vrijdag 25 april 2014

the Italians pt 2.

Earlier on, I was writing how the Georgians were once considered 'the Italians of the Soviet Union' - among other things because of their fantastic kitchen, Mediterranean climate, wine culture, and alleged amorous qualities. However, Georgia is a multi-ethnic country, and this weekend I went to Western Georgia, where Migrelians and Svan situate their homeland. Of course, there were two Italians with, but this blog is dedicated to the 'Scotsmen of Georgia', the Svan. 

As Italians tend to make jokes about their Southerners, and the Dutch mock the Belgians, the Georgians have jokes about the Svan. The Svan are a tough people, living on the South-western slopes of the High Caucasus. Being isolated from the rest of the country for six months of the year, they tend to be independent, proud and stubborn. Moreover, although the Svan language is related to Georgian, the languages aren't easy intelligible. Therefore, they have the image of a simple people. As the inhabitants of the most desolate wild parts of Georgia, with a language similar but not the same, a fierce and stubborn image, being looked down on a wee bit, and with a quite developed drinking culture moreover, the Svan are definitely the Scots of Georgia. 

The famed Georgian poet Ilia Chavchavadze advised: 'If you even slightly like Georgia, be sure to go to Svaneti.'  

First we went to Zugdidi, however. Close to Abkhazia, where there live many Mingrelians as well, the capital of Samegrelo and Zemo Svaneti gave me the feeling that I was in some suburb in the Southern United States. In the Spring sun we enjoyed its broad, green roads, palm trees, and the big detached houses with verandas. As everywhere in Georgia, we were welcomed with staggering hospitality and the banquet called supra. But this time no toasts on Sakartvelos (Georgia) for a change, but on Samegrelo, the land of the Mingrelians. The Mingrelians speak a language related to Georgian, and many see themselves as such. Together with Laz, spoken in North-Eastern Turkey, and Kartuli (Georgian), Migrelian forms the Karto-Zan subdivision of the Kartvelian languages. Svan forms the other.

It is said that the Svan inhabit this part of the High Caucasus since the third century before Christ. Like the Georgians, they were very early converted to Christianity, moreover (in the fourth century). Svaneti is divided in Upper and Lower Svaneti. The Kodori Gorge is historically inhabited by Svan as well, but the valley is since 2008 under Abkhazian control. The capital of Svaneti, Mestia, is a small town, more a village (of course its twin town is Italian, San Gimignano). The towers that are so characteristic for the region are numerous. Most of them were build in the eleventh century to protect against enemies. Currently they function more often as storage for the long Caucasian Winter. It seems as if every family had its own. Joking about the persistent feuds and  blood revenge among the Svan, our driver said that the towers function to find shelter against neighbours rather than outsiders.

The ultimate goal of our trip was Ushguli. Ushguli is the highest permanently inhabited village of Europe. Eighty families live on about 2410 meters above sea level. The village lies at the head of the Enguri Gorge and the foot of the highest mountain of Georgia, Shkhara - 5193 m - a suitable background. Ushguli lies at only 44 kilometres of Mestia, but the trip takes three hours. We were lucky that the road was free of snow, but rain and melting water made the track almost inaccessible again. Spontaneous mountain streams, avalanches and mudslides make the route a challenge - even with a four-wheel drive. Of course Ushguli is divided itself as well, in four settlements. 

If you understand some German, or if you are fine with only beautiful shots, than here's a documentary on the Svan and Ushguli from Arte. It looks quite familiar to me, and I think I even recognized one of the dogs!

donderdag 17 april 2014

striking usual.

I don't know if it's day-to-day anthropology, but on my way to work every day, I notice all these things which are very usual here in Georgia - but which I never saw in Western Europe. It's not that it's more simple stuff, but just different. I really do like these small things that remind me I'm abroad! 

Like the 24-hour shops! They are literally everywhere - I think there are at least four of them at fifty meters of my place - but this one is the nearest. Just around the corner!

But I shouldn't forget this one, near the embassy - because they have fruit, which is a peculiarity. 

And in case you didn't know, some of these shops make profit. 

There's a lot of street sellers as well, but you're never sure if they're selling their whole household to survive, or if they just anticipating on the market. 

Also quite nice, are the omnipresent grapevines. They are literally all over the place - on apartment complexes, garages, and sometimes even in gardens. Once I saw them in a vineyard. 

Actually, this is Armenia. But the мойка's were so ubiquitous, that you couldn't miss them. And I never see them in Georgia! It means something like 'washing', and that's what you're doing there. 
Something I really enjoy is the drying of laundry in between balconies of apartment complexes. There's a ingenious system of pulleys involved. And it just looks very cheerful.

I still don't really know why they are painting their trees almost everywhere in the world, but not in my corner of Europe. They should.

zondag 13 april 2014

death of an empire.

Quite often you hear or read that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful. Indeed, compared to the end of the Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian, and also Western colonial empires - and especially in relation to Yugoslavia falling apart, the Soviet end could have been way bloodier. But saying that it was peaceful is just a gross misrepresentation. I mean, just take into consideration: 

Kazakhstan (Jeltoqsan Riots, 1986): 168-200
Georgia (Tbilisi Massacre, 1989): 20
Georgia (South Ossetia, 1988-92): 1.000-3.000
Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh, 1988-94): 4.623-44.306
Azerbaijan (Black Saturday or January Massacre, riots and pogroms of Armenians, 1990): 133-137
Armenia (clashes with Soviet troops, 1990): 31
Kyrgyzstan (Osh Riots, between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, 1990): 300-1.000
Lithuania (January Events, Soviets troops attacking the Vilnius TV Tower, 1991): 14 
Lithuania (Medininkai Massacre, Soviet troops killing Lithuanian border guards at the Belarussian border): 7
Georgia (civil war 1991-3):  1.000-2.439
Moldova (Transnistria,  1992): 316-1.000
Georgia (Abkhazia, 1992-3): 12.000-22.000
Tajikistan (civil war, 1992-8): 6.834-100.000
Russian Federation (Constitutional Crisis, storming of the parliament, 1993): 187
Russian Federation (Chechnya, 1994-6): 5.732-40.000

We all know that the truth is the first victim in every war. It's quite hard to get reliable numbers on casualties. Anyway, aforementioned brings the amount of violent life losses related to the end of the Soviet Union somewhere in between 32.362 and 214.341 deaths. Ethnographer Valery Tishkov puts the total at 63.000 casualties - without the Chechen Wars. Therefore, somewhere halfway at around 120.000 might be an educated guess.

It's true that the actual end of the USSR was peaceful. In the Belarussian forests of Belavezha Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Belarussian parliament chairman Stanislau Shushkevich and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk signed the Accords that means the end of the USSR (and the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States). Moreover, the Slavic 'core states' involved here didn't experience violence themselves (except of Russia to some extend, taking Chechnya apart). Western Sovietologists might have expected violence in the centre, and in the Crimea, moreover. They were wrong, as usual, and moreover, they neglected the periphery. 

So therefore, four days after April 9, I do want to commemorate the more than 120.000 people the Soviet Union took with in its fall. 

woensdag 2 april 2014

crazy constructions pt 1.

This is the Palace of Rituals, also known as the Palace of Ceremonies (1985). It's not really clear to me (or anybody on the internet, for that matter) what it exactly was and is, but I understood it's something of an 'secular church' from Soviet times - with civil wedding ceremonies and stuff like that. There's even a rumour going on that the 'church' hosted a disco club. Looking over the Aragveli bridge, it became the private residence of some wealthy Georgian. His was buried there in 2008.

Since it's my new habit to spend the weekends in Armenia, there's also this crazy construction in Yerevan. The Communist-time Rossiya Kino / Ayrarat Cinema (1970-4) is now a shopping mall, obviously.

When they became independent in 1991, the South Caucasians decided that the former habit of building gigantonormous Lenin and Stalin statues could be pursued with a nationalistic approach. Mother Georgia, or Kartlis Deda, holds a bowl of wine in one hand - to welcome visitors - and a sword in another - the fight her enemies. 

Yerevan has something similar, called Mother Armenia (Mayr Hayastan) of course. However, this mama is equipped to fight here enemies only. Anyway, I figured that Armenians are as famous for their hospitality as Georgians are. 

After Communism, many shrewd businessmen managed to get very rich in little time. Not only in the Russian Federation, but in Georgia and Armenia emerged some oligarchs as well. Georgia's richest man by far is Bidzina Ivanishvili, with more than six billion dollar. This is his house, looking over Tbilisi. O, and he's the former Prime Minister as well.

I don't know who's house this is, but I reckon there's some money involved here as well. 

However, the Post-Soviet authorities aren't lacking inspiration for big constructions as well. When I was in Tbilisi in 2009 Rike Park was one big muddy construction pit. This is what it turned into, with, from the left to the right: the Peace bridge (2010), the Public Service Hall (2012), the Theater and Exhibition Hall (2012), the Presidential Palace (2009), and the Tsminda Sameba cathedral (2004).And some other stuff I wasn't able to identify any more.

Looking like a giant fungus, the Public Service Hall lies in between the traffic junction next to the Dedaena Park. 

Here you see the Tsminda Sameba cathedral through the Peace Bridge, or Mshvidobis khidi. 

The Bridge is dubbed 'Always bridge' because, well, because of the undeniable resemblance.

Also, check these out: 

The architecture blog post of my fellow Tbilisian Sonja, who's a great photographer: http://sonjakatharinainspb.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/diesunddas/ 

'The beauty of Soviet brutalism' of Russian Beyond the Headlines: http://rbth.com/articles/2011/12/02/the_beauty_of_soviet_brutalism_13887.html