On August 7th, Russia responded to a Georgian attack on the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, with a massive deployment of troops across the border and attacks on the Georgian cities of Gori and Poti. This open act of aggression brought an end to the “frozen conflict” between the countries that has lasted since the early 1990s. In an attempt to understand the cultural implications of these recent events, we approached writers and artists in the region for their take on the difficult relations between the two countries. In our first dispatch, Irakli Iosebashvili, novelist and editor at the Moscow Times, speaks about the popular Russian romance with Georgian culture, and wonders about who could have set these two nations at war with each other.—Editors
It’s a few weeks before the start of the war, and I’m a guest at the dacha of Sergei Ivanovich, a retired Moscow police inspector. We’re sitting in a gazebo of sorts, not quite drunk but well on the way, there’s a pot of ukha (Russian fish soup) burbling over a campfire, and I’m holding a shot glass full of vodka in my hand, saying a toast.
“Gentlemen, right now I’d like to drink to a stream, running crystal clear in the mountains…”
The stream represents money, which, back in Georgia, is sort of impolite to mention at the table and is therefore referred to metaphorically. This particular stream doesn’t freeze in winter, nor does it run dry in the summer. It keeps on flowing, and that is how, gentlemen, the money should flow to our pockets.
In Georgia, where toasting is highly ritualized and there are hundreds of toasts for every occasion, each one more lyrical than the next, the one about the mountain stream is considered the height of banality, something that any self-respecting nine-year-old could repeat by heart.
At Sergei Ivanovich’s dacha, it’s a hit.
“Brilliant,” sighs Sergei Ivanovich.
“The man can sure toast,” says his nephew, a rough-looking guy who tells everyone he’s in the construction business.
“If it wouldn’t be any trouble,” says another nephew, a burly lieutenant on leave from the Russian army, “could you repeat that second one you said? I kinda liked it.”
It’s one of the perks of being a Georgian in Russia. Our toasts are as long and winding as mountain passes, and while we sometimes find ourselves heartily sick of them, our Russian drinking buddies are more than happy to hear yet another one.
But the Georgian-Russian cultural connection extends to much more than simply toasting. Georgia has been romanticized by the highest echelons of Russian writers and poets, from Pushkin to Pasternak—in fact, Mikhail Lermontov in 1839 wrote “Demon,” a poem about the conflict between Georgians and Ossetians. During Soviet times, the country served as a sort of inverse world to the gray drabness of Communist Russia, a place where the climate was mild, the wine legendary, and the locals hospitable. Soviet leaders, following a precedent set by the Romanovs before them, built summer villas there, while ordinary proles came in droves to sun themselves at balmy Black Sea resorts or ski the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.
It was by no means a one-sided affair. Georgians have always gone wild for Russian literature and poetry—I personally have relatives who can’t say a sentence in Russian without making five grammatical errors, yet will flawlessly recite whole swaths of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin by heart. Georgians gazed in awe at the sheer immensity of Russia compared to their own tiny homeland and admired its muscular power on the world stage. Moscow itself has always been the place you went when you wanted to make it big, whether your field was medicine, business, or, in many cases, show business. The list of Georgians who are firmly embedded in the Russian pantheon of showbiz greats is a long one: there’s Giorgi Danelia, director of Mimino, the ultimate Soviet-era film on intercultural friendship; Vakhtang Kikabidze, a singer and actor who even today enjoys an iconic status in Russia that is equivalent to that of Tony Bennett, if not Frank Sinatra, in the United States; Tina Kandelaki, a popular talk-show hostess, and many more (including that most famous Georgia-to-Russia success story, Soso Dzhugashvili, aka Joseph Stalin).
Some of the stardust rubs off on us regular folks, too. Probably due to the way that Georgians were portrayed in Soviet films, we have a reputation for being a dramatic, hot-blooded people who are nevertheless quite simple and good-hearted when it really comes down to it. A stereotype, to be sure, but not too bad, as stereotypes go.
Recently, however, things have gone very wrong, and they don’t look like they’ll be set right anytime soon, not by all the toasts in Tbilisi, nor by all the poetry that ever flowed from Pushkin’s pen. While there has long been simmering political tension between Georgia and Russia, last week was the first time that the two nations have engaged in open, unchecked war. These days, Russian television is rife with stories of “murderous” Georgians massacring hapless South Ossetians, while each day Georgian programs show clips of the latest outrage committed by the occupying Russian “aggressors.” Earlier, any conversation about politics between my Russian friends and me was always qualified by the phrase “But that has nothing to do with us.” Now, by mutual, unspoken agreement, politics is no longer discussed, because there is no escaping the feeling that it does “have to do with us,” very much so. It’s hard not to take things personally when blood is being spilled.
The worst damage will likely come to younger generations. While those who grew up in the Soviet Union can at least fall back on memories of happier times, today’s teenagers’ perceptions of each other will be shaped by government propaganda and the tales of those who have lived through occupation.
Towards the end of my night at Sergei Ivanovich’s, when most of the vodka was gone and his nephews were snoring away with their heads on the table, he took me around to the back of the house, where he kept a small garden.
“You know what these are?” he asked, grabbing a bunch of foliage that was climbing up the sides of his house. “Grapevines. My friends sent the seeds from Georgia.”
There are many types of drunks; Sergei Ivanovich is the weepy, sentimental kind. Presently, his lips trembled and his voice became thick and choky.
“Those fuckers,” he said, shaking his fist at some cabal of invisible fuckers in the sky. “They’re trying to set two great countries against each other, but they’ll never succeed. Never!”
But it looks like they have.
Irakli Iosebashvili was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, grew up in New York City and now lives in Moscow, Russia, where he is an editor at The Moscow Times. His short story collection, If You Look at Me Again, I’ll Burn Your Eyes Out With This Cigarette, about Tbilisi in the chaotic ’90s, is currently being shopped around.