Stay a while in Stalin country

Jeremy Atiyah is seduced by the beauty of Georgia, once the Tuscany of the USSR, now fallen on hard times

The Caucasus seem to be more metaphor than mountain: The wild place on the edge of the world. The barrier between Christian Europe and Islamic Asia. The corridor to the exotic south. The oriental inspiration for two centuries of Russians - from romantic poets, bums and adventurers, to traders, imperialists and militarists. But what a place to be born.

Frequent, devastating earthquakes throughout recorded history have been bad enough, never mind the clash of empires. How can it possibly be that anything up to 100 tiny nations of people still inhabit these mountains, jammed in between the Black and Caspian Seas? Georgians, Tatars, Chechens, Ossetians, Azerbaijanis, Mingrelians, Khevsurs, Armenians, Abkhazians, Svans, Ajarans, Pshavs, Kakhetians... no wonder people have dreamt of squashing this chaos. Soviet Man and Soviet Woman would have been so much simpler.

But I found it hard to imagine a more attractive country than the former Soviet republic of Georgia, dropping from the peaks of the southern Caucasus down to the Black Sea. Along with neighbouring Armenia it had been a Christian state for longer than Rome. It still retained its unique language and alphabet, relics from the ancient world. It had been cut off from the rest of Europe by the withering away of Byzantium - and yet had miraculously survived to the modern age as a tiny independent state.

Better still, until 10 years ago, this had been the Costa del Sol and the Tuscany of the Soviet Union rolled into one. Millions of Russians came annually to enjoy the Black Sea beaches, the mountain scenery, the spicy cuisine. Georgians were known in Moscow as the Italians of the USSR: open, child-like people, good lovers, who knew how to relax, who drank good wine rather than gut-burning vodka, who painted eccentric frescoes in their churches. Never mind that this little nation of bon viveurs had also produced Stalin, the greatest killjoy of them all. In the end, Georgia was the one republic that ordinary Russians missed after the collapse of their empire.

But had it yet become a place where you or I would take a holiday? Georgia may have reminded the Russians of Italy, but when I arrived last week it reminded me more of Russia. There were the whiffs of cheap tobacco and dodgy exhaust systems; there were the leather jackets, the potholes, the beggars in headscarves, the constant power cuts. As in Russia, the only people earning real money appeared to be "businessmen" and racketeers.

I was staying with a family in Tbilisi where luxury or privacy were not on the agenda, but where good humour, deep intelligence and drunkenness probably were. My host, Merab Gogberashvili - a theoretical physicist and former chess champion - told me that he lived off a negative salary. But was he an optimist? "Of course I am," he retorted. "Only a pessimist would imagine that things could possibly be worse than this."

Had this country of music and blood feuds sunk so low? In fact Tbilisi still shows its character, even in these sad times. Walking along Rostaveli Avenue in the centre of town I found beautiful people, busy cafes, mature trees on the pavements and European 19th-century plaster facades above shop windows. Under the castle fortress overlooking the Mtkvari River, I saw village greenery, shanties, painted house fronts, rickety balconies and staircases, puffs of smoke from chimneys. Church towers and minarets pierced the skyline below the mountains. Only maintenance was lacking: around the mosque I noticed a house that had fallen in half - a chicken was strolling the exposed living room floor. "Such are the remnants of our civilisation," commented Merab gloomily.

To a degree, he exaggerated. In the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown Tbilisi I found a series of stunning icons and pieces of jewellery dating from the 4th to the 19th centuries, the repository of Georgia's nationhood in gold and silver. In 1921 Lenin had ordered this dangerous treasure to be destroyed; against all odds, a local hero, one Ekvtime Takaishvili, had managed to spirit it all away to Paris instead. In 1945, having survived the Nazi occupation of France, it was returned to Tbilisi under the supervision of General de Gaulle and that other local hero, Stalin.

Merab took me for a drive out of town to show me more evidence of Georgia's enduring spirit. As we drove west, the main Caucasus range - a land of eternal snow - soon came into view on our right: no fewer than five 5,000m peaks lie within the borders of this tiny country. On the roadside, we passed fresh grapes. Vines alternated with grassy meadows; shepherds with bear-like dogs watched over their flocks. But the fruit orchards for which this country was once famous were now overgrown and neglected: the vast Russian market, which Georgia once supplied with apples and apricots, has ceased to exist.

As I later discovered, there can be advantages to economic catastrophe. The quality of the Georgian diet, for example. At home, Merab was constantly serving me exquisite home-produced wine, honey, yoghurt, cheese, bread, tea and sausage as well as all sorts of vegetables. Why waste money on buying food when you can make it yourself? The local ecology has also benefited from the cessation of industry (except insofar as the shortage of fuel forces people to cut down trees to use as firewood).

We drove into Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia, where the country's biggest church guards the junction between the roads to Europe and to Russia. For centuries the road north over the mountains from here - the Russians call it the Georgian Military Highway - has been the sole land route linking Moscow with Persia, Arabia, India and the rest of the Trans-Caucasian world. No wonder the towering vaulted church ceilings, the suns with rays like spears, the bull-heads on the gate posts, and the curiously irregular niches and buttresses have acquired such mystic significance for the people of Georgia.

Another 30 miles to the west of Mtskheta lies another town of almost as much spiritual significance for Georgia: Gori, the birthplace of one Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as the Man of Steel - Stalin. It was curious to drive into the only town in the whole of the former USSR where a gigantic statue of the great dictator still stands in the centre of town. We approached down Stalin Street, towards Stalin Park. A fragile spring sun shone on to streets lined by blossoming trees and low brick buildings. Suddenly a huge structure of Oxford stone loomed up, surrounded by colonnaded walkways: the Stalin Museum.

With growing incredulity I mounted a grand staircase along a red carpet to a booted statue of the man himself, in white marble. Stained glass windows added a religious dimension. This was not a museum, but a museum of a museum. There had been no reconstruction here, not even a hint of perestroika.

I walked past pictures of Stalin as a boy, and as a trainee in the seminary ("Stalin later had all his fellow trainees murdered," Merab told me). I passed poems that Stalin wrote about the moon and the mountains, from the time when his soul had not yet turned to steel. I saw Stalin as a rugged, rather handsome young man, attempting to organise the failed 1905 revolution, largely financed by Germany as a means of toppling the Tsar's empire. (Ironically for Germany, their objective was eventually achieved with all too much success. Forty years later, Stalin's armies occupied Berlin.)

As a Georgian, could Merab feel proud of Stalin? "Certainly not," he told me. "But I am not particularly ashamed of him either. Lenin, Trotsky and the rest: they were all destroyers. Only Stalin was working to build something. Of course he built it with slave labour. But he made the USSR into a great power. And the man spent nearly 50 years living in the Kremlin. You try to match that."

According to my host Merab, Georgia's excellent record in producing dictators springs from the traditional role of Toast-Maker, or tamada, which socially ambitious young Georgians are required to practise: to rule, dominate and control a table of drunk Georgians, you need to develop special skills. These were skills which Stalin later brought to bear on 200 million subjects.

Later, in the grounds of the museum, I visited Stalin's cottage (now canopied by a Greek temple-style structure) and Stalin's train carriage, a 19th-century model, made in England, with an interior of polished wood. The main compartment had Persian carpets, armchairs and heavy curtains. Was this where Stalin planned world history while eating his home-made yoghurt? "Perhaps," cautioned Merab. "But don't forget what we used to say about the USSR. This is the only country in the world with an unpredictable history."

The next day I took a bath in one of Tbilisi's famous sulphuric springs in the Islamic part of town to ponder over that history. After lounging in the sulphurous smelling water for a few minutes, I was suddenly ordered to lie face down, naked, on a slab by a masseur, who jumped up on my back and began wrenching my arms and legs, before tossing buckets of boiling water over me. Shades of Stalin?

"Cheers!" As if from nowhere, Merab suddenly whipped out a couple of large plastic bottles. We wrapped ourselves in sheets and sat perspiring in the steam room, laughing over home-made beer and eating salty, oily fish with our fingers. This, I believe, was how the Georgians were meant to live their lives.

GETTING THERE

Jeremy Atiyah flew with Swiss Air (tel: 0171-434 7300), which flies to Tbilisi from Zurich on Wednesdays and Saturdays for pounds 353.80 including taxes.

PACKAGES

Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612) offers three nights in Tbilisi, including flights from London Heathrow, transfers and half-board accommodation staying with families costs pounds 495. With a three-day excursion up the Georgian Military Highway the total price comes to pounds 699, based on two sharing.

VISAS

Apply in writing to the Georgian Embassy, 3 Hornton Place, London W8 4LZ.

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