Georgia: Wine, Monasteries and the Russians

Georgia is known for its wines and, as if to prove the point, our group was met on arrival at the Tblisi airport by our tour guide, whose first act after introducing herself was to hand out small bottles of Georgian wine to enjoy on the bus. This country was off to a good start.

Georgia is considered the birthplace of wine, with some wine resins dating back 8,000 years. Just outside of Tblisi, we began to see vineyards where some of the 500 different varieties of grapes in Georgia are grown. We enjoyed a wine tasting at the Khareba Winery, deep in one of the 13 kilometres of tunnels, learned about the difference between Georgian wine making technique (the skin and seeds remain throughout the fermentation process) and the European technique. And of course, we sampled many of the local wines at all of our meals in Georgia.

Georgia was the second country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 326, after St. Nino cured the Queen of ill health. Many churches/monasteries date from this 4th century, but Georgia’s glory period, between the 10th and 14th centuries saw the construction of some glorious churches by such monarchs as David the Builder and Queen Tamar. Many of the churches escaped destruction by various invaders – Persians, Mongols, Turks, Russians- unlike other grand palaces and universities, which were uniformly razed.

If I had a favourite, it was the modest church in the Vardzia cave city. Originally carved by monks in the 12th century, the 13 story high cave city expanded to house up to 50,000 inhabitants and contained amenities such as stables, water pipes, stores and a church, everything needed to hide out for a few years:

An earthquake struck in the 13th century, leaving much of the cave fronts open, but the city was reinforced and used for another two centuries. During the Soviet period, it was a museum but off-limits to most people.

Now, about the Russians. Situated right above Georgia, Russia has had its eyes on Georgia for centuries as a buffer between it and the Persians/Ottomans. In 1783, it signed a treaty with the Georgian King in which Russia took over Georgia’s foreign policy. A few years later, in 1803, Russia invaded the country and occupied it until 1918. In the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution, Georgia declared independence, but it was short-lived when Russia again invaded in 1920, brutally put down the independence movement and annexed the country, making it a republic of the USSR.

In the capital Tblisi, the National Museum dedicates a floor to the Soviet occupation, with graphic illustrations of executions, the gulags and the repression of free speech and political parties. The great purge of 1937 saw aristocrats, intelligentsia, political prisoners and rich peasants tortured and killed.

Independence movements began in the 1980’s; it was declared initially in 1989, suppressed but finally granted in 1991. Nonetheless, it remains precarious with Russia arming two breakaway republics, both of which have declared independence, recognized by nobody except Russia.

As a result, over 20% of Georgia territory is currently occupied by Russian forces and people fear that Russia will turn its sights on Georgia next after Ukraine. Its strategic position, along with rumoured reserves of oil and gas and rare earth minerals and Putin’s desire to return Russia to the glory days of the USSR, make it a tempting target.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the invasion of Ukraine on Georgia; its effects were all around. Although the country’s largely ceremonial president has spoken out in favour of Ukraine, it’s prime-minister prefers Russia. And little wonder as his biggest supporter, and former prime minister, is a major shareholder in the Russian petrol-giant Gazprom.

So Georgia walks a tightrope. Flags supporting Ukraine are everywhere:

Large numbers of Russians and Belarusians, unable to remain in their home countries, have fled to Georgia, where they await visas for Western Europe or North America. Two whom I met both proclaimed they would return home “when Putin is dead. ”

But not all Georgians welcome these Russian dissidents. There is great dislike and distrust of all Russians, regardless of political persuasion.

A controversial exception, but only to some, is Georgia’s most infamous citizen, Joseph Stalin. Born in a rented two room house in Georgia’s second city of Gori, he initially studied to be a priest but failed to finish likely due to his political dissent activities. He was arrested 7 times and was sent to Siberia, where he managed to escape 6 times. Eventually, he befriended Lenin and Trotsky and rose through the ranks to become the Soviet leader until his death in 1953.

All this and much more is documented in the Stalin Museum in Gori. I toured it with an English speaking guide, who delivered a matter-of-fact commentary about Stalin, neither flattering him nor referencing his atrocities.

She focused on his ” damaged arm”, always out of sight in official pictures, his refusal to exchange his prisoner of war son (who was executed) and his personal possessions, like his pipes.

The museum has his birth house on its grounds and his refurbished train. Apparently Stalin was afraid to fly. Inside are his meeting room, security office, bedroom and bathroom, all furnished in a mock Art Deco style. I wonder how he would feel having loads of western tourists snapping photos of his toilet. I did but I’ll show the whole train instead:

Another inescapable consequence of the Ukrainian/Russian war is the plethora of trucks on the Georgian highways. As soon as Russia invaded, all surrounding countries except Georgia closed their land borders. Thus, the single open border into Russia has a line- up of trucks over 150 kilometres long. It takes a minimum of 4 days to cross:

Thankfully, I was not in a truck trying to cross into Russia.

Next stop, Armenia.

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