Tag Archives: Georgia

Georgian Rough Riders

To Russian authors, explorers, and artists at the turn of the 19th century, the Caucasus symbolized a “New Frontier” and the region was romanticized in a  fashion similar to that of  the “Wild West” in the United States. It turns out that American Cowboys actually borrowed some moves (and fashion tips) from Georgian rough riders who appeared in the U.S. in 1893 as a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling circus. Mislabeled “Cossacks” (most likely done as a publicity move given the Cossacks’ colorful reputation),  the Gurians traveled throughout the country, starting shows by dressing up in traditional chokhas, carrying their weapons and singing. Western historian Dee Brown writes: “Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo. Colorful costumes seem to be a necessary part of trick riding, and it is quite possible that the outlandish western garb which has invaded rodeo area can be blamed directly on Cossacks and trick riders.”

I found some pictures and  biographies of famous Georgian Rough Riders, as well as a short documentary that I’ve posted below.

–    Ben

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Kartuli Ena (Georgian language)

In preparation for teaching in Georgia we’ve both been trying to practice “kartuli ena” (Georgian Language).  We’ve been working through Dodona Kiziria’s “Beginners Georgian,” which has a great preface about the history of the country’s unique alphabet and language.

To quote directly from Kizeria’s preface: ” The Georgian Language displays surprising stability and consistency in its grammatical system. Today, eighth-grade students can read with relative ease eleventh-century texts, and almost any Georgian, young or old, can quote stanzas from the twelfth century narrative poem The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, a part of high-school curriculums.”

Georgian is spoken by the approx. 4 million people in the country and by emigres in diaspora. The first Georgian alphabet, asomtavruli,was created in the fourth century, probably based on Greek and Phoenician letters. It can be seen in its earliest forms chiseled on church floors in Georgia, as well as in churches in Greece, Palestine, and Egypt where Georgian clerics would travel to study their new found faith (Christianity, which was adopted sometime in the middle of the third century AD).

In the nineteenth century, when Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire, a policy of Russification began that banned the use of Georgian in official institutions. Thanks to the intense efforts of Georgian intellectuals, Russian censors eventually allowed the publication of magazines and newspapers in Georgian. Jacob Gogebashviliv published a primer for elementary school children entitled Deda Ena in 1876 that is still used in the first grade.

Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet educational system encouraged universal literacy and provided free education. They instititued a program of native language education in an attempt to combat the 70% illiteracy rate across the USSR.  By 1979, Georgia had the greatest number of people with university and college degretes in the Soviet Union.

In the books we have read so far, Georgians seem  intensly proud of their alphabet and language. Their claims concerning its longevity may sometimes be a source of bad blood between them and their  neighbors.   In his book Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan, during a conversation with an Armenian, insinuates that the younger Armenian alphabet looks “similar” to the Georgian. The Armenian replies by telling him a joke in which the Georgians decide on the letters of thier alphabet by throwing a bowl of spaghetti against the wall.

At the University of Oregon library we found only one book of Georgian poetry (besides The Knight in Tiger’s Skin). We copied down our favorites. Neither the poet’s name  or date of pubication were listed:

Wish

A lake of blood swirls in the meadow, where is the stream flowing out?                                                                                                                                                                                        Within lies a crimson serpent, its head moves; where is its tail?                                                                                                                                                                                                 Loving too much brings doom to many, but has anyone understood?

Ben and Anna

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Thomas De Waal’s “The Caucasus”

Last night I finished reading Thomas De Waal’s introduction to the Caucasus.  Ideally, this should have been the first book I read about the region; It provides just enough information and anecdotes about each country to incite further research.

Waal very briefly discusses the pre-Russian history of the Caucasus by dividing the first chapter into a Persian, Azerbaijani, Armenia, and Georgian sections. He cites Sayat Nova (See earlier post) as an example of the intermingling influences of the pre-Tsarist atmosphere. He quickly moves on to the 1800s and the arrival of Russian protection, colonization, and absorption.  The third chapter focuses on the Soviet Caucasus, beginning with the post WWI teetering between Transcaucasian independence, Bolshevik influenced states, and fully incorporated members of the USSR, continuing onto Stalin’s and Beria’s purges and exportations of ethnic communities, all the way up to the fall of the Soviet Union..

By the fourth chapter, Waal begins to focus on the individual conflicts that have come to define each country and their relationship to each other, Russia, and the West. He covers the Nagorny Karabakh “quarrel”,  Caspian energy, and varying aspects of Georgian politics including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and The Rose Revolution (my favorite detail of which Waal describes:  ” Saakshvilli dramatically swept into the parliamentary chamber, clutching a single red rose and shouting ‘Gadadeki, gadadeki!’ (Resign!”) Shevardnadze stopped reading his speech and was hustled from the chamber by his bodyguards. Saakashvili strode onto the podium, theatrically finished the cup of tea Shevardnadze had been drinking, and declared the new parliament invalid.”).

One feature of the book I particularly enjoyed was Waal’s short blurbs inbedded in each chapter pertaining to a short topic: Wine, Georgian Language, Lermontov, Rustaveli Avenue, How Georgian was Stalin?, Soviet Florida, Baku Jazz, Shusha, Ajaria, The Greeks of Abkhazia, and The Ergneti Market. The book never covers any concept or country in-depth, but that’s not the point of an introduction. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in becoming interested in the history, culture, and conflicts of the Caucasus.

– Ben

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Goltz on Abkhazia and Asmus on South Ossetia

Thomas Goltz‘s “Georgia Diary” and Ronald d. Asmus‘ “A Little War that Shook the World”  both address the events that led to the  conflicts in Georgia’s separatist regions. They both differ greatly when it comes to the perspective of their authors and the scope in which they view the implications of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Goltz is a war reporter and writes like a war reporter i.e. macho, sardonic, and cynical. In the beginning of “Georgia Diary,” Goltz is driving a rental car carrying another reporter and Abkhazian separatists down a mined road just beyond the ever-changing Georgia/Abkhazia border:

“..’Stay away from that one,’ says one of the militiamen in the back seat, pointing to a small pile of shattered blue bathroom tile scattered over a water pocket in the broken tarmac. I have already seen it and meant to avoid. If there isn’t a mine under that chunk of rubble, I will eat tiles for breakfast. ‘Boom,” I say playfully  jerking the wheel in the direction of the pile.”

He also has  great sense of humor which breaks through the veneer of  hardened, stranded-in-the field war-time journalist and allows the reader to share his enthusiasms and curiosities.  The book starts in January 1992 when Goltz, a reporter living in Baku,  is asked by the london Sunday  Times to find and interview Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of Georgia and the nationalist responsible for the slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” Goltz, nor any other reporter, is able to find Zviad. This sojourn does get Goltz involved in the conflict in Abkhazia and he subsequently finds himself trapped in an extremely confusing war zone.

The fighting in Abkhazia in the early 90s had so many moving parts (historical and ethnic grudges, Russian manipulation, seemingly hypocritical North Caucasian intervention by Chechnyan free-lance militants against the Georgians) that every reporter involved had a difficult time weeding through the contradictions, confrontations, and conflicting view points of militants, politicians, and citizens of the region. Goltz does an excellent job of weaving together the necessary historical/political background, his own experience through his interviews with Shevardnadze, his relationship to the citizens of Sukhumi and their personal reflections, and his descriptions of the situation on the ground, with its constantly changing borders and the influx of foreign fighters and exodus of native Georgians. “Georgia Diary” gives great insight into the conflicts of the early 90s but leaves a great deal unresolved. This is not the fault of Goltz, it is simply the situation; very little has been resolved, even twenty years later.

Much is left unresolved in the closing of “A Little War that Shook the World” as well. Ronald d. Asmus was a diplomat and he writes like a diplomat. Very little is said about the ethnography and history of the region of the conflict. Asmus uses the conflict to comment on the relations between Russian and Nato affiliated countries.. Georgia is merely a pawn (which should be apparent by the cover of the book) in the power struggle between Russia and the West.   Hour by hour events of the summer of 2008 are meticulously chronicled,  including Saakashvili’s phone conversations and sleep schedule. This doesn’t actually  make for a boring read; it’s a nice juxtaposition of what seems like vanilla diplomacy and the visceral reactions of politicians. Vladimir Putin comes off as the quintessential evil, revenge driven antagonist. Asmus describes a closed-door meeting in which Putin literally mimed throat slitting in reference to Georgian plans to maintain sovereignty of South Ossetia. Much like the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, no one side, including the West, comes off looking particularly well. Mistakes were made by all. Unlike the Nargorno Karabakh conflict, there is a very obvious hierarchy of power and a concrete evidence of malicious intent on the side of the Russians. The most frustrating example is that of Russian “peacekeepers.” When Georgian troops advanced into the region, they were ordered not to fire on Russian peacekeepers, supposedly neutral forces stationed in the region to deter ethnic conflict. In one instance, Georgian forces allowed these individuals to pass only to have the peacekeepers turn around and open fire, killing Georgian soldiers. One the other hand, many Russian peacekeepers were killed who may have been simply attempting to keep the peace.

“A Little War That Shook the World” mostly functions as a warning to the West. The Russian reactions and manipulations of  the “Kosovo Precedent” and its implications illustrates how much seemingly unrelated international events that many view as positive can be used to support a variety of conflicting idealogues. The Russian Government, who very much opposed the precedent, used it as supporting evidence for the Ossetian’s  right to autonomy (and a subsequent Russian annexation).

Both books help to explain the international implications of these separatist regions but neither (especially “The Little War”) will help the reader to understand much about the culture and history of the people living in them. That isn’t the intent of either author and would probably be a difficult feat. What is accomplished by both is an illustration of the importance of small countries and regions. Conflicts in countries and autonomous regions no one has ever heard of  are often the spark that lights an international brush fire. Asmus and Goltz both believe it would be in the West’s best interest to pay attention.

– Ben

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Caucasian Escapades

Writers: Ben Wheeler & Anna Harbaugh

Plan:  Post about our experience and any Caucasus-related items of interest including books, recordings, news, found items and artifacts. 

Trips: Primarily around Georgia, with visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Job: Teach English in Georgia’s Public Schools

Here is a New York Times article about our program, Teach and Learn with Georgia:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/world/europe/24georgia.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=teach%20in%20georgia&st=cse

It makes the program seem “challenging but at least unique.” That phrase, from what I can infer from the reading I’ve been doing to prepare for the trip, may be a quick way of summing up the history of this diverse region.  The next post will be a short list of Caucasus-related fiction and non-fiction we’ve been reading.

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