The Lomisa Monastery in the Caucasus Mountains is the site of an annual pilgrimage honoring the nation’s patron saint, St. George.

Oleg Gritskevich • Washington Post,

In sparsely populated Khevsureti, Georgia, 50 miles from the nearest store, the mother of some cattlemen sells knitted socks to the occasional visitors.

OLEG GRITSKEVICH • Washington Post,

Notorious Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov’s works are still read by Georgian schoolchildren, although opinons about him are decidedly mixed.

Portrait courtesy of Russian Life magazine,

Shatili, the fortress town in Khevsureti, is located in one of the most isolated parts of the Georgian Caucasus Mountains. Illustrates TRAVEL-CAUCASUS (category t), by Bill Donahue, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, March 31, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Oleg Gritskevich for The Washington Post).

Oleg Gritskevich • Washington Post,

Finding poetry in Georgia's Caucasus Mountains

  • Article by: Bill Donahue
  • Washington Post
  • April 19, 2014 - 3:16 PM

By the time I reached the snowfield, four hours into the hike and roughly 11,000 feet up in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, it was raining and a late afternoon fog was drifting in, soon to veil the rocky peaks. I kept climbing, kicking the toes of my sneakers into the remnant June snow for a foothold, scrabbling on my hands and knees over rocks in steep places. Near the top of the pass leading to Juta, the highest village of the Khevsureti people, I spied three hikers shuffling downhill, exhausted. They were Slovakian. “We are lost,” one of them said. “Now we go down. We look for rest in the village.”

They were lean and in their 20s, with enough common sense to have invested in stiff-soled, snow-suitable hiking boots. Which underscored how flimsy my own preparations had been. I had started out that morning amid the winding dirt roads and the little stone houses of Georgia’s sparsely settled Khevsureti region; it was time to go back. So now I began slinking downhill behind the Slovaks, and in the endless creases of the valley below, I swear I heard a man’s ghostly voice snickering.

Russian poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) had been in the Georgian Caucasus before me. These mountains are the setting of his signature work, the 1840 novel “A Hero of Our Time.”

Lermontov was a short, bowlegged man, prematurely balding, with a bent back and a nasty temper. After his mother died young, he was raised in Moscow by his indulgent grandmother, a society dowager who permitted little Mishenka to rage on the servants and tear out her manicured shrubbery. He was annoying right up until his death. The day before, his friend was fraternizing with a young woman Lermontov fancied. Lermontov goaded him into a duel with guns. Lermontov lost. We can credit him with the dumbest death in literary history.

Or we can remember him by his eyes. They were captivating, coal black, plaintive and sad. When you look at old oil paintings, it’s impossible to forget that this dyspeptic brat was also a sensitive Romantic artist. His eyes saw things. They saw beauty, even as Lermontov himself was consumed by a haughty nihilism. Most critically, they saw the Caucasus Mountains straddling Russia and Georgia, more than 900 miles from the salons of Moscow.

When Lermontov was 3 and suffering from rheumatic fevers, his grandmother packed him, along with his French tutor and German governess, into a horse-drawn wagon and set out for the curative airs of the mountains. Lermontov returned at ages 5 and 10, and again when he was in his 20s as an officer in czar Nicholas I’s army. Russia was occupying Georgia then, engaged in a century-long campaign to conquer the Caucasus’ peoples: the Chechens and Ossetians, and the largest group, the Circassians. Lermontov spent a pivotal year fighting and gathering material for his novel.

“Hero” is a slim, ironically titled autobiographical tale that follows Pechorin, a young Army officer, as he womanizes his way up the Georgia Military Highway, northeast from the capital, Tbilisi, and over the Caucasus into what is today Russian Chechnya. It is filled with grandiose riffs. Lermontov writes, “The dark-blue mountain tops, furrowed with wrinkles, covered with layers of snow, were silhouetted against the pale horizon.”

After Vladimir Nabokov rendered the definitive English-language translation of “Hero” with his son, Dmitri, in 1958, he said Lermontov’s language “is the tool of an energetic, incredibly gifted, bitterly honest, but definitely inexperienced young man.” For Lermontov, Caucasians were noxious when they weren’t being exotic.

I was in Georgia in part to see what Lermontov had overlooked. But I was also there in homage. I wanted to know this brilliant young man who tossed away all his talent but still looms large in the Caucasus, as important to his region as, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne is to Americans. To this day, most Georgian and Russian schoolchildren read Lermontov.

I got down out of the snow, eventually. The slope grew gentler and the sky cleared as I began descending toward the village of Roscha, following goat paths through the clover. The first house in the village was a crude bed-and-breakfast with a woodshed in the back yard and a cowshed affixed with a TV satellite dish. As I lay in my room there, resting, I could hear a man grunting in labor on the grass just below me. I went outside and found a large, muscle-bound athlete throwing 50-pound rocks.

Zviadi Gogochuri competes for Georgia’s national judo squad. Ensconced in exercise, he was oblivious to me. A kid stood nearby, spectating in rapt admiration. “He is training,” Uturga Tsiklauri, 16, said in careful English. “He comes to the mountains for the fresh air. It is important.”

Uturga lives at the bed-and-breakfast with his parents. His father was away overnight, so his mother entrusted him with all the manly duties, such as turning on the water heater so I could take a shower out in one shed. His manner was watchful and serious. As we dined — the judoist, Uturga and I — Uturga worked his angles, ensuring that when I got a taxi out the next morning, he and his mother would ride along for free.

The cab arrived at 7:30. The road toward the next town, Korsha, was more of a path, cut into a steep mountainside and scattered with basketball-size boulders. We descended at seven miles an hour.

Wine and talk of old wars

About half the size of Rhode Island and separated from Chechnya only by the Caucasus Mountains, the Khevsureti region is just 50 miles outside Tbilisi, but the route there is steep. The place has always felt remote, and its people — nature-worshiping Christians descended from the last crusaders of Europe — are fiercely independent. As late as 1915, Khevsureti men wore chain mail armor when they galloped their horses into Tbilisi.

Today, slender medieval stone watchtowers still dot the hillsides, bearing tiny slit windows, and in the ghost town of Shatili, on the Chechen border, there’s an ancient stone fortress.

The old Khevsureti is crumbling, though, challenged by Georgia’s mounting prosperity and urbanization, and the Khevsureti people boast few cultural preservationists. I was in Korsha to stay with one of them, a visual artist named Shota Arabuli, who runs the Korsha Guesthouse.

One of my fellow guests, Otari Laliashvili, 62, is a painter and a night guard at a museum outside Tbilisi. A chain smoker with a wry, playful laugh, he has studied Georgian history extensively, honing a world view that is at once hyper-nationalist and slightly surreal. “Georgians,” he told me, “were the first humans. Before the Tower of Babel, everyone spoke Georgian.”

Laliashvili had read all of Lermontov, and his take was decisive: “Lermontov was an unhappy genius/idiot. He knew nothing about the Caucasus.”

Laliashvili had arrived with three friends and a five-liter decanter of red wine purchased at a gas station. As we sat in the airy dining room, we sampled that vintage and homed in on the Circassian war. Over 100 years, the Russians killed roughly 400,000 Circassians, and in 1864, czar Alexander II formally expelled 500,000 more. Today, Islamic leaders in Chechnya still do not accept Russian authority.

“Lermontov was writing history from the perspective of an occupier,” Laliashvili told me. By the end of the evening, we had finished the bottle.

The next morning, Laliashvili woke late and looked somewhat rumpled as he shambled to the bathroom. “If you don’t drink, why live?” he said to me with a groggy smirk. “That is the philosophy of your friend Lermontov, and I have been sacrificing myself at his altar.”

Later in the day I settled down with my Lermontov books. His epic poem, “The Demon,” stars an outcast soul who sadly flies over the sinful world, only to launch an ill-fated romance with a Georgian princess. “Hero’s” wanton antics can be hard to take, but there are passages that sing with enchantment. “All these snows burned with a ruddy glow,” Lermontov writes, “so merrily, so brightly, that it made one wonder why one should not stay here forever.”

I was most taken by a letter Lermontov wrote in 1837: “As I careered up and down the mountains in Georgia, I abandoned the cart and took to horseback; I’ve climbed the snowy mountain of the Cross to the very top, which isn’t altogether easy; from it, one can see half of Georgia as though it were on a saucer. … For me the mountain air is balm; the blues go to the devil, the heart thumps, the breast breathes high.”

A high elevation pilgrimage

By “the Cross,” Lermontov meant Mount Kazbek, a 16,512-foot peak that forms the border with Russia, looming over the Georgian village of Stepantsminda. I boarded a bus headed there the next afternoon. En route, we came upon a green hillside where throngs of people toiled up a narrow path, many wearing heavy crucifix necklaces as they towed bleating sheep on ropes. I deduced that things would not work out well for the sheep at the top.

I began climbing. Beside me were young families carrying children, and old women barefoot and bent over walking sticks. Finally, using hand signals to query my fellow travelers, I ascertained that we were all on a pilgrimage. It was Lomisoba, an ancient pagan feast updated 15 centuries ago after Christianity came to Georgia. We were climbing to the Lomisa Monastery to slaughter farm animals and pray at the stone shrine of Georgia’s patron, St. George.

Lermontov had skipped this one, I’m pretty sure — it was beneath him to mingle with the hoi polloi — but I moved with the crowds through a steep, shadowed meadow spotted with wildflowers. Even on this holy mission, they had weighted their backpacks with chacha, a grape-based moonshine.

The monastery sits on a knoll at 7,500 feet, and it took most people three hours to hike there. It was dusk, and I didn’t have any food, never mind a tent, but I’d built up a certain trust in Georgians by now. Somehow I knew I’d find spirit and warmth.

Among the roughly 1,000 people, a constellation of small groups scattered amid a jumble of giant boulders and grassy ravines. Campfires glimmered, and hundreds of believers waited for hours to light devotional candles before icons of St. George.

Mostly, though, the top was a party and, for me, a primer on the delights and perils of chacha. Every time I opened my mouth, pilgrims swarmed around me with bottles of homemade chacha. A typical conversation, translated from Georgian and hand signals, went roughly like this:

Pilgrim: Drink! Drink!

Me: But I have already had four shots of chacha.

Pilgrim: But it is the national drink of Georg-ee-ah! You must take one more shot, for Georg-ee-ah!

A frame maker who shared bread and cheese and olives with me sold tiny framed portraits of St. George bearing a broad sword and a gilded Byzantine halo. English-speaking university students hailed me with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as they strummed guitars by their campfire. I heard a long medley of patriotic folk songs as we perched on rocks in the smoky darkness, and I remember thinking that, even now, 170-odd years after Lermontov’s death, Georgia still is overwhelmed by Russian imperialism. The two countries fought a war in 2008 over a tiny Caucasian territory, South Ossetia. Georgia got crushed, and the sting lingers.

Finally, at 2:45, I began weaving back down the mountain. In the pitch black, hundreds more pilgrims were climbing to the top, intent on making the morning mass.

I would never attempt Mount Kazbek after my vigorous worshiping at Lermontov’s altar. But when I reached the highway at dawn, I stuck out my thumb and caught a ride with a beefy Russian in a sports car. Russian techno music blared over the stereo, so loud the vehicle vibrated. I strapped on my seat belt. We swooped along through small towns, past churches and little stores and patches of snow. I watched the sun rise into the blue sky over the lofty crags of the Caucasus.

At least part of me forgot how difficult Mikhail Lermontov had been. For a moment, I wished that he were sitting right there beside me, savoring the thin mountain air.


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