After my brother’s ten-minute soliloquy on Karl Popper, I had lost track of his connection with George Soros or Georgia. My father’s Georgian doctoral student, George, began to translate (at some point we had realised Shota’s English didn’t extend to philosophy). After thirty seconds, Shota cut in, “Tell him I don’t care about philosophy.” There was deep silence in the jeep, I waited for my brother’s inevitable response of, “You lost the argument,” which rings through my memories of every discussion we have had since he went to Oxford to study physics and philosophy, then I realised, with no small delight, he had finally met his match in our seventy-year-old, nostalgic Communist, ex-mountaineer of a Georgian driver. Instead of cheering, I foolishly changed the subject, asking about the women in the villages, and soon was informed by Shota that I needed a Svan husband and lots of children, to straighten me out. Luckily, before I could answer, we reached Ushguli, the highest village in “Europe” inhabited all year round, hours from Tbilisi, from where we had started.
I should be writing about the ancient monasteries, the home made wine, the mountains and myths, the young bearded men singing in the villages, the spotted piglets who slept under the wheels of our jeep, the puppy dubbed “hooligan” by Shota in our hotel’s garden, but instead I can only think of the roads, the hours spent driving across Georgia. Our vehicle was a white jeep with wheels half my height, an ex-peacekeeping vehicle from the days of the civil war with Abkhazia. When I first saw it, in a backstreet on a hill in Tbilisi, outside our hotel, the garden thick with bees and hanging bell shaped orange flowers, I wasn’t sure quite why we needed it, as Shota proudly slapped its hood. The night before, walking back from a meeting with an EU delegate, my father pointed out the stark, modern structure of the Radisson, which had housed refugees in the 1990s, and another hotel nearby that had caught fire as he slept there one night years ago. He has been traveling to Georgia since the late 1980s; my memory is thick with his stories of this place, of wars and hospitality, of endless wine, of banquets that lasted until dawn, new toasts and new shots of vodka and wine every ten minutes. Days when foreigners were few and walked the streets with bodyguards.
This was a brief trip, to Svaneti, the only part of Georgia my father hadn’t seen, in the far north west of the country. Years ago such a trip might have involved visiting Abkhazia, considered the paradise of the Caucasus, but the closest we came was the eastern edge of a long reservoir winding its way high up into the mountains, held back by a massive concrete dam, where we stopped to take pictures and drink tea. Looking across at the wooded slopes, identical to the ones on our side, I felt as I did in the ruined city of Ani, in Eastern Turkey, looking across a deep ravine to a similar landscape of brown plains and low-carved mountains: Armenia, close enough to make out the armed border guards.
A mere thirty minutes beyond Tbilisi, the first refugee village came into view, housing those displaced from Ossetia: tiny white cottages with little yards, clusters of dry corn waving behind them. And then the bombed out military buildings, the sign post for Tskhinvali, when I realised how small a country this was. George pointed out a bombed bridge. I nodded, but honestly was finding it increasingly difficult to see the difference between the ravages of war and the ravages of time and neglect. The land was quick to take back the Soviet buildings—massive factories falling down, trees reaching through the empty sockets of windows, cows and pigs grazing on the grass growing on the broken floor. Shota didn’t understand my requests to stop and photograph each abandoned factory, empty shells that boasted huge mosaics and murals—a thirty-foot-high astronaut whose colours had not dimmed in twenty years, a young man and woman monumental in scale, her white dress blowing across his uniformed knees, a red sun rising behind them. It seemed that these remnants of Soviet Georgia were merely ignored, simply left to nature to do her work, to reclaim them, to pull them down.
When we reached Svaneti, there were fewer modern ruins, the land too remote for conquest, its people famed as fighters. At some point the Georgian treasury was secured here. Georgia had its Renaissance early; in the museums 10th- and 11th-century icons stared out with fine, clear faces, framed by intricate silver work. The older buildings were not in ruins; rather each stone house had a tall, rectangular, windowless tower where families would shelter in times of clan warfare. Now they are mainly used for storing hay, to keep livestock warm in winter, but I felt they were waiting, still standing in case of need. The last bandits were cleared out not too long ago. Driving to Ushguli from our hotel in Mestia, we soon were followed by an SUV with young soldiers bearing AK 47s, a protective and deterrent force. They stopped where we stopped, ran up the mountain after us as we hiked, pretended to take in the view then ran back down. On the drive back to Mestia, Shota stopped to pick the long yellow flowers he wanted for tea. The soldiers piled out to help, their guns rustling through the long grass and weeds. Too shy to ask me for a cigarette, they had George do it, then, warming up, asked for a photograph together. They politely put away their guns before it was taken.
We broke our return journey to Tbilisi in a hotel in Kutaisi, on a high long ridge overlooking the river. Opposite us was a funfair, and lying in bed that night, watching the neon lights of the old Ferris wheel through the window, I was unnerved, suspecting the screams could easily be of fear, not amusement, that the wheel could split off and crash down into the river. For a country so long on the brink of conflict, of disaster, life continues calm and unsurprised. Shota waxed lyrical about his days of mountaineering in the Soviet Union calves stood tethered to gates beside the highway, cars slowly passed the bloodied victims of a minibus crash waiting by the side of the road. And high up in Tbilisi, underneath the funicular that no longer runs, ever since it broke while carrying a car full of Japanese tourists, Stalin’s mother lies in her grave, in the most illustrious cemetery in the city, alongside poets and composers, politicians and heroes. No one has chosen to disturb her yet; rather, she is largely forgotten, like the modern ruins, the empty smoke stacks, and the Soviet astronaut still guarding their remains.