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Twenty-five Years Tbilisi


These fond memories are dedicated to Sophiko and Merab.

In writing these pages and looking again at the hundreds of photos from my Georgian travels, I realize that Georgia is the land which next to Greece has given me most spiritually, visually, and in understanding human nature. With one important difference, Merab and Sophiko introduced me to scores of people in Georgia who are still close friends of mine. I fell in love not only with the country but with its people and especially with Georgian women - as Konrad and Alexandra shows.... On every new visit to the USSR I was relieved to eventually return to Tbilisi from the human quagmire of Russia - and today one of my greatest sorrows is the mess the Georgians made of their beautiful country after "liberation" from the Russian yoke.  

Tbilisi the Beautiful

 The narrows of the Kura in the old part of Tbilisi used to be a raging river that flooded the town many times. A weir has turned it into a placid water flow over-looked by stately old mansions and the Metkhi church on its left bank.


The partly visible house on the left was owned by my architect friend Victor Djorbenadze, who restored this princely house into a private museum of Old Georgia. 


1976-1977 My First two Visits

The first time I arrived in Tbilisi I was wearing hiking boots, and carried a huge back-pack and a sleeping bag. The ostensible occasion was an invitation to the 1976 KINO conference of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. I had complacently hoped that I would find a way to explore the High Caucasus or even Svanti - hence my exotic get-up. However, the Georgian organizers of the conference merely shrugged and laughed about the crazy foreigner - there was no way I could get permission to go on such an expedition - maybe if I were a businessman or came back at another time and had acquired some influential friends.... I pleaded with Prof. Khokhlov from Moscow University, but he couldn't sway the Georgians either. Unfortunately this great man and passionate mountaineer died a year later on a climb on Mt. Communism in Central Asia....

I finally hired a taxi from Intourist to go to Kazbegi and persuaded an American to share the costs. We invited a Muscovite to come along as translator. Peter Grigoriev, like all my Moscow friends, was truly scared of Georgians and only of marginal help, and Paul Robinson from Los Alamos had a serious hang-over from a Georgian "debriefing" of the previous night. Still, we had a great time, and Paul recovered on a steep hike to Mtatsminda Zameba near Kazbegi. This story I will tell elsewhere.

A year later I had done my homework and had discovered Merab Djibladze in the Soviet scientific literature, the only laser physicist at Tbilisi State University. He would become my and later our most faithful and generous friend. In 1977 he waited for me at Tbilisi airport in the company of a distant cousin of his, Manana Mudjiri: "Call me Sophie, my second baptismal name." Sophie spoke German fluently with a Goethean vocabulary. She would become our dearest friend in Tbilisi. We named her Sophiko (pronounced Sop'iko). These two were my and later our escorts and interpreters on all Georgian ventures: indefatigable Merab drove us thousands of kilometers in his Zhiguli and Sophiko provided the commentaries and taught Cornelius and me the rudiments of Georgian....

 The view of the Stalin-era center of town from the Hotel Iveria where I stayed in 1976. This photo has by now become a historical picture: in 1983 the comfortable 19th-century houses with their rear balconies along Rustaveli Prospect were razed and bulldozed into a square for the October Revolution parade....

Above the stalinesque town hall rises Mt. Mtatsminda, with the Convent of St. David at the left edge of the picture, which doubles as the Pantheon of famous Georgians. Here are buried poets, statesmen, and philosophers next to Alexander Griboedov, the Russian poet and tragic husband of Nino Chavchavadze who in 1829 was murdered in Persia, and Ilia Chavchavadze, the bard who renewed the Georgian language and who was assassinated by the Russian Okhrana in 1906....


 This photo taken in 1984from almost the same angle of view and at the same time of day, viz., the shadow of the Hotel Iveria. For five years "The Ears of Andropov" served as the grandstand for the Leaders of the Realm on the occasion of the Great Russian Revolution Parade


The Old Town

Across from the Metekhi church, on the right bank of the Kura is the valley of the hot, sulfuric baths that gave Tbilisi - tbili meaning hot - its name. At the feet of the Persian Narikala Fort on the right and the hill of Shavnabada lie a dozen of banji -bath houses exuding steam and the faint odor of sulfur. Most have a long history, its most famous is the Blue Bath. This area has and still is inhabited by colorful non-Georgian minorities, a maze of steep streets over-shadowed by the minaret of the mosque. In the upper reaches of the valley is the Botanical Garden laid-out by a German botanist at the end of the 19th century.

The Blue Bath, so called because of its blue Persian tiles, the domes of a large bath house being restored in 1984, and the Mosque


 The Mosque and the rusty chimney pipe of one of the smaller bath houses with the Narikala in the background.  




A gang of street urchins at the entry to the Mosque, mostly Turk-speaking Azeris who followed me around in 1977. No longer ragged as in Konrad's time they wear the new clothes of Soviet times. 

A Hinterhof - German for back yard - in the Azeri quarter where most of the daily life went on in 1977 


Climbing higher towards the Narikala and the Stainless Steel Lady the neighborhoods deteriorated in 1977/80. But there is a brand-new Zhiguli parked in the ruins for all to see. This area is predominately inhabited by Armenians as the two Armenian churches show.  

Armenian Children begging for a ruchka, a pencil, 1980

A funeral. The deceased is first put into the bus....

.... and the bereaved will pile in with him for the ride to the cemetery. Left bank, 1984

Lower down towards Rustaveli Avenue lies the old "new" Georgian part of town with many comfortable 19th-century houses. The balconies are the center of family life especially in the hot and humid summer months. Several of my discriminating friends preferred its quaint streets to newer housing, among them Lalako, Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi, and Irakli Iakobashvili.  

 The farmers couple on the right sells walnuts which are pickled when green and constitute a major ingredient of many Georgian dishes when ripe.


 A few streets further is the Jewish quarter and the Sephardic Synagogue where I - in my American incarnation - was received with open arms. The Tbilisi Jews have, except for the few immigrants from Russia, Georgian names indistinguishable from other Georgian names and are probably not part of the Semitic diaspora. Their own lore says that they were converted to Judaism in the first century BC. Lalako, who was from an old Jewish family, also claimed that Nino from Cappadocia, who with the support of the Georgian kings eventually christianized Georgia, originally came in the 3rd century AD to bring the Good News of the Messiah to the Jewish community in Mtskheta - then the capital of Kartli.  

In the center of Old Tbilisi near the Kura stands one of the oldest churches of Tbilisi, Antiskhati (5th century). Here seen through the 16th-century gate of the fortifications that surround it.    

 And here are Merab and Sophiko in 1977 when they were young and beautiful on a visit to the Georgian Open Air Museum, a collection of transferred village houses from all parts of Georgia set in a former apricot orchard on a hillside in the northeastern part of town. - It was June and I never ate so many ripe apricots again..... The other young woman was a German-speaking guide of the Museum and a good friend of Sophiko.

The "New Town - built during early Russian times in the 19th century - clings to Rustaveli Avenue. Rustaveli Avenue which is named after the 13th-century poet who wrote the Knight in the Panther Skin, the Georgian national epos. In the 19th century this street used to be called Golovinsky Prospect after a forgotten Russian General who earned his spurs fighting the Chechens in the 1850s - yes, that long ago.... Here are the former Imperial Russian "Governor's House" and the "House of the Georgian Nobility" - both now government buildings, the "orientalizing-style" Opera House built by a German architect and the center of many an anti-Russian demonstration, the Rustaveli Theater, once one of the best theater companies in the World, and the Georgian Museum of History which Tamriko's father Otar Japaridze directed during my time. In between nestle all the important shops, cafes, and several old hotels.

Six-lanes of traffic on Rustaveli Prospect in 1977. "Are you afraid of jay-walking?" asked Sophiko and took me by the hand.... On the left is the entry to the Opera House and, not visible, on the right Lagridze's, serving colorful soft-drinks since 1904 above the not-so-old Khachapuri cellar, where Sophiko took me for the first time in 1977. It was to save our life in 1980. A few houses down would, in 2000, open Prospero's English Bookstore where Tako Mengrelishvili will persuade you to buy Konrad and Alexandra by Rolf Gross cheaper than in the US.... Somewhere in this block is also the fabric store where to I accompanied Tamriko in 1984, and the shopkeeper asked whether I was her natlimama - her God Father... I could go on like this until May of 1989 when down the street mountains of flowers hid the blood stains left behind by 20 ruthlessly massacred Georgian girls.....

Peter, my Muscovite friend couldn't get over it - in Tbilisi there were more imported cars on the road than in Moscow.... "These anti-social Georgians spend all their money on cars and clothes," he hissed.... Still, this Mercedes, bought on the gray market from an embassy in Moscow, may have been the only one in 1977.... Things have not changed - cars and clothes - only today the cars are brand-new Lexus, and the clothes are copied from Italian models. And in 2001 Merab showed up in a perfectly restored 1968 Mercedes-450 - his 20-year-old Soviet Zhiguli had given up - and this one had been available second hand, bought from a foreign export-import corporation on a European scientific research grant.... Who am I to judge? 




One of the quiet cobble-stone streets leading to the terminal of the 19th-century cable-car railway to Mount Mtatsminda.



A motley crowd descending into the underpass under Lenin Square. The Azeri child in the very center will sit down there begging.... (1984)

I always found it human that during Soviet times one found beggars in the streets of Tbilisi. In Moscow the police would ruthlessly remove them.

Today many old people beg walking from one expensive car to the next, and they are truly destitute, a humiliation to the rich and successful. But the social coffers of the State are exhausted by flagrant corruption, and the Patriarchy has no understanding of this problem. The job of feeding and clothing the poorest has fallen to the Pastor of the German Lutheran Church.



A grandmother selling hand-made mittens and the Azeri child begging



 1980 Two Months at Tbilisi University with Barbara and Cornelius

Merab did not rest until in 1980 he was able offer me a temporary, one-year position at Tbilisi University! However, I had no way of being absent from my job for such a long time, even if I had wanted to spend a year in Tbilisi. I had a house to pay for and Cornelius was still in high-school. Besides times were very uncertain. In Poland Solidary was taking the country in storm and the Soviets could invade it any time. After mulling this over for a few weeks, I put the idea before my family - and Cornelius said that he would rather go to Georgia for two months. He would take his math and Latin books along and work on his own. That decided the issue. I was sure, the Soviet Academy would protect and repatriate us should Poland be invaded.

We arrived in early October and left in late November and Merab was resolved to fulfill all my dearest wishes of seeing Georgia - only one could never ask him for anything in particular, that would have spoil his pleasure, it had to be spontaneous. I cannot measure the troubles he went through with the authorities on our behalf. We had a glorious time.

Merab and Sophiko received us at the airport with a huge bouquet of flowers for Barbara. The University even paid me a Soviet salary - which we hardly used, because we were invited everywhere and all the time. I taught four hours a week on two separate days carefully coordinated with Merab's teaching load, on the remaining days he drove us all over Georgia, or we were invited to his friends houses, actors, film people, Lalako, a mathematician now an MP who had spent a year in Los Angeles....

 We were given a two-room suite at the Hotel Adjara. Here you see Cornelius working on his Latin assignments on the sofa he slept on. Barbara, seen in the mirror, is hanging the laundry out the window.

And the moon rises over Tbilisi.... The night view from our hotel window. To the right, on Mount Mtatsminda is the TV tower and in the foreground the traffic circle of the Revolution Square. In its middle then stood a Lenin statue with a pissoir(!) in its basement which had been installed especially for Stalin when he came into town to preside over the October Parade.... The S-curve on the left is the embankment of the Kura.  

 During the day we looked onto the squatter's shacks in Revolution Park


And here is Tbilisi State University, TGU in Russian, which occupied the expanded former buildings of the Georgian High School of the Nobility which was converted into a university in 1918 - Konrad taught there.  

 Chavchavadze Prospect in front of the university was always a crowded place, students eyeing the girls, the girls pretending not to notice - both dressed in Georgia's preferred color, black.  Merab's apartment was only five houses further on the opposite side of Chavchavadze Prospect, Sophiko's a block up the hill - in fact, all our "better," intellectual friends live in Vake....    

My adorable students who couldn't stop giggling behind their hands during class - which I taught in English and Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi translated into Russian extempore, sentence by sentence.









A pair of gypsies reading a student's fortune next to the bust of one of the founders of Tbilisi University


 The beauty of Tbilisi is its mixture of old and new. There exists a large modern town of maybe 800 000 people which has grown on the outskirts of the old city during Soviet times. Its high-rise apartment buildings are built from pre-fabricated plates. These houses are anonymous, shoddy, and their public areas are incredibly dirty, because, despite sixty years of Socialism, nobody was willing to care for communal property. - But one did not have to live in those places.

 A view from Hotel Adjara. Victor Djorbenadze, the architect lived in one of the old houses in the foreground.


On a clear November morning we suddenly discovered Mt Kazbeg looming on the northern horizon - one hundred kilometers from our hotel tower.

Often Merab would surprise us in the late afternoon, load us into his car and take us to some beautiful spot. This one was off the road to Kodjori in the hills west of Tbilisi, very near to Katharinental, a village which had been inhabited by German Swabians until Stalin deported them to Central Asia in 1943 together with the once large German population of Tbilisi.... On the left is Sophiko in the light coat hiding behind her son Mamuka. Of Cornelius you only see the long shadow.... 


Festivals, Political and Otherwise


During October and November two festivals brought all of Tbilisi into the streets. The first was Tbilisoba, a late Soviet revival of the pre-Soviet saint's day, Saint George presumably. There was spontaneous singing on the streets, in Revolution Park a group of women baked puri, the large, round Georgian bread, in a tonne, a vertical tandori oven - but the big event took place below the Metekhi Church and was reserved for guests invited by the government - to which we did not belong. Georgian folk-dancers on stage, popular music from loudspeakers, a delegation of the 12 oldest men of Georgia - who could still walk - in splendid native uniforms and another group of classical, Georgia virgins all dressed in white wedding costumes.... And finally, escorted by scores of police motor-cycles, a caravan of twelve black SIM-limousines carrying the President of the Republic and Chairman of the Communist Party to the scene: Eduard Shevardnadze. Jovially waving his raised arms to the cheering crowd he walked on stage and gave a short seemingly impromptu speech in Georgian. I remember telling a very cool and reserved Merab that this was the statesman of the future. He wouldn't hear of it - and still doesn't care for him.

With Merab's persuasive help we had passed the police cordon and had found a precarious spot above the festivities. The view was excellent, but a police guard near us became very restless.

 After a while and a talk with Merab the policeman relaxed, and I went roaming the accessible grounds alone. And that was when I found two worthy subjects for my camera.

 Look closely, these are the breasts of a meritorious Russian woman! A much decorated veteran of the wars of the past 40 years who had retired to the land of plenty. Unfortunately she is headless, because I didn't get a second chance to take another shot. Her right eye twitching nervously she stormed towards me like an elephant shouting insults and obscenities, of which I only understood something that sounded like "You Bloody Bulgar"..... You see, like the American Indians the eidetic Russians will strenuously object to being photographed - you might take their soul away... Barbara was taken to the police station by three market women in Kiev for this potential crime.. By contrast the Georgians love being photographed, their souls are not as volatile. I hastily beat my retreat into Merab's protective arms. Closer examination of this collection of medals revealed that I should have met her in 1945. I am sure she had then killed Germans with her bare hands.

 The other photographic trophy was a "GAÏ" - Russian for traffic policeman - relaxing on his motorcycle. He is not Georgian but a "treacherous" Osseti who are considered the most miserable thieves and swindlers by Georgians - which in turn made them most useful to the Russian rulers of the land in their attempt at keeping the unruly Georgians under control.... Incidentally, the hotel personnel at the Adjara was Armenian for similar reasons.



October Revolution Day in November

There are two famous festivals which are apparent misnomers the Oktoberfest in Munich - which takes place in September so that the Um!-Pah!-Pah!-Bands can fly to the US in October, and the Russian October Revolution which happened in November by the Western secular and in October by the old Russian church calendars.

Big Brother Brezhnev had been greeting his Georgian subjects from this billboard for several weeks before Revolution Day. We had got used to him, but on the morning of the parade the police was everywhere - here the GAÏ are enjoying a leisurely smoke break under Leonid's protective arm while two foreign spies steal past them down towards Rustaveli Prospect where the "Government" greeted the parade of soldiers, tanks, athletes, patriotic associations, old men, young men, and pretty virgins while Brezhnev's voice droned from street speakers. Merab and Sophie had refused to take us there, and Barbara and I were entirely on our own. We swindled our way as far as the Hotel Iveria where we quit because the exhaust fumes of the diesel tanks became unbearable. For obvious reasons I didn't take any pictures of this military display, which was directed as much against the restive Georgians - three bloody uprisings since 1926, a fourth bomb in the Opera House a few years ago, no other republic was that volatile - as it was a demonstration against the enemies of Socialism.

 Next morning I took this reflection of Government House on Rustaveli Prospect, puts Georgian priorities into perspective, and shows the distorted reality of the "Great Russian Historian" as Merab used to call this mythical figure.


"Autumn had come to Georgia, and it began to rain. A strong wind blew the yellow leaves of the plane trees across the wet pavement of Golovinsky Boulevard. Konrad was waiting impatiently for Alexandra in a second floor café across from the Grand Theatre...."




 In 1984 I fled Russia for Tbilisi, to be among real friends, and was received with open arms. Sophiko and Merab took me to Kodjori in the hills where her older sister had a dacha. We spent much of the day in unforgotten tranquility, a most Georgian setting. On the left are Sophiko's sisters, the husband of the oldest, on the opposite side of the table, managed a cognac factory in Mukhrani, and her younger sister was a dancer in the Georgian National Ballet. Sophiko had dyed her hair chestnut and had gained some weight. And Merab was as happy as I.

 Later another couple arrived and the conversation, in Russian and among the three men only, turned to the much disputed new Wedding Palace of Victor Djorbenadze's where to I had dragged my skeptical Merab a day earlier. Merab had returned as excited as I was. But the other two only saw the expenses and the affront to the Soviet Party line it posed - besides Victor had been a well-known homosexual.... I did not know then that the advocacy of Victor's extraordinary building and my mere mention of his homosexuality, would by the end of my visit, get me thrown out of another house of long-standing intellectual friends in Tbilisi. A fracas which, true to Georgian etiquette, would take almost twenty years to reverse....

Rolf and Victor Djorbenadze


 Merabi Deda, his sister Lamara and her two girls stone cherries to preserve the bounty.

1989 My Last Visit to Tbilisi with Cornelius

In May of 1989 Cornelius and I flew to Tbilisi accompanied by Ivan Shcherbakov and his wife. We had a strenuous Moscow visit behind us - not much science, but highly excited political discussions into the nights. Yet we were not prepared for Tbilisi. Merab and Sophie, who had come to the airport, were in shock and agitation. On the ride from to our hotel I pried the story from her in German which the others did not understand. Half a week earlier 20 young Georgian girls on a peaceful sit-in for Georgian independence on the stairs of Government House had been massacred during the night. Some had been gassed and others had been brutally cut down with spades by troops of the ministry of interior....

Merab decided that before we drove to the hotel we should pay our respects to the victims. Their pictures were on display at Tbilisi Sioni, the Church of the Georgian Patriarch in the old part of town.  

People were silently walking past the display, some were praying others lit candles. Nearly everyone we met knew of a relative or friend who had been killed. The Shcherbakovs remained in stony silence. They probably had been briefed before we left Moscow - and I assume that this incident was the reason the Academy had for the first time found it necessary to give me a chaperon. This had been done without explanation but with excellent tact, Ivan was a somewhat distant but long-standing friend of mine and Merab's.

The 1921-flag of Georgia was flying everywhere: black-white-red like the German flag before 1933.



Ivan Shcherbakov and his wife, Nino, and Merab leaving the Sioni memorial.

Later on that day, everyone watched a female Georgian movie director on TV giving a fierce speech chastising the Moscow government. When everybody was glued to the tube Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi took me out onto Merab's balcony and heatedly put the blame squarely on Gorbachev. When I doubted his conjecture as being a nationalistic Georgian overstatement, he laughed hoarsely and then made the prophetic statement that this incident would trigger the disintegration of the Soviet Union - and so it was to happen. 

A tired Cornelius resting on the stairs above the Blue Bath, May 1989


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