[Reader-list] An essay on hope in the Republic of Georgia

Rana Dasgupta eye at ranadasgupta.com
Sat Jun 18 02:29:06 IST 2005

This is an essay I wrote some time ago following a trip to Tbilisi.  It 
reports on conversations I had with people about how the future can be 
imagined in a place where people have become entirely cynical of it.

For those who know anything about Bhilai and its steel plant the central 
character in this essay has fascinating connections to it.  The other 
histories of a place.


happy reading...


Rana Dasgupta

Trying to imagine the future in Georgia
Essay : Republic of Georgia, Tbilisi, politics, history, Soviet Union, 
Saakashvili, hope, despair
Friday, June 17, 2005 13:42 GMT

There are people who are citizens of nations about which there is no 
doubt. This fact is important for their confident, relaxed sense of 
self. They see a world full of certainties: they talk easily of the past 
and the future, they suffer no lapses of memory, no aphasia, no 
persistent misgivings about their own existence. Often they do not 
acknowledge the origins of their breezy composure, for they have been 
allowed to grow up believing themselves to be self-created “individuals” 
(such is the maturity of their nation-parents). All that is left over 
from this repressed paternity is a general, primordial faith in the 
benign power of the nation-state.

For such people, the myriad uncertainties that arise from being part of 
a nation that is little more than a phantom are something of a 
curiosity. Secure within a national fiction that has long ago congealed 
into fact, they find themselves smiling indulgently at the anxious 
imaginative turns of more doubtful places: fanaticisms about long-dead 
heroes, macho fantasies of integrity and purity, neurotic combinations 
of bitterness and awe vis-à-vis the handful of nations whose triumphant 
exception is supposed to be the rule. But in a world where the 
nation-state is the beginning and end of thought, the absence of grand 
national narratives is experienced as personal lack; and stories of 
absent greatness rush in to fill the void.

David the Builder (1073-1125), whose conquests created an empire 
extending across the Caucasus, ranks as Georgia’s most glorious 
long-dead hero. His memory helped to focus a Georgian political 
consciousness during the nearly eight centuries from the routing of the 
medieval empire by Genghiz Khan in 1220 to Georgia’s independence from 
the Soviet Union in 1991 when Georgians never had a state of their own – 
except for the three years between Russia's loss of the territory in 
1918 and its renewed occupation in 1921. Even now, the Georgian 
government does not have control over large areas of what is considered 
to be Georgian territory; and its future attempts to occupy these areas 
could be very bloody. Meanwhile, for most of its short history, the 
present Republic of Georgia has found itself ruled by stern, predatory 
business groups that have borne little resemblance to the benign 
governments that nation states are “supposed” to have. Largely as a 
result of their power games, nearly everyone in the country has seen 
their fortunes dwindle and their possibilities shrink since the long 
hoped-for independence.

It is only in this context of national failure and disappointment that 
it is possible to understand the scale of the hopes aroused by Mikhail 
Saakashvili’s “rose revolution” of November 2003. A dashing 36-year old 
with a law degree from Columbia, a Dutch wife, and facility in five 
languages, Saakashvili had already been battling corruption from the 
centre of Georgian politics for eight years when he became the 
figurehead for a wave of public resentment against alleged 
election-fixing by the much-detested President Edvard Shevardnadze – 
whose family and immediate circle controlled some 70% of the Georgian 
economy. In a startling, bloodless coup supported by euphoric street 
demonstrations, Saakashvili took over as president. Like a modern heir 
to David the Builder, he pledged to right all the wrongs of history and 
turn Georgia into a “proper” nation state: he would reclaim the 
breakaway provinces, oust corruption and make the country part of the 
international flows of jobs and investment. In the presidential 
elections that followed two months later, he won over 96% of the vote.

It was two months after this, when the posters of the revolution were 
still on the walls, that I arrived in Tbilisi to do some research for my 
next novel. It was a country I had been interested in for some time as a 
setting for a particular character.

Tbilisi airport is full of signs showing anxious women accompanied by 
leather-jacketed good-for-nothings counting dollar bills, and carrying 
the assurance: “You Are Not For Sale.” These are a reference to 
Georgia’s world leadership in the domain of human trafficking, and to 
the great traumas suffered by many of those trying to cross this border 
in the opposite direction. As a citizen, however, of the United Kingdom 
of Great Britain and Northern Island, a little-doubted state, I 
naturally encountered only smiles of welcome as I went through immigration.

On my second day in Tbilisi I telephoned Dr Nikoloz Kenchosvili, an 
academic at the Institute of Oriental Studies. He was not expecting my 
call. A friend of mine had given me his name just before I set off from 
home; there had not been any time to warn him of my arrival. The phone 
was answered after two rings. I explained how I got his details, that I 
was researching a novel and if he wasn’t too busy...? He burst out laughing.

“This is Georgia. Intellectuals are never busy! Shall we have lunch?”

We arranged to meet outside Philharmonia, Tbilisi's large, late-60s 
concert hall. I arrived slightly late: I could see him from a distance 
pacing up and down, white hair shining in the sun.

“Dr Kenchosvili?”
“I was beginning to think you were lost! Come: let us find a place where 
we can talk.”

We crossed the road to a small cafe where we ordered beer and ham and 
khajapuri . He needed little encouragement to tell me about himself.

Nikoloz was born into an educated, middle-class Tbilisi family whose 
members were deeply anti-Communist. During the terrifying and paranoiac 
1930s, Beria sent his father’s brother to Siberia for sedition. His 
father joined the Communist Party in an attempt to protect the family 
from more such assaults, but their ideological credentials remained 
shaky, and the young Niko had to abandon his dreams of becoming an opera 
singer – a career which would have required significant Party patronage. 
He studied languages and literature in Moscow and returned home to 
become an academic. (Nikoloz's uncle was to return to Tbilisi in 1948 
after eleven years of hard labour. His brother would go through the same 
ordeal a few years later.)

In the early 1960s, Nikoloz applied for a job as interpreter at the 
recently-built Bhilai Steel Plant in central India. Bhilai was India's 
first nationally-owned plant, and an epic statement of Nehru's 
socialist, modernising vision. It was set up with financial and 
technical assistance from the Soviet Union, which sent a large number of 
engineers and managers to oversee the project. The frisson of this 
intimate encounter persists in the town to this day: people still talk 
about the foreigners who came to stay, they still drive the Ladas that 
were imported at the time, and still have a few words of Russian.

The impact on Nikoloz was electrifying. As for many of his secluded 
generation, international travel felt truly magical; and he fell in love 
in a way that was full-blown, adolescent, rapturous, and permanent. 
There were obstacles, of course – the tedium of constant surveillance, 
the prohibition on social contact with Indian workers and their 
families, the obligatory daily readings from Marx and Lenin, the 
censorship (he was prevented, for instance, from seeing the 
“anti-Soviet” Dr. Zhivago when it came to India) – but these did nothing 
to muddle the fixity of his adoration. Though such strictures eventually 
forced him to give up the job and return to Tbilisi, Nikoloz was to 
devote the rest of his life to studying Indian culture. To date he has 
translated fourteen works of Hindi fiction into Georgian, and is the 
author of a number of papers on Indian folktales and literature. His 
business card described him as “Leading Scientist (Indologist)”.

Niko's vocation relegated him to a lonely, eccentric corner of Georgian 
life. In the old days he had been able to earn money by translating 
Marxist Indian writers into Georgian. Now such avenues were closed: 
Georgian publishing was all but wiped out, and authors who wanted to see 
their works in print had to pay the publishing costs themselves. 
Naturally, Niko’s recently-completed Georgian version of Patanjali's 
second century BC Yoga Sutra lay unpublished. He thought often of giving 
it all up. “Perhaps I should try some business. What do you think? This 
indology is getting me nowhere.”

We were still sitting in the cafe.

“I would naturally like to invite you to my house, but I wanted to meet 
you first. My place is very small, and I didn't know what kind of person 
you were.” Niko, like most academics in Georgia, earned a salary of 
under $30 a month. His wife, a teacher of music theory, earned about the 
same. They lived in an apartment she had recently inherited from an 
uncle, which allowed them to supplement their income by letting out 
their old one. “That's how we survive," says Niko. "Most of my friends 
cannot even eat. They cannot afford a simple meal like this.”

Nikoloz was effusive and dignified, but his conversation circled 
continually back to the same points of bitterness and anger. “Our 
consciousness was crushed. This is what is worse than the economic 
hardship. Young people now have a pure consciousness, but my generation 
had their minds in a prison. Stalin was a genius but he hated nice men. 
Intellectuals. He destroyed us and now we have no one who values the 
intellect. Now the country is run by criminals. They are simple thieves. 
This Georgian ruling class hates the new President, Saakashvili, because 
he is a nice man, handsome, intellectual, sincere. He is a genius, and 
also handsome. I am sure things will get better. But I am sixty-five 
years old: I have no time to wait.”

Meanwhile, he was forced to ask questions of survival. “I am writing a 
paper in order to qualify for a professorship. Then I would get a 
pension. But I want to go to India. That is where I belong. But how can 
I afford it? Do you think I could set up a school to teach Georgian? 
There must be some people interested in learning Georgian, no? And I 
will make khajapuri. I can make it very well.” He sensed that history 
had overtaken him, and that he should try to adapt to a more prosaic, 
business-minded age, but he struggled when he tried to imagine the 
practicalities. “I am not a businessman. I am a creative spirit. My 
spirit must realize itself in creative work. I cannot escape my self. 
There are people who are born to be businessmen. You can see that they 
are meant to do it: how effortlessly they make money! I can never be 
like that, no matter how hard I try.”

For most Georgians, the end of Soviet rule was a personal catastrophe. 
1991 marked the beginning of a period of collapsed industries, civil 
war, terrorism, mass poverty and unemployment, declining health and 
literacy, and organized crime. Cut off from the commercial network of 
the Soviet Bloc, which had provided a vast, automatic market for 
Georgian industries, and then reduced by crime and instability to a 
highly undesirable destination for new investments, Georgia is now a 
bleak place to try and make a life. Shops in the city have little to 
sell. There are few jobs. The transit points by the highways outside the 
city are bustling with men queuing for day labour in construction or 
transport. The “middle classes” are so defined only by the nature of 
their work, not by their standard of living, since they too live in 
poverty. One doctor I met had had to pay a $100 bribe to secure a job in 
a hospital that paid her $10 per month. Everywhere there are old people 
begging on the street to supplement the state pension of $7 a month.

In contrast to nearly everyone else, the political elite has managed to 
make good money out of Georgia. As those in power began to see how the 
end of the Soviet Union would play out, they seized as much as they 
could of the collapsing state’s assets in order to shore up their 
position for a new, hardened world. A few individuals consolidated huge 
fortunes, which made them into significant regional commercial players 
and turned them inexorably towards organized crime. Unlike the official 
industrial system of the Soviet Bloc, which was destroyed by its 
break-up into separate states, the flexible criminal networks that 
operated out of Moscow and extended all over the world were only 
strengthened by the collapse of state power: suddenly their 
international channels faced no competition from “legitimate” ones, the 
policing of criminal businesses was almost eliminated, and in the new, 
deregulated climate, powerful organizations were suddenly able to get 
their hands on amounts of cash that would have been unimaginable under 
the Communists. Crime paid; and people seeking returns on their wealth 
built large conglomerates operating in every high-profit sector, whether 
legal or not: property, construction, hospitality, energy, drugs, 
prostitution, money laundering, etc.

This fact determines the texture of daily life at nearly every level. It 
accounts for the absurdly high number of casinos in Tbilisi, and for the 
ghostly feel of prime areas of the city’s real estate, where expensive 
boutiques and restaurants run empty because their real business is money 
laundering. It explains the fact that there are newly-built but empty 
buildings everywhere. It is the reason for the high levels of violence 
that broke out on Tbilisi streets, particularly in the late 1990s, as 
large business organizations fought over turf. It explains the pattern 
of Georgian emigration, which has largely followed the channels opened 
up for it by the power of criminal organizations, and has therefore been 
dominated by human trafficking and prostitution. Above all, it explains 
the sclerotic nature of Georgian politics, which has been taken over by 
criminal interests, and is systematically, even joyfully, corrupt. If 
one image can sum up the last few years it is this group of 
criminal-politicians, people who were often already powerful under the 
old regime but who are now toughened for the era of gangsterism, and 
updated with the hysterically festive style of the hyper rich living 
amid economic apocalypse.
What is the relationship between all this and the great talent that 
Georgians seem to have for discussion and friendship? The cafés and bars 
are filled with the hubbub of intense debate – love, politics, history – 
and people treat each other with a rare generosity. When you see the way 
that the whole city comes out onto the streets on a Sunday to amble 
slowly with friends and discuss the events of the week, you wonder if 
this provincial town has preserved unhurried forms of intimacy that have 
been lost elsewhere to speed and distraction. But it is also possible, 
despite everything, that there is some humanizing aspect to the 
experiences of the last few years. You cannot abandon yourself to some 
sleepy faith in the ultimately benign nature of time – to an idea of 
inevitable progress – because it has shown itself to be spectacularly 
whimsical, and even destructive. If the future is to be any better it 
will have to be constructed so by you, and by those around you.

Having seen some posters announcing that the piano students at the 
Tbilisi conservatoire were giving public recitals, I went one day to 
listen. The conservatoire was on Griboedov Street near the Academy of 
Arts; there was a small sculpture garden on the opposite side of the 
street where stone sculptures had long since toppled over and become 
overgrown. Inside the conservatoire, a recital was in progress and the 
doors to the concert hall were closed. I waited in the lobby, where the 
sound was indistinct; students listened with their ears to the crack 
between the doors. At length we heard applause from within, and the 
doors opened.

As is well known, the Soviets were great promoters of classical music, 
and even in these dismal times – or perhaps because of them – there 
seemed to be a thriving minority of people involved with this 
conservatoire. Sixty or so people were here to listen: students, 
teachers and a few parents. At the back of the room sat a 
distinguished-looking row of whispering judges in half-moon glasses. A 
Petrof concert grand stood open on the stage; the pale blue walls were 
decorated with stucco cherubs and lyres. There were busts of Bach and 
Beethoven and the other great composers.

A young woman walked onto the stage: she was perhaps seventeen. She wore 
a knee-length skirt and glasses; her movements had a teenager’s 
awkwardness to them. She offered a minimal bow to the audience, walked 
to the piano and began a Bach Toccata and Fugue. She played with her 
back stooped right over, so her nose was just above the keyboard. Her 
performance was expansive and romantic, with a swelling pedal and the 
sort of heroic self-expression that went out of fashion some time in the 
1950s among western performers of Bach. She ended, and the audience 
waited silently; she moved on to Liszt’s thundering Rhapsodie Espagnole, 
and then the Prokofiev Toccata. The whole things lasted about forty 
minutes. It was a performance of astonishing virtuosity, during which 
her absorption in the music did not break once – until the final 
applause, at which point she bowed coyly and walked hurriedly from the 

I had once seen a photograph of this room from 1904, when it was newly 
built; it still looked exactly the same. There was almost nothing about 
this whole scene, in fact, which could not have occurred at pretty much 
any point in the century since then.

At the crossroads of east-west routes from the Caspian Sea to the Black 
Sea, and north-south ones from Russia to Turkey and the Middle East, 
Tbilisi acquired the status, in the second half of the nineteenth 
century, of a prosperous little outpost of the Russian empire. Wars with 
Persia and the Ottomans had expanded the empire into the Caucasus, and 
Russian administrators had begun to transform Tbilisi with the 
boulevards, tramlines, expansive squares and public institutions that 
were the shared vocabulary of nineteenth-century cities across the 
world. In 1851 an imposing opera house appeared, an exotic fantasy of 
Islamic arches, which brought companies from Paris and Rome who 
performed Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Puccini and Verdi. Amid all the 
other kinds of people in this trading town – the Azeri troubadours, the 
Persian caravan traders – arose a small bourgeoisie that wore the 
top-hatted, sober uniform of its peers around the world. Merchants and 
industrialists from Armenia dominated Tbilisi’s economy, building 
painted mansions with tiled roofs and carved wooden balconies that 
climbed gaily up the hillsides to look down on the growing town. A 
generation of Georgian nationalists, educated in Petersburg, returned to 
the city in the 1860s to work on celebratory Georgian histories and 
poems about Georgian kings, peasants and warriors that still provide the 
basis for a Georgian national consciousness. Since many intellectuals 
and artists from eastward-galloping Russia were in the habit of falling 
in love with everything that was oriental about their empire, balmy 
Tbilisi became a frequent destination for them, too: Pushkin, 
Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy all spent time there, and Lermontov became so 
passionate about it he has been adopted as a Georgian national hero. 
Economic development accelerated towards the end of the century when 
nearby Baku, on the Caspian, went through its meteoric rise under the 
influence of the Nobels and Rothschilds, who built it into the 
centrepiece of a European oil empire to rival Rockefeller’s Standard 
Oil. Oil from Baku was needed in western Europe, and the Transcaucasian 
railway (1883) and the subsequent pipeline (1889) went via Tbilisi for 
loading onto ships in the Black Sea port of Batumi. Tbilisi also became 
an important centre of socialist thought and activism: for the 
marginalization of Georgians from its economy added a nationalist tinge 
to Marxist critiques that made them extremely compelling, and the de 
facto Menshevik administration that ruled with widespread support during 
Russia’s crises of 1905 was the first to do so under such a banner 
anywhere in the world.

Comparatively little of what was built in those dynamic days has been 
destroyed. If you look down on old Tbilisi from the hills on the other 
side of the river where the Sheraton Hotel now stands, the view is not 
very different from what you might have seen in 1900. The steep slopes 
are still stepped with ornate wooden houses and the occasional polygonal 
church; above the city the hilltops are still bare. The stone domes of 
the public baths still cover the square in front of the mosque exactly 
as they did in Sergei Paradjanov’s 1969 film of eighteenth-century 
Tbilisi, The Colour of Pomegranates.

Close up, however, things are different. The opera house on Rustaveli 
Avenue, still graceful, is run-down, and large trees grow out through 
the cupolas on the round billboards outside. Many houses are empty and 
collapsed: balconies have fallen to the ground and staircases lead up to 
floors of bare wooden beams. Children play football in courtyards where 
the glass has broken in the carved window frames, to be replaced by 
chipboard. Such decay is everywhere, reaching beyond the old city into 
the more monumental areas built during the Soviet era. Many of the large 
housing complexes from the 50s and 60s are now only habitable thanks to 
makeshift repairs with corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. David 
Agmashenebeli Avenue, a major thoroughfare of the city’s 
twentieth-century expansion, has become a proletarian mockery of its 
former affluent self, with signs for currency exchange and second-hand 
clothes plastered rudely onto the dilapidated façades of what once were 
theatres and boutiques and cinemas. Old women sit in every doorway 
selling sunflower seeds, whose husks lie in little piles under their 
stools, and apples and onions that they bring in plastic bags. The 
street is full of idle taxis, whose drivers sit together on the curb to 

There are graffiti on nearly every wall. “Toyota” invokes the 
unencumbered power, perhaps, of the Land Cruisers that are standard 
issue for the city’s gliding diplomatic and UN personnel. The names of 
British football clubs and American actresses (“Angelina Jolie”, 
“Jennifer Lopez”) resound with glamour and achievement. Some walls have 
been decorated painstakingly, with drawings of animals or trees or 
women’s faces. The most common graffiti, however, are “Tupac” and 
“Eminem”. Heroes for an in-between age, who stand for no particular set 
of ideas, but who seem to aim all their monumental masculine media power 
against the way the world is, and thus provide an ego ideal for bored, 
frustrated youths who have little to do except rail impotently and play 
video games in Tbilisi’s many arcades.

I sat down to lunch with a young bureaucrat, Vakhtang Maisaia, from the 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and an American journalist named Jeffrey 
Silverman. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we were the only ones in the 
restaurant. In front of us was an enormous spread of barbecued pork and 
khinkali accompanied by Georgian wine and Borjomi mineral water.

“Who’s going to eat all this?” I asked.
“We are!” Vakhtang was thirty-one years old, but his air of avuncular 
warmth and his mouthful of gold teeth made him seem older.
“Anyway,” he added, “it doesn’t look nice to have a small amount of food 
on the table.”

We began to eat. There was no elegant way to tackle the khinkali, and 
Vakhtang discouraged my efforts in this direction.

“You have to eat it with your hands. That is the way. Don’t worry if the 
juice runs down your face. And try this mineral water. Borjomi is very 
famous. It contains many minerals and is very good for your health.”

Jeffrey laughed scornfully.

“Every place you go to has a different kind of Borjomi mineral water. 
They all claim to be the original. Just look into who owns them all and 
you’ll have a whole new perspective on it.”

Jeffrey was a tough southerner married to an Armenian from Georgia. Now 
in his fifties, he had previously worked for a long time for a tobacco 
company in the US and, as if in reaction to this experience, now lived 
in Tbilisi where he spent his time seeking out tales of corruption – 
especially the sort that involves American corporations. His articles on 
corporate cover-ups, large NGO funds slipping into personal pockets, 
arms deals and unexplained murders made him a well-known figure in the 
city, cursed and adored in equal measure.

It was March 14th, 2004. Early that morning President Saakashvili had 
been barred from entering the province of Ajaria by the troops of its 
Russian-supported strongman Aslan Abashidze. A military build-up was 
beginning on both sides, and my lunch companions began to receive a 
barrage of mobile phone calls. While we talked about Georgia’s political 
situation they ducked out periodically for urgent exchanges of the 
latest news.

“The day I got my job in the Ministry,” said Vakhtang, “my boss said to 
me, ‘We will pay you $20 per month. You must earn this money. You have 
to be at your desk every day and fulfil your duties. Beyond this, you 
may carry out your own business in any way you wish. I will not 
interfere.’ He was explaining the ground rules of corruption to me. 
Corruption is systematic and entirely necessary – for how can you 
support a family on $20 a month?”

Vakhtang was a man of serious intent, exasperated with this reality, who 
wished the country could be brought to a state of “normality” and who 
had chosen a line of work in which he could do his bit to move things in 
this direction. He had a strong sense of mission and, in the wake of the 
revolution, renewed hope.
“This region is still very dangerous. The effects of the break-up of the 
Soviet Union are still being felt. There are more than forty conflicts 
over ethnicity or territory that are already violent or may become so; 
most of these groups are asserting their claims more and more strongly. 
Meanwhile, Russia still wields undue power in the country. It cuts off 
our gas supply when it wants to apply pressure. It has provided generous 
supplies of weapons to the country’s breakaway leaders in order to keep 
Georgia weak. It’s still not impossible that it could walk in and occupy 
us again. Now Saakashvili is in power it is at last time to put an end 
to our fragile situation. We have to quickly reunify the country and 
forge strong international alliances.”

Of such alliances, America, of course, is the most important. And, as it 
happens, America is exceedingly interested in Georgia right now. At a 
point when its continued access to Middle Eastern oil is so 
unpredictable, the extensive deposits in the Caspian Sea have assumed 
unprecedented importance, and the US is not leaving its supply lines in 
the region in any doubt. It has fought long and hard to create an oil 
corridor from the Caspian that will avoid Russian and Iranian territory 
and pass through countries that are smaller, easier to control, and 
friendlier. The most visible result, the soon-to-be-completed 
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, was one of the most common subjects of 
conversation and news reporting in Georgia while I was there, and helps 
to explain why this poor, provincial place is so full of foreign 
businesspeople, NGOs and diplomats. It gives Georgia significant 
geopolitical importance at this point in time, making it clear that its 
future will be determined at least in part by the struggles of the Great 
Powers, and holding out the possibility that on this single point of 
foreign interest might be hung a future of international connections, 
investment, and prosperity.

More food kept coming. Jeffrey was on the phone to some diplomat.

“Yes I know exactly how they got those arms…
“Of course we can meet… I can tell you when they got them and from whom…
“Tomorrow morning?”

For Vakhtang, the ascendancy of the US in the region was probably a good 
“We are a small country on the doorstep of a giant. Our future will 
always be insecure if we do not have American protection.”

The US is delivering its protection across the region, making it clear 
that it will not leave its investments exposed to the Caucasian 
elements. American military bases have recently appeared in Uzbekistan 
and Kyrgyzstan, and are likely to do so in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. 
Kazakhstan is setting up a Caspian naval base under US supervision, and 
US troops have been sent to Georgia to provide training and equipment to 
its armed forces. All this makes it much less likely that Russia would 
ever launch a hostile operation against Georgia.

But this is only part of the attraction of the American presence. For 
Vakhtang – and for Mikhail Saakashvili’s government – the imagined 
“normality” to which Georgia must return is, at this time of neoliberal 
consensus, a thoroughly corporate one, and American interest is crucial 
for bringing it about. Georgia, of course, is one of those places where 
you see corporations at their most rapacious, and many Georgians may not 
like what they are doing there. The upheaval caused by the building of 
the pipeline through villages and agricultural land, for instance, will 
hardly be assuaged by the NGOs employed by BP to calm the social storms 
in their wake. But the twentieth century’s utopias have destroyed the 
country to the point where there is no room anymore for fine debate, new 
visions or private misgivings. All the choices for Georgia’s future 
amount to just one choice, which is the same one choice enjoyed by 
everyone else: to usher in the tumult of the global market. The 
indications are that Saakashvili’s government will do so with an almost 
unmatched level of fundamentalist passion.

Jeffrey finished his phone call and looked at me.

“Stick around,” he said. “You may see a war.”

He was impatient with Vakhtang’s pro-American sentiments. He did not 
believe that American interests could ever be made to serve Georgian ones.

“The US invokes ‘terrorism’ as an excuse for its military influence in 
this part of the world. This is exactly the same strategy that Russia 
has pursued. They both want to keep talking about Chechen fighters in 
Georgia, to treat the country as a ‘failed state,’ so they can exert 
their influence on its affairs. But their interest is not terrorists, 
but energy. The real reason the US troops came here was to train the 
Georgian army to guard their pipeline. Do you think the US could walk in 
to a successful democracy like Latvia or Estonia and tell the army what 
to do? No. It’s very convenient for them right now that the country is 
unstable and they can set things up the way they want them.”

The table was awash with pink napkins drenched in khinkali juice wiped 
from greasy chins. Jeffrey appealed hotly,

“I seriously think it would be better if they put a wall around this 
country for fifty years and didn’t let anyone in or out. I really 
believe that would solve Georgia’s problems more quickly.”

But the phone calls were becoming only more insistent and lunch was 
disbanded. Vakhtang had to return to the Ministry. Jeffrey went to check 
his facts ready for his exchange of intelligence the next morning.

After I left the country, the stand-off between Saakashvili and 
Abashidze ended – without a shot being fired. Abashidze fled to Moscow 
and Saakashvili entered Ajaria to a euphoric reception. The first 
obstacle to his reunification of the country had been honourably 
cleared, and his prestige was sky-high. Vakhtang was proud and excited – 
doubly so, since he had been appointed Counsellor to the Georgian 
Diplomatic Mission to NATO, and was going to Brussels for three years.
Jeffrey began to write me depressed emails wondering if the Saakashvili 
administration would not turn out to be more power-hungry and corrupt 
even than what had gone before. But then his propensity to hang out in 
the most dangerous Caucasian recesses got him into more trouble than 
just the usual beating. While trying to work out what was really 
happening where the official maps read “Here Be Terrorists” he found 
himself arrested in Azerbaijan under an old warrant he did not know 
about; his passport was confiscated and his attention became more 
focussed on gathering money from well-wishers to pay to the Azerbaijani 
Meanwhile, the nearly-complete Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, built by 
French, American and Indian contractors for the BP-led consortium, 
buried under concrete and watched at all times by guards and electronic 
sensors, is as secure as human beings know how to build.

Power was in short supply in Tbilisi, and at night most of the streets 
were in deep darkness. The headlights of an occasional Lada taxi would 
speed past loudly over the cobbles. Late-night shops spilled light out 
onto the sidewalks; their simple interiors, with sausages hanging from 
the ceiling and sacks of flour and potatoes on the floor, seemed 
cheerful and welcoming in the deep night. Outside, old people sat in the 
blackness of doorways, and gypsy children trailed passing pedestrians, 
trying to argue money out of them. A team of men walked the streets with 
a torch, pasting new posters onto the palimpsest of city walls. A fleet 
of taxis and gleaming 4x4s jostled outside the Adjara Hotel, whose 
nightclub was host to some DJ from Paris; rich young men with Gucci 
shades and model girlfriends were still arriving at 1am to join the 
crowds of dancers, whose Ecstasy-induced serenity rendered them 
relatively indifferent to the erotic gyrations of the elongated women up 
on the stage. A birthday party was happening in one of the restaurants 
on Perovskaya Street. A large family was packed around a thirty-foot 
table whose surface was entirely covered, end-to-end, with a couple of 
hundred of dishes of food. A gypsy band had been hired for the evening: 
three old men played dances at blistering speed on a violin, accordion 
and synthesizer. The endless toasts had started – to Georgia, to 
parents, to women, to love, to memories, to the departed, and so on, and 
so on – and soon the young people would start to dance wildly until they 
collapsed with drink. Their seated grandmothers would clap them on to 
ever-faster footwork, they would leap and reel to the rhythm of the 
music, and they would end each dance by throwing themselves to the floor 
and lying in a group on their backs, laughing out loud.

Most of the people I met in the bars and cafés were young. Some of them 
had jobs. One worked for Opel, in the marketing department, while 
studying for her MBA in the evenings. Another was employed by an 
American NGO whose values and motives he mistrusted entirely – but the 
money was good, and for people whose opportunities are so slender there 
is not much irony to such contradictions. But many were unemployed. They 
did not order drinks, and came just to talk.
The young men all seemed to spend their time writing poetry. It was 
poetry they knew would never be published, written for themselves and 
their friends. There was a café in Tbilisi, popularly known as the 
“Literature Café,” where such people met and discussed politics and 
literature, and where Georgia’s most famous writer, Dato Turashvili, 
held court in Sartrean style. These people had a romantic persona based 
on a deep cynicism about almost anything the wider world had to offer, 
and the celebration of love, sex and the artistic interiority. They 
found me artificial.

“So you are paid to write books? That is your living?”
“So then for you it is a business. You do not write from the heart. You 
think only of what people will buy.”

End of conversation. We talked about other things.

It was difficult for these people to believe that any established 
interest could ever do anything to benefit them. They were young enough 
to have lived their whole life in a situation of economic and political 
desperation, and it had become a fundamental condition. They were among 
those, of course, who had protested during the revolution, and who had 
had the satisfaction of seeing the old regime removed and humiliated. 
But their support for Saakashvili was provisional.

“We are giving him time. He is new, he is just starting. Let’s see what 
he does. We will support him for a while. But he is not our saviour. If 
he does nothing we will fight to get him out of power.”

They had a general sense that things must get better. The entrenched 
interests of the former Communist elite could not survive the new 
political and economic currents, and one day life would perhaps come 
closer to the fantasy of “normality” that seemed everywhere to float 
like a mirage above the apparent aberration of Georgian life. But they 
did not think anything was happening soon:

“Maybe in fifty years, maybe in a hundred. Georgia will become a normal 
place. Too far away for us.”

Dr. Kenchosvili, four decades older than these people, had said a 
remarkably similar thing. It was as if the future always began just 
after you had ceased to be able to experience it, no matter when that 
was likely to be. This was not about real time, but about an inability 
to imagine oneself living in a certain kind of world: relaxed, and 
confident. Sometimes only some deus ex machina seemed adequate to 
transform this reality into that:

“We need some nuclear bomb. Destroy everything. Start from zero!”

Everyone laughed.

But even an image of such total finality was not quite enough. Someone 

“Don’t you think even then our rulers would just get up from the blast, 
and start putting their cousins in power?”

This joke was even better. The laughter was uproarious.

Shortly after I left, a young woman from this group who had had a job 
lost it as a result of post-revolution realignments. It was a 
well-paying government job, and she was at a loss for how to find 
something else comparable. At a party she met a recruiter for an 
American construction company operating in Iraq, and within a few days 
had departed for Baghdad.

On the last day I went to Nikoloz’s house. I turned up, as per his 
instructions, after 5pm, since that was when the electricity came. He 
lived on the edge of a teeming market selling cheap goods from China and 
Iran. There was a small room with two single beds, a television and a 
piano. In the adjoining kitchen the oven door was open to heat the room. 
Downstairs was a damp basement that Nikoloz had made habitable by 
building a stove in the corner and covering the brick walls with plastic 
panelling. A friend of his, hearing that a foreign visitor was coming, 
had stopped by in the morning to drop off wooden crates for the fire; 
they burned very quickly, so the freezing room was filled with periodic 
bursts of heat. On the wall was a large sheet of paper with the 
handwritten title, “My journey to India.” It was covered with 
photographs from Bhilai (“In those days I was an important person. Look 
how all the workers looked up to me. Now they earn four times what I 
do.”) and from the three subsequent trips he had made as an academic. 
The shelves were lined with Hindi volumes and the desk was piled with 
folders labelled “Letters from Indian friends” and the like. His wife 
brought down a meal of stew, cheese, ham and beer, and departed. We 
talked about the same things again: the indignities of poverty, the 
destruction of a society, the indifference of the world towards his 
nearly four decades of work.

It was time for me to leave. We went upstairs and I played a few notes 
on the piano. Niko was delighted. He put some scores in front of me. His 
wife was irritated by his interference: “Just let him play!” She had sat 
down on the bed to listen. “No, no – play this!” he told me. It was a 
collection of Italian songs. I started playing the introduction to “O 
Sole Mio”, and he joined in with a lovely tenor voice. The first time 
around we were a somewhat shaky ensemble; we performed it once more. It 
was a strangely beautiful moment: this sugary nineteenth-century love 
song, this comfortable drawing room sound, here in a proletarian 
district of a poor Central Asian city, with a slightly out-of-tune 
piano, Niko’s precise Italian accent, and his unaccustomed voice 
cracking on the high notes. It felt like a ballad of nostalgia for a 
genteel past that never existed. I was moved. His wife applauded. I 
hugged her emotionally, and she waved strenuously from the door.

Niko walked me to the subway station telling me that when he had not 
drunk beer his voice was much better, and did I think his singing could 
become a little business?

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