SOVIET GEORGIA; WHERE 'EVERY PEASANT IS A PRINCE'
"Everyone who writes a book on Russia writes the kind of book he or she would most like to have read before going there," Elizabeth Pond says, "and I have done the same." Miss Pond, who was the Monitor's Moscow correspondent for two years and is now its Bonn correspondent, has writtenm "From the Yaroslavsky Station: Russia Perceived by Elizabeth Pond," which is about to be published in New York by Universe Books. The following excerpt is used with permission.m
Vakhtang was handsomely moustached, impulsive in his movements. He personified what Russians think of -- half warily, half with that eternal envy of the northerner for the carefree southerner -- when they call Georgians "temperamental." He spoke, and sang, with a vibrant baritone. He and his mates had come to Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain), to the 12th-century church with graveyard on the slope above Tbilisi that is the pantheon of Georgian poets, actors and educators.
The seene could have been Mediterranean, even Florentine. The late-afternoon sky was pink behind gray clouds. The hills were pinned to earth by black Van Gogh cypresses. As at the Piazzale Michelangelo the view was of tiled roofs and laundry-strung balconies stepping down to an S-curved river. As in Tuscany, a certain nobility of style co-existed with an etfervescent joie de vivre.m In Georgia, it is said, every peasant is a prince.
In Georgia, it might be said further, every peasant becomes that prince at Mtatsminda. In the early morning grandmothers climb the steep road to pray at St. David's. In the evening students gather there to sing the haunting folksongs handed down over 17 centuries in one of the world's oldest unbroken oral traditions. The harmonies are close, with a dissonance that sounds contemporary to a 20th-century ear.
"How did you learn to sing?" I asked Vakhtang. He was astonished by this odd query about natural bodily function; "I breathe; I eat macaroni; I sing!" he replied. Every Georgian baby, it seems, dances as soon as he walks, sings as soon as he speaks, and improvises on the three-stringed pandurim as soon as he can manage a spoon.
Vakhtang excused himself from his friends' company, and proceeded to give me a tour of the cemetery.
The first tomb was that of Russian writer and epigrammatist Alexander Griboyedov, an honorary Georgian by virtue of having loved and married the daughter of the great 19th-century Georgian poet Ilya Chavchavadze. Griboyedov was exiled to Tbilisi for his sympathies with the Decembrist revolutionaries of 1825, Vakhtang recounted acidly, "because Georgia was barbarian. Georgia, which was Christianized and got an alphabet half a millennium before Russia!" Bitterly , he went on to describe the humiliation of 150 years under Russian rule.
Did I know, Vakhtang asked, that Georgian culture was two and a half thousand years old? that Prometheus's defiance was set in Georgia's wild mountains, the highest in Europe? that Jason searched for his golden fleece in these same mountains? To Greek mythmakers, as to later Russian writers, Georgians were romantic heroes, their country the mysterious, vital meeting place of Europe and Asia.
Pushkin and Lermontov were inspired by Georgia. Pasternak eulogized: We were in Georgia. You can get this land If hell is multiplied by paradise, Bare indigence by tenderness, and if A hothouse serves as pedestal for ice.
By the third century BC Georgia had established its capital 25 kilometers from present-day Tbilisi at Mtskheta -- had I seen that yet? -- a church and fortress at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers that is like no other place on earth. Georgian churches do not repeat the Russian oniondome motif that contradicts a featureless forest. Instead, the traditional architecture of the Ivari Church at Mtskheta grows organically out of the mountain that drops precipitously from it on three sides. Neighboring peaks fade away in receding layers of evanescent blue. It's the soul of Georgia you see there.
By the Mtskheta era, established poetic forms had already taken shape that are still sung by today's storytellers in shepherd villages perched on the Caucasus Mountains. By the 5th century there was a written literary tradition, and in the Middle Ages some Greek classics that survived in no other tongue were preserved in Georgian translations. The language -- a linguist's delight and a casual traveler's nightmare -- is of unknown origin, bearing no relation to the continent's mainstream Indoeuropean languages. It has a peculiarly rich vocabulary for poetry, as it never discards old words even as it evolves new ones. And don't believe the charlatans who claim that Georgian is related to Basque, Vakhtang cautioned. There are 300 cognates -- including the ancient name for Georgia, Iberia -- but there is no grammatical link.
The Georgians were conquered successively by Romans (first century), Persians (6th century), Arabs (7th century), Turks (11th century), Mongols (13th century) , Tamerlane's Tatars (14th and 15th centuries, in a wave of eight separate invasions), and, alternately, Turks and Iranians (16th and 17th centuries). Finally this Orthodox Christian outpost sought the protection of Orthodox Christian Russia and was annexed by Tsar Paul in 1801.
The Georgians were few in number -- never exceeding today's three and a half million -- but they clung tenaciously to their individual culture through all of this. And when cultural nationalism swept Europe in the 19th century, Georgia was more than ready for it. Galaktion Tabidze -- Vakhtang stopped to pay reverence to his memorial -- wrote poetry with a "mathematical compression" that turns flabby when translated into other, looser languages. "Akaki," another poet buried here, is so familiar to Georgians that he is universally referred to by his first name only.
Shakespearean actor Akaki Alexeevich Khorava rests under a flat pediment of a stage -- and there Vakhtang, like every aspiring Georgian actor, paused to declaim some impassioned lyrics and absorb the spirit of Khorava. At any moment I expected him to shed his sandals and explode into the male dance of leaps on toes protected only by the softest glove leather.
No! Vakhtang said fiercely. No collections of these poets' works -- or poems by their heirs executed in the 1930s purges, Titian Tabidze and Paolo Yashvili -- are to be had in bookstores in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. And the 12 th-century epic poem "Knight in Tiger Skin" is available only in Russian, not in the original Georgian. He deplored the constant attempts to Russify books, schools and customs in Georgia. In universities the USSR Ministry of Education is forcing students to write dissertations in the Russian language, even if the topic is Georgian linguistics, he said. And Moscow's constant compaign against "harmful traditions" tries to curtail the drunken four-day weddings and funerals that are the wellsprings of Georgian life, even if they do hurt production. "If they heard me say this, they'd kill me," Vakhtang added apprehensively.
We left the cemetery. It was long after dark by now, and it had begun to rain. The caretaker, whom Vakhtang had sweet-talked into leaving the ground open an extra half hour, grumbled and locked the gate behind us with a demonstrative clang. Apart from us, the hillside was deserted. Vakhtang's elation of a few moments before was transported into a rage. He spat out, "We are a little colony of Russia -- in this day and age! What wouldn't we be today if we weren't a colony of Russia?!" He steered us away from the road, and we slid down a muddy trail for some minutes in silence. Then, didactically, he asked, "How do Georgians survive?"
Partly by outplaying the Russians at their own games, he suggested. His tone mixed pride and accusation. In the original Russian empire, based as much on medieval religious as on national concepts, such assimilation was natural. And the land-owning Georgian nobles, who felt more comfortable with their Russian counterparts than with Georgian serfs, integrated easily into the Russian world. Peter Bagration, famed as a Russian general in the war with Napoleon, was actually a Georgian prince. George Balanchine, ballet's ageless Russian-Parisian-American, started life as a Georgian (ne Balanchivadze).
Today, Georgian philosophers, mathematicians, and tennis players operate at the top of their fields, in Moscow as in Tbilisi. (And some of them even find it a positive relief to live in Moscow away from the oppressive hospitality demanded of Georgians of their status at home). In films, Otari Ioseliani is one of the two best contemporary Soviet directors. And Georgian moviemakers manage, rather better than their Russian colleagues, to get away with portraying lyrical misfits in society or poking fun at a macho soccer team that lost to foreigners.
In linguistics, the Tsereteli Institute of Oriental Studies has recently made what promises to be the world's first breakthrough in a century and a half in reconstructing that original Indoeuropean proto language to which Georgian is unrelated. In chess, the world women's champion is a Georgian who won the title as a teen-ager, and the 16-year-long champion she unseated in 1978, the only woman International Grandmaster in the world, is also Georgian. The Soviet Union's most popular guitar balladeer, Bulat Okudzhava, is half-Georgian as well.
In education, Georgia today boasts the second highest level of any republic in the Soviet Union. (Armenia just edged past it in the 1979 census.) In the Soviet Communist Party, Georgia has the highest proportional representation of any republic. Besides, Vakhtang added slyly, Georgia has the gladioli and tangerines that Muscovites crave.
He checked my reaction, correctly assuming that after living in Moscow I would have a stereotype of Georgians as well-heeled black marketeers offloading produce grown on private plots in the northern farmers' markets. Indeed, Georgian farmers are constantly being chided in the Soviet media for hiding their production from state purchasers, then flying to Moscow with suitcases bulging with oranges -- or organizing an entire village to knit woolen garments for mail-order sales or, in one cooperative venture, bulldozing an entire new road over the mountains into Russia to avoid vegetable patrols on the Georgia Military Highway.
But those speculators aren't really Georgians, Vakhtang objected, and laid this canard too on the Russians' doorstep. They may be Abkhazians or, more likely, they are Armenians or Jews who have traditionally monopolized the middleman trade among the non-commercial Georgians.
I objected in turn. There must be some foundation for the Georgian and Russian officials' constant complaints about Georgians' private plots -- which account for a full half of the republic's agricultural output -- and about those mercenary peasants who turn a handsome profit of 50,000 rubles on 10 tons of tangerines. I have met Georgian collective farmers who have organized bootleg fruit and vegetable traffic. And the rubles floating around Georgia must come from somewhere; Georgian personal bank savings are almost double the Soviet average, and Tbilisi competes with Kaunas, Lithuania, for the highest per capita ownership of motor cars in the Soviet Union.
Vakhtang remained unconvinced, as have other Georgian friends. Georgians are not merchants, Vakhtang repeated; they are artists: singers and movie directors and politicians who are so good that they accept the Russian rules and still win. Just look at Yosip Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili.
"Well, what about him?" I challenged Vakhtang. "What about the purges?"
"They were needed to chase out capitalists and kulaks." Vakhtang shot back the rote answer sardonically. But then, solemnly, he added, "Stalin was a great man." Remembering Stalin, he implied, was the second secret of Georgian survival today.
Vakhtang was embracing the violent ambivalence that Stalin inspires in his compatriots. To the Georgian intellectuals -- whom Stalin persecuted more ruthlessly than any other Soviet nationality except the Azerbaijanis -Stalin is anathema. But to the Tbilisi cobblers and drivers who rioted against Khrushchev's de-Stalinization in 1956 and who today hang the Georgian leader's icon-like portrait in their shops and buses, Stalin is the folk hero who put minuscule Georgia on the map of the world. It is one of the supreme ironies of history that Stalin -- who forcibly ended Georgia's three-year secession from Russia with the intervention of the Eleventh Red Army -- should have become the focal point of Georgian nationalism.
The real Stalin, the intellectuals argue, was a reject from Georgian society who wreaked vengeance on that society. He was a shrewd calculator who compensated for his own Georgian minority status in the Russian empire by championing a Slavic chauvinism that even founding father Lenin tbought repugnant. In World War II he cynically manipulated Georgian loyalty to him and mounted a special campaign to recruit his countrymen. Georgian youths responded, and this small republic -- even though it never had any fighting on its own territory in the war -- lost 350,000 killed, a tenth of its population and the highest casualty rate in the whole devastated Soviet Union. Yet the Georgians' reward was the exile to Central Asia in 1952 of a further 100,000 Georgians Stalin didn't trust. Exile was particularly onerous to Georgians who, unlike the neighboring Armenians, have stuck to their home soil over the centuries and rarely emigrated.
Stalin's animus toward his native land extended to refusing to speak a single word of Georgian in later years. He disowned his former Georgian life -- including his very Georgian-looking son by his first marriage. Svetlana Alliluyeva, his daughter by a Russian wife, described her father as "completely Russified" and quoted her brother as saying, "You know, Papa used to be a Georgian once." Did Vakhtang know that? I asked him. But he took such a slur as a personal affront. The mood was broken. At the bottom of the hill we parted company, abruptly and stiffly. I never saw him again.