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Georgian Language and History
“A lion's cubs are lions all, male and female alike” — Shota Rustaveli
“A lion's cubs are lions all, male and female alike” — Shota Rustaveli, The Knight in the Panther's Skin
“If your enemy comes to you as a guest with the head of your firstborn son on a platter, he's still your guest” — Persian saying
“Georgians make great generals, but terrible soldiers” — Georgian saying
This is a repost of a pre-Kvetch conversion I had in January 2021 — one of my favourites and one of the most popular.
The Georgian language has one of the most beautiful scripts I’ve come across. Unique to Georgia, tucked away between the Russian, Persian and Ottoman empires, and unrelated to any other language, I’ve always wanted to know how it came to be.
I got to ask that and more in this conversation.
Substack podcast link, Apple link:
This is a conversation with two non-Georgians, Dr Timothy Blauvelt and Thomas Weir, living in Georgia and specialising in the Georgian language and history. We cover a lot. As outsiders they have a detached perspective, yet the love of their adopted home shines through. I reached out to Thomas initially because of his linguist Twitter account which is…niche, but excellent!
This is a conversation close to my heart. I was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and you will see lots of references to family members and my own experiences with the country and its people.
Georgian is a unique, ancient and rich language and culture. Of the many interesting takeaways, these three struck me during the conversation and lingered after:
Georgia as a walled garden, surrounded by mountains and seas. Despite being on the intersection of empires, it's been able to cultivate 70-odd languages and many cultures and kingdoms. A deeply fragmented piece of paradise
Georgian culture as performative, vs say literary, in the case of Russian culture. Whether this manifests on trains, at dinner or in the theatre, this was a wonderful new lens with which to consider cultures
The idea of a sort of Georgian or Caucasian occupation of the Soviet Union as manifest by the network of individuals from the Caucuses in high places during the Stalin era. I’m not sure that’s right, Russia has a long history of its army and politics being comprised of individuals from varying ethnicities, but it’s an interesting idea
Full transcript below. Some of my favourite snippets and notes:
“The totemic animal of the Georgians in antiquity, before 500 AD and well before Christianity, was probably the wolf. When the Georgians went to battle, they would wear wolf helmets and wolf skins.”
The ways in which Timothy and Thomas spoke to Georgian geography driving cultural and linguistic proliferation was a nice illustration of the way in which civilisations follow climates along longitudinal paths as explored in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel
This also touches nicely on other questions of geographic determinism and cultural importance as explored by Peter Zeihan and Joseph Henrich
Early on, Timothy referred to Tamar, first sovereign of Georgia, as “King / Queen”. I looked up why afterwards. It’s because she was titled “mepe”, which means “King”. Even though the word has a female equivalent, the masculine is used. Reminded me of Rustaveli’s famous line in his epic poem: A lion's cubs are lions all, male and female alike.
Georgian rose to dominate the region because it became the language of Christianity / the liturgy
It is possible that in the 12th century, more people spoke Georgian than English (!)
Georgian is a gender neutral language vs Chechen (neighbours) which has 6 genders
21:00: Differences to Armenian
27:00: How Georgians kept their hereditary monarchy whereas Armenia lost its monarchy and became a middle class nation, serving a similar merchant class role to Jews in Eastern Europe
37:45: I enjoyed this Persian saying and tribute to hospitality: “if your enemy comes to you as a guest with the head of your firstborn son on a platter, he's still your guest”
41:00: Breadth of religious practice within Georgia, including pagan remnants
43:11: Rustaveli being Georgia’s Shakespeare and Chaucer and author of Beowulf rolled into one
45:45: Why translation of poetry is like jazz. How Pasternak translated a Georgian story into Russian without knowing any Georgian at all
48: 55: There are at least as many, if not more streets in Tbilisi named after writers and poets than many (any?) other cities in Europe
53:00: Georgian literary tradition and representation in its neighbours’ imaginations. Including in Orham Pamuk’s work and influencing Lermontov. Then discussion of artists Merab Abramashvili and Niko Pirosmani
57:00: Stalin, Georgia’s most infamous son, and how Georgians maybe (?) came to occupy the Soviet Union
1:00:50: Georgian food!
1:09:19 Living in the liminal zone between cultures and how two Americans ended up living and breathing Georgia
01:19:11: Abhazia and South Ossetia
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity
MS: I'm joined today by Dr Thomas Wier from the Free University of Tbilisi and Professor Timothy Blauvelt from the Ilia State University, in Georgia as well.
So today I'm speaking to two non-Georgians about Georgia. Its language and history. And at one point I will have to have an “-adze” or a “-shvili” on as well. This was intended to be a conversation about the Georgian language specifically. I reached out to Dr. Thomas Weir as a linguist, but I'm going to use this to basically ask all my questions about Georgian culture and history. As people living in Georgia I’m keen for your views more broadly. I was born in Tbilisi and I have visited Georgia twice. I have family in Georgia, so I am deeply familiar with it in many ways, but in a very domestic way. I want to explore Georgia more formally.
I want to start off with my impression of Georgian. I don't speak Georgian, although I grew up hearing it, but it strikes me that it's a miracle that it exists at all. It doesn't belong to any of the major language families, and it's an island oasis among empires: Russian, Turkish, Persian. Somehow it’s managed to retain its unique language and culture, albeit with fascinating influences and an evolution.
So, Thomas, I thought we'd start with you around the history of Georgia. Why is it that it's so unique? How does that come about? Where did it come from? How did it manage to survive?
TW: Yeah, those are all really good questions. So, Georgia is really interesting for a lot of reasons because on the one hand it belongs to this part of the world that is so close to the origins of the earliest civilizations. It is very close to the Middle East; it is very close to Greece and to other parts of the world that are familiar. It is also part of Europe, depending on your definition of Europe. But, at the same time, the languages, and the specific facts about the region, are not well known to people outside the region.
So the Caucuses are about the size of California, situated between the Black and Caspian seas. And in that region, there are about 70 plus languages spoken. So, it really is this kind of hotbed of linguistic diversity. That is very unusual, relative to other parts of Europe that we are more familiar with.
So if you think about 70 languages, that is about 20 to 30% of all the languages that are spoken in Europe. So, although it is kind of the corner of Europe, it actually represents a big chunk of all of the cultural diversity that is in this continent that was so important to Western civilization.
So, in some ways studying this region is like studying something that is very familiar through the back door, because it is so closely connected to Western culture. It has often been called the edge of empires though, and that is because it has been at the periphery of other much more famous cultures, such as Syria, the Hittites, Greece, Rome, Byzantine Empire and Turks. And it was never itself the seat of empire. Although it is very closely connected, it yet has never directly been the centerpiece or metropolis of Western culture.
One way you can think of this, while talking about Georgia, is when you look at the history of the name of the country itself. In English we call the country Georgia, right? But this is not what the Georgians call their own country. They call their country “SAKARTVELO”. And this word “SAKARTVELO” comes from their own word “KARTVELI”, which means a Georgian person. And this in turn comes from the word “Kartli”. And “Kartli” actually specifically means the part of Georgia right around Tbilisi. So, it doesn't mean all of Georgia and it doesn't mean all of the Caucasus. So, it means specifically this kind of a small, niche area. When Georgia was starting to be exposed to these great world empires, and it was first borrowed into Persian, something probably like “Kordestan”, you’re probably familiar with all of the “Stan” countries of central Asia. “Stan” is just basically Persian word that means country or land. So it actually is a very basic word in Persian. And the step that gets us from “Kordestan” or something like that, to the actual, Persian word is an interesting point itself because the Persians call it “Gurjistan” , and the reason seems to be , that historically, the totemic animal of the Georgians in antiquity, before 500 AD and well before Christianity, was probably the wolf. When the Georgians went to battle, they would wear wolf helmets and wolf skins.
So, there is this famous King of Georgia Vakhtang Gorgasali, and his name Gorgasali means “He who is clad in the skin of a Wolf”. And there is this big statue of him in the center of Tbilisi. As for the Persians, the country became associated with the Wolf people. Right? They thought of it through the totemic animal.
That was how they experienced Georgia. They didn't experience Georgia from the inside. They experienced it from outsiders, as kind of an Imperial Conquer. This is the first step, and this involves what we call a folk etymology. So, in Persian, the word for wolf is “gurj”. They literally changed something that was like “Kordestan”, which actually is probably derived from Kartli, to “Gurjistan”, meaning the Wolf country, literally the Wolf country. The Persians are the first step, that brings us to the modern, Western world. But they are not the last step.
The next step was that a lot of Western experiences of the region were first recorded by the Greeks and not by the Persians. And the Greeks got their first word for Georgia from the Persians. And actually, they didn’t call it Georgia, which is as we call it now. They called it “Georgene”. Even as late as the Byzantines, they would call it “Georgene”, which is still this area around Tbilisi and not all of Georgia. And so, what seems to have happened, is that they once again treated this word, this foreign word “Georgene”, as if it were some kind of strange thing that they could reanalyze in a familiar context.
So, they reanalyzed it as “Ge-Orgia. In Greek, the word for farmer is Georgos, so Georgia is the land of farmers. This is something, that's very familiar in English. For example, everyone is familiar with the word Hamburger, right? The hamburger originally comes from Hamburg. the actual city of Hamburg. But English speakers reanalyze the word hamburger as ham plus burger. In doing so they started to develop new words like cheeseburger, bacon burger and all sorts of things. So, basically both the Persians and the Greeks were doing exactly the same thing. They were kind of exoticizing through this kind of like half understood land of their own languages. They were kind of trying to interpret the country, but they didn't really understand it. They didn't know it very well; they didn't understand it. So, they gave it a new name based on the elements that were available to them in their own language.
It seems to be the case that the Greeks were the first ones to rename the country as Georgia. It is from the Greeks that we get the name Georgia, which was passed into Latin and French and Italian and so forth, and then eventually to English. The kind of pathway that we get from the very name tells us a lot about how this country was at the edge of these much more, powerful and influential cultures. The Greeks and the Persians are well known around the world. It's Georgia that is not as well known. So that tells us a lot about that. It has nothing to do with St. George, although you might think it does. And in fact, St. George is a very important Saint in Georgian culture. Also, it has nothing to do with the State of Georgia. The state of Georgia in America was named after a much, much later English King.
This pathway of the etymology tells us a lot about the history of the country and of itself. Basically, that is like a synopsis of the Western perception of the country. But if we actually understand it from the inside, we can kind of learn a lot more about it.
So Georgian actually belongs to a whole family of Kartvelian languages and the name comes from “Kartveli”. And that also includes languages that probably most people have never heard of ,like Megrelian, Laz and Svan. And, it is also situated next to these, other language families that, are not well known outside of the region, like Abkhaz- Adyghian. That also includes languages like, Abkhaz, Circassian, Kabardian, and also the North-Daghestanian, that includes languages like Chechnian, which is probably the most well known language, also Ingush, Avar, Lezgian. Georgian has been situated in this much kind of a wider context for a very long time, and it's interesting, in that sense, because you see these layers of contact over history. A lot of reasons why we had this experience of Georgia, the way it is is because of its geography.
Georgian has been spoken in Georgia approximately since the bronze age, but it has always been in this mountainous geography with the restricted movement of people. It has never been able to spread like some of the other languages around it. Like Greek was situated right on the sea and was able to spread. Other languages have been in plains, for example, Persian spread into central Asia and so forth.
It has the seas on either edge of the isthmus of the Caucasus, but then the mountains kind of separate the different Caucasian peoples from each other. The mountains, themselves are, kind of a factor in the history.
MS: So, you have a country that is surrounded by seas and mountains. And basically, you're saying that within that region it gets closed off from the world largely, for all this time, since the bronze age, and it's kind of metastasized into all these various languages that have been self-contained. That is why it's so rich linguistically, but hasn't spread.
TW: That's right. Yes, that is the part of the explanation of why it was a periphery. It was physically, strategically not a place where you could hold power from. Even though some of the most important things in human history, like the invention of wine production, the invention of gold mining, these things started in the Caucasus. They started right here in Georgia. And those are very important things, but they were never kind of branded so to speak, except in the most distant sense. So probably the word “wine” eventually comes from the Georgian word “Gvino” very indirectly. And probably, some words in English that are referred to gold, like “ochre” for example, the gold that is pale yellow, gold color, comes from Greek, which is “ōkhrós” in Greek. And that probably comes from “Okro” in Georgian, meaning “Gold” in Kartvelian. So probably at a very remote stage, the Greeks borrowed this word from, an early Kartvelian tribe, and then it came to Greek and then from Greek, it came into the West. So, a lot of the things that are important and interesting about the region kind of came through other peoples.
TB: If you look at a topographical map of the Caucasus, or one of those 3D computer simulations, you can really see that Georgia is this kind of giant Valley funnel. And it's the greenest part of the region as well, especially on the South Caucasus part of it. So you can see how Georgia becomes this sort of on the one hand, it's a channel through which people move, while on the other hand, on the edges, on the top and on the bottom of it, it's a kind of a barrier. So mountains served in both of these ways as a barrier and as a channel of movement and communication. So the further up you go into the mountains, that's where you get more diversity and more sort of linguistic craziness, whereas in the Valley you have much more consistency, homogeneity. So, I think that's one of the reasons that Georgian, Kartvelian becomes a larger language compared to these really small languages around the periphery of the mountains. But also add to that, in the more recent period, the fact of Christianity, the fact that you have a written language from, from the fourth and the fifth century and that is Georgian, Kartvelian in particular. As Tom mentioned, there are these smaller languages that are also part of the Kartvelian family, but Georgian, as we know, it becomes the liturgical language of the church. And that's one of the main reasons why it becomes a dominant language in the valley and also why it survives.
And then it becomes an administrative language in the middle ages. So every Caucasian nation sort of celebrates its point in history where it was its largest size and for Georgia, that is the, the medieval kingdom of King David the Builder, and then Queen/King Tamar. We don't actually know what was the population, but Georgia was really big at that point, basically from the Black Sea all the way to the Caspian, which is now Azerbaijan. We don't know exact populations, but something like three to five million people, probably. So it's been speculated, and it is possible that in the 12th century, more people spoke Georgian than English. But, another important point is that after the invasion of the Mongols, later in the middle ages, basically Georgia as a United Kingdom falls apart into these various, small territories, principalities, little kingdoms, and for really up until 1918, there is, there is no such thing as Georgia, as a state, as an actual geographical entity, as opposed to a geographical concept or understanding. But the Georgian language is maintained, again, largely because it's the unified language of the, church liturgy in the same way that is In Eastern Europe, Slavic languages could be used for, for church liturgy , Kartvelian has that role in the Georgian Orthodox church.
Ant then, by the end of the 19th century, under the Russians, Georgian language becomes a critical identity marker in the Russian empire, in the context of the formation of modern ideas of nation. And what else do you sort of unify around? So, these are Georgians. They kind of look very similar to other people from the region, they are Orthodox Christians in the same way that the Russians are. But the one thing that makes them different, that makes them stand out, is the Georgian language that becomes an anchor point for the national movement that emerges in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
MS: So do we see similarities of Georgian with any other languages in the region or elsewhere? I was always struck by the clusters of consonants in the language and obviously, to my ear at least, and also visually, it appears like nothing else. And my Georgian aunt who is quite well traveled says that to her, the closest thing, just aesthetically, just how it's written is probably Thai. It is actually strikingly different and strikingly beautiful, it is like a stunning, cursive, language.
TW: Yeah. So, it's definitely true that the fact that it was a literary language for so long, that was written down even before English was, gave it prestige at the time, when a lot of things, and not just in the Caucasus, but in the whole late antique world was in flux. There were a lot of new religions like Christianity and Islam and a lot of the things that we take for granted today were kind of established in this second Axis age, so to speak. If the first Axis age was the time of the Hebrew prophets, Confucius and the Buddha, then the second Axis age, you might say, was this time when the great empires of antiquity were falling apart and in languages like Georgia, they started to develop their own writing systems and a lot of the things that we know about Georgia, originate from that period. But as far as your question is about what it is related to, the answer is basically, that there is not much. There are people who have tried to find very long range of historical connections, going back very far to other big language families, like Indo-European, and Altaic, including Turkic and Mongolian families, and they really haven't found anything. I mean, they found lots of evidence for language contact, they found lots of evidence for lone words and things like this, but they have not found evidence for actual historical connections. So, it's a kind of still a mystery to a certain extent.
TB: There’s this argument among linguists about if a Caucasian language family exists. There are certainly things that are across different languages. There are similarities in the sense that, there are similar letters, similar pronunciations of things in different Caucasian languages, there's grammatical aspects like ergativity, which I'm sure Tom could talk about for hours, things, like experienced and not experienced past and things like that. But none of those things are in all of the languages. So really the only thing that unifies them as a family, the only reason you could say there is such a thing as a Caucasian family, is that there is a region, called the Caucasus ,and those languages are here.
But things that, some of the things that are interesting about Georgia, like some of these letters like “ც“ “ძ“ “კ“ “ყ“, exist in some of the North Caucasian languages. Some of the weird grammatical things also exist. Sometimes they are even much more used than other Caucasian languages. But, again, none of those things are shared among all of these different languages, so that you could say that there is something unified about it.
Another similarity that often strikes the ears of Russian speakers is the fact of the absence of gender, the complete absence of gender in the Georgian language. So, not only do you not have gender and adjectives and things like in Russian or other romance languages, but even no personal pronouns. So there's no “He” or “She” in Georgian, we are all “it”. And therefore, when they speak languages, that have a lot of gender, and especially this is true for Russian and what is the typical stereotype or whatever Georgian accent sounds like in Russian is that they constantly mess up the gender, you know? Like “Kakoi ti Krasivi Devushka” ?
And even just by telling you “he goes there” and “he does that”, “She does this”, Who are they talking about?
[00:20:41] TW: It's a good example of how Georgian is quite unlike the other neighboring languages in some ways, because, you know, in Dagestan, there are a lot of languages that have many genders, right? So, if we think of gender as just a kind of a grammatical device, that divides the world up into different categories. You know, Chechen has six genders. It sounds a little strange to say that, but you know, they, they divide words up into a larger number of classes, so it's not just “he” , “she” or “it”, but it's also domesticated animals , wild animals, natural forces, abstractions, and things like that.
And Georgian does not look like that at all. Georgian has no gender at all. So even though Chechen is right next door, it's really, quite different from Georgian in its structure. So, it's kind of interesting in that perspective, I think.
MS: And so in terms of most of what we've said about Georgian historically, can the same be applied to Armenian, for example?
TW: yeah, this is kind of getting into a little bit, slightly more complicated kind of a discussion, but, you know, basically everyone agrees, that Armenian is an Indo-European language, but then you have these debates about where did the Indo- Europeans come from. So, there is one theory, that is mostly held by people in the Caucasus, that the Armenians are indigenous, because all the Indo-Europeans come from the Caucasus, from Anatolia, but most scholars of Indo-European don't agree with that. So if you agree with most scholars that the Indo-Europeans were probably originally situated in, what is now Ukraine or Eastern Europe, then it means that the Armenians are kind of interlopers.
And even though they've been in Armenia for 3000 years for now, that means that they're still not indigenous. At least we can get into a discussion about what does indigenous mean in that case. Like if they've been in the South Caucasuses for like 3000 years, are they basically indigenous? I think most people would say that they're indigenous, except for the fact that we know that they came from somewhere else. So the Caucasus is interesting in the sense that it also provides a test for a lot of the ideas that you might have about what does it mean to be indigenous.
You come from Australia and we come from America and my ancestors did not come from there. They were not native Americans. So, they're not indigenous in that sense. And we would be very comfortable saying, that I'm not indigenous or I'm not a part of the original community of people, who were in North America.
But you know, when you start applying that word to the Caucasus, it's more complicated. We have a much longer history.
[00:23:39] MS: it sounds like there are lots of peoples and lots of languages and there are 70 languages in the Caucasus, where Georgian happens to be supreme to some extent, because of the spread of Christianity and its location in this longitudinal valley-like axis geographically, which, makes sense. But you're saying that's not the same for the Armenian, for example?
TW: Yes. For example, the Ossetins, some of whom live in Georgia, they are the last remnants of the Scythians and their language is actually most closely related to Iranian, and the specific Iranian language that they're most closely related to is way over in central Asia, a language called Yaghnobi, in the mountains of central Asia, very far away. In some sense, they are also not indigenous, although they, like the Armenians have been in the Caucasus since literally time immemorial, since before there were written records of people. Again, they kind of are a test of this word of what does it mean to be indigenous? The Turks, the Turkic groups, including Azeri, they came in historical time, about a thousand years ago. So, we would normally say, that if you've been living in a place for thousand years, you're probably at home.
MS: When I was given a tour around Georgia, one of the times I was there, I was taken, and I don’t know if this is normal or not, from the monastery to the monastery and basically you’ve got a new monastery every 10 feet.
And the way I'd be introduced is like “this is a relatively new monastery from the 13th century” and this is a monastery from the eighth century and so on. It is obviously remarkable from an Australian perspective, it's totally another planet, but that goes to your point about the age of these civilizations.
[00:25:31] TB: When you go to Armenia, if you look at their historical maps, the period when Armenia was at its greatest, is the Armenian kingdom of the first century BC a lot earlier than the Georgian one, but their map of the size of Armenia is basically all Anatolia, Eastern Turkey and the Caucasus part of Persia.
What Armenia is considered now, is sort of only a very small part, a rump part of what is the historical Armenia. So that's kind of an important point that Armenia and an Armenian, and the sense of what nationalists would claim to be the Greater Armenia, is basically all of the Eastern Turkey, and that was really sort of the more Homeland of where most Armenian speakers lived really up until the 1915 genocide. Although it's an important point too, that here in the Caucasus, the Armenians and Georgians didn't exist as formal states for centuries. And Armenians are unusual compared to Georgia in this, because they kind of lost their hereditary aristocracy. Whereas the Georgians maintained that, but the Armenians lost that, with the small exception of Karabakh, where they still had Melki’s, as they called them.
But, the Armenian sort of became, the early middle-class. They sort of played the role of Jews in Eastern Europe, of being the merchant class, of being the banking class in the cities that emerged in the early modern period. In the Russian empire, Tbilisi Tiflis, became, first of all, primarily an Armenian city, and secondarily Tiflis became the center of Armenian culture outside of the Ottoman empire.
TW: So it's not something that Georgians or Armenians mention all the time, but actually in some ways, Tbilisi, the Armenian dialect of Tbilisi, was very influential on the formation of the modern, standard Armenian language, spoken in the Republic of Armenia. So for them it has kind of these complicated historical resonances because, Tbilisi, is in some ways is the most Georgian city, but, at the same time, it's also in some ways the least Georgian city, because it has this complicated, polyglot ,multi-ethnic history that is not identical to the immediate hinterland. So, it has always been something that was more, than just the sum of its parts, as a result of specific mix of people that it has hosted.
[00:28:00] MS: Well, I know nothing about Armenian history, but the two things that have always struck me about, or the main thing that struck me about it, is its diaspora. Obviously, interestingly, the part of it is quite ancient. You go to Jerusalem and there's an Armenian quarter. So, there are these global links that are quite ancient. And after the genocide, there's a broader diaspora all around the world. And you can see analogies there, to use your example Timothy, around the Jewish diaspora as well, and the role they're playing in various communities, around the world.
In terms of the kingdoms in Georgia, that's another thing I noticed as well, while touring the country. I don't know how well it maps onto the linguistic map of the country, but you have all these hereditary, mini monarchies around the place. How many kingdoms until 1915, how many kingdoms are we talking about?
TW: Well, I think that varies throughout the history. The name Kartveli, to refer to the United Georgian kingdom, didn’t really arise until the late middle ages. it was not something, that was applied regularly to the early Georgia kingdoms, of what was called Cauca’s and then Iberia, which are actually the Hellenizations of indigenous words. So probably the word “Caucas”, which sometimes you see in references to Greek mythology of Jason and the Argonauts, that were famous for visiting. That probably comes from a Urartian word. “Iberia” probably comes from, the Hellenization of an Armenian version of an indigenous Georgian word. So, going all the way back, you have these different kinds of polities. More recently in the 2nd AD, you get places like Kartli and Kakheti in the East, and then you get various kinds of principalities in the West, like Guria, Abkhazia, of course was a separate kingdom, Imereti was also as a separate kingdom. So, it's a little bit like Italy, but it has had periods of unity and then the period of everyone just fighting with everyone.
[00:30:09] MS: When I was in India, I was thinking of all these kingdoms. Obviously India didn't exist until quite recently, and I've thought of it like that in terms of, very regional, lots of different languages, lots of different cultures and the like, not obviously nearly as big, but just as a smaller analog.
[00:30:27] TW: Yeah. In some ways, Georgia, especially during the reign of David the Builder and Queen Tamar, was kind of like a miniature multiethnic polyglot empire, that included not just all the Kartvelian people, like the Georgians and the Svans and the Megrelian speakers, but also a large number of Armenians, Lezgians, Urdi , Caucasian Albanians, and various kinds of other peoples who have gone by various names , and eventually also of course, some Azeris. Georgia, in some ways has always had this kind of complex dialogue with empire. This is actually a phrase of I think, Donald Rayfield, who was a historian of Georgia. It was not only at the periphery, the edge of empire, it also strived to be itself an empire at times. Sometimes it was successful and sometimes it was not. The modern kind of cultural diversity of Caucasus to a certain extent, reflects that.
[00:31:25] MS: in terms of Svan and Kartvelian, and all the other languages you refer to, are they dialects of Georgian or are they totally separate languages?
TW: So the difference between Georgian and Megrelian, is about the difference between say Portuguese and Romanian. So these two languages are obviously related to each other, but at the same time, if you are speaking pure Megrelian, people in Tbilisi will not understand what you're saying. Now, the thing is that almost all of Megrelian and Svan speakers, speak Georgian. So to a certain extent, they kind of code switch back and forth between Georgian and Megrelian. But Svan for example, is so completely different from Georgian, in a lot of respects, that many Georgians would probably not recognize it as a Kartvelian language, except for the fact that they, the Svans identify as the ethnic Georgians and also speak Georgian.
MS: How many speakers are we talking about? How many people speak Svan or Megrelian? Are these languages dying or are they living languages?
TW: [00:32:39] It depends on what you mean by speaker. They have different relationships to Georgian and to the other languages of the region. Megrelian, has something around 300,000 active users, but probably more, it kind of depends. Before the recent war, there used to be quite a lot of Megrelian speakers in Abkhazia. In fact, there still are quite a few. There used to be even more, closer to half a million Megrelian speakers. A lot of those people had to leave Abkhazia, because of the complicated conflict situation. The children of those people nowadays, often don't speak Megrelian.
With the Svans, it's a little bit different situation. Santi was entirely an exception. It was entirely inside, what we call de facto Georgia. It has something like 35,000 speakers, or maybe more. It depends, because there are also semi speakers in other parts of the country. There are a few Svan villages, even South of Tbilisi, for example. But they are under pretty serious threat because Georgians have this kind of hegemonic almost Imperial attitude towards these minority languages in their own country, even for those that they perceive to be related to their own.
So, Georgians do not valorize Megrelian or Svan, except the most tenuous sense, because they don't give them the support, that many other countries give. For example, Italy has minority languages, many Balkan countries have minority languages. Georgian gives very little, political support to its minority languages, which is a very unfortunate fact, so their future is very uncertain.
[00:34:22] TB: Georgians, even to this day, still identify with the villages, the different parts of these former kingdoms around the country, from where their ancestors come from, even if it's several generations removed. So almost everybody in Tbilisi, wouldn’t consider themselves to be a, a genuine Tbiliseli, like a “Namdvili Tbiliseli”. You have to have three generations of ancestors born into Tbilisi, and that's actually quite rare, especially for Georgians who historically were either the peasantry or the aristocracy and both of those groups were in the countryside on the estates. It's really only in the 19th century, as the railroads get built, as cities begin to develop, like the same kind of story that happens in Downton Abbey and all around Europe, when in the 19th century people move to the cities, and then they find the cities are populated by different kinds of people. There's Russians, there's Armenians there's Jews, there's foreigners. And then it becomes a question of self-definition, where these different people and the concepts of identity become very different.
One thing I also wanted to mention about this sort of transition from being small principalities, into being a more back to being a nation state, is in the context of the annexation into Russia. When the Russians come into the region, at the end of the 18th century, they annex Georgia in 1801, and they begin to incorporate these little principalities and duchies and stuff into their Russian administration, but they don't create Georgia. There is a general sense, in Russian they call it Gruzia, that this whole area is Georgia, but they created two separate governorships in what is now Georgia. So, in the West, they created the Kutaisi Gubernia, and in the East, they created Tbilisi Gubernia. They incorporated those into these Russian structures, which had no national identity.
At the same was true all around the Caucasus. There were no national names up until 1918. So what happens in 1918 is that you have the full formation of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan as modern nation states, for the first time and in the case of Armenia and Georgia, since the middle ages.
[00:36:40] MS: Georgia seems to have a proud history of, I don't think its cosmopolitanism because it seems to be quite a feudal society in many ways, but despite it being quite a Christian nation and a feudal Christian culture, it's got a very long ancient relationship and history of peaceful relations with almost native Muslim and Jewish communities. That strikes me as quite unique in the world as well as in the region. Why? Is it hospitality? Obviously, you go to Georgia and hospitality is king. But there are other nations where that’s similar hasn't always been the case.
TB: Yeah. I think that that sense of hospitality is something that's much broader than this region. It's very similar to the Persian, Iranian sense of hospitality, which also extends to the North Caucasus. You know that the guest is the gift from God that the guests must be defended at all costs. There is a Persian saying that, if your enemy comes to you as a guest, with the head of your firstborn son on a platter, he's still your guest. But in a more general sense, I think that this kind of thing is a way to deal with social relations in the absence of a rule of law or contract or a sort of an external police force. You'd have to have those regulating functions in order to establish trust and to be able to survive. I also think that given this complex history that Tom was talking about, where you have this intersection of different empires is that the history of Georgia in the last 2000 years has been playing empires off against each other, balancing vassal relationships. It's has been maintaining a kind of status quo and trying to survive through those sorts of things.
There are very clear examples of multiculturalism, of ethnic tolerance in Georgian history. One of the best of those I think is the period of David the Builder. When Saakashvili came to power, he was trying to sort of emphasize this attempt, to create a modern civic rather than ethnic definition of Georgia national identity. David the Builder specifically recruited Kipchaks from the North Caucasus, Osetians into his army to fight against the Seljuks and the Arabs.
He created the whole city of Gori for Armenian traders, and he invited them in from Anatolia. So this conception is sort of a historical precedent of trying to create this more multiethnic conception of what it means to be Georgian. In the 19th century, especially at the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of it, you had the ideas of nations coming from Europe, especially as those ideas move more and more to central and Eastern Europe, where the concept of nation of national identity became more and more ethnic, more and more based on folk and blood, as opposed to citizenship.
Those ideas became more popular. And I think one of the ironies of the Soviet period is that despite this Soviet emphasis on internationalism and the brotherhood of the proletariat and all of that, what actually comes out of the Soviet nationality policy is an even harder emphasis on primordialism, on defining oneself on ethnogenesis.
Through the Soviet period up until the 1980s, you have this really ethnic definition of national identity, which became very hostile to other ethnic minorities in Georgia, that conception of Georgia for the Georgians, viewing the ethnic minorities in Georgia as fifth column, as traitors, as guests who have overstayed their welcome and so forth.
That had a very serious effect. And it's one of the key factors behind the ethnic Wars that took place in the early 1990s. In recent years, in Saakashvili period and afterwards, they've really put a lot of emphasis into trying to create a non-ethnic, a civic identity or definition of Georgian identity, but many people still have this very ethnic idea about what nation is. It’s very common all around the former Soviet Union. But, this idea, that ethnicity is something that is absolutely objective. Studying it, is like a geographer breaking a rock and looking at the layers of the rock. It has always existed, it has always been that way, it is inevitable, and it’s the point of the evolution of humanity to create these ethnic identities and so forth.
[00:41:15] MS: Well you laugh and I can see the way you speak about it is because you're coming outside in and discovering it. For me, it was the air I breathed. And so I understood that and now obviously in Australia that's obviously not the case and my conceptualizations are different. I can kind of step back and share your kind of objective interest in it. But the idea of having not Soviet on your passport, but Jewish or whatever is kind of a story that's been instilled in me.
TW: I do think that to a certain extent, there is some truth to the kind of the stereotype of live and let live, that the Georgians have always had towards their, at least religious minorities. Tbilisi, is still one of the only cities in the world where, you have a synagogue, a Catholic church, Orthodox churches, Armenian churches, and a mosque that actually has both Sunnis and Shias and all within one block from each other, actually about three blocks of each other.
And so this kind of attitude towards tolerance, extends even to kind of some of the pre-Christian and pre- Muslim and pre- Abrahamic faith. So, paganism, for example, still exists in the Highlands and, you know, people still sacrifice sheep to gods and deities, like with names like Yakhsar and Copala and things like this. There is on the one hand, the tendency in the modern Georgia to try to kind of conform post-Soviet nationalist idea, but on the other hand there is this older cultural set of habits, where that is just, okay. They might be sacrificing sheep to Yakhsar, but they also go to the Christmas mass and so they are still Georgians.
[00:43:11] MS: So one thing you mentioned earlier Tom, was how early Georgian became a written language and that might speak to its spread , and might speak to its aesthetic appeal potentially. My outsider perspective is that, the poet or the written language, has a special place within Georgian culture. On one way, this manifests in the absolute worship of Rustaveli, the Georgian Shakespeare, or you might have a better analogy. There are main streets, universities and everything, named after him rather than the sporting stars etc
TW: Yes, he is the Shakespeare, and Chaucer and the nameless poet of Beowulf all wrapped in one. He is in some ways taken as the paragon of courtly, medieval Georgian manhood. And, he is treated as an example for Georgians today in a lot of ways. Because on the one hand, he is polyglot like, like the Caucasus has always been, he has steeped in this kind of Persian age. It's a culture of poetry, both kind of secular and religious, but at the same time, he's very uniquely Georgian and he represents the very specific manifestation of what Georgia and Georgians think, Georgian men should be like.
He is basically just a genius, because if you look at his poetry, it's a little bit like some of the most sophisticated and complex forms of English verse. So, for example, sometimes people talk about, the Raven by Edgar Allen Poe as a very complex poem, because it has not just in-rhyme, it has internal rhyme and it has a very complex structure. Rustaveli does that at a scale that is like an order of magnitude higher because he's done that over 1600 times, I believe. I think the actual number is 1,666. I need to check on that. It’s a gigantic work, that is extremely complicated because of not just that its actual logical structure, the formal structure of the poem, but also because of the vast array of illusions that it makes to biblical history, to secular Hellenistic history, to Persian history. And it's all wrapped up into the same kind of propaganda program for Queen Tamar. So, it's a really interesting and unique piece.
[00:45:45]MS: How well does Georgian translate? Because I've read the Knight in the Panther Skin in English, as I cannot read in Georgian and, you know, I was obviously interested but it was very hard to tell how it actually translates. Like, I would say, Russian translates poorly. You know, like when I read English translations, Russian sounds glorious in completely different ways to me, that the English doesn't really give it justice.
TW: I think there've been far fewer translations of Rustaveli into English. In some cases, purely formal reasons. So, because Georgian is a very inflected language. A lot of the in-rhymes, for example, can simply be inflectional endings. And that's not something you can do in English, because English just lacks that structure. So to translate into English, you kind of have to use like a free verse, to a certain extent. Or, if you don't want to use kind of a more traditional English versatile. You have to the something that makes it sound like an English poem. And then it gets away from the fact that it's actually a Georgian poem. So, it is very complicated.
TB: The translation of poetry in general has always been more like jazz than like novel writing. I mean, you have the framework, but you are sort of creating something completely new, based on this basic idea. It often happens that as opposed to translating literature, people translate the poetry and often they don't even know the language from which they're translating. So famously Pasternak translated Blue Horns into Russian, in the 1920s, and he didn't speak any Georgian at all, but he got the symbols and the key words, the sort of plot we're after, and then he was rewriting it, sort of like what you do in jazz, where you have the, the framework of a song and you create something completely new on the basis of that.
TW: Every act of translation is ultimately a new work at some level, and think that's exceptionally true in the case of Rustaveli.
MS: So my impression of the elevation of poetry and literature in Georgian society, is that accurate to a greater extent than elsewhere? Or do I have the wrong end of the stick there?
TW: I would say that's true. For example, people compare him to Shakespeare, but it's not the case that in the English-speaking world, a huge percentage of all English speakers everywhere have memorized King Lear. That just doesn't happen. But in Georgia, it's pretty common to meet people who have memorized extensive sections or the entirety of Rustaveli. So he does have a place in the Georgian language and a cultural mystique for that reason that is distinct from, from other possible analogs that you might find in the West, like Moliere or Goethe or something like that. He is quite different. He has a different role for Georgians.
TB: If you think about his approach to literature, and certainly, there are at least as many, if not more streets in Tbilisi named after writers and poets than many other cities in Europe. At the same time, many of the nationalist intellectuals were writers and poets.
[00:48:59] But I think Georgia is more of an oral culture than a written one. If you've been to Moscow in Russia, on the Metro or on buses, everybody's reading all the time. It's virtually, you never see somebody on the Metro or in a bus with a book or a newspaper in Georgia. It is more of a, a culture about speaking about recitation than it is about sitting and reading.
MS: Of toasting
TW: And about performance, Yes.
TB: Yes, performance. Exactly.
MS: I love that. My Georgian uncle, who's a real Georgian, big, founder of rugby in Georgia, fought in the civil Wars, you know, passionate, manly Georgian guy. He visited us in Australia and he met my other uncle from my mother's side, this kind of intellectual Jewish guy. And my Jewish uncle started reciting Rustaveli to him in Georgian and he just didn't stop. And my Georgian uncle immediately just grasped this man and gave him a kiss. And from then on, everything was great, and he still tells that story about how he went to the other side of the world and this Jewish guy started reciting Rustaveli to him. My other aunt in Georgia has written her own small book of poems. Obviously, none of that's representative at all, but in terms of my small sample, that has kind of given me these, these stuck impressions.
TW: There's even a verb tense that is almost exclusively used only in these kinds of performative acts. The pluperfect subjunctive is that you almost don't hear it. Except when people are in the middle of a supra, they're giving a toast and it's kind of a very elaborate kind of affair. Then they'll bring out this special verb tense that otherwise could have been a little bit archaic.
MS: Yeah, I must say, that my wife and my friends laugh at me a little bit because the one fairly Georgian thing I do is the toast. And then, I've got a few Georgian friends or Georgian originated friends, and when we're all in a larger group and the toasts start rolling.
I wanted to touch on the role of Georgia and Georgians in the imagination of their neighbors. My understanding is that, Georgians also had a literary or poetic role in the broader region, Lermontov was famously exiled to Georgia and wrote from there and others as well. Now that might just be because Georgia's, you know, warm and lovely compared to large parts of Russia. But I wonder if you could talk about the role Georgia plays in the Persian, in Iranian imagination, in Armenian imagination, in the Turkish and the Russian imaginations.
TW: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think that Tbilisi in particular has played an important role as city that is far and yet familiar. In Orhan Pamuk for example, there's this scene in My Name Is Red, and he talks about the snows of Tiflis, he talks about the cotton candy and all these kinds of very vibrant metaphors. So I think , that Georgia, and specifically some parts of Georgia, like Tbilisi, have a kind of cultural resonance for other cultures, because they see it as something like a mirror of themselves, that it's not quite a perfect mirror, but it's something that reflects aspects that they find familiar in their own cultures.
MS: One thing that we interacted recently with Thomas was on Georgian art. I was just going by my way and I stumbled across an artist Merab Abramashvili, and I was just absolutely blown away. I thought it was the most amazing stuff. And this happened recently about a year ago or a little bit longer with Niko Pirosmani.
So those are obviously big names in the Georgian art scene. And I know basically nothing else about Georgian art, but I was wondering whether you two, I know this is not potentially your specialty, but could you give me a sense of what the nature of Georgian art and how is it different from the other places? And give me your anecdote as well, Thomas. I liked it very much.
[00:53:29] TW: So, years ago, before I moved to Sololaki, the neighborhood I live in now, I lived in Vake, which is kind of close to where Tim lives. His apartment was owned by a woman who owned an art gallery and she had a bunch of Abramishvili works, just unsold ones that were sitting on her wall. When I was living there, I didn't really think much of it. I thought it was just art, a kind of an interesting art, but it wasn't until I actually went to an art gallery and I saw the art that was on my wall. Actually, I have a funny experience with that because, I grew up in a part of the United States that never had earthquakes and my very first earthquake experience ever was in Tbilisi. I remember waking up one day and I remember I was kind of half asleep, dreaming. I was dreaming that all of the artwork on the walls was shaking and then I woke up and all the artwork on the walls was in fact shaking.
Tbilisi is full of the things like that. These kinds of anecdotes and experiences that you can't quite explain why they're interesting and they kind of bring things to life in a way that you, you would never have experienced in quite the same way in other places.
Another well-known artist is a kind of a street artist. Who's kind of like the Georgian Banksy. His name is LAMB, that's his street name anyways. He has painted all over the place, and basically everyone in Tbilisi knows LAMB. It turns out he's actually just like a 22-year-old guy. He is really young. He's kind of wunderkind. So, Georgia is a place that really values art. I don't think Americans do at least, I think it's because Georgians have this whole set of tropes about, about what culture means.
The part of that whole visual culture is Khati, or the icon, that something very deep in Georgian culture. A lot of Georgian art is almost treated iconically, in the most literal sense. They become like icons because their properties of the artwork are like an icon.
MS: I love that.
TB: It's not my main field, but I would sort of echo what Tom said, that it is a culture that very much values expressiveness, creativity. The toast is a sort of example about the performativeness, about individuality. There's a Russian saying that Georgians make great generals, but terrible soldiers. That is also reflected in art forms. There are amazing Georgian concert pianists, violinists, but you won't find like trombonists or backup, it's very much being out front. Individual expression, I think. Every Georgian is a Prince, as they say.
MS: So Georgia’s most famous son is probably Stalin and I know Timothy, you've written a fair bit about this. Is it just that Stalin happened to be from Georgia? Obviously, there is Beria, the Lieutenant, who also weighs heavily in the Soviet imagination, but what is the role of Georgia in that political context? Why are these men from Georgia? Is there a reason?
[00:57:08] TB: Well, I think it is sort of happenstance that Stalin happens to come from here, but I think Stalin is able to make use of the particularities of social trust, of network, in his rise to power. There are even among historians who debate about to what extent, things like that, originated from the Caucasus, or is it just the case that since, informality had been the mode of operation in the Caucasus, that they were maybe better at it than people from elsewhere in the Russian empire. But it, it certainly played a role in Stalin's ability to rise the power, the circular flow in which he was able to understand the importance of being able to make appointments that could point people below him then who would support him from the bottom. The Caucasians at large were able to create one of the most powerful informal networks in the early Soviet period, not the only one, but one of the most important ones. And it's certainly is a critical factor in Stalin's rise of power. Up until the death of Stalin, you had Georgians and other people. The Georgians were sort of central to this network, but there were lots of other people like Armenians Abkhazs, and other are people from the region who were part of this larger network. In Russia, they called it the Kavkazski Khvost, like the Caucasian Tail. It began really around, not just Stalin, but Orjonikidze. And I think Orjonikidze was as important as Stalin was in the early 1920.
Perhaps something gets distorted by what happens later, but they're able to make use of these connections of this linking local patronage networks in the periphery to the central patronage networks in Moscow. Gradually then Beria comes up in that milieu and with his secret police network is able to take over the Caucasian network and make use of those connections, which had already been connected, been created with that connection to Stalin. It is one of the ironies of Soviet history in this region. Georgians today, look back at the Soviet period as one of the occupations. And there is a museum of Soviet occupation here. But, in many ways, especially up until the death of Stalin, it was the Georgians and the Caucasians who sort of occupied the Soviet Union and they really became the backbone of these early Soviet networks.
The Georgians were really all over the place, in the secret police, in the government institutions and administering, soviet institutions, not just in the center or in the Caucasus, but in the central Asia, Belarus and other parts of the Soviet Union. It's a particularly unpopular view of history here, in Georgia, to say that. Until the end of the Stalin period, Georgia really was one of top of the Soviet ethnics, hierarchies. It became the second Republic after the Russians. During the Stalin period Georgia was as high, if not higher than Ukraine in that sort of very clear, I think hierarchy that existed.
MS: I find it interesting that Russians never headed the Soviet Union, it was always Georgians or Ukrainians.
[01:00:14] TW: To give you a kind of a synopsis to kind of echo what Tim was just saying that sometimes people kind of jokingly say that, for Georgians, Stalin was the greatest Georgian who ever lived, but on the other hand, he was Russian. They have this double-sided attitude towards him. They do not know what to believe about him. He is unquestionably the most famous Georgian who ever lived, but he is not exactly the kind of person that you want to put on your ten lari note.
MS: No, that makes absolute sense. So, food! For people who go to Georgia, it has been the absolute sun and kind of a dominant feature of the Georgian culture.
I never understood why it was so different and so amazing compared to Russian foods or other foods. And only recently I saw this wonderful map of Mongolian conquest and, basically it maps very neatly onto the spread of dumplings and dumpling culture, like Khinkali in Georgia, comes from there. That's one example. And then you see a deep Persian influence, pomegranate and walnuts and eggplant in Georgia. And I guess, I want to talk a little bit about food, just because I love it. I cook it as well. But, in terms of how it also maps onto being at that intersection of empires over time. Just one final anecdote before I hand over to you, experts.
When I was in Northern India, I was in a small village at some point where I was struck by how similar a lot of the foods were and the spices just reminded me of my childhood. I was in Northern India, so a heavy Persian influence. That is when it first clicked to me, to be honest, about five years ago, that understanding Georgian food, is understanding it from a regional lens, from a Persian lens, but I'm not the expert in that.
So how should we be thinking about Georgian food, its deliciousness. Feel free to tell me about all the Georgian food you love and know how it came to be what it is.
TW: Well, I think that Georgian food is kind of a reflection of the kind of complex interplay that Georgia is at a periphery of all these other places. Like a nexus of Eurasia. So, we have the Mediterranean influences on the West, and we have the middle Eastern influences to the South. We have central Asia to the East, but also, especially in the last 200 years, a lot of, Eastern European influences. All of this is just kind of mixed together, and you can kind of see that in the history of the language that obviously is the area that I know best.
So for example, the word for bread “Puri” is not actually a Georgian word. Historically it's actually a, probably an Osetian word. And Khinkali, this word, this kind of like iconic Georgian food is probably actually from Avar which is in Dagestan.
This is a place where these things have these roots in many different parts of the world, some of them were local, some of them are very far away. Khinkali is obviously something that is possibly the Mongols had some role in. I’m not quite sure what the theory is on that, but definitely they are very widespread for sure, in central Asia and the Caucasus.
MS: What's your favorite dish Tom?
[01:04:00] TW: Oh, I don't know.
TW: Khashi is a little bit of a complicated thing. It is the tripe soup. My first experience of Khashi, actually was not a good one. I remember it was the first summer I was in Tbilisi. I knew the word, and I knew that it was tripe soup. But you know, Americans don't really have Khashi or tripe soup or anything like that. It's not a part of our cuisine or food culture. I was curious to have it and, and then it came out, this gigantic bowl of soup, and then there was a hair floating like right in the middle of the soup. And I was like, ugh. so, like it's not something that I wanted actually.
MS: Actually, I love Khashi, unironically. I make it here. My wife's Mexican, and by sheer coincidence they also have a tripe soup, which they also have as a hangover dish, and Georgians also have it as a hangover dish. I absolutely love it.
TB On the topic of Khashi, in the two thousands there was this email group, that got completely tied up with this argument about the origins of the word Kashi and where Khashi came from. Apparently, it's the Armenian word for boil, but really from Istanbul all the way to Tehran, you will see in all of those different languages signs saying, Khash-Khashi, by the sides of the roads. It's really all over this region in exactly those kinds of places. Like somewhere in the middle of nowhere, where you would end up at six o'clock in the morning after a really rough night and you need to continue on the road.
TW: To answer your question though, I think that the food that I really like is tied between, either Chakapuli, a lamb stew made with onions and taragon, or Shkmeruli, a fried chicken in milk, and what I believe fried in onion and ginger sauce. It has all sorts of other ingredients according to various variations, but it is amazing dish, that I get wherever I can possibly find it.
MS: It reminds me of Satsivi, which is actually very Georgian as well. Like a cold, chicken Curry. It kind of sounds strange when you translate it, but it's obviously is super delicious. The way my uncles described it, is like, it's very hearty, peasant food. So you've got like lobio, this bean dish with bread. And then, if you, just drive down the road, you'll have fresh tomatoes and you have, beautiful bread, fresh bread, which is made in the same way that it is made in India, by the way, in similar kind of ovens, fresh along the road. I can't get enough of it when I'm over there.
[01:07:06] TB: Well, I would say this is one of the main reasons I'm in Georgia. I was studying in Russia in provincial Russia in the mid-1990s. And especially during the summer, there was nothing but cabbage and potatoes.
Somebody invited me to a Georgian restaurant in St Petersburg. I think it was called Tbilisi. And it was like this explosion of flavors and taste. I really knew very little about Georgia. I knew it existed, I knew that Stalin was Georgian, but I didn't know very much about it at all.
And tasting that, I said to myself, I need to go to this place. I'm not even sure what were those dishes I had were, but they were just so much more flavorful than anything I'd had for the past several months in Russia. But I would say my favorite, is Megrelian cuisine. So in the West of Georgia Megrelia and Abkhazia are the places where they like spice more than elsewhere in Georgia.
In Russia, they think of Georgian food as being really spicy and flavorful, but a lot of Georgians, like Russians, shy away from anything the slightly a bit spicy. Megrelians love their Ajika, they love these red peppers. So, things like Kharcho…
TW: Especially the deviled eggs that are made on every dinner.
MS: I can't get enough of Ajika, and I have to say Kharcho could be my favorite Georgian dish, actually. I'm glad you reminded me.
I actually wanted to close off on how you both got to Georgia. You know, in my mind, it's a little bit strange, I am almost suspicious. I say kind of jokingly, but, yeah I want to know, how is it to become a specialist in a foreign language, especially as distinct as Georgian. Georgians are incredibly proud people, I'd love to hear how they've responded to you. I imagine, obviously very welcoming and enjoying imparting their culture, but I imagine, skepticism as well. I would love if each of you, starting with Tom could tell me how you ended up where you are specializing in this tiny little language in this lost paradise in the world.
[01:09:19]TW: Yeah, that's a good question. I think that generally speaking, people who come to Georgia for the most part, have a very specific reason to be here. You don't kind of just end up in Tbilisi, in a way that you end up in Berlin, Paris or London. You often have a very specific reason. In my case, it was just the fact, that I was already a linguist. I started graduate school in Chicago and, and I actually was not even planning on, on being a specialist in Georgia. I was mostly interested in native American languages. And what happened was, that I had to take, I had to take a year of a non-Indo-European language. That could have been anything, Mandarin, Swahili or something, but Georgia was being offered by Howard Aaronson, the professor, was a really great teacher. I actually did not understand the language fundamentally. It was kind of the mysteries, wrapped inside enigmas. I felt like I needed to study this more, so I started studying the language. Eventually, once you start specializing in something, you end up going to places, where it characteristic to. So I ended up coming to Georgia. After, it just happened. I started coming back almost every year. I missed 2008. That was a significant gap in my experience. So for me it was really kind of train of accidents, that led me to founding a life here, to a large extent. I am sure Tim has a different series of trains of experiences.
TB: Different series of them, but also a series of accidents and yeah, I think Thomas is right there. Up until recently almost nobody came here by happenstance or just sort of had planned to come here.
Although I think that it is changing a bit, it definitely had to be strange to end up here in the past, during the past 20 years. So my background is that, I am a historian and political scientist, and I really became interested in the former Soviet union countries. But it was wrong time as it was already falling apart in the early 1990s.
I was really interested in the Soviet period, in Russian language. I was studying in Russia and I was in Russia in the mid 1990s when the first Chechen war took place. That was on TV, when everybody was talking about it, and I became really interested in the North Caucasus. When the time came to think of a topic of my dissertation, by the late 1990s, I really wanted to write about the periphery. At one point I actually flipped the coin to decide, do I want to write about the Caucasus or about Central Asia. So, I could have ended up in a completely different track, but it landed on Caucasus. I ended up going in that direction and I wanted to take a class in Chechen language, which was offered at Indiana, where they have this summer workshop on Slavic and Eastern European languages. That year they were offering Chechen. I applied and they gave me a fellowship and I was asked to go, and then they said the class has fallen, that the teacher cannot be there, but you still have the scholarship. So if you want to choose a different language, there are two of them. I could have chosen Uzbek, Uighur or something else, but they had Georgian, and I thought, well, Georgia is sort of close, in the Caucuses. So why can't I do that? I did the summer class in Georgia, by a very famous professor and poet and a film historian Dodo Kiziria. I took her class that was in 1998 and I became so interested in the politics and that was in addition to teaching about the language, most of what she was talking about was how much she hated Shevardnadze and all the political things that were going on, all these nationalists things about the ethnic minorities, destroying Georgia. I became really interested and ended up restructuring my thesis idea.
I ended up coming to Georgia to do dissertation research, in 1999-2000. At that time it was extremely difficult here in Georgia. In the late 1990s, most of the time there was no electricity, there was no heating, it was really difficult. The police were completely corrupted. The whole place was a failed state. I was really looking forward to finishing my research and leaving. Although the food was great, and I had met really interesting people. But Georgia does have a way of drawing you back in. Sometimes we call it the tar pit - once you get into it, you're stuck and you ended up coming back.
I wrote my dissertation. I defended it as 2001. At that time I wanted to sort of diversify. I thought maybe I should go to central Asia. My coin didn't take me there before. Maybe I should go to Uzbekistan or something like that. So, I applied for a Fulbright, but they said, there were no open spots, and that everybody wanted to go to Uzbekisan. But we they had all these open spots in Georgia. Nobody wanted to go there. So I said that I had already been there and I just sort of didn't really want to become a Georgian person. But yes, why not? So I came back as a visiting professor on the Fulbright program, and the things were already beginning to change.
This was already 2002-2003, the beginning of the student demonstrations . Then I was working in the summers in Russia still for the organization that I also worked for now, which is an American NGO that facilitates educational exchange programs.
And I was working in the summers in Russia, in Vladimer, in provincial Russia. My only other plan I had was to stay in Russia. When the job for American council came open, here in Tbilisi, the country director for Georgia was really after an old Georgian hand, somebody who had been in that role for eight or ten years and spoke Georgian perfectly.
When the job came open, I thought there was no way I would be qualified for that, but I thought that I would apply. I'm already working for the organization, so I'll interview. So, I interviewed by telephone from Russia and I got the job. So, I came back and that was in 2003. I stayed and then several years later, I married a Georgian. Then there's a certain way in which you are kind of married to the country. Although I emphasize, that I'd already been, I was already deeply immersed in the tar pit by the time that happened, so it wasn't the case that my tie to Georgian was because of that. But still, about the Georgian language and about Georgian culture. And there is one thing, even though my wife is kind of a Georgian nationalist, we speak Russian to each other. And even though I've been studying Georgian in varying degrees of intensity for more than 20 years, my Russian is still 20 times better than my Georgian.
It is a very welcoming place. On the other hand, it's a place where Tom was talking about before, if your ancestors weren't here 3000 years ago, you might not even be indigenous. You're always going to be an immigrant and you're always sort of an outsider, but I think those of us who live the life of, let’s call them expatriates or immigrants, I think that the people who do best in that kind of environment are those who are the most comfortable with living in the liminal zone between cultures.
I think that's why I certainly enjoy being neither fish nor fowl. It has its drawbacks, but it has its advantages too. I think that is what my personality enjoys, being in that space, being the interpreter between those two things and always learning something. That is something else that I would say about living in Georgia. That is especially true after getting married, but it's not the only case. Almost every day I learn something that I didn't know before almost every day, I find out something about Georgia, about the Caucasus, that surprised me. At the same time for people who are interested in this region, to be able to live here is like, an ornithologist who gets to live in this bird nest. There is a regional studies conference all the time. I mean, everything that we're interested in, is here. All the people who are interested in the same things that we are, either are here or they come through sooner or later.
[01:17:27] MS: First of all, I really appreciate you sharing that. That's a wonderful insight. I have to say, it maps so nicely onto my own experiences with all the people I know from Georgia, some of the most intellectual, the richest and most “performative” interactions that I've seen from Georgian intelligentsia, and the people who grew up through that system.
Maybe I'm totally biased, but I find it such an understudied, underrated vein of culture, of foods, of history. I'm the first culprit, I criminally know too little about the region, which was obviously what partly inspired this conversation. Every time I go there, I am completely sucked into this totally different universe, a totally different honor code and rich history, which I can't really get enough of.
TW: Yes. It's not an accident that in lot of the cafes and bars and other places, they used to play that Ray Charles song, “Georgia, Georgia on my mind”. They do it both ironically and unironically, because they're just bursting out of love of their country.
I think that the people, who come here, usually find, that they have the same kind of experience, and that's what keeps us here. In this case, in this respect, I can speak for Tim, that we both here because we have found things about it that we love in both practical and, and an abstract sense.
[01:19:11] MS: I have to ask you, because I know so little but I don't want to kind of go down another rabbit hole, Abkhazia and Osetia. How should we be thinking about those cultures, those people and those national aspirations? Or is it all just a Russian plot basically?
TW: At least with respect to their history, it's very clear that they have been here also basically since time immemorial. So, they are distinct people to start off with. They are about as different from Georgian, as French and Chinese. I mean, they're extremely different languages in most respects. The fact that they've been situated right next to each other for thousands of years, does not mean that they are very similar, although you might think otherwise that that's true.
Both of them have borrowed a lot of words from Georgia, but other than that, their grammars and everything are very different. The fact that they are kind of really indigenous is seen by some evidence that some early Abkhaz and maybe even Osetian, are recorded on ancient Greek pottery in the region. So the ancient Greeks, were here for almost 3000 years. There are these pots that have nonsense words on them. One of the analysis is that, those are just nonsense words, but another says that there are some people who've looked at these pots and they see things on them, the experts in the languages of the region. They look like they might actually be kind of ancient forms of Abkhaz, Circassian or something like this. They've been there before anyone can have any record of anyone else being there. On the one hand, they're definitely part of the region. They're not kind of interlopers in any kind of recognizable sense that in the last thousand years, but Europeans might recognize anyways.
On the other hand, I think that their kind of autonomy is something that should proceed by negotiation and it should not involve outside force. I think it's something, that will take a long time to achieve finality in one way or another. I don't think that it's necessarily going to the result in one side winning versus another side losing. I think the best outcome is probably the one where both sides are a little unhappy. In the long run, they're going to have to live with each other, because they're right next to each other.
MS: Tim. I know you have a nationalist wife, I don’t want to get you in trouble.
TB: Thanks God she never reads the academic articles that I publish. I could be in trouble. But, one of the worst things about the conception of the identity that emerges from the Soviet period, is, that their identity becomes a very zero-sum kind of a game, it's either ours or theirs.
There's only one line on the passport. You can't be Jewish and Georgian, right? You have to choose one or the other. The same was true about the land and the territory. Now, if every region had a titular nationality, in some cases, they could put them together, like the Chechens, the Ingush , the Kabardino-Balkarian. They could be stuck together, but still there were two separate pieces of land and everybody knew, which was the titular nationality on those pieces of land and the national narratives that emerged in the later Soviet period were really designed to show that the land is ours and not theirs, to negate what Tom was talking about, these people, that have been there for thousands of years, to demonstrate that this land is ours and not yours, and going back to archeology and history to prove these ideas of ethno-Genesis, that we were here and you weren't. It is certainly true for Georgian relationship to the Osetians and particularly to the Abkhaz.
There is a theory that the Osetians were never in the Southern part, they were only in North Osetia, that they were invited down by David the Builder. There were only 13 families by the end of the 19th Century. With regard to Abkhazia, the narrative is, that the historical people called Abkhazians the medieval Chronicles, those were Georgians. The people, who now call themselves Abkhazia, are actually Adyghe and other North Caucasian mountaineers who came down from the mountains more recently, 200-300 years ago. And therefore, they are not the real Abkhazs. Therefore, that territory is ours. And this, these kinds of narratives came up from the 1940s all the way up through the 1980s and most even Georgian ethnographers and historians would say that that's mostly not true. But if you ask almost everybody on the street, if you go outside here, where I live and stopped somebody on the street, they will tell you this story, and it becomes very central to these conflicts. It excludes from their imagination and their way of thinking the Abhaz perspective of this. So, there's a kind of a lack of empathy, of the ability to see the conflict from the point of view of the others. From the Georgian side, I read these articles and research proposals and it's all about the need to restore the history, we need to restore truth, and we need to prove to them that they really don't exist and that the land isn't theirs, and they've only recently come in there. That's not a solution to the question that is only parroting this is kind of the theory, which says that you don't exist in that land and it really is not yours.
It also allows Georgians, to view these conflicts as something that the Russians stirred up, that were aggravated from the outside. The Abhaz are actually our brothers, if they only understood that the Russians are manipulating them, but at the same time, this dominant historical and ethnographical narrative, which says that they don't exist. Those things are sort of incompatible. They don't talk to each other. And that is another problem. I think that people in Georgia are so completely cut off from people from Abkhazia. Osetia’s maybe a little bit different, because there are really not many people left, I think.
Abhazia you can see why people fight over it. It's a subtropical beautiful place, full of resorts and palm trees. It has a kind of a larger population.
TW: Wine soaked paradise, I think sometimes
TB: Yes, the South Osetia is kind of an armpit, you know. There is nothing of a big importance there. The size of the population is much smaller. And even the reality is that probably only a third of the of the people who are claimed to be there officially. It is really less viable and less argued over. But with regard to Abkhazia, people are there, they have their own interests. They themselves are fearful about the Russian assimilation and about Russian pressure. Yet, what they still get from the Georgian side is this complete lack of empathy, like “you're not real, you don't exist that land is ours, but you're our brothers”.
TW: Yeah, I think, I will just echo what Tim has been saying. Assistance on creating discrete categories is the real problem of the foundation of much more conflicts, you know?
So, the average number of languages that people in this country speak is about three, right? It is almost three. So that immediately tells you that the poor are moving in and out of these categories, right? Because they belong to many different kinds of communities. Most of the people in Abkhazia, speak several languages, Russian Abkhaz, Megrelian, Pontic Greek. Just to kind of give you an example of how sometimes the totems of people can be used as a kind of lightning rods. There was this poet, Sayat Nova, who used to live in the old city of Tbilisi, before the 18th century. He is often considered Armenian, but in fact, he wrote a lot of his works in Azeri, in Georgian and in the other languages. And is he a really Armenian kind of artist or is he actually a kind of a multiethnic polyglot artist?
He doesn't really belong to just one community. He belongs to all of them. And I think he is a kind of a good symbol of the reality of the Caucasus, where people have multiple overlapping identities. Those overlapping identities are the part of what makes them special. It's not something that is a problem. It's what makes them special. But I think it's one of the reasons why we like it here.
TB: [It gets severely restricted by 19th century conceptions of ethnic nationalism, and then the Soviet conception of zero sum nationalism.
[01:27:59] MS: Sure. But just to push back in one way, the Svan speakers don't demand a state. Even though it sounds very discrete and distinct, there are many other linguistic groups and sub ethnicities that don't demand separation. And I know nothing about this, the Abkhazians have been there forever and have a very distinct language. It strikes me, and I know nothing about this, as a political question or whether they want to be subsumed under the Georgian state or not.
TW: The Svan speakers in particular are one community, they are a perfect example of how linguistic identity is not the same thing as ethnic identity. The Svans and probably 100% of them identify themselves as ethnically Georgian. In fact, you sometimes talk to people who are speakers of these languages and they will just insist that they're not minority language speakers.
I had this experience last year where I was talking to a linguist who is a Megrelian speaker. Megrelian is objectively a minority language, spoken by a smaller percentage of the population. But she insisted that she was not a minority speaker. That was because she was kind of conflating her ethnic identity, which no one was challenging with her, with her linguistic identity, which was separate. Of course, she also spoke Georgian. So the part of the issue is that a lot of people have multiple linguistic identities. It's not just the linguistic versus, religious versus, confessional versus, ethnic versus. It's kind of even more complicated, than that.
TB: The Soviet approach to this is oversimplified, which creates the problem, is that there is only one kind of minority and that's an ethnic minority, ethnic nationality. To be a minority means to be an ethnic nationality, but the nationality and ethnic minority are something separate. I think it explains a lot of why Georgians are so hostile to this idea of these linguists of these languages being classified as languages and not dialects because languages in the Soviet conception, are an objective aspect of nationality. By suggesting that you're suggesting the possibility of separatism division of creating something else, which gets into trouble.
MS: I don't know who has written authoritatively on the subject, but it sounds like in the last few hundred years, you've got consolidation into nation states, which reduced the number of kingdoms or principalities, you’ve got consolidation of ethnicities, which again has crushed fragmented identities, you’ve got consolidation of languages. I don't know what to make of that. I don't know who’s put that all into a cogent narrative but I’d certainly love to read it.
I'm going to ask you both about the books you'd recommend reading, about Georgia or the Georgian culture. I want to point out three things, that have really struck me from this conversation that have kind of changed my conceptions a little bit. First of all, I love the idea of Georgia being this walled off garden. Despite being trampled by every empire, forever. By being on the intersection of the empire, it's also been left alone and had 70 languages flourish, all these different kingdoms flourish, it has got half of the grape varieties in the world. It is a deeply fragmented piece of paradise, so I absolutely love that.
I love your conception of Georgian culture being performative, whether it’s art or music speaking, whereas the Russian culture being very literary, which also resonates. I think that distinction was beautifully made, and hadn’t thought of it before. And I love the idea of Georgian occupation of the Soviet Union.
Before I ask you about your books, this has been a fantastic conversation, super open-ended, and I'm very grateful for your time. Is there anything else. You want to say about Georgia, Georgian history, Georgian people?
TB: I would say, come in and join us in Tbilisi sulfur baths. All these discussions we're having are sort of a miniature example of, what you talk about over a days and months and years in the banya and this conversation could go on for hours and hours.
TW: In some ways that's a good way of wrap up. I think because Tbilisi found the name, that means hot Springs and was founded as a resort by the fifth century King, that I mentioned earlier, Vakhtang Gorgasali. His son was the one who actually set it up as the Capitol. And it was the hot Springs, that brought people here. They were seeking to get away and to find something new. I also think that it kind of represents this image to keep in mind , in the depth of history, that people have used, over and over.
MS: My grandfather is Vakhtang Saloukvadze. The name Vakhtang has been kind of imbued on my Georgian history. Before we wrap up your books.
TB: So my book suggestion would be a book by Eric Scott, which is called Familiar Strangers. It's a book about the way Georgians were perceived, how Georgians functioned as a diaspora in Russia and in the Soviet Union and this political question about how they occupied the Soviet union in the ways in which Georgian culture and cuisine, became popular and became taken up in Russia as sort of the reflection of an empire. But it's a really interesting book.
TW: I would suggest, probably two books. One would be a history book, which is kind of a general survey of Georgia, “Edge of Empires” by Donald Rayfield. That is where I got this phrase earlier. But I think the other one is more close to my heart. It is “Ali and Nino”, a love story of a mysterious fellow who lived in Baku. It's a really great synopsis of ethnic and the kind of passionate ways that people have kind of conceived themselves up in Georgia and, and the rest of the Caucasus. But it is also a tragedy.
MS: I really appreciate those recommendations. I'll be looking them up after this chat and hopefully next time I'm in Georgia, I'll look you both up and we can continue the conversation over lots of wine, food and a Georgian Sulphur bath. Thank you very much!
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