Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Back in the USSR

Pangs of guilt tinge many of the interactions I have with the people of this country. I have been here more than two months and have done little to learn their language. I know a few sentences of Georgian and a few random words here and there, but my lexicon is tiny, my grasp of the grammar is rudimentary at best, and my pronunciation is still mediocre. In every conversation my Georgian is quickly exhausted and I am quick to fall into Russian, hoping every time that my “რუსული იცით? (Do you know Russian?)” will be greeted with a “კი, ვიცი” or a “Да, знаю” (Yes, I know) that signals to me that no longer do I need to speak in disjointed fragments of single words and gestures, feeling the guilt of butchering these peoples’ language because of my negligence to study and work hard to become conversant. Instead I get to speak with them in a language we often both have a mediocre grasp of, getting our points across, but speaking a language that is a far cry from that of the Pushkins, Tolstoys, and Dostoevskys of the Slavic world. The guilt of butchering the Georgian language is thus replaced with the guilt of communicating with them in the language of the nation the oppressed them for centuries and still today plays the role of the aggressor against Georgian sovereignty in the eyes of many.
            While at first the guilt I described was acute, and I was always self-conscious that my use of the Russian language would stir up something altogether unpleasant in the minds of Georgians, I often find that this is not the case. Talk of Russia, especially talk of the Soviet Union is met with more ambivalence than I think any of us in countries who were on the opposite side of the Cold War would expect. I have talked to many people both in the villages and in the cities about how life now compares to life in the Soviet Union, and have been met with an astounding range of opinions vacillating between two opposite poles. On one side I have met those who remember the Soviet Union as a time when things were better, when there was work to be had, when they had freedom to move about the whole Soviet Union, and when citizens were better cared for. On the other I have met those who loathe the memory of the Soviet Union, who are ready to move on and see a day when Georgia is no longer associated with the former USSR, and who view Russia as a violent oppressor lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce on Georgia and once again stretch her imperialist arms and engulf the Caucasus.
            I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of how the Georgian people view the socio-political climate in the present and how they compare this to life in the past. I am inevitably addressing this topic from the limited viewpoints that I have obtained. I’m sure that living in a small village in one of the poorest regions in Georgia affords me a different set of perspectives than what I would find living in Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, or some of the more developed and economically secure regions of the country, but the accounts that I have obtained should provide at least somewhat of a sketch of how Georgians understand their past, their present, and their future. It is also important to note that I am obtaining these opinions through my own second language and my interlocutors’ second languages (except in rare instances where the conversation was in English), and so there was a limit to our conversations imposed by a limited grasp of the language of our interaction, but despite the difficulties this occasionally imposes, I feel that the spirit of what they were saying to me remains the same as it would of if we were both speaking fluently.
            In the villages I hear the same story time and time again: “there are no jobs, there is no money, and all we have is what we can provide for ourselves.” The despair of this situation even extends to a number of those who are employed but in jobs that pay a pittance for more work than should be expected of an individual, and, especially, to those on government pensions, which were described to me as being woefully insufficient to support anyone in their old age. One day walking through the village of Supsa, the first village I lived in here in Guria, with the coteacher of a volunteer at a nearby village’s school we passed by a series of dilapidated, abandoned buildings, inconsonant in there large size compared to the surrounding buildings. We were told that these buildings once housed two of the major industries of the region: one, a textile factory, and the other a tea plantation (Georgia’s Guria region once grew moat of the tea for the USSR), but now all that was left were skeletons of these once thriving industries. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent period of resurrecting a nation out of its rubble these industries and industries across the nation crumbled, taking the jobs they provide and the incomes they distributed with them. These skeletons of industry dot much of this country; travelling around I see abandoned buildings everywhere, painful reminders of what once was and what is now the slow decay and a belabored memory of human sacrifice and effort.
            The economic and personal woes of the people are not only bound up with the loss of these industries, but are also exacerbated by the fact that in the remote areas of the country nothing has sprung up to replace the industries that many of these villages grew up around. What jobs are the people of a small, remote village in Georgia supposed to take on? Aside from the government jobs (police officers, teachers, etc.) and those providing necessary services (shopkeepers, manufacturers of building and home supplies, etc.), there seems to be little work in many of these places. The most common occupation seems to be for people to sell whatever they have gleaned from the land; the streets of Ureki are dotted with stalls of people—usually old women—selling fish, fruits, nuts, and whatever else may be in season at that point. Talking to my host mother, a teacher in the same school as me, I learned that, in fact, almost all of the men living on our street are without work, especially the young ones. They are all able-bodied men capable and willing of hard work and physical labor, but there is nowhere for them to apply their skills. The young men I speak to hold out the hope of soon leaving for Tbilisi, Batumi, or another urban center where work is more readily available, but for the older people, the ones who have lived here the longest and have invested the most in this place, there is no hope of leaving; they are stuck in the home that they built themselves or that their parents built before them, forced to scrape together the resources to maintain a reasonable level of material well-being.
            Though the situation I describe is disconcerting, I do not want to paint a picture of people living in abject poverty or squalor. Even those struggling the most are still able to find a reasonable sense of material security and to live comfortably, though there is always the threat of having the rug pulled out from under them. This threat is, however, assuaged by the fact that those surrounding them, their friends, neighbors, and the community as a whole understand the woes that plague so many across Georgia and are eager to lend a helping hand in their hour of greatest need. Their needs are met, but they lack any real sense of hope for a brighter future. Upon being pressed they will concede that things are slowly getting better, that more improvements both in terms of job creation and infrastructure improvement are being made every day, but for most of my older interlocutors this is not a real source of hope. Often they feel that while around the country improvements are being made, those improvements are a long time coming in the villages, and I can’t fault them for this bleak outlook.
            Having travelled around Georgia to a fair extent I have begun to see where the government is investing. All the major cities and tourist destinations are sites of industrious activity; major construction projects are being undertaken in Tbilisi, the whole downtown of Batumi has a newness about it, and the whole downtown of Mestia, a small town but the only major town in the mountainous Svaneti region—a major tourist destination—is being renovated: soon nearly every building on the main downtown street will have been built in the last few years. While it is important for Georgia’s economy to create centers of business and tourism, the government’s primary duty is to its citizens, who, out here, have the dejected feeling of being neglected. There are those who have found success in this new climate of the cities being major business and tourist destinations; they have been afforded opportunities that did not exist prior to the current president or during the Soviet Union, but these stories of success are, for me, balanced and outweighed by the stories of struggling villagers.
            What is most enigmatic to me is that in the same regions that seem to have been hit hardest by unemployment are the regions where the infrastructure is most lacking, where roads have fallen into disrepair, where once impressive government buildings stand abandoned or at least look like they should be abandoned, and where sewage and water systems are antiquated at best. The event that typifies this neglect of infrastructure in my mind came one day while walking around downtown Supsa. I had admired the train station there for a long time, marveling at how it seemed to be in worse shape than many of the wholly abandoned buildings I had seen around town. The awning over the platform is collapsed, there is nothing inside the main room other than the ticket booth and piles of trash in the corners, and the entrance to the bathroom outside is choked with weeds and gives off a smell that would seem to indicate it had not been cleaned in years (I never mustered the courage to go in). But the experience that most made me realize the absurdity of the fact that this building is still a functioning train station is when I looked to the entrance of it one day and just watched a goat casually walking through and out of the entrance to the station, not paying any heed to it, as if it were no longer the domain of humans but that it had succumbed to being a part of the natural landscape again.
Though I have no pretensions of being an expert or anyway knowledgeable about matters pertaining to economic development or the processes through which a struggling nation addresses social issues, there seems an obvious solution to significantly and simultaneously addressing problems of high unemployment and faltering infrastructure: put the jobless to work making the improvements needed in their villages, have them rebuild the institutions and infrastructure that would simultaneously improve their standard of living and make those places more attractive for other industries and permanent sources of jobs to move into. I’m sure that this outlook on this situation is a reductionistic take on a complex issue and things are not nearly so simple; if they were, I have no doubt that someone in the framework of Georgian bureaucracy would have thought of and implemented it. But what I know is that from the talks I have had with the people of the villages I have visited and in which I have lived there is a feeling that the Georgian government is not sufficiently providing for the people, and in its stead there is no functioning private sector to provide the jobs and material well-being that are lacking.

There once were jobs here

and here

and probably here too

            While this may all seem very critical of the Georgian government, I would like to say that some of the projects the government has undertaken are very positive and are, in fact, looking out for the interests of its citizens, although many people may not have thought of the full implications of these programs. One such program is the one I am a part of: Teach and Learn with Georgia. The importation of hundreds of English speakers from around the world into Georgia to teach English to school children is a forward looking initiative that serves to foster the level of proficiency in English among the Georgian, further enabling Georgians to find a place in world markets and the world economy, where English is an important means of communication, and helping tourism, as many of the visitors who come to Georgia are more likely to speak English than Georgian or Russian. The program also has the added benefit of bringing fresh ideas into the country. In many places, especially in the villages, the Georgian education system maintains a distinct post-Soviet feel, especially as most of the teachers were schooled and trained during the Soviet Union. But by bringing in teachers from around the world and pairing them with Georgian teachers there is an opportunity for those Georgian teachers to improve their language skills as well as to be exposed to new and alternative teaching methodologies. This program also coincides with a number of other reforms to the education system that will help foster a better future for many Georgians. For example, schools are being equipped with more and newer technology and students are being taught how to use these technologies, something of utmost importance as many students will eventually find themselves working in areas where knowledge of current technology is of an increasing importance.
However, these sorts of programs are not the full answer to the woes that Georgians have conveyed to me. These programs are great at looking at the long-term, and are especially well-suited for the large urban areas that are poised to become important centers of commerce and tourist destinations, but they do little to alleviate the hardships of the people in rural areas, where more immediate solutions are needed. I am glad for the programs, but concerned that they are leaving behind an important sector of the population, the population outside of Tbilisi, Batumi, and Kutaisi. The juxtaposition of these new programs (the Georgian Ministry of Education has also provided small notebook computers to first graders) against the state of the schools is at times striking. I have made the comparison before that in many ways like spending a lot of money to furnish and decorate a house with a crumbling foundation. I have seen a number of schools with physical structures falling apart, bathrooms I would consider unusable, and even in one case was shown by a student where I could grab onto a staircase’s handrail and feel a minor jolt of electricity. New computers and good English teachers are important parts of Georgia looking forward to the future, but so are addressing the basic infrastructure concerns of the school system and elsewhere.
This digression about the school takes me away from my impression of how people around Georgia think of the Soviet Union, but it is a related topic. Many of the older people remember the Soviet Union as a time when many of the countries institutions were better. Just last night I was discussing the prospect of receiving mail in Ureki with an older woman in the village, who described how well the postal system used to work but how unreliable it now is. During the time of the Soviet Union apparently one could reliably expect to receive packages or letters from anywhere in the world, but now it is often questionable. I suppose for all its faults, the Soviets did do a good job of creating and maintaining public institutions like the Postal Service and public transportation. This is not the first time that I have heard people around the village muse on what was better in the Soviet Union. Many remember the Soviet Union providing many services that now are beyond their ability to afford. Before, any operation or medical procedure one needed was paid for by the government and could be obtained relatively quickly, but now the price tag is too steep on many of the same non-essential medical procedures that were once covered. This fond remembrance of the Soviet Union is not limited to the institutions people sees as having been better suited for serving the country’s citizens. One person I spoke with also, perhaps paradoxically, remembers the time of the Soviet Union as being a time of greater freedom, especially freedom to travel. The Soviet Union was never viewed by many in the west as giving its citizens the utmost freedom, and it was undoubtedly difficult for citizens of any of the Soviet Republics to travel outside of the Soviet Union, but the whole Soviet Union was open to every citizen—an area that is more than twice the size of the United States—and travel across the Union was cheap.
These paradoxical statements lamenting the loss of freedom that existed under the Soviet Union are not isolated to one or two conversations. I remember a long and revealing conversation I had with a Georgian man at dinner one day in which he held forth for an hour about how things are now and how they used to be. A major part of his lament of what was lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union stemmed from the loss of freedom of travel. He conceded that it is true that under the Georgian government a Georgian citizen can travel almost anywhere in the world without a problem, but he countered this by pointing to the reality that most Georgians are restrained now not by the government but by economic realities. Relatively few Georgians can afford to make trips to the United States, Western Europe, or many other destinations around the world, making the areas no more open than when the citizens were wholly forbidden from visiting those countries. While those areas of the world may in reality be just as unattainable as they once were, the current economic and political situations have also closed off much of the former Soviet Union. Whereas it was once extremely cheap to travel from Georgia through Russia to Ukraine, Estonia, or any of the other Soviet Republics, it is now either extremely difficult (in the case of Russia) or very expensive (everywhere else, with, perhaps, the exception of Armenia). Many older Georgians I have spoken with spent time in Russia, Ukraine or one of the other Republics, and even more have family members of other nationalities, a product of a time when one could easily move around the almost unfathomably large, and surprisingly diverse, Soviet Union.
And it is not just freedom of travel that many of the villagers miss about the Soviet Union. While in many ways the isolationism and xenophobia exhibited by the USSR was a negative for its citizens and for Soviet relations with the rest of the world, there was an upside to it, as has been described to me by a number of Georgians. As part of its isolation from much of the world the Soviet Union strove to produce much of what its population needed in the Republics. Thus, the tea factory and the textile plant that are now standing skeletons and bleak monuments in Supsa were a necessary part of the economy. The people of the village were needed to work, not just for their own well-being, but to help provide for an empire stretching halfway around the world, and so jobs were plentiful. My interlocutor continued to describe the atmosphere of that time, claiming that unemployment was as low as 2% (he may be exaggerating and the number as it was given by the Soviet bureaucracy was undoubtedly altered), but at present—again, his claim—unemployment is as high as 18%. He did not say how the quality of life compared then and now, but I get the impression that in his mind it is better to have a population at work than to have a slightly higher standard of living, as a population at work is a population that is actively engaged in producing for itself what it needs and is unable to fall into the sort of idleness that he perceives as plaguing the unemployed village populations. As he explained to me, what has filled the void of lost jobs in Georgia is either, on the one hand, people idling away there time, filling their days with drinking and carousing because there is little else to do, and on the other hand, being driven to find work abroad. For many living in Guria, a short distance from the border with Turkey, the lack of jobs in Georgia has driven them south across the border into that country to work. He described to me the plight of so many, going to work for weeks or months at a time in Turkey to support a family at home, when once upon a time the same work could have been had in Georgia. And though this is one of the points I believe the man to have been most biased, he gave an account of the lives of those working in Turkey as being ones of perpetual hardship. I believe his exact words, given in Russian, were “we go down there and work and work like horses, and get nothing for it” and later “You go down there to work and they tell you: ‘Oh, you are a Christian. That will be a problem.’” This last statement was accompanied by an exasperated exclamation that in Georgia they realize that if someone is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc. it does not matter, we are all people, and that those Georgians working down in Turkey to provide for their families just wish they could find the same attitude.
Again, I want to mention that this information is from a somewhat biased source. I do not want to slander the people of Turkey, and have little verification of what the man said. But at the same time, I cannot fault the man for his biases. He is in a situation of economic hardship, and such situations easily skew the way we view and interpret reality. I do not intend or want to make a statement judging either the Georgian government for any failure to produce jobs, as I have not the scope or knowledge to evaluate their work, or the people of Turkey for their treatment of Georgian workers, which I have no real evidence for. Rather, I find it fascinating that the climate I am surrounded by in this country is one where many of the older people of the villages I have lived and visited look back on the Soviet Union fondly and miss many of the features of that life that have now changed. It’s difficult to say how earnest they are in this and how many of them would gladly trade what they have now for what they had then, as it seems in many cases that the people I have spoken with have succumbed to the sort of idolization of the past and glorification of the way things were that is easy for us all to fall into. It is easy to look back on the past and focus in on the great things that may no longer be and forget the difficulties and minutiae that either make that time indistinguishable from the present or make the present preferable to the past.
I suppose my intention in writing this is to present a common attitude that many of our Western eyes would see as ironic, insofar as I’m sure most who know anything about the Soviet Union think of it as a particularly positive thing to look back on. I also want to emphasize that viewpoints on the Soviet Union are also varied, vacillating between the idealization I described and vehement disdain for that time and for the Russians who are viewed as heartless conquerors. It is unfortunate that most of the people with whom I have spoken are part of one older generation who grew up and lived in the Soviet Union; I would love to speak with a younger generation of Georgians about how they look on the Soviet period of Georgian history, but I am faced with the reality of being unable to communicate with most young Georgians, especially out here in the villages, where English proficiency is lacking and where most young people don’t bother to learn Russian. Lacking a full dataset, I would encourage nobody to draw any conclusions about actualities of life in the Soviet Union and the attitude of the Georgian people as a whole from what I have written, but I think my experiences attest to a reality that in the growth and development of a nation there are times and events that can be viewed and interpreted in radically different ways.

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