Tbilisi – Georgia – sits quietly on a corner of the Caucasus, not Europe anymore, not Asia yet. The vast landscapes of solitude are beyond the barren mountains. Renaissance and Enlightenment are somehow on the other side of the Black Sea. The Silk Road was the original backbone of Eurasia, linking Venice with X’ian in a melting pot before the melting pot and Tbilisi sat on the Silk Road. Living fossils of Christianity are in every corner of the old town, and so are Armenian churches and synagogues.
Religious attrition seems to have been a perpetual issue in this land. Faith was won a massacre at a time. Gergeti Trinity Church – in all its splendid isolation – was too remote even for the Bolsheviks. They knew that the identity of the little country was intertwined with its religious substrate, with its syncretism of ancient rituals and pristine, unreconstructed Christianity; and yet they did not paint over its walls. Gergeti was really far, on the edge of Chechnya, the riotous country whose undiluted strive toward independence was magisterially documented by Oliver Bullough in “Let Our Fame Be Great”1.
Further north, Colchis with its capital, the sleepy Kutaisi: the golden veal and the Argonauts perhaps a mythological reminiscence of the stolen craft of goldsmiths – whom Greeks lured into their land via the auspices of the original witch, Medea.
And then Chiatura (above), the rusty Soviet town with its unwieldy deposits of manganese – layers after layers of former Soviet architecture moulding into mines, mines moulding into buildings, testament to a prosperity that never was.
Finally, back to Tbilisi – a visit to the former Russian Orthodox Seminary. Nicholas II feared universities as places of social unrest: hence Caucasus had none. The Seminar was one of the finest academic institutions in the Caucasus at that time. Lessons were in Russian, discipline severe if a bit stiff.
Here, in 1894, a young boy, Soso, from Gori entered with a scholarship. His father would have wanted him to be a cobbler like himself but her mother knew best. She realized that social mobility, in peripheral Caucasus at the turn of the 20th century, passed through the ranks of the Church . The boy was poor, but gifted: to support himself he sang in the choir. It is not easy to overstate the significance of the feat of this poor but ambitious woman:
“The lame, pockmarked, web-toed boy, humiliatingly beaten and deserted by his father, adored but beaten some more by his single mother, haunted by bastardy, surviving accident and disease, had overcome the odds. It is hard to exaggerate what a vital moment this was. Without the seminary, without the mother determination, Soso would have missed the classical if stifling education that equipped the cobbler son to become Lenin’s successor.” (SSM, YS, pg. 51)2
His name would go down in history as Georgia’s most impressive world-historical figure. As an adolescent, Soso wrote poetry – getting closer to the ferment that agitated Georgia at that time – a ferment of nationhood and of cultural regeneration. The noted poet Ilia Chavchavadze was impressed, and published some of his verses.
The young Soso, or as his real names was, Josif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, would have subsequently abandoned his career as priest and joined the clandestine struggle for social justice. The rest, as they said, is history. Fifty years after, the former choirboy from Gori, a committed atheist since the encounter with Darwin and Marx at the Seminary, was still fond of the education received: “The thing priest teach best is how to understand people” (SSM, SCRZ, pg. 438)3.
“It would be no exaggeration to say that Stalin was the best read ruler of Russia from Catherine the Great till Vladimir Putin, even including Lenin who was no mean intellectual himself and had enjoyed the benefits of a nobleman’s education”(SSM, SCRZ, pg. 100)3.
As George Steiner once said, classical education engages the inner fabric of one’s own life, it is an unstated gamble with time and death because it confronts us with genius. The idea that great art redeems and saves, the idea that led Tarkovsky to imagine Andrei Rublev, the idea that spurred Pasternak into writing Zhivago, or Shostakovich into composing his fourth symphony, this is the testament of classical education, as a gamble of our own life against the tyranny of fading away, against the slow grinding. “Fur ewig” – as Gramsci knew well. Mandelstam famously said, “in Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it”. As I wonder inside the ol d Seminary, I cannot help but thinking that the reason for this could perhaps be found inside the corinthian porch of the Seminary4 itself.
Georgia is a land of suspension, where the contraptions of the modern world coexist with ancient rituals and faiths, its magic can still be heard today.
1. [ Bullough, Oliver. Let Our Fame Be Great, Penguin , 2011]↩
2. [ Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Young Stalin, W&N, 2007]↩
3. [ Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar , W&N, 2003]↩
4. [ Simon Sebag Montefiore (May 19, 2007). “Before the terror”. The Guardian. Retrieved April 12, 2011]↩