Looking for the Georgian glory

Ștefan Cândea
Vlad Lavrov, ukrainian journalist, traveled together with us from Tbilisi to Sevastopol. Back in the Soviet days, one of the most popular television series that had the entire country’s population glued to the TV screens was called Investigation Held by Experts (Sledstvie Vedut Znatoki) , and told about a trio of highly skilled cops, who were able to solve any crime using their brainpower alone, without resorting to any violence. One of the most memorable episodes was about a group of dishonest art dealers who sold highly overpriced and often fake items. To expose their crimes, one of the cops went undercover, posing as a potential buyer. In order to win their trust he posed as a Georgian, who came from some unnamed Black Sea resort to Moscow to start an art collection having some funds to spend.

This particular episode was filmed in 1979, when the average salary in the country was 120 roubles – 190 US dollars, according to the official exchange rate, or $ 24 according to the black market one. Yet, the cop turned Georgian immediately spends around 3000 roubles on a porcelain set and literally drives the entire art dealers’ community crazy demanding to buy the works by the famous Russian jeweler of French origin Peter Carl Faberge.

Incredibly enough, the television cop didn’t need to get into the details of where exactly did he get the money to look convincing both to the dealers and to the viewers. All he had to do was to mention a private house on the sea coast, involvement in some fruit sales on the market – all speaking in Russian with thick Georgian accent.

Unlike, so many instances of media propaganda, here the authors got the story right. In the Soviet Union, the Georgians occupied the vacant niche of wealthy people from the south that might resemble the way many Europeans and Americans nowadays view the wealthy Arabic Sheikhs. Andrey Epifantsev, APN publicist, closely following events on the Caucasus, puts it simply. “After the World War II, Georgia has become the darling of the Soviet Union – the first among the equals”.

He points out that simple Soviet people who visited Georgia were very surprised by the Georgians’ prosperity. The republic could boast the highest per capita ownership of cars, and some of the best looking private houses in the country. There were two main reasons for this: Georgia’s geography with its climate perfect for growing exotic fruits and tourism industry. The other reason was certain leniency of the communist leaders towards Georgia. As the result, the first private businesses started there, long before it was legalized in late 80’s in the rest of the Soviet Union.

I kept thinking about all this as we travelled Georgia. All the while, I was trying to find what has left of the old glory of that region. Yet, things are very different now, as despite the high GDP growth in recent year, Georgia is still one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union.

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the old glory is gone. People are much poorer, their houses are shabbier, and the wages are lower than in most ex-USSR countries I have visited.

However, for me as the traveler the loss of Georgia’s former glitz is definitely good news. As I look back at our Black Sea trip, I think that Georgian part of it was definitely the friendliest. It includes many things – from the local food, and the hotels to the way people on the streets were happy to be photographed and often asked for it. A friend of mine told me a story how visiting Georgia this winter, he met some local thugs, who wanted to rob him, but when they realized he was a tourist from Ukraine gave him some money instead. Perhaps, this treatment of the visitors is a good substitute to Georgia’s elitist image of the Soviet times.

After all, despite much easier and cheaper travel, travelling to Georgia back in the Soviet days was by no exaggeration once in a lifetime experience, unless a person belonged to the communist elite, or was a prominent artist, scientist or military. To say that you have spent you summer vacation is resorts like Batumi, Kobuleti, Tsqaltubo, just as in Abkhazian Sukhumi, was the sign of belonging to elite even in larger extent than to say that you have been to the most popular Russian resort Sochi. This meant that even if you managed to find a train or airplane ticket – always sold out during the season – getting accommodation at the resorts was nothing short of a miracle, and the stories how somebody did get lucky were passed in the families from one generation to another.