Source: Croatian Traveller
At night, Tbilisi is almost beautiful. All the things that appeal to the eye are lit with spotlights. The magnificent cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the new American-style presidential palace, granite kings from Georgia’s golden age, the glass bridge and ancient churches. Looking at the nightly edition of Tbilisi from one of the viewpoints around the city, it is hard to believe that the “White House” of president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili is surrounded with dirt roads, and that there are hovels not far from the magnificent cathedral.
Even on the main tourist route, on Levalidze’s cobblestone road that leads to the old city center, a homeless man sleeps sweetly right on the pavement, with a bottle of Tiflis brandy by his cardboard headboard. On metro stations, far from the glamorous lights, women and children beg. The pedestrian tunnels are living rooms and bedrooms for many of them. The showcase Sote Rustaveli Avenue, occupied by leading international brands will take you straight to the squalor of satellite settlements and wild markets where the former proletariat is smuggling goods. Three wars, Russian blockade and political adventurism heavily wounded what used to be the merriest Soviet republic, vine growing arcadia where the toasts lasted through the night and finally became a poetic genre.
A cab driver in a worn out Lada explains to me that the catastrophe started after the war of August 2008, when Saakashvili went to war with Russia trying to regain control over the rebellious South Ossetia. On the other side of the country, in the subtropical range of the Black Sea, there is another Georgian autonomous region, Abhazia, a disputed political entity supported by the Russian post-colonial politics, like Pridnestrovie in Moldavia or Nagorno Karabah in Azerbaijan.
“Sad njet dengi” – cab driver summed it up. Although he is constantly reckless behind the will of his Lada, he does not miss the opportunity to cross himself passing by every church. Since there are many sacral buildings in Tbilisi, his elbow is very often near my head. After several decades of official atheism, the Georgians remembered the life they had before the Soviets, a big part of which was tradition. Everyone will readily inform you that their country was the second in the world (after Armenia) that officially accepted Christianity, in 337. The young activist writer and journalist Rati Amaglobeli points out the flipside of this sudden change in social life. He claims that Georgia has become one melting pot – big business, church and state, and this has become a problem to the development of society.
“We have no idea where business, politics or church start, let alone where they end.” There are many things that remind me here of Croatian transition, but one thing is for sure: the rosaries on the rearview mirrors are much bigger than in Croatia. It often seems that the drivers are ignoring or deliberately charging at the pedestrians. However, it is possible that this is not because of the driving culture, it could be caused by these great big crosses covering their field of view. On the other hand, the religious tourism is only starting to expand in Georgia.
Although the country is not full of religious miracles and sightings, the desolate monasteries on the plateaus captivate with their mysticism of early Christianity. In the fairy-tale town of Mtskheta, everything is full of spiritual people who meditate in the spring sun. Only twenty kilometers from the nightmare of Tbilisi stands the relaxing oasis of the cathedral Svetiskhoveli that keeps within its walls the memory of the golden age of statehood that ended a long time ago, in the 12th century. One poet was so moved by the beauty of the cathedral that he wrote: “When you see it, you get the impression that God was here.”
The hills and plains above Mtskheta are a precursor of the brutal Caucasus, whose peaks sometimes show up among the clouds. A bit to the south, downstream the river Kura, lies an obscene tourist attraction - the town of Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, with a museum dedicated to the dictator. Not so long ago, a monument to Stalin stood in the center in front of the Town Hall, but despite the protest from the people of Gori, the operatives from Tbilisi removed it one night, so everything I saw there was the exhibition of agricultural implements. That is why Stalin’s avenue unmistakably leads to a big building, designed in Stalin’s pompous neo-gothic style, all the way to Stalin’s state museum.
The museum has been a hot topic of discussion in Georgia for a long time, and so was the relationship with Stalin who liked to call himself “the great servant of the great Russian nation”. He rarely mentioned his own people. In the time of rise of Georgian nationalism, during the short mandate of late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the museum was even closed for several years, but the poor town of Gori soon realized that they can turn Stalin into a brand, so the museum is one with the most visits in the country today.
For example, writer Rati Amaglobeli thinks it is good that Stalin lives only in the museum in Georgia that you can’t find him in the mentality or ideology. He claims that there is no cult of Stalin in Georgia, and almost no nostalgia. Only in the times of great crises the old people remember him and say: “Oh, if only Stalin was still alive, we would have lived much better.”
That is understandable, since Georgia can’t seem to get started. Azerbaijan is getting increasingly stronger in the region thanks to its oil, the neighboring Armenia is also recovering economically, but Georgia is going through hard times. The Rose Revolution that toppled Shevarnadze in 2003 gave rise to the eloquent and pro-Western democrat Misha Sakhashvili, who studied in France and the US. People in the know claim that his young political set has somewhat succeeded in suppressing corruption, the state turned to the West, even the economy experienced a boom: their wine, kefir, teas and excellent fruits and vegetables started arriving shyly into Europe, but the attack on South Ossetia in 2008 and the subsequent Russian answer threw the country into depression. Globally successful documentary by Nino Kirtadze called “Something about Georgia” illustrates the anxiety of the Georgian top brass in the times when the Russian tanks seemingly turned towards Tbilisi. And when a private TV station announced that the Russians have entered the city, many people had a heart attack they never recovered from. It was just a prank.
Georgi, an acquaintance of mine, has been working for some ten years as an IT engineer in the US, but his father’s illness and exhausting illegal employment forced him to return to his native Tbilisi. In just a few months, he was caught up in not having any money and being in dismay, he was even convincing me that he suddenly grew old here. As we sit in the center of Tbilisi, enjoying Gulag soup (no meat) in the tourist bistro called KGB, he tells me how a small group of people have all the most lucrative jobs in the country. He is under the impression that not much has changed since the early nineties. There’s an increasing number of people who don’t care about anything, he adds bitterly.
People like Georgi, a well educated 35-year old, can be found all over the former USSR. He was born and raised in the urban setting of communism at the time of liberalization. After the breakup of the empire, he had to go to the West, where he realized that there is a land of plenty. He finds it hard to return to reality in which, as he puts it, people grow old too soon.
I look at him as he counts every lari before putting it into the check holder. It’s a long and painful goodbye. An average salary in Georgia is 250 lari, a bit over a hundred dollars, but just like in Croatia, people who have a job can be considered lucky. As we were searching for CDs with Georgian music, the clerk in the CD shop was very much thrilled when he heard where I come from. He just waved off every mention of football. “Drazen Petrovic”, he yelled and started jumping around the store. “And his brother Aco!” Soon he started bombarding me with information about Cibona and its European wins. Who would have known that such an unsightly window of a music store in Tbilisi hides one such expert? In return, I commended the Georgian national football team, but he just shook his head inconsolably: “But Drazen, oh, Drazen…”
I said goodbye to this basketball fan. An ice cold wind rose from the local hills, announcing a passing cold front. Although it was mid April, the nameless plains around town were white with snow. I went down the Leselidze’s cobblestone road last time that evening towards Kura and the public baths of the old Tbilisi. In the sacral triangle, a Georgian church and a mosque were making themselves be heard, each in its own way, and the yard door to the synagogue was wide open. Giorgi showed me the Armenian church where he was baptized thirty five years ago, although he is a Georgian orthodox.
“How come?” I asked him.
“Hey, man”, he looked at me in wonder, “it was the Soviet Union and you weren’t allowed to pick a church!”
I carefully passed around that homeless man that lives in the middle of the pavement in the tourist zone. He was again sleeping seemingly sweetly on the concrete, with a bottle of Tiflis brandy by his head instead of a headboard. Some tourists photographed him as a memento, like he’s one of the landmarks of the old town. I put a lari next to the sleeping gentleman, thinking that he might be terribly hungry when he wakes up.