Facing the yellow-stone arches of the former parliament building in Tbilisi, a memorial marks the spot where, on this day in 1989, Soviet troops cracked down on peaceful demonstrations with toxic gas and shovels.
They killed 21 in the Georgian capital and galvanised the nationalist movement. It would take two more years for this country in the south Caucasus to declare its independence. Yet for the student leader turned writer Dato Turashvili, who recalls the “terrifying roar of tanks” and a fierce blow from a “Red soldier built like a mountain”, 9 April 1989 already marked the end. “The reindependence of Georgia started that day,” he says.
Turashvili, who later took part in the Rose revolution that ousted President Shevardnadze in 2003, is one of a number of Georgian writers in London this week for “Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25” – a festival of talks and films marking a quarter-century since independence.
But it is a bittersweet dual anniversary. Independence was seized on as restoring the sovereignty of the Georgian democratic republic of 1918-21 – a small window after the Bolshevik revolution, which had brought an end to more than a century of tsarist imperial rule. In that brief period before the Red Army invaded the doomed republic, European modernism fed a flourishing of the arts, while avant-garde Russian artists sought refuge in a mirror of Parisian cafe society. Behind the old parliament, in a little park with tall firs, is a statue of Oliver Wardrop, British high commissioner at the time, with his scholarly sister Marjory. Inaugurated last autumn, the statues celebrate European ties that many Georgians feel were severed by Soviet occupation (and partly resumed with Georgia’s EU association agreement of 2014). “The Soviet period destroyed everything,” says the writer Lasha Bugadze. “We lost 70 years.”
Yet a stroll through Tbilisi tells a more multilayered and intriguing story. The main avenue is named after Shota Rustaveli, the 12th-century poet who wrote a courtly masterpiece, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, in Georgia’s “golden age”. First translated into English prose by Marjory Scott Wardrop in 1912 (and surely the bronze tome in her statue’s hands), it has now been retranslated by Lyn Coffin in a metre that matches the original’s 1,666 rhyming quatrains of 16-syllable lines – the Persian shairi form. Written during the reign of a medieval queen so powerful they called her King Tamar, Rustaveli’s tale of an Arabian monarch who abdicates in favour of his daughter, and a melancholy knight in love with an Indian princess, transformed Persian sources into a Georgian epic that married Platonism with Sufism. “Historically, we’ve always been open both ways,” the writer Zurab Karumidze tells me. “We were Zoroastrian before we were Christian, though we’ve been moving westwards for 300 years.”
A mountainous crossroads, fought over and carved up for centuries by Arab, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, Georgia has its own language and alphabet, early Christian churches, polyphonic songs and an 8,000-year-old winemaking tradition. Feasts abound in the naive paintings of Niko Pirosmani, Georgia’s Henri Rousseau.
The location and size of a nation that even today has fewer than 5 million people powered a national narrative of heroic stands against invaders. Yet it also meant cultural exchange. Along with 10,000 Georgian treasures dating back to the fifth century in the National Manuscripts Centre, housed in a low-rise Soviet block in Tbilisi, are 40,000 fragile manuscripts in myriad languages, from Latin to Mongolian. The historian Donald Rayfield, author of Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia, says Georgian (a non-Indo-European language) is enriched by loan words, from Greek and Persian to Sanskrit and Arabic. It “resembles English in its enormous range of synonyms”.
Yet only in the past couple of years has translation into English revived – largely thanks to the Georgian National Book Centre in Tbilisi, founded in 2014. Two years ago, I proposed the idea of Georgia25 to its director, Medea Metreveli, at a pavement cafe in the once plural heart of old Tiflis (as Tbilisi was known), where Georgian Orthodox and Armenian churches rub shoulders with a mosque and synagogue. The launch event on Monday is with the Russian crime writer Boris Akunin (the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili) who was moved to investigate his Georgian roots only when told by Russian compatriots annoyed by his anti-Putin stance to go back where he came from.
For Russians, Georgia was at once a southern colony, a riviera with spas and its subtropical Black Sea coast, and a source of literary inspiration. Georgians still bridle at orientalist stereotypes – as in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (“I hired six oxen and several Ossetians”). Stalin’s Georgian origins did not prevent a quarter of the republic’s writers being wiped out in the Great Terror of 1936-37. These included Boris Pasternak’s poet friend Paolo Iashvili, who shot himself in the Writers’ Union building (now Writers’ House, where photographs of the purged line the walls) and Mikheil Javakhishvili, author of Kvachi Kvachantiradze, whose swindling seducer was a sharp reflection of 1920s society. Once denounced as pornographic, the novel was praised by William Boyd in these pages as a “picaresque masterpiece”.
Today’s Georgian writers have witnessed an equally turbulent history, from the 1980s protests, to the civil war, bread queues and blackouts of the 90s, and wars over Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russian-backed separatists. Karumidze, who recalls being chased on 9 April 1989 by soldiers with clubs, says: “I wish that day had never happened; it brought to power hysterical nationalism.” Aka Morchiladze (Giorgi Akhvlediani’s pen name) remembers bullets flying across Rustaveli Avenue “like drunk sparrows”. He pioneered a post-Soviet fiction that used urban street slang to chart a Tbilisi overrun by gangsters and guns. Yet for him, “this city has always been occupied and always been free”.
Bugadze’s satirical novel The Literature Express opens with the 2008 war with Russia, when tanks advanced towards Tbilisi. Also a creator of blackly comic plays, he thinks politics has stolen a march on theatre. “Our society lives in politics,” he says. “It’s difficult to close our doors and write.” The generational conflicts he senses are not between fathers and sons, but with grandparents. “We’re afraid of those who think it was good in Soviet times, because now we understand what freedom is.”
Religious revival has created tensions. In 2013, 30,000 Orthodox extremists attacked a small gay pride march in Tbilisi. Several writers I spoke to had endured run-ins with Christian fanatics. Yet the collapse of the old order has given rein to creativity too. Tbilisi Book Days, an international festival for young illustrators, is run by Otar Karalashvili, an art teacher, mathematician and sometime bass guitarist in the band Soft Eject – which provided a soundtrack to the Rose revolution. For him, the country has a precious freedom. “We’re out of the Soviet mentality but not into the European market mentality; we’re too small to be a market,” he says. “So people love to come here – it’s Georgia.”
• Georgia25 is at Asia House, Europe House and Regent Street Cinema in London, 11-17 April.
source: The Guardian