The once and fu­ture kings of Ge­or­gia

A short history of at­tempts to re­store the Ge­or­gian monar­chy

The Ukrainian Week - - NEIGHBOURS - Olek­siy Bo­brovnikov

An old court­yard with a palm and a small cel­lar that has been con­verted into a bed­room re­sem­bling a monk’s cell. The history of this build­ing is linked to sev­eral names that are sa­cred to Ge­or­gians. For a for­eigner to talk about them, whether they are alive or dead, is only al­lowed if the most canonic piety is dis­played.

This is where I live when I come to Tbil­isi for my job. And this cell is where my voy­age in this coun­try, which is about the size of Kyiv Oblast, be­gan. It’s a trip that has al­ready lasted two years and will prob­a­bly never end, for I am now tied to it, not only through my mem­o­ries, but through fam­ily re­la­tions.

The place smells of freshly-ground cof­fee, dust and eau de cologne. It is the scent of a woman. I used to love to re­main here in or­der to be able to con­verse with the own­ers; now, it’s for the at­mos­phere. The history of this court­yard is as strange as the en­tire history of Ge­or­gia, for the same build­ing is to­day home to the descendants of an an­cient royal fam­ily and the fam­ily of NKVD op­er­a­tors that moved in against the wishes of the own­ers. But the very fact that the own­ers, descendants of a once nearly all-pow­er­ful no­ble fam­ily, were left even a part of their hold­ings was un­heard-of for the res­i­dents of other re­publics in the “Broth­er­hood of Na­tions.”

What gen­eros­ity! Af­ter shoot­ing all the men in this fam­ily, the sovi­ets left the chil­dren and wid­ows with an en­tire story in the build­ing that their an­ces­tors had built in their glory days. And that’s how they live to this day: one group of res­i­dents ig­nores the other, and every­body knows ex­actly why.

At first glance, it looks like any old build­ing with a sin­gle palm and the aroma of Turk­ish cof­fee typ­i­cal of

all Tbil­isi court­yards. But un­der the floors of the rooms in their wing, the fam­ily that was forced to show hos­pi­tal­ity to mur­der­ers and thieves hid the por­traits of its an­ces­tors. Old da­guerreo­types of the Ge­or­gian king and his princesses now hang on the walls once again.

In some sense, his­tor­i­cal jus­tice has won out. The per­son­al­i­ties of the present and the past no longer need to hide their faces and can ob­serve with dig­nity the tricks fate plays around them.

The story that I want to tell is mainly about mod­ern times. This is a page out of the life of a princess to whose hos­pi­tal­ity I owe a good deal. This woman could have be­come a Ge­or­gian Em­press if the monar­chy were to re­turn. In the run-up to ev­ery new elec­tion of the par­lia­ment or pres­i­dent, the op­po­si­tion brings up the idea of restora­tion again. Even the church gets in­volved in the con­tro­versy.

AN UN­DER­COVER PRINCE

But first let’s go back to a love story that was fated not to hap­pen.

It is the be­gin­ning of the 1990s. She is a beauty, 30 years old and un­mar­ried. She is also the heir of Erekle or Her­a­clius II, the last Ge­or­gian king. The only thing left that she can call her own is the first story of her an­ces­tral home.

He is a young prince of a royal fam­ily who has come from Europe, where his fam­ily em­i­grated af­ter the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion. He has a villa some­where on the Mediter­ranean shore and is hop­ing to start life over again, be­fore it is rusted to bits.

And so the young prince came to Tbil­isi, fell in love—or perhaps only said he was in love—and asked for her hand.

“Something wasn’t quite right,” the mis­tress of the court­yard re­calls, “but I couldn’t quite fig­ure out what. He was very pleas­ant and courtly, and had a per­fect sense of hu­mor. He was a real Euro­pean, as we imag­ined them to be back then. But something didn’t fit, something wasn’t quite right.”

This is one of those open se­crets in Tbil­isi, but no one will ever tell you the tale on cam­era or into a mi­cro­phone. That’s why I won’t name names. I don’t want to sac­ri­fice the trust of this home, whose hos­pi­tal­ity has been of­fered to me, for the sake of re­veal­ing the se­crets of others’ lives.

These are the se­crets, of course, that every­one knows about. And that’s what Tbil­isi and all of Ge­or­gia are about: rev­er­ence for their own and strangers’ se­crets, where every­one knows ev­ery­thing about every­body, yet al­ways hold their tongues in the pres­ence of strangers. Where peo­ple wear their masks of no­bil­ity to avoid tar­nish­ing old fam­ily shields, dark­ened with age but filled with pride and grandeur, though not one wit­ness to those se­crets re­mains among the liv­ing.

A friend of mine was once telling me about 19th cen­tury love tri­an­gles when he would sud­denly drop his voice to a whis­per, although he was only talking about dra­mas from the times of Chavchavadze or Ler­mon­tov.

Of­ten, though, the aristocracy ends abruptly in the church­yard, where parish- ion­ers on their way out be­gin to whis­per all the dirt­i­est de­tails in the lives of any­one whom their eye has caught.

“Look at her... she’s do­ing ev­ery­thing wrong. Do you see who she’s walk­ing with? She’s mar­ried. I know for sure that she’s mar­ried. She lives in the build­ing next door...” My com­pan­ion Elene, a young painter from the church stu­dios, says this as she turns her gaze away, hid­ing her face in my shoul­der, although we are hardly so close and I haven’t had time to get used to her sud­denly dis­plays of af­fec­tion.

The girl is hid­ing her face so as not to meet the gaze of a woman who is walk­ing down the street and hasn’t yet seen her. Ev­ery­thing is done so as not to look dis­cour­te­ous when one faces some­one who he or she does not want to greet. Be­cause after­wards, at a ca­sual meet­ing, a di­rect look will be seen as a chal­lenge. And that’s quite un­ac­cept­able.

I asked Elene about this and she looked at me in sur­prise: “Of course! How can you imag­ine that I might look her in the face?”

“Kdemo-mosileba”— in the old lo­cal di­alect, this is the Ge­or­gian word for the dig­nity of a young woman. This is not about vir­gin­ity, but about strict ad­her­ence to the rules of eti­quette while main­tain­ing an im­age of in­no­cence and pas­siv­ity that hides an iron will—all of this ex­pressed with end­less grace. A purely Ge­or­gian con­cept that can­not be found in any other lan­guage. Purely Ge­or­gian style.

Of course, the younger gen­er­a­tion won’t un­der­stand you. Kdemo-mosileba a com­pli­ment in­tended for their aun­ties and grannies. But the word does ex­ist and it can be seen as an il­lus­tra­tion of the com­plex­ity of re­la­tions there and a prime ex­am­ple of a purely Ge­or­gian way of be­hav­ing.

But I’ve dis­tracted us from the tale of the royal union that never took place.

The mis­tress of our house had no­ticed something strange in the be­hav­ior and re­sponses of her no­ble suitor. He was ex­actly what he should have been. Yet there was a sense of fore­bod­ing in her, so that the nat­u­ral de­ter­mi­nant of “yes” and “no” that is turned on be­fore the brain is even en­gaged, that of­fers the fi­nal con­sent or takes the last chance away from the ad­mirer, did not work in fa­vor of the hand­some no­ble.

And so, the of­fer of hand and heart was re­jected with­out ex­pla­na­tion.

What a wed­ding that would have been! The first monarchic fam­ily. And why not? Ed­uard She­vard­nadze him­self, the pres­i­dent at that time, ap­peared in pub­lic with the young suitor as this guest and an­nounced the news of a pos­si­ble en­gage­ment be­tween the for­eign prince and the Tbil­isi beauty. Af­ter all, in the early 1990s, talk of a re­turn to monar­chy was pop­u­lar in Ge­or­gia. Of course, it would be sym­bolic and con­sti­tu­tional, but still...

A monarch. What­ever Ge­or­gians might say, that word re­ally suits them.

“KGB?” the princess who did not be­come queen says with an ironic smile. “Who else if not the KGB?”

Ge­or­gia—the coun­try of no­ble flirt­ing that of­ten ends in blood and drama.

But this time, the end­ing was dif­fer­ent, and for that rea­son this story has no names: the myth must be for­got­ten. The very idea of a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy will turn to stone and be­come just another topic for neigh­bor­hood gos­sips in Tbil­isi.

She­vard­nadze knew this very well, when the sly old fox first de­cided to flirt with aristocracy in post-soviet Ge­or­gia and raised the old myth about the king.

A few months af­ter the failed courtship, tales be­gan cir­cu­lat­ing in the city with spicy de­tails of the for­eign prince’s life. A drug re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion clinic some­where in the Alpine foothills. Ner­vous break­downs. Re­mis­sions. An opium ad­dic­tion.

The prince dis­ap­peared from my ac­quain­tance’s hori­zons, just as lo­cal chat­ter about the restora­tion of a monar­chy did. For a time.

“Of course it was the KGB,” the princess smiles. She’s no longer young but un­be­liev­ably beau­ti­ful still, if you ig­nore the ag­ing apron and the streak of grey. The first at­tempt at a re­union of no­ble families never took place—for­tu­nately for the fem­i­nine half of this union.

THE HAND OF THE PATRIARCH

Twenty years later, history re­peated it­self. This time, though, the he­roes of this worldly chron­i­cle were Ge­or­gian Patriarch Ilya II and mem­bers of two branches of the Ba­gra­tioni dy­nasty.

The Ge­or­gian op­po­si­tion im­me­di­ately grabbed the ini­tia­tive. Any ex­cuse to jeer at the Pres­i­dent was their mo­tive, es­pe­cially when such jeers had the bless­ing of the All-Ge­or­gian Patriarch him­self. But this threat­ened to turn into a holy war.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, the col­lapse of the re­formist forces dur­ing the Saakashvili years af­ter this is partly rooted in the fact that their leader at one point de­cided that he could break with any tra­di­tion, even ec­cle­si­as­tic ones. Perhaps he saw him­self as some kind of Henry the Eighth, the English­man who beat the Church of Rome.

Whether un­der pres­sure from the West, or in or­der to weaken the power of the not-very-friendly Ge­or­gian Church, the Ge­or­gian pres­i­dent de­cided to carry out one par­tic­u­lar re­form that caused a real break be­tween him and the coun­try’s Patriarch.

This re­form al­lowed all key con­fes­sions to es­tab­lish their tem­ples on a gen­eral ba­sis. Un­til that point, even the Catholic Church was op­er­at­ing in Ge­or­gia on a semi-le­gal ba­sis only. This project out­raged Ilya II, who had un­lim­ited moral au­thor­ity in a so­ci­ety where self-right­eous tra­di­tion­al­ists and nat­u­ral rebels against any sec­u­lar au­thor­ity were in the ma­jor­ity. In fact, this 50/50 mix was a cock­tail that stirred in many folks.

The Patriarch’s word could change, if not the course of history, then at least sig­nif­i­cantly strengthen or weaken any move­ment in it. In­deed, with a sin­gle bless­ing, Ilya did, at one time change the en­tire cul­ture of al­co­hol con­sump­tion in Ge­or­gia.

There are a num­ber of tra­di­tions re­lated to drink­ing that have re­mained in­vi­o­lable from fa­ther to son in Ge­or­gia. For in­stance, you never held a gob­let in your left hand if you want to toast the health of a friend. And you never raised a toast to a dis­tin­guished per­son hold- ing a mug of beer. This was con­sid­ered shame­ful and a sign of ig­no­rance. Beer was used to toast only low­grade politi­cians or worth­less gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Ge­or­gia—or just to mock rude or ar­ro­gant neigh­bors.

So one time when I came back to Tbil­isi, I heard my friend lift his mug of beer... in honor of my ar­rival! I was fu­ri­ous: “Hey, buddy, what are you per­mit­ting your­self? What have I done to you to de­serve this?”

My friend sud­denly re­al­ized what was go­ing on. “Sorry man, I for­got that you’ve been gone for a year. Last year, the Patriarch is­sued a de­cree that al­lowed every­body to drink beer ‘to good folks.’ So all drinks are now con­sid­ered equal,” he laughed.

And so, the beer in­dus­try had found it­self the best pos­si­ble lob­by­ist that could be imag­ined. Beer sales be­gan to grow and have con­tin­ued to grow ever since. A sin­gle state­ment by the Patriarch was worth more than miles and miles of bill­boards.

TROLLING THE MONARCHS

At about that time, the Patriarch’s trolls in­vented prob­a­bly the most un­pleas­ant leg­end pos­si­ble for a Ge­or­gian: that Saakashvili was not Ge­or­gian! And that’s how they got even with him for his de­sire to le­gal­ize other churches in Ge­or­gia, in­clud­ing the Church of Ar­me­nia, with whom Ge­or­gia’s re­la­tion­ship has at times been quite trou­bled. From then on, cer­tain cir­cles be­gan call­ing him Saakian, us­ing the tra­di­tional Ar­me­nian end­ing, and ev­ery time he

found him­self in an odd, one-down or comic sit­u­a­tion, which he did reg­u­larly, it was ac­com­pa­nied by tales about his “un­ge­or­gian roots.”

“Let’s have a real con­sti­tu­tional monarch, and not this not-quite-Ge­or­gian Saakian,” op­po­si­tion trolls would cackle, bait­ing him.

As the trust gap grew, the re­formist pres­i­dent who once had the sup­port of the vast ma­jor­ity of Ge­or­gian voters ended his ca­reer at home in­glo­ri­ously. Any con­fronta­tion be­tween the leader of the sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment and the leader of the spir­i­tual one in Ge­or­gia is in­vari­ably the worst kind of trap for the for­mer.

Back then, five years be­fore Saakashvili was es­sen­tially chased out, one of the toys, an old doll from the great-grand­mother’s chest of monar­chy leg­ends, once more took the stage.

It is 2009. Patriarch Ilya II blesses the young aris­to­cratic cou­ple. The wed­ding is tak­ing place in a church built by Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili, the Ge­or­gian bil­lion­aire who will soon an­nounce his can­di­dacy as “re­gent” of the Ge­or­gian body politic. The Patriarch prom­ises to sup­port the young mar­riage in ev­ery way pos­si­ble so that they might raise the son of this great dy­nasty, the first heir born in in­de­pen­dent Ge­or­gia and raised in the bo­som of the Church, as the next monarch for a coun­try whose last king died 200 years ago.

So many words spo­ken, so much fer­vor in ev­ery move­ment...

Five years af­ter these events, just as I was pre­par­ing this ar­ti­cle, I called a friend of mine, an ac­tivist for one of the lo­cal par­ties that has been in op­po­si­tion all this time.

“How are your aris­to­crats do­ing? Any­thing new from them?”

“Which ones? What are you on about?”

“The Ba­gra­tioni cou­ple. The ones who were sup­posed to pro­duce an heir who would be­come King of Ge­or­gia... Re­mem­ber?”

“I have no idea. I have to ask our priest. How soon do you need an an­swer?” was his re­sponse.

Skele­tons in the closet or sim­ply harm­less dusty por­traits?

THE GE­OR­GIAN DREAM OF A PER­FECT KING

These days, or­di­nary Ge­or­gians hear about monar­chy on tele­vi­sion only oc­ca­sion­ally, when there’s an elec­tion cam­paign go­ing on. Or from a guide who is ex­plain­ing about mon­u­ments from the times of Queen Ta­mara or show­ing the ar­chi­tec­tural works from any era. Like the young hero of Rafael Sa­ba­tini’s teen novel, any po­lit­i­cal ac­tor in Ge­or­gia “talks about his Catholic life only when it’s con­ve­nient to him,” only here, it’s about the con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy.

A fig­ure walk­ing in a field with a pas­tiche crown or a per­son out of phan­tom mem­o­ries is in­ter­est­ing to a for­eign pub­li­cist, or for a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal tech­nol­o­gist... or a church spin doc­tor, for that mat­ter. What­ever any­one might say, the one­time pres­i­dent saw him­self as king of this coun­try, a myth­i­cal fig­ure. Yet this myth is so deeply em­bed­ded in the sub­con­scious that sep­a­rat­ing it from later civ­i­liza­tional lay­ers is nigh im­pos­si­ble.

Ev­ery ruler in Ge­or­gia should ex­hibit all the pos­si­ble cri­te­ria of roy­alty that we can even imag­ine. Kdemo-mosileba of Queen Ta­mara and the coura­geous ded­i­ca­tion and sac­ri­fice of Shota Rus­taveli’s he­roes. That’s how it was with Saakashvili, who lost, not be­cause he was a bad re­former, but be­cause he tried to make him­self out to be both a lit­er­ary hero and a mil­i­tary ge­nius.

This God-gifted self-pro­moter failed to show the stamina and courage in the bat­tle­field and tried in­stead to get tele­vi­sion chan­nels that were in his pocket to por­tray him as a kind of Ge­or­gian Oliver Cromwell, while his re­la­tions with the church were like Henry VIII’s. He for­got that Ge­or­gia is not an is­land and from the pres­i­den­tial palace to the res­i­dence of the pow­er­ful lo­cal “pope” is only a few steps.

THE LARGER-THAN-LIFE DIG­NITY AND GEN­EROS­ITY EX­PECTED OF A RULER BY EVEN THE MOST CON­SCIOUS VOTERS ARE IMAGINARY, EX­AG­GER­ATED, AND LEAD TO CATHARSIS—AF­TER WHICH USU­ALLY COMES COM­PLETE DIS­EN­CHANT­MENT

But who be­came hostage to this fairy­tale about the “Good King” was his suc­ces­sor, Ivan­ishvili—who suc­ceeded him, no so much in the ac­tual role of pres­i­dent but in his role as a dream-weaver for Ge­or­gian so­ci­ety. The promised clouds of golden rain never did fall on Ge­or­gian soil and as the un­re­al­is­tic prom­ises of his party were clearly re­vealed for what they were, the Ge­or­gian Dream also lost voters.

The larger-than-life dig­nity and gen­eros­ity that are fre­quently ex­pected of a ruler by even the most con­scious voters are of­ten imaginary, ex­ag­ger­ated, and lead to catharsis—af­ter which what we al­most al­ways have is com­plete dis­en­chant­ment. And that is what the Ge­or­gian dream of the pres­i­dent, king or politi­cian—or any­one who runs the coun­try—looks like.

Ge­or­gians al­ways like to por­tray them­selves as pas­sion­ate democrats and en­tirely self-suf­fi­cient—and will be­lieve that it is so. But the re­al­ity is that they stand with out­stretched hands be­fore ev­ery new leader. And so, the king and prince are al­ways pulled out of the drawer when it’s con­ve­nient. Other than the walls on which he hangs sim­ply be­cause of his lin­eage, ev­ery­thing else is here, al­ways part of some po­lit­i­cal game. And the aristocracy? It’s ev­ery­where here in Ge­or­gia, where ev­ery third per­son is a prince who would like to sit in the House of Lords if there were such a cham­ber in the Ge­or­gian leg­is­la­ture. Words too of­ten carry lit­tle weight. Like the prom­ise to be faith­ful and gen­er­ous dur­ing the first flir­ta­tion, a prom­ise that is worth­less un­less recorded in a mar­riage cer­tifi­cate.

19th cen­tury draw­ings from the pri­vate al­bum of a Ge­or­gian no­ble fam­ily

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