The search for answers to Georgia’s future should start with a look at its troubled past.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili remembers the Soviet legacy. Photo: PhotoXPress
Volumes have been written about the pervasive influence of the Orwellian Big Brother on Soviet society and its role in the distortion of the past. It was expected almost a generation ago that the collapse of the Soviet system would produce an unfettered and objective narrative about the Soviet era.
Yet, the major development in the post-Soviet era was not the end of Big Brother, but rather, his cloning into several Smaller Brothers whose brazen distortion of the past exceeded anything that had been done before.
In some cases, this distortion was just a peculiar sublimation of the deep unhappiness with the post-Soviet experience, which, as time progressed, became increasingly mythological, as was the case with czarist Russia in the 1990s.
Georgia is a good example of this historical distortion at work.
I visited Georgia twice in recent years. The first conference was organized by Georgian friends and demonstrated the almost obsessive lavishness of Georgian hospitality. Guests were fed in the best restaurants where the individual dinner cost was perhaps equal to the monthly salary of most Georgians. The speakers, many from government, in exquisite Cambridge English praised the great success of the Saakashvili government in its fight against corruption and privatization.
As a matter of fact, one of the speakers noted that Georgia is actually ahead of the United States, where the newly elected Obama administration had tampered with the invisible hand of the free market. There was the implicit notion that Georgia had been independent and prosperous for most of its history, except, of course, for the period where it suffered under the Soviet regime.
In my most recent visit to Tbilisi, I enjoyed the five days and decided to view for myself the new presentation of Georgian history in the Tbilisi History Museum, part of the Georgian National Museum. I believe that such visits are the best way to see how the past and present are presented to the general public. I certainly expected that the past would be “adjusted” to the present as I saw that this is what happened in Moscow and Kiev. Still, what I saw in the Tbilisi museum was far worse. The point is that thousands of years of Georgian history had actually disappeared.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in the Tbilisi History Museum. Photo: PhotoXPress.
The first floor, dealing with ancient history, was filled with precious objects of exquisite beauty and priceless as historical and cultural artifacts. Still, besides the quotations from ancient authors who implied that Georgia indeed was the land of the “Golden fleece,” there was practically no information about the country’s relationship with nearby powers. The explanation of this is clear: Throughout most of its written ancient history, Georgia had been mostly passed from one global empire to another, starting with the Persian Achaemenid Empire and continuing with the Byzantine Empire.
The same model could be seen in the other halls, where a few ancient weapons were presented together with eighteenth-century Persian paintings. The reason why the paintings existed in the museum was prudently avoided so as not to inform the viewers that for most of the late medieval and modern eras, Georgia was a part of Persia.
The problems with other periods were solved in an even more radical and convenient way. They were closed for “restoration,” which has possibly lasted for years, if not from the time of independence. The strategy here is not uniquely Georgian.
This could also be seen in the State Historical Museum in Moscow where the last floor that deals with the Soviet period has been closed for “restoration” for at least 20 years. In Moscow, it appears, the entirety of Russian history conveniently ended with Alexander III, who preached the “vertical of power” and that Russia had no allies “besides the army and navy.”
While in the case of the Moscow museum, Russian history ended at the last floor, in the case of the Tbilisi History Museum, the opposite had happened. It was the last floor where Georgian history had reemerged, at least from the years 1921 to 1991. The floor deals with the “Soviet occupation” and presented the 70-year period as nothing but a bloody nightmare.
By 1991, Georgian history had once again disappeared. The reason for this was later explained by casual Georgian acquaintances. According to them, the entire post-Soviet history in Georgia was nothing but a chain of calamities and disgusting leaders. For them, Saakashvili was especially disgusting. He was a “vampire,” a “rapist,” or even something far worse.
This explains why most of Georgian history had “disappeared” in the Tbilisi Museum for it did not merit the official (or even semi-official) image of this period of Georgian history as an era of independence and prosperity.
There was a sense, in a way, of a dead end in the official narrative, and this was the reason why, in the minds of quite a few middle-aged and elderly Georgians, the Soviet era was seen as a sort of idealized time when Georgian “Jasons” traveled to Russia in search of the “Golden Fleece” or a local “Medea.” And this explains why, even with strong anti-Soviet and implicitly anti-Russian propaganda, the image of Russia is still positive among the majority of the population.
Still, the Kremlin should not take this goodwill of the Georgian people for granted. It can be easily eroded not only because Russia has become increasingly irrelevant for the younger generation, but also because the Kremlin might try to treat Georgia as Armenia, Belarus or even Kazakhstan. In that case, the alienation between Russia and Georgia would be renewed and the past would be reshaped once again to suit the needs of the present.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.