I’m one of that vile species called secondary teachers. Midway through the awful year of 2000/2001, I thought it might be appropriate to book a tour to a place that has seen enough conﬂict over the centuries to make our own dispute less than a footnote- Georgia, of the former USSR.
Georgia is dominated by the Caucasus mountains- a chain pushed up by the same processes that formed the Himalayas. The only difference between these ranges is their respective heights. In every other way, dusty valleys, alpine meadows, forested slopes and snowy peaks- you have little to choose between Pakistan and Georgia.
And there the similarities end. But for the fact that Stalin was born there, none of us would have heard of Georgia until the USSR broke up some years ago. Of all the old republics, Georgia was one fairly well placed to go it alone. It had oil-lots of it, minerals, timber, a thriving wine industry and an able leader from the old Kremlin, Eduard Shevardnadze. So far, however, it’s been a story of exploitation by foreign entrepreneurs or the country’s own leaders. The average Georgian is probably poorer now than 20 years ago.
Our trip to Georgia began in the capital Tbilisi, a green city in the mountains. In the old Soviet days, a ride up the funicular railway for a spectacular view was mandatory- now it’s closed. There’s no money to keep it open. Then there’s the Metro. Built in 1967, it’s a pale shadow of the Moscow subway, but it works. Still open are the Museum of Fine Art and the State Museum.
There are money exchanges that conduct their business with absolutely no hassle. And there are the churches. Georgia is full of them. Some are in ruins. Some are hidden in cities or forests. Some are on mountaintops, requiring you to walk for hours to reach them. They are all Orthodox churches, poky and dark inside, with spires like obese candles. Many of them are taller than they are broad. But, inside them, you have the beautiful frescoes and paintings of every New Testament scene. You’ll see the distinctive Georgian crosses with their drooping arms and even if you’re a total non-believer, you’ll find yourself lighting candles. I must have lit a candle for every one of my dead forebears and a few more besides …
Later in the trip, I visited some old cave towns set in bare rock hills near the Turkish border. And, sure enough, there were the inevitable frescoes.
One day, after an idyllic mountain drive, we went right up to the border with one of Georgia’s breakaway regions. These areas are effectively under Russian control and will remain that way unless Georgia reasserts its claim to them and brings the hell of warfare down on itself again. Chechnya isn’t far from here. We didn’t linger at this frontier, let alone cross it- Rarely have I seen border guards exude such menace. Another time, maybe.
No trip to Georgia is complete without a visit to Gori and the Stalin Museum. I was almost aghast to see the man portrayed as a hero. The museum consists of pictures, documents and other bits and pieces e.g. railway carriages, depicting the great man’s life and achievements. You get a guided tour and after an hour-long talk, in which the words ‘purge’ and ‘gulag’ are omitted, you’ll think he’s a hero too. Georgia apparently escaped the worst of his excesses- the word is that he was afraid of what his mother would have to say to him.
We saw the ancient Hellenistic city of Vani, destroyed by Mithridates who was later crushed by the Romans. And lots, lots more … Our guide was the lovely Markka. She was a little girl when the Soviet Empire was imploding. One week, she and her sister were at a pioneer camp when fierce fighting began. They were brought home by a circuitous route to their parents in Tbilisi, who had feared they were dead. All too often in Georgia, and not just Georgia, that’s a nightmare that came true.
Written by Paul Holland
Published here 10 Jul 2023 and originally published Chrietmas 2001