The Dispatch

Dispatch, Feb. 20-26: Snow

Georgia’s snow-filled symbolism – prime minister’s lost social media battle – river flushes power fantasies

In the Georgian creative mind, snow has symbolized pain and loneliness – but also rebirth. Take a very popular Georgian animation film from the 1980s which, the country’s many millennials will now tell you, effectively ruined their already miserable childhoods. The 10-minute emotional rollercoaster tells a story of two lonely souls, a snowball and a little girl, whose loneliness ends when they find each other and become good friends. But [spoiler alert!] their happiness is shortlived: the sun shines and claims that snowball, leaving the girl (and kids watching it from their screens) with irredeemable sadness. 

The film does have its happy ending: as the kid mourns the loss, drops come falling from the sky to tell her with an iconic song that it is the snowball that has now come back to her as rain. That plot twist of transformation (or whatever it was that we were intellectually unprepared for) came too late – the millennials would complain. The emotional damage had already been done. While this evil masterpiece continues to be the toxic love of our generation, the bitter sense of mistreatment also remains. But who knows, maybe the film that traumatized us at such a young age might bring much-sought hope in the years of maturity.

Here is Nini with this week’s Dispatch, waiting for the miracles to fall from the sky

Snow was falling

“Snow was falling… Tbilisi, clothed in clothes of mourning. Sioni Cathedral, quiet. The people, standing silent.” These are the first two lines of the famous poem “February 25, 1921” written by Georgian symbolist poet Kolau Nadiradze to commemorate the date of Tbilisi’s fall to Soviet troops. And this English version comes from a fresh, wonderful translation by U.S. Embassy staffer Ryan Sherman and his wife Maia Tserediani (full text here). 

‘February 25, 1921’ is one of the most-recited poems whenever the turn of the year brings about that day of past mourning, masterfully describing the bitter sense of loss in an unequal battle and giving its readers shivers, a chance to share in the feeling of the past century’s trauma. While the fight against Soviet troops neither started nor ended on that particular day, it still marked an important milestone in the fall of Georgia’s first republic after three years of its spectacular existence. It was snowing on February 25, and soon, the dreams of the young republic would melt away with that snow. It would, however, take another seven decades for that dream to miraculously return with a new form, like those raindrops from that (in-)famous animation film.

Kolau Nadiradze, who had turned 26 in February 1921, did not write this poem until 1969. By then, Soviet Georgia had left the worst purges of the 1930s behind, but censorship remained. So Nadiradze, the rare survivor of Georgia’s best and brightest symbolist generation and true to his forms, used sorcery of words and allegories to name the main perpetrator of the evil indirectly.

For example, read the line “dread is reforged on the anvil,” where the Georgian word for anvil is “grdemli/გრდემლი,” perfectly rhyming with tsremli (ცრემლი/tear) in the poem, but also easily echoing ‘Kremli/კრემლი’ (the Kremlin).

And, as fate would have it, in his indirect attempt, Nadiradze apparently did a far better job than the leaders of independent Georgia would do in 2023.

In his Facebook post commemorating the date, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili limited himself to describing the day as a “tragedy,” not even bothering to use symbolist allegories to name the culprit. This naturally infuriated the Georgian social media bubble, which already had doubts about the government’s foreign policy orientation. For many, the government’s arguments for being careful to avert the repetition of that “tragedy” have long reached their limits, particularly on such a sensitive date. A hot Facebook battle erupted, and the government’s social media team was clearly at a loss. Despite reported attempts to delete some abrasive comments and the very apparent deployment of a troll army to make the ‘likes’ outnumber angry reactions, the government’s page succumbed to critical comments flooding its comments section.

Do you want to build a snowman?

The big reason why even moderately government-critical Georgians started doubting the government’s foreign policy priorities is, no doubt, the recent ‘foreign agents’ bill. The ruling Georgian Dream party continues to menace its critics by threatening to put the “agent” [read: spy] labels on them while conspicuously parroting the arguments from Russia, where the adoption of similar laws eventually put an end to free speech.

This has left Georgian media and civil society representatives in despair. While some optimism returned with a massive pro-Ukraine rally in Tbilisi on February 24, many keep fumbling for the right strategies to get the due public support against the ruling party’s plans.

The best hope, however, might lie in many ways in which the ruling party’s tactics could backfire. For example, the Georgian Dream leaders now started expanding the list of potential targets of that bill. This included recent threats by party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze about the foreign agent registers shedding light on funding sources of past years’ protests against the construction of the Namakhvani hydropower plant on the Rioni river in Georgia’s west.

Those protests successfully stopped the HPP construction, but the initial hopes of them bringing the much-longed-for social unity went down in flames when protest leaders joined the July 2021 anti-Pride demo that turned violent. Now that the government slowly returns to its HPP construction plans, it might need more of that social alienation and apparently hopes to use the new laws for that. But…

But as those ungodly bills were drafted in Tbilisi, the country’s west saw heavy snowfalls. White-covered Kutaisi, Georgia’s historic city and home to symbolist arts, went to unleash its long-famed creativity: the city quickly turned into a giant museum of snowy arts as all neighborhoods offered their own versions of spectacular snowmen persons to represent the best of the town’s humor and culture. But then the sun came out, and snowpeople quickly turned into water to join that same Rioni river (perhaps hoping to end up in Europe? Emigration is rife in that region). And Rioni, gaining in mass, force, and fury, went raging to flush away a pier of the freshly-built highway bridge, and with it, eroding the government’s bombastic bluster about construction boom.

You can guess the rest: Kobakhidze’s agent phantasies were met from Georgia’s western provinces with a raised eyebrow and a reasonable question: “If you can’t even build a bridge on that river, how do we know your HPP is not going to unleash deluge?”

But what, if any, lessons would the Georgian Dream draw from the incident? Will they treat it as a mere accident, like they’ve been treating the country’s regained independence? Or will they take note of the fact that no matter how powerful one is, there will always be forces beyond one’s control?

Sometimes, nature does know best.


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