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The Dispatch

Dispatch – September 10: Elephant with no trunk

On Georgia burning its past *before* reading it, historians opening pandora boxes, and younger generations stuck in history limbo

On the evening of September 8, as Georgia was dealing with yet another wave of natural disasters, something went up in flames in Tbilisi. A building of the Georgian National Archive, storing what appears to be a large number of inflammable film tapes, had caught fire. Despite the assurances of archive management that the digital copies of the tapes – potentially including valuable cinematographic works – were safely stored, the blaze and potential damage it might have inflicted angered professional circles and revived a debate on how carefully the country was handling its memory.

The fire hit an existential nerve: as the present seems to be stretching indefinitely and the future is being buried in landslides, the past, too, is now slipping away.

And to think that we were finally preparing to face it…

Here is the Dispatch, and Nini, from Georgia’s attempt to travel into the past and, who knows, maybe release a skeleton or two from firmly locked closets.

Skeletons in the closet

Big historical controversies rarely emerge from some continuous debate in Georgia. More often, they explode out of unpredictable events, spring from tangential debates, and take their most destructive form as a discourse marked by myths, wanton ignorance, and Mahichean narratives.

Utter a disrespectful word about a much-admired king, or be indulgent towards the one less beloved? Before you know it, you are attacked in the street or assassinated on social media as a traitor – to say nothing about suddenly falling into the government’s grand strategy to stifle dissent.

And just like that, the recent months saw the country jumping from a row about the true scale of a 12th-century battle; to the moral standards of a fictional female character from the iconic medieval epic poem (Nestan-Darejan from The Knight in the Panthers’ Skin, if you want to look it up) and then to a debate on whether the female monarch to whom that poem was dedicated (that’d be Queen Tamar) was a goodie (Girlboss?!) or a baddie.

And then suddenly, the unchained and surreal pseudo-historical debate touched the third rail – Georgian-Abkhaz relations. The trigger was a small social media discussion about the future of that conflict, an issue curiously under-discussed in a country cheerfully (or glumly, pick you camp) awaiting the collapse of Russia – a key stakeholder in that conflict – let us see – any day now.

Turns out, part of the reason why we were avoiding that discussion may lay dormant – or be quite purposefully buried – in the past.

But the time had come. The man chosen by destiny (or grasping Fortuna it by his own two hands) was Dr. Beka Kobakhidze, a historian who has long called to give due attention to historical research. (He, incidentally, wrote about the perils of Georgian fascination with myth-building in his recent op-eds for this magazine.)

In a series of lengthy posts about Georgian-Abkhaz relations, Dr. Kobakhidze reached into the conflicting narratives from various stages of inter-ethnic relations, pointing out key contradictions in historiography, cataloging some of the open questions, and suggesting ways of how the past can be handled to indicate the solutions for the future. 

One of such contradictions, the historian argued, was the avid embrace of questionable Soviet-era historiographic legacies by the fiercely anti-Soviet national liberation movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dr. Kobakhidze argued that the ethnicity and settlement policies of the ardently Soviet and unashamedly imperialistic, but also ethnically Georgian, leaders – Joseph Stalin and his KGB henchman Lavrenti Beria – have fed into Abkhaz portrayals of their trauma being induced by Georgians, rather than, say, Russian or Soviet empires. If Georgians defend those policies and repeat the repressive narratives that undergird them to this day, argued Dr. Kobakhidze, this could render those perceptions in Abkhaz society true (“We are not responsible for their actions until we start to justify them”).

The blogs, predictably, attracted all kinds of curious groups, including Dr. Kobakhidze’s sworn friends and enemies from the history department, activists engaging with the topic, and party-linked activists. Some of them, taking a more professional approach, fiddled with details. Others, inevitably, chased the spectrum of the Kremlin (or, alternatively, Washington) in the blogger’s motivation. The ends of the political spectrums met and mated; unlikely ideological rivals rallied against their new, common enemy.

Those less professionally familiar with the topic came for the show, forming an enthusiastic chorus, Greek tragedy (or comedy?!) style. Some were lauding the historian’s courage regardless of whether it was 100 percent true (which the author never claimed it was). Others were condemning his unpatriotic narrative.

But the largest (and calmest) audience, we assume, rushed there for something else, namely…

Overdue therapy sessions

Discussions like these can be a deeply therapeutic experience. Regardless of how quick they are at finding the answers (if they manage to do that at all), it is the long-repressed questions, now asked out loud, that do the healing.

This is because, in Georgian society, the fixation on the past strangely coexists with its denial. So it is hard to tell which is worse – being a historian committed to truth who finds herself silenced? Or not being one, thus never knowing the truth and never finding that voice? 

That particularly concerns the “90s kids”, born after the restoration of Georgian independence, straight into the dark but weighty absence left in the wake of the trauma of the violent transition. The ‘kids of independence’ were lucky not to experience the turbulence themselves, unlike their slightly older siblings, whose intellectual and creative products (if they manage to emerge) are soaked with the trauma.

But the 90s kids were unlucky enough to inherit the dire consequences of the recent past and the responsibility to handle them while having only fragmented knowledge of what exactly happened, let alone why it did. 

Over the past decades, little effort has been made to fill those lacunae. Public education has largely failed to teach how to work with the past – even as it continuously stressed the significance of learning history and hectored students about the role this knowledge has in forming one’s personality.

In one of his famous essays, included in the high school program, Ilia Chavchavadze, Georgia’s probably most-revered public figure, compared a person unable to tell the rights from wrongs in the deeds of their ancestors to an “elephant without a trunk.” He borrowed the metaphor from another revered poet – Davit Guramishvili, a didacticist author from an earlier period, who used it to define a “smart man without education.”

It might not have been specifically about a trunk (or its absence), but a nagging sense of missing pieces has lingered. With or without its trunk, the elephant waited in the room for years to be noticed, named, and addressed.

The history, particularly the more recent one, has reached younger generations as a hodge-podge of claims, mutual accusations, name-callings, and a chaotic set of events or statements that make little sense.

The stories of earlier centuries, on the other hand, seemed to have as their sole purpose to induce the worship of the designated heroes and the hatred of the designated traitors – an approach easily scalable (to use the modern jargon), widely applicable, and thus repeatedly applied to current events as well.

Small, individual attempts to figure out the past can lead to a strange kind of amnesia: with no systematic frame of analysis, the facts often leave the memory shortly after reaching it. The dominant discourse, preoccupied with suggesting the right answers rather than asking the correct questions, discourages greater efforts at finding the facts. Those supposed to share their knowledge seem suddenly less willing to do so but eminently ready to show up and prove wrong those who still try. 

All this might be responsible for the aggressive and toxic environment based on false confidence and fake(d) knowledge.

The lingering suspicion – which sometimes becomes an explicit assertion – that “everyone knows everything” bleeds out into the fear of asking questions. But without questions, there is little chance of ever establishing factual truths.

In a society governed by the conspirational winks of those (supposedly) “in the know,” reopening discussions on taboo subjects may well be the single biggest act of courage, as well as a somewhat scary undertaking. Yet it may pay off – in so many ways.


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