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Georgia: One Darn Thing after Another

Why are there Georgians? Donald Rayfield’s grim history makes one wonder how they escaped vanishing as a people, as was the fate of Khazars and Avars. Yet Georgians not only endured, but created an internationally-recognized self-governing state.

More chronicle than analysis, Rayfield’s Edge of Empires exhaustively describes Georgia’s harrowing past. But, disappointingly, it offers few clues about why that nation has proven so resilient.

Rayfield, Professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London and a renowned historian and linguist, has written a thorough and careful account of the speakers of the Kartvelian languages, principally Georgian, from the Bronze Age to 2010. A valuable reference work, Edge of Empires is lucid, detailed and mercifully free from jargon.

Some insights sparkle in the largely gloomy story, such as the discussion of Tsarist Russia’s inadvertent role in creating a unified Georgia, first by building institutions and exposing Georgians to new thinking, and, then, through the use of repressive policies that forged the notion of a common enemy in the eyes of the local population. Rayfield’s expertise on Stalin and his circle shines when he examines the career of Lavrenti Beria, the KGB chief. Meanwhile, his account of Georgian émigrés during the Second World War highlights the ambivalence of patriotism.

Rayfield also views the 2003 Rose Revolution and its still-evolving aftermath with an objective lens.

Scholars wanting to trace Georgia’s princely houses will benefit from the dynastic tables and a thorough index. On the down side, more and better maps would have been welcome.

Precisely 60 percent of the text covers events prior to 1800 and, like a real-life Candide, it chroincles a cavalcade of atrocities visited upon Georgians by sundry invaders and their own rulers. Occasionally darkly comic—one local despot “weeping over his son’s corpse, struck his [own] head with an iron cudgel and dropped dead”—the story is mostly gruesome.

Tbilisi’s fate during the Mongol invasion is typical: “tens of thousands were killed with unspeakable cruelty; the streets were awash with blood, brains and human hair”. Eye-gouging, often ordered by Georgian princes against rival relatives, occurs with depressing frequency. In reading about 17th century western Georgia’s mini-monarchs, one learns they are driven by “concupiscence, vengefulness and idiocy,” a mix that produces “internecine war, depositions and restorations, abduction, adultery, mutilation, murder and treachery.” With a few exceptions, this picture fits the whole epoch.

These centuries were violent throughout Eurasia and Europe. But the sheer weight of brutality, pestilence, enslavement and misgovernment piled onto a small rocky country and its people makes the Kartvelians’ survival astonishing. Rayfield, unfortunately, doesn’t tell us how they did it.

Was it something in the culture?

There are glimpses into what might have been a deeper work, as when Rayfield notes that Georgia’s greatest king and first unifier, 12th century David the Builder, was the first to call the country “Sakartvelo” (land of the Kartvelians). Tracing this usage over time could have revealed the growth of the idea of a cohesive Georgian nation. But art, literature, language and faith are mentioned only in occasional paragraphs—a major disappointment from the author of The Literature of Georgia. And while Rayfield notes controversies over the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church and determined resistance to Soviet efforts to lower the status of the language, he refrains from drawing larger conclusions about their roles in the survival of the Georgian people.

Culture is a slippery term and Rayfield correctly avoids rhapsodies about fierce highlanders and sloe-eyed princesses bearing goblets of wine. Like other small nationalities in tough neighborhoods, Georgians are shrewd survivors, enduring and often outwitting shah, sultan, czar and commissar alike. But while cultural identity is often sentimentalized, hero-tales, customs, and family and village histories do provide coherence and foster resistance to assimilation by occupiers, especially when linked to a faith and language distinct from the outsider’s. Ireland and Serbia, among many others, relied on these identity markers to withstand centuries of oppression. Is this also a key for Georgia?

Additional questions that have relevance to contemporary Georgia go unaddressed. Did the Kartvelians’ disunity paradoxically build in resilience, ensuring that when one region was conquered, others could survive? Were the turbulent mountain princes—while busy killing and maiming each other—also accidental progenitors of democratic resistance to centralized authoritarianism? Does the singularity of the language group—not Slavic or even Indo-European—offer speakers a built-in “friend or foe” mechanism? And while Edge of Empires carefully shows how individual Abkhaz, Ossetians and Georgians interact throughout the centuries—usually in dynastic struggles—it does not assess how these peoples viewed the development of an encompassing “Georgian” state.

While Rayfield shouldn’t be blamed for failing to answer questions he hasn’t posed, this austere and strictly chronological work ends up standing in splendid isolation. Edge of Empires does not engage other scholarship on Georgia and lacks either an initial or final chapter laying out key themes or drawing conclusions. It is a work of massive and impressive erudition but does not have much explanatory force.

Elisabeth Brocking is a former U.S. diplomat who has lived and worked in Georgia.

Georgia: One Darn Thing after Another

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