"In these terrific Georgians we had met more than our match... "
03 April, 2019
"In these terrific Georgians we had met more than our match... "
Soviet Georgia in the diaries of American writer John Steinbeck and through the lens of photographer Robert Capa

The Soviet Union earned fame far and wide in the whole world with this story and its characters - the story compiled by American writer John Steinbeck and famous photojournalist Robert Capa, who toured to the Soviet Union in 1947 to describe a happy post-war Soviet Union. Two talented creators arrived in Georgia after having traveled to Russia. The fact that a
representative of the Soviet KGB followed them everywhere throughout their whole tour did not interfere with their enjoyment of the charm of Georgia.
Capa took more than 500 photos in Georgia, and Steinbeck started working on "A Russian Journal" as soon as he left the Soviet Union; nevertheless, as it was regarded as dangerous for the Soviet Union, the book has not seen the light of day until 1990 when it was finally published in the Russian language. They say, one of the reasons for banning the book was the author’s description of Georgia as a superior republic in the Soviet Union.

Georgia as Heaven...

Steinbeck noted that the Soviet people adored this country and women had a crush on Georgian men: “Wherever we had been in Russia, in Moscow, in Ukraine, in Stalingrad, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly... And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven. Indeed, we began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will go not to heaven, but to Georgia when they die".

Steinbeck started proving the above mentioned as soon as he arrived in Georgia: "They were quite different from the Russians we had met, and it is easy to see why they are so admired by the citizens of the other Soviet republics"... Later, Steinbeck’s tour was assessed as a “small trick” played by Soviet dictators, who deliberately included Georgia in their tour – a country which remained largely unaffected by the war and the one which proved able to stave off starvation.

The "miracles" of the Georgian feast or "it was a delicious wine… and it probably saved our lives"

"It was the vision of the table that nearly killed us. It was about fourteen feet long, and it was loaded with food. I think it is the only meal or dinner we ever attended where fried chicken was an hors d'oeuvre, and where each hors d'oeuvre was half a chicken. It went from there to a cold boiled chicken over which was poured a cold green sauce, delicious with spices and sour cream. And then there were cheese sticks and tomato salads and Georgian pickles. And then there was a savory stew of lamb, with a thick sauce. And then there was a kind of fried country cheese. There were loaves of flat Georgian rye bread piled up like poker chips, and the center of the table was loaded with fruit, with grapes, and pears, and apples. And the frightful thing about it was that everything was delicious. The flavors were all new, and we wanted to taste all of them. And we were nearly dying of overeating. Capa, who prides himself on a thirty-two-inch waist, and who will not let out his belt, no matter what happens, was getting a puffed look under the chin, and his eyes were slightly popped and bloodshot... And meanwhile, the decanters of local wine were passed, and it was a delicious wine, light and full of flavor, and it probably saved our lives", - John Steinbeck wrote.

Akaki’s Lyre...

The guests visited four towns in Georgia: Tbilisi, Gori, Mtskheta, and Batumi. As soon as they arrived in Tbilisi, they felt quite at home: “We did not feel strange in Tiflis, for Tiflis receives many visitors, and it is used to foreigners, and so we did not stand out as much as we had in Kiev, and we felt quite at home” – Steinbeck wrote later. They had to climb the roads the driver of the Jeep (who was an extreme lover from Tbilisi and who managed to gain the favor with the guests as soon as they met him) could not drive. While visiting David's Church, Steinbeck saw three elderly people sitting on the edge of Akaki Tsereteli’s grave and singing litanies so sweetly, that Steinbeck thought it was a grave of a composer; or maybe because he could not guess why there should be an image of a lyre engraved in the gravestone of a poet…
"The people of Tiflis were better dressed, better looking, and more full of spirit than any we saw in Russia"
John Steinbeck and Robert Capa toured the streets and the department stores in the capital city and were amazed: “For the city fascinated us… There are a lot of things that can fascinate foreigners. The people of Tiflis were better dressed, better looking, and more full of spirit than any we saw in Russia. There were gaiety and color in the streets. The clothing was handsome but prices of clothing were very high… the department stores there were choked with people. The shelves were fairly well stocked, but prices, particularly of clothing, were very high: cotton shirts, sixty-five roubles; rubber galoshes, three hundred roubles; a portable typewriter, three thousand roubles".

"Tiflis is a clean oriental city”

The guests were truly fascinated by the history of Tbilisi:
It is the first clean oriental city I have ever seen. In the river that cuts through the center of the city hundreds of little boys swim. And here there is no destruction, except that which time does to the ancient buildings... It is truly an ancient city, for whereas Moscow celebrates this year its eight-hundredth anniversary, Tiflis next year will celebrate its fifteen-hundredth. And this is the new capital, the old capital is thirty kilometers farther along the river... In the city and on the ridges there are old churches, for Christianity came to the Georgians in the fourth century, and churches which are still in use were built then."

"An old man, with white hair… so beautiful that he looked unreal"

“When we came down from David's Church the bells of the cathedral were ringing violently, and we went in. The church was rich and oriental, and its paintings were very black with incense and age. It was crowded with people...

The service was being performed by an old man, with white hair and a golden crown, so beautiful that he looked unreal. The old man is called the Catholicus, he is the head of the Church of Georgia, and his robe is of the gold thread...
There was great majesty in the service, and the music of the large choir was incomparable. Incense rose to the high ceiling of the church, and the sun shone through and lighted it".

"In the Soviet Union, the writer's job is to celebrate the Soviet system”

The American writer met his Georgian counterparts: “They are very stern and devoted, these Georgian writers, and it is very hard to tell them that although Stalin may say that the writer is the architect of the soul, in America the writer is not considered the architect of anything... For in the Soviet Union the writer's job is to encourage, to celebrate, to explain, and in every way to carry forward the Soviet system. Whereas in America, and in England, a good writer is the watch-dog of society... And only time can tell whether the architect of the soul approach to writing can produce as great literature as the watch-dog of society approach...

One ancient poet, Rust'hveli, who wrote a long epic poem called The Knight in the Tiger Skin, is honored almost as a national hero in Georgia, and his verses are read and are memorized even by children, and his picture is everywhere..."

"The nearest relative of Georgian wrestling is Japanese Jujitsu”

The guests were surprised to learn about the love of the Georgians for soccer (“the Georgians seem to love soccer even more than the English people do” – they said); then the guests had the opportunity to see the Georgian wrestling: It is curious wrestling. Its nearest relative is, I suppose, jujitsu. The contestants are not permitted to grasp any part of the body. The only holds permitted are on the jackets and on the belts. The savage music plays, and only when one fighter has lost does the music stop.”

In Batumi, the American guests were accommodated in a hotel belonging to the “Intourist” hotel chain - one of the most luxurious hotel chains in the Soviet Union, where they were surprised to learn that ordinary Soviet workers could come and stay in those luxurious hotels for their holidays; later they were shown the nursery, where the children of those workers went: “We stopped at a little creche where fifty or sixty tiny children were dancing on the green grass-the children of the women who were working in the tea fields. And Capa found a beautiful little girl, with long curls and huge eyes, and he wanted to photograph her, but she became embarrassed, and cried, and would not be comforted: The teacher said that the girl was hard to comfort because she was not a Georgian child, she was a Ukrainian orphan who had been adopted by a Georgian family, and she felt strange … this rich country was not touched, and the people feel a responsibility toward the rest of the nation."

"They could out-eat us, out-drink us, out-dance us, out-sing us..."

The best of the photos taken by Robert Capa during their visit to Georgia were used as illustrations in Steinbeck’s book "A Russian Journal" and the rest of the photos are stored in Robert Capa’s archive.
Georgian officials started looking for the photos not long ago. And it will be appropriate if we finished John Steinbeck’s description of the Georgians with a quote from his book: “And nothing can break their individuality or their spirit. That has been tried for many centuries by invaders, by czarist armies, by despots, by the little local nobility. Everything has struck at their spirit and nothing has succeeded in making a dent in it. In these terrific Georgians, we had met more than our match. They could out-eat us, out-drink us, out-dance us, out-sing us. They had the fierce gaiety of the Italians and the physical energy of the Burgundians. Everything they did was done with flair... And nothing can break their individuality or their spirit!"

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