This short book feels like a much longer one, as it covers some of the long history of Georgian culture, focussing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a book about poets and other writers, painters and actors, bandits and terrorists. It ends with the failed 1924 insurrection against Bolshevik rule, which had three years earlier brought an end to the first attempt at creating an independent Georgian republic, led by Social Democrats.
To say that the Georgians portrayed in the book are ‘characters’ is an understatement. The most famous Georgian painter, Pirosmani, is an almost textbook example of an artist who only became truly famous and successful following his death. The Bolshevik bomb-maker Kamo managed to escape a long imprisonment by faking mental illness. The writer Ilia Chavchavadze towers over many others and to this day is considered by many to be the ‘father of the nation’ — his life cut short when murdered just a few years before the independence he dreamed of became a reality.
And lurking sometimes in the shadow of this story is the most famous Georgian of modern times, maybe of all times — Josef Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. If Stalin is the only name you recognised there, read this book. If all you know about Georgia is that it was part of the Soviet empire, read this book. This beautiful, tragic land is full of stories — and ‘characters’ — some of which are well told by one of Georgia’s greatest living writers, Morchiladze, aided by the writer/publisher/bookseller Nasmyth, who has done more to popularise walking in Georgia than anyone.