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Georgia – An Outsider’s Perspective

Tom Cardwell
Wednesday, May 30
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

Shecdoma ar dagishviat, me mikwars sakartvelo dzalian bevri!!! I have been fortunate to travel there for work and pleasure. I can say Georgian people are known throughout Europe as strong, gracious, and proud. They live in a small but very beautiful country on the Black sea. It is said in legend to be the place God set aside for himself on earth. The southwest of Georgia formerly known as Cholchis and later Samegrelo is semi-tropical, rich with wild flowers and citrus and includes a beautiful expanse of shoreline stretching 310 kilometres along the Black sea. The northwest regions of Svaneti and Racha contain some of the highest mountains in Europe. The eastern Iberian plains contain field upon field of vineyards growing ancient strands of grapes. These sacred grapes produce wines with pedigrees stretching back 3000 years. Georgia is the birthplace of wine.

The people are noble, with men renowned for their bravery in war and women their grace and beauty. They have somehow survived as a nation repelling attackers and displacing conquerors over 40 times in their history of over 3000 years. Besides physical prowess they are scholars and poets’, producing remarkable literary works such as Rustaveli’s; Knight in the panther Skin. Davit Agmashenebeli (David the Builder) was perhaps the greatest Georgian having reclaimed conquered lands from the Seljuk Turks in the famed 1121 battle of Didgori. He was also amazingly foresighted in understanding of the need to educate the entire Georgian population (men and women) and his respect for different cultural and religious traditions. Georgian women are among the nations most celebrated figures including St. Nino of Cappadocia who Christianized the country in 327 and King Tamar (a woman) ruler from 1184 – 1215. Georgia’s most prolific building period took place in the 12th century during Tamar’s reign and included many new churches, monasteries, universities and literary works.

Georgian culture is complex and includes all facets of an advanced civilized people including a reverence for the arts, sciences and education. Certainly Georgia is distinguished by many things including its unique alphabet and language, haunting Georgian polyphonic melodies, and exciting native dance featuring clashing sabres intermixed with women literally floating across the floor in full length satin gowns. Georgian foods are amazing including khachpuri (cheese bread), mtswadi (BBQ) and Khinkali (a tasty dumpling) and are a nice accompaniment to the wines. There is so much to love!

For me Georgia is a sacred place. Yet as I know it better, it is full of paradoxes. Women are revered there and undoubtedly the center of families, yet these days as many have college educations and careers, they seem to work much harder than the men. I guess it is true in the US as well but I think even more so in Georgia.

Georgia is truly beautiful but hides scars that run deep. The country is still divided after centuries as Abkhazia and South Ossetia seek independence. The ostensible common vision is of a unified people but Georgia has not quite accepted that other non-Georgian cultural traditions must be allowed to flourish not just co-exist. This attitude is certainly understandable given the continuous threats to Georgia’s existence over the centuries but is it adaptive today? Georgians still today are not sure if it okay to embrace non-Georgian ideas and traditions. Now for example more and more Chinese persons are emigrating there. Will this small country finally be absorbed or dissolved within a trans-Caucasian or Asian melting pot? It is on some people’s minds! The Georgian language is poetic and beautiful to hear (I love it actually) but every language is sacred. Georgia wants to be welcoming, one can feel it, and you fall into a trance upon arrival there but kartvelebi are unquestionably wary of strangers. Just like Kartlis Deda (the 40 meter Georgian statue in Tbilisi of a woman holding a wine cup in one hand and a sword in the other). Foreigners are treated well indeed, but very few Georgians seek deep friendships or solace from non-Georgians. The most damaging to Georgia is that on occasion (for some people) ethical standards become relative. Unfortunately Georgia still has high levels of corruption despite progress in some spheres. Some Georgians are not averse to using strategies that may result in a “victory” but at a cost to personal integrity. It is rationalized as necessary for Georgia’s survival but perpetuates practices that undermine Georgia’s future. Perhaps it (thinking of Georgian’s first) is a survival strategy that is encoded genetically.

I will say this; Georgians are not defined by their work. They are better understood by their culture which is (at its best) fun loving, loyal, and punctuated with wine, song, artistry and poetry. At its worst Georgians are so protective of each other that they may use or unfairly denigrate foreigners in their defense of other Georgians. One feels every Georgian is protected a bit by every other Georgian from the outside. This said… Georgians don’t always treat each other that well. Many are covetous of others success and unwilling to give a hand to non-family. This “feudal like” closed system does not help Georgia in the modern post-soviet world. The trust is not there and it is disconcerting and noticed.

Just as Davit Agmashenebeli implemented new policies such as freely welcoming women and foreigners to study at Georgian Universities new ideas are needed in Georgia these days. Democracy, one of those new ideas, clashes with feudalism. Up till now Georgia has embraced a narrowly defined self-interest which places the needs of Georgians above others. A broader definition provides an umbrella of social protection to all placing principal above self. Which will prevail?