Lasha Bugadze's A Small Country, which won the Saba, IliaUni, and Writers’ House Litera prizes in Georgia––all for novel of the year in 2018––is based on the real scandal surrounding the publication of the author's 2001 short story “The First Russian.” The story outraged some MPs and clergy with its satirical allusions to the wedding night of Georgia’s revered medieval Queen Tamar, whose first husband was a Russian prince. The author found himself censured in parliament and threatened with excommunication.
I remember the man sitting at an oak table took two pieces of paper from a drawer and addressed me with a smile:
“Here,” he put his finger on the paper on his left, “is an intention to excommunicate you from the Georgian Orthodox Church. If you don’t apologize to the Georgian people and the Church, the Synod will be obliged to make it public, which would set in motion the excommunication. It says that you deny the living God, as well as the rules of Mother Church, that you mock the feelings of true believers, that you insult the belief of Orthodox people, the Host of Saints, and the memory of our ancestors who were canonized. While in this one,” he pointed at the paper on his right, “the Synod refers to you as a prodigal son who was exonerated by the people and Mother Church.”
“But only if we have a public apology,” the Archimandrite sitting in the dark corner of the room reminded us. “Otherwise, it’s going to be an anathema.”
“Are you serious?” someone sitting behind me asked. “People are worried . . . ”
A prodigal son.
The man looking at the papers smiled at me occasionally. I was wondering if he had a nervous tic or was just embarrassed by what he had to say.
I was too tired and confused to joke in return or reply politely.
“You have to apologize publicly,” the man, quite unperturbed, repeated with an ironic smile.
Ever since I was born my parents tried their best to encourage me, praising me because for twenty-three years I truly deserved to be praised. And now, suddenly, these strangers told them that I really didn’t deserve their praise and, if I refused to behave, I would become their prodigal son or something even worse.
People get killed for less nowadays . . .
That’s what they told Dad. And where? Next to the Patriarch’s resting room where, ideally, they had to talk about virtue, at least out of sheer decorum.
“It’s your fault," the Patriarch later told Dad, “you failed to raise your son properly.”
And all the while, to my parents, even to Dad deeply insulted by the Patriarch’s words, I truly was a clever, good-natured, genuinely decent and gifted twenty-three-year-old––an exceptional son already known to many as a wonder kid, a writer from a small country, only ten years older than Independent Georgia, who, by all standards, had done nothing to be reprimanded.
My parents’ son wasn’t branded by the 1990s: he didn’t roam the streets with other teenagers thirsty for blood. He either wrote or drew or talked, and according to Grandma, he could do the latter at the age of eight months. He was a skilled caricature artist and could imitate any person regardless of their age or gender, sang arias from classical operas, and was a bit chubby in his early years, which added to his charm. His dad, if he had a chance, or rather had he allowed himself, would have enumerated his son’s admirable traits, saying, for instance, that at the age of eleven, Your Holiness, he staged Goethe’s Faust with the girls of the neighborhood. Girls because nobody else was willing. Faust, no less, at the age of eleven! It was in our yard where he played Mephistopheles, the devil, Your Holiness––I’m so sorry I mentioned the devil so close to you––and he played a chubby and lovable Mephistopheles because he himself was lovable even when playing the devil, particularly when singing serenades to Faust’s sweetheart. Incidentally, there is a video recorded in June 1989 showing the eleven-year-old child reciting Goethe in his mother’s yard. Indeed, Your Holiness, this son of divorced parents was brought up with constant care, the center of attention of both grandmothers! They raised him and would never teach him to be disrespectful or indecent, contrary to your comment, which was rather hasty I believe. So, please excuse me, but we’re dealing with a very special child. I had brought along a cameraman because I guessed something out of the ordinary was about to take place. Yes, it is really extraordinary when an eleven-year-old stages a play about the agreement between God and the devil with the help only of little girls from his neighborhood, when he recites the entire thing for everybody to hear, wearing tails his aunt made for him and warning us of the importance of saving our souls. Is that poor parenting?
He’s been going to anti-Soviet rallies, the grandmothers could have said, especially the more sensitive and emotional one who could easily have retorted to the high-ranking clerics, my grandson has always been an exceptionally well-organized and highly moral boy. Others could break their toys in a day or two, some would immediately gut a giraffe or a teddy bear, while my grandson staged tetralogies with those giraffes and bears. You couldn’t get them in the empty shops of the time, so our acquaintances brought them from other Socialist countries. If other kids misbehaved, putting their poor parents in a difficult position, leaving them wondering how to occupy them, our boy entertained himself: he would place a board on his knees and draw amazing caricatures! You’d have been amazed had you observed him in the process. Mostly, he drew politicians, used to start at the heels and complete the picture in a matter of seconds. They were so skillful that they baffled even experienced artists. Once he stunned his German teacher who terrified the entire school. Apparently, she was trying to explain something quite awkwardly to the kids when our boy mentioned Siegfried, his favorite character, among others who the teacher had hardly heard about. When he was little, before he got a bit chubby, his dad used to have him on his shoulders while drawing, and they listened to Wagner. The vinyl was a bit scratched from use but still quite loud, a little too much for me in fact. The boy was literally raised on his dad’s shoulders! They hardly ever spent time apart! Before he started reading, we used to read books to him, but later we couldn’t tear him away from them. Unlike other kids, who counted the pages they’d read to earn some playtime, it was his choice. If at the age of nine he asked for a puppy, at eleven he bought Mozart’s flute concerto with my pension. He was intellectual but not reticent or closed or melancholic. Quite the opposite, he was open, with a good sense of humor, and rather entertaining. I remember when we had visitors for family celebrations, the boy would amuse them with impressions––speaking like drug-numbed Brezhnev or Shevardnadze, the latter considered a traitor at the time. His paternal side understood him better because we immediately sensed he was artistic. However, his mum failed to see it and decided he had to join a skiing club, then rugby, and then water polo to help him grow manlier. The boy absolutely refused to accept a rather rough informality from his coaches, because impolite and offensive behavior was unacceptable to my boy. And if anyone thinks he wanted to insult someone, they’d be gravely mistaken because in his twenty-three years the boy hasn’t offended anybody. It’s just not fair!
Who knows what other things they would want to say to those who kept us locked in a room with yellowing wallpaper, in the building belonging to the Tbilisi Patriarchate, where they were trying to threaten me with excommunication or labelling me a prodigal son.
Sadly, that day no one heard the evidence of my virtue, Grandma’s voice muffled by the soft cushions of the Patriarchate.
Everyone’s favorite word was sin.
By the end of the 1980s, I was still genuinely innocent.
Mum made several attempts to make me active but all was in vain. Skiing and rugby held no interest for me, while I preferred attending the meeting of the National Freedom Party of our class, or watching TV enlivened by Gorbachev’s Perestroika till midnight. That’s why she reverted to a strange, sporty-religious experiment quite typical of the period: she sent me on a three-day event called Saint Nino’s Way, where my aunt, fourteen years older than me, was supposed to look after me.
According to the new tradition initiated by the Patriarch under the proclaimed changes, people––or rather potential new churchgoers––had to take the same road that Saint Nino took in the fourth century when she walked from Paravani Lake to Mtskheta, the capital at the time.
I decided to sing an aria in an empty classroom of the local school that had been turned into a temporary camp by the marchers. On the one hand, I wanted to feel more at home by singing and I also wanted to overcome my fear of strangers. However, a ruddy, unshaven, and round-cheeked novice monk immediately pointed out that the place was not suitable for entertainment. He opened the door, looked at me with his bloodshot eyes, and told me in a voice both quivering and croaky that meant he either hadn’t slept or hadn’t spoken for a long time:
“You can’t sing here. People are praying.”
The young man had dark circles under his eyes and looked like someone who could easily turn nasty if you contradicted him. He was the kind of stranger I didn’t want to be around: calm at a glance but aggressive, someone who could make me lose my peace of mind.
Needless to say, I stopped at once.
And I was absolutely alone and quite vulnerable. I didn’t stay in the classroom and stepped into the long hall with backpacks strewn everywhere. With their shoes off, people exhausted or seeking inner peace were spread out along the walls.
There were huts around the school. Women were sitting along the fences, looking at the priest squatting near the rusty football pole. They had smiles of embarrassment on their faces, and the priest’s haughty tone seemed to insist that they were simple, provincial women.
“How many abortions have you had? Have you lost count? Twenty, forty?”
I already knew the meaning of the word, so I stopped nearby.
“What’s so funny? I’m serious!”
It was still the Soviet Union and the women didn’t know a priest could ask such questions.
They weren’t yet scared of their god, so were rather ironic about it all, covering their toothless or gold-toothed mouths with their callused hands, chuckling at the ridiculous priest.
The priest was a madman in their opinion.
But he only smiled. He was aware that he was talking to uneducated village women, to the Soviet mob in a remote province, in a Meskhi village. And all the while the priest was one of the elite––that’s how he viewed himself, especially in comparison to them.
“You think that an abortion isn’t a crime? Marx and Engels won’t help you. Which of you have had a church wedding? If you only went through a civil marriage, you can’t be considered your husband’s lawful wife. Did you know? Do you think I’m inventing it? Do you have a husband?” he asks one of them.
The woman laughed, waving him away:
“Leave me alone, for God’s sake.”
"Do you have one or not?”
"She does!” others replied. “And two sons too.”
"What about a church wedding? If you haven’t, then it means you’ve sinned and that’s for sure. I can perform the ceremony if you wish.” The women didn’t answer.
It was the second time I listened to a discussion about sexual issues since I had arrived: first it was my classmate who told me he hadn’t done anything of that nature for a whole month and now the priest was telling the village women they were sinners because they had babies without a church blessing. I was a little confused not being clear who was making fun of whom––the women of the priest or the other way round.
“See that?" he looked in my direction hoping to find a bigger audience, but discovering only me, he smiled. “How can one enlighten these people?” Then he turned to them again, “Do you at least believe in God?"
His question remained suspended in the air.
Along the way the priests baptized people in the river Mtkvari. Nearing Borjomi, our group argued with a convinced pagan and one of the stronger deacons even tried to push him into the water. The pagan turned out to be a physicist resting near Borjomi with his wife and baby. Stubbornly, and a little stupidly, he claimed that if he ever admitted the existence of God, it would be an ancient Georgian deity. He was dead serious, saying that accepting Dali and reintroducing her cult would be a bigger step toward recovering ourselves and reestablishing the Georgian nation than any Orthodox belief:
“Nationalism is waking up, so our religion must also be national. That’s what our country needs!"
The pagan had thick-rimmed glasses, the type every middle-income Soviet physicist wore at the end of the 1980s, and a rather shabby white shirt with a vest pathetically protruding from underneath. His young wife, holding a two- or three-year-old toddler, stood by his side, fearfully listening to her husband’s scandalous and highly charged patriotic declarations. Very soon she realized he could be badly beaten up there and then.
“How can Georgia stand out from other nations in today’s world? With our language only? The script? Its traditions?" the pagan asked the deacon. “It’s not enough. We Georgians must have our own pantheon, just like we used to. We might have Orthodoxy, but why shouldn’t we also have Dali’s Temple? What’s wrong with the Armazi or Zadeni cults?"
The pagan was surely playing a dangerous game: he mentioned the Armazi cult to those who, for a whole month, had followed the road of the person responsible for destroying that cult.
“He’s possessed,” someone said.
“Those were idols! Do you want Georgians to pray to Satan and discard their true belief?" the deacon yelled at him.
“They can pray to whatever or whoever they wish. Religion should be a matter of choice. Some will go to church, others to Armazi temple. It can be extremely interesting for the world. They’ll say that an old nation has an ancient belief, strange, but fascinating."
“Isn’t Christianity old enough?” the deacon persisted.
“Leave him, he’s possessed,” others told him.
"We’ve been Christians since the fourth century, or rather you’ve been," the pagan seemed intent on annoying the deacon. Then he turned to his wife, “Let me talk to these people. Please go home, put the baby to bed, will you?" And then went back to the argument: “How many years did foreigners think we were Russians? Nearly two centuries. Even today some don’t know we’re a completely different nation, so unlike each other! A different language, script, and culture, so why can’t our religions be different too? Why do we need to be either Orthodox or Catholic when we’ve got our Amirani?"
“I’m going to hit him,” a man standing next to the deacon whispered. The physicist’s wife grabbed his arm and dragged him away, just in time, to their shabby cottage. And because the toddler began to cry, the deacon decided not to pursue him, though his intention was to baptize the pagan to crown their heated dispute.
The pagan physicist proved to be the only exception because everyone else was baptized: those we met along the road, those at home, some brought by their family members, mainly children and grandchildren of those who hadn’t been baptized in Soviet times. Our robust deacon often said that in the past parents insisted on baptizing their children, but now it was the other way around.
© Lasha Bugadze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2020 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Lasha Bugadze and Georgian novelist Beka Adamashvili will be in conversation with Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s Associate Editor, Culture, in a talk entitled "Levity and the Limits of Satire in the New Georgia," as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Friday, February 26, 2021, and available to watch afterward.