& Northern Armenia
Nestled beneath the Caucasus mountains and in the shadow of what lies beyond, torn between East and West yet with an identity very much its own, Georgia occupies a precarious place at a precarious time. After the pandemic, visitors are returning, from discreetly self-exiled Russians to Western tourists travelling off the beaten track.
The roads are wild here. The chances are your driver has crossed himself a dozen times by the time you reach Tbilisi. It's a traditional, if not especially reassuring habit. As the traffic slows mercifully to a crawl, you start to take in glimpses of the church-dotted mountains on either side, the street markets' watermelon walls, the beautiful, neglected courtyards draped with great laundry sails, straining to catch some little breeze.
You arrive - God willing - and you will almost certainly find a bottle of wine to welcome your arrival, and a bakery just around the corner dispensing piping-hot loaves hooked out from the walls of a giant clay pit. Calm descends.
I've started, appropriately enough, with God and wine. As an early adopter of the former and the birthplace of the latter, both are taken extremely seriously and with great ceremony in Georgia. This is the land of long, formal toasts, the consumption of wine escalating at such a rate that guests traditionally finish the evening drinking from enormous horns that can only be replaced empty. Fortunately, the wine - brewed in clay pots for a maximum of six months (the limit of Georgian patience, I am told) - is superb and protected by a frightening set of laws designed to prevent the decline in standards that was allowed to take place under Soviet rule.
Christianity is arguably the greatest beneficiary of Georgia's split from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its roots run deep, after all; it has been the state religion in this part of the world since the early 4th century and despite interference from the former communist regime, many historic sites remain. The Jvari Monastery, completed in 606 A.D., is a particularly striking example, keeping an imperious eye from its hilltop location on the population of Mtskheta, Georgia's ancient capital.
Georgia's Orthodox Church has now come to assume a role of tremendous power and influence within the nation's culture and politics. The implications for many in society are profound, and lie at the core of a wider struggle between progressive, more Western-looking instincts and a strict social conservatism invoked by the Church and encouraged by a Russian government desperate to maintain its sphere of influence.
Tbilisi gives every indication of being at the epicentre of Georgia's westward shift, despite the efforts of the Church and many within government. Support for joining the EU is high. It's a truly eclectic, vibrant place with a growing hipster culture catering to western tastes and a busy nightlife that offers safe spaces for marginalised communities.
As a tourist destination it is enjoying growing success. Westerners are beginning to discover what has been well-known in this part of the continent for years: the extraordinary quality of Georgia's food and wine (both are criminally underrepresented in the West), the diversity and beauty of its landscapes, its remarkable cultural richness and warmth of its people.
This isn't a food blog, but after two weeks exploring Tbilisi's eateries and markets, I began to wonder if it should be. With influences from both east and west, Georgian cuisine balances delicate spices, often with an underlying hint of sweetness or sourness. Khinkali are a personal favourite: big, hearty soup dumplings stuffed with meat, mushrooms or cheese.
Tbilisi also serves as a convenient base to delve further into Georgia or neighbouring Armenia. Travelling in any direction will yield fascinating rewards.
Ninety minutes to the west of Tbilisi lies the town of Gori. In 1878, a boy named Ioseb Jughashvili was born here to a poor Georgian family, and the town now houses a popular museum dedicated to his life. After assuming the name Joseph Stalin, this boy from Gori would go on to preside over a regime of extraordinary brutality in which millions perished. Such minor details are not considered pertinent in the Stalin Museum, however. In this little corner of Georgia at least, history has been comprehensively airbrushed, and the effect is really quite unsettling.
Happily, there are enough natural wonders within easy reach to take your mind off a day in Gori. A few hours in the other direction, near the border with Azerbaijan, rainbow-coloured cliffs line the Mravaltskaro reservoir and the 6th century David Gareja complex is carved into a rock face in the arid desert. To the south, the copper-flecked hills and ancient monasteries of Northern Armenia. To the north, the lush green mountains of Kazbegi, where, if the weather is in your favour, the volcanic peak of Mt Kazbek reveals itself, towering over Gergeti Trinity Church and the town of Stepantsminda. It is a completely breathtaking sight.
In Kazbegi, an endless line of cargo trucks grunts and smokes its way along the uncertain mountain roads. It serves as a reminder that the Russian border, and the sole crossing point between the two countries, lies a mere twenty minutes from here.
If you were to travel east from this point, you would reach another border; one that cannot be crossed. This is South Ossetia, a contested territory secured by Russian forces, who through an aggressive campaign of demarcation, have seized land and splintered families.
Around 1000 were killed and 190,000 displaced in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Despite the grave human rights abuses that took place, international consequences for Russia were slight, leading many to the conclusion that the seeds for the war in Ukraine were sewn in the hills of Northern Georgia.
In Tbilisi, Georgia's allegiance is clear. The blue-sky and cornfield flag of Ukraine is ubiquitous and many businesses are adorned with furious handmade signs condemning Putin's unprovoked aggression and barring entry to anyone who disagrees.
And yet, the Russian-backed church enjoys widespread approval and works to perpetuate a deep conservatism through much of society. It is impossible not to return to this contradiction at the heart of Georgia and to wonder in which direction the country will face as it emerges from this turbulent period.
Marching for Dignity
I speak to Giorgi Tabagari over Zoom, a couple of weeks after returning from Tbilisi. I had tried to meet LGBTQ+ activists in person while in Georgia, but various attempts fell through. Their reticence was understandable. Homophobia is widespread and Pride events are frequently met with violence and intimidation. A number of the people I contacted had already moved out of the country to build a life in a more welcoming society.
Giorgi is open, articulate and matter-of-fact. He speaks without self-pity, yet his decision to hand over the reins of Tbilisi Pride speaks to the personal toll he has suffered. As one of the most public faces of this struggle, he has received death threats and still fears for his safety.
Giorgi has been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights in the Georgia for over a decade. He is part of a generation forced to build their own communities and support systems where none had previously existed. In 2010, he co-founded the Equality Movement, bringing, as he describes it, as an underground movement into the public sphere for the first time.
He went on to co-found Tbilisi Pride in 2019, with the aim of forging meaningful change in Georgian society. The efforts of this new organisation, under Giorgi's directorship, to hold a Pride festival in 2020 in the face of intidimation from violent far-right groups, are documented in John Eames' humane and compelling film March for Dignity.
The following year, March for Dignity was screened in various festivals around the world, and perhaps most importantly, as part of Tbilisi Pride 2021. The screening took place largely undisturbed, but the days that followed were perhaps the darkest and most difficult that the movement had faced.
One of the aspects documented in John's film that I found so terrifying was that the organisers and participants could never take for granted the protection from violence by the authorities. The events of 2021 seem to represent the worst realisation of their fears: the ransacking of the Tbilisi Pride offices, the brutal beating of journalists in the streets, the participation of Orthodox priests in the violence, the indifference and hostility of government figures all the way up to the prime minister.
Giorgi sees the hallmarks of Russian influence in these attacks and in the Church's implacable opposition. Pride, he says, is a sign to Russia that Georgian society is moving closer to European ideals.
Despite everything the community has endured, Giorgi remains optimistic. Pride 2022 went ahead, on a smaller scale but successfully. Surveys show a steady yet unmistakable rise in support for gay rights in Georgia. He has faith in younger generations and in the increasing influence of progressive Western media on their lives.
The next generation of activists has considerable shoes to fill and a great deal of work still to do. Yet through quite astonishing bravery and force of will, Giorgi and his allies have helped make Georgia a better place for LGBTQ+ people to grow up in.
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