Tbilisi mon amour

The cliff in the centre of Tbilisi
The cliff in the centre of Tbilisi
Tbilisi's Zoroastrian fire temple
Tbilisi’s Zoroastrian fire temple
Rustaveli Avenue
Rustaveli Avenue


A part of me doesn’t really want to spread word about Tbilisi at all. This place is the way the world’s cities used to be before the arrival of mass tourism – and I love it.

From the visitor’s point of view, the Georgian capital comes close to perfection; it’s beautiful, cheap and offers stimulating conversation. The streets are safe and the food is exquisite. What more could one possibly ask?

If one were determined to gripe, then the heat of high summer could be counted against it. As I write on August 3, BBC Weather says the maximum temperature today will be 39C – the same as Khartoum, which stands out in my memory as one very hot city.

The first thing that struck me when I saw Tbilisi was the dramatic topography, the cliff rising up sheer on the northern side of the Mtkvari river with a church and other buildings perched on top. I still find this view thrilling.

The other thing was the charm of the main boulevard, Rustaveli Avenue, with its plane trees soaring to the heavens, the well-dressed women and the lovely balconies of the houses, a feature in much of Tbilisi. So, a city that marries drama and elegance.

The topographical extravagance does not end with the cliff. If you wander past Tbilisi’s sulphur baths on the south side of the river you soon come to a canyon and a waterfall.  A serious waterfall in the middle of a national capital!

Then the land rises steeply to the Solalaki ridge on the southern side of the city, with the Mother Georgia (Kartvlis Deda) statue and the ancient Narikala fortress. On the other side of the ridge stretches the green expanse of the National Botanical Garden of Georgia,  all 161 hectares of it.

Scattered here and there are examples of ultra-modern architecture. Much of this, to my mind, does not blend with the rest of Tbilisi. The buildings seem to be there to polish Georgia’s credentials as part of modern Europe.

But it’s clear that in human terms Tbilisi is not a carbon copy of West European capitals. People here are ploughing their own furrow. For example, Tbilisi’s churches are full to bursting. When I went to the city’s Sioni cathedral it was packed with worshippers of all generations. The canny ones were outside seated on benches in the courtyard – more comfortable than standing inside.

The University of the Road

I like to call it the University of the Road – the knowledge one gains from others when on the move. Tbilisi has a particularly lively branch of this august institution.

One of my teachers is Yuri Millarson. The first time I met him in a Tbilisi hostel I learnt just the basics – he is from San Francisco and he’s named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. In later conversations I realised that Yuri lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the Caucasus like no one else I have ever met. His knowledge is extraordinary and his ideas on day trips unconventional.

One evening he told me that the next day he hoped to go to the Pankisi Gorge in eastern Georgia to brush up on his Chechen grammar with the Kists. The trip didn’t happen in fact, but the conversation improved my knowledge of the ethnic mosaic of Georgia. The Kists trace their origins to the Chechens of the North Caucasus.

Yuri, who is 43, hangs out some of the time with Georgian bikers. He describes himself as an anarchist and he has one very big idea. He wants to foster a sense of the cultural unity of the Caucasus, north and south, so that eventually the peoples of the region can move towards some kind of political union.

So how did a Californian come to be passionate about the Caucasus? “Well, when I was a child I saw Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu,” said Yuri. “It had Tsintskaro playing in it, a very old Georgian vocal polyphonic song and that was my first introduction to the music of the Caucasus actually….As I was growing up as a child the Caucasus was this kind of strange, mythical place.”

“And then there was this thing about my grandmother,” added Yuri, “my grandmother who was living on the Black Sea coast when she was a little child with her mother.” He said the draw of the Caucasus was like going back into an ancestral past, like “a 1000-year-old smell”.

Yuri said that for more than 20 years he had been thinking about the unification of the Caucasus, about breaking down what he called “the manufactured distance” between people on different sides of political borders.

“Georgians know very little about Chechens, for example, even though they are direct border neighbours,” said Yuri. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chechens have fought two independence wars against Russia but are still part of the Russian Federation.

I asked him how could an outsider from California bring change to the Caucasus. His answer was quick and simple. “You need some different thinking, some outside thinking.”

Immediately after my first conversation with Yuri about Caucasus unity, I met two delightful young Russians from the North Caucasus, a brother and sister in their 20s. Our paths crossed briefly in a restaurant and we arranged to meet again the next day. They were Russian citizens of ethnic Armenian stock, visiting family in Tbilisi. They seemed almost to be embodying Yuri’s idea of Caucasus unity.

We ate ice cream and chatted for hours about life, the universe and everything. He was a lawyer, she was a teacher of English. Sometimes you hear the view in the West that Russians are brainwashed by their media into believing what their government wants them to believe.

The brother and sister told me, however, that they had completely stopped watching Russian television. Her favourite viewing was Downton Abbey, not renowned for its Kremlin propaganda.

A few highlights

Memories of a few excursions and hangouts in Tbilisi will stay with me. At the weekend Yuri and I set off to visit the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. Our taxi driver repeatedly got lost and eventually dropped us somewhere close. We asked several Georgians to direct us to the spot but just got blank looks. Eventually a foreign tourist showed us the way.

Perhaps it was the summer heat, but it then took us half an hour to get in. We finally knocked on the right door and a man opened up what looked like a private home. He pointed languidly to the temple entrance and disappeared.

The temple, called the Ateshgah, is a cuboid brick structure in the south of the city below the Mother Georgia statue and just to the east of the Zemo Betlemi church. It is without windows and essentially featureless. A sign outside says it was probably built between the fifth and seventh centuries, when Zoroastrianism was spreading in Georgia.

The point in going was not to savour architectural greatness, but to get a sense of contact with a very distant past. Zoroaster,  the religion’s founder,  lived in the first or second millennium BC in ancient Iran and developed a monotheistic religion with concepts of heaven and hell. The religion still exists, mainly in India.

In an utterly different vein, one day back in May I dropped into Betsy’s Hotel, a favourite haunt of the British. An Englishman stood at one end of the bar, with beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. He held forth on how best to prepare camel for the table. I caught snippets.

“Has to be a young camel…Bury for seven hours.” He delivered his culinary tips with such poise and assurance that it was easy to believe the English were forever dining off camel, before moving on to the apple and blackberry crumble and the port.

My most frequent haunt has been Kala in Old Tbilisi. There I listen to an old-timer with twinkling eyes play the drums with all the mellow tunefulness of advancing years, while two younger musicians accompany him on cello and piano.

Occasionally female vocalists put in an appearance, seated precariously on a high stool (one at a time, of course). Kala also does a great mint-flavoured lemonade, which hits the spot nicely in this heat.



Georgia’s most famous son, alas

A statue of Stalin outside the museum in the Georgian town of Gori where he was born
A statue of Stalin outside the museum in the Georgian town of Gori where he was born

If Stalin could return to his home town in the central plains of Georgia, he would have reason to be gratified. Sixty-two years after his death the modest house where he was born is carefully maintained as a shrine in his honour.

The brick and wood house, now encased within a pavilion, is part of a large museum dedicated to his memory. It pulls in the punters and puts a favourable gloss on the life of one of history’s bloodiest mass murderers. To visit the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori is to witness first-hand the human ability to present a selective truth which is a travesty of reality.

Having decided to take the pulse of the South Caucasus I cannot ignore this monument to Stalin, born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili. He was by any measure a political Colossus of the 20th century and some Georgians still honour him. The violence of his rule is given very little prominence in Gori.

The first thing you notice about the museum is its sheer size. It is housed in a big palazzo with a tower and a series of arches at ground level, conveying the message that this is a place of substance. Inside there are carpeted staircases and chandeliers.

The Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori
The Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori

During my visit an English-speaking guide materialised, a large woman of mature years who looked as if she had come straight from Soviet Central Casting. She carried a short stick to point out objects of interest and, presumably, to emphasise her authority.

What followed was an interesting exercise in finely tuned propaganda. The whole performance was skilful to a degree.

She told us things that were interesting and true – always a sound policy. She related that Stalin was a poet who had verse published in the Georgian language, that he was a most gifted singer. An example of Stalin’s poetry hangs on a museum wall.

But one rather awkward exhibit she ignored totally. She had nothing to say about a famous postscript to a Testament written by Lenin in 1923, a year before his death, describing Stalin as “too rough” and calling for his dismissal as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

The museum’s treatment of this Testament is symbolic of what feels like a real ambivalence over how to deal with the whole subject of Stalin. On the one hand, it is to the museum’s credit that Lenin’s criticism is on display. On the other hand, the text is presented solely in Russian, which limits its usefulness as an exhibit.

The museum has one section on Stalin’s family, a delicate topic. The guide told us in neutral tones that Stalin’s first wife died of typhus and the second committed suicide. That’s the wives dealt with then.

She put the spotlight firmly on his son Yakov, who was a prisoner of war of the Germans in the Second World War. The Germans offered to swap Yakov for Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, captured by Soviet forces after the Battle of Stalingrad. But Stalin refused, saying of Soviet soldiers “All of them are my sons.” Yakov died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943. The point of the story is clear – Stalin was a leader who wasn’t swayed by personal feelings.

It could be argued that a museum dealing with a political leader does not need to focus much on the man’s wives. But for the record, Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina (née Svanidze), died at the age of 22 after he took her to live in the hot, dirty city of Baku, while he led what British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called “a life of banditry, espionage, extortion and agitation”.

His second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, shot herself through the heart with a Mauser pistol at the age of 31, after a public row with her husband, by now Soviet leader, at a Kremlin dinner party. She killed herself on 8 November 1932, the day after the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The official announcement said that she died of appendicitis.

A happy Soviet tractor driver sets the tone at the Stalin museum
A happy Soviet tractor driver sets the tone at the Stalin museum

Against the odds, the museum creates an upbeat mood, with use of classic Soviet propaganda. There on one wall is an iconic poster of an attractive woman tractor driver, beaming ecstatically as she lives the Soviet dream.

Our guide dealt with the whole subject of Soviet collectivisation of farming in a few brisk sentences and said that “mistakes were made”. I saw nothing in the museum chronicling the famines that swept the Soviet Union as a result of Stalin’s policies.

Welsh journalist Gareth Jones did more than anyone else to alert the world to hunger in Ukraine in 1933. Defying a travel ban, he went to Ukraine to see for himself and reported that he found “famine on a colossal scale”.

No one knows how many died. The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than anticipated. U.S. historian Timothy Snyder, in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, wrote of the census: “Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.”

Snyder estimates that about 3.3 million people died of starvation or hunger-related illness in Soviet Ukraine alone in 1932-1933.

A statuette of Stalin, holding his trademark pipe, for sale in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta
A statuette of Stalin, holding his trademark pipe, for sale in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta

Another subject ignored in the Gori museum is Stalin’s treatment of the citizens of other countries.

Many Polish tourists come to Georgia, but I can’t imagine that the museum in Gori is high on their list of priorities. One of Stalin’s crimes that will live in infamy is the Katyn Forest massacre of about 22,000 Poles in 1940. Stalin’s government blamed the Nazis and the Moscow government admitted only in 1990 that it was Soviet bullets that ended so many Polish lives.

It is hard to read about these killings even today without shedding a tear. The victims were mainly Polish officers but also included engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests and journalists. They had fallen into Soviet hands after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 and the motivation for the slaughter seems to have been to weaken any future Polish state.

The chief executioner of the Soviet NKVD secret police, Vasily Blokhin, carried out many of the killings. Wearing a butcher’s leather apron and cap, he personally shot 7000 Poles over 28 nights.

The only part of the museum devoted to the subject of Stalinist violence is two small rooms on the ground floor. One room is a reconstructed secret police interrogation room and the other is a prison cell and ante-chamber adorned with the clothes of Gori citizens arrested and shot under Stalin. This section was added five years ago.

Our guided tour of the museum ended in a railway carriage which Stalin used for the last 12 years of his life – he didn’t like flying. Standing in the carriage’s dining room, I asked our guide what Gori citizens feel about Stalin today.

“I don’t know,” she said, but then added: “I think most of the older generation like Stalin.” Any other answer would have stretched credibility. The guide’s entire demeanour throughout the tour was one of deep respect and admiration.

Back in Tbilisi after my Gori visit, strap-hanging in the city’s metro, I noticed that the man next to me was reading a magazine article which included a photo of Stalin looking every inch the handsome father of the nation. Monster though he was, Stalin is clearly a part of the mental landscape of Georgia still.


Select Bibliography

Applebaum, Anne, GULAG: A History of the Soviet Camps, London 2003

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Young Stalin, London 2007

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, London 2003

Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, London 2010

The website garethjones.org has details on the life of journalist Gareth Jones.