Sunday, August 27, 2006

Twin Cures For Communism

I have only spent a few days, so far, in Georgia, but it is proving to be an interesting place already. The landscape is pleasantly bucolic, with small villages, rolling green hills (with the Greater Caucasus always looming to the north) and fruit-laden trees all around. Here in the east of the country the vine is king and most houses are draped in it, with huge, green clusters swinging invitingly from every corner. The seem slightly more homogeneous than the Azeris, with most of the men being rather stocky, with dark, straight eyebrows and somehow they seem to lose their necks at their 30th birthday. Overall they seem slightly more reserved than their eastern neighbours, but I'm told that that changes once you give them a bottle of wine. At least the view of femininity has been cleared up, with sundresses, haltertops and tanktops de rigeur in the Summer heat (a most pleasant change from the Subcontinent and Iran).

Since independence Georgia has had a pretty rough time with a minor civil war and three breakaway regions (one of which has since been brought back into the fold whilst the other two, strongly backed by Russia, are still playing hard to get). In order to deal with post Soviet stress Georgians are looking at things to fill the ideological void of Communism (not that there was much ideology in the USSR) and have found the two palliatives common to many ex-Communist countries: nationalism and religion. The former is easy to understand as the Georgians are a small country with a long, and independent history. Furthermore their language is very particular, belonging to its own, tiny language family and not related to any others (Georgian is probably the least spoken language to be the official language of a country). This unrelatedness, along with their strange alphabet, has made me give up on the language already and try and concentrate on Russian instead. It seems to me as if in every Georgian word they completely forgot about vowels until halfway through; this seems to be especially true of place names e.g. Tblisi and Mstkheta. This makes the Georgians especially proud of their heritage (and possibly also slightly bewildered that they've managed to survive so far). Intertwined with this patriotism is the special place religion occupies in the Georgian psyche. Georgia was only the second country in the world to accept Christianity (after Armenia) and its national church is an independent part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Although religion was suppressed during Communist rule it has come back with a vengeance today. Walk into any church in Georgia and it will most likely be packed with people, young and old, men and women, genuflecting, lighting candles and kissing icons; and that's not just on Sundays but in the middle of the day on Monday as well. This is particularly evident if one goes to Mstkheta, the old capital, where two of the holiest churches in the country are situated.

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