The ancient capitol of Georgia--Tbilisi

The ancient capitol of Georgia--Tbilisi

“The people of Georgia seemed to us more relaxed than any we had seen so far, relaxed, and fierce, and full of joy.  And perhaps this why the Russians admire them so.  Perhaps this is the way they would like to be.

“-John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal  

Why is Russia waging a war on a country that has enriched Russian culture throughout the ages?  I posit that it is because Russia and Georgia have a sort of love-hate relationship.  Georgia has been infusing Russian culture with flavor, vivaciousness, and passion for centuries.  During Soviet times it was considered the ultimate paradise and that wasn’t just Stalinist propaganda(Stalin was Georgian).  The bright produce that adorns the rynki and bazaari of Russia today comes from the lush land of the Caucasus.  Russia is as dependent on Georgia as the United States is on California.  Can you imagine what would happen if the state of California decided they wanted to be part of North Korea instead? So why would Russia pick a fight and push the Georgians further away?

 In trying to understand that relationship Russia has with Georgia, I had to get in touch with my own feelings about California.  On a typical day if you asked me about California, I would scoff and say, “Californians are in a state of perpetual vacation, they don’t know about real life.”  It drives me nuts knowing that “In California” people don’t own coats. “In California” you can grow orange trees in your back yard.  I hate seeing that stupid little sticker on avocados and peaches that says “California”.  I hate that there is such a paradise only a few hundred miles away and I’m not part of it.  And then there are the Californians who come into our states and complain about our weather and are constantly saying things like, “Yeah, but in California we have better…” Or “It’s weird not being able to hear the ocean…”  They have a way of life that I’ll only be able to be part of as a tourist, and that drives me nuts.  It’s easy for me to confuse my jealousy with contempt…

 So with this analogy in mind we turn to the “California” of the former Soviet Union: Georgia. I’ve never been to Georgia.  But I don’t have to go there to know it-because Russians are constantly raving about it. 

 I don’t know much about Georgia.  Having lived in Russia and seen the mark that the ancient and rich culture of this tiny little country have left on Russia, I know more than the average American. 

When I think of Georgia I think of THE AMAZING FOOD, wrestlers, and people who are very proud of their heritage. 

So with my little amount of knowledge I want to tell the world about the Georgians.

The tiny little country of Georgia has a culture and a history as deep as it is wide.  The ancient land of Georgia had a place in Greek mythology (the Golden Fleece), in Christianity and the Ottoman empire.  All the while it has maintained its unique charm.  A charm that Pushkin, Lermontov, and countless Russian vacationers have fallen madly in love with.  So why would it need Russia?  It doesn’t but the Georgians are a warm, hospitable people. 

“And surely they live in a country favored by nature, and just as surely they have had to fight for it for two thousand years.”John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, 1948

The famous choreographer, George Balanchine(Giorgi Melitonis dze Balanchivadze)

The famous choreographer, George Balanchine(Giorgi Melitonis dze Balanchivadze)

 Rather than my opinions and heresay, the impressions of a beloved American author are a better portrayal of that secret paradise known in Russian as Грузия, or Gruzia.  The book is Steinbecks diary as he traveled through the USSR in 1946.  Of all the people he met in the mysterious lands behind the Iron Curtain, it was the Georgians who struck him with their rich culture and their radiant spirit.    Yes, his visit took place at the peak of Stalin’s power so it might be easy to say that the Georgian hype was mere flattery to the dictator.  But as Steinbeck realizes, there’s a reason the place was so revered.

Famous musician and poet of Soviet era--Bulat Okudzhava

Famous musician and poet of Soviet era--Bulat Okudzhava

 “These Georgians are different looking people.  They are dark, almost gypsy looking, with shining teeth and long well-formed noses.  They are lean and energetic, and their eyes are black and sparkling. We had read and had been told that this is an ancient Semitic people which had come originally from the Euphrates Valley…that their strain is one of the oldest remaining in the world. 

 “They are fiery, proud , fierce, and gay and the other people of Russia have great admiration for them.  And the men are triumphant with the women of Russia.  They are a people of poetry, of music and dancing, and, according to tradition, great lovers.”

Most of the Georgians I knew were wrestlers in a sport school where I taught English. They were always raving about their homeland and wanted to talk about it for hours.  One even gave me a tape with strange writing on it and said, “My country music…oah…super duper!”  These wrestlers were among the best in Russia and were carrying on an ancient Georgian tradition. Steinbeck writes about a wrestling match he stumbles upon in Tblisi, “They were dressed in an odd costume-short canvas jackets without sleeves, and canvas belts, and short trunks…” All the while a band is a ‘savage melody, with a heavy drum beat underneath it.”  During the Roman Empire, the Iberians(are of Georgia) were known for their athletic ability, and that tradition in physical education has continued to today. 

The tradion of Georgian wrestling

The tradion of Georgian wrestling

 “They had the fierce gaiety of the Italians, and the physical energy of the Burgundians.  Their energy not only survives but fattens on a tropical climate.  And nothing can break their individuality or their spirit.  That has been tried for many centuries by invaders, by czarist armies, by despots, by the little local nobility.”

The Georgian’s stature may be fierce and intimidating in battle, but their hearts are warm and open in the home.  Steinbeck’s account of a improv feast given him captures the vivacious food and hospitality of the Georgians:

 “[The table] was fourteen feet long and it was loaded with food…chicken over which was poured a cold green sauce, delicious with spices and sour cream…tomato salads and Georgian pickles…savory stew of lamb with a thick sauce…fried country cheese…loaves of flat Georgian rye bread… the table was loaded with fruit, with grapes, and pears and apples…”

Khachapuri, a salty, gooey, cheesy Georgian dish, with which began my passion.

Khachapuri, a salty, gooey, cheesy Georgian dish, with which began my passion.

The cuisine is as potent and unique as the people.  It has become a passion of mine.  The flavors are unlike anything you have ever had.  This is all I need to know about Georgia to fall in love with it.  Any culture whose nucleus is the table, is a place where I will feel at home.  And the Georgians take great pride in the lush vegetation of their land and their food is in accolade to their land and their culture. 

 “If we did not eat we were urged to eat and if we did eat, our plates were replenished immediately. And meanwhile the decanters of local wine were passed, and it was delicious wine, light and full of flavor…””And there was the intimate Georgian toast.  Each man holding a glass links his arm with his neighbors arm and drinks from his own glass.”

Always with wine...

Always with wine...

 The land of Georgia is very fertile and most produce comes from these southern regions.  Georgian climate is perfect for wine vineyards.  Georgian wine is famous among Russians and is starting gain popularity elsewhere.  At the base of most jokes about Georgians is wine and toasts. 

 A rich culture will surely be rich in every way.  Good food always has to be accompanied by good times and the Georgians are experts at creating such spontaneous celebrations.  If you thought Russian folk dancing is intense, you should check out Georgian…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv5LPa-6wYg

   “In any group of, say, ten men, there would be at least seven fine voices. And at the table now the singing broke out, magnificent choral singing. And then the tempo quickened and two men took chairs, and turned them over their knees and used them for drums and the dancing started.  The women came out of the kitchen and danced, and the men leaped up from the table and danced…

 “And this is how it was when we stopped for just a bit to eat and a glass of wine in a Georgian farmhouse.”

In the town of Sukhumi, along the shores of the Black Sea

In the town of Sukhumi, along the shores of the Black Sea

 Between admiration and envy, between adoration and disdain, between reliance and obstinacy, between celebration and war is delicate and often vague.  There is no doubt in my mind that at the root of Russia’s hostile behavior to Georgia is nostalgia for a lost friend.

“It is a magical place, Georgia, and it becomes dream-like the moment you have left it.  And the people are magic people.  It is true that they have on of the richest and most beautiful countries in the world and they live up to it.  And we understood thoroughly now why Russians had always said to us, “Until you have seen Georgia you have seen nothing.”

A few of my other posts:

Ukraine got the good looks in the family, Russia got the muscles

Holiday carols in Russian and Ukrainian

What has the communist revolution done for you lately?

Culinary Linguistics: Origins and Etymology of food in Russian