Set on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains near the border with Russia, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti is the most sparsely populated region in Georgia. Less than 32,000 people inhabit its 1,913 square miles. Depopulation in the municipality has seen numbers fall by fifty percent since 1989.
When I visited the region for the ten-year anniversary of the war over South Ossetia, passions were running high in the village of Oni, which was bombarded by the Russians during the conflict. In June 2019, these tensions would spill over after a Russian MP sat in the speaker's chair of the Georgian Parliament, addressing those assembled in Russian.
Arriving in the bucolic village of Oni, we pulled up at the Family Gallery Artists House on an alleyway formerly named after Stalin; there's no escaping the long shadow of Georgia's most famous son. On the streets of the one-horse town, dressed all in black, elderly couples idled on makeshift benches, gossiping in the shade of vines, plum trees, and walnut trees. Otherwise, decked in speedos or bikinis, it seemed that everyone under the age of thirty was in the process of going to or returning from a waterfall behind an abandoned gas station where cows hung out.
In the central square by a boxy Soviet-era clock, a souvenir kiosk offered plastic flowers and home-knitted Angry Birds hats to no one in particular. Spilling fumes as it chuntered, an infrequently spotted bus pulled away. A mix of hulking apartment blocks, derelicts, and mountain chalets with carved balustrades and tin roofs, the older structures of Oni were topped with ornate metalwork. In this area, once rich in craftsmen who utilized the wealth of local copper, intricately forged deer, eagles and stars sprung from the gables.
To the north of town stood the heavy stone blocks and Doric columns of the largely forgotten synagogue, constructed in 1895 by Greek Jews from Thessaloniki with funding from Nathaniel Rothschild and Alfred Nobel. Even during Bolshevik times, the Jews of Georgia enjoyed a level of acceptance rare in the USSR. A local story tells how the temple survived destruction by the Communists when Jewish women with newborn babies barricaded themselves inside and ethnic Georgians manned the perimeter acting as human shields.
Majestic in the dying light, Star of David castings rose from its gutters, porthole windows looking out from a dome topped with a silver sun. Through the barred windows, the interior revealed painted menorahs and Torah scrolls on velvet cloths by a golden rabbi's chair. Oni was once home to 3,150 Jews; today, only ten remain.
Following a referendum which saw a 99.5% vote in favor of independence, on April 9th, 1991, Georgia formally left the Soviet Union. Just twenty days later, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck—the largest ever to hit the Caucasus—leaving 270 dead and approximately 100,000 homeless. With the synagogue left severely damaged, many of the Jews of Oni decided the time was right to leave for Israel.
Back at the guesthouse, I asked the proprietor's son Nika about the derelict buildings that littered the village, presuming them to be scars left by the earthquake.
"Some are," he replied, "but others are from the Russian bombardment during the South Ossetian War. There was a sanatorium near the waterfall which they bombed; only one cottage was left standing.
There was no military reason to target Oni. I suppose with the sanatorium it was a show of force, like, 'If we can't have it, neither can you.' Mostly though, it was as far as their missiles could reach."
Beyond Oni, the Ossetian Military Highway winds up to the Mamisoni Pass at an elevation of 2,911 meters. Four miles before the border where a thin slither of South Ossetia juts north, separating Georgia from Russia proper, sits the once-popular resort of Shovi. Established in 1926, prized for its health-giving waters, Shovi served as a vacation hotspot. Since the collapse of the USSR and the end of state-sponsored holidays, though, step by step, almost everyone has left. The school, which used to serve around 150 students in the 1980s, now has 25 pupils. With locals reduced to subsistence farming, there isn't even a single shop left.
At the top of the hamlet, surrounded by an evergreen forest, stands a once-grand leisure complex where Soviet-era cookers and refrigerators with open doors like mouths agape look out through glassless windows over a vista of mountains. Partially buried beneath a mudslide lies a cinema-theater space with its screen ripped and a pair of blown-out speakers on the rotting wooden stage. With bats circling, the rows of empty foam-padded seats add to the ghostly atmosphere. Next to the recreation center, a large sanatorium building—a mishmash of jutting triangles, archways and watchtowers—is like a memorial to a dead empire. Signs in Cyrillic hang from the collapsed walls, the basement now serving as a shelter for cattle.
With our car incapable of making it, we hired a white-haired driver with a bristling soup-strainer mustache and an ancient UAZ off-road vehicle to visit the northern mountains. It was just as well; the four-wheel-drive barely made it through the deep ruts and rivulets. That this wouldn't be easy going was apparent when turning off the main highway we were greeted by a fresh landslide and an excavator blocking what remained of the track. An hour passed as we stared out over the roaring silver Rioni River filled with stony islands of washed-up tree trunks. When the cavalry finally arrived, it transpired that the excavator had finished its task some time ago, but then run out of gas.
We bounced on past orange butterflies and tufts of purple wild grass as eagles soared high above. Stopping near the glacier of Mount Tsikhvarga on the Georgia-Russia border, our driver, Goglik—a man with the rare attribute of being able to combine gruff and friendly—pulled a picnic basket and a shotgun from the trunk. I asked him why he was packing heat.
"For bears and Russians," he replied matter-of-factly.
Back at the guesthouse in Oni, a party in the old house was taking shape. Lobiani-traditional bean paste-filled bread-was being baked in a kiln. The wine and chacha—a homebrewed spirit which becomes chachacha in its extra-strong variety—were starting to flow. Professing her love for her homeland and its culture, a portly middle-aged woman was bemoaning a speech by Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev in which he'd warned of "tragic consequences" if Georgia were to persist in seeking membership of NATO.
When the tamada—the toastmaster at feasts—began his salutations, expressing civility and love, she was quick to interrupt him, angrily wagging her finger and unleashing such a tirade against their former overlords that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Russian woman burst into floods of tears. As soon as the child musicians started playing their three-stringed plucked panduris though, any bad blood was quickly forgotten, the proud Georgians dancing gaily with their Russian counterparts.
I spoke with the head of the family, Temuri Gugeshashvili, a silver-haired man with a mischievous glint in his eyes who'd hand-carved the ornate wooden sections of the new building. "My family has lived here for as long as we can remember," he told me. "I was born in this old house, which dates back at least four generations. I lived through Soviet times when people weren't supposed to think for themselves. Somebody higher up was deciding what everyone should be doing. But then the Union collapsed, and suddenly everyone was supposed to think for themselves. You can't imagine what that was like. There was nobody at the top taking care of us anymore, nobody even paying the wages.
"In 2007, a Russian professor stayed in our house. He told me, 'Georgia is moving too fast. Be ready, because somebody will try to stop you.' It was almost a year to the day after that the war started. They attacked in two ways, an aerial bombardment and with ballistic missiles. Luckily, none of the rockets exploded here; maybe because they were leftovers from Soviet times. They bombed the center and the geyser with the mineral water. They also used long-range guns. Putin isn't happy when countries around Russia look towards Europe. For Georgia, the problem is exacerbated because of the land border."
With Temuri drifting back to his duties and the chacha, I spoke with the Ukrainian tamada, Andrei.
"When I made my first toast to the Russian tourists, it's like we're all friends drinking for peace together," he said. "Today we're sitting around the table, but tomorrow something could go wrong. This is what I think Russian people completely miss, that their record in former Soviet countries is... well, they don't want to think about it, let alone talk about it. They're just, 'Let's have another drink, play the guitar and sing a song.' So, what are you going to do?"
In June 2019, after Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov sat in the speaker's chair in the Georgian Parliament, addressing those assembled in Russian, thousands gathered in Tbilisi to protest against what was being called a "Russian occupation." Adding insult to injury, Gavrilov had previously fought against Georgia in the Abkhaz War of 1992-93. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators; 240 were hospitalized and 305 arrested. The Kremlin responded by grounding all flights to Georgia.
On the steps of the parliament, I met with one of the organizers of the protests, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"We want change; we don't want a pro-Russian party in power, we want integration with Europe," he told me. "Twenty percent of Georgia is occupied by Russia, and we'll fight for our country. The Soviet Union and its military were huge, but that collapsed. Here, it will be the same. In the future, victory will be ours," he concluded, "I hope."
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, travel writer and award-winning author specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mix of travel, history and reportage, his book on Central Asia—Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans was released in December 2016. See more at www.stephenmbland.com
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