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By Peter Nasmyth Routledge
Copyright © 2006 Peter Nasmyth
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All voyages are searches in disguise, and this one to the nation of Georgia has turned out as no exception. But the discovery of this small country, in my case, must first begin with a large one its great northern neighbour, Russia.
In 1982 I sat on an Aeroflot Tupolev jet bound for Soviet Russia returning from seven months among the temple-towns and holy sites of the Indian sub-continent. Moscow was simply a three day stop-over before London. But it also marked the end of a youthful rite of passage 'searching' for something in India and of course not finding it. As I pondered the next difficult step in my life a voice came over the intercom: "We are now entering Soviet airspace. Please remember it is no longer permitted to take photographs."
Those words had a strange effect on me. Suddenly the miles of indescribably white, celestial clouds outside the window took on a form of contraband. But I also noticed they bore an uncanny similarity with those I'd seen on a Tibetan poster in northern India. Was there not some bizarre similarity between myself and this statement ostensibly concerned with aerial reconnaissance? The announcement hinted at a claim, perhaps unconscious,on that beautiful, vaporous, and constantly fluid cloudscape. A possessiveness stemming from a certainty of its own political enlightenment. Did not the culture issuing that statement, pursue a goal just as supremely idealistic as my own for spiritual enlightenment?
Within that moment a more humble beam of curiosity directed toward the giant Soviet world below and a new fascination at the psychology of motivation was born.
By chance, I also had a real mission for Moscow a letter to be delivered to religious dissidents. It would involve a thrilling taxi ride across Moscow (escaping, so I vividly imagined, KGB surveillance), en route to God knows where finally ending up at a strange doorway in the middle of a forest of grey tower-blocks.
I knocked anxiously. It opened a crack to reveal a pair of bright blue eyes, then swung open and suddenly I was drawn into a totally new world a dissident flat in Communist Moscow. I sat on the floor listening to the daughter sing songs she'd written in English, learned from the BBC World Service; watched as her trembling, deep voice sent tears rolling out of her father's eyes under walls plastered with Western magazine photographs and Russian icons. At that moment I felt I'd arrived at a centre of spirituality greater than any in Asia.
Because this father and daughter boldly wore crosses in public, they suffered the punishment of unemployment for non-conformity. I was fascinated. This country, whose 19th century I'd admired through its literature, now proved in every way worthy of Dostoyevsky with his Karamazovs and Grushenkas. They still lived, walked the streets, filled flats and living-rooms with all the same contradictory demons, saints, electrified hysteria described so eloquently over a hundred years earlier.
It was five years before I returned to Moscow. By then Mr Gorbachev and his glasnost had arrived and with it a quite different atmosphere. Standing on Gorky Street that second time, the passing faces showed more curiosity, even hope. Russian friends no longer asked me to keep my voice down when speaking in public. My newest mission to research an article on Russian avant-guard music took me to people I'd no idea existed in 1982. Heavy metal rockers, experimental jazz musicians, hippies, poets, artists, writers, even punks, throughout a large section of the former 'underground.' Seeking the new 'Notes from the Underground,' in Leningrad I was taken to see the Soviet Hari Krishnas jingling down the Nevsky Prospekt, to the graffiti covered stairway and home of Boris Grebenschikov the Soviet Bob Dylan, to meet new pop promoters and managers, and samizdat publishers. One young writer told me: "The USSR is now experiencing the unleashing of its underground. The identity crisis amid your Western youth culture is because you've forgotten your own underground, and its energy."
Indeed the streets of Moscow and Leningrad sang out with a fashionable youth rebellion. Leningrad's Saigon Café carried the atmosphere of a Portobello café in the 1960s. People were discovering 'self,' and individuality. Only here it came with the turbulent supercharge of the Russian character.
Yet to me the purity, the sheer otherness of that first 1982 visit had faded, become tainted by something familiar. It invoked the memory of our own discovery of 'freedom' in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe. Their major event, glasnost, seemed to my 'post-Western glasnost' eye, to offer the same delirium of political and spiritual confusion, the kind set into motion a century and a half earlier amid the chaos of an industrial revolution. The dilemmas Gogol, Dostoyevsky and others had investigated so earnestly.
I'd arrived expecting to find the confident new voice of Soviet youth; but instead met the proud inferiority complex of a people forced to strain their eyes at a forbidden culture for too long. An underground where the demands on artists had been quite different to ours (or even theirs at the turn of the century). For the last 50 years the instinctive call of youth had been for the same basic freedoms as us in the West. Before the subtleties of language and art could blossom, there had to come permission to speak.
But my disappointment was about to receive a healthy crack on the head.
Toward the end of my visit to Leningrad, I bumped into a remarkably frank, well-informed man at a party, who, as so often happens at parties, disappeared into one of the eddies of faces, never to be seen again. But I vividly recall our conversation.
His words came from behind a thick black moustache, in excellent, relaxed English from two years working in Pakistan, so he said. Placing his hand on my shoulder he appeared not so much to speak as to confide. I found myself astonished at this difference in manner from the impetuous, secretive Russians. Discovering my interest in the new directions in Soviet culture he insisted, almost to the point of arrogance, on giving me a brutally honest appraisal. He dismissed glasnost with a wave of the hand.
"It is a gallant but poor imitation of you in the West," he said.
Suddenly I felt that uncanny ability to grasp the Western perspective I'd sought for so long. But where had he learnt it? As I launched into my own a ideas on "the new Soviet Revolution," he stopped me short.
"It may be new here," he said, "but where I'm from it's already 200 years old."
"And where is that?" I asked, noticing his darker features for the first time.
"Georgia," came the reply, with just a hint of pride. "The Russians colonised us at the beginning of the last century," he explained. "It's been more or less the same story since then."
Then his expression grew more serious.
"If you want to know about rebellion away from this huge imperialist power you should look at Georgia. In fact it's better you go there. When you do you'll find Georgia is not 'Soviet.' It's only a part of the Soviet Union. You'll find that when the Russians say 'Soviet' they really mean Russian. Georgia is not Russian, it's not even European. The Russians see themselves as Europeans, they think they're a modern people, they put the first dog into space ... But to be this modern thing they're so proud of, they've had to push aside the rest of their history, forget all the lessons of the past. And do you know why?" He looked at me with the same faintly amused, hooked eyebrow. "Because it failed them."
He pronounced this verdict in such a charming, affable style I hardly noticed it as criticism at all. But I disagreed with his point on Russian culture, defending its modern literature as among the world's finest.
"Yes," he replied, "and you know why it's so fine? Because it describes the decline of the human spirit exceptionally well. It shows the way Western man is steadily losing his way, losing touch with his instinct. It shows a man so hungry for what he believes is modern he learns to ignore those who lived before this age, who still interpret their instinct."
He paused, then looked at me intently. "If you want to see a modern Asian culture, that's aware of this, or at least trying to be, then go to Georgia. You'll find a people whose past is still the most valued part of themselves ..."
Following this line of enquiry among Russian friends bought curious correlations with his words. Nobody seemed greatly impressed by the avant-guard music of Georgia, but many expressed a liking for the Georgians and a respect for their determined desire to hang onto their culture.
The more I inquired into this southernmost republic, the more intriguing it grew. First came the discovery that a surreptitious glasnost existed there long before Gorbachev. That it even possessed official social structures disguised within its so-called mafia. I began to hear about a nation of people with noticeably less stuffing knocked out of them from the years of Stalinism. After all, their present Soviet colonisation had been preceded by the Russians, the Turks, the Arabs, the Persians, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Romans, the Greeks. These people regarded their current masters as just another landlord in a long succession. Furthermore as all Russians admitted, they'd learnt to preserve their culture and much of their economic wealth with a cheeky good humour.
I also found the name of the republic re-occurring again and again for other reasons. Georgia was the USSR's favourite holiday resort, with a landscape of exceptional beauty and variety. In Georgia, a country the size of Ireland, people could ski in the morning, swim a couple hours later in a warm Black Sea, stand with their backs to some of the world's most awesome mountains (the Caucasus have 12 peaks higher than Mt Blanc), yet face an arid, desert terrain, where former inhabitants carved towns into hillsides as the only shelter. Georgia contained one of the world's most prolific and least known wine districts with tea and tobacco plantations thriving 40km from regions too cold even to grow tomatoes.
Every Russian I'd ever met praised the Georgian wines the most popular in the USSR, and longed to drink them at source, on Georgia's Black Sea coast, nicknamed the 'Russian Riviera.'
The more I heard about this small nation of five and a half million snuggling between mountain ranges just beyond the Turkish border, the more clearly it emerged as the richest jewel in the Soviet crown. It seemed to possess the most dramatic mountains, the most exotic agriculture, the hottest blood, strongest mafia, the most hospitable, wealthiest, religious citizens in the entire Soviet empire.
Talking to Soviet writers about 19th century literature, I then discovered that Georgia, while claiming almost no internationally known writers of its own, served as a formative inspiration to many of Russia's greatest. Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Gorky all visited the area, set major works there. Indeed the famous 19th century Russian critic Belinsky once had to admit: "The Caucasus seem fated to have become the cradle of our poetic talent, the source and mentor of its muse, its poetic homeland."
A particular favourite of mine, Lermontov, set his celebrated novel of the 1830s, A Hero of Our Time in the foothills of the Caucasus. To me, a novel strikingly more modern than many written today, and the clear forerunner to all the great 'psychological' Russian novels to follow. In it Lermontov's young hero Pechorin a Russian officer in the Caucasian Army attacks the decaying Tsarist society all around him with the kind of predatory boredom that now so saturates modern European and American culture.
Yet Lermontov possessed a huge romantic passion for the desolate Caucasian passes and its peoples. It is said his fascination with these chivalrous tribesmen gave him the strength to openly criticise his Tsar for which he, ironically, found himself banished to the Caucasian Army. Thus this early hero of modern European literature sank his archetypal roots into a soil just beyond Europe. Maxim Gorky a century later also declared: "The majesty of its mountains; the romantic temperament of its people were the two factors transforming me from a tramp into a man of letters."
Tolstoy's literary beginnings also uttered their birth-cry in the Caucasus. As a frustrated young aristocrat he travelled to the area between the crucial years 1851 to 1854. Like his predecessors he was struck forceably by the Caucasian cult of honour, chivalry and hospitality. Almost certainly it was here he found the germ of his crusading sense of natural justice. His first significant stories The Raid and Childhood were written while living in Tiflis (the former Russian name for Tbilisi), and many of those Caucasian experiences of the young writer returned to haunt his later work, particularly The Cossacks, and Hadji Murat.
Not so long ago in this century Boris Pasternak described Georgia as "my second motherland," and some argue his passion for Stalin's home greatly assisted in his survival through the purges. Alas that the same passion never saved his contemporary Osip Mandelstam who spent over a year in Georgia leaving only a few priceless impressions in letters and his Journey to Armenia, before dying in a labour camp during the purges of 1937.
So why did so much mighty literary talent find itself drawn to this remote area?
Picking up the few books on the Caucasus region, I made some guesses. Possibly because the Caucasus always represented a line of mutability between the Asian and European cultures. While Georgia is one of the earliest nations to convert to Christianity (in AD 337) second only to Armenia its people have always liked to leave a couple of fingers, if not a whole arm, in the wilder psychic regions of Asia. Its always interesting to ask a Georgian whether he's European or Asian. More often than not he'll stop and think with his European mind, then give the answer with his Asian heart, which will depend more often than not who is doing the asking.
Men like Lermontov and Tolstoy drew in gulps of inspiration from what they saw as this healthy contradiction, between a Persian culture and Christian religion. Georgia's repeated invasion from the south (several times becoming a province of Persia) had produced a blend in character; cool mountain blood mixed with the hotter Muslim Persian and Arab cultures in the planes below. Thus Georgian culture contains many Muslim elements like its elegant, balconied architecture, a more traditional role for women, and extravagant sense of hospitality. In many ways the Georgian character has taken some steps towards resolving the seemingly insurmountable polarisation between the Christian and Muslim religions, assisted by a hidden Sufi influence present in the region since the 12th century. However the Georgians themselves shy away from such analysis, preferring a time honoured love of drama and theatre, to ever being found out.
My frustrated quest into the awakening East had found focus again in an Asian country with European beginnings. Apart from sharing St George with England as its patron saint, Georgia also carried tantalising archaeological and mythological links with our own European background. The so-called 'Caucasian' races and Caucasoid Man, out of which European man was once thought to evolve, took their name from this area. Six entirely separate language groups also thrive here (the Georgian peoples have one to themselves and the other 50 or so peoples living in the Caucasus region share the other five).
Approached from its Black Sea side, Georgia was regarded by Greeks and Romans as "the ends of all the earth." Within it Prometheus had been chained to the flanks of Mt Kazbek, Jason found his Golden Fleece beside the mountain rivers of Svaneti in the Western Caucasus; and Medea, of the great Euripidean tragedy, reputedly lived with her father, King Medes in her Colchis home (today the Western Georgian area of Mingrelia). Most of these myths even today find many hints of authentication. Perhaps the most striking is the ongoing evidence of panning for gold through staked-out sheeps' hides in the lower Svaneti district hence the ethnographic link with a 'Golden Fleece.'
Georgia seemed to contain more and more of the exotica I'd once fallen for in the East. But this time the East had become resiliently Christian. Added to this came the new sounds of a political awakening. Among the Soviet Republics calling for independence, Georgia shouted with the loudest voice with its population still more than 70 per cent Georgian (some of the Baltics barely managed 50 per cent). The blood of the country seethed at another crucial juncture in its history. Rising to the surface in this ancient pot of cultures, came a bubbling a cacophony of socialism, monarchism, hysterical nationalism and liberal democratic ideas, propelled with a do-or-die ambition to launch Georgia far into the future and past, at one and the same time.
In the end of course this would produce independence, civil war, refugees, followed by a slow and painful rising from the ashes. But at that time all I saw was a wide-open blank page, and I had one new mission as the man at the party suggested to see it for myself.
Excerpted from Georgia by Peter Nasmyth Copyright © 2006 by Peter Nasmyth. Excerpted by permission.
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