Tbilisi (from the Georgian tbili, meaning "warm," a reference to the hot sulfur springs by the Kura River, which runs through town) was founded in A.D. 458, by the Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali. Byzantines, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Seljuks, Ottomans, and North Caucasian tribes all destroyed or looted it; each time, Tbilisi was rebuilt. Though the city center around Rustaveli Prospekt looks European, in past epochs Tbilisi looked wholly Oriental. The architecture of the Old City tells the story: a Persian caravansary topped by Russian domes; Turkish baths; a Shi'ite mosque with dazzling faience like a transplant from Isfahan; the yellow-and-white Art Nouveau former Russian patriarchate, next to a quiet park lined with linden trees; and, towering above everything, the Persian fortress that King Vakhtang occupied in the mid fifth century. By the river stood the mustard-colored Sioni Cathedral, which I entered in time for the noon mass.
Named after Mount Zion, in Jerusalem, Sioni was founded sometime in the late sixth or early seventh century by a Georgian prince, and it has been often looted and destroyed. Inside, the women were covered by brown head shawls. Some had the faces of harem beauties in oil portraits. Herodotus suggested that every place touched by classical Greece was civilized, and here the ancient Greek style (not Saint Paul's Christianity) was responsible for Eastern Orthodoxy's sensual radiance.
Assyrian monks spread Christianity throughout Georgia after Saint Nino's fourth-century conversion of the royal family, and in Georgian churches one finds an eclectic mixture of Assyrian, Hittite, Persian, Greek, and other styles. In the eleventh-century cathedral of Sveti-tskhoveli ("The Life-Giving Column"), north of Tbilisi, amid dark rugs and lighted candelabra, were icons and frescoes of a savage Christ familiar to me from Serbian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.
At the Samtavro Monastery, a few miles from Sveti-tskhoveli, a nun showed me where the Russians had covered all the Georgian frescoes with whitewash. The style of Russian Orthodoxy is imperial: whitewashed walls to highlight the accumulated icons, censers, and silver chandeliers. The Georgian church, with its primitive and austere frescoes, is a fighting peasants' church whose aim is sheer survival.
ON a narrow street in Tbilisi, I entered a dilapidated house with exposed mortar and peeling walls and an awful, eaten-away Soviet-era hallway. A door opened, and Zaal Kikodze, an archaeologist, invited me inside. Old books crammed every inch of wall space. Kikodze had a wiry ashen beard and wore a dark woolen work shirt. I asked him what Georgian history says about Georgia's future.
He said, "At the stage of technology we have reached, nations work only if they float in the larger world. And what you have in this part of the world is fossilized nations—dead societies that have yet to revive. There are a group of young reformers in our parliament, educated in the West. But today Georgians only want heroes. And we will never be able to rely on the United States or NATO. We are too far from Europe, too close to Russia. NATO will not drop bombs for ten weeks to save Georgians from ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia, the way it bombed to save Albanians in Kosovo. Yet we still look toward Europe."
Kikodze criticized the Soviet Union but defended Russia, which developed Tbilisi in the nineteenth century as the capital of Transcaucasia. "On this street where I have lived since 1958," he said, "there used to be Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Russians, and others. It was a golden age. We had no idea what nationalism was. Then it destroyed us. The Jews left for Israel, the Armenians for Armenia, the Russians for Russia, and so on. And the Russian language is barely being taught, which is a disaster for us. English is still only for a rarefied elite, while the loss of Russian cuts the average Georgian off from the outside world. All our books of learning, our encyclopedias on art, literature, history, science, are in Russian, not Georgian. Young Georgians can no longer communicate with Armenians and Ossetians. This illiteracy is promoting ethnic separation."
Americans, I thought, are triumphalist about the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is fine given the crimes of communism. But throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia I experienced firsthand how the Soviet collapse, although a blessing in the long run, has ruined millions of lives. Communism, however disastrous, provided pensions, schooling, social peace, and physical security for a multitude of people who had no recollection of anything better. The collapse of that system has left a chaotic void that so far has made life here much worse.
GEORGIANS are a very old ethnic entity, but we have no experience of modern statehood," said Alexander Rondeli, the head of a research institute connected to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We are a quasi-state." Rondeli, the doyen of Georgian intellectuals, is fifty-seven but looks older. With a grave and sardonic voice, a large physique, striking white hair, and thick black eyebrows, he was like the voice of history itself. Rondeli's viewpoint was both wise and ironic, but also overburdened by the sheer accumulation of knowledge and events.
"Nations often get what they deserve," Rondeli told me with a slight smile when we met at his office, "so to see what kind of government Georgia will have in the future, it is merely a matter of dissecting our national character. We are nominally Christian, but we have never been fanatics. We know how to survive, but not how to improve. Our church is pagan, politicized, and thus unable to move forward."
"Remember," Rondeli went on, "we had seventy-four years of political-cultural-economic emasculation under the Soviet Union. Three generations of Georgians were spoiled. The West concentrates on the crimes of Hitler, but the Nazis ruled for only twelve years."
Rondeli was bursting with stories. Later that night we moved to a restaurant, where he talked for hours. "My mother's family, all educated people, graduates of German universities, were shot in the purges of 1937," he told me. "You see, Stalin would never have been promoted in a democratic society; he would have ended his life as a marginal criminal. In the 1930s, when Stalin arrived at the Tbilisi railway station for an official visit as the Emperor of Russia, it was the first time in years that he saw his mother. You know what he jestingly asked her—'Are you still a whore?' People my father knew well were there. They heard it."
Rondeli continued, "My father had a friend, a prominent actor, Spartak Bagashvili, whom Stalin invited once to the Kremlin. Spartak sat with Stalin late into the night, drinking and speaking in Georgian. Spartak wanted to leave, but Stalin wouldn't let him. Finally he left. At the door Stalin said, 'Come live with me here—I have no one to talk to.' Stalin, Spartak said, was looking at him with the eyes of a child."
Rondeli's voice and expression suddenly lost all trace of wit and irony; his manner was merely sad. "Let me tell you another story," he said. "I knew this old Georgian who as a young boy had lived at a collective farm in the 1930s. There had been an election at the farm, and the man nominated to run the farm was not very good and everyone knew it, but of course no one said anything. But my friend spoke up from the back of the hall and remarked, 'You know, this man is not qualified.' There was some small rumbling, and an older fellow sitting nearby said gently, 'Come with me, young lad.' My friend went with the man. The man asked to see his identity card. The card showed that my friend was seventeen. The man changed the seven to an eight, because you couldn't imprison someone under eighteen, according to the law." Rondeli said the word sarcastically. "This older fellow was with the NKVD [secret police]. My friend spent the next ten years in a labor camp on Novaya Zemlya, an island in the Arctic, from the age of seventeen to twenty-seven." Rondeli snapped his fingers. "Like that—ten years. That's how those things happened.
"Well, my friend was tough and he survived. His job was to drive the cart each evening that transported the bodies to the common grave. They weren't always dead—nobody was careful about these things—but it didn't matter, since the cold and the dirt would kill them soon enough. Anyway, one night my friend was driving his cart full of bodies, singing a tune in Georgian. Suddenly, amid the howls of the wind, he heard a voice faintly crying in Georgian, 'Help me, help me.' This startled my friend, because he hadn't heard Georgian spoken in a long time. One of the bodies was still alive: an Armenian from Georgia, who, when he heard my friend singing, had called out for help. My friend took him out of the stockpile of bodies and managed to save him. Years later, after they were both released, they met in Kutaisi, where the fellow insisted that my friend come to Batumi and meet his family. They spent days drinking and honoring my friend. Both my friend and this other fellow died a few years later, still relatively young. The years in the camps had done something to their health. You multiply this story by fourteen, twenty, or thirty million, you will have an idea what Stalin was able to accomplish." Rondeli raised his thick eyebrows.
Like everyone else in Georgia, Rondeli was obsessed with Russia. Echoing the archaeologist Kikodze, he told me, "After Kosovo, the West will not intervene east of the Carpathians. Kosovo was a very expensive and lucky victory for NATO, so we in the Caucasus know that we are alone against the Kremlin."
Along with the hatred of Russia went a dislike of Armenians. Listening to other Georgians talk about Armenians gave me the chilling sensation of what Old World anti-Semitism must have been like: Armenians are "usurers who ruined Georgian families, who are now allied with Russia against Georgia and Azerbaijan." "The Armenians are always claiming that they are the best, that they are fighting with nothing, even while Russia supports them." "I don't like Armenians; the Azeris are nicer people." "The only good-looking Armenian is Cher."
YET in Tbilisi I felt hope. Whereas the economy had declined by double digits each year in the first half of the 1990s, since 1996 it had been rebounding by double digits. Traffic had doubled within a year. A city that in the mid-1990s had few cars now had traffic jams everywhere downtown. Art galleries had opened. New apartment buildings were rising near the parliament in an area that had been destroyed by the civil war. Tbilisi in the late 1990s seemed to me like Beirut in the early 1990s, when a rise in property values indicated that confidence had returned.
The intellectuals view these developments skeptically, because they know from history how Georgia has experienced one revival after another, only to be crushed by Turkey, Persia, or Russia. Yet although history follows familiar patterns, precise repetitions are rare.
During my stay in Tbilisi it was announced that the latest in well over a dozen conspiracies against Shevardnadze had been uncovered. The next morning Shevardnadze called a press conference, where he calmly told the journalists that the latest plot was more than a planned assassination attempt against him—it involved a military coup "to remove the entire leadership," including cabinet members and parliamentarians. Of the reported conspiracies at least two were full-fledged assassination attempts: a car bombing and a gun-and-grenade attack. I noticed that Shevardnadze wore a hearing aid: the car bomb had damaged his ear.
"The chieftain of this new plot is located abroad, in Russia," Shevardnadze told us. This was predictable. With Georgia gradually stabilizing; with democracy, however tenuous and corrupt, beginning to take hold; and with the country becoming a strategic corridor for Western oil companies, killing Shevardnadze—who was tying Georgia more closely to the West—was the only game the Russians could still play here. For the Russians, Georgia, which served not only as a buffer state but also as a listening post for the Muslim world, was vital. No Western diplomats I met had any doubt that Russia was behind the assassination attempts.
Shevardnadze, seventy-two, is a burly man with curly white hair and a ruddy complexion. It was clear from how haggard he looked that helping to run the world as Soviet Foreign Minister had been a lot easier than running Georgia. His voice was deep and gruff but patient, as though he were conducting a fireside chat with us—twenty local reporters and me. Shevardnadze had a simple strategy: personal physical survival. A few more years without dying or being killed would mean time for more political stabilization, more reforms, more institution-building. At that point his personal survival, or that of his successor, might no longer be synonymous with the survival of the state itself.
Shevardnadze was careful not only to confront the Russians but also to make deals with them. He knowingly kept gangsters in power, and he had many lines of communication open to old friends in Moscow. George Washington fought the British by essentially running away from them, fighting skirmishes, until they got tired of the war and left. Shevardnadze's strategy is similar.
Morality is a funny thing, I realized. In the 1970s and early 1980s it seemed that Gamsakhurdia—an intellectual who had brought Shakespeare's wisdom to his native Georgia through his own translations—was a moral man, whereas Shevardnadze, a Communist hack, was an immoral one. But Shevardnadze, the Machiavellian, sniffed out the rot in the system he was a part of; he and his allies Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexandr Yakovlev tried to reform that system for the sake of their own survival. They failed, and the Soviet Union collapsed. But Shevardnadze's survival game continued in Georgia.
How long can Shevardnadze survive against his enemies? The Kremlin has an imperial mentality; Washington does not. America's attitude is, to a significant extent, fatalistic: It's their game, they've got to reform the tax system and the police, end corruption, and so on. Of course, corruption is deeply rooted—perhaps the most corrosive ultimate consequence of communism. It will continue at high levels long after Shevardnadze's death. The West cannot hope that in a few years Georgian society will unlearn all the bad lessons of many decades, even centuries. "We'll be walking along the edge of a razor blade," Revaz Adamia, a member of the parliament and the head of its defense committee, told me, "until enough oil is flowing through here to give the West the selfish interest it needs to fight for us. Russia will do everything to destabilize Georgia before that happens."