Georgia – a country of contrasts
On the walls of a concrete underpass in central Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, I encountered a stark piece of local street art. The scene is set in a cemetery, where in the background stand the large edifices of the multinationals (predominantly American) that have set up offices in Georgia, while in the foreground are the local Georgian companies that have collapsed.
While many of the multinationals have operated in Georgia for decades, the deregulation in recent years has led to the spate of local closures. This piece of street art underlines a more profound demise of local Georgian companies throughout the country.
My primary reason for travelling to Georgia was to visit a number of early medieval monasteries that are scattered throughout the country. Georgia adopted Christianity in the early 4th century and the Orthodox Church of Georgia has an unbroken proud heritage that goes back to those times.
I have been always fascinated by the fact that Georgia was converted to Christianity by a woman, St Nino, who by c.327 had worked enough miracles for the pagan leaders of Iberia to see the light and to embrace the cross, a grapevine cross, which became her attribute. Her tomb remains at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, eastern Georgia. Legend has her coming from Cappadocia, a relative of Saint George, which is most appropriate for a country called Georgia.
Historically, the tragedy of Georgia has been to some extent created through its geographic location. In its early history, it was at the mercy of the Roman-Persian wars, then it was conquered by the Muslims and later suffered Iranian and Ottoman occupations. By 1800 it was under the protection of the Russian Empire and with the Bolshevik revolution it embraced the Soviet Union and entered as a founding republic.
Georgia also gave birth to many of the Soviet leaders, for example Joseph Stalin (his Georgian name Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili) and Lavrentiy Beria (his Georgian name Lavrenti Pavles dze Beria), Stalin’s ruthless head of the NKVD.
Stalin remains a presence in Georgia with an extensive Stalin Museum in the city of his birth Gori, where in the courtyard is preserved the modest cottage in which Stalin was born, now encased in a huge marble-façade edifice, as well as the armoured railway carriage in which he travelled to various international gatherings. The museum is a top tourist attraction and a shrine for the ruler that is approached with reverence.
In post-Soviet times, Eduard Shevardnadze (Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1985 to 1991) returned to Georgia in 1992 and took control of the country. In turn he was overthrown by Mikheil Saakashvili, who became the President of Georgia in 2004, and who in turn fled the country in 2013 and is wanted by Georgia's new government on multiple criminal charges.
Saakashvili subsequently went to the Ukraine where, in May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili Governor of Odessa region. This also ended in tears with Saakashvili accused of corruption and of being funded by criminals – he took refuge in the U.S and most recently (February 2018) in Poland.
Georgia is a country that is bitterly divided, where extreme poverty coexists with exceptional wealth and I saw more beggars on the streets than in any other European country that I have visited. A piece of street art proclaims that being a beggar “is not my choice” and almost invariably next to it squats a beggar.
Most of the population of about 3.6 million speaks Russian; younger urban-based Georgians also sometimes speak English. While the official unemployment rate is 12.4%, the real figure appears to be much higher, while a good wage is considered about $400 a month, which few achieve.
Tourism is the great growth industry with about 3.5 million tourists visiting the country in 2017. The population is declining with more and more young Georgians seeking employment abroad, while many of the older Georgians to whom I spoke are of one mind that things were better when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.
The museums and cultural institutions are underfunded and generally appear rundown. Political interference is rife, with the top floor of the National Museum taken over by the ministry of propaganda and misinformation.
The public art galleries have generally limited collections that are poorly displayed. In contrast, art within the churches and monasteries is of a very high order and the Georgian Church exhibits prosperity with extensive programs of conservation and the widespread building of new churches accompanied by an active revival in Georgian monasticism.
The 12th century Gelati monastery near Kutaisi, in the Imereti region of western Georgia, architecturally and in its interior decorations, is an internationally recognised treasure house of medieval art.
The rock-cut monastic complex of David Gareja, at the opposite end of Georgia, in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia near the border of Azerbaijan, was founded in the 6th century. It is a very sacred site of great beauty evoking the profound feeling that you are on sacred ground.
The convent of St Nino at Bodbe, originally built in the 9th century and containing the tomb of the saint, has a huge new church being built next door.
My checklist of about twenty-two significant medieval monastic and church sites in Georgia is far from complete and, despite being in territory a relatively small country, the mountainous terrain and the poor condition of many of the roads means access is difficult and the journeys are slow.
Georgia is a country of great scenic beauty with a long cultural heritage and ancient folk traditions, however, it also strikes one as a country in decline where some of the more recent political decisions appear as costly mistakes.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
Keep up-to-date with Sasha Grishin's blog with the RSS feed.
RSS offers ease of access and ensures your privacy, as you do not need to subscribe with an email address.
Click here to download a free feed reader