Archives for category: Georgian History
25917281

Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin (image from GoodReads)

Wettlin, Margaret. Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union. New York: Wiley, 1994. Print.

Maybe I’m a little bit nosy, but I’ve always liked books that give me insight into other people’s personal lives. When I was a kid, I read my way through the biography section of the library and preferred novels that were written in diary form. I read more broadly now and will accept non-realistic elements in my books, but I still love a good memoir.

Margaret Wettlin’s story of planning to visit the Soviet Union on a one-month tour and ultimately staying 42 years certainly resonated with me now that I’ve been in Georgia longer than expected. (But I have no intention of staying THAT long!)

I think the most valuable part of this book is her recounting of her experiences during the war. Though I’ve read a decent amount of material about Russia and the Great Patriotic War (/World War Two), I haven’t before come across any first-hand accounts of the civilian experience outside the major cities or of being evacuated. Her short time in Tbilisi during the war was particularly interesting to me. I found it funny that they found a cheap “peasant’s house” in Bagebi “five miles of climb from Tbilisi”(196). Bagebi BARELY counts as a suburb these days, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cheap anything there. It was a good reminder of the huge changes Georgia underwent as part of the Soviet Union, and the further and faster development I’ve seen even in my few years here.

The greatest weakness of the book was also the most interesting part: Wettlin’s underdeveloped and unsupported political views. She never joined the Communist Party, but she certainly supported the proclaimed Soviet ideals of equality and reform. She even became an informant for the secret police in support of this dream, but when she became disillusioned that her work didn’t seem to be making things better, she quit. She is critical of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev because they made people’s lives worse, not better. She never would have gotten a good grade on a political science term paper, as she offers no evidence to support her beliefs…but who does, really? How many Americans could give real, evidence-based reasons to explain why they are a Democrat or a Republican? Of course there are many people who can, but I would wager that for the majority of people, it just feels right, as the Soviet dream initially did to Wettlin. Her opinions in this field really shed a lot of light, for me at least, on why so many people continued to support the Soviet Union for so long, despite the hardships they faced.

The book is far from perfect, but that’s a large part of why it’s so interesting. Definitely recommended reading for those interested in Soviet history.

Tangerines movie poster (image from Wikipedia)

Tangerines/მანდარინები/Mandariinid

Language: Russian and Estonian with (teeny-tiny) English subtitles

Availability: available on DVD and Amazon streaming in the US

This film was produced in a collaboration between Estonian and Georgian filmmakers and actors. It was Estonia’s nominee for the Academy Award, and made it to the short list, though it did not win. “Tangerines” is a lovely movie about older Estonian men who don’t want to leave their homes in Abkhazia (each for their own reasons), despite the escalating violence. They come across a wounded Georgian soldier and a wounded Chechen mercenary, and take them in, and the film follows the political, ethnic, and inter-personal relationships and tensions that follow. This film was purposefully very multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. The characters ultimately learn to move past their ethnic differences and prejudices to help each other in an extreme situation. As one would expect in a film about war, there is violence and sadness, but my overall feelings toward the film were positive. The only thing I didn’t like about the film was the teeny-tiny subtitles (on the edition I rented from Netflix, at least)…I had just been to the eye doctor, who cleared my vision as good, and I really had to squint to read these. I had an advantage over others, though, as I can understand the Russian part, at least! (My Estonian however, is non-existent).

I went to Tao-Klarjeti a few weeks ago. If you chose to take a break and look for that on a map, you may be very confused at this point. Tao-Klarjeti isn’t the name of anywhere anymore. It was the region where the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgian monarchs were from, and now it’s part of Turkey; the places we visited were mostly in Artvin province. It’s a pretty popular destination for Georgians to go on tours, but not somewhere many Americans visit, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join, I said “Why not?”. We went on an organized, but not guided, tour. We had two mini vans full of people, including a professional driver for each, and the organizer. The drivers were very good and did not suffer from lead foot or road rage, and the organizer had a route worked out and pre-arranged cheap hotels. We paid 270 GEL/person for a 3-day trip, which included everything except food–we didn’t stop at restaurants or stores (though one evening we went to a teahouse and bought some olives and baklava); we brought pretty much everything with us from Tbilisi, and ate in the car en route.

We left Tbilisi early in the morning and made for the Vale-Türkgözü border crossing. There was a long line of trucks, but very few passenger cars, so they let us skip ahead and we crossed quite quickly. It was interesting to see the change as we crossed the border. The geography in the region was the same on the Georgian and Turkish sides, but nonetheless it was obvious that we were in a different country–the cemeteries were different, the houses were a different style, and there were tractors and mechanized agriculture all around us. As we drove further into Turkey we got into higher and higher mountains. There was still quite a bit of snow, and we were even caught in a blizzard in the mountains between Ardahan and Savsat. There was some sort of nature reserve or natural park in the mountains, and it reminded me of the American West–pine forests, rugged mountains, and well-maintained picnic areas. As we drove through a village on the Savsat side, one whole village was outside (despite the poor weather) having some sort of festival.

Late in the afternoon, we made our first stop: Tbeti Monastery, the first of many old, abandoned Georgian churches in various states of ruin. Apparently this church survived fairly well for a long time, but was “exploded” in the mid-20th century…sounds like there’s a story there, but I didn’t get any more information than that. One of the villagers speaks some Georgian and runs a little souvenir shop (and paid toilet) next to the site. Next, we stopped at Savsat Kalesi, the former citadel of the town of Savsat (in Georgian, შავშეთი/Shavsheti) which was kind of a big deal back in the Georgian era. There are archeological excavations ongoing sponsored by the Turkish government. The fortress has some typically Georgian features–there’s a tone (traditional Georgian bread kiln) and kvevri (Georgian amphorae), and a “pharmacy” very similar to the one at Vardzia. Then we took a break from historical sites and clambered around “Hell’s Canyon” (Cehennem Deresi Kanyonu). It was a nice enough canyon, I suppose, but as I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West, a canyon in and of itself is nothing so impressive. This was the place where it became abundantly clear that our organizer’s footwear recommendations were way off the mark. She had recommended galoshes or rain boots, which I don’t have, so I wore what was closest: snow boots. Even though my snow boots are made by an outdoors/hiking brand, they are absolute clodhoppers, and I had real difficulty maneuvering through the canyon and leaping from stone to stone. I also picked up a good few kilos of mud in the treads, making me kind of miserable. But I made it through. Our next stop was the fortress Artanuji / Gevhernik. We approached from behind, and it was perched atop a sheer rock face. When my friend told me we were climbing up there, I joked about not having brought any rock climbing gear. We walked around to the other side, and though there was a path (of a sort) it was still tough climbing in the aforementioned clodhoppers. It was worth the climb, as the fortress was filled with wildflowers, and was really, really beautiful.

DSC_0091

Artanuji Fortress

After one more stop at Dolishane Church, which is supposed to have lovely frescoes, but I couldn’t tell you as it was pitch black by the time we got there, we returned to the town of Savsat and stayed in a pension run by a guy called Jemal, who is the widower of a Georgian woman and loves all things Georgia. The place was basic, but clean (until we tramped mud through), and the beds were comfy and showers were warm.

The next day, I ignored any further fashion advice and switched to my trail runners, so I had no further climbing issues. First, we drove up a narrow, windy, frightening/beautiful mountain road to Porta monastery.  We saved some time getting there by scrambling up a stream bed rather than following the path. This was once a massive complex; now much of it is buried, but bits are still accessible. The ground we stood on was once one of the upper roofs. Apparently a large piece of the dome (which is still above ground) had fallen just a few days before our visit, so I was rather wary of exploring very much. It was also interesting that the village is still inhabited, and though it’s tiny and remote, electric lines do reach up there.

DSC_0139

You can understand why bits of Porta are falling down, right?

We also visited the village spring to refill our water bottles with cool fresh water. The Georgians said it had some special health/religious properties, but I was mostly happy to get a cool drink.

Our next stop was Artvin Castle, which is now part of a Turkish military base (so no photos). At first they told us we couldn’t enter, but then a nice young soldier who spoke very good English came to escort us. On the road to our next destination, there was a distinct change in the landscape. The area around Savsat was one of the lushest, greenest places I’ve visited (we drove past a hotel called Green Valley: they were not lying), and as we went further on, the landscape become much more arid (and brown). We visited many churches this afternoon: Ishan Monastery, which was closed for restoration–the Georgian government has protested the way the Turks were renovating, allegedly frescoes were destroyed, but they seem to be back at work; Haho/Hahuli which is now used as a mosque; there are supposed to be good frescoes, but it was locked so we couldn’t see; and the Oshki Monastery, which was relatively intact except for the lack of roof, and also had an academy. Our last stop of the evening was  Tortum Waterfall, the highest in Turkey, which had rather nice tourism infrastructure and cafes. We were due to spend the night in the town of Yusufeli, so we wandered around a bit, bought some edible souvenirs, and met and chatted with a Georgian Turk in a teahouse. We then proceeded on to our accommodation at Hotel Agara, which was lovely, and a sakalmakhe (საკალმახე, trout restaurant) as well as a hotel. This day was particularly poignant as much of the area surrounding these places, apparently including the town of Yusufeli, will soon be flooded with the completion of planned dam projects. I’m not sure about the status of the historical sites themselves, though the ones on mountaintops are likely to be fine.

On the third and final day of our trip, we began at the Tekkale/Otkhta Monastery (the “Monastery of Four”), then visited Esbek, which was interesting as it was the ruins of a village, rather than a religious site. Apparently snakes like it there, though, so we had to be careful. There was also quite a view down into the valley. Then we visited Bana, my favorite of the old churches. It was really, really, ruined, but in a very picturesque way. Apparently its current gravity-defying structure is the result of being used as a military installation in the Crimean and Russo-Turkish wars. It’s also located on a small rise in the middle of a broad valley surrounded on all sides by colorful mountains, giving you stunning views in all directions.

IMG_0867

Ruins at Bana

One of the mini-vans got a flat tire at Bana, so we had to stop for repairs before we went on our way home. Along the road we saw the source of the Mtkvari, the river through Tbilisi. Our last stop was Seytan Castle (allegedly the setting of Georgia’s most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin).

DSC_0088

You remember “Where’s Waldo?”, right? This is “Where’s Em?” at Seytan Castle

We crossed back to Georgia at the Çıldır-Aktaş-Kartsakhi crossing point, which the internet says is closed, but seemed to work mostly fine for us (one of our drivers had a little trouble and was taken for interrogation because he had the same name as someone on the deportation list…it got sorted out, though). We returned to Tbilisi late at night, tired from a jam-packed three days of sightseeing.

I can’t write a post about traveling in Turkey and ignore the security/terrorism question. I thought long and hard before I chose to take this trip, and asked a lot of questions. I’m lucky that I have friends who are experts on security in the region, and family who support me in making these kinds of decisions. Just before I went to Tao-Klarjeti, the US State Department updated its Turkey travel warning, and it is kind of grim, so I debated this trip a lot. On the one hand, I really don’t want to get hurt, and on the other hand, I believe that staying at home, not going anywhere or doing anything out of fear is playing into the hands of terrorists. In summary: this particular area neither has much of a Kurdish population, nor is it near Syria, so in those ways it’s not a likely target. This is also a very sparsely populated area: the most populous town we spent any time in was Artvin, with a population of 25,771. I could count the number of other tourists we came across on my fingers. However, as this area was the Soviet-NATO border, there are a large number of military installations, and there is also a good amount of strategic infrastructure, particularly dams and reservoirs, which I was unaware of before I traveled. To be honest, there’s much more immediate danger from road accidents than there is from terrorism–the mountain roads were very steep and windy, though much better maintained than their Georgian equivalents. Overall, I didn’t feel that I was in any particular danger while I was there. My conclusion was (and is) that this is probably the safest area of Turkey to visit right now, but it’s not without risks (but even home is never 100% safe).

Heretics and Colonizers (image from GoodReads)

Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus by Nicholas B. Breyfogle* 

Breyfogle, Nicholas B. Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK in physical editions; formerly available at Prospero’s, but currently out of stock. Check your local academic library.

Let me begin by saying that this book is a little different from most of the others I have reviewed here. This is a true academic work, not a non-fiction book for the general public, and it assumes a certain amount of background knowledge. Since I have a solid background in the history of the region, I had HEARD of Dukhobors, but I was coming into this book without much specific background information, and I found it fascinating. The writing is interesting and accessible–not the snooze-fest that sometimes plagues academic writing. The research explores the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks (sometimes referred to in English as Spirit-Wrestlers, Milk-Drinkers, and Sabbatarians respectively) in the South Caucasus. These religious sects were composed of ethnic Russians, but they were not Russian Orthodox, presenting a challenge to the traditional idea of Russian nationality. Some were exiled and others chose to move to the South Caucasus, where the regime thought they would be less likely to spread their “heretical” beliefs to other Russians, but they could be of use spreading Russianness to other areas of the empire. The tsarist regime’s treatment of the sectarians and their legal status was in near constant flux. In some ways and at some times, the sectarians achieved great successes in their new homes, while the (spoiler alert) Dukhobor Movement and weapons burning resulted in retaliation and exile/immigration for many of the Dukhobors.

This was one of those books that raised a lot of questions for me and encouraged me to look up some more information and learn more. I’d be interested in reading a biography of “Queen” Lukeria Kalmykova, for example, and I’m very interested to find out what’s going on with those who remained in Georgia at the end of the time frame covered in the book. (I asked a Georgian friend, and his reply was “Yeah, there are Dukhobors in Kakheti and Molokans on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. They’re still Russians. I don’t know about Subbotniks.”)

This book is perhaps not something with widespread popular appeal, but if you are curious about the topic I strongly recommend that you read it.

*I studied under Professor Breyfogle, so you may consider me biased. I don’t think knowing him changed my opinion of the book, but it did encourage me to read it, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Flight from the USSR (Image from GoodReads)

Flight from the U.S.S.R. / ჯინსების თაობა (“Jeans Generation”) by Dato Turashvili  

Turashvili, Dato. Flight from the USSR. Trans. Maya Kiasashvili. Tbilisi: Sulakauri Publishing, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easily available in almost any book or souvenir shop in Georgia, in Georgian, English, or Russian. US/UK editions to be released February 2016.

The story of a group of young Soviet Georgians who just can’t take it anymore so they decide to hijack an airplane and defect to the West. This historical fiction novel is more on the historical side (per my quick Google research), and most of the fictionalization lies in giving personality and dialogue to the historical personages. The story was initially written as a play in 2001, while Shevardnadze (who makes an unflattering cameo in the novel version) was still in power. That was certainly a brave act of artistic resistance. The novel version of the story was published in 2008, though the play remains popular (but I haven’t seen it yet). US and UK versions of the novel are slated to be published in February 2016.

When I decided to start reading this, I didn’t realize how timely my choice of reading material was–I began just after the Paris attacks, and therefore the idea of terrorism was at the forefront of my mind while reading it. One of the main themes of the book is the oft-quoted idea that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is where you stand, and that the line between good and evil is not always clear-cut. The hijackers’ actions are not defended–everyone admits that engaging in terrorism is wrong, but they are all portrayed as sympathetic characters who are just trying to make the world better. As the novel tells it, the casualties of the hijacking were inflicted by the authorities, while the hijackers shared water with the passengers trapped aboard the aircraft. This brings into focus the harshness of life under the late-Soviet regime, and the upside-down reality that the terrorists took more care of citizens than did the officials whose duty was, theoretically, to protect them. The novel engages with the philosophical questions of violence, freedom, and the connection between the two. To me, Turashvili didn’t answer these questions; rather, he created an environment suitable for the reader to ponder them.

Though the book has a philosophical side, it remains a quick and enjoyable read. The action is fast-paced, and the prose is concise and readable. At under 200 pages, it’s also a quick read. Kiasashvili’s translation was quite good; it maintained a readable and colloquial style. The one real problem I found with this book was that the proofreading was terrible (/non-existent)! It was riddled with typos–some of them comically awkward (“shedding teats in the cemetery”) and some just bizarre (a Russian letter inserted in the middle of an English word). Note to Georgian publishing companies–I (and I’m sure plenty of other ex-pats) would be happy to check for typos in exchange for some lari. These errors prevented me from fully engaging with the book and immersing myself in it. I assume that the forthcoming US and UK editions of the book will fix these problems, making the book much more readable. I can’t speak to the quality of the Russian translation.

One last point to make is that the Georgian editions of the book (Georgian, English, and Russian) are published by Sulakauri Publishing, who have been in the news recently for an ad featuring a Hitler impersonator, which many feel is in poor taste. You may want to keep this in mind when deciding if you would like to purchase the book.

 

The Ghost of Freedom (Image from Goodreads)

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King 

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Availability: Available in both the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions. Often in stock at Prospero’s in Tbilisi.

There’s a bit of a funny story regarding how  I read this book at this moment, but if you’re not interested, feel free to skip on down to the next paragraph. The town where my parents live, and I spend lots of time on vacation, has an excellent used bookstore, so whenever I’m in town, I make a few stops there to see what I can get. I usually also volunteer to search for things for friends, since the prices are so good. An acquaintance from university is now teaching elementary school in a low-income community in the US, and she had posted on Facebook asking for donations to her classroom library. Since I had access to a good used bookstore, I figured I would pick up a few things for her kiddos. I also looked at her personal wishlist which contained lots of Russia/Eastern Europe titles, so I thought I’d try to find something for her, too. Imagine my surprise when I saw a book on the Caucasus on her list, and my shock when this was her only request that was in stock at the bookstore! So I picked it up, and I read it first before I sent it along to her.

Now, on to the book itself. I know that back in grad school, I’d checked this book out of the library many times, but I hadn’t read it cover to cover. At that point, I used it as a reference when writing papers–what year was that treaty signed? who was the leader during that event? Although it worked very well for that purpose, that didn’t allow me to appreciate just how good this book is–the writing style and structure are excellent. One of the best parts of the book is the chapter on the creation of the Caucasus in the Russian imagination–King goes beyond the usual discussion of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy (all of course, very important) and also discusses the effects of mountaineering, ethnographic missions, and the role of Circassians as sex symbols in Europe and the US in this chapter. I also learned a few new stories from this book–the Armenian Archbishop murdered in New York, and Queen Mariam’s refusal to surrender to the Russian military (which I can’t believe no one had told me before). Even though this book was published in 2008 (just before the Russia-Georgia war) it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Verdict: Read it. Read it all!

In Bloom (Image from Wikipedia)

 In Bloom (გრძელი ნათელი დღეები)

Language: Georgian with English subtitles

Availability: available on DVD in the US, scheduled as part of the “Discovering Georgian Cinema” series in Washington DC: info here

This was the Georgian movie that everyone was talking about last year, but I just recently watched it for the first time. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, though I still thought it was good, I had just heard so much hype that nothing could live up to it. The beginning of the movie made me smile because of just how realistic it was–despite the passage of 20+ years and vastly different political and economic conditions than those in the movie (it’s set in 1992), the day-to-day conversations were word-for-word what I have often heard amongst my friends, co-workers, and host family. The story is quite good, and the main characters are very believable and relatable (and portrayed by very talented young actresses). The ending, however, was unsatisfying, and one of my viewing companions compared it (unfavorably) to “one of those weird French movies from the 70s”.

The English title “In Bloom” is not a direct translation of the Georgian title “გრძელი ნათელი დღეები” (grdzeli nateli dgheebi), which means “Long, Light Days” and is also a play on one of the main characters’ name: Natela (Natia). To me, the Georgian title better suits the film: it captures the feeling of reminiscing about teenage days. Even though some of the situations and events in the film were rather dire, the characters lived their lives, and found joy in them. Despite the dark subject matter, there was a sense of lightness and hope throughout.

“In Bloom” is certainly worth watching, but personally, I preferred Since Otar Left for a view of Georgia in the 90s, and Tbilisi I Love You to represent Georgia today and its recent history.

Happy Independence Day!

(from Wikimedia Commons)

May 26 commemorates Georgia’s independence in 1918 from the Russian Empire and the short-lived independent Democratic Republic of Georgia (for a little more information, read my Super-Brief History of Georgia, or, you know, Wikipedia.  Or a book.  Books are good…)  The bulk of today’s celebrations occurred in Kutaisi with the opening of the new Parliament, but there was quite a party down on Rustaveli.  I’ll do another post later when I have my camera cord to share some pictures, but the weather was beautiful and I saw Misha!  (Misha would be more formally known as President Saakashvili)

Here‘s my follow-up post.

 

Different sets of these photographs have been floating around the internet for a few years now, but I particularly like this collection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs of the Russian Empire circa1909-1912 from the BBC.  There are some lovely shots of Central Asia, and Picture 7 shows ethnic Greek Georgians working on a tea plantation in West Georgia (I would guess Guria).

Yes!  To me the answer is simple, but there is actually quite a lot of debate over exactly what continent Georgia is on, and exactly where Europe is located.  Most people have decided on the convention that there is a geographic place where Europe ends and Asia begins, but where exactly that is is open to debate.  (Ask my classmates from grad school.  We’ve had those debates. Repeatedly).  The New York Times recently ran an article discussing the changing borders of Europe and the changing concept of what Europe means.

From worldatlas.com

The general consensus seems to be that the divider between Europe and Asia is the Urals–but they don’t reach far enough South to be helpful with determining Georgia’s location.  Geographically, the Caucasus mountains are the Southern border of Europe–in fact, the highest point in Europe is Mt. Elbrus which is right next to Georgia.  This division very helpfully puts PART of Georgia in Europe.  Georgia is not a very big country, so dividing it between two continents seems even sillier than it does in the case of Russia.

My argument that Georgia IS Europe has three main facets: process of elimination, history, and self-determination.  Process of elimination–Georgia is clearly not located in North America, South America, Antarctica or Australia.  Looking a little closer–Africa: no, Asia: eh…this really leaves us with Europe.  Historically, Georgia has been part of the European sphere of influence–it was part of the Ancient Greek world (with beautiful murals in Dzalisi to show for it), and in recent history has been under the control of Moscow, both of which are European (Yes, I am aware there are also Turkish and Persian influences).  Moreover, Georgia is a Christian country, one of the oldest, in fact, and Christianity is one of the major cultural markers of “Europeanism”.  Ultimately, though, what tips the scales for me is this: Georgians consider themselves European.  You can make a reasonable argument for Georgia’s location in either Asia or Europe, and since both arguments are legitimate I think we need to defer to the principle of self-determination and allow Georgians to lean towards Europe if that is how they feel.  Georgia is not currently a part of the political construction of Europe–the European Union or even NATO–but they have been working towards integration into both of these structures, a sure sign of self-determined Europeanness.  As many articles about EU politics remind us–“Europe is a state of mind.”