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Unable to escape the shadows of Gori's past

GEORGIA | Sunday, 31 May 2009 | Views [1064] | Comments [1]

Ah, that familiar old hammer and sickle...

Ah, that familiar old hammer and sickle...

April 15: Tbilisi

As soon as I got back to the homestay in Tbilisi and pried myself away from the puppy, I made a beeline for the shower. There is something particularly glorious about having a hot shower after several days in a snow-covered village without anything resembling hot water!

I was surprised to hear that the anti-government protests were still going strong a full week after they kicked off, but wasn’t in the mood to join them again. Instead, I called my dad back in Canada and met up with the Dutch ski-mountaineers (who successfully made it to the summit of Mount Kazbegi) for a student production of ‘My Fair Lady’. I only wish I understood Georgian; the entire audience was practically falling into the aisles in uncontrollable laughter!

Back at the homestay were two American tourists who had just arrived in town. It was strange for me to see other tourists (still a rarity on my trip) but we happened to be going to the same place tomorrow and decided to tackle the manic marshutka station together in the morning…

April 16: Gori

We eventually found ourselves in Gori, the birthplace of Georgia’s most (in)famous son, Joseph Stalin. Our destination was the aptly-named Stalin Museum, which chronicled the highlights of the namesake’s life – and I do mean highlights. True to Soviet form, the museum mentioned absolutely nothing about the blood-baths of Stalin’s ‘Great Purges’ of the 1930s (executions of hundreds of thousands of civilians), the mass deportations of the 1940s, and the forced collectivization of agriculture which later catalyzed devastating famines and widespread environmental disasters. Instead, the museum’s exhibits focused on Stalin’s early days as a poet and Marxist revolutionary, his family, and his Soviet Union’s critical role in fending off the Nazis in Eastern Europe to turn the tide of WWII in favour of the Allies. Oh, how I love/hate Soviet propaganda…!

Outside the museum stands the modest house in which Stalin spent the first four years of his life. Next to that is the train carriage that he rode to the famous Yalta Conference; he was allegedly afraid of flying.

Alicia and Pat headed back to Tbilisi and I met up with some more Ministry of Education contacts who promptly took me to several nearby ancient churches. Along with the religious architecture lesson came more heart-wrenching tales of the August 2008 war with Russia and South Ossetia; I hadn’t realized that Gori was one of the centres of the conflict. The background (both ancient and contemporary) was revealed gradually but strangely matter-of-factly.

The Ateni Sioni Church, for example, was built in the 6th century and contains remarkably well-preserved frescoes painted in the 7th, 9th, and 11th centuries. It is currently under restoration, however, due to damage inflicted during the August 2008 war. According to my friends, the Ossetians took over and deserted the city with brute force, displacing all residents of Gori into the surrounding mountains for several weeks. The Russians and Ossetians delivered a huge psychological blow by setting fire to the forests in the mountains, which were known to locals as ‘the pearl of Georgia’. An unanticipated ecological effect added to the horrors: wolves robbed of their habitat ventured further down into the valleys where all of the people were hiding.

Over another delectable Georgian lunch, my friends were impressively open about their experiences during and after the 2008 war. Like every other Georgian I met, they were fiercely proud of their nationality and land, which have been under fire from opposing political and religious forces for millennia. I’m starting to think that those who are most challenged have the strongest beliefs and convictions (if not wiped out, that is)… perhaps we could even call it a sort of cultural natural selection. You can look elsewhere in the region for further support of this hypothesis, such as in Afghanistan, where cultural traditions and a defensive nature are so intensely strong that it should come as no surprise that those who have tried to change them have never been successful.

I spent the night with a beautiful young family, fauning over the 1-year old baby girl, playing football with the 7-year old boy, and admiring wedding pictures with the mom. I looked through a predictably sunny Soviet-era photo book of Georgia with the son, relishing the mental escape from the bombardment of horror stories throughout the day. I flipped the page to a shot of an old red bi-plane flying cheerily in the cloudless blue sky. The boy pointed anxiously at it and I was about to tell him proudly that my brother is a pilot when a hushed comment from his mother cut my breath short. She looked at me with sad eyes than cast her gaze downwards as if she was ashamed and said, “He’s scared of planes now – that’s how the Russians bombed us.”

I felt like I had been sucker-punched. I choked back tears and realized that no matter how resilient people may be and how much light they bring back into their lives, the shadows of their past will never fade.




The last part of your story made me choke back tears too. How very, very sad.
love, mom

  mom Jul 28, 2009 9:52 PM

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