Almost a decade ago, I traveled to the former Soviet Union. I was there for a good portion of the summer, but it still felt like a whirlwind. A place I felt I’d never have enough time to truly see. I spent time in Moscow, where determined and often warm faces from the metropolitan center to the open-air markets said more than any news report ever could. An overnight train to St. Petersburg delivered us to the incredible Hermitage (and also delivered me a stomach bug, but that’s another matter!). Aeroflot’s Soviet-era planes (complete with a spray of mist on the passengers before takeoff, seats that folded up and vodka refreshments – no, not for me) carried us to Ukraine, where the facades of some religious sanctuaries were still covered in black from the communist era. I was learning Russian at the time, as well as studying the role of the Ottoman Empire in contemporary Europe. A sweltering summer of interpreting, learning and new experiences – some of them tough – was an incredible blessing.
Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может В душе моей угасла не совсем; Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит; Я не хочу печалить вас ничем. Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно, То робостью, то ревностью томим; Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно, Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.
- Я вас любил, a favorite poem of mine by A. Pushkin
I have many indelible memories from that trip, one of them being our visit to Kolomenskoe. But one of the most beautiful and most interesting places I have ever been is still Georgia. In Russia, my then-penchant for long skirts and black tops had meant whispers of “gypsy” as I entered a few of the older shops. In Georgia, the preferred ‘slur’ was “Turk”. Overall, however, every person I met was immensely proud of their country’s diversity. From music to language and cuisine, the country’s rich and complicated history was apparent.
It would be an understatement to say that Georgia is beautiful. I’ve often ached to return. Photographs don’t do a visit to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral justice or recreate the day when our tour guide made a special effort to bring me by an incredible site: a church, a mosque, and a Jewish temple all within a stone’s throw of one another. It was clear, though, that this community had no interest in throwing stones.
I remember perching myself in the window of our hotel every night to write, watching the frenetic traffic below – no lines or lights directing the six lines of speeding commuters as they miraculously weaved themselves through the enormous circle of asphalt that was their intersection. At sixteen, I was smitten with Alexander Pushkin (which was good, because reciting him is the key to success for any student of Russian – I have the gold medal to prove it!) and Anna Akhmatova. My missives testify to that, as I relayed every detail of this incredibly formative experience in flowery, swirling lines. God felt ever present: in the face of the smiling cook who dressed eggplant with pomegranate in the hotel’s kitchen, in the dancing eyes of the children who clung onto the sides of the rickety busses bustling through the city, and in the twisting vines pushing through decade-old rubble.
This past Friday, Russia invaded Georgia. Air and ground assaults have once again meant bloodshed and devastation for the Georgian people. The dead have yet to be counted, and the argument about who’s at fault – Georgian separatists or Russian invaders – is a heated one. Regardless, Russia’s use of force unmatchable by the tiny territory sandwiched between Europe and Asia is devastating.
Greater conflict is feared, and we don’t know yet just how far the fighting may spread. International diplomatic intervention is underway in what is being called an enormous challenge for European and American mediators.
As the situation unfolds, please keep innocents from both sides in your thoughts and prayers in the way that makes sense for you.