Post-Soviet Blues: Georgian Sketches

Arnold R. Isaacs made several trips to Georgia between 2000 and 2005.  This is his detailed account of the trauma suffered there as a result of Soviet rule and the attempts being made to return the country to normalcy.

Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. The author also owes grateful acknowledgement to the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., for making possible a number of visits to Georgia between 2000 and 2005.

[NOTE TO READERS: In the sketches that follow, there are occasional references to conversations in Russian, a language I don't really speak but have some limited ability to communicate in. Readers should be aware — and I'm sure my Georgian friends would unanimously want them to know — that the national language of Georgia is Georgian, not Russian. Georgian, which also has its own script, is one of those languages that is not close to any larger linguistic family. Georgians prize it as part of their identity, along with their ancient culture and long history. During two centuries under Russian rule, first as part of the Russian Empire and then in the Soviet Union, Georgians fiercely and successfully resisted attempts to suppress their language. However, until the 1990s, everyone had to learn Russian as well, so that almost all Georgians past their teens are fluent in both Russian and Georgian.]

Post-Communist Distress Syndrome

"We want a normal country."

In Georgia and other parts of what used to be the Soviet Union, when you ask people what they wish for, it's striking how often the answer includes that phrase, or something close to it. If you think about it, it's a suggestive choice of words. Not democratic, or prosperous, or some other term people might use to describe the country they'd like to live in or the life they'd like to have, but "normal" — conveying, among other things, that the situation they are in is abnormal.

It may not be widely understood in the West, where the end of the Soviet regime is usually thought of as an almost wholly positive event (and the accompanying cost in poverty and ruined lives is almost wholly disregarded), but for many, "normal" means life as they knew it before the Soviet Union disintegrated. Or, more accurately, before Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to reform the Communist system in the late 1980s plunged it into economic catastrophe. For many, the Soviet system was abnormal too, in a sense, but life was not. My friend Giorgi Chubinishvili, the second most skeptical Georgian I know, put it this way: you couldn't call the Soviet Union, with its artificial ideology and weak economy, a normal place, but, Giorgi went on, "in an abnormal situation, this small country, Georgia, was normal. Normal [means] when you get an education, according to your education, you get work" — that is, in the field you were educated for. "There was a minimal level of payment," Giorgi added, "but that level gave you the means to satisfy your first needs, your essential needs."

When Americans remember the Soviet Union, they tend to think about the Gulag, oppressive one-party rule, a controlled press, secret police, the suppression of free expression and thought and belief. It does not easily occur to them that there was anything in that system that might be missed. Russians and citizens of the other former Soviet republics remember dark things too, but they also remember an orderly and safe society, factories that worked, secure jobs, enough money, freedom from economic worry. And many who know about the oppressive side of Soviet history do not feel it touched their own lives. In the Communist era "there were no clouds in my sky," a Russian friend said to me. But no one has escaped the economic, social, political and moral crisis of the post-Communist experience. Moreover, while the decline and fall of the Soviet Union may seem in the Western mind like relatively recent history, the post-Communist crisis has been going on for more than 15 years. That's half a generation, a very long time for those who have had to live through it.

In the post-Soviet republics outside Russia, the end of the Soviet Union had an additional complexity, bringing not only an end to the Soviet political and economic system but also national independence. National feeling was more intense in some countries, weaker in others. But even where the sense of national identity is strong and independence was a widely shared aspiration, such as in Georgia, many nonetheless think of the Soviet period as a time of normalcy. For others, the "normal country" they imagine and now yearn to restore lies farther back in the pre-Soviet past or exists only in romantic myth. Both groups, though, share the feeling that the country they have now is not normal, has not been for many years, and, if it is moving toward normal life at all, is doing so very slowly.

In the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union, Georgia's transition may have been one of the most painful. In the Soviet era, this West Virginia-sized country in the Caucasus mountains had one of the highest living standards of any Soviet republic. Its orchards and vineyards and tea plantations produced fruit and wine and a highly prized variety of tea for the whole Soviet market; its resorts on the Black Sea beaches drew flocks of tourists from all over the Soviet Union — party bigwigs treating themselves to elegant surroundings for meetings and conferences, and planeloads of ordinary workers on the cheap holiday excursions that were, in the Soviet period, affordable for nearly everyone in the country. But independence was followed by a cascade of disasters. The early '90s brought a vicious civil war between Georgian political factions as well as bloody separatist conflicts that left parts of the country, including much of the Black Sea coast, outside government control. Industry came to a virtual standstill. Infrastructure crumbled. Chronic power shortages left Georgians in the dark for weeks or months on end. (When I asked a group of university students about their earlier schooling, several recalled the chronic eyestrain and headaches that came from doing homework night after night by candlelight or kerosene lamp.) Residential water supply turned sporadic in cities and towns and disappeared permanently in many villages. Central heating became a distant memory. So did mail delivery. Corruption was everywhere. Unemployment reached catastrophic levels, and public sector employees might as well have been unemployed because salaries so often went unpaid. I once asked a doctor friend if a volunteer program might do something to help the overburdened health care system. She gave me a skeptical look, then a wry laugh. (Even more than most Georgians, Irina turns wryness into an art form.) "We are all volunteers," she told me.

When I first visited Georgia in early 2000, violence had ended and the darkest years were over, but the country was exhausted, cynical, deeply depressed and demoralized. On subsequent visits I could see some improvement, in downtown Tbilisi if nowhere else. Electricity and water were more dependable; shops and cafes were more crowded. But the public mood, at least as far as I could sense it, grew more discontented, rather than less. Whatever small improvements had occurred, they were not enough to offset people's weariness with the daily struggle to survive and the dreary sense that one more year and then another had gone by without meaningful change or any real reason to believe in a more hopeful future. People were angry, but passive. Public life seemed paralyzed. I believe it is literally accurate to say that in conversations with scores, perhaps hundreds, of Georgians, I heard not a single good word about President Eduard Shevardnadze or his government — and not a single word, either, about how anything might change.

Then came the "Rose Revolution" of November 2003. Parliamentary elections at the start of that month gave Shevardnadze's party a majority, but opposition leaders, civil society activists and international observers condemned the election as flagrantly fraudulent. Huge street demonstrations began in Tbilisi and elsewhere, coordinated by various groups of which the most visible was a youth organization called "Kmara," meaning "Enough" — a name that clearly expressed the public mood. On November 23, Shevardnadze resigned. Six weeks later, in a hastily arranged election, the 36-year-old opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president with over 96 percent of the votes.

On the morning of Saakashvili's inauguration, I stopped in at the TMS art gallery on Rustaveli avenue a couple of blocks from the Parliament building. Merab Lortkipanidze, nicknamed Bebe, is the gallery manager and an artist himself, though I've never known him to exhibit his art; it's for himself, he says. He's also a jazz lover who always has Ella Fitzgerald or Chet Baker or some other notable performer playing softly on the CD player in his little office, so that when you drop in to have coffee with him it's like visiting a private little jazz club. He was there that morning with his wife Nana, also an artist. They were full of hope, they both said, but Bebe added (I wasn't taking notes and his English is a little ragged, so this is a paraphrase): it is not just up to Saakashvili to change things, it is up to all of us. I and her, he said, gesturing at Nana, and others. If Saakashvili is by himself, if no one else does anything, he will not be able to do anything.

Bebe's brother Kakha, who lives in Holland, was in the office too (though I didn't know until later who he was). When Nana said she was glad about the new president, he said "me too." I asked, what is the first thing Saakashvili ought to do? Kakha thought a moment, then said: "Kill Shevardnadze." I'd asked that question of many people and that was the most specific answer — in fact the only specific answer — I'd heard!


I left the gallery and walked down to watch Saakashvili sworn in on the steps of the massive Parliament building. It was a Sunday, sunny and warm for January, and thousands of citizens filled several long blocks of Rustaveli avenue, exactly where protesters had stood during the campaign to oust the old government. The mood was cheerful but not exuberant. Numerous venders moved through the crowd selling sunflower seeds, and lots of people bought them; the sidewalk where I stood was covered with husks, like the ground under my backyard bird feeder at home. Except for the sunflower seed sellers, nobody around me looked poor, although the poor were Saakashvili's most fervent supporters. But most of the people on the street that day, at least where I was standing, looked to me like middle-class citizens, fairly well dressed, the men mostly in black leather coats, the women in somewhat dressy clothes.

Periodically the crowd chanted Saakashvili's nickname: "Misha! Misha!" Many waved the brand-new Georgian flag, with its five crimson crosses on a white field, which Saakashvili had abruptly introduced in place of the old red-white-and-black flag. Others clutched roses, which had been carried by demonstrators as the emblem of their movement and gave the revolution its name. Saakashvili took the oath, gave his speech, and as the ceremony ended, six military helicopters and a formation of four obsolete jet fighters thundered overhead. As they passed over the crowd, the helicopters released showers of shiny rose-colored confetti that drifted down onto the street below.

Standing in the crowd, I felt something I had never felt in Georgia on previous visits: hope, powerful but also tinged with desperation, I thought. In conversation after conversation during the first weeks of the new government, along with hope, I sensed a feeling that this was a last chance, that if Georgians were let down and lost hope again, the consequences would be too awful to contemplate — a death of spirit that would amount to a kind of national suicide. At the same time, as much as people yearned for Saakashvili and his government to succeed, the memory of past disappointment made it hard to believe, deep down, in that success. For many, believing in the new leadership appeared to be a deliberate banning of skepticism, an act of will that was not based on experience or logic or informed judgment but a thing to cling to because the thought of still another disappointment was just too terrifying. "I am trying to trust these people," Giorgi Chubinishvili said to me a few weeks after Saakashvili took office. "I am trying to force myself to trust them."

I had come to think of Georgia as a traumatized society, battered into numbness and despair by the events that had befallen it, just as an individual can be emotionally damaged by traumatic experiences. After the revolution, I wondered if it might represent the beginning of recovery. During the first months of the new government and on return visits in September and again in early 2005, I set about looking for answers to that question. I talked to old acquaintances and some new ones, visited several regions, filled more notebooks with new glimpses of Georgia's post-Soviet experience. Here are some of them: