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Meditations on a Theme of Georgia

By Rumwold Leigh
Friday, February 25
When people find out you’ve lived in Georgia they usually say “Wow!”, meaning “that is so far outside my experience that I cannot begin to discuss it”. A few brave souls say “What’s it like?” which is an equally silly response. What is it like compared to what? If you knew, what would that tell you?

What you learn about Georgia when you live there is that you will never understand it if you compare it with somewhere else. It stands on its own two feet, not in relation to other places. Either you accept Georgia as it is or you don’t. Try and fit it to your own preconceptions and it just shows you how narrow these are.

Georgians are generally pro-Western but on their own terms. This is a point Westerners can find difficult to grasp, as we assume that supporting the West means wanting to adopt the standards of the West. In Georgia the West is respected and admired but as an equal. In every area of life, from food to clothes to architecture, there is a well-established Georgian tradition which is held in greater reverence than ideas imported from elsewhere, however much those ideas are associated with Western ‘glamour’. This fact alone demonstrates the potential of Georgia. What separates successful people, brands and institutions from unsuccessful ones? The successes have made the world jump to their tune, the unsuccessful have to do things the way other people want. However poor Georgia may be, it still dictates its own terms to those who think theirs are better. In most countries traditions are preserved primarily for tourists or for political reasons. In Georgia they are fundamental to the people and form a framework through which to approach the outside world, and as that is why people come to the country Georgians do this more successfully than most.

Another peculiarity of Georgia is the position of the Church. You are aware that in post-Soviet countries there has been a revival of churchgoing. But when you see that every church has a small army of clergy and servers, and is open all day long and does every service you can think of, you realise that in Georgia the Church is not an institution, as Parliament would be, but life itself. There are those who do not bother with that area of life in the same way some don’t go to restaurants or watch sporting events. Nevertheless the Church is far more of a practicality than an institution, as can be seen every Sunday and feast day, when half the congregation can’t even get in but follow the service outside through loudspeakers. No one finds that odd in Georgia. The Patriarch of Georgia is the most respected figure in the country and his every insignificant movement is reported on TV. This has little to do with “religion”. The Patriarch is seen as an expression of what Georgia and Georgians would like to be, not as a religious figure but a human being, and this reminds us all that, actually, that is the job of every religious leader and ultimately all of us. There’s not much to remind you of that in the organised religion of the West.

There are difficulties to living in Georgia. If you’re not a native it’s a long way from home, both physically and emotionally, and conditions can be more primitive than a Western country would allow. But if you want to change it, look at the alternative. Macdonalds in Tbilisi may be well patronised but people come back with Khachapuri recipes rather than burger recipes. The new Turkish-style coloured apartment blocks look impressive individually, until you see them all together in one place, and realise the world beneath them remains the same. Georgian problems can only ever have Georgian solutions, as various well-meaning agencies have found when they try to import their mentality and wonder why everyone isn’t jumping for joy. If you’re not a native you don’t understand and never will. Your best option is simply to enjoy it.

Official Georgia likes to think it is a success if it moves up a few places in economic ratings or big pop stars give a concert there. Even some Georgians fall for this. Georgia will become the country it deserves to be when the rest of the world asks Georgians what it should do and how to resolve its problems. The economic crisis has made Westerners understand they don’t know everything. Desperate not to lose too much face, they fling themselves at the developing economies they think they have developed themselves, as if that makes their misjudgments a matter of bad timing. Georgia is nobody’s colony and nobody’s fool. If you want to become a better person, live in Georgia.