There’s nothing more fascinating than a writer’s house. This is the table where they sat to write, this is the view that inspired them, this is the garden they walked in. My novel Compassion, which relates the fate of the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin Terror, gave me a foolproof excuse to poke around writers’ houses. Nearly all my characters were based on real people, and I went to see the places they had lived and worked.
In 2010, I visited Akhmatova’s house in St. Petersburg (see The House on the Fontanka) and Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino (see Pasternak’s Dacha), but before that my husband and I went to Ukraine as pathfinders for my characters in Kiev and Yalta.
Our plane from Paris lands in Kiev at noon. The year is 2007, Ukraine is independent, and the city is now called Kyiv. For the time being, things are calm. Ukraine is opening up to democracy and the wider world beyond the Soviet fold. No visas are required with our European passports. The Orange Revolution is three years in the past. The mood is hopeful.
The Euromaïdan is yet to come, and so is Putin’s annexation of the Crimea.
Kyiv feels closer to Eastern Europe than to Russia. The people in the street aren’t as glum, and the air is lighter. St. Andrei’s Hill is overrun with arts and crafts and restaurants and galleries, all spilling over the cobbles in a relaxed late-Saturday mood. There’s a service in progress in St. Andrei’s Church, which was built in the eighteenth century by the Italian architect Rastrelli (whose main claim to fame is the Winter Palace), and the chanting swells gloriously round the church.
Andrei, the main character in Compassion, arrives in Kiev in 1920 to find a city torn apart by civil war. Andrei is an artist, half-Russian and half-English. Many years later, he tells his granddaughter what it was like:
Some of the houses had been destroyed for firewood, and those that were still standing seemed about to fall down. The streets were clogged with refuse, the shops were shuttered. People in rags shuffled past clutching odd-shaped bundles… Sitting on a broken wall by St. Andrei’s Church… an outline caught my eye, and I looked more closely. There was something interesting about the way the building reared up from the rubble… I found myself reaching for a pencil and paper […] I was so absorbed in my drawing that I jumped when a voice behind me said, “That’s very good.” I turned round and found myself looking at a skinny little man with an ardent, curious face and a mass of curly black hair.
The little man with the curious face is a poet called Ilya Kishkovsky, who will become Andrei’s companion for the rest of his journey through war-torn Ukraine. Andrei is a fictional character, but Ilya is modelled on the poet Osip Mandelshtam, who died in the Gulag in 1938.
The description of Kiev is taken mainly from Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote about the city in his Civil War novel The White Guard. Bulgakov’s childhood home, which he used as the setting for his novel, stands a bit lower down the hill. Sadly, it’s closed by the time my husband and I get there in the late afternoon, but we admire the façade.
At the bottom of the hill is Podol, the old port area beside the River Dnipro, now gentrified and trendified, with edgy restaurants for gilded youth. Being neither young nor gilded, we take the funicular back up the hill and eat dinner in a restaurant for tourists. The décor is izba-style logs and the waitresses are decked out in traditional embroidered blouses, but the cuisine is post-Soviet cosmopolitan and so are the flat-screen televisions showing the inevitable football match. A delicate balancing act between past and future.
The most sacred place in Ukraine is the Pecherska Lavra, a monastery complex dating back to the eleventh century comprising churches, museums, refectories, dormitories, and a series of caves housing mummified monks (mummification apparently being caused by properties in the soil, rather than a mass outbreak of sanctity). Not much is left of the eleventh-century buildings, and the current style is baroque with some Art Deco touches. The Upper Lavra is a museum now, but the Lower Lavra is a working monastery, and its churches are surrounded by trees: apple, cherry, lilac – all in bloom. It’s like walking through an orchard with golden domes.
The bells toll for the end of the morning service with a persistent monocord clang. A procession of chanting monks walks past amid the trees. With their long beards and soft round black hats, they could be straight out of the time of Ivan the Terrible. The bells stop ringing. An instant of silence, and then more bells chime in from further away, taking up the message. I tried to work this scene into Compassion, but the characters objected strenuously and I gave it up.
On Sunday afternoon, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, the Khreshchatyk, is closed to traffic, and we join the other pedestrians taking the air. Contrary to local claims, the Kreshchatyk does not rival the Champs-Elysées, but it’s wide and open and tree-lined and a good place to walk. Kyiv is wonderfully green: the streets in the centre are lined with trees, and there are plenty of parks and open spaces. The writer Viktor Nekrasov lived in one of the streets leading off the Kreshchatyk in the 1960s and 1970s, before he left for Paris. As a boy, he lived with his mother on Rue Roli in Paris, which is just across from me on the other side of the Parc Montsouris. Granted, that was in 1910, but I feel a neighbourly interest. After being forced to leave the Soviet Union, Nekrasov became a regular visitor to my office at Radio Liberty, and I have a signed copy of his book Carnets d’un Badaud, which I’m using now as a nostalgist’s guide to Kiev.
Viktor Platonovich would be surprised to see the pâtisseries and chic clothing stores that have invaded his old haunts. The people on the street this Sunday are mostly young. The boys have round open faces, and clutch bottles of beer. The girls wear skimpy provocative clothes set off by demure downcast glances. Traffic in the city centre consists of black Mercedes, black BMWs, and black SUVs. Tinted windows are de rigueur. We have dinner in a restaurant with plush couches, skinny waitresses, hefty bouncers, and bad wine. The service is snail-like but there’s an endless parade of fashion shows on a television screen to distract us. How can the world have so many runways?
[Note: Apologies to readers for the variations in spelling. I’ve used “Kiev” when referrring to the city during the Soviet period, and “Kyiv” when applied to the present. I trust it’s not too confusing. My Ukrainian friends insist.]
O’Keeffe country is the slice of New Mexico northwest of Santa Fe where the painter Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked from 1949 until her death in 1986.
“When I got to New Mexico,” she wrote, “that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.”
I discovered O’Keeffe at an exhibition at the Tate in London in 2016. She painted like no other artist I had ever seen. Starry skies, desert crosses, city canyons, flowers unfolding – she saw the world in a way no one else has ever seen it. Everyday objects that were familiar, even banal, became infused with magic. It felt as though I was crossing the frontier into another country.
In August 2018, I get the chance to see her country for myself. My friend Kathy and I fly to Albuquerque and rent a car.
After a late lunch of margaritas and quesadillas at a place called El Pinto on the outskirts of town, we head north to Santa Fe. The landscape is rocky and the houses are poor. Indian-run casinos are advertised along the road.
Our Airbnb is located in a development called Pueblo del Cielo a few miles out of town. It’s an adobe house furnished in a style I can only call Southwestern Gothic. Lots of local rugs and stylized animal heads, plenty of leather and marble.
On first sight it’s daunting, but by the end of the week we have grown into our surroundings and feel quite at home. The giant television screen is visible from the sitting room, the dining room, and the kitchen, which are on different levels, and this allows Kathy to watch John McCain’s funeral and keep up with Rachel Maddow as we potter round the house and do our laundry.
Outside there’s a barbecue, a shady patio, and a collective swimming pool. The house is set amid Mediterranean-type vegetation. The air smells wonderful. If it wasn’t for the deer heads, I could imagine I was back in Provence in the garrigue.
Santa Fe is a nice little town, founded by the Spaniards around 1610. It’s laid out in a grid around a central plaza, and the best thing about it is the absence of high-rise buildings. By order of the city fathers, all constructions must be in adobe or Spanish colonial. The air is hot and dry, and cool at night. After the torrid humid East Coast, it’s a relief. All my little aches and pains dissolve like magic in the dry desert air.
One side of Santa Fe’s main plaza is occupied by the Palace of the Governors, which is closed for renovation, but we visit the adjacent history museum which recounts the history of New Mexico from the Indians to the Spaniards to the Mexicans (in the days when Mexico was twice the size of the United States) to the Cowboys to the Nuclear Scientists. Los Alamos is just down the road. The museum describes the subterfuges used to conceal the site and its employees from the population at large. The office that handled the nuclear influx was located on East Palace Avenue, and Robert Redford is apparently working on a project called 109 East Palace, about Oppenheimer and his acolytes. Might be fun.
Back in the plaza, some little girls give a demonstration of Indian hoop dancing. A few tourists look on, and an elderly man sings a very monotonous song. Just off the square stands the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, built in 1869 by a French bishop from the Auvergne. It’s a modest Romanesque church with a seventeenth-century statue of the Madonna and a reredos dating from 1986.
An obliging churchwarden explains that the Madonna was carried into battle by the conquistadores fighting the Indians, and that the gold background to the saints’ portraits on the reredos implies that there are better things to come in the afterlife.
The cathedral, he tells us, is French Gothic. I hesitate to query this since he’s such a nice man, but of course I can’t keep my mouth shut, so I mumble something about Romanesque on the way out. He just smiles sweetly and says that’s what they tell him to say, and it will be our little secret. Okay.
Time to shop. Santa Fe is tourist paradise. All the streets in the centre (and I do mean all) are lined with stores selling Indian silver jewelry, Indian woven rugs, Indian knick-knacks and so on. Sadly the silver earrings are far too expensive, but our attention is caught by a Zeitgeist T-shirt featuring a picture of Indians with rifles and the legend: Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.
The afternoon ends with a terrifying turquoise margarita in a terrifying turquoise bar called the Coyote, reached from the street by an industrial-style elevator. The drinks are so strong that we both give up halfway through. Kathy has to drive us back to the Pueblo del Cielo, and I’ve got mild altitude sickness. Santa Fe is at 9000 feet – a fact that my guidebook did not see fit to mention.
As the sun goes down, the air grows cooler. We barbecue succulent strip steaks purchased from a high-end market in Santa Fe, and chat to our neighbours, Lloyd and Roxy, who moved here from Texas just two months ago. They are among the very few permanent residents of Heaven’s Village. Most of the houses are second homes or Airbnbs, or both. Lloyd and Roxy are having friends in from Dallas for a party on Sunday night, and we’re invited to drop by. New Mexico bills itself as the Land of Enchantment. Eating dinner on the patio, watching the light fade over the mountains, we’re not going to disagree.
Georgia O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929. She had been married for five years to Alfred Stieglitz, a famous photographer, who had organized her first exhibition in New York in 1917. Stieglitz is credited with introducing photography as an art form to the United States. Thanks to his influence and that of his artistic friends, O’Keeffe was already a well-known painter, but she was growing more and more restive with the labels his circle of male critics insisted on sticking on her art. It was “erotic,” they said, it was “feminine.”
“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs,” commented Georgia acidly. She needed to move on in order to preserve her identity as an artist, as opposed to a ‘woman artist,’ and to allow her art to develop. New Mexico became her spiritual home. When Stieglitz died in 1946, she spent three years winding up his estate (she was apparently a shrewd businesswoman), and then moved out West for good.
Her first home in New Mexico was at a dude ranch called Ghost Ranch. Despite her distaste for the wealthy tourists who came out to “experience” the Wild West, she found the landscapes around the ranch so compelling that she bought an adobe house there in 1940. Sadly the house is not open to visitors, but we take a tour of the property with a guide who conducts us to the landscapes that inspired O’Keeffe and holds up the paintings so we can compare.
The landscapes are fantastic, tortured shapes in red sandstone – chimneys and plateaux, thrust up from the bowels of the earth – and the paintings are in different colours depending on the season and the time of day.
One mountain in particular caught Georgia’s fancy, the Pedernal, a distinctive flat-topped mesa that she painted a lot. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
New Mexico has often been used as a setting for westerns, and also served for Thelma and Louise. The landscapes from the scene where the ladies are driving in the desert at night look eerily familiar. To help the atmosphere along, we play The Ballad of Lucy Jordan on the car sound system. Thankfully no traffic cops appear, because we don’t have a gun.
When Ghost Ranch was sold to Presbyterians (“churchy people,” said Georgia disdainfully), she started to look around for a place of her own and came across some disused adobe buildings in the village of Abiquiu. Climbing over a wall to look at them more closely, she was struck by a door in the wall. She knew at once that she had to have that door. After protracted negotiations, she bought the building and brought in a friend to renovate it.
More than Ghost Ranch, the house at Abiquiu brings you closer to the woman she was. Georgia knew what she wanted. The adobe house is simple but comfortable. Adobe moderates temperatures both hot and cold, but openings are usually kept as small as possible. Georgia put huge plate glass windows into the north-facing walls of her studio. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but the view is spectacular. Her bedroom faces the same way. How wonderful to wake up every morning to those mountains, that valley, those clouds!
In front of her sitting room a gnarled tree turns in on itself, framed by another plate glass window. In the evening she used to sit on plain white couches and listen to music on a state-of-the-art stereo system. The couches are still there. The kitchen is still equipped with high-end appliances (for the time). The pantry is still stocked as she left it. The vegetable garden is still laid out the way she planned it – though now it has a live feed to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, so that visitors to the museum can see what’s happening in the garden, which I’m sure they’re all dying to do.
The Santa Fe museum hosts the largest collection of works by Georgia O’Keeffe in the world, but the space is not large, and the works on display are a little disappointing. I suspect I’ve been spoiled by the exhibition at the Tate. In the lobby I fall into conversation with a couple of tourists from New York, who suggest I take their President with me when I go back to Paris. Thanks, but no thanks.
On the Sunday before Labor Day, we drive up to Taos. In the early part of the twentieth century, Taos was home to a thriving artistic community which attracted, among others, D.H. Lawrence. The town is built round a central plaza on the same model as Santa Fe, and boasts nearly as many souvenir shops. I buy a fleece hat for cold days in Paris and a T-shirt that says Wild Thing for Nora, my new grand-daughter, age 6 months.
More intriguing is Taos Pueblo, a few miles further on, which was built in adobe around 1450 and is thought to be the earliest inhabited settlement on the American continent. Adobe is a composite material made of earth mixed with water and straw or dung – in other words, whatever came to hand. The buildings of Taos Pueblo are remarkably similar to constructions such as the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali – also built of adobe on the edge of a desert, with projecting wooden struts to support the building.
There’s a low turquoise door in the main building which looks like something Ms. O’Keeffe would have liked. An Indian guide gives us a tour, and a sign by the parking lot informs us of the current level of fire risk.
Driving out into the desert among the clouds we cross the bridge that spans the Rio Grande and reach another kind of habitation. The Earthship is a twenty-first century new-age construction made out of recycled materials such as discarded car tires and tin cans. Hurricane-proof apparently. Water is used four times. People grow their own food. Solar energy is the norm (unlike in the Pueblo where we were told it’s against their religion).
Buildings are scattered here and there across the plain. Some of them function as Airbnbs. It looks like we’ve landed on Mars. A sign warns us that drones are prohibited.
Back in Heaven’s Village it’s party night, but it’s been a tiring day and we’re not up to making small talk to the Texans. Instead we head for the Tesuque Village Market in the hope of a margarita and some local colour.
Sadly the place is full. We spend the evening skulking unsociably on the small patio leading off the main bedroom with a bottle of wine, drunk on clouds and space and sky, watching the sun go down over the Land of Enchantment.
Compassion is a novel about the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin Terror. Nearly all the characters were inspired by real people. Some, like Mayakovsky and Voloshin, appear as themselves in walk-on parts, but others, like Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Punin, have been disguised with new names. Fact and fiction are blurred, the better to bring out essential truths.
Visiting Moscow in May 2010, to see where my characters had lived and worked in the Thirties, I take along a friend who has never been to Russia before, does not speak Russian, and needs to see the sights. For the convenience of all, we stay at the centrally-located Hotel Budapest. From there I can wander round town on my literary pilgrimages, and Vivien can get to the major sites without taking the metro. The Moscow metro is fast and reliable and famously aesthetic, with statues and friezes and chandeliers and mosaics, but it’s totally non-navigable if you don’t read Cyrillic.
The Budapest doesn’t seem to have changed much since the Soviet era: musty carpeting, airless corridors, suspicious staff. Still, the plumbing has been upgraded since Soviet days, and the breakfast buffet is sufficiently copious to provide us with picnic lunches.
I haven’t been to Moscow since 1990, when the Soviet Union was starting to fall apart. Twenty years later, things have changed. Everywhere you look, there’s a glittering new church with a gold dome and pristine paint: yellow, green, pink, ochre, red. The old grey, gloomy city is being transformed. Some of the churches were used for other functions in the Soviet period and have simply been renovated, but others, razed by Stalin, have been rebuilt, the most notable being the flashy white Christ the Saviour Cathedral which now dominates the skyline.
Alongside the Orthodox time machine, we’re enthralled to discover a new, hygienic westernized Russia of modern conveniences. For every bright new church, there is a Kofe Khauz selling kapuchino and chizkeik, or a Starbucks, or a Kofe Mania. Teenagers pore over pages of plastic menus, young professionals opt for a biznes lanch, tourists revive over coffee and clean toilets. A cleaner in the metro sports a bright yellow overall that says Klining in Cyrillic characters. Waitresses wear red T-shirts, delivery guys wear yellow DHL shirts, security guys wear dark suits and earpieces.
Moscow makes an effort to be well turned out, even if it’s not always clear what look is being attempted. After seventy years of missed fashions, it’s a grab bag. The skinny girls who stalk past the Armani and Prada stores in central Moscow wear short skirts with clingy tops and lace boots with torn jeans – Western clothes that for some reason do not produce a Western effect. Is it the way they put it together? Is it the way they walk? Some people are stuck in the broad shoulders and droopy skirts of the 1980s. Others go for Soviet holdovers: contrasting panels and sleeves, or skirts with unfortunate knee frills. On Red Square, there’s a Gay Pride parade: pink T-shirts, yellow balloons, and a lot of police cars. Despite dire warnings in The Moscow Times, it all goes off calmly.
Pasternak’s dacha is in a village called Peredelkino. (Pasternak is called “Yuri Kastalnik” in my book.) I scheduled our visit on Sunday May 30th simply because it fitted in with museum opening days — but by an incredible stroke of luck it turns out to be the fiftieth anniversary of Pasternak’s death. On the suburban train from the Kiev station, we have the good fortune to fall in with Elena, who takes us in hand. Elena lives in New Jersey, and knows Yevgeny, Pasternak’s son. She says there is to be a ceremony at the cemetery, and another at the house. She’s worried about being late for the cemetery, so she steers us into a taxi when we get off the train. The driver is young and seems never to have heard of Pasternak, but it’s not very far to the cemetery and we get there with only one illegal U-turn. Unfortunately the cemetery sprawls in all directions, and Elena can’t remember where the grave is. We slip and slither through the mud (it rained last night) and finally find the grave. There are a dozen people there. One is Yevgeny, who at 87 looks exactly like his father.
The group takes it in turns to recite from Pasternak’s poems. They speak well, they are entirely unselfconscious, and they mostly recite from memory. When someone stumbles over a line, the rest chip in to supply the missing words. The atmosphere is fervent. It’s very moving. More and more people arrive. Flowers are laid on the grave. In due course, everyone adjourns to the dacha, further down the road. Elena leaves in a car with the family, and we set out on foot, but after a few hundred yards a car stops beside us and one of the ladies who was at the graveside drives us the rest of the way.
Pasternak’s dacha is an odd oval shape in dark-red wood, surrounded by trees. It’s vaguely evocative of a ship at sea. In Compassion it serves as the setting where my two main characters, Andrei and Nina, are reunited after twenty years apart. Elena has disappeared, so we join an impromptu guided tour. A helpful young man who has lived in England and the States provides a competent English translation. We are the only foreigners there. We see the table where Pasternak wrote Dr. Zhivago, the bed where he took his nap, the dining table where he celebrated the news of his Nobel Prize, the room where he died, the trees he never saw because they were only planted at the end of his life.
And then the priest arrives. We’re bundled into the dining room with everyone else and issued with candles. The priest recites a prayer for the soul of the departed. Chants are provided by a small group of singers. Everyone bows and crosses themselves in the appropriate places. We don’t understand much of what is being said, but it’s all so intense and fervent that it doesn’t matter. After the prayer, we all move outside for a concert. Benches have been placed under the trees for the spectators, who are still appearing in a constant stream. A trio plays Tchaikovsky, a choir of young girls sing, someone reminisces about Boris Leonidovich.
While Vivien attacks the Kremlin next day, I pursue my investigations into literary Moscow. Results are mixed. On Nastasinsky Lane, where the Poet’s Café used to be in the 1920s, there is now a chain restaurant called Dzhon Dhzoly, a Jaguar dealership, and a Subway. Patriarch’s Ponds has been yuppified since Bulgakov’s time: the tram has gone, and there is no sign of the devil. I walk past Beria’s old mansion, which is now the Tunisian Embassy. Skeletons left over from the secret police chief’s orgies were dug up in the garden in 1993. The Writers’ Union, where Mandelshtam and his wife used to go to beg for help, still sprawls luxuriously around a horseshoe-shaped courtyard.
But in the house where the poet Marina Tsvetaeva used to live on Borisoglebsky, the atmosphere is as fond and familiar as at Pasternak’s dacha the previous day. I am the only visitor, and the guide is happy to show me round and answer questions, referring affectionately to Marina and Sergei (Sergei Efron was Tsvetaeva’s husband, and his family provided documents for the museum) as if they were dear friends who had just stepped out. It’s a different world from the commercial glitz, and it clearly has stronger values and deeper roots. It’s a world whose inhabitants know who they are and where they’ve come from. Tsvetaeva doesn’t appear in Compassion, but I borrowed her house for “Kastalnik.”
Osip Mandelshtam, who is the model for “Ilya” in my book, has no house-museum. Unlike the other poets, there isn’t even a plaque on the places where he lived. Admittedly, there were a lot of them. Mandelshtam defied Stalin openly, and refused all compromises with the regime. Too well-known to be killed outright, he was hounded from pillar to post before being shipped off to the camps. He was an outcast during his life, and remains uncommemorated after his death – presumably because there is no family, no money, and no one bringing pressure to bear. On our last day we stop in Zamoskvoreche, across the river from the Kremlin, where he lived for a while. It’s a peaceful little neighbourhood that must have suited him well.
Back in Red Square, we take a look at GUM, the former State Universal Store, merchandise now supplied by Dior and MaxMara, and then splash out on an apéritif in the landmark Hotel Metropol. The bar is a haven of magnificent gloom where multingual businessmen huddle round their laptops in fake leather chairs. Outside, the air is full of puff balls from some mysterious plant.
Click here to learn more about the book, and to buy Compassion in print or e-book form.
Leningrad, 1938. The night is still. The linden trees in the courtyard have fallen silent. In the apartment, nothing moves. The only light comes from the desk lamp at her elbow. She hunches over the paper, pen in hand. The matches are where she always puts them, next to the saucer. If the knock comes, the page can be burned within seconds. All the time she is working, she is listening, straining her ears. It is midnight, but no one is sleeping. The whole of Leningrad is awake, cowering behind closed doors. If she sits very still, she can hear the city breathing.
Cover it with darkness.
She stares at the poem, reciting it in her head, gauging the sound, the rhythm, the choice of words, moving, adding, deleting-
The sound of a car engine slashes the silence. At once she tenses. Her hand creeps across the table towards the matches. She sits immobile in the darkness. The car drives on, the engine fades away. No, they haven’t come for her, not tonight, not yet. She lets out her breath.
Closing her eyes, she begins to recite the poem to herself, over and over, until she is sure she knows every word. Her work is finished. She has one thing left to do. Crumpling the paper into the saucer, she strikes a match. The flame shoots up, bright in the darkness. She puts the match to the paper. Within seconds, it shrinks to ashes in the saucer. The flame dies. The blackness closes in again.
Take away the lanterns.
In 1935, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova began to write a poem called Requiem. Stalin’s purges were under way, people were disappearing from one day to the next, yet no one talked about what was happening because they were afraid to do so. Standing in line at the Kresty prison in Leningrad one day, Akhmatova was approached by an unknown woman who asked her if she could write about what was happening. Akhmatova agreed that she could.
And so she took it on herself to write a series of poems so that the terror being visited on the Russian people should never be forgotten. She wrote alone in her room at night, learned each text by heart, and burned the paper it was written on. If the NKVD had found it, they would have sent her to the camps.
Picking up a French translation of the poem in a bookshop one day by chance, I was fascinated by Akhmatova’s themes of time and memory and loss and survival. Digging into her biography, I found the story of her affair with the artist Boris Anrep, who moved to England in 1917. Akhmatova never forgot him, and they were reunited briefly in London in 1966.
Survival through memory is the theme of Compassion, and the love that defies space and time is its foundation. I used Anrep and Akhmatova as models for the main characters, even though I had to take extensive biographical liberties to make the project work.
The title of the book came from Anrep. One of the mosaics he created for the vestibule of the National Gallery in London represents Akhmatova, and he called it “Compassion.”
In my book, I called the two main protagonists “Andrei” and “Nina.” Andrei is entirely an invented character, for I was unable to discover much about Anrep’s life. Anrep was a mosaicist, but I made Andrei a sculptor.
Akhmatova was different. She had a complicated private life that involved three husbands and numerous lovers. In Russia she is revered as a major poet, and in the West as well. None of the accounts of her life gave me a sense of what she was like as a person, especially when she was young. Hagiography, not biography, was the order of the day – and of course I was suffering from reverence myself. Akhmatova overawed me. I didn’t feel I could work with her, which was why I created Nina. Nina and Akhmatova are not the same person, even though certain outward elements of Nina’s life resemble those of Akhmatova, and the poetry I ascribe to Nina was written by Akhmatova. Nina is a product of my imagination just as much as Andrei.
In Compassion, the story I tell is this: Andrei arrives in Petrograd in 1921. He sees the celebrated poet Nina Anishkova walk into The Stray Dog cabaret, and Nina sees him. It’s the start of a love affair which will last for the rest of their lives. But Andrei is half English and, when the Bolsheviks threaten to shoot him as a British spy, he is forced to flee to London.
Nina fails in her attempt to join him, and the gates of Soviet Russia slam shut behind her. Destitute, half-starving, forbidden to publish her poetry in spite of her fame, trying desperately to make a life for herself and her son, she is forced into a loveless marriage by her need to survive.
During the Terror, her husband is taken, and she begins to write Witness, a poem about the purges. Working secretly at night, alone in her room, she learns each line of the poem by heart, and then puts a match to the pages.
Unlike many of her fellow poets, Nina survives the purges, and in 1944 she is reunited with Andrei in Moscow. Again they attempt to make a life together, again they are thrown apart. Andrei is deported from Russia. Nina stays behind.
In 1968, they meet one final time in London. Nina dies shortly afterwards, but Andrei lives to see Witness published in Russia for the first time, fifty years after it was written. Andrei is now over ninety, and a world-famous sculptor. He tells his grand-daughter Charlotte about his love for Nina, and the life they should have had that was stolen from them.
Akhmatova and her third husband Nikolai Punin lived in an apartment at the back of the former Sheremetev palace, which stands on the banks of the Fontanka canal in what is now St. Petersburg. It was Akhmatova who christened it “Fontanny Dom.” The apartment is now a museum. I went there for the first time in the early 2000s, and returned a second time in 2010 when I was researching Compassion.
The apartment doesn’t overlook the canal, but a tree-filled courtyard. Since my last visit, it’s been revamped. There’s an excellent English audioguide, and some new exhibits. Visitors are sparse. The atmosphere is austere. The previous week in Moscow, I had visited other poets’ houses: Tsvetaeva’s apartment and Pasternak’s dacha. Both were contemporaries of Akhmatova. In both places, the atmosphere was one of fond familiarity, but it’s not like that here. Akhmatova is never referred to as “Anna,” not even “Anna Andreyevna.” She is never anything but “Akhmatova,” and it’s a little like being in church. You can almost cut the reverence with a knife. This is not a family home, even though her husband Punin’s overcoat hangs in the hall, and his cameras and family portraits are on display. This is sacred ground. This is where she wrote Requiem during the Terror, this is where she and her friends learned the text by heart, this is where where she burned the paper in the ashtray.
Revisiting the house makes me remember why I wanted to write about her. I take notes and a few surreptitious photographs, and the museum attendants smile at me, let me sit down to listen to the audioguide, and thank me for coming. When a foreigner shows an interest in their culture and literature, Russians lose their habitual glumness and blossom in an unexpected and charming way. The previous day I spent a long time dithering over tickets for a Mahler concert that cost upwards of $40 each. (Prices for foreigners are higher than for locals.) In the end I decided they were too expensive and went away. Halfway down the block I changed my mind. It wasn’t as if I got the chance to go to the St. Petersburg Philharmonia very often. Retracing my footsteps to the concert hall, I was greeted with open arms by the ticket lady, who cheerfully sold me two tickets at the Russian price of $20.
The next poet on my visiting list is Aleksandr Blok. Leaving the Sheremetev palace, I continue along the Fontanka, and cut up past St. Nicholas’ Cathedral (where Akhmatova’s funeral service was held), to the legendary Marinsky Theatre on the Street of the Decembrists.
Blok lived right at the end of Dekabristov ulitsa in a house that overlooks a canal. As soon as I see it, a reference in one of Akhmatova’s poems from 1914 falls into place. She visited the great Symbolist poet in his high grey house by the sea-gates of the Neva, on a Sunday, precisely at noon. Seeing the house for myself, I can picture it exactly.
Blok appears briefly in Compassion under the name of Vyacheslav Feld. He is my heroine Nina’s first husband. In real life Akhmatova and Blok were never married, but the idea that they might have had some kind of relationship came to me from reading what they wrote about each other. Blok wrote about a rose in a glass of champagne and a tantalizing woman that everyone is in love with. In her poem To Aleksandr Blok, Akhmatova wrote: His eyes are so serene/one could be lost in them forever./I know I must take care/not to return his look.
Poetry is not proof, of course, and none of the respectful biographers hint at anything untoward. Still, reading between the lines, it felt like something that could have happened.
Blok had a fabulous view from the big, quiet room where he worked at the top of the house, but he lived in the middle of nowhere. Central St. Petersburg is remarkably short of public transport. The metro is designed to bring people in from the suburbs, not get them around the centre, while buses are few and far between. This means you have to walk. Before setting out on the long trek back to my hotel near Nevsky Prospekt, I stop at the nearest café to get a drink. The café is Georgian. A lady with very dyed red hair is arranging napkins in intricate structures for the evening’s clients. A bland male voice is crooning something vaguely oriental, and she hums along. The poets of 1920s Petrograd are long gone.
The reason we take the night train from Tbilisi to Baku is because I have an unshakeably romantic notion of overnight trains and their glamourous ways. You climb aboard in Liverpool and wake up in London; you go to sleep in Samarkand and wake up in Tashkent. Kathy, being a good sport, goes along with this. My first doubts emerge when we get to the rail station in Tbilisi. It’s a desolate concrete hall with scuffy shops and a tragic cafeteria. There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere to wait. There are no exotic countesses of mysterious lineage, swathed in furs, stalking through the crowds. One reason for this is that there are no crowds. Come to that, there aren’t many trains. The whole place has a derelict feel. On the platform, I trip over an oddly placed lump of concrete and go down hard on one knee.
They let us board the train half an hour before departure. It’s cosy and shabby. We have a compartment for two with a door that locks, and just enough floor space between the bunks to stash our suitcases. An attendant hands out mismatched flower-patterned sheets and pillow cases, and a tiny square of towel for ablutions in the grim toilet at the end of the corridor. Usually they give you free chai on overnight trains, but sadly the samovar on this one doesn’t seem to be working.
The train leaves Tbilisi at 19.15 and arrives at the border with Azerbaijan at 20.30. A Georgian official comes through the coach collecting passports. Mine is French, Kathy’s is American. After a while, they’re returned with exit stamps. Then we chug off to the Azeri frontier. The journey across no man’s land takes a good ten minutes. It’s too dark to see what they’ve got out there. Mines? Miradors? Barbed wire? The last time I crossed an ex-Soviet land frontier – on a bus between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – things were pretty relaxed. But, as Lonely Planet delicately explains, entering Azerbaijan is “sometimes awkward.” For a start you need a visa, unlike the other Caucasian countries. Azerbaijan has a repressive political regime, and unresolved disputes with its neighbour Armenia. The train shudders to a standstill, and the Azeri officials board.
When the Soviet Union started to fall apart at the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions blossomed in the Caucasus. First there was unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh (a predominantly Armenian enclave inside Muslim Azerbaijan), then there were anti-Armenian pogroms in and around Baku, then Moscow sent in Soviet troops and their intervention caused dozens of deaths. Sixteen percent of what used to be the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR is currently occupied by Armenia, and so the first thing everyone wants to know is whether we’ve been sleeping with the Enemy. Fortunately, we have not. Our itinerary on this trip didn’t include Armenia. Just as well: it’s the main thing on everyone’s mind. The immigration officials ask if we’ve been there, so do the customs officials, and later so do our guides in Baku. Land grabs and blood feuds are taken seriously in this part of the world.
The passport officials commandeer an empty compartment further down the coach and the passengers are summoned one by one to give an account of themselves. It’s very Agatha Christie. You start to wonder if you’ve murdered someone. In a modern twist, they take our photos too. Kathy is asked again if she’s been to Armenia. When it’s my turn, since they can see I was born in England, they cunningly inquire if I’ve got another passport (which I might have used to conceal any treasonous detours). Of course not, I say, feigning perplexity. Welcome to Azerbaijan, says the official.
Next along the coach is a lady customs official, who wants to know what we bought in Georgia. Spices, ma’am. What else? Since I’m stupid enough to mention some kilim cushions I bought in Tbilisi, she makes me dig them out of the bottom of the suitcase. Kilims over a certain size require an export licence, and I can’t make her grasp the concept of cushions. By the way, have we been to Armenia?
I first got interested in Baku in the 1990s. Caspian oil reserves were neglected by the Soviets, but when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991 no time was lost in scouting out international investment. The foreign oilmen jetted in, with the Western press hard on their heels. I was fascinated by the tales of Western oil barons doing deals with former stars of the Communist Party in a town where oil rigs stood side by side with Caspian Belle Époque mansions. I put Baku on my list of places to visit – but it’s taken me twenty years to get there.
Right now Baku is in the middle of its second oil boom. The first one began in the 1870s – oil was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century – and by 1905 the sleepy provincial Caspian town had become a modern metropolis supplying half the world’s oil. Its population shot from 14,000 to 206,000. Ethnic Azeris were outnumbered by Russians, Armenians, Jews, and Europeans. Wedged between the desert and the Caspian, Baku became a cosmopolitan city whose inhabitants thought of themselves not as Azeris, but as Bakintsy: sophisticates not shepherds, men and women of the world. (The chess player Garry Kasparov still identifies himself as a Bakanets.) World War I triggered an international scramble to control the Caucasus and its oil wealth. For a while it looked as though the British had won, but then the Bolsheviks pushed them out. Twenty years later, the lure of the oil wells drew the Nazis south towards the Caucasus. Happily, Hitler got sidetracked by the siege of Stalingrad. If the Wehrmacht had made it down to Baku, Caspian oil might have allowed him to win World War II.
As soon as all the officials have left, the attendant moves down the coach, turning off lights. Sleep time, she says as she walks past our door. When we wake up we’re in Azerbaijan. Raising the blinds we peer out at an inhospitable vista of scrubby desert and arid mountains. Gradually the landscape turns into an oilscape. The train chugs past mile after mile of refineries and pipelines. A flame of fire burns brightly in the morning gloom. Half-constructed houses stand sadly amid the oil rigs. After a lengthy stop in a station on the outskirts of town, the train gasps into Baku an hour late.
The Baku rail terminal is a thing of wonder. It ushers you slickly into the country: it gleams, it sparkles. Money talks! Oil money talks loudest of all. It’s cold and rainy and there’s no one to meet us. We find a bench to sit on and start calling and texting, and after a while, the driver from the tourist agency ambles up. He doesn’t apologise for his lateness. He looks a bit like Yul Brynner. His English isn’t great, but he speaks some Russian. We set off for the hotel.
The Shah Palace Hotel is located at the entrance to the Old City, and overflows with Arabian nights charm and Azeri oil bling. The floor of the lift is so ornate it seems a shame to walk on it. The inner courtyard is stunning. We’re too late for the buffet breakfast, but the hotel provides an amazing improvised picnic. Our irritability subsides.
Still, it can’t be said that our stay in Baku is an out-and-out success. The planets are not in the right conjunction. Part of the problem is the weather we encounter, and part is the people we find ourselves dealing with. October in Baku is supposed to be balmy, but we’re out of luck and it rains almost non-stop. Our view of the city is consequently blurry. We perceive it mainly through fogged-up car windows. Baku is said to be choc-a-bloc with fancy cars and up-market boutiques, but we can’t actually see them. It’s too cold to get out and stroll. Baku escapes us. On top of that, the itinerary is a mess, and the guide makes it clear that we’re invading her personal time. The charm and spontaneity of the Georgians is replaced by a warier, more rigid mindset that brings to mind the Soviet past.
Laila, our guide, is a short, frenetic woman who does everything at top speed. She shows up half an hour late, claiming that the streets were blocked because the President was on the move (something she might have considered checking beforehand), and announces right away that she’s changing the programme. Today we’re supposed to be getting a city tour, and a visit to the Old City. Tomorrow we’re meant to head out of town to an archeological reserve in Qobustan, and a winery in Gabala. Wednesday is free, and on Thursday we fly back to Paris. Laila decrees that we’re going to Qobustan today. Since it’s tipping down the kind of rain that impelled Noah to build an Ark, we’re quite thankful to sit in a warm car and be driven round. Qobustan, it turns out, is only 60 km away, down a well-paved six-lane highway. The rain prevents us from seeing much, but Laila entertains us with statistics.
Azerbaijan has a population of ten million, four million of whom live in Baku. Another thirty million Azeris live in Iran. They’re separated by the Arax River. Laila says the northern Azeris, who have lived for a long time in the Russian sphere of influence, are more “modern” than the southern Azeris, who have traditionally been exposed to Persian mores and customs. The mullahs versus the commissars? No doubt she’s right.
Oil was discovered here in 1846, and attracted European investors such as the Rothschilds in 1873, and the Nobel brothers in 1876. The oil barons built themselves mansions in the Parisian style, with the help of Polish and German architects, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Baku attracted physicists, doctors and engineers – “people with good brains” – of varying nationalities, who thought of themselves as Bakintsy, residents of Baku, rather than of Azerbaijan. One of them was the notorious Soviet spy Richard Sorge, who reported to the GRU from Japan while disguised as a German journalist. He warned Moscow of the imminence of a German invasion in June 1941, but his warnings went unheeded. There’s a monument to him, says Laila, in the centre of town. The day after, she makes sure that we see it. Sorge seems to be a hero of hers. He was hanged in Japan in 1944.
Moving right along. From 1993 to 2003, the President was Gaidar Aliyev, who was formerly the First Secretary of the Azerbaijan SSR, and before that the head of the Azerbaijan KGB (actually, she doesn’t mention that). When he died, his son Ilham succeeded him. Until 2012, there were oil rigs right in the centre of Baku, but they have now been replaced with a seaside park. On September 20, 1994, the Contract of the Century was signed with four major oil companies: Lukoil, BP, Aramco, and Unocal. It was a great day for Azerbaijan.
We’re driving down the coast of the Caspian Sea through a vast industrial zone which stretches for miles. There’s gas as well as oil in the Caspian. We pass the Baku Shipyards, which opened in 2013 to make cargo tankers for use on the inland sea. Laila points out the limestone quarries which provided the stone for the oil barons’ mansions in central Baku. There’s a cement factory, and a solar energy plant. (Demand for oil is likely to decrease worldwide in the next few years. Solar energy must be Plan B.) Meanwhile Azeri oil is being piped to the West through the BTC pipeline, which has made the country extremely rich. BTC stands for Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and the pipeline is 1747 km long. Ceyhan is on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and the route of the pipeline neatly bypasses the Enemies in Yerevan and the unreliable Neighbours in Russia and Iran.
In between bouts of spouting facts, Laila talks on the phone. She talks to her husband, who is looking after their daughters this afternoon, her mother-in-law (sorry, but she really has to take this!), and several unidentified others. Azeri is a Turkic language and its sound is harsh. After Independence, Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, and the road signs are written in Latin script. The transition was difficult for older people, says Laila, and her parents had a lot of trouble adapting. English is mandatory in schools, and her daughters, aged 10 and 11, both have English classes. It’s not clear if Russian is obligatory too. Most of the Azeris we deal with seem more at ease in Russian, which was of course the Soviet lingua franca.
Qobustan is a sea of rocks decorated with petroglyphs 12,000 years old. The rain has not let up, and it’s blowing a gale. It’s flat along the Caspian, and Baku is always windy. We bundle up as best we can, and set off up the hill. Laila leaps athletically ahead of us from rock to rock, not bothering to check if we’re keeping up, disbursing information to whoever catches up first. Qobustan is a strange other-worldly landscape, with the decorated rocks and the grey Caspian sea in the distance, but it’s too cold to linger. We polish off the visit in double quick time and retire to the shelter of the museum. Claiming she’s sick, Laila sends us off on our own, and settles comfortably in the lobby with her phone.
Azerbaijan has an authoritarian regime nurtured by the Aliyevs père et fils. A lot of police cars can be seen on the road, and one or two more are parked prominently beside the museum. Compensating for the absence of democracy are the very clean toilets we encounter everywhere. After two weeks of rather nerve-racking Georgian facilities, it’s a welcome surprise.
Next on the itinerary, we’re happy to hear, is lunch. Laila takes us to a restaurant on the outskirts of town tucked away beside a “naphtaline” clinic, whose purpose is not quite clear. The restaurant is impossible to find if you don’t know it’s there. Laila says you can tell it’s good food because “there are men in there.” (In France they say you know a place is good if you see truck drivers eating there. Men must be the same everywhere.) Several tables at Chez Naphtaline are occupied by groups of men. Judging by the way they’re dressed, they aren’t truck drivers. Lunch consists of three different salads with a purée of red berries (odd but tasty), followed by soup, and then some kind of meat stew. It’s all very good. Just what you need on a cold wet autumn day. Wine is not on offer, but there’s some fruit stuff they call kompot. Like the Georgians with their sweet lemonade, the Azeris like sugary drinks with their food. Happily there’s mineral water too.
Warmed, fortified and bathroomed, we head back into town. Laila points out the Ministry of this and that, the Presidential offices, and a few other things. It’s still pouring with rain. The driver doesn’t slow down to let us admire the prestigious buildings, in fact I think he accelerates. He speaks Azeri only, and is not especially friendly. We stop in a vast marble park with a fabulous view over the city and the Caspian. The rain lets up a bit. The city stretches along the water’s edge for miles, and the sea is sullen and grey. Laila explains that a train used to run along the sea front to service the derricks and oil rigs, but it’s been removed, the area has been cleaned up, and the business end of the Caspian has been transformed into the Bulvar, a long sweep of parkland along the edge of the bay, home to some very nice hotels – the biggest in the Caucasus, she says. Of course they are. Lonely Planet claims the Bulvar is a great place to take a stroll on summer evenings, but at the end of the season, with the air full of rain, it’s frankly not appealing.
The park contains memorials to victims slain by the Soviet Army in 1990, as well as a memorial to Turkish soldiers from World War I. The Turks helped us to fight the Armenians, Laila explains. Farther off we can see the Flame Towers: three huge glass skyscrapers in weird flame shapes that were completed in 2012. Azerbaijan is the Land of Fire, and these are its emblems. The buildings bear more than a passing resemblance to the towers of Batumi on the other side of the Caucasus, and it occurs to me that one might have inspired the other. Baku also boasts a Trump Tower, and Kathy asks where it is. Laila points it out. Then she asks why we don’t like Trump. We’re perplexed. Where to start? In the end, Kathy says the family is very corrupt. Oh really? says Laila coolly, and chivvies us down vast flights of slippery marble steps back to the car.
It’s getting dark by now, and the rain is still falling, but we aren’t done yet. Laila sweeps us off on a snappy walking tour of the Old City – “to get it out of the way,” she announces blithely: just a quick orientation tour, so we can find our way around. The Old City was the heart of Baku before the oil barons’ builders moved in. It’s small and charming with narrow streets, mosques, galleries, and carpet shops. We’re too busy watching our feet on the slippery cobbles to take much in. Laila marches ahead. When we’re thoroughly disoriented, she points out the restaurant where we’re to have dinner, asks what time we want to eat, and leaves us to it. It’s a relief to see her go.
The restaurant is round the corner from the hotel, down a flight of steps in a cosy little room. Laila has ordered us salads and pancakes, which is plenty. Kathy adds in a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which slides down very nicely. On one side of the room is a live singer, and on the other side is a muted television screen showing a movie that looks as though it might be Turkish. But then some of the characters board an Aeroflot plane. It must be home-grown Azeri (definitely not Bakintsy). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. Everyone has a good time.
So in just half a day Laila has ripped through pretty much everything on our two-day itinerary – except for the winery in Gabala, which she has made up her mind not to go to. On the face of it, her objections are perfectly reasonable. For one thing, it’s a 200 km drive from Baku. It turns out to be in the opposite direction from Qobustan, which we were supposed to see on the same day. (In Georgia the itinerary suffered from a certain amount of unrealistic planning, and this looks like more of the same. Plainly the lady who sold us the tour has never been east of Boston.) Gabala is nice in summer, says Laila, but much too far to go in weather like this. We don’t need convincing. Having spent two weeks driving the length and breadth of Georgia, we’re more than willing to pass up another long drive, but she comes back to the subject so often, and harps so much on how unrewarding it would be, that we start to suspect that she’s pulling a fast one. But by now we’re as anxious to get shot of her as she is to get rid of us. She talks too fast, she moves too fast, and she despises senior citizens. But she has to occupy us a few hours longer to forestall any complaints, so on Tuesday morning she takes us out to the Absheron Peninsula, which lies east of Baku, jutting out into the Caspian Sea.
Ab means water, and sheron means salty. The main attractions here are the unquenchable flames of gas spurting out of the earth. Marco Polo saw them in the thirteenth century, though the landscape might not have looked as weird back then as it does now. The peninsula is covered with rigs and derricks and, mixed in with all the oil industry bric-à-brac, is a dazzling array of petrohotels, petrovillas and petrobeach resorts. Baku is a really strange place. There’s a stadium which housed the 2015 European Games, something else that housed the Eurovision Song Contest, and an Olympic Village built in a sort of Oriental-Haussman style. There are Soviet housing blocks whose façades have been redone in the Caspian Belle Époque style of the city centre (with the authentic Soviet plumbing presumably untouched behind them), and refugee housing for people driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh. By the way, asks Laila, have we been to Armenia?
We stop to see a house owned by the Nobel brothers called the Villa Petrolea, and continue on to the Suraxani Fire Temple, a flaming fire temple originally used by Zoroastrians, and rebuilt by Indian devotees of Shiva in the eighteenth century. Inside the walled courtyard are cells for worshippers, now ornamented with wax figures of devotees and donkeys.
On to Yanar Dag, the Fire Mountain. It’s a long stretch of hillside with flames flickering out of the earth. At least it warms us up. I’m disappointed to learn that they aren’t the same flames that Marco Polo saw. These were lit accidentally in the 1950s by someone’s cigarette.
Back into town past the oil rigs and the petrovillas. In the car we start asking questions about daily life and how ordinary people survive. Laila has to think a bit about questions that aren’t in her prepared script, but in the end she admits that there’s a lot of corruption – the envelope system, she calls it – and everyone gets by as best they can. And then she announces that she could have told us something very interesting if only I wasn’t writing it all down. (Yesterday she asked why I was taking notes, so I told her I was a writer. What did I write? Novels. What kind? Contemporary history. Was I researching a novel now? Not sure.) So I ostentatiously close my notebook and put my pen away and wait for the revelations. She hums and haws a bit, and then informs us that we are in very good hands here in Baku because her husband works for the Ministry of National Security (that’s the successor organization to the KGB) and that he’s responsible for the safety of foreigners. Oh really?
I wait till lunch to follow up. (Back to Chez Naphtaline: she’s out of ideas.) It’s hard to do because she spends the whole meal on the damn phone. In the end I manage to drop in a question about what kind of foreigners her husband deals with. Is he responsible for all foreigners or just some of them? She says the husband specializes in Saudis and Middle Easterners, and adds that he’s on his way to Moscow even as we speak to confer with colleagues. Is he indeed? So why is she telling us this? To impress us? to intimidate us? to warn us against writing disrespectful novels? Hard to say. I’ve changed her name in this account: maybe that’s what she wanted. Our last stop is at the market, at our request. She’s a bit surprised by this – I suspect she can’t cook – but the market is fun. A slice of real Azeri life. We stock up on loukoum and walnuts and sumac, and then the driver drops Laila at her home, and takes us back to the hotel.
We spend the afternoon wandering round the Old City at our own leisurely pace, investigating kilim shops, looking at towers and fortifications, drinking tea. In one of the shops, I ask the vendor where a kilim comes from. South Azerbaijan, he says. Do you mean Iran? Yes, but we don’t like to call it that, he says with a sad smile. All of the Caucasus seems to be haunted by lost lands and lost peoples.
The main attraction in the Old City is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the seat of the ruling dynasty in the Middle Ages. We’re shown round on Wednesday morning by a young English-speaking guide who explains things at normal speed, waits when we lag behind, and seems to enjoy her work. There isn’t an iPhone in sight. It only gets weird when I ask her about the significance of the Azeri national flag. The flag consists of three horizontal stripes: blue, red, and green, with a crescent and a star on the red stripe. The green, she says, symbolizes Islam, the turquoise blue is the blue of the Turks, and the red stands for blood. Blood? What does that mean? Don’t tread on Azeri toes, or woe betide you? Double-checking with Wikipedia later on, I see that the red stripe is meant to symbolize modern European democracy. So what was that about?
In the afternoon we take a taxi to the Carpet Museum, a futuristic space in the shape of a rolled-up carpet on the edge of the Caspian. The taxi driver talks about his daughter, a junior chess champion, who is scheduled to meet the President, and play in an international competition. The Carpet Museum is a cylindrical treasure trove with some fabulous pieces on show. The rain has stopped and it’s a damp gloomy day. We take a quick peek at the Caspian, but there’s nothing to see. Then we ask the driver to take us to the Ali and Nino Café, which is just off Fountains Square. Leaving us in the car, he goes off to find it, then returns and says it’s closed. (For more on Ali and Nino, see The Kitchen On Top of the Caucasus. The statue below is in Batumi.)
Our last evening in Azerbaijan is spent at a tourist restaurant off Fountains Square. Amalia, the tour coordinator, escorts us there, settles us at a table, and orders the food. The waiters start to bring the dishes. Amalia flutters in the background. The food is mediocre. We’ve had some good meals in Baku, but this isn’t one of them. We order wine. Amalia informs us that it’s not included in the price. We tell her we’ll pay for it separately. For a while after that, the dishes keep on coming, and then the service breaks off. The waiters ignore us. No one brings a bill for the wine, but there’s no more food. Amalia has disappeared. Once again, Baku has evaded us. In the end we get up and go.
A few hours later Yul Brynner appears to take us to the airport to catch the one direct flight to Paris of the week. It’s four in the morning, but he’s exhaustingly full of useful facts and historical commentary. The airport glitters even more than the railway station. By the way, have we been to Armenia?
In September 2017, my friend Kathy and I took a trip to Georgia. The first part of our trip is recounted in The Georgian Military Highway, and this takes up where the first post left off.
Svaneti is a mountainous region so remote that it was never tamed by any of Georgia’s rulers. Even in Soviet times it was pretty wild. It’s a landlocked area high in the Caucasus, famed for the square stone defensive towers where villagers took refuge in times of conflict. Blood feuds were big here until recent times. The dialect they speak is incomprehensible to other Georgians. Svaneti used to be fairly inaccessible, even in summer, but tourism is being developed, and the road that leads up from Zugdidi is being rebuilt. The main town, Mestia, now has ski-lifts, and flights from Tbilisi to the brand-new airport.
The road follows the Inguri river up into the hills, past the Jvari Reservoir, and up towards Mestia. Mist-wreathed mountains unfold into the distance, steep wooded slopes plunge into the ravine, and the trees are tinged with the last pink rays of the sunset. Night is falling, we’ve been driving all day, and everyone is tired. We stop at a roadside café so that Zaza can smoke, but a horde of howling dogs deters him from leaving the car. At the next café things are quieter. But then we hit the roadworks and our pace slows to a crawl. I wish I’d never come on this trip, mutters Kathy, halfway up the mountain.
We reach Mestia about nine p.m. It’s an austere mountain town. We are staying at an austere mountain hostel called the Hotel Svaneti. After the quirky bohemian Kisi in Tbilisi, it’s a bit of a shock. The staircase is steep with uneven treads, and the shower is a death-trap. There’s no bathmat, and no hairdryer. (What??) Reception is staffed by a limp pale girl who looks like the Dryad of the mountains, and is not used to dealing with entitled Western ladies of a certain age who require a certain degree of comfort. Offered a choice of two demoralizing rooms, we take the one alleged to have a view (it’s too dark to check). Dinner is the backpackers’ special – Georgian salad, lumps of cheese, and slices of odd-looking sausage – but then comes soup, which turns out to be just what we need. We clamber back up the neck-breaking staircase, and sleep remarkably well.
At dawn, the view appears. It’s a grey day and there’s mist on the mountains, but I count eleven square stone towers from the window. It’s quite a sight. Discarding plans to go further up the mountain to Ushguli (six hours there and back on an unpaved road), we spend the day in Mestia, where, sociologically speaking, there is plenty to see. We start off with coffee. It’s Nescafé only in the backpackers’ hostel, but Irma guides us to the perfect café just round the corner, where a morose Belarusian lady, who is tired of life in the mountains, serves us café cortado (a stronger, shorter version of cappuccino). It’s cooler than down in the plain, and you need a jacket.
Mestia is not very Soviet. Up here, time skipped a beat. What we see is twelfth-century stone towers and twenty-first century guest houses. The former are still inhabited, the latter not always. For one thing, the season is nearly over (the hiking trails are only open from June to September); for another, a lot of them are only half-built. The Saakashvili government paid to repair the façades, but put nothing behind them, no businesses and no shops. Mestia is a Potemkin village.
The Svans don’t have the usual dark Georgian complexion. They have light-coloured hair, and their eyes are blue or green. Might they be descendants of Vikings? Steppe peoples? Who knows? They glower resentfully at the tourists bustling through the town in search of Snickers and Kleenex and taxis to Kutaisi. The old men stand around looking lost, the young men operate the taxis. Old ladies sit in their shops with their crosswords, barely looking up when you go in to buy bottled water.
The municipal graveyard is romantically overgrown, and features tombstones with pictures of the deceased, and graves fenced in with iron railings to produce a kind of bedstead effect.
The Ethnography Museum is a well-laid out modern space with comfortable white couches to sit and contemplate the valley. It holds an amazing collection of icons from Svaneti’s churches. Eleventh-century Svan masters had a unique style, and certain icons depict St. George spearing, not the traditional dragon, but the Emperor Diocletian. (St. George was a Roman army officer who was executed in AD 303 for resisting Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.) Our guide explains that the Georgians settled in Spain, and named it Iberia, after Iveria, which is another name for the kingdom of Kartli. Well, why not? They might have shared their language with the Basques on the same trip.
The stone towers have three storeys, but the upper floors were used only in summer. In winter one stayed on the ground floor with the animals and tried to keep warm. The tower we visit has furniture dating from the fourteenth century. There are storage bins for flour, meat, and cheese; stalls for the animals; and a tunnel to communicate with the tower next door in case of enemy sieges. We stop at a roadside stall to buy the strong-tasting Svan salt that is a staple of much Georgian cuisine, and then it’s time for cooking class in a Svaneti farmhouse.
What strikes me as we walk in is how much the kitchen resembles that of my husband’s family in Normandy forty years ago. The same kitchen cabinets, the same long oilcloth-covered table that also serves as a work surface, the same bench against the wall, the wood-burning stove and the gas stove side by side. I’ve fallen through a place warp. Granted, Svan wood stoves aren’t exactly the same as the French variety. Also this kitchen serves a few extra functions, such as parlour, television room, and bedroom. Apparently four sons and their families also live in the house, so everyone has to squash up.
Dali has put on her best black dress to greet the tourists, and borrowed her neighbour’s kitchen because it’s bigger than her own. The neighbour slouches round a bit, watches the cooking, and then heads off to milk the cows. Dali shows us how to make kubdari, a kind of meat pie. The dough demands far too much kneading and rising ever to be undertaken in my household, and the meat filling is seasoned with Svan salt, regular salt, garlic, dill, coriander, pepper, and something called gitsruli, a herb found only in Svaneti. You flatten the ball of dough, add the meat mixture, pull the edges closed from underneath, and flatten some more. We’re allowed to try. After that the top is glazed with melted butter. Next comes khachapuri: you place the cheese on the dough, cover the cheese, then make a hole on top. Next comes chvishtari, cornbread with cheese, fried not baked. Next comes tashmujabi, mashed potato with cheese. Next comes dinner, and after that, if you’re not careful, comes indigestion. It’s hearty peasant food to keep out the cold. The winters are very hard and brutal here, says Dali. It’s all washed down by some noxious brew that reminds me of the pear-based stuff my father-in-law used to inflict on the unwary. Forewarned is forearmed, and I stick to pure mountain water.
When we’ve tasted everything, Dali relaxes, takes off her protective hairnet, and sits down to chat. In Soviet times, she used to manage a warehouse, and her husband ran a hotel that was frequented by the Party elite. Back then everyone had work. These days you need higher education or special qualifications to get a job. Despite that, she says that life is better now. One thing she regrets is that young people are in no hurry to get married and settle down. She has sons aged 40 and 35 who are still living at home. A Georgian movie called My Happy Family that I saw in Paris describes the attempts of a fiftyish lady called Manana to escape life under the same roof as her extended family (parents, husband, daughter, daughter’s boyfriend). Although she manages to move into a room of her own, she can’t escape family meddling. Something melancholy about Dali makes me wonder if there’s a Manana in her trying to get out.
Café Laila on the central square has reliable wifi, unfriendly waiters, and a sign that says Feel the Food. We order two glasses of Saperavi to make up for Dali’s farmhouse plonk, and I read Daniel Silva on the Kindle while Kathy deals with work-related e-mails. On the way back to the hotel, we run into Zaza. It’s nice to see a friendly face on the ill-lit streets. We’re pleased to see him and he’s pleased to see us, but beyond that we can’t communicate. Zaza never learned either Russian or English properly when he was at school. Kathy is working hard on the Georgian alphabet, but our spoken skills haven’t progressed much beyond Hello and Thank you. Fortunately Irma is a gifted interpreter, sliding effortlessly from Georgian to English to Russian as the occasion demands.
We’re late leaving Mestia next morning, partly because I need to wrest my laundry back from the Dryad (the clothes come back still damp, and she deducts one lari off the price per item), partly because we need more café cortado, and partly because we have to buy wine for the picnic we’re proposing to have with the leftovers from Dali’s kitchen. We get our reward in heaven. Driving down the mountain, the clouds drift apart and the summit of Mount Ushba appears above us. Ushba means The Road to Nowhere in Svan dialect. It’s one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus, and is often covered in cloud. Zaza stops the car, and we all leap out and take photos. Going down the mountain in daylight is a big improvement. The bends still make Kathy nauseous, but at least we can see the view. The cold grey waters of the Inguri river plunge down the mountain through ravines so deep that the sun never reaches the bottom, but when they reach the reservoir at the foot of the mountain they turn a startling green – the same colour as the Zhinvali reservoir the other day. Either there are some pretty amazing minerals in the soil, or some pretty amazing chemicals in the water.
Time for the picnic. Zaza stops the car in a likely spot, and Irma removes a bit of barbed wire fence to let us into the meadow. Are we allowed to do that? Of course! she says. Georgia is a big home for all Georgians and friends of Georgia! Zaza sets up the picnic table, Irma uncorks the wine, and we sit in the sun in the meadow eating Dali’s cold khachapuri and kubdari, drinking dry red wine. A Georgian flag, with its five red and white crosses, flaps behind us. Music by Laid Back (a Danish group) drifts over from the car: I’m a happy dreamer, I believe in love….
Batumi has a Mediterranean feel. The sun gleams on the Black Sea, the palm trees and the tangerine trees, and Irma’s favourite pale-blue café overlooking the port. At one end of the bay is a cluster of futuristic towers, and there’s a concert hall where the Black Sea Jazz Festival is held. After the chilly mediaeval austerity of Mestia, it feels like landing on Mars. No more hostels for us. For the next two nights we’re staying at the Sheraton.
The Sheraton gives the concept of bling a whole new dimension. The atrium is several storeys high and decorated with blow-ups of rock stars. Behind the reception desk are large fake bookshelves housing large fake books with heavily gilded spines. I’m not happy about the lack of respect for literature, but the receptionist is helpful and smiling, and a great improvement on the Dryad. Our room is on the eighth floor with a view over a building site on which another nouveau-Saudi edifice is under construction. Over the bath is a rain shower which can’t be turned on; behind the television is an elegant portrait of Margot Fonteyn in swan mode; and in the cupboard is an iron, which I use to salvage the rumpled laundry from Svaneti. Presumably this is the room where visiting oligarchs house their maids.
For centuries, Batumi was an Ottoman city. Annexed by the Russians in 1878, it expanded at the end of the nineteenth century when the oilfields in Baku were developed and a railway line was built to connect the Caspian to the Black Sea. The Old Town is still redolent of Caucasian belle époque, with elegant mansions and ironwork balconies. In 1884, a park was laid out along the seashore for visitors to take the air, and this has been recently revitalized with cafés, shops, fountains, and a 7-meter-high statue of Ali and Nino.
Ali and Nino is a Caucasian cult novel that was originally published in German in 1937. Set in Baku during World War I, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between an Azeri Muslim aristocrat and a Georgian Christian princess. The author’s name was Kurban Said, but no one knew who exactly he was until the 1990s, when Tom Reiss, a writer for the New Yorker, discovered that he was an expatriate Jew from Baku called Lev Nussimbaum, who had died in 1942 in Positano (see Reiss’ book The Orientalist).
The statue occupies a prominent position on the Batumi Bulvar, surrounded by tourists pointing their iPhones and local kids perfecting their dance moves. It’s best viewed at night. The two figures glide slowly towards each other, fuse for a moment, then glide away again. In the troubled Caucasian world of 1918, Ali and Nino had no place to make their lives. At the end of the book, Nino takes the last train to Tbilisi with their child, and Ali dies defending his country against the Russians.
A century later, not all that much has changed. With the collapse of Soviet power, age-old regional insecurities have returned to the surface, and all the small mountain peoples are jockeying for position. Abkhazia has seceded from Georgia, and so has South Ossetia. If Adjara did the same, Georgia’s territory would be drastically reduced, and it would have virtually no access to the Black Sea. But at the moment, this seems unlikely. For one thing, the Adjarans have been classified as Georgians since the 1930s, and the Turks (unlike the Russians) are not offering big-power support. For another, thanks to Saakashvili, Batumi has been given a face-lift, with eye-catching modern towers and a renovated Old Town, and turned into an attractive place to visit. Having destroyed Sukhumi, the Russians come here instead. The beach is pebbly, but there are lots of casinos.
Our next cooking class is supposed to be with Guguli in a village a few miles from Batumi, but it turns out to be with Zebo. Zebo is Guguli’s husband, a Charles Aznavour lookalike, former “revolutionary,” and shameless self-promoter. At the other cooking classes, the menfolk tend to drift away and let the women get on with it. This time Zebo takes over the show, and Guguli barely gets a word in edgeways. Since Kathy is from Virginia, which Zebo once visited on what seems to have been a fund-raising trip, he immediately bonds with her, and dresses her up in a traditional Georgian man’s costume, while Guguli and Irma stretch out the dough between them like a blanket for khachapuri achma, which resembles lasagne.
When we sit down to eat, he takes on the role of tamada (toastmaster) and proposes toasts to Peace, Love, Women, America (without which there would be no money), Villages (without which there would be no Georgia), the Virgin Mary (who is Georgia’s Protector), and Founders (the first people to settle in the village fifteen hundred years ago). Traditionally the toasts are always made in the same order. Sadly they are all drunk in village plonk. It’s wine they must have made last week, and it’s truly disgusting. I get by with just wetting my lips. Irma does the same.
This is our first glimpse of the supra, the Georgian feast. At Tamara’s, we experienced food as an event; at Dali’s, food as subsistence; but at Zebo’s, food is a ritual. The supra is a ceremony underpinning Georgian society, and it is not to be taken lightly (as you can see from the toasts.) A few days later in Tbilisi we see a painting by Pirosmani called Feast in a Grape Gazebo, which shows three dapper gentlemen holding their goblets aloft. The dog in the forefront of the picture looks reasonably cheerful, but the expressions on the faces of the three gents make it clear that feasting is a serious business.
Georgians are not the cheery hedonists that all the food and wine imply. They are mountain men: their life is hard. Their music is melancholy, their expressions are solemn, they are slow to smile. Showing hospitality to guests is a way of proving that they have overcome the trials of their existence. Life is hard, but there is a banquet on the table. It’s a matter of honour.
The next few days are frankly a bit of a blur. We’ve been on the road too long, and we’ve seen too much. We’ve also eaten far too much khachapuri. We knew we were getting cooking classes, but we didn’t realize we’d be expected to consume everything we made. A few things stand out:
At the Ajarian Wine House near Batumi, a bored youth gives us a perfunctory glimpse of the cellars, and a clueless girl provides us each with three half-glasses of different wines, pre-poured and taken straight from the fridge.
At Castello Mare, an imposing Gothic construction on the edge of the sea, we spend a lazy, food-free afternoon in the deserted, end-of-season spa.
In Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, we buy blue fenugreek, marigold powder, saffron and coriander in the indoor market, and visit the tomb of King David the Builder, where Saakashvili swore his oath to make Georgia united and strong.
Wandering through the cemetery in the rain, we see graves with the sculpted heads of the deceased, and tombs with little marble picnic tables where families can chat to their loved ones over lunch.
At Café Palaty, which has faded paint and flowered tablecloths and a pleasing old-world atmosphere, we discover Adjaran khachapuri, which is shaped like a boat and has an egg on top like the sun. Also butter. Very tasty.
Kutaisi is sadder and quieter than cosmopolitan Tbilisi, and has attracted less investment. In the nineteenth century, it was home to artists, poets, singers and intellectuals, but Stalin turned it into an industrial centre. The intelligentsia fled to Tbilisi, the peasants moved to Kutaisi to work in the factories, and after the Soviet collapse it went into decline. Irma grew up in Kutaisi. She remembers the 1990s as a difficult period. Shevardnadze failed to impose a strong central authority. There was no electricity, no water, no heat. It was best to hide your jewellery when you went out. As a student, she had to read her texts by the light of a kerosene lamp, and some days she was unable to get to the university to attend her classes. In 2012, Saakashvili attempted to give the city a new lease of life by transferring Parliament here, but the glitzy new building has failed to give the city the hoped-for boost. MPs come to town to attend debates, and rush back to Tbilisi as soon as they can.
We spend the night at the Tskaltubo Plaza, in a nearby spa town. Behind a façade reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel lurk narrow brown cells where you can barely open your suitcase. We have one more cooking class, and then it’s back to our loft at the Kisi.
Daji is an energetic lady in her mid-sixties with two hip replacements who bustles energetically round her kitchen heating clay dishes called ketsi on an open fire. When the dish is hot, she takes it off the flame, puts some rhododendron-type leaves called nesho in it, places a ball of cheese and dough on the leaves, and piles up the dishes beside the fire to cook. She’s starting to run out of clay dishes, she says, because they all eventually break. We sit down to eat. Daji gives us fire-baked khachapuri, then run-of-the-mill Imereti khachapuri, and when we think we’re done, she suddenly produces a Mingrelian khachapuri too. Guests are a gift from God. Taking on the role of tamada, she proposes toasts to Peace, Georgia, Good Relations between Georgia and the US, ditto Georgia and France, Friendship, Families, the Dead (Zaza’s father gets a mention here, and so does my husband), New Life, and the Virgin Mary. The wine is no better than usual, and to my dismay she makes me drink it – but then she produces home-made chacha, which is delicious, and goes down much better. The floor in Daji’s kitchen is of beaten earth, and her life seems harder than that of our other cooks, but her generosity is irresistible. She reminds me a bit of my mother-in-law. She’s a very nice lady.
So that’s the end of the Khachapuri Trail. The meal after that is a refined little urban snack in the Rooms Bar in Tbilisi. It feels good to be back in the city, drinking expensive cocktails in a stylish environment, even if the music is far too loud, and most of the clients are under twenty-five. When we ask the waitress to turn down the music, she says No, she can’t, it’s Friday night, and turns it higher. Bela joins us for a drink, but our attempts to discuss the future of Georgia and women’s role in society are drowned out, and we go home early.
Saturday morning is cold and grey. In the thirteenth-century Sioni Cathedral, which houses the sacred cross of St. Nino, people are queuing up for communion, and the priest is blessing the harvest. Someone gives sephiskveri to Irma (the equivalent of a communion wafer), and she gives one to each of us. It’s like a small bread dumpling with an image of the Madonna and Child. It’s sitting in a drawer of my desk.
Rustaveli Avenue is a wide modern boulevard laid out by the Russians in the nineteenth century as part of a plan to transform the old Persian city into a European metropolis. It’s named after Shota Rustaveli, the national poet, author of an epic entitled The Knight in the Tiger Skin (in some versions, Panther Skin). Protests and marches are generally held here, and a monument commemorates the nineteen hunger strikers killed by Soviet troops in 1989. After that it was downhill all the way to the conflicts of the 1990s.
In the National Gallery we see works by the nineteenth-century painter Pirosmani, who blends the naiveté of Douanier Rousseau with the mystical atmosphere of Chagall. We browse in the well-stocked English-language book store Prospero’s Bookshop, and take our elevenses in Caliban’s Café right next door (not great coffee). In the Dry Bridge flea market (so-called because the bridge spans a road, not the river), there are swords, jewellery, znachki, teaglass holders, and LPs of Sinatra and Bill Haley. It looks as though all the china cupboards of all the grandmothers in Tbilisi have been raided and put up for sale. On our way home, we spot a large white truck lying on its side at the bottom of a large muddy hole where an underground car park is under construction. It’s quite a shocking sight. Several men are standing round scratching their heads. It’s not clear how they’re going to get it out.
Back at the Kisi, the Saturday wedding parties are struggling up the hill for a photo-op in the Botanical Gardens. The cars get stuck in the narrow street, and the wedding guests – and some of the brides – have to trudge up the cobbles in their pink satin finery and stiletto heels. Down in the Sulphur Baths we are soaked in sulphur, scrubbed and kneaded on a marble slab, and sent back to soak some more. Not a pleasant experience. It serves us right for taking advice from people who have been there once (and once only).
Dinner is at the Café Littera in the Georgian Writers’ building with Irma, Zaza and Natia. The décor is gracefully old-fashioned, and the cuisine is deliciously nouvelle. The chef, Tekuna, is a friend of Irma’s. She spent seven years working in New York. Cheerfully admitting that traditionalists don’t like her way of doing things, she points out that Georgia’s position on the Silk Road has always opened its cuisine to outside influences. She still relies on time-honoured ingredients, she insists, she just uses them in a different way. Her food is delicious. Aubergines and beetroot blended into a walnut paste, Georgian yogurt sauce with pomegranate, shrimps kharcho on polenta, warm artichoke salad with danduri (Kakhetian herbs).
We’re due to leave Tbilisi on Sunday on the night train to Baku. Our final culinary treat is lunch at Barbarestan, one of Tbilisi’s best restaurants, which uses recipes from a book compiled by a nineteenth-century duchess called Barbare Jorjadze. The occasion is a lot more relaxed than our first dinner with Irma and Zaza at the Tsiskvili two weeks ago. Trundling round Georgia on bad roads in all weathers has forged ties that bind. If Irma and Zaza hadn’t been such nice people, the trip could have been a disaster. Barbare, born in 1833, was the first Georgian feminist. She died in 1895. The name of the restaurant means Place of Barbare. Two families manage it, and all the servers are family members. We have a table downstairs in the cellar, the décor is cosy, and the food is good. There are 806 recipes in the cookbook and they use 150 of them.
At the onset of the twenty-first century, Georgia is going back to its ancestral roots. Old cookbooks, old-fashioned décor, village traditions, regional cuisine. On one level they’re trying to wipe out the Soviet legacy, on another it’s just what they’ve always done. Unlike the Armenians with their far-flung diaspora, and the Azeris with their links to Turkey and Iran, Georgia looks inward, and cultivates its home-grown talents. Saakashvili’s attempt to build a united, outward-looking Georgian state with links to Europe collapsed, partly because of Europe’s preoccupation with issues closer to home, and partly because it doesn’t seem to have been what Georgians wanted. It must mean something that a party called the “United National Movement” was ousted by one called the “Georgian Dream.”
Since the Georgian Dream party took over, the country has been pretty much standing still. That might not be such a bad thing. Local conflicts have receded to the point where films can be made about them (Tangerines, Corn Island, Khibula). The big neighbour across the mountains has turned its attention elsewhere. The tourists, reassured, are flooding in. Khachapuri rules. The supra survives. Maybe that’s the Georgian Dream.
Once upon a time Georgia was promoted as the “Soviet Florida,” the land of exotic fruits and seaside resorts, where workers from frigid northern Russia could swim and relax in the sun and eat tangerines. A country of idiosyncratic folklore and quaint customs, it boasted its own Christian Church, its own curving script, and its own language isolate (contrary to rumour, Georgian has nothing to do with Basque). Reputed for food and wine and colourful hospitality, it stood out as a place to escape the ambient greyness. The daredevil Georgian mafia was the subject of many wild rumours (some of them true), and the best restaurant in Moscow was named for a Georgian river, the Aragvi.
Georgia’s reputation for food and wine still holds, so my friend Kathy and I sign up for a culinary tour with an outfit in Boston. It’s supposed to be a group tour, but there are no other takers, so the two of us travel on our own, with a driver and guide. We fly from Paris to Tbilisi in mid-September 2017. The connection in Amsterdam is tight, and our luggage doesn’t make the plane. But Irma, our guide, and Zaza, our driver, are waiting in Tbilisi to drive us to our hotel. Georgians believe that guests are a gift from God. For the next two weeks we are very well looked after.
The Hotel Kisi is located in the heart of Tbilisi Old Town, halfway up the hill to the Botanic Gardens. It’s a boutique hotel that belongs to a famous actress, with quirky décor, loft-style rooms, and a nonchalant atmosphere. The staff seem surprised to find themselves here doing this. The chambermaids loll around in the lobby chatting to the receptionist, the barman follows us round the breakfast buffet recommending this and that. Our room is on the top floor with an amazing view over Tbilisi, a vast terrace, and a leaky shower. Right across the road is a mosque where Shiites and Sunnites worship together. Natia, our tour coordinator, stops by to say hello (a refreshing change from the lady in Boston), and points us down the hill to the Meidan for dinner.
The Meidan was once the site of the main bazaar. It’s a good place to sprawl on sofas and watch the world go by. Cars flow across the Metekhi Bridge, cable cars float above our heads. The air is warm. We drink red Saperavi Merlot and eat our first khachapuri (the addictive cheese-filled bread which is a Georgian staple). The thirteenth-century Metekhi church with its conical-shaped Georgian dome looms on the rocky outcrop across the river. A fourth-century Persian fortress rears on the skyline behind us. We’ve reached the crossroads of East and West, where civilisations meet, and past and future collide.
Our first day begins with a city tour. Tbilisi is gorgeous. It has latticed windows, carved balconies, coloured façades, gorges where houses cling dangerously to the edge of the cliff, sulphur baths with brick domes and Islamic tiles. The sulphur springs gave the town its name (in Georgian tbili means warm). It was a Persian town until King Vakhtang Gorgasali moved his capital here in the fifth century. Later it was captured by Arabs who sailed up the Caspian from the Middle East, and stayed for 500 years. Beria got rid of most of the mosques in the 1930s, and churches dominate the modern skyline. In the Metekhi Church, headscarves are de rigueur, and the atmosphere is fervent. Irma crosses herself, and kisses the saint’s marble shrine. The Georgian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival since the Soviet collapse, and around half the population regularly attends church services.
Rike Park houses some of Tbilisi’s more recent constructions, built between 2004 and 2013 by President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili studied in New York, his English is fluent, his wife is Dutch, and during his tenure he did his best to drag the old Persian city into Europe and the twenty-first century. There’s an Italian-designed glass and steel footbridge across the Mktvari River called the Peace Bridge; two huge fusilli-shaped cylindrical buildings intended to house a concert hall and exhibition space (both currently empty); and a cluster of mushroom-shaped roofs belonging to the House of Public Service, which is where you go to get driving licenses, marriage certificates and the like. The glass walls symbolize openness. Crime and corruption were a way of life in Soviet times, and the mafia conjoined with the Party ran the country. When the Enemy was in Moscow, that was fine, but when Georgia became independent it proved difficult to found a democratic state on old-established habits of bribery, tax evasion, and resistance to authority. Saakashvili was the first to tackle the problem head on.
The cable car that swings across Old Town to the Narikala fortress is another of his innovations. On the hill overlooking the city beside the fortress is an aluminium statue of Mother Georgia, twenty meters tall, with a sword in one hand to destroy Georgia’s enemies, and a wineglass in the other to welcome Georgia’s friends. Further off sprawls a vast glass and steel complex belonging to a former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who resigned in 2013 after one year in office, the better to pull strings from behind the scenes apparently. Ivanishvili is a millionaire businessman with a finger in every pie, and the compound is a cutting-edge structure that reeks of money and looks as though it could launch rockets into outer space.
The cable car takes us back down to Rike Park, and we make our way past a huge concrete piano to the Peace Bridge. Roses carved in the pathways symbolize the Rose Revolution which brought Saakashvili to power. Close up, the Peace Bridge looks like the inverted sole of a very high-end running shoe. It’s time for a break, and Irma knows the perfect café. Our route takes us past the residence of the Georgian Patriarch, and the headquarters of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party. (The party’s name comes from a song by Ivanishvili’s rapper son Bera. The party’s ideology is not entirely clear. Since taking power, it has reversed some of Saakashvili’s more drastic initiatives, but taken few of its own.) Café Gabriadze has a pleasant covered terrace, and wonderful lemonade. Kathy’s is flavoured with tarragon, and mine with mint. Next door is a quaint clock tower built by Mr. Gabriadze himself, with clockwork figures that pop out on the hour.
The last stop of the day is an exhibition of Colchis Gold at the Museum of Georgia. The kingdom of Colchis in western Georgia was where Jason travelled in search of the Golden Fleece. A chic lady in a white dress called Marina gives us a slightly condescending tour. The gold is impressive. Back at the Kisi, we are reunited with our luggage, which was expedited through Munich overnight. Kathy sets up a meeting with a friend of a friend called Bela, who teaches Georgian literature at the university, and turns out to have been Deputy Minister of Education in Saakashvili’s government. A bit taken aback by this revelation, we sit up straight and try to ask intelligent questions, but Bela is presumably used to the talk shows, and her answers are uncontroversial.
Off to dinner. The Tsiskvili offers Georgian music, Georgian dancing, and Georgian dishes in a vast restaurant complex beside the river, with a kitsch fake waterfall lit by garish blue light. Irma is enchanted to see the traditional blue and white tablecloths she remembers from her youth. It’s a slightly strained evening. We don’t know Irma and Zaza very well yet. The music twangs in a melancholy way. The chicken with blackberries, garlic and coriander is memorable. The dancing is hard to see, and harder to interpret. Our table is on a first floor balcony, the dancers are on the floor below, and we have to crane over a high balustrade to see them. The men perform flashy leaps and preen like peacocks, the women smile submissively and look at the floor. Saakashvili tried to bring Georgia closer to Europe, but it seems doubtful that the country would have adapted well to permissive Western mores. Patriarchal family traditions still hold sway, and houses where several generations live together are the norm. Bela tells us about an American exchange student who had been looking forward to a year of fun with hot Georgian chicks, but who only managed twice to get a girl to kiss him. Georgians are socially and sexually conservative, women are expected to be married by their mid-twenties, and unmarried couples living together are unheard of. Both Zaza (29) and Irma (40) are single. We can’t really ask why. It’s hard to be a Georgian man, says Zaza. It’s hard to be married to a Georgian man, retorts Irma.
Mskheta, a hour’s drive from Tbilisi, is where St Nino converted the Georgian King Mirian to Christianity in the fourth century. (Nino, just so you know, is a woman’s name.) The town is twinned with Leuville-sur-Orge, the town near Paris where the exiled Menshevik government of independent Georgia washed up after the Bolsheviks threw them out in 1921. (The last surviving member of that government, an aged gentleman called Mr. Tsintsadze, used to visit my boss at Radio Liberty in the 1970s.) The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, founded in 1010, houses the tombs of several Georgian kings and, it is reported, Christ’s Crucifixion robe. Outside the church is a St. Nino Cross. Traditionally made of vine branches, its arms point downwards. On the hill above the town is the most sacred place in Georgia, the Jvari Church, where King Mirian erected a wooden cross (Jvari means cross).
A few miles further on, we hit the Georgian Military Highway. Originally built by the Russians in the nineteenth century, it’s the quickest way north through the mountains to Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation. (It’s also the quickest way south from Russia down to Tbilisi.) The Caucasus forms the frontier between Russia and Georgia. The peaks are higher than the Alps, and only three roads cross the mountains. We pass rundown houses with gardens full of vines, and shacks selling tomatoes and strawberries and bottled water. Road signs are pointedly written in Georgian and English only (but if the big neighbour to the north gets riled, that won’t deter the tanks). The landscape is dry: it hasn’t rained for two months. Off to the right is the Zhinvali Reservoir, which is a striking shade of green. When it was built, it drowned three villages and two churches. When the water level is low, you can see the cupola of one of the churches.
We stop at Ananauri on the edge of the reservoir to visit the fortress of the Dukes of Aragvi. In the Church of the Assumption, I light a candle for my husband, who died of cancer eight years ago. Not something I usually do, but it feels right. Back on the highway, Zaza skilfully weaves his huge white Mitsubishi between the trucks heading north from Turkey. Dusty Springfield sings Son of a Preacher Man on the car’s sound system. We stop for lunch at a roadhouse with the Aragvi River bubbling past. Lunch consists of khinkali, a dumpling containing meat or mushrooms. You hold the twist of pastry on top and bite delicately into the dumpling to avoid spilling the contents down your chest. It’s an art. Soon after lunch, we cross the Aragvi and the road climbs into the mountains. A series of hairpin bends leads us to Gudauri, a popular ski resort, which offers a range of Alpine-style chalets with names like Hotel Carpe Diem, Hotel Ozone, and Hotel Edelweiss. The sun pours down. An eagle hangs in the air above the slopes, sheep graze on the hillside, a paraglider sails past. A cross marks the Jvari Pass at 2,400 metres.
The Rooms Hotel has a prime location on the hillside opposite Mount Kazbegi (5,000 m). The vast outdoor terrace offers amazing views across the valley. The long indoor bar has deep couches and well-filled bookshelves. Kathy has been sick all day, and she falls straight into bed. In the sauna, I meet Anne-Marie, who worked with an international organization in west Georgia in the 1990s, and returned ten years later. She fills me in on local conflicts while we quietly perspire, observing that none of the different national groups have any major grievances. They hurl insults at each other during negotiations, then exchange cordial greetings once the session is finished, and ask after each other’s families. The hourglass in the sauna hits the ten-minute mark. Outside, the sun is setting behind Mount Kazbegi. Anne-Marie mentions that she’s travelling with an old friend who is a member of the Gamsakhurdia family. Really? I prick up my ears. Zviad Gamsakhurdia is the man responsible for quite a few of the local conflicts. He was Georgia’s first president after Independence: a man with a mission, a die-hard Georgian nationalist.
In Soviet times, the Republic of Georgia controlled autonomous territories belonging to three small mountain peoples: the Abkhaz, the Adjars and the South Ossetians. What began as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience spiralled out of control when the USSR began to collapse. When Georgia demanded independence from the Soviet Union, the autonomous areas demanded independence from Georgia. Gamsakhurdia riposted that “the territory of the sovereign republic of Georgia is united and indivisible,” and did his best to fan the flames, informing the Adjarians that they were not “proper” Georgians, and the South Ossetians that they were only “guests” in Georgia. It did not end well. Elected president of Georgia in May 1991, he was forced into exile eight months later. By then the economy had collapsed, and the country was controlled by armed militias. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been Republican First Secretary before serving as Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, was invited to come and sort things out. He was partially successful. An agreement was reached with South Ossetia in June 1992, but war with Abkhazia broke out in August. The Russians intervened on the Abkhaz side; most Georgian residents fled; Sukhumi, the capital, was devastated.
Anne-Marie’s friend Madame Gamsakhurdia was one of the Georgians who fled Abkhazia. She now lives in Tbilisi. Abkhazia has seceded from Georgia, but remains a ghost nation recognized only by Russia. Zaza, our driver, lost his father to the conflict when he was four.
The Tsminda Sameba church sits on top of a hill, with Mount Kazbegi rising behind it. This is where Prometheus was chained after stealing fire from the gods. In 1988, the Soviet authorities constructed a cable car to get up to Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) from the valley, but the villagers thought it defiled their sacred place and destroyed it. The road up to the church is a horrendous series of hairpin bends potted with holes and strewn with rocks, but the views from the top are amazing. Kazbegi rears into the pale blue sky, cotton wool clouds float past its summit, a breath of eternity hovers around us.
On the way down the mountain we pass the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, an odd circular structure built in 1983 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk two hundred years earlier. The treaty established eastern Georgia as a protectorate of Russia, putting an end to centuries of Persian influence. A fateful decision.
We’re now on our way to Kakheti, modern Georgia’s main wine-growing area. Around four we stop for lunch in Tianeti. It’s very hot. The restaurant has a shady first-floor veranda, and the menu features mainly butter and cheese – melted cheese, moulded cheese, dough with cheese – khachoerbo, dambalkhacho, gamosula. Only two kinds of cheese were available in the USSR, so they have to make up for lost time.
Grapes have been cultivated in Georgia for at least 8,000 years and Georgians may have been the world’s first wine drinkers. Georgia has more than 400 kinds of wine, and drinking wine at table is central to the collective identity. At the Shumi winery, we see how Georgian wine is traditionally produced. After the grape harvest, the grapes are placed in clay jars called kvevri, buried in soil and gravel, covered with a glass sheet, and left for six months to ferment. The constant temperature underground allows for optimal fermentation. By the spring, the fermented liquid will have risen to the top of the jars and the skins will have dropped to the bottom. The wine is then transferred either to oak barrels or another kvevri to age. The grapeskin pulp is transformed into chacha, a kind of grappa. In Soviet times, wine-making was geared to the Russian taste for sweet wine, and semi-dry reds still lurk on restaurant menus to trap the unwary. Irma steers clear of these, and we follow her lead. After the visit, we taste two of the kvevri wines: white Tsinandali, which is a bit too sweet for my taste, and red Mukuzani, a bit too heavy.
Today is our first masterclass in Georgian cuisine, given by a Georgian cook in her own home. At Vakirelebi, we are received by Tamara. Tamara is half-Georgian, half-Russian, born in Moscow, lived for a while in Istanbul, worked as an event organizer, and speaks excellent English. The house belongs to her parents-in-law and Tamara’s project is to present traditional cuisine to tourists with the help of her mother-in-law, Eka. Tamara has turned Eka’s passion for cooking into a business, and the result is a feast of traditional dishes made with home-grown ingredients.
Before we have lunch, Marika from next door shows us how to make churchkela, walnuts threaded on a string and coated in a thick caramel sauce derived from grape juice. We’ve seen it hanging on pegs at roadside stalls and now we’re given the chance to dip the walnut string in the caramel ourselves, swish it round and pull out the string fully coated. The strings are hung up to dry, and we move upstairs to the shady first-floor veranda for lunch. A spread of dishes including catfish with coriander, mushrooms with tarragon, and aubergines with walnut paste awaits us.
After that, there’s shashlyk grilled over vine branches (makes it juicier), and then Eka shows us how to make the walnut paste for the aubergines. The ingredients include blue fenugreek, marigold flowers, and celery leaves. Chickens wander through the yard, and the trees are heavy with fruit. The view stretches across the valley to the distant hills. It’s the perfect place to spend a drowsy summer afternoon listening to Irma and Tamara discussing how a dish can vary from one place to another, and how exploring local traditions brings people to a clearer sense of their own identity.
Signaghi, just down the road, has the feel of a Tuscan hill town. There are wonderful views from its ramparts across the valley to the Caucasus, some nice buildings, and a charming cobbled square. But Kathy is still feeling ill, and today I am too, so after a rather nasty trip to the municipal WC we decide to cut short the visit and drive back to Tbilisi.
Back at the Kisi, it’s Friday night. Loud Georgian rock music blasts up the hill from the cafés down by the river. Kathy wants to see a doctor, so Irma whisks her off to the emergency room in a modern hospital that caters to foreigners. Diagnosed with Traveller’s Diarrhoea, re-hydrated, told to take something called Cipro, she returns to the Kisi at half-past one in the morning.
Next day we set off for western Georgia, stopping first at Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up coffee. Coffee is not the Kisi’s best thing, and “elevenses” are becoming a tradition in our little family. A sign on the outskirts of the city wishes us a Happy Journey in English. It’s 1,715 km to Istanbul and 942 km to Ankara. At Tserovani, we pass a vast refugee camp for Georgians who fled South Ossetia when war broke out nine years ago. When Saakashvili came to power in 2004, he swore on the tomb of the twelfth-century ruler King David the Builder to “restore [Georgia’s] wholeness and become a united, strong state.” Abkhazia had been sewn up by the Russians by then, but Saakashvili got rid of the corrupt regime in Adjara in 2005. Then he attempted to do the same in South Ossetia, but the plan misfired. Open hostilities broke out in 2008, the Russians came to the aid of the South Ossetians, the West failed to give Saakashvili the support he expected, and Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent republic in August 2008. Another ghost nation. Since then Russia has been discreetly attempting to unite South Ossetia with North Ossetia on the Russian side of the Caucasus by surreptitiously moving border fences when no one is looking. Every time the Russians come to Georgia they take something from us, says Irma.
The road to Kutaisi is a fast four-lane highway. The land is flat and fertile with mountains in the distance on either side. Today we’re hearing songs by a Georgian-Irish singer called Katie Melua. We pass Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, without stopping. (Probably we ought to, but we can’t quite face it.) The highway ends 100 km from Tbilisi. Crossing Mount Likhi, we enter western Georgia, which used to be a different kingdom. Modern Georgia was pretty much created by the Russians, who pulled a patchwork of small states together in the nineteenth century. Kartli, the area around Tbilisi, gave its name to the whole country, which Georgians call “Sakartvelo.” The name “Georgia” that outsiders use derives from the Persian “Gurjistan.”
West Georgia was once the Kingdom of Colchis, Jason’s Land of the Golden Fleece. Sheep’s fleeces were used in ancient times to sieve precious metals in the rivers, which is how the Fleece became Golden. In West Georgia it rains more, and the landscape is less arid. Barbie-pink bus shelters stand by the side of the road, and cows wander across the highway. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole sings Over the Rainbow. Kathy and I join in. There seem to be no speed limits on the roads, and Georgians drive as fast as poor road surfaces and meandering cows will let them. Zaza handles his SUV safely and skilfully, but somewhere between Khashuri and Kutaisi he’s stopped by the police for crossing a white line. He loses 30 points out of 100 on his driving licence, and has to pay a fine of 200 lari. For a while, this slows him down.
Cutting round the edge of Kutaisi, we head northwest to Zugdidi. This is Mingrelia, home of Lavrenty Beria and the Gamsakhurdia family. The main drag is named for Konstantin, Zviad’s father, who was a well-known writer. We stop for lunch at four at the Diaroni restaurant. The weather is greyer and colder than in Tbilisi. The restaurant is surrounded by unlovely high-rise buildings. We were supposed to have a cooking class, but the waiter claims that the kitchen is under renovation. It’s just as well. It’s getting late, and we still have to drive up the mountains to Svaneti.
The second part of this trip is described in the post: The Kitchen On Top Of The Caucasus.
Originally published on the internet, back in olden times when e-books were new and shocking, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the prestigious Booker Prize. It’s the story of Sergei, a Soviet dissident, who meets Stéphanie, a French student, in Leningrad, and persuades her to marry him so he can leave the country. But Sergei is not all he seems, and his real target is a woman who defected to France twenty years earlier. A review in the Times Literary Supplement described the book as a “sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika.”
Here’s a short excerpt:
My cousin Stéphanie arrived in Leningrad in February 1986. It was her first trip to the Soviet Union. Russia had possessed her since she was a child, not the grey utilitarian empire of Lenin and Stalin, but a romantic fairytale Russia of izbas and palaces, haunted aristocrats and mad gamblers, golden domes and white nights. For nearly all her life, Russia had been the meeting point of her mind and her emotions, as she waited steadfastly to make the journey in the flesh. But during that brief six-month stay in the USSR, the poetic soul of Russia eluded her: what she encountered instead was Lenin’s ghost.
In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just under twelve months. Gorbachev was the first General Secretary for years who could walk unsupported and talk in coherent sentences: the knight on the white charger come to save the system. Fortress USSR, though still outwardly imposing, was mined on the inside by mould and dry rot, over-centralization and inertia. Gorbachev’s first twelve months in office had been spent cleaning house: clearing the old, dead-wood Brezhnevite officials out of the Party lumber room, urging the population at large to drink less, work more, and to speak out openly about any societal shortcomings that had caught their attention.
Stéphanie had not paid attention to any of this. She was not in the habit of taking notice of trivial things like the deficiencies of the Soviet economy, nor was she going to get excited over a bout of hiring and firing in the Central Committee. Stéphanie had come to Leningrad to research her master’s thesis on Pushkin, and she spent most of her time in the nineteenth century. Gorbachev’s attempts to mobilize the masses passed her by completely. Glasnost and perestroika left her unmoved. Even the explosion of Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failed to make much impact on her — a triumph, of course, for Soviet media coverage of the event, which had been designed with precisely that in mind. It was three days before the television news got around to mentioning that a reactor had been “damaged” and that measures were being taken to “eliminate” the consequences of the accident. Why alarm people by telling them that fifty tons of radioactive fallout have been released into the atmosphere and that the fire is still burning?
The wind blows north from Chernobyl towards Sweden, passing not far from Leningrad on its way, but it was several months before Stéphanie discovered that the reactor had burned for five days and that thousands of people had been irradiated. Foreign newspapers were hard to come by in 1986 in Leningrad, and she had no radio set on which to tune in non-Soviet radio stations. In any case, she lived in a pre-nuclear age. Nothing that happened after World War I held any importance for her. This was a recurring source of aggravation at family dinners, and my father, Stéphanie’s uncle, sometimes got quite annoyed about it. But Stéphanie was nothing if not obstinate. The books she read were by nineteenth-century authors, the concerts she attended were by nineteenth-century composers — in both cases, preferably Russian. When Sergei saw her for the first time, standing alone in front of the Philharmonia Theatre in Leningrad, she was waiting to hear the Symphonie Pathétique.
It was a Sunday evening in May. On Arts Square, next to the Philharmonia, the tulips were in bloom. Sergei could tell she was a foreigner just by looking at her. The clothes, of course, were an immediate giveaway. The pullover was cashmere, not acrylic, and the trousers were of a cut and shape never beheld in local emporia. But more than that, there was something about the way she held herself, and her skin too had some kind of inner glow that Soviet faces didn’t have.
He went on watching her. The pavement around her was emptying, the concert was about to start. She was looking around, biting her lip, craning her neck for a glimpse of the friends who had failed to show up, casting occasional irritated glances at her watch. The latter looked expensive, even from a distance. Probably Swiss, thought Sergei, glancing at his own battered Soviet model. Five minutes to eight. The concert was about to start. Time to make his move. He left his observation post by the statue of Pushkin in the middle of the square, and sauntered towards her. She was searching for something in a capacious leather bag. By now the pavement was deserted. She caught sight of him and, to his astonishment, marched decisively towards him.
“Excuse me, do you have a dvushka?”
In 1986, dvushki were like gold dust in Leningrad. They were the two-kopek coins that you needed to operate public phone boxes, and people hoarded them jealously. In spite of himself, Sergei hesitated before digging in his pocket and reluctantly handing one over.
“Here you are.” He managed a smile, and she smiled back. Her long dark hair fell like a curtain round her face, her features were perfect, her cheeks were smooth. There was something luminous about her. None of this had been evident on the photo they had shown him. Sergei watched her walk over to the phone box with a distinct feeling of dismay.