In the Caucasus, there’s a story about the morning of the seventh day of creation. God, who has labored for six days, is setting about to rest, having distributed the wealth of his kingdom — the trunk to the elephant, the neck to the giraffe, the feathers to the peacock. As he’s about to rest, the Armenians, who have overslept, run toward him hastily, professing regret at their late arrival. Sorry Armenians, God says, I’ve already given out all that I have to give out. But because I like you so much, I won’t forsake you, but all I can offer is this small, rocky, dry slice of land. The Armenians, needless to say, are relieved to receive even the most barren parcel of land. As God turns to rest the second time, the Georgians, who have also overslept and only been awakened by the haste of the Armenians, approach. God looks upon the Georgians, humbled and repentant, and says, Georgians, I’m sorry, I gave the last piece of land I had left to the Armenians, who were just here. I’ll have to give you the land I had been saving for myself ... Yes, this is a story about the morning of the seventh day of creation told by the Georgians.
The odd fact, though, is that it really is that stunning. The western part of the country borders on the Black Sea, night beaches pockmarked by palm trees, with an average December temperature of 75. Mountains hug the interior plane, low-elevation forests encircling fertile valleys. Even today, the Georgians’ relationship to nature is very intimate: They live with it where Western Europe and large parts of North America have shut ourselves off from it. Animals we would confine to a farm wander freely, even on the outskirts of the cities, and persimmons, one of those fruits you’ve always heard of but have likely never tried much less seen up close, grow off the balcony, ready to be plucked for breakfast at sunrise.
You won’t end up in Georgia if you happen to miss the last exit at Saarbrucken or fail to turn left at Albuquerque. Wedged in among Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Russia proper, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, it’s easy to imagine God placed it there to hide it from others, his own private Idaho — a favored place in Creation.
Perhaps it was the knowledge of God’s favor that made the situation untenable and led to the popular uprising that took place in Georgia the third Sunday in November 2003. After a decade of independence and slightly less than that since a nasty civil war, things had steadily deteriorated. Winters had gotten colder for lack of gas, nights darker for lack of power. Eduard Shevardnadze, the president of Georgia, who as Soviet foreign minister was once the second most powerful man behind the Iron Curtain, had grown shriveled and old, his white hair and wide eyes evoking visions of a stronger man’s absence less stark than the results of the parliamentary elections implied to Georgians that they had been cheated.
As the thousands gathered in front of parliament that Saturday, the joke was that it was warmer there than in the apartments because of all the body heat. Once more, the Georgians were late. Even the Slovaks were to join the European Union, and the Romanians were entering NATO. Rather than humility and repentance, this time they brought with them the quiet though at times boisterous dissatisfaction of a people who’d been cheated of what was rightly theirs. On Sunday, the seventh day, Shevardnadze resigned as president of Georgia, yielding the small piece of the world he’d held for himself for the past 30 years.
In the Caucasus, there’s another story they tell about the seventh day of creation. God has awakened from his sleep and prepared a meal of such splendor and fame it could have only come from his hand. As he walks across the mountains, he stumbles and drops the platter of food into the valleys of Georgia below. This accounts for the grace of the Georgian table.
But what, I wonder, happened to the country while he slept?