Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry by Peter Nasmyth

In his preface to this, fourth, edition of Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry, Peter Nasmyth writes that he has seen the book migrate from the Travel section of bookstores over into History. Likewise Nasmyth has transformed from a footloose twentysomething seeker, happening to stop in Moscow on his way from India back to England, into a star in the firmament of Georgia’s resident international community, curator of exhibitions for the British Council and Foreign Office, one of the founders of the National Trust of Georgia. (I don’t know that I have met him, but I don’t know that I haven’t either. His bookstore, Prospero’s, was a wonderful oasis during the three and a half years I lived in Tbilisi. The extended diplomatic community there is not very large, and I may well have bumped into him in one place or another. My friend Elizabeth from fencing club is there in the acknowledgments, as are others I know more fleetingly.) And while the big division in the book is historical — before and after independence from the Soviet Union — most of the chapters within the two parts focus on particular regions. This is less true of the second half, where not quite half of the chapters have been added through subsequent editions of the book. Those are naturally more chronologically oriented.

Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry remains one of the two best introductions to an amazing country, read by nearly every international person who engages with Georgia and a great many more casual visitors. My interest is plain: Georgia was home for several years, crucial ones for both the country and my family, and remains vivid and beloved in memory. While my judgements are not congruent with Nasmyth’s, I have great respect for his experience and his important positive contribution. Seriously — running a bookstore is never easy, running an English-language bookstore in a non-Anglophone country raises the difficulty considerably (for instance, as I understand it the publishers’ credits and returns policies that absorb a great deal of bookselling risk are not available in non-Anglophone countries), running an English-language bookstore in a non-English-speaking country where utilities were intermittent for many years and doing it for more than 20 years through both a revolution and a Russian invasion is some off-the-scale difficulty level.

Nasmyth himself was pulled almost gravitationally to Georgia. He repeated his first pass through Moscow some years later during the heady years of glasnost and perestroika. At a party in Leningrad, which had yet to revert to St. Petersburg, Nasmyth met “a remarkably frank, well-informed man at a party” with “a thick plack moustache [and] excellent, relaxed English—from two years in Pakistan, so he said.” (p. 5) He dismissed Gorbachev’s reform with a wave of his hand. “If you really want to know about rebellion away from this huge imperialist power you should look at Georgia. In fact it’s better you go there.” (p. 5) And so he does, following his Russian literary heroes such as Lermontov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gorky and others to the High Caucasus. Nasmyth arrives by bus in 1989, sputtering up the Georgian Military Highway, up from Pyatigorsk through the Daryal Gorge and the Alan Gate into a different world.

To arrive in the spacious Kazbegi valley straight out of the Daryal Gorge — is to transfer from one absolute of landscape into another. From the shadowy claustrophobic cliffs of the canyon we sped out into a brilliant white arena of peaks and luscious Alpine meadows. Before us a transparent green grass rolled out like a welcome mat across the valley floor, climbing up the steep hillsides toward the white line of snow, then finally ebbing away into the frosty blue firmament. … Beside the road the Terek had also changed. From a violent, streaming attack on rocks hundreds of feet below, to an obedient river burbling along quietly beside the road. (p. 33)

In the chapters that follow, Nasmyth interleaves personal impressions, encounters with people from the regions he is describing, and short bits of exposition to give readers a rounded view each time he visits a different distinctive region in Georgia. The elevations run from sea level to nearly 5000 meters and the climates range from wet coastal subtropical through temperate rainforests over to arid semi-desert and up to alpine tundra, giving Georgia one of the world’s most diverse geographies in a relatively small area. Civilization has a long history in Georgia’s territory; archeologists have found evidence of winemaking going back more than 5000 years. Greek settlements gave rise to the legends of the Golden Fleece, and in their myths Mt Kazbeg is where Prometheus is chained in punishment for bringing humanity fire. Fortunately for readers, Nasmyth sketches with a light touch, and draws mainly on his knack for encountering interesting people (of which Georgia has no shortage!) and recounting what they have to say. Many of the more than 200 photographs in the book are also his. They are worth the proverbial thousands of words for depicting Georgia’s unique visual identity. Often, there are photos from different visits that Nasmyth has made, though the story there is not always one of improvement. There is the hotel that was once a baleful refugee center, but there is also the disappearing glacier; there is a tasteful restoration in a high mountain settlement in Tusheti, but there is also the spiteful half demolition of Lermontov’s house on a historic square in Tbilisi.

Mtskheta, Vardzia, Kakheti, Svaneti, Khevsureti, Kutaisi, Tusheti … the regions are as individual as they are difficult for English-speakers to pronounce. The Svan highlands, whose remoteness kept Soviet power effectively at bay. The land of the Khevsurs, nestled along Georgia’s northern borders, whose culture, Nasmyth’s acquaintance Lela says, can be read “here, right on our old clothing. You can find everything in these patterns. … If you understand these, you can restore the religion and character of [Khevsur] culture. I see it as a kind of writing. These colours and shapes represent the essences, both of the people who made them and the tribe they belonged to. They’re like banks of ideas or information stored here in code.” (pp. 227–28)

In addition to a clear sense of Georgia’s people and places, Nasmyth recounts the dramas of Georgia’s post-independence political development. Georgia had had nearly the highest standard of living in the Soviet Union, with the natural plenty its climate offers supplemented by large numbers of tourists from across the old imperium. Independence brought a crash nearly unmatched. The first president, a dissident with a fine pedigree, turned out to be have loopy nationalist ideas (e.g., citizenship only for people who could prove a lineage dating back to 1801) and complete ineptitude in governing. The corruption already endemic to the Soviet system overwhelmed any attempt to establish working institutions; minorities who would never have been terribly pleased as part of Georgia reacted to Georgian nationalism by rebelling. Civil war followed, the state neared collapse, and Georgia needed food aid from abroad. In the 30 years since, Georgia has swung back and forth with several new eras bringing hope for positive change before sliding back into cronyism and corruption. The regions that split in the early 1990s have never returned; a disastrous war with Russia (two weeks after I moved to Georgia) in 2008 confirmed the division and left the country more vulnerable than ever. Despite all of this, Georgia — unlike nearly every other country in its region — has seen the peaceful transfer of power between parties. Its citizens enjoy free speech and free movement. During my time there, the police — thanks to swingeing reforms in the early 2000s — were less corrupt than many Western European forces.

Georgian traditions, particularly hospitality, remain strong, even as its people experience more of the world than almost ever before. It is an amazing, sometimes crazy place. Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry offers a splendid introduction, capturing the essence of its many places for readers who have not had the good fortune to experience it themselves.

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