Georgia in the Time of Misha
Published: April 2009
By Melik Kaylan
On the eastern edge of Western Europe, Melik Kaylan finds layers of history, a dashing president called "Misha," and a place alive with optimism and possibility.
On a warm night in Tbilisi, where the glossy air has bas-reliefed everything (and everyone) into a kind of celebrity pop-up, I find myself living a glamour moment among the newly minted café society of Georgia. It's a Studio 54 photograph of sorts, but taken in a country wedged roughly between Chechnya and Iran. And so the scene feels at once familiar and strange: men etched in designer poses, fine-boned models having too much fun, that feeling of being at precisely the right place at the right time—all punctuated by the blank stares of VIP's ignoring VIP's. Very Warhol. Perfectly déjà vu. We're on a veranda looking down at the tree-lined Mtkvari River winding through the capital's archaic elegance. It's the after-party of a fashion show, and the peculiar assortment of people illustrates Georgia's ancient role as a merging point of cultures along the Silk Road.
Just inside the red cordon, elbow against the wall, stands Georgian soccer star and Dolce & Gabbana model Kakha Kaladze, who plays in Italy for superclub A.C. Milan. Nearby sits Natalia Kancheli, a sometime aide to Georgia's young president, Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, and daughter of composer Giya Kancheli. You have seen her kind in first-class lounges en route to London, Paris, Tokyo—heartbreakers in dark sunglasses, mysterious in the world and very much of it. Two tables away sits the burly son of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, in his time the world's most bizarre leader-for-life after Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Until last year, Niyazov Sr. ruled the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. Largely impoverished, the country has massive natural-gas deposits, which served mostly to pay for giant banners and statues of Niyazov, including a notorious 40-foot gold-plated one that revolves to salute the sun all day. What is it like to be his son?Not too cheerful, apparently. "I visited your capital, Ashkhabad, back in the nineties," I say, "and I enjoyed it immensely." He eyes me ironically. "You were surely drunk," he says, smiling, and turns to gaze at his vodka. He probably thinks he's said too much already. Just beyond him is a slender, soft-spoken young Tbilisian with a smooth-shaved head who deploys the Georgian investments of an oil-rich Kazakh corporation, part of a flow of wealth that represents the ancient Silk Road common market coming back to life, Kazakhstan being the new oil powerhouse of Central Asia.
Money, fun, and exuberance are suddenly flowing through Tbilisi from all directions. In the few short years since January 2004, when the nonviolent Rose Revolution brought President Saakashvili to power at age 36, the country has experienced a historically unprecedented forward surge. After centuries of confinement under Persian, Ottoman, Czarist, and Soviet rulers—and a decade during which two provinces, with Russian incitement, seceded from the country—Georgia has come into its own. Little more than five years ago, citizens routinely tapped into public telephone and electricity cables for service; no one paid taxes; everyone took bribes. A million Georgians (out of a total population of 4.5 million) emigrated abroad. For a while, all over the post-Soviet geosphere the word Georgian was an adjective denoting mafia shenanigans.
It has all changed with bewildering speed. The police don't take bribes, the mafia has fled, new roads are being paved. There are more Georgians returning than leaving; new office buildings, hotels, and airports are going up; and even the vile Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks have been repainted in bright colors. If you want to know what "ef florescence" looks like, this is it. Georgia and Tbilisi are going through a bona fide "era," the Era of Misha (as Georgians call their president), which may seem fairly routine to us (after all, we have the Clinton era, the Bush era) except that Georgians couldn't have their own era until the Soviets left, and they only had chaos in the aftermath of that. In short, Georgia is poised to reclaim its own chosen destiny, after having it hijacked by one neighbor or another for more than 500 years.
Georgia's capital strikes the newcomer as improbably beautiful, a postcard-perfect lost kingdom set inside high hills surmounted by ancient forts and rock-steady 1,500-year-old Byzantine churches. Downtown Tbilisi unfurls along Rustaveli Avenue, lined with Neoclassical theaters and palaces that house state offices, and dips down to the ancient quarter, the maidan, a Turco-Farsi word meaning "central square." There the scene turns sepia: a synagogue looks out on the striated brown-brick cupolas of the hammam. Its entrance is a peaked portal glittering with turquoise tiles, like something out of Isfahan. (The word tbilisi means "warm place.") In the small maidan, low two-story wooden houses nestle together, with flower-strewn balconies one can almost stretch up to touch. All is human-scale, harmonious, and seasoned by age. The river flows just behind, then Tbilisi rises up again, on bluffs fronted by more wooden villas.
This was always the most far-flung Christian capital on the map, the last outpost of the West as it merged into the exotic. But it gives off an unsettling familiarity. One has seen its like before somewhere; the world knew this aesthetic well at some point. It took me a while to realize that there's an arc of such cities with precisely such a fusion of layers...early Christian, then Ottoman, then Czarist-Hapsburg, with a last glimmering of Art Nouveau (elegant curved steel balconies and gates snaked by flower-stem patterns). They run from Belgrade through Sofia and Bucharest and on to Tbilisi in the Caucasus. One remembers them from antique postcards, yellowing magazines, even from Tintin stories—always framed in rugged mountains and threaded by a robust river, and always graced by a sleepy Islamic street with a donkey cart. They flowered before and after World War I, jewels of the ancien régime for a brief moment before Nazism and Communism buried them from sight—along with their old bewhiskered royals in chesty poses, ornamental military uniforms, faux-Parisian streetlights, and sleek cavalry horses.
I stumbled onto a bit of the hidden residue of Tbilisi's prewar heyday through Gogla, whom I met at a café atop the bluffs across the river. A fluent English speaker in his early thirties, Gogla attended school in the United States and now works for a multinational construction company, building hotels in the capital. Hearing English chatter, he table-hopped over to me. Everyone knows everyone here, and pretty soon he offered to show me around town.
I said I wanted to see some of Tbilisi's lovely, mysterious houses. "You should just go and introduce yourself. Georgians love Americans," he said. "Come, let's try it." We drove across the river to an elegant half-lit street with two towering houses, one with a château-like roof hidden by trees. We walked up its grand staircase, and from the third-floor landing we glimpsed an exquisitely gilded ceiling behind the leaded windows. We knocked on several doors until one opened. Gogla chatted away, and soon we found ourselves in a teak-paneled, high-ceilinged room of great dignity, once a library.
The building dated from 1914, the year the Great War started. The Soviets took Tbilisi a decade later in a notoriously bloody campaign of repression. Like so many large houses that belonged to the bourgeoisie, this one was soon seized by the state. It was shared out between 22 families, which is how it remains today. We asked about the room with the gilt ceiling—it had been the ballroom. An old woman lived there alone, her bed in the middle of the parquet floor. The house exhaled a thwarted affluence everywhere we turned, a hidden narrative that perhaps stood for the wider experience of Tbilisi and Georgia as a whole—or perhaps the flowing Georgian wine had over-enhanced our senses, as our hosts, a seven-member family, came in and out, gently offering to top up our glasses, delighted at the impromptu visit.
Most people would acknowledge that the Soviet years added very little of aesthetic value in buildings or monuments to any country. But Tbilisi developed a unique mini-style of its own—well, maybe not so mini. One might call it the Bond-villain aesthetic of retro-futurism, first conceived in the 1960's and periodically refreshed only in Tbilisi. Here and there defiant, freestanding architectural follies soar up mysteriously from the encircling hills. The cloud-topped TV Tower, on the highest hill, looks like an abandoned Soyuz rocket and lights up in sparks at night.
Right beside it, the once-neglected aerial-tram pavilion, now being renovated, espouses the international Casino Royale vernacular. Swivel your head a few degrees and another peak shows an emerging airport terminal-style fantasy adorned with a helipad and arcing glass façade. It's being built for an oligarch. Then, way below, a mile or two downriver, you see a vertical bunker occupied by a different oligarch. The overall effect of these preposterous forms is both grand and quaint—and entirely glamorous, suggesting a city with splendid, eccentric dreams.
The XX Century hotel sits plumb in the middle of an area called Sololaki, a decaying warren of mostly wooden villas from the late 1800's with enclosed gardens. It honeycombs up from the town center until it hits the sheer bluff. The hotel—two stories of cinderblock and brick—aims for a kind of ironic Soviet-era chic, and succeeds rather well. Thick cloth wires thread up from old-style clunky switches. Bulky ceiling fans whir away. Industrial carpeting spreads out underfoot. When I stayed there, Zaza Tsitsishvili, the architect, apparently a descendant of the old Georgian royal family, had just finished it. He said to me, "We all lived in the last century, and now it's history. But we feel nostalgic and familiar in it. That's how I wanted to make the hotel." The exhilarating view encompasses Persian-style bosky courtyards and distant cliffs where myriad Byzantine churches seem to float on air.
One night, I decided to explore Sololaki and quickly got lost in the dark, narrow streets. Honeysuckle blossoms and overhanging mulberry trees brushed my face. I could watch people eating and drinking en famille in bright indoor bulb-light. Around 11 p.m., I crested a hill and stumbled on a bricked-up Byzantine church atop a rubble-strewn mini-plateau. A forgotten spot; the city twinkled below. This, I realized, encapsulates Tbilisi's charm—the city seems, still, so undiscovered, even by the locals. You can make it your own and craft a personal, improvised chain of unheralded experiences. Which is not to say that Tbilisi lacks conventional commercial entertainment—but even in those places, as with Rome or Florence, ancient stones in shadows murmur of their history while you eat or dance. Sidewalk bars and cafés aplenty have opened in the last couple of years, especially on Chavchavadze Street, alongside the boutiques and galleries near the town center. In Tbilisi, life can turn happily picaresque at any moment.
In the morning, I went antiquing along the elegantly fin-de-siècle Marjanishvili Street, across the river. The area itself glimmers with Belle Époque touches on theater façades and storefronts. Inside the shops, among the objets d'art, I felt again the presence of Tbilisi's last flush of European classicism: bronze statuettes, Impressionist mountain views, old photographs, aristocratic swords and uniforms. I looked at lampshades and small chandeliers, numerous and beautifully shaped, thanks to Tbilisi's Art Nouveau heritage. For between $200 and $300 you can get a really fine sculpted lamp. I also sought out 19th-century shooting paraphernalia: Georgia once thrived as a center of haute hunting culture, always conducted in grand style at far-flung mountain lodges and pavilions, with fabulous outfits and antiquated weapons. I saw lots of lovely inlaid 19th-century rifles and flintlocks—all very expensive. So I went to a cheaper locale: the Dry River Bridge weekend flea market, which stretches along the river through a little park and down some steps into a proper bazaar full of jewelry, silver cutlery, Soviet medals, and, yes, old guns—which are mostly fakes. Walking in the nearby park, I spotted a wolfskin and a bearskin negligently tacked up to a tree, and almost bought those instead. But I balked at the prospect, uncertain of the ethical (and hygienic) issues involved.
Some days before I leave, I get a call from President Saakashvili's people, responding to my request for an interview. He wants to take me along on a visit to the Black Sea resort of Batumi, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, on the Turkish border. Adjara was one of the secessionist provinces, a black hole of corruption and warlordism, and was backed by Russia until two years ago, when Saakashvili simply people-powered his way in after various military face-offs. The despot of 10 years (1994-2004), Aslan Aba-shidze, fled to Russia. One might call him the paradigm of a warlord, a wondrous magical-realist character who closed all the parks in Batumi and imposed a multiyear evening curfew because he loathed the sight of people having fun. This in a town that before Georgia's independence was the Soviet Union's tourist hub along its Black Sea Riviera.
Abashidze allowed all the roads to crumble, except one—the one his son would drive on to give his 10 Ferraris a periodic workout. The province had one export, Jeep-mounted machine guns, and earned much of its revenue from the Russian military base and the oil terminal that serviced Black Sea tankers. Batumi achieved renown as a seaside jewel beginning in 1900, when oil began to flow from the Baku oilfields in Azerbaijan and went out to the world by ship. The Rothschilds and Nobels who made millions from the pre-Communist Baku bubble chose nearby Batumi as their elegant fun-in-the-sun way station.
I'm not told how we will get to Batumi, which is a seven-hour drive away. The chauffeur steers between potholes on a road leading to a seedy military facility on the outskirts of Tbilisi. I'm rushed to a large, bug-eyed helicopter of Soviet vintage, the kind with spidery, drooping rotor blades. Then the president charges in, followed by his numerous bodyguards. We soar up past the Tbilisi Sea, the reservoir where Tbilisians go to shake off the summer heat. We're escorted by an identical chopper, two shadows flashing on hills below. Within 15 minutes we see the serried white caps of the Great Caucasus mountain range. That way lies Chechnya. Georgia of ancient memory undulates below, wild and myth-strewn from Prometheus to the Amazons. Suddenly, we're over a beach, landing near an Oriental-roofed dacha patrolled by guards. I've barely settled in the semi-complete local governor's residence when I hear a shout: "Hurry up, they're waiting for you." I run out and down to the beach where Saakashvili is standing dripping next to two Jet Skis. "Go ahead," he says, "try it out." Off we go along the coast, choppers and launches trailing, little dots of people waving from the beaches.
Saakashvili, in his idiosyncratic Georgian way, is serious about fun. He builds amusement park rides, colorful fountain shows, and the like all over the country: "I want to brighten things up," he says. "Georgia was the main tourist destination for the entire Soviet sphere. People are coming back and bringing others. They know that more democracy and private enterprise equals more hope and affluence and, yes, more fun."
Like Tbilisi, Batumi is a place awakening from the spell of history. Brutish Soviet apartment blocks crumble around exquisite Belle Époque quartiers. Subtropical in climate, the shoreline rises at times into cliffs topped by swaying bamboo forests and tea and nutmeg farms. The Turks ruled here until the mid 19th century; Neoclassical mini-palaces line the waterfront. During the day, the governor walks us through the Old Town—still being rebuilt after Abashidze. Saakashvili takes me on a drive along the coast: "Those are all new hotels," he says. "Here is the new Chinese restaurant and the new Dutch restaurant." He points to a multicolored pagoda and a large white windmill nearby. Later, on a lovely Black Sea evening, we all dine atop a faux wooden galleon in dry dock. A crimson sun melts away, and the water turns steely soft. The table groans with dishes, very Georgian both in amount and content. I spot the two standards of the national cuisine: khinkali and khachapuri, big meat dumplings and a kind of pizza, comfort foods nonpareil, surrounded by a spread of tomatoes, cheese, spring onions, and radishes.
In Tbilisi, on my last night, I am invited to dinner at the house of the minister for privatization, Kakha Bendukhidze. We eat at a long wooden table, with his beautiful wife, Natasha, on their flagstoned back porch. Natasha found a painting in town that day entitled Bendukhidze at Table, showing our host—a large man—tucking into a table-length fish. President Saakashvili suddenly appears with an Italian restaurateur in tow. He just flew to St. Petersburg today to meet Putin for a specially arranged rapprochement. Instead, it turned into one more sour incident in an ongoing saga of hostility. Putin kept Saakashvili waiting for four hours, then met him for a mere 15 minutes. Gifts were exchanged. They barely said hello. So, in disgust, Saakashvili and his retinue went to the best restaurant in town. "It was so good that I realized we had to have one just like it here," he says. The restaurateur, chuckling, says, "He told me I had to see Tbilisi—he hijacked me on his jet."
Saakashvili asks about my stay. I find myself, in one of those surreal, comic moments that Georgia inspires, describing the wolf- and bearskins I saw at the flea market but had failed to purchase. "I have a Siberian bearskin," Saakashvili says. "Would you like it?" Well...I say, and so it is that an enormous Russian bearskin appears in my hotel room—a gift originally given to Saakashvili (I'm told by an aide) by the Kremlin, and emblematic of Russian power. I understand why Saakashvili might not want it. As for me, I can hardly refuse this mad, outsize, Georgian gesture of affection—to be explained across multiple security barriers in myriad time zones, "You see, the president of Georgia gave it to me...." Don't tell Mr. Putin I have his bear.
When to Go
Georgia's climate is relatively mild year-round; spring and early summer are the most pleasant.
Georgian Airlines flies to Tbilisi from Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, and Vienna; Austrian Air flies from Vienna; and United flies from New York via Munich.
Visas are not required for U.S. citizens staying less than three months.
Caucasus Travel prepares history, art, nature, and other trips around Georgia. 44/II Leselidze St; 995/32-987-400; caucasustravel.com.
Where to Stay
Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel Located in Tbilisi's historical district. 20 Telavi St.; 995-32/772-020; sheraton.com; doubles from $250.
XX Century Industrial-chic hotel in the heart of the residential district. 24 Betlemi St.; 995-32/788-016; doubles from $90.
Where to Eat
Maidan Georgian specialties, and music and dance performances in the evenings. 6 Rkinis Rigi St.; 995-32/986-594; dinner for two $50.
Marrakech Traditional Moroccan cuisine. 13 Chardin St.; 995-32/751-028; dinner for two $20.
Two Side Serves regional dishes like sturgeon baked in earthenware frying pans, and assorted Georgian cheeses. 7 Bambis Rigi St.; 995-32/439-038; dinner for two $45.
What to See
Gabriadze Marionette Theater Puppet performances created by Rezo Gabriadze; not just for kids. 26 Shavteli St.; 995-32/996-620.
Jvari Monastery A pink stone building on a hill overlooking Mtskheta's two rivers. Mtskheta.
"Mama Daviti" Church Built in the 16th century, this church is best known for its cemetery, where numerous poets and public figures are buried. On the Mtkvari River, off Metekhis Khidi Rd.
Maidan Square The capital's historic center, with outdoor cafés and bars.
Rustaveli National Theatre In 1949, a fire reduced all but the façade of this 1901 theater to ashes. It was completely reconstructed in the 1980's, and its famous frescoes restored. 17 Rustaveli Ave.; 995-32/933-818; rustavelitheatre.ge.
Sioni Church Beautiful interior frescoes at this fifth-century church. 4 Sionis St.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral A wooden church built in the sixth century, in the shape of a cross. Mtskheta.
Where to Shop
Marjanishvili Street This fin-de-siecle strip is the place for antiques.
Dry Bridge Flea Market 3 Riverside St.; 995-32/936-283.
Side Trip: Batumi
An overnight train ride from Tbilisi, the Black Sea resort town, capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, has numerous hotels, restaurants, pebble beaches, and Roman-Byzantine sites. Don't miss the Batumi Botanical Gardens (35 M. Rceulishvili; 995-899/950-461; batumibotanical.org).