Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Road to Ruin: Choniates and Lukacs

Manuel I Komnenos
Over Thanksgiving, I settled-in for some serious reading.  Two titles stand out.  The first, O City of Byzantium, is a 700-year old history by Niketas Choniates, the other, Last Rites, a slim 2009 work by Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs.  At first glance they appear to be wildly dissimilar, but on some level at least, they both deal with the subject of ruin.

Choniates was an up-and-coming court official in Constantinople, serving under the latter Komnenian emperors.  Making good use of his access to records, he began his narrative in 1118--at the ascension of John II Komnenos--and concluded abruptly about 1206.  Choniates' detailed history serves as the primary source for the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

The translation by Harry Magoulias is surprisingly accessible to the modern reader.  Choniates was no court sycophant, nor does he seem to be swept-up with any particular Byzantine faction.  And Choniates is not averse to a bit of salacious sensationalism when it comes to the sexual politics of the day.  Early on, he relates Anna Komnene's retribution against her husband's failure to seize the throne upon her father's death:

It is said that Kaisarissa Anna, disgusted with her husband's frivolous behavior and distraught in her anger, and being a shrew by nature, felt justified in strongly contracting her vagina when Bryennios's penis entered deep inside her, thus causing him great pain.

Well alright then...I may never again think of Anna Komnene in quite the same light.  But there is more of this sort of thing.  For example, the death of Manuel I Komnenos left the Empire in the hands of an empress not yet thirty years of age and her twelve-year old son, the new Emperor Alexios II Komnenos.  In the inevitable scramble for power, a young Komnenos nephew (also named Alexios) seduced his newly-widowed aunt and empress.  In Choniates' droll telling, he sought "to mount both mother and throne."  And in an almost comical telling, the scoundrel Isaakios Komnenos, escaping from prison once again, nevertheless took time to engage in sexual intercourse with his wife--up against the prison wall, no less--"leaving her pregnant with a son" before fleeing his captors.

Alexios I Komnenos is generally credited with saving the Empire in the desperate years following Manzikert in 1071, and indeed the 12th-century witnessed a revival of Byzantium's fortunes.  From Choniates' standpoint, however, it was at best a hollow rebirth.  The rot was set, as they say, and like the proverbial dead fish, it began at the head--the power elites--in this case the Komnenoi themselves.

Of course, had the Byzantine rulers been more saints than sinners, they would have still had to have dealt with aggression from the West.  Choniates savages the Latins, as would be expected.   

Even the serpent, the ancient plotter against the human race, did not conceive and beget such enmity.  But because the land which was our allotted portion to inhabit, and to reap the fruits thereof, was openly likened to paradise by the most accursed Latins, who were filled with passionate longing for our blessings, they were ever ill-disposed towards our race and remain forever workers of evil deeds.  Though they may dissemble friendship, submitting to the needs of the time, they yet despise us as their bitterest enemies; and though their speech is affable and smoother than oil flowing noiselessly, yet are their words darts, and thus they are sharper than a two-edged sword.  Between us and them the greatest gulf of disagreement has been fixed, and we are separated in purpose and diametrically opposed, even though we are closely associated and frequently share the same dwelling.  Overweening in their pretentious display of straightforwardness, the Latins would stare up and down at us and behold with curiosity the gentleness and lowliness of our demeanor; and we, looking grimly upon their superciliousness, boastfulness, and pompousness, with the drivel from their nose held in the air, are committed to this course and grit our teeth, secure in the power of Christ, who gives the faithful the power to tread on serpents and scorpions and grants them protection from all harm and hurt.

Choniates' account of the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 is particularly vivid--sparing neither the living nor the dead (for they looted the tombs) and leaving it "a miserable corpse of a city."  He calls the Latin faith a fraud, noting that even the "sons of Ishmael" behaved with much more magnanimity when they retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders.  "By grasping pearls, they rejected Christ, the pearl of great price."

And while Choniates clearly expected little from the Latins, his real scorn is reserved for the ruling Roman elites of Constantinople.  Over the decades, the Empire weakened in many ways.  Control of the seas slipped away from Byzantium.  The triremes were not refurbished and replaced, but allowed to rot in the harbor.  Money lavished on the army contributed to their decline, as well--making military service a vehicle for financial gain rather than defense of the Empire.  Byzantine strongholds fell to cowardice and disloyalty.  The Empire failed to establish a modus vivendi with the West.  The fabled Byzantine bureaucracy broke down under the weight of graft and nepotism,  But according to Choniates, it was the Komenoi themselves--even with the first three strong rulers--that was the poison working its way through the Empire. 

The Emperor Alexios I Komnenos began placing his extended family connections in all positions of power within the vaunted Byzantine bureaucracy.  In short order, the families Komnenos, Doukas, Byrennios, Kontostephanos, Kantakuzene, Angelos, Palaiologus and Branas grasped the levers of power.  "All of the emperor's relatives were avaricious and grasping, and the frequent turnover of officials taught them nothing else but eagerly to steal and loot, to purloin the public taxes, and to amass great wealth."  Canon law prevented close marriage within families (although more than one Byzantine ruler flaunted this restriction), but the web of relationships rivalled that of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons during their heyday.  And with every generation, a new crop of cousins arose who nurtured the belief that it was they, rather than the Emperor, who was destined for the throne.

And so, while the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos "piled up mounds of money as though they were pebbles," his successors did not "hold on to the wealth they amassed but poured it out with both hands on the excessive indulgence of the body and costly heaps of chaff and blown away like summer dust to fill the slow bellies."  The latter emperors wallowed in debauchery, and grew reluctant to leave the comforts of the palace, with its banquet tables laden with "carved meat."  Choniates quotes Archilochus who said "that what has been amassed at the expense of much time and labor often flows into the belly of the whore."

It was the Komnenos family that was the major cause of the destruction of the empire; because of their ambitions and their rebellions, she suffered the subjugation of provinces and cities and finally fell to her knees.  These Komnenoi...were the utter ruin of their country, and whenever they attempted to seize and hold sway over our public affairs, they were the most inept, unfit, and stupid of men."

To quote Adam Smith (something I do not ever recall doing before), "there is a lot of ruin left in a nation."  Certainly the Komnenian emperors presided over an additional 125 years between the post-Manzikert implosion and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.  As the decades rolled-on, however, one is hard pressed to find much of anything to admire from this Constantinopolitan society.  The reconstituted, chastened and humbled rump empire that held on from 1261 until 1453 was, on the whole, a more admirable civilization.        

John Lukacs

I laid down Choniates and picked up Lukacs, who writes of another ruin, 700 years later.  He has a compelling biography.  Lukacs was born in Hungary in 1924, the son of a Catholic doctor and a Jewish mother who divorced before the Second World War.  I assume that the mother converted to Catholicism (she lies buried in a Catholic cemetery in Chester County, Pennsylvania) for John Lukacs has been a lifelong committed Catholic.  His maternal ethnicity, however, put him in grave danger during the latter years of the war.  He was assigned to Jewish work battalions , but somehow managed to evade transfer to a concentration camp and survive the conflict.  In 1946, seeing the direction of things in his native land, young Lukacs walked west, towards the promise of America.  He taught history for many decades, primarily at a small Catholic college.  He pursued this course primarily in order to be able to write.  Once, at some academic reception, he overheard a colleague remark that he was not really more of a writer than a historian.  Lukacs was not offended.  And write he did.  As the title suggests, this was intended to be his final work.  "Twenty years ago I was still standing dans les faubourgs de la viellesse, ambling in the suburbs of old age.  The ages and walls of that stony city I saw at a distance.  No longer."  Lukacs had more time than he imagined in 2009, perhaps, for I understand he has since published another, his 30th.

Lukacs adapted quickly--though never completely--to his adopted country.  By the mid 1950s he had married Helen, a Philadelphia editor.  They moved into a small, unfinished house on three acres of a farm her family had owned since long before the Revolution.  He resides there still, after the death of his first wife at age 42, his subsequent remarriage to Stephanie, her death, and his final marriage to Pamela.

This work is hard to pigeon-hole, being a wide-ranging rumination about his life, history, and how America intersects each.  One of the perks of old age, I suppose, is the luxury of speaking plainly and boldly without worrying about any repercussions.  (Personally, I am looking forward to that.)  For example, he dismisses Francis Fukayama's The End of History as "idiotic," and Subjectivist Determinism as "nonsense."  Contra Collingwood et al who argue that history is nothing but the history of ideas, Lukacs counters that "no idea exists without the person who thinks it and represents it--people do not have ideas, they choose them." (And here, Lukacs frames the instinctive opposition I have always felt towards Determinism, whether it be in history, ideology or religion.)  And against Lord Action's "purpose of history is the definite, and final, establishment of truths," Lukas answers, decisively, no.  Rather, "the purpose of historical knowledge is the reduction of untruth" (or what Andrew Louth terms a "process of undeception.")  Indeed, the "method of history is description, not definition."

On the subject of history itself, Lukacs posits that it is not a "science."  He reminds us that "history is not just the recorded past, but the remembered past, and like memory, it is incomplete and fallible."  Indeed, "the purpose of human knowledge--indeed, of human life itself--is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding."

Lukacs writes at length about the end of the Bourgeois Age, long-gone, though not yet fully realized (If one has to have a year to bookend such things, Lukacs suggests 1969 as an outside date.)  He has a fondness for "the European era of five hundred years, that I cherished and to which I belonged," but does not sentimentalize it.  Lukacs finds no contradiction in the fact that "dribs and drabs" of the age persist here and there, for "that is how history proceeds." 

At first glance, conservatives might warm to his writings.  Lukacs, a self-described reactionary, would in no wise categorize himself as such (a traditionalist, yes.)  He is scathing in his critique of modern movement Conservatism, and no doubt would be wryly bemused at those whose cry is "Take Back America."  Lukacs notes that "there are no eternal returns in history."   

Lukacs knows there is no return, but expresses concern about what is taking its place. 

At this time, at the end of a great age when, having liberated mankind from all kinds of fetters, having declared the end of slavery, emancipation of women and of children, entire liberties of speech, of print, of pictures, etc., men's images of men and women are more sordid, more ugly, more desperate than ever?

And, as he notes elsewhere "it could be worse:  but very good it is not."  Lukacs contends that the Bourgeois Age with its hypocrasies, materialism, shallowness, "the mental wasteland of the hollow men," was not entirely wrong.  What was (and is) at fault, however, "is their institutionalization, the acceptance of their formulations as absolutes."  By the late 1960s, thebourgeois convictions--weak and superficial--had collapsed and disappeared, "and the behavior of their offspring changed instantly, together with what and how they thought."

Lukacs loves America, or more exactly, he loves his small corner of West Schuylkill Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania.    Looking farther afield, he sees little promise.

I despair of this country and many of its people.  I think that the 21st century will not be the American century, but that some giant and unprecedented catastrophe may smite this country, probably of its own making, and perpetuated by one or more of their own.--I do not fear an Arab crashing itno the Limerick nuclear towers, but an American in a state of sexual or ideological frenzy.

He also writes of the death of liberalism and the rise of conservatism (in the current parlance.)  Liberalism is "exhausted."  In 1950, no American leader, whether political, intellectual or academic, described themselves as "conservative."  By 1980, however, they were in the majority and proved it by choosing "Ronald Reagan, a divorced movie actor, for their hero, for their president."  Lukacs  describes this as a "tectonic change," though the manners and morals of most Americans "conservatives" differed little from "liberals."

There is one great and grave fault in the thinking of American conservatives as well as of American liberals.  This is their belief in (linear) Progress. The liberals, ever more strained, propaganda for the extension of limitless human "freedoms," their clinging to the Darwinist categories of evolution and "progress," not only compromises but goes counter to their once noble protection and defense of human dignity.  The conservatives' propagation of American power throughout the world and, above it, into space, their thoughtless belief in the endless benefits of technology, amounts to a denial of every conservative view of human nature and of its limits.  Liberals adulate Science; conservatives adulate Technology.  No great difference there.

Lukacs ridicules the extreme notions of American Exceptionalism of a "Chosen People."

...a Chosen People, an exception not only to others but to history itself, that they were living in the greatest and freest and richest country in the world...

...tend to believe not only that they are a Chosen People but also that what is good for America is good for the world:  Yet at the same time they are not much interested in the world outside the United States. 

God will always smite, or chastise, those who think they are his Chosen People.

Agreeing with Tocqueville, Lukas posits that "the character of a people is more important than are their institutions," and "more important than the measure of their material goods is what people think and believe."

Lukacs remains committed to his Church, but he is no Catholic triumphalist.  The fact that his first and second wives, both Protestants, converted to Catholicism during their last illnesses says something about the nature of his faith.  Helen Lukacs remained open to Catholicism the more she was exposed to Catholics during their marriage.  But she was set aback when priests would visit, trying hard to prove themselves "regular fellows, like all other Americans."  Lukacs remembers that she always expected more from American Catholic priests.  Early in 2001, Lukacs went to Mass, specifically to pray for his ailing second wife, Stephanie.  The priest promised to cut his homily short and "spoke of angels and saints in Heaven watching the Superbowl."  Lukacs walked out in disgust.

The Church, my church, must now reconcile itself to be a church of a minority of the truly believing--as it was, of course, in entirely different circumstances and with entirely different prospects after the age of the catacombs eighteen hundred or so years ago.  The Church must remain a single, lonely lighthouse of human comprehension, of wisdom, a proponent of love. 

Lukacs is often at his best in descriptive vignettes of people and places of his experience:

On his mother's Budapest friend:

...Ila knew her own interests very well.  She was sophisticated, intelligent, elegant, demanding, very, very careful with her possessions and money, though not with those of others; acid with her criticism of many people, save for her daughter and granddaughter, two small crystalline vessels wherein she poured just about every drop of her stream of coagulated love.  She lived in that once admired modern but now rundown building of the 1930s in considerable comfort, her apartment filled with good furniture and paintings and lacy things, something that she was able to guard and protect and keep even during much of the Communist regime.

On the character of his first wife, Helen:

H. had something like a historical sense of what the dissolution of her family meant...she evinced no illusions for some idyllic kind of American past lived and experienced by her immediate ancestors.  She understood too much about the fatal limitations of their perspectives, of their characters, of human nature, of the United State of America, of the world.  She was profoundly conservative--in the proper and best sense of that word that began to become corrupted in the 1950s.  She gave up her outside employment, her editorial job, at the very time (the early 1960s) when millions of American women, wives and mothers who had moved to the suburbs, suddenly felt constrained with what life in the suburbs offered to them, and fled their daytime loneliness to their employment in various offices.  Helen thought, and often said, that to be ("to be," rather than "to stay") at home with a family was the best employment that a woman could choose.  She was a traditionalist.  She was a patriot.  And a Democrat, and a liberal.  She was appalled by the Vietnam War, and by Nixon and Kissinger.  She disdained American nationalism and sentimentalism. "The American Dream" was a phrase that she abhorred....Somehow she understood that an entire civilization was unraveling and sinking, that Civilization was more important than Culture.

On the Greenbriar Resort, on a honeymoon trip with third wife, Pamela:

I knew that I did not belong here, not in the least.  I was not an American sportsman but a fortuneless immigrant who had not and could not dare have anything in common with the providers and riflers of this fabulous amount and variety of goods, with these ranks of Sam's and Dick's and Ron's people.  I was a foreigner, alien and uninvited, out of place and out of time as at a Nascar race or the Super Bowl. 

On Pamela's family home in Charleston, West Virginia:

...the bookcases on the wall of their living room or parlor lined with biographies and novels and histories of the America of the 1930s and 1940s, of a decent, honest, still book -reading , middle class.

Lukacs' work is not without hope. 

Ambition and greed invoke, they reach out to a future.  Envy and pleasure insist on the present.  But gratitude:  it comes always from a past.  There is my gratitude to the past, to my past, including those who loved me and whom I loved.  Beneath and above them is my enduring gratitude to God, for both my past and my present.  Will the sincerity of this gratitude suffice to escape His adverse judgment of me:  I do not think so; I only hope.

Both Niketas Choniates and John Lukacs sift among the ashes of history, searching to salvage something of value.  Choniates started his narrative with this admonition:  "Let no one be so mad as to believe that there is anything more pleasurable than history."  He speaks of kindling the fires of memory and ploughing the furrows of the past.  Lukacs would agree, I think, closing with this admonition:

My readers:  please turn toward the past, and dip into its records and remnants, for inspiration.  By doing that you may turn melancholy:  but you will not lose your appetite for life.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fun with AM Radio, Peter Leithart and the "Protestant Metanarrative"

Earlier in the summer, I had occasion to rent a car while traveling over a long weekend in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.   Although I never do so at home, I always tune in the AM radio “preaching channels” when driving out of state.   I get a lot of entertainment out of listening to these small local stations where old-time preachers still go at it.  This perverse pleasure does me no credit--and my wife lectures me about it -- but I relish them in the same way as someone would enjoy a carnival sideshow.  Even here in the South, such broadcasts are relics of an earlier time.  That said, I am more at home in that world than I would be in the schmaltzy Christian praise music stations on the FM side of things.

Most of the broadcasting consists of recorded sermons from local congregations (invariably either Baptist or Pentecostal), itinerant small-time “radio preacher” segments, and recordings of evangelists with a national audience.  The local characters are the best—and the most revealing—but I soon realized that the syndicated national figures fill the largest segment of broadcast time.  And of this number, three in particular loom large:  Dr. Adrian Rogers, Dr. David Jeremiah and Dr. Tony Evans.

Dallas-based Dr. Evans is the best of the lot, and I heard several of his sermons back and forth on I-85.  Maybe I caught him on a particular tangent, but he surprised me a little with his repeated preaching on the wrath of God. 

I found Dr. Jeremiah, head of a California mega-church, to be the least credible.  He harped on “the Rapture” with planes falling out of skies as their pilots were taken, buses careening off highways as their drivers were taken, men coming home from work to find their wife had been taken, etc. , as if this was settled matter-of-fact theology.   Of course he hawked his upcoming Caribbean Cruise Conference, and later his Holy Land Tour--in other words, a religious huckster.  Several years ago, I had lunch with an old church friend from my previous life.   By that time I had long since “swam the Bosporus,” as they say, and was dried-off and comfortable on the other side.   He had  always been dissatisfied with our church and during the entire time of our acquaintance had either been halfway in or almost completely out, but not quite.  To my knowledge, that is his condition yet.  He turged me to listen to some tapes that would revolutionize my life, from a preacher that really, really had it together, etc.  Well, it turned out to be this Dr. Jeremiah guy.  Thanks, but no thanks. 

If you spend any time with these stations, you are going to hear a LOT of Dr. Adrian Rogers, the late Baptist minister of a Memphis mega-church.  Dr. Rogers was as smooth a preacher as I’ve ever heard—and I do not necessarily mean that as a compliment.  He spoke with an exaggerated accent that some Southern evangelists seem to prefer (Billy Graham, for one.)  Anyway, the sermon that caught my interest was one on the “infallible, inerrant, incontestable Bible.”  The talk was standard evangelical bibliolatry until Dr. Rogers dipped his toe into church history.  He referenced the persecutions under Diocletian, though in his telling it was the emperor’s “War on the Bible.”  He elaborated that Diocletian burned a Bible and then erected a monument above it declaring “Extincto nomini christianorum,” or for the Latin impaired, “The name of Christian is extinct.”    I googled the phrase and all that appears is the same little snippet on innumerable  Protestant websites, usually as an anecdote to flesh out a sermon--and never sourced.  Well, Diocletian may have very well burned some scriptures and erected such a monument--or it could just be an evangelical urban legend. 

It matters not, for Diocletian’s war was certainly not against the “Bible.”  Somehow, I expected more of Dr. Rogers than that.  Either he was grossly ignorant of how, and more particularly when the “Bible” came together, or he was being purposely disingenuous.  Close to ninety more years would have to pass before such a statement could be conceivably, if not practically, true.  Certainly Diocletian would have had the Christian scriptures destroyed given the opportunity—whether they be the letters assembled later into what became known as the New Testament, or other writings of the early church fathers.  But his "war,” if you will, was on Christians, based on who they were, what they did and what they would not do, rather than on their particular scriptures, much less a “Bible” that arrived much later on the scene.

Dr. Rogers was not content to leave it there, however.  He continued on--that the Council of Nicea in 325 AD declared the Bible to be “the infallible word of God.”  Here he proceeds from the twisting of history to outright fabrication.  I fear that in our broad American Christianist culture, that it is this sort of thing which passes for historical knowledge.  It reminds me of my own attempt in my old church to find anything approximating our view of “New Testament Christianity” between 100 AD and Alexander Campbell.  For a while, I latched on to the Paulicians, of all people, but dropped that before I embarrassed myself unduly.

All this came to mind when I recently read an article of Peter J. Leithart at the First Things site.  I am somewhat familiar with Dr. Leithart who is a Protestant of the Reformed persuasion, I believe.  I do not follow his writings, however, nor do I frequent the FT site.  Leithart begins as follows:

Once upon a time, everyone followed a simple, relaxed, guilt-free religion, uncluttered by rites and dogmas. Along came the greedy priests, who complicated and corrupted everything. They added ceremonies and demanded payment for their performance, elaborated precise doctrines, and persecuted deviants, and in all this perverted the God-and-me immediacy of true religion. It’s as predictable as gravity: From the beginning, every religion devolves from primitive purity to decadent ritualism.

Leithart agrees with John Milbank that this myth is the “liberal Protestant metanarrative” and that it “has had a remarkably long run.”  Realizing that many would be uncomfortable with his characterization as liberal, Leithart explains that it is so because “it treats religion as fundamentally an internal reality, regards ceremonies as expendable distractions, and advocates free expression and universal toleration.”

 Despite its age, the liberal Protestant metanarrative continues to influence not only religious studies but also…the social sciences of religion. Outside the academy, it continues to be a foundation myth for a large segment of Protestantism, and not only liberal Protestantism…[for] immediacy is the defining characteristic of Evangelicalism, and any Protestant who gives too central a place to liturgy and sacraments is driven from the camp. Evangelicals recoil when told they sound like liberals, but the underlying notion of religion is the same, and it suggests that the liberal Protestant metanarrative has become the Protestant metanarrative, pure and simple.

Leithart goes on to advocate a rooting-out or reformation, if you will, of this “metanarrative” for the future health of Protestantism.    But I do not see, Lutherans and Anglican notwithstanding, how can there be one without the other?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (5)--When in Udabno

When in Udabno, discerning diners can be found at the Oasis Club Restaurant Bar, the town's finest establishment.

I couldn't resist a little travel guide silliness, but lunch in Udabno turned out to be one of the highlights of my recent time in the Republic of Georgia.
The day began at Mtskheta, visiting Svetitskhoveli Cathedral early on, planning to push on to Davit Gareja during the middle of the day and reach Sighnaghi before nightfall--an ambitious schedule given the general state of Georgian roads.  I have been to Davit Gareja monastery twice before, but was anxious to return again.

St. Davit, one of the thirteen Syrian Fathers, founded the monastic complex in the 6th-Century, and the institution has loomed large in Georgian history ever since.  In a country chock-a-block with holy sites, Davit Gareja occupies a special place.  On Pascha, in 1615, Shah Abbas of Persia ordered thousands of monks beheaded at Davit Gareja.  The Soviets shut it down in 1921 and were using it for target practice in 1987.  The authorities relented after widespread student demonstrations (as noted in a previous post, the modern story of Georgian Orthodoxy is largely that of the young.)  The Georgian government tried to do the same thing again in 1997, but were once more stopped by student protestors.  The site is an active monastic center today. 
The monastery perches on a ridge in the far southeastern corner of Georgia, actually on the Azeri border.  In my estimation, the landscape very much resembles eastern Wyoming or Montana--grasslands as far as one can see on these broad, rolling hills.  Hay is being baled in some of the fields, and other hillsides Georgian cowboys herd their cattle.  In the immediate vicinity of Davit Gareja, the countryside takes on an almost surreal look, with the hills suddenly peaking into jagged, rocky escarpments.  Going by bus, it takes about an hour and a half to reach the monastery once you turn off the main road at Sagarejo.

The first 70% of the distance can be covered in about half the time, as the road becomes more problematic past Udabno (which means, quite literally "desert".)  This is the only settlement between Sagarelo and Davit Gareja, and a more improbable one would be hard to imagine.

The residents of Udabno are ethnically Svan, from a village in the High Caucasus in the opposite corner of the country--a region as completely at variance with these wide open Kakhetian vistas as one could imagine.  Several decades ago, a landslide swept away a mountain village.  In true Soviet style, the authorities transported these villagers en masse across the country to this location.  Here the government did what the bureaucrats knew to do--they erected a model town, one concrete block house after another, located 20 kilometers past the middle of nowhere.

Udabno is a pretty dismal looking place.  Those who have had the wherewithal to go elsewhere have apparently done so.  The shells of abandoned houses litter the outskirts of  Udabno, resembling nothing so much as perhaps a movie set for Hollywood's latest post-apocalyptic thriller.

A young Polish couple, noting a steady stream of vehicles making the trek back and forth to Davit Gareja saw something else--opportunity.  The took one of the abandoned shells and slapped on a coat of white, green and blue paint.  That, plus a little electricity, a freezer, stove and beer tap, and  some crates and boxes for tables and chairs, and voila, the Oasis Club Restaurant Cafe. 

This was our fifth day into Georgia, and the food seemed to just get better and better the further we went.  All the staples were in place--bread, tomato and cucumber salad, eggplant dishes, khachapuri, the cheese plate, watermelon, tarragon soda, draft beer, more khachapuri, etc.  

Several additional items, however, launched this particular feast to the top of my list.  First, there was the Udabno cheese.  Georgia is known for its regional cheeses, and every meal contained a plate of three to four varieties.  The local Udabno cheese was the best of the lot.  I think I would return, if only for the cheese.  Next, there was the bowl of ratatouille (pictured here.)  Oh man, it was wonderful.  Then our hosts presented us with the kubdari, a Svan dish.  This looked like the ubiquitous khachapuri (cheese bread), but wonder of wonders, it was filled with meat!  Any traditional culture that is worth its salt will have a meat pie, and kubdari is the Georgian version.    

We finished off our feast by relaxing with some ice cream, as well as some lattes and iced coffees.  Soso found time for a game or two of backgammon in the inside dining room.  Cathleen worked on commandeering some of the special "Svantian salt."  I am no "foodie," but some meals stand out in my mind.  Sitting on a crate at the back of the Oasis Club Restaurant Cafe will not soon be forgotten.

At the time of our departure, the road was stacking-up with customers coming back from Davit Gareja.  Our hosts scurried around to tend to everyone, and suggested we stop on our return and settle-up then.  Try doing something like that in the good old USA. We did stop and pay our tab on the way back.  At that time, the electricity had gone out.  Perhaps a generator should be the next capital improvement at the Oasis Club Restaurant Cafe.  We wouldn't want the beer to go warm.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (4)--The State of Orthodoxy in Georgia

Gelati Cathedral, near Kutaisi, Georgia

     Over the course of eleven days in Georgia, I visited twenty-two different Orthodox churches (as well as one synagogue.)  Only four  were in Tbilisi, the rest scattered all around the country.  Based on my observations, I will venture some tentative conclusions about the health of Georgian Orthodoxy.

     The nature of Orthodox worship makes it difficult to talk in terms of real numbers.  Hard figures are easier to come by in American Protestantism where membership rolls are generally maintained, and attendance taken during Sunday School and/or worship.  Orthodoxy just does not work that way, even in the U.S., much less traditional Orthodox countries.  Projected numbers in American Orthodox jurisdictions came in for some well-deserved criticism several years ago.  The OCA's figures proved especially egregious.    

     American Orthodox--perhaps looking for encouragement and validation from the Old World--sometimes view these traditional Orthodox cultures with rose-colored glasses.  And so, we should be clear-eyed about any claims of Orthodox ascendancy elsewhere.  Reports of the growing churches of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the explosive growth among the Mayans of Guatemala and southern Mexico appear genuine (Guatemala is now the largest per capita Orthodox country in the Western Hemisphere.)  A recent headline proclaiming Orthodoxy the fastest-growing religion in Ireland, however, is easily shot down.  Yes, there are 45,000 Orthodox Christians in that country, four times the number in 2002.  That is good news, to be sure, but a break-down of the numbers reveal that 26% are Romanian, 12.6% are Latvian, etc.  Only 20% (9,000) are native-born.  And Muslims in Ireland number 49,000.  When native-born Orthodox Irish outnumber the Muslims, then that will be news.  Most everyone agrees that the Russian church has undergone a remarkable revival in the post-Communist years, yet the number of actual church-goers is paltry relative to the total population.  That observation holds for Balkan Orthodoxy, as well.

     Georgia is often touted (rightly, I believe) as the exception to this pattern.  Indeed, I would contend that the Georgian model is perhaps the most robust expression of the Faith today.   One should keep in mind that the Orthodox Church here has always been a bit different, and for lack of a better word, Georgia-centric.  The church venerates a host of saints representing 1,900 years of their Christian witness, who are largely unknown to the Orthodox outside of Georgia.  The church has never been just an extension of Constantinople or Moscow, but has instead looked to Jerusalem (and Syria.)  And it seems that Georgian Orthodoxy-even from its founding narratives-has maintained a fascinating connection with Judaism.

     The revival of Orthodoxy here is nothing short of remarkable.  In 1917, 2,455 working churches exised in the country.  By the latter Soviet years, only 80 survived.  Today there are 1,700 Georgian priests and new church construction is evident across the country.  Ilia II, the Patriarch since 1977, remains the most beloved and respected figure in the country.  And yet, a few cautionary words are in order.  Communism failed as an economic system, yet was very successful, over several generations, in changing the natural order of things.  Merab Mamardashvili wrote the following in 1995:

I used to think that, as the Georgians loved life, had a sense of humor, managed to preserve their heart and ancient chivalry and had thus remained individualists, sceptics etc, they could not be fully enslaved...I came back and found this was an illusion, that the process of mental, spiritual, verbal degradation had gone too far.

Hopefully Mamardashvili's gloomy prognostication from the dark days of 1995 has not proved to be absolutely correct.  But for those who were born and came of age during the Soviet years, any return to Orthodoxy has been more problematic.  For many, the icons may be back up upon the walls at home, but little more.  I am currently reading Donald Rayfield's excellent and much-needed history, Edge of Empires.  I scanned the ending chapters first--the short-lived Republic of 1918, the Soviet annexation, the years of occupation, and the troubled transition to "democracy."   This compelling account of 75 years of brutality and gangsterism leads one to wonder how much of anything survived at all (and it must be noted, that the violence was more often Georgian against Georgian, rather than Soviet Russian against Georgian.)   Within this context, the ambivalence of some older Georgians to the Church is understandable. 

     And admittedly, most of the Georgian churches I visited were pilgrimage destinations, the historic churches and monasteries that have great meaning to the country's history.  My impression of the state of the Faith would be more balanced, for example, if I I had visited a church out among the Soviet-era block apartments in the Tbilisi suburbs, rather than the great churches of the old city.  

    That said,  twenty-two churches later, I left Georgia with a clear and consistent image of Georgian Orthodoxy.  With perhaps one exception--Ikalto--every church we visited, no matter which day, was alive with people.  The churches there are not the empty museum pieces you find in western Europe (as well as in Italy, I am told).  Priests, monks, and/or nuns are in evidence throughout.  We never really had a church to ourselves, but were merely one more group in the stream of pilgrims and regular worshippers wherever we went.  The candles never went out.  For Vespers and Divine Liturgy, the churches often had to spill out into their courtyards--not only at Sioni in Tbilisi, but at Gelati in Kutaisi.  Now at first glance, those milling about the outside of the churches might not appear to be worshippers at all, given that they may be chatting or talking on their cellphones.  But watch them, and before long they will filter back into the church.  In some ways, Georgian worship appears a bit more casual natural than that to which we are accustomed, with more movement and general milling about.  As was explained to me, Georgians believes that whenever they are in the church they should be prayerful.  If they find themselves in not so prayerful a state of mind, they may step outside for a bit until they feel it is appropriate to return.  In Sioni on Sunday morning, the atmosphere could only be described as a crush of people.  The same applied for Anchiskhati and Sameba. 

     But here is the most important point that I have been building up to.  The churches were overwhelmingly comprised of young people--teenagers, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings.  The priests, monks and nuns were equally youthful, it seemed to me.  Certainly there were the grandparents in attendance, but for the most part the Georgian Orthodox Church seems to be the church of the young.  Now, my contacts assure me that plenty of youth are not the least interested in religion at all, nor do I know the percentage of the total youth demographic that these worshippers represent.  But it really does not matter, for enough of a critical mass is in place to ensure a vigorous future.  A recent BBC article notes that while "over 80% of Georgia's 4.5 million people say they belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church...only about 15%-25% actively participate in rituals."  So, in one sense, Georgia is broadly culturally Orthodox, in the same manner as Greece, the Balkans and Russia.  But when you think about it--especially considering Georgia's three generations of Communism--the figure of 25% who "actively participate" is actually pretty darn good for the 21st-Century.

     One can hardly over-emphasize the role of His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II in the revival of Georgian Orthodoxy.  He has wisely guided the Church through the minefield of late Soviet and post Soviet Georgian politics, generally avoiding public stances on contentious issues other than to encourage restraint and prayer.  One of our tour members knew a Georgian-American who knew someone who worked in the Patriarchate.  Through these connections, we received permission to visit the Patriarch on the last night of our stay.   The main building of the compound is a long three-story structure facing a busy street hugging the west shoreline of the Mhkvari River (the Patriarch lives in an apartment on the third floor, with the rest of the facility devoted to administration.)  A high stone wall wraps around the north, south and west sides of the property.  The narrow enclosure contains a large convent, an exquisite chapel and a lush, semi-tropical garden, complete with a peacock strolling within. 

     As dusk approached, our entrance into this world had an almost magical feel.  As one would imagine, the little Church of the Annunciation contained some of the best Georgian iconography, replete with Georgian saints and an interesting panel depicting the Prophet Jonah.  From the church, we were escorted to the Patriarch's third floor office, where we waited for some time.  At this time, a delegation of international scholars was just leaving the building after a meeting with the Patriarch. The walls of the office were filled with his artwork, secular and religious.  The Patriarch is devoted to David the Psalmist, and the icon he wrote of King David hangs on the wall (and is becoming a popular icon throughout Georgia.)  Several people from the Patriarchate came in and introduced themselves and waited with us.  They expressed pleasant surprise that we were American and Orthodox. 

     One of these was Tsisana, our liaison there.  Back during the Ahbkasian wars of the early 1990s, she came to the Patriarchate to help out with those who needed medical attention.  She now runs the free clinic there.  Georgian doctors donate their services for those who cannot afford regular medical care (and the subject of the excellent Georgian medical care without the insurance industry deserves a separate post.)  At that same time, the Patriarchate and the convent started a daily soup kitchen to help feed as many of the refugees as possible.  4,000 meals were served every day during the worst of the crisis.  Even today, 250 meals are served up on a daily basis.  After a while, one aide brought in a stack of books--hardbound copies of the Patriarch's homilies (in English), gifts to us from him.  

     In time, we were ushered back downstairs and out into the courtyard, underneath the stars.  From this point on, the exact order of events is jumbled in the mystical haze of my memory.  The Patriarch was there, sitting in a simple arm chair.  A few attendants hovered about, including a 6' 4" body-builder whom I assumed to be his bodyguard.  He waited on his charge as tenderly and as attentively as any nurse.  The Patriarch is now weighted-down in years, a frail little man whose voice is almost inaudible, who has trouble standing and whose hands shake with palsy.  And yet his eyes were alert and burned bright.  

     A priest received an emotional blessing.  John Graham squatted in front of the Patriarch and explained who we were.  Each of us advanced forward, among the others, and received a blessing.  Four of our number were choir members of the same parish in New Jersey.  They had purchased an icon--the original written by the Patriarch himself--as a gift to a Georgian Orthodox Church in their state, and he blessed it.  One of the nuns approached John with a request. The Patriarch has mentioned that he would enjoy hearing the four chant.  Nervously, they eased up to his side and chanted in church Slavonic. (they are from a heavily ethnic parish.) After that, he whispered something to John Graham, and they then chanted in English.  The Patriarch told John that he would rather they sing something in American.  Of course, they were all very honored to have this privilege. 

     We stood in the moonlight, around a 400-year old olive tree (a recent gift from an Jewish native of Georgia, now living in Israel), clutching our books of Homilies, and munching on the fresh apricots and cherries that were being passed around.  A trio of nuns gently sang Alleluia in the background.  They were all young, their faces joyous, if not radiant.  I knew this before going to Georgia, but there is just something about Orthodox nuns.  Tsisana told us that the Patriarch had these informal audiences every night, that they would go on until 2:00 in the morning, and then the new day would begin with morning prayers at 6:00 A.M.  We lingered as long as we could, reluctant to leave this blessed garden.  But we had to return to the hotel, as some of us were leaving for the airport in less than four hours.  Before doing so, we pressed money into Tsisana's hand, for use at the clinic.  With tearful eyes, she thanked us, but asked if she could give it to the soup kitchen instead, as the need was greater there.  How typical of Georgian generosity--you give them something and they are thinking of who might need it more.  (This to be a subject of another post.)  

     Earlier that day, I was in Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi.  Truth be told, the behavior of some of the crowd that morning was not exactly spiritually edifying.  But one vignette stands out in my memory.  A Georgian woman, probably  within a few years either side of forty, dressed attractively but in a traditional manner, was escorting two young children--a skinny girl of about eight, and a boy still in shorts, aged about five.  They were making the rounds of the icons and the candle stands.  She was there with them, but neither child needed instructions on what to do.  The girl could reach the icons easily enough.  The boy, however, was still too short.  On his tiptoes, he could barely stretch to kiss the bottom of the frame.  But at every icon stand, he gave it everything he had.  This is the remembrance I carried home with me.  Orthodoxy will continue to blossom in these mellow Caucasian valleys.

     I never cease to be amazed at the level of American historio-geographic ignorance and indifference (or at least in my corner of the country.)  At a meeting, a young executive overheard where I had been.  "Wow," she said, "that's a real mission field."  The images of Georgia came flooding back, and I had a sudden flash of anger at this casual, uninformed arrogance.  I simply replied, "No.  They need to send missionaries to us."


In the Patriarchate

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (3)--At the Stalin Museum

     An unexpected highlight of our visit to Georgia came on our last night in the country. Through someone who knew someone who knew someone else, we received an invitation to a short audience with Patriarch Ilia II (of which more in a later post.) The Patriarchate is hidden behind high stone walls in the old city, very near the Mtkvari River.  The enclosure conceals a  narrow, lush garden--almost tropical in appearance--wedged between the administrative building, the convent and the back wall.  The Church of the Annunciation--a small gem of a chapel--is the focal point of the complex. 

     As would be expected, the iconography here  was exceptional, and quite moving, with much of the space devoted particularly to Georgian saints.  The north wall of the nave contained a row of the sainted monarchs--Vahktang Gorgosali, Archil and Luarsab, Mirian and Nana, Tamar, Demetre, David the Builder and Ketevan, among others.  This is uniquely Georgian.  No other Orthodox nations (not even Russia and Serbia) have canonized so many of their kings and queens.  Nor is this just hagiographic excess.  For many--including Archil, Luarsab, Demetre and Ketevan--were true martyrs, in every sense of the word. 

     Even so, the Georgian rulers were often a fractious lot, and were fully capable of producing monsters as well as saints.  The Khakhetian king Giorgi the Bad comes to mind, as well as his great-grandson, Constantine Khan, the apostate--each a practitioner of both fratricide and patricide.  Thus considered, perhaps the emergence and rise to power of Joseph Dzhugashvili is not such an anomaly.  We know him better as Joseph Stalin.

     A visit to the Stalin Museum does not immediately leap to mind when considering a "monastery tour" of Georgia.  Some expressed interest, however, and our wise leader worked it into our flexible itinerary.  My initial instincts failed me on this, as I was not at all curious to stop here.  I was mistaken.  The museum proved fascinating, though--as is often the case with me--in a perverse sort of way.

     Gori is a struggling town, suffering a good deal of shelling prior to its capture by the Russians during the 2008 war.  The city seems to have little going for it beyond the Stalin Museum.  Certainly, the institution dominates the municipality.  The Soviets erected the museum in the 1930s, with many blocks  being leveled to make room for the structure and the esplanade approaching it.  The attractive building predates the worst of Soviet architecture, having perhaps a bit of a Moorish feel to it.  A statue of Stalin once towered over the grounds, though in 2012 the Georgian government surreptitiously removed it in the middle of the night.  (Some Georgians tried to pay the Russians to blow it up during the 2008 occupation, but the soldiers were offended and refused to do so.)  A more modest statue remains.  In the park fronting the museum, Stalin's birthplace is preserved, though the neighborhood that once surrounded it is completely demolished.  The Soviets erected a temple-like structure, complete with inlaid hammer and sickles, over the cottage.  For all the attention Gori lavishes on Stalin, he seems to have not given his birthplace much thought one way or the other after his departure.

Stalin Museum in background, Stalin birthplace in foreground

     The inside of the museum is built on a grand scale, and would have been well-suited to showcase impressive galleries and exhibits.  Unfortunately, the interior received the classic Soviet treatment.  The walls were covered in a drab gray felt or flannel-board type material.  The exhibits consisted primarily of grainy black-and-white enlargements of old photographs, newspapers and correspondence, telling a very sanitized version of the life of Stalin.  If you were expecting any reference to purges, show-trials, gulags, the invasion of Poland, or that sort of thing, then you would be disappointed, and would need to look elsewhere.  Thankfully, many of the offerings contained English subtitles.  I would have enjoyed just wandering through the museum, taking it in at my own stride.  But in something of a holdover from the old days, we were forced to submit to an official tour, with a guide reciting a memorized speech in front of every exhibit.   As much as was possible, I pealed-off from the official narration.  The museum contained remarkably few actual artifacts of Stalin's, primarily just diplomatic gifts he received.  A bizarre lamp, with frilly lace on the top, and a homemade model of a Soviet tank for the base, was the showcased item in one gallery.  Tellingly, the museum did contain Stalin's copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

     Outside of perhaps Gori itself, Georgians seem ambivalent at best about Stalin.  And Stalin-worship is certainly anachronistic to the image of the "new" Georgia that is being vigorously promoted.  Young people probably do not consider him at all.  Older Georgians may look back with a bit of longing for the security and favored status they enjoyed in the Soviet system, no doubt a legacy of Stalin.  But that is all.

     I was able to view the exhibits dispassionately, strictly on an intellectual level.  Others in our group may have interacted on a more visceral level.  One of our members is the daughter of a Russian father and a Greek mother.  Her grandfather worked in a factory in Soviet Russia during the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1937 (I believe) the authorities arrested him and declared him an enemy of the state.  In short order, her grandfather was executed and buried in a mass grave.  Her grandmother was dispatched to the Gulag.  Their two youngest children ended-up in orphanages, while the oldest was conscripted into the army.  He survived the Second World War, being captured by the Germans and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp.  At war's end, he instinctively knew that his future lay in jumping a boxcar that was headed west, rather than east.  He made his way to the U.S. and became a typical American success story.  Fairly late in life, he took an Old World wife (from Greece) and brought her to the U.S. as well.  Of course, none of this would have happened had not his father been murdered and the family broken up by the Soviets.  Still, I expect that his daughter's thoughts were bittersweet and she toured the museum and listened to the tributes to Joseph Stalin. 

     Anyone who visits the Stalin Museum should couple that with a visit to the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, on the third floor of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.  The exhibit is extremely well done and quite compelling.  The very name of the museum itself clearly announces the particular narrative  that is to be promoted, i.e that the Georgian nation was under the heavy Soviet thumb for seventy years.  Even so, the exhibits were reinforced by hard statistics and data, and the tone was less overtly propagandistic than its counterpart in Gori.  A boxcar, riddled with bullet-holes (from each direction) greets visitors in the ante-room of the gallery.  A number of Georgian nationalists met their death here in 1923, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their control over the country. 

     As Tsarist Russia disintegrated in 1917, the peoples of the Caucasus quickly reasserted their independence.  Georgian nationalism had never disappeared after being subsumed into Russia in 1803, and the leaders were ready when the opportunity presented itself.  At first, a loose Trans-caucasus confederation emerged under the Menshiviks, but soon separated into its component parts of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  On May 26, 1918, Georgia declared independence from Russia.  For two and one half years, an independent Georgian state survived.  But as the Soviets consolidated their hold on Russia, they began to address regaining their recently-lost territories.  First Azerbaijan fell, then Armenia, and finally Georgia in February of 1921.  The tactic was always the same.  A small uprising or disturbance would be funded, allowing the Soviets to move in and "restore order."  (A cynic might note that we have employed similar tactics through the years in Latin America and the Middle East.)

     The brief period of independence, a little over two and a half years, is pivotal in the Georgian self-perception.  Their Independence Day is May 26th, referencing not the events of 1991, but rather the declaration of 1918.  At the renewal of Georgian statehood upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian leaders specifically sought to restore the framework of the 1918 republic.  The museum contains rare newsreel footage of the events surrounding the early period of independence.     

     Between 1922 and 1952, the Soviets executed 101,000 Georgians and deported 330,000 out of a total population of only around 4,000,000.  When you do the math on that you realize that the odds were not all that good during the Stalinist era.  If you were middle class, or if you were considered part of the intelligentsia, or if you were a member of the old nobility (and in Georgia this did not necessarily imply wealth at all), or if you were a bishop, priest or monk, then you were marked.  The pictures of the executed--poets, authors, bishops among others--are especially poignant.  One picture records the demolishing of the Kutaisi Cathedral in 1924 by a crowd of Bolsheviks.  Bishop Nazar of Kutaisi (executed in 1924) stated, My soul belongs to God, my heart belongs to Georgia, do whatever you will with my body.   A unique feature of Georgian iconography is the depiction of St. George killing (symbolically) the Emperor Diocletian.  In a like manner, the sentiments of the New Martyr Nazar can be said to have slain the Emperor Stalin.                   

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (2)--Dodge or Die: A Reappraisal of the Georgian Driver

    I first experienced life on the Georgian road back in 2006, as I traveled from Tbilisi through Gori and Kutaisi and on to Zugdidi, then up into Svaneti--all in the back-seat of a beat-up Soviet-era Lada Niva.  An aggressive driver myself, I found the ride a bit hair-raising at first--the reckless and incessant passing, and the total disregard for staying within one's own lane, etc.--and concluded that Georgians had to be among the worst drivers in the world.

     I think differently now.  Georgian drivers do not ignore the white lines at all.  In fact, they use them for alignment:  two tires on the left side of the line and two tires on the right.  As oncoming traffic is doing much the same thing, driving can resemble a perpetual game of "Chicken."  If you need to pass, no problem.  By all means do so, whether on the right or the left.  If you are going around a curve, just go for it anyway.  Do not concern yourself with the oncoming traffic.  They will scoot over.  Or not. 

     This seems to be an unwritten rule of the Georgian road, something buried deep within the psyche of the Georgian male.  That the vehicle in front of you must be passed at all costs appears to be an unshakable conviction.  We arrived at Stepantsminda, deep in the high Caucasus, late in the day, and would not have time to hike up the mountain to Gergeti Sameba Church and Monastery and back before supper.  The site now receives more religious pilgrims than on my previous visit, as well as being a popular destination for the European backpacking and trekking set.  Enterprising Stepantsmindians have been quick to meet the needs of the touristas milling about the village square.  Mini-vans can tote seven passengers at a time, and little Nivas cart smaller parties.  And so, a steady stream of vehicles climb the rock-strewn goat-path of a road that switchbacks up the mountain.  We split up into three mini-vans and began the ascent-- still no easy task.  About half way up the mountain, I was surprised to hear a toot, and to see a little Lada Niva attempting to scramble past us on the left.  Apparently a fare awaited him at the summit, so our mini-van must be passed.

     Western visitors are also unaccustomed to another staple of Georgian driving, namely cows (and the occasional pigs) on the road.  Cattle roam free in Georgia and they particularly enjoy being on the roads.  Perhaps they are soothed by the wind generated from the wizzing cars and trucks.  The cows pay not the slightest attention to motorists.  A bus can miss a lazing bovine by inches and she will not bat an ear. 

     The best example we witnessed was the drive out of Kutaisi through the rich agricultural lands of Soso's native western Imereti.  The cows were out in force, and our driver, Archilko, maneuvered through them with seeming effortless ease.  One of our tour members voiced the simple question that we were all thinking, to-wit:  "What happens if you hit a cow?"

     John put the question to Archilko, and soon an animated conversation (in Georgian) ensued between him, John, Shergil and Soso.  The question was not as simple as we supposed, as their conversation went on for some length.  As last, John composed an answer for us.  Unless it occurs on a major highway (and really, there are really only one or two in the country,) then the driver is required to stop, locate the owner of the unfortunate cow and make restitution then and there before proceeding.  A good cow brings $750 to $1,000.  That is why the cattle were so nonchalant about traffic.  No Georgian driver ever wants to take the chance of clipping a cow, for the price is just too expensive.  The animated conversation between the Georgian-speakers continued on for some time, with Soso being simply convulsed with laughter.  We later learned that the conversation veered towards road-kill jokes, proving that gross-out humor knows no ethnic boundaries.

     And so now I realize that Georgian drivers are simply the best in the world, as they maneuver around cows, pigs, switchbacks, and potholes the size of small bedrooms, all with effortless aplomb.  Our driver, Archilko, proved to be the best of the best.  And finally, the best thing about the Georgian road is the fact that if you stay with it long enough, you are liable to end up at a place like this: