We are trying to bring him back. We are working on it.” Hmm.
The picture of Joe with his mother and father spoke volumes.
Having a powerful mother myself, I have identified with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Ghenghiz Khan who all came from shadowy fathers and overwhelming mothers (Ghengiz’ mother was so ferocious she could have conquered the world alone).
Mrs Dzjugashvili looked terrifying, brute determination in her eyes, while her husband was a soft-eyed drunk. Joseph was an only child.
At the end of the museum is a ghoulish monument – a colonnaded Grecian well with a central plinth and a decapitated bronze death mask head of Stalin on a red velvet pillow. Somehow it contrives to be more bizarre than his stuffed, clothed body lying under the Kremlin walls.
Outside is the train carriage that took Uncle Joe around his vast fiefdom. It is a jewel. Built in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, wood and mirror lined with waves and curves of art nouveau, bedrooms for the boss and the staff, a kitchen with a huge wood fired range and samovar, and a conference room, it all smelled old, wooden, comfortable and very un-Soviet. I sat in Uncle Joe’s chair.
Down the avenue is one of Stalin’s last monumental statues. With a victorious irony, Coca Cola has replaced the hammer and sickle on a billboard beside him. Uncle Joe, pretending not to notice, stares out sullenly across the Gori rooftops.
What do the Georgians feel? Mixed emotions, really, but many say that he was a good Georgian boy. The murdered millions, the unholy slaughter? Well, he was a clever, strong man, good to his mother when he left Georgia, but it was those crazy Russians who twisted his mind.
Sweltering under some trees by the riverside in T’bilisi is the flea market. With current hard times folks were hocking their antique family silver but I was heading
for the Stalin stalls.
When I had loaded up with Red Army medals, collective farm banners and portraits of Stalin and Lenin, a stallholder reached under his counter and looked at me quizzically.
“Nazi stuff – like Nazi stuff?
In one swipe he had homogenised history, equated fascism and communism and erased the meaning of the Great Patriotic and Spanish Civil Wars. I took a rain check on swastikas and ran off into the Old Town.
Sunday and it was gridlock outside the cemetery. Four funerals were happening at the same time under the scorching T’bilisi sun. Everyone sweltered in their Sunday suits. The soft lowing of Georgian choirs and the swishing of incense burners at the gravesides were punctuated by mobile phones. Then a lone chant cut through.
I took this to be religious until I saw an old lady pushing a cardboard box on pram wheels through the sweating mourners.
She was selling ice cream to the grief-stricken, scraping a living among the dead.
God’s signature is writ large here.
High on a roasting ridge in the southern badlands of Georgia is just one of the country’s many magical spots, a setting for Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. Fourteen centuries ago a trail of itinerant monks realised this high spot was a sacred place.
This is David Goredje, a complex of monasteries first settled by Holy Syrian Fathers in the sixth century. A place of such high-octane holiness, they say three visits to David Goredje guarantees a first class ticket to heaven better than a month of bivouacking by Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.
We drove out through Rustavi, home of the famous Choir, not the scented cradle of Georgian music I had expected but a sprawling industrial wasteland. Noxious clouds spiralled from petrochemical factory chimneys.
Out the other side the terrain changes suddenly, rises away and sheds a thousand years. It becomes empty, ancient and arid. Kicking up dust we passed goats, sheep, donkeys and shepherds on horseback.
We stopped in the lee of a ridge out in the badlands. Primeval red dirt humps ran in lines through the valley like a brontosaurus’ spines. In this biblical wilderness I saw an old round tower and, beyond, a cascade of caves running down the side of the ridge.
An old peasant woman in black with gold teeth flashing in the thick sunlight greeted us. She wheeled round and ran off looking for her son to take me on the tour up the ridge. “Bakhtiar! Bakhtiar!” Her shouts came fainter and fainter.
As we waited in the shimmering heat I pondered on The Snakes. Friends had warned me that this place swarmed with poisonous and aggressive snakes, the “third most poisonous in the world.” It became obvious that my advisors were paranoid herpetophobics when they whispered, “Used to be a zoo nearby but they closed it and have released all their snakes. There’s more snakes than ever.”
Bakhtiar was a dark skinned young Moslem Azeri. He said he was going to take me up the ridge, out of Georgia and into Azerbaijan.
In fact he took me literally out of this world to show me the Syrian Fathers’ caves and thousand year old frescoes. He carried a stick for the snakes and for writing dates like 850 in the dust. By some subtle shift of the time-space continuum he was wearing a Nicaraguan Sandinista Daniel for President baseball cap.
At the top of the disappointingly snake-free ridge among the hot Azeri breezes we looked over the round towers and monks’ caves of David Goredje and the roasted red earth of the Georgia badlands. The other side of the ridge fell away steeply into the steppes of Azerbaijan which plunged off into infinity.
We scrambled down a path on the Azeri side, traversing the ridge high above this astonishing stretch of rolling prairie. Then, like magic, caves appeared all along the ridge. Bakhtiar took me up to these hermitages, scratching dates in the dirt and showing me the frescoes. In the caves are altars, stone beds, arches and refectory tables chiselled out of the stone.
The frescoes are ninth to eleventh century and bear the depradations of time, weather and invaders, but are still vibrant in their cavernous homes. On a white background, luminous saints, Madonnas and angels in pinks, terracotta, gold and black look out over the vast rolling Azeri sea of grass.
I have never felt such palpable transcendence. A thick veil of divinity hung in the hot shimmering air. It was positively biblical. I could feel the finality with which the Holy Syrian Fathers ended their long search and moved into God’s own caves.
It was what the Americans call one hell of a Scenic Overlook.
©Hank Wangford 22 August 1999
top of page