Tbilisi and the run out of Georgia - land of joy and sorrow
- Categorized in: August 2011
What kind of a place is Tbilisi?
There were two immediate impressions – it’s very old, and it’s European.
Geographically it is defined by a series of hills which its various districts spread amongst, and the placid river Kura that runs along its length from east to west. Throughout the city there are a large number of trees, some little parks and avenues, cobbled streets, and at every lookout point on the surrounding hills, a Georgian basilica stands, some great and some small.
The heart of Tbilisi - its hills and river
There is an Old City district right in the centre of the capital, set against the river, which is being redeveloped. The parts that have already been done, have been done extremely stylishly. Far more understated in its sophistication than the brash boulevards of Baku, it is filled with nice terraced cafes, lively bars, art galleries, carpet shops and clothes stores, set amongst the oldest churches and the as-yet undeveloped residential streets.
Carpet shop in the Old Town, Tbilisi
Other districts are under-going similar face lifts, for example the main drag in Marjanashvili on the north of the river which will soon look sparklingly new and brightly-coloured with all the old 18th and 19th century facades restored to their former glory, as well as the Vede district in the west of the city, where the Georgian elitni hang out and make their home.
The grand boulevard of the whole city, called Rustaveli Avenue, runs downhill from the statue of Georgia’s best loved poet, Rustaveli towards the Tavisuplebis Square at the centre of which stands a huge white column with a golden statue of St. George piercing the dragon mounted on top. Along Rustaveli are the Opera House, theatres, churches, the parliament building, various ministries, university faculties and many of the flagship stores of international brands.
St. George skewering the dragon on his pedestal
The two newest and most striking buildings of the whole city though lie on the northern bank, overlooking the river on two hills, and dominate the view of central Tbilisi. One is the new Presidential Palace, only recently completed, which has an enormous glass and steel dome atrium protruding from the top which looks undeniably similar to R2-D2. The other is the Tsminda Sameba Cathedral (the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity) which sits high up on the Elia Hill. It was completed and dedicated in 2004 after 10 years of construction, and is perhaps the most obvious symbol of Georgia’s revival of faith since independence from the Soviets.
The massive new Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
So all this I took in over the space of a few days as I got to know the city. Meanwhile I was also hanging around by necessity as I had to send my passport back to the UK to process a Russian visa application there – apparently the only way to obtain a Russian visa these days for a British citizen. And I used some of the time to catch up on about 6 weeks of writing – the last entry being somewhere way back in Tashkent.
I also got to know better Michael, the husband of Tata, Christina’s Georgian friend, and I met up a couple of times with Giorgi, another Georgian friend, as well.
Giorgi in fact is quite an important man in Tbilisi. He is head of the municipal government for the northern half of the city, so he could give me an idea about the development plans for his part of town, and he was obviously well-known about town. He’s very generous and hospitable, as well as being amusing company.
I also had some interesting conversations with both he and Michael together about the hot topic in Georgia – the war of 2008 against Russia over the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is naturally a huge source of contention, not least because most Georgians you speak to describe their sense that up until the war, Georgia was developing nicely, with living standards rising and the economy making strides forward. The war seemed to halt everything in its tracks, causing both political and economic problems. Of course, the war was also timed immediately before the big economic crisis hit everyone towards the end of 2008, so no doubt Georgia is also feeling these common effects on its economy as well.
But there are more direct effects from the war such as a dramatic drop in tourism (due to fears about security), an important foundation in the Georgian economy (and in my view an area of massive potential); and then a ban on the import of all Georgian products in Russia, Georgia’s biggest trading partner for a lot of key products, like its wine and bottled water.
The origins of the crisis in 2008 and the ensuing 5-day war are inevitably complicated, and go a very long way back. The two regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are essentially different problems, unified by the fact that they have Russian support and that they both want autonomy.
In a nutshell(!) (and according to a far from perfect understanding myself), Abkhazia in the northwest was a fairly defined area with its own people group who were always wanting to rule themselves. Under the old Tsarist Empire, they did exist as an unit separate from the rest of Georgia, until the Revolution came. Once the dust settled on all that turmoil, Abkhazia had been made part of the bigger Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. And so it remained beyond independence in 1991. However, immediately after independence the Abkhazians immediately tried to break away from the rest of Georgia and there was essentially a civil war over whether they would do so. Very large numbers of ethnic Georgians were displaced from Abkhazia at that time, who even now live in areas south and east of Abkhazia as refugees, in relatively poor living conditions (as well as being booted out of their homes). But Abkhazia remained part of Georgia with the majority of the population living there being Abkhazians and Russians.
South Ossetia is a slightly different problem. Lying directly to the north of Tbilisi, it is an area that historically has seen a spill over of the Ossetian people from the north. (I was told that) traditionally the Ossetians came from north of the Caucasus mountains (a formidable natural land barrier by any standards). However, under the unifying political existence of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union, Ossetians spread south over the mountains to settle in what is now called South Ossetia. There has been an underlying level of unrest based on the ethnic Ossetians’ desire to be unified with their brother people, the North Ossetians, who live over the mountains in Russia. Of course, their desire to be an autonomous and unified Ossetian republic will never happen, because as much as Russia might encourage South Ossetia to break away from Georgia, you can be damned sure they’re not going to allow North Ossetia the same freedom.
So in 2008, both these recurrent break-away movements came to a head once more, with both Abkhazians and South Ossetians stirring up unrest. (I don’t know exactly why at that time.) Whatever the rights and wrongs of the historical case for independence of each, what was clear was that when Georgia mobilized their military to keep the peace, it was essentially an internal Georgian affair, within its internationally recognised borders. But Russia didn’t see it this way. It took the opportunity to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians in the areas, which meant moving in military forces and shelling both Tbilisi and in particular the town of Gori, which is very close to South Ossetia. In 5 days a great deal of damage was done, and many Georgians (especially in Gori) were killed, before a ceasefire and withdrawal from the two regions by the Georgians was agreed.
And this left the situation as it currently stands. Neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia are internationally recognised as autonomous states, except by Russia (and perhaps a couple of others), but nor are they practically now part of Georgia. Special permits are required to enter, they are occupied/protected by Russian military forces, and there ain’t a whole lot that Georgia can do about it.
Despite these problems, or maybe because of them, Saakashvili, the young president of Georgia remains quite popular. His popularity is not on the unrealistic level of say the Uzbek president Karimov or the former Azeri president Aliyev where “everyone” says they love them, but in my view it is more healthy and realistic. I think something over half of Georgians like him (according to polls) which to me represents something approximating a normal democracy (whatever that really means). He is a modernizer and you could say a westernizer. Most people get his vision for where he wants to take the country, and they see that happening by forging closer links with the west, and coming out from under the over-powering influence of Russia (not easily done).
Apart from politics and economics, the whole emphasis on Russia through the Soviet period is being rolled back. So, for example, English is now taught and promoted as the second language in schools, with Russian (in some areas) being scratched from the school curriculum, meaning some Russian language teachers need to find some other means of gainful employment. I mentioned in the previous article, the more or less complete removal of Russian Cyrrilic script from public places. Of course you can find some, but when compared with other ex-Soviet countries, it is absolutely minimal. If there is any transliteration done, it is usually using Latin letters.
So do the Georgians hate the Russians? I would say, no. They are more exasperated by them. Or at least by their government and its policies. But they have a typically (and perhaps historically) upbeat last word about all this.
Giorgi said to me, “You know, it doesn’t matter if someone wants to take over our country. If they’re Russians or the Turks or Persians before them. Let them come. We have time. We’re not going anywhere. And you know what? It’s OK, because before very long, we’ll Georgianise them.”
It is no accident then that the enormous statue of freedom that stands watch over the sleepy city of Tbilisi carries a sword in her right hand and a wine cup in the other! Indeed I’m not so sure that they didn’t start to Georgianise me by the time I’d left their country.
The Statue of Freedom - standing above Tbilisi
Other than getting to know Tbilisi better, I also took a day trip out to the cave monasteries of Davit Gareja, a remote spot on the rocky and wind-swept escarpment to the east of the capital that looks down across the border onto the plains and deserts of western Azerbaijan. The monasteries date originally from as long ago as the 6th Century AD. The way in which the monks carved out dwellings for themselves there is interesting and there are some impressive frescos still visible (though in very poor condition) within a number of these caves. However, the thing that struck me was its dramatic position, both geographically and historically.
The cave monastery at Davit Gareja
If you stand on top of the escarpment and look east, the cliffs drop away from you for hundreds of feet, and then break into a curve of grassland and open plain that stretches as far as the eye could see, framed in the extreme distance to the north by the mountains of the Caucasus, and to the south by the highlands that lead to Armenia. But this, for centuries, was the fault line of Christendom and Islam. These monks, if you like, were the extreme outpost of the Christian faith, and the first point of contact with those great and terrible invasions from the east. The Mongols came this way in the 13th century. Timur the Great with his army came this way in the 14th. The powerful Persian ruler Shah Abbas again in the 17th. Each came with thousands upon thousands of men.
The lookout east from the ridge of Davit Gareja
One can easily imagine sitting up there in quiet contemplation with the wind blowing eastward and watching the eagles riding the thermals in the sun, catching the first glimpse of something moving on the horizon. Or perhaps you were mistaken and it was just a trick of the light. But then something more, another flash. And another. Now dozens. And a growing shadow on the ground, spreading out like an inexorable ooze. Watching and waiting, an icy horror taking hold in your belly, as a horde of thousands and thousands slowly filled the plain before you, coming closer and closer. And knowing only one certainty. This meant your doom.
At least that’s what I imagine it would have felt like. And indeed, for the monks who lived at Davit Gareja when Shah Abbas invaded, it meant just that. He had 6,000 of the monks executed and destroyed most of their monasteries and artistic treasures.
Anyway, eventually my passport arrived back in Tbilisi, with the all-important Russian visa. (Many thanks to all who helped get it!)
So I set off for the Black Sea coast, and Batumi – Georgia’s second city and the summer playground of large numbers of Georgians.
My route took me through Gori, where I stayed the night. Gori, as I said, came under heavy shelling during the 2008 war and there were some signs of this. Although most people managed to evacuate, many old people had nowhere to go, and many hundreds (if not more) were killed.
The centre of Gori
Gori is also well known as the birthplace of Georgia’s most famous and infamous son, Iosif Iugashvili. Never heard of him? His better-known name – Joseph Stalin.
If ever you have a chance to pass through this part of the world, a visit to the Stalin Museum in Gori is well worth it. If nothing else, because of the sheer wealth of material documenting this man’s life, and consequently a very significant period in world history (and the free guide is excellent). As well as dozens of documents, books, pamphlets, clothing, diplomatic gifts and random paraphernalia that come from his life, outside the museum stands the actual house in which he was born and raised to the age of 4 (preserved under a large stone structure), and the private railway carriage in which he would travel (he distrusted airplanes), complete with conference room at one end, and the very washbasin before which he must carefully have groomed his lovely moustache.
Stalin's personal train carriage - that carried him to the Yalta Conference
with Churchill and Roosevelt, among other places.
His legacy in Georgia is mixed. Older people generally like and respect him, younger people less so. But even some of them respect him as a strong man who, after all, defeated Hitler. The ruthlessness and cruelty with which he ruled the Soviet Union for 30 odd years doesn’t apparently extinguish the admiration due to him for taking the Soviet Union from the cart and horse into the space age.
The curious arrangement for the preservation of Stalin's birthplace,
still in its original location.
However, interestingly, after 2008 the massive statue of him that stood in the wide open central square was removed – leaving the square looking very bare. And a new section was added to the museum which, very cursorily, alludes to the political repression, gulags and state terror that he propagated during his rule.
Whether Georgians revere Stalin or are revolted by him, he certainly never showed Georgia any special partiality for being her son. Quite the opposite, as Georgia endured as hard a time as any soviet socialist republic under his rule. But I heard a story that I found quite revealing in this regard. During the Great Patriotic War (World War II), Stalin’s son, serving as an artillery officer, was captured by the Germans at the Battle of Smolensk. Later in the war, the Germans offered to switch him with the German Field Marshal Paulus, captured at the Battle for Stalingrad. Stalin refused, saying he would not exchange a Marshal for a common lieutenant, and if he were to rescue his own son, what could he then say to the millions of Russian mothers whose sons remained in captivity. His son later died in a German concentration camp.
This story was told to illustrate Stalin’s great patriotic impartiality and love for his people. Of course, the flipside is that it reveals a man who could detach himself rather easily from the bonds of fatherhood. When you realise this, it becomes much easier to see why Georgia would be foolish to expect any particular favour from him under his rule, simply because he himself was a Georgian.
And they got none.
Beyond Gori, my journey continued, and was rather lovely riding through fruit-laden valleys, a couple of moderate climbs up over wooded passes and then a long flowing descent down a beautiful, almost serene valley towards the city of Kutaisi, the air filled with the delicious smells of roadside restaurants roasting shashlyks over open grills. Even though this road is the main artery linking the three big cities of Georgia – Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi – it might as well have been a scenic highlight for any other country.
Kutaisi came and went in the dark. I passed through fairly quickly, with a stop-over in a guesthouse in the centre of the town, where I was greeted with quite overwhelming hospitality by the old couple that owned the house – Suliko and his wife Mediko. To say the wine flowed freely is an understatement. Suliko is a famous drinking companion, even though I can’t say I expected or was up for that on arrival. But at the production of an array of drinking horns, ornamental swords, and caraf after caraf of his home-made white wine (if you could call it that), the little band of guests around his table that night made quite a merry company.
Home entertainment, courtesy of Suliko
The following day I closed out the ride to Batumi which continued to be rather attractive, though much flatter, and soon after lunch I reach what must be a significant landmark – the Black Sea. All along the coast is filled with an atmosphere of summer – half-naked holiday-makers flip-flopping around the streets, as the road follows the coastline south. Open bars and restaurants, thumping music, ice cream shops, a million signs offering rooms for rent, burnt skin from too long in the sun – as well as beautifully bronzed limbs. It felt like the Mediterranean without the drunken English people.
Great fun for people-watching.
Eventually I arrived in the little town of Chakvi, a few kilometres short of Batumi itself, where I would meet Michael and Tata (friends of my sister-in-law Christina) once more, and Michael’s Australian friend Evan. They were staying in a local resort hotel which was owned by one of Tata’s friends. Very kindly, they arranged for me to stay there with them too.
The lights of the Hotel Oasis, Chakvi
We then spent a great couple of days – essentially on vacation. Swimming in the sea, sun-bathing, talking a good deal. In fact the talking was the best bit. Both Evan and Michael I found fascinating company, and we covered everything from marriage, to kids, global economic crises, literature, music, conspiracy theories, religion, travel and… well, Georgians.
I’d love to go into some of these discussions, but I fear there’s probably not the space.
We all went out for an evening in Batumi and promenaded along the Esplanade along with some of their friends, and several thousand other Georgians, all of whom flowed passed one another in one big enjoyable and sociable melée.
Batumi has an established history of enjoyment. Although it is a functioning port, and historically (think ancient Greeks) was an important trading post of the Black Sea (as it is today), it flourished a good deal at the turn of the 20th century when the oil industry in Azerbaijan was booming and Batumi, located at a junction for the outgoing oil to the rest of Europe, benefitted from this boom as well. Besides this, it attracted a number of artists and literati of the day, who could sit by the seaside and wax lyrical about the Caucasus (or whatever they wanted). And they did. And Batumi retains something of this artistic flavour. The architecture is bright, attractive and interesting, and like Tbilisi, the new developments in the city (as they get more and more of it done) work very well.
New developments on the streets of Batumi
It is a thoroughly enjoyable place to take a vacation. Lord help them if Michael O’Leary and Ryanair ever get wind of a profit from sending hordes of oafish English people into this charming mix. I can’t imagine anything more tragic.
What can I say.
What a wonderful country. What wonderful people.
When I lived in Moscow, I met some Georgians living there who would go misty-eyed when I would ask them about their country. “Oh, you see,” they would say, “you know how God made Georgia? It was an accident. One day God knocked his table, and all the good things fell from his table and landed on the earth. And see, where they came to rest, the land of Georgia was formed.”
It is a nice idea. And who am I to disagree?
The time came to walk through passport control, and I found I had a lump in my throat as the customs officer smacked down her exit stamp in my passport.
How odd to feel this sadness about leaving a place.
And yet, onward I must go.
I love Georgia - can you tell?
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