Monday, August 18, 2008

My sympathies lie with proud, sunny Georgians

Monday August 18 2008

I spent a brief period in Georgia in the 1980s -- before the Soviet Union collapsed, but when it was very obviously in decline -- and thought it a most delightful country.

It was Italy on the Caucasus, and the Georgians seemed like the Italians of Asia: a handsome, smiling, cordial people, who played accordian music in the street and sat out on their verandahs and flower-bedecked balconies like Sicilians.

Unlike Russia, whose prevailing mood is Nordic and often dark -- like the writings of Dostoevsky, Chekov and Gogul -- Georgia was a land of sun and wine.

The late Sean MacReamonn, brilliant TV talker and scholar of the Irish language -- who once explained to me, with amazing clarity, how Irish and Welsh had split apart in the 12th century -- knew and loved Georgia and was knowledgeable about the Georgian language.

He also introduced me to Georgian champagne -- not strictly permitted to be called champagne because of the French copyright on the word -- but in my drinking days I found it every bit as enjoyable as "the sparkling wine of eastern France".

Georgian bubbly is a lot sweeter and a lot cheaper, but that suited me just fine: some French champagne is so dry it is almost acidulous.

You cannot know a country properly in a short visit, but you can get a feeling for a place. The Georgians were proud of their long traditions of nationhood -- they have been recognised as a nation since the fourth century; proud of their distinctive language, their poetry -- they put up more statues to poets than to politicians, bless them, and their art. Tbilisi has an engaging national art gallery which is very distinctly Georgian.

Their religion, the Georgian Orthodox Church, has been a strong aspect of their nationhood since the dawn of Christianity. During the worst periods of Communist suppression of religion -- Khruschev bulldozed hundreds of beautiful gold-plated onion-domed basilicas all over the USSR -- Georgia kept its monasteries, churches and seminaries open. The priests, who may, of course, marry, were traditionally the most educated element in Georgian society.

Stalin's mother pulled every string in the book to get young Stalin into a Georgian seminary, not especially for reasons of faith but because it was the only place to get a decent education.

But if the Georgians, who are only five-and-a-half million in number -- were proud of their long tradition of nationhood, they were also aware of their vulnerability.

Freud famously said that anatomy is destiny; it could be added that for a nation, geography is history. Georgians may be a distinct people, but their frontiers have been vulnerable to conquest by Monguls, Persians, Turks and, of course, Russia. Western Georgia was dominated by the Ottomans and Eastern Georgia by Persian rule until united by Russian conquest in the 1820s.

At this point I remembered my English husband saying, somewhat tactlessly, at a family gathering in Dublin: "Ireland never was united -- except under the crown." True, but embarrassing. But another fact which reminds us that "geography is history".

The problem Georgia has with South Ossetia also has some parallels with Northern Ireland. The enclave, with its strong Russian element, has always been inclined to dissent from Tbilisi.

Recent events are rather as if Dublin had decided to teach a lesson to the Shankill Road, Portadown and the Ards peninsula, calling them to order as an integral part of Ireland.

And as if these strongly Orange communities turned to London for assistance, which was swiftly, and brutally, forthcoming. (Isn't it fortunate that we are governed by wiser and cooler heads than prevail in the Caucasus?)

Obviously, when it comes to the Caucasian conflict my sympathies are with the sunny and sympathetic Georgians: they not only have a tradition of nationhood, but since 1991 they have a reasonably functioning democracy.

They have the support of the Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, and most of the former Warsaw Pact lands in the West; but therein lies the danger, too.

Russia, since Tsarist times, has always been expansionist, and its threat to turn its nuclear weapons on Poland if provoked is terrifying. The USSR may have fallen, but the Russian bear remains prickly and jealous of its dominance in the region.

We should certainly offer Georgia cultural and humane support, and indeed one of the most active channels of communication is through the churches. Many of the oldest architectural churches and monasteries in Georgia need financial support and other Christian organisations have been moved to help.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is tolerant of other faiths and there is a burgeoning evangelisation movement, notably of Baptists.

A Georgian Baptist ecclesiatic, Archbishop Songulashvili, recently got married in Georgia -- yes, to a woman! -- and the wedding party was attended by Georgian, Ukrainian and Armenian bishops; the Papal Nuncio representing the Pope; a Jewish rabbi; and the chief imam of Tbilisi from the Islamic community, as well as those from other faiths and none.

In one spot of the Caucasus anyway, it could be said: "See how these Christians love one another."



No comments: