Georgian history, culture and literature – Interview with Professor Ana Chikovani
On 16th February CETAPS and the Utopia500 Team welcomed Professor Ana Chikovani from the Institute of Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies of Tbilisi State University, Georgia. Professor Chikovani gave a seminar on Georgian literature and culture, presenting the figure of Medea in Georgian literature, as well as comparing the phenomenon of vendetta appearing in Greek and Georgian literature. The title of the seminar was Medea as Self – Personification of Medea by Modern Greek and Georgian Authors.
We were able to learn some quite interesting facts about Georgian culture, for instance that they have their own alphabet, which has incredibly beautiful graphics. We also got to know that Christianity and religion is utmost important to Georgia and Georgian people – it is interwoven with the country’s long history. The first memories written in Georgian language were connected to Christianity, and the country’s greatest quest has always been to find a strong Christian partner to break out of the circle of Islamic countries that surround them. Georgia found this partner first in Greece, and later on in the Russian Empire.
We also had the chance to get some insight into Georgian history – a story that is not one to be told without the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. Georgia first became part of the Russian Empire in 1801, when they made a pact with Russia, stating that Georgia was under Russian protection. However, right after the treaty was signed, Russian troops invaded the country, and it only became independent after World War I, which only lasted three years. In 1921, Georgia lost its independence again to the Russians, and it became part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.
After the lecture we had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Professor Chikovani on this particular era of Georgian history. It was very interesting, since the most well-known general secretary of the Soviet Union, Stalin, was of Georgian origin. The first questions we asked Professor Chikovani were on this topic:
How do you think the fact that Stalin was of Georgian origin affected Georgia at the time? In my opinion, the fact that Stalin was of Georgian origin did not have such a good impact on Georgia, because he was not a Georgian in his mind, he was an imperial agent and his interest did not lie in Georgian national interests, but in the national interest of the Soviet Union and Soviet people. I cannot say that there was something good in it for Georgia, having Stalin or other people of the Soviet nomenclature of Georgian origin.
What did Georgian people think about Stalin in the past? Has that changed since Georgia is an independent state? In the Soviet Union people adored Stalin, because he was the political figure that helped the SU to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II. But as I already said he was a Soviet nomenclature man… Well, in the small town of Gori, where he originated from, there are still people who are fond of him, because of his Georgian origins. But of course after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new generation has realized that anyone whose imperial vision is so inflexible cannot be good for his country.
Just to connect to your main field of interest, literature, let me ask: is Stalin a popular topic in literature, does he appear often in literary works? Well, during the Soviet Union he was, yes. Since there was a censorship, writers and poets frequently wrote their literary works about the Soviet Union or about Stalin or the ideas of the soviets – and those who did not do so, were all executed or exiled. There are many literary works dedicated to Stalin as a figure of worship. But I cannot say that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the figure of Stalin continued to be interesting for authors.
As Professor Chikovani knows most about Georgian literature and culture, we also asked her about the cultural life during the Soviet Union. In that era, culture and literature had its restrictions, nothing was as free as it is today, and thus it is quite fascinating to see how members of their society coped with this:
I have read that Georgia had a rather free cultural life compared to other member states of the Soviet Union. Do you think that is true? Well, yes, this is what we hear about – I did not grow up in this era, since I was 13 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. But yes, it was more open and free than other soviet republics. For instance, you can take into consideration that a lot of people within the Soviet Union who were exiled, their place of exile was Siberia, which was death for them. But the other place for exile was the Caucasus or Georgia, which was a very nice place because it is a pleasant, sunny country, with a seaside. And Georgian people felt somehow freer than other members of the soviet republic in other ways too. For example, in the majority of the Soviet Union, people went to Russian schools – in Georgia, never. We had Russian schools, but we always had Georgian schools, so we were not obliged to go to the Russian ones. In some neighboring republics people chose to send their children to Russian schools because then they would have the opportunity to go to Moscow, and to pursue an academic career or a more prestigious job. In Georgia people preferred to send their children to a Georgian school and continue to preserve Georgian culture.
Yes, I have also read that Georgia managed to maintain Georgian as the official language of the state. How do you think that was possible?
Well, I think that it was so holy for Georgian people that if the Soviet Union would have touched it, there could have been very bad results. And the soviets felt that it was very sacred and very important for us, so they preferred not to touch it. They tried once to make some restrictions but people –
despite the fact that they knew they could be executed or exiled – came to the streets and protested. Since this was not desired by the Soviet Union, they gave us the opportunity to keep our language.
What about Georgian authors of the time? Did they play an important role in shaping the views of society during the soviet era? Or were they rather serving the system? Yes, it is very interesting that in a totalitarian system, when you have censorship, writers have managed to write their literary works in a way that a reader can read between the lines. So, for censorship it might be okay, but a good reader could see some ideas that were prohibited by censorship. From this point of view we can say that yes, the writers have somehow helped to shape the consciousness of Georgian people.
All in all we could agree with Professor Chikovani that Georgia was quite an outlier in the Soviet Union, thus it would be very interesting to study its history and culture with more depth. Although for now we had only a short time together, we hope she will visit us again, and we will have the opportunity to get to know more about Georgia.