Despite its unhappy history and dire geography, Georgia is doing well
Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia. By Donald Rayfield.
Georgia: A Political History since Independence.
TO MOST outsiders Georgian history is a closed book. Indeed for English-speakers there are practically no books at all. Georgia mostly features on the edges of other peoples' histories. Xenophon, describing Greek mercenaries' attempts to get home in 400BC, wrote the first description of it. Books about the Soviet Union highlight Georgia's role as a rebellious captive and as the birthplace of Josef Stalin, its most infamous son. A flurry of recent accounts describe the brief, disastrous war with Russia in 2008. Now Donald Rayfield of the University of London and Stephen Jones of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts have written ambitious and comprehensive histories of a complex country.
The authors are among a handful of foreigners to have mastered Georgian. Part of the small and ancient Kartvelian language family, it is related to no others, though some have fancifully claimed a distant cousinhood with Basque. Its roots are as obscure as the origins of those who speak it. Mr Rayfield starts around 1100BC, with the first mention in an Assyrian source of the “Mushki”. The first Georgian king, Parnavaz, was born in 326BC.
The scope of Georgian history may be a humbling shock for those who thought the country appeared on the map only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But the reader needs to take a deep breath, for the next 200 pages could be mistaken at times for a stray appendix from J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings”. The tersely told stories involve hundreds of unknown but like-sounding people and places which appear and disappear in quick succession. The beheadings, castrations, sodomisations, rapes and eye-gougings—a local speciality—that dot the pages are jolting. But a little more in the way of analogies, signposts, interpretation and characterisation would have lightened the mixture.
The most cheerful pages concern Georgia's golden age—around 1212 at the height of Queen Tamar's reign. The country has never since been bigger, stronger or safer, stretching 800 miles (1,288km) from what is now Trabzon in Turkey to the shores of the Caspian sea. Georgia's fortunes depend on the weakness or goodwill of its much larger neighbours: Russia to the north, Persia to the south-east, Turkey to the west. Mr Rayfield's powerful theme is of brief periods of prosperity and security, ended by invasion, conquest, looting and despoliation. Georgians have had to get used to rule by outsiders: they often outwit them. Kremlin rule began with mass murder and ruinous economic planning, but in later decades Georgia was one of the most prosperous and enjoyable places to live in the Soviet Union. It was a similar story in the 19th century under Russian imperial rule.
Georgia's rulers' own penchant for internal divisions and double-dealing has played a big role in prompting the country's many disasters. So too has the failure of faraway outside powers to reciprocate Georgia's pro-Western sentiments. The story of the years 1918-21, when the Georgian Democratic Republic made repeated vain appeals to Britain and other Western powers, before the Bolsheviks invaded, make poignant reading. They echo previous episodes involving Georgian rulers' entreaties to the Byzantine empire and Venice—and foretell, perhaps, the let-down that many Georgians felt when nobody came to their aid in 2008.
Mr Jones deals at book-length with the years covered by Mr Rayfield's final chapter. Georgia's disastrous rebirth, amid economic collapse and civil war, gave way to a period of sleazy stagnation under Eduard Shevardnadze, who had run the place in Soviet times and then served as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister.
Amid much useful detail, Mr Jones snipes at the record of Mikheil Saakashvili, who became president after the “Rose Revolution” of 2003. His party narrowly lost the parliamentary election this year. To the surprise of those who saw Putinesque tendencies in his camp's authoritarian approach, Mr Saakashvili's party has calmly conceded defeat.
That came too late for either book, which is a pity because it would offset many of Mr Jones's criticisms of Georgia's failure to meet his perhaps rather unrealistic standards of “virtuous” democracy. Much of the country outside the capital, Tbilisi, is still dreadfully poor; institutions are imperfect; government pressure on the media and judiciary can be heavy-handed or even nastier. But for a place that was a failed state only 20 years ago the progress is startling, especially given the near- constant pressure, subversion and denigration from Russia.
Mr Jones skates over the problems caused by Russia and underplays the real achievements of the Saakashvili years. These include bringing the country closer to the West, eliminating petty corruption, for example in the customs service and the traffic police, modernising public services, attracting foreign investment and establishing an open if rough-hewn political system. Georgia is now a country where the opposition has a real chance of winning power, and all sides abide by the constitution. Readers of Mr Rayfield's book may feel that in the past 2,500 years Georgians have seldom had so much to be happy about.