Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Graves (a somewhat somber title)
The day after the Eastern Orthodox Easter is a day when people visit family graves. We are told that on the hillside above our apartment is a large cemetery and that on this day thousands will hike up the road to this cemetery. Perhaps it is one of those unexplained coincidences that this morning, the Monday after the Eastern Orthodox Easter, on a beautifully clear, blue-sky morning with the sparrows warbling beyond our cement balcony, I read a few passages from a book that just came out called Flight From USSR by a David Turashvili.

Sarah met this author at Prospero’s bookstore and had him sign his book. He begins this history of Soviet times talking about blue jeans and graves. Under the Soviets, Georgians could nothing from the West and teens lusted after western blue jeans. It wasn’t only blue jeans. Georgians had little. Georgians could not own much of anything. But, they could and did own graves.

The fact is that a grave was the only property people owned. Such political attitude marked the start of altering Georgian taste for the worse. For centuries, the traditional Georgian graveyards were simple and modest, while in the Soviet times the graves became overly decorated, adorned with marble tables and benches, statues, bikes, and even cars.”

I have seen some of these graves and they are sometimes elaborate. I hope to post some pictures.

The Soviet impact on Georgia continues to be strong even after the wars and revolutions that have ended occupation and dominance. This apartment with its large rooms with high ceilings is in what is called the Literature Building. During Stalin’s time, the Soviets built this apartment building. I am told that novelists and poets were given apartments in this building, hence its name.

At the time of its construction, Stalin must have been an old man. In fact, he may have already died when it was completed. Stalin died in 1954. Then came Kruschev and collectives and these huge apartment bloc buildings that dominate the outer regions of Tbilisi and cities like Rustavi.

At any rate, the Soviet influence remains. There is not a lot of casual talk yet about those days although one of my doctoral students, Nino, does speak of what it was like for her as a young woman. She gives many examples of restrictions and rules that governed behavior. People were watched. People couldn’t leave Georgia for visits, particularly to the West. Coffee houses were secret places and you were put on lists if you were a patron of such suspicious places. Music, particularly rock music, was something you could do as a young person as it was hard for Soviet authorities to prevent people from listening to music.

But I think the lingering cultural forces of Soviet Russia may be more pervasive then the memories of Soviet times. People do use this term, “Soviet times.” Students in my seminar, for example, refer to some professors as “red” professors. They mean that these are people schooled in Russia whose whole pedagogical approach is done in the Soviet way.

I don’t understand what this means but I had an instructive lesson in how dominant the Soviet mind was. I was criticizing a draft she had made of her dissertation prospectus, telling here that her that she didn’t fully develop her thoughts and that she introduced new ideas in a way unconnected with what went previously. There was no transition, no logical sequencing of her thoughts. She got angry with me. She said that the Soviet style was to pour as many ideas as one could into a paragraph, to pack one’s writing with so many complexities that it did become hard to follow. But that was the point, she told me. If it was hard to follow and understand it was not the fault of the writer but the reader. It was too bad if the reader was not smart enough to understand the thinking of the writer. The greater the confusion, the greater the brilliance of its author.

This is an accomplished assistant professor and doctoral student who has been teaching teachers for many years and was invited to teach at ISU because of the quality of her teaching, not because she had been singled out for the privilege of attending a US institution for a master’s degree as had a number of the other young professors. She has this fascinating perspective that I hope I can explicate more fully.

We are leaving for the town of Borjomi tomorrow to do a bit of hiking in Georgia's largest national park. A two hour train ride, a guest house, and what is purported to be a very beautiful and scenic part of the country.


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