Georgia / Sakartvelo: The Strength of Wood

Text by Vika Malik, photography by Isaac Sligh

One day, a relative wanted to send me a parcel from the United States to Georgia and spent fifteen minutes trying to convince a post office worker that there was indeed a country called “Georgia” in the world — not just a US state. The postal worker had a reason to argue — she actually couldn’t find any such country in her database. Yet, the country of Georgia does exist. Georgia, or Sakartvelo (საქართველო) – let’s rather use its original name to avoid any recurring associations with southern accents or peaches — has existed perhaps since the 12th century BC. It was known as Colchis to the Ancient Greeks, who ventured to its shores in search of the Golden Fleece in the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. A few centuries later, Sakartvelo was one of the very first countries to convert to Christianity.

Yet most of the world does not know what Sakartvelo or even the Republic of Georgia is. Perhaps this can be explained somewhat by its unfortunate history. Surrounded by states with expansionist ambitions since the Middle Ages, it has barely had a break from hardship. Ravaged by the Mongols, then by the Ottomans, and subsequently by the Persians, Sakartvelo nevertheless developed a habit of rising from its ruins to somehow move on. Then, when things finally began to look up in the early 20th century, it was invaded and forcefully annexed by the Soviets, thanks to its most famous compatriot, Ioseb Jugashvili, whom we now know as Joseph Stalin. 

Wood can’t hide the signs of its earlier uses as easily as stone or concrete.

Among the recent highlights that have affected the country after the fall of the USSR are a civil war; a decade with barely any electricity; the election of the first pro-western anti-corruption president Mikheil Saakashvili (who eventually pulled Georgia into a war with Russia in 2008); and most recently, the exile of Saakashvili and rise to power of a semi-pro-Russian party, funded by a billionaire whose name can’t help sounding to me like the word for “oil” in Russian.

Back in December 2019, the upcoming year held no promise of school for the first time since I began primary school in September 2001. Neither did it guarantee any job that would require me to stay in one place. My partner and I resolved to travel casually while working online on various projects. As a Russian, I’ve always had a vague image of Sakartvelo – Грузия or Gruziya, we call it—as a welcoming and exotic resort destination, formerly for the whole Soviet Union and today for the inhabitants of its former republics. The lack of a usual and comforting framework organizing my life felt disturbing, so the prospect of going to the land of semi-sweet wine and Caucasus mountains was somewhat soothing for both of us. 

We came to Tbilisi, the capital of Sakartvelo, in February 2020, planning to Airbnb there for a month before heading to other cities and then to Russia. That winter, in one of its rare gray and drowsy months, Tbilisi welcomed us more warmly than we could have ever imagined. All our anxieties about the future, the pandemic, or money resolved on their own, smoothly and casually. We ended up living in Tbilisi for seven months, wishing we could prolong our stay for much more — or at least to return as soon as possible. 

Now, as I’m far away from Sakartvelo, my memories of it gradually grow vaguer and more romantic. Perhaps even overly romantic and childlike in some parts, though I think childlike and romantic are good words for describing time spent in this country. Tbilisi is so abundant and lively that you lose all the words with which you try to capture it. Some kind of preverbal condition engulfs you, and you just go with the flow, passively and silently, similar to everything else in this city.

I still can’t fully think of Tbilisi as a city. In some parts, it feels more like a relative’s house or perhaps one huge, connected communal apartment with wide stretching yards and overgrown gardens, regardless of the city’s signs of modernity, its grand scale, and its surprisingly well-kept infrastructure. Some inexplicable family-like trust and warmth towards any guest strikes you from your first encounter with it. Doors and windows stay wide open or at least unlocked, allowing anyone inside to pop out and see the newcomers every time they pass by. Thanks to the Soviet background or perhaps the climate, most of the physical and social divisions merge together, stretching living spaces to the size of whole neighborhoods. The indoors of people’s apartments and houses naturally transitions into the outdoors where all neighbors and friends eat and drink together, or perhaps gather to shoot a game of dice. 

Since barriers are a rather relative concept in Tbilisi, you have a good chance of accidentally stumbling into someone’s apartment when, say, you’re looking for a small photo store or a cafe. Once, we popped into a 19th century tenement building, marveling at the still-visible doorbell signs, etched in Russian Cyrillic, of distinguished early 20th century residents, including doctors and professors who would accept visitors right in their homes. After we took a chance and rang one of these interesting doorbells, we ended up having coffee by an old tiled fireplace with the apartment owners and the descendants of one of these names in Cyrillic. No questions asked — just sheer hospitality, trust, and kindness towards all people.

All over Tbilisi’s central old town, graceful, hand carved wooden lattices, pillars, and window frames hold up heavy balconies and the ceilings of buildings above. Wood can’t hide the signs of its earlier uses as easily as stone or concrete. That’s why, lavishly covered with thick layers of bygone cultures, tastes, and ideologies, the city’s architecture passively gives in to time and decay, inviting new witnesses to this everlasting natural struggle. 

Animals are another side of life that added to my romantic and antiquated image of Tbilisi. Stray dogs and cats, wandering through the cobblestone streets lined with old mansions and stone chapels, are an irreplaceable part of the city. They are almost all exceedingly well behaved. The presence of these animals, which one can’t help taking care of, completes my impression of the city as one big home. Once, exploring a ziggurat-like Soviet museum of archeology on a hill above the city, we met a frightened mother dog who brought us to her puppies. After that, we made weekly pilgrimages to this monumental temple of Soviet science, bearing alms of food and medicine to these dogs. We also scooped up a homeless street kitten, whom my partner eventually brought back with him to the States.

I think this submission to nature and, at the same time active coexistence with it, has preserved and formed Sakartvelo’s identity throughout the centuries. You come face to face with echoes of local history in every part of the city — a list of long-dead residents and their apartments on the first floor of a tenement building, a polyphonic choir’s singing drifting from the windows of a church, a medieval fortress perched along a cliff by a country highway, or a ruined monastery with trees growing on the roof. Probably, the ability to leave things alone and to let life and nature decide what shape a city should take, differentiates Sakartvelo from many other countries and civilizations whose citizens, with good but ignorant intentions, destroy their own history for the sake of gentrification and profit. 

Yet some radical changes in the city’s outlook have still occurred in Tbilisi. During its time as the capital of one of the most prosperous Soviet republics, Tbilisi witnessed numerous daring and fascinating architectural experiments. Today, ironically, the most impressive Soviet monuments have turned into hubs of capitalist activity: a glorious horizontal skyscraper, built for the ministry of highways, is now the headquarters of the Bank of Georgia, and my personal favorite, the provocatively shaped Wedding Palace, which quotes both French modernist and Georgian medieval architecture, became the residence of a local oligarch. These have also submitted to time and nature, accumulating several layers of conflicting histories on their surfaces.

To not misguide anyone, I should stress that Tbilisi is still an up-to-date and vibrant capital. With its all-permeating hospitality, Sakartvelo now allows Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Iranian businessmen to force their glass skyscrapers wherever they want. These hallmarks of the new era have yet to become multi-faceted and mature with the context and passing of time. 

Still, Tbilisi feels so old that you can imagine it falling apart at any moment. The fact that it has lasted so long for so many centuries leads me to think that this won’t happen. The city’s internal strength lies in its external fragility, that same passivity which allows all the disturbances of history to take place until they inevitably disappear over time. Indeed, this has been a quality of Sakartvelo’s for the last thousand years: the ability to endure through tragedy, to be conquered, but still find a way through this to win. Perhaps this will allow Sakartvelo, like the bent but unbroken woodwork of its dilapidated beautiful houses, to endure for many more to come.

Vika Malik is a Russian and Art History teacher, translator, and researcher, studying the book illustrations of Russian avant-garde artists. She is currently based in Besançon, France.