Kate Butterworth’s Summer in Georgia

This past summer, I had the opportunity to study in Tbilisi, Georgia. I spent the time learning the Georgian language, and becoming acquainted with the culture and society. Georgia is a unique place, situated in one of the most geographically and linguistically varied regions of the world. The Caucasus mountain range serves as a natural border to Russia, separating the South and North Caucasus. Aside from Russia, Georgia is situated between the Black Sea, portions of Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. It has been a crossroads of many different cultures and empires throughout its history. These influences are evident in the current culture and language. While Georgian is the most prominent language in the Kartvelian group, it has been influenced by Greek, Russian, different stages of Persian, and now increasingly, English, particularly in government language. Regarding the separatist regions, Abkhazians and South Ossetians are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgians. Their claims for self determination predate the Soviet period and were vocalized prominently during the Russian Civil War.

I lived in Nadzaladevi with a very welcoming and generous couple. On the back streets of the neighborhood, there are small hole-in-the-wall shops accompanied by stands of fruit and vegetables. Walking up the steep and narrow cobblestone streets behind the apartment blocks, there is a clear view of the city and the mountains beyond. Tbilisi is home to the National Archives and a number of museums. Among them is the Museum of Soviet Occupation and the National Art Gallery, which has a number of pieces by Georgian artists. A few metro stops away is Old Tbilisi, where there are a number of outdoor cafes, bars, markets, a botanical garden, and the banya, which sits below the Narikala Fortress. That fortress has stood there since Tbilisi’s founding. Old Tbilisi is a nice historical part of the city and attracts many tourists. I took language lessons through the Language School there. Lessons were engaging, and I was fortunate to learn from a very good teacher.

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Aside from lessons and the commute to and from, I was able to travel. At one point, I went with a friend to Stepantsminda, in the Kazbegi district of Mtkheta-Mtianeti. It lies just south of the Russian border along the Georgian Military Road. It is a very popular destination for many people, especially in the summer, because, aside from its beauty, it is considerably cooler. In the remoteness of the mountains, there is a scattering of villages and livestock ambling about, often paying no heed to cars making hairpin turns up the winding road. In stark contrast to this scene, is Batumi on the Black Sea. Home to casinos, oil refineries, and a beautiful coastline, it is quickly becoming an economic hub in Ajaria.

Spending time in Georgia not only provided more depth to my studies, but also afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with people, which would not have been possible otherwise. Living with hosts added another valuable dimension to my experience and gave me ample time to practice speaking.

Kate Butterworth is a Master’s student in the REEEC program. Her research interests include ethnicity and identity in the North and South Caucasus as well as the efficacy of socio-economic policy in Georgia.  She received her BA from SUNY Brockport in 2011.

Student Dispatch: Ben Bamberger on Mountain Weather

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to study Georgian in Tbilisi through a summer FLAS fellowship. There were many reasons to spend a summer in Tbilisi, ranging from the constant and delicious supply of fruit and vegetables from the Kakheti region, the casual strolling along Rustaveli Prospect during the warm evenings, or the numerous and oddly affordable open air cafes dotting the old town. But for language study, I was most excited by the opportunity to be immersed in the Georgian language and try to finally be comfortable in its alphabet and impossibly difficult consonant clusters.

Yet, by the end of the summer, I began to feel that my schedule of commuting, class, and grocery shopping was beginning to have some diminishing returns, and that it was time to practice my Georgian in a different environment. One of the reasons I applied to study Georgian this summer was because of a first year paper I wrote which analyzed how tourism reflected Soviet nation-building policies in Georgia, where I began to realize the importance of mountains and mountaineering to early Soviet tourism efforts (as well as the need to work in Georgian sources). Perhaps one of the most impressive and important of these mountains, which constantly appeared in my research, was Mount Kazbegi (or Kazbek in Russian), still a popular destination for both Georgian and foreign tourists located along the Georgian Military Highway on the Russian border. Kazbegi was not a technically difficult summit, but at over 5000 meters, it was an imposing one with constantly changing weather patterns. At some point, an Irish friend of mine named Enda, who didn’t speak Georgian, convinced me that summiting Kazbegi was something we needed to do, with the added bonus that I would get plenty of language practice with the Georgian guide. We were able to make arrangements with a local alpinist named Lasha, who promised to meet us at the base camp, and then guide us to the summit after a day of acclimatization.

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The next week, Enda and I made all the arrangements to rent the necessary equipment, and headed off to Stepantsminda, the nearest town to the mountain. Within a day, we were able to make it to the base camp at 3700 meters, where we spent the night and acclimatized to the higher elevation. Lasha arrived as promised the next day, along with some alpinist friends, and all talk was on the weather. Storms had begun to blow in, and Kazbegi was no longer visible, hidden beneath a shroud of imposing grey clouds. The plan was to wake up at 2 am the next morning to begin the summit (the weather is usually calmest in the morning), and Enda and I went to bed around 5 pm in order to get some rest for the next day. But the weather quickly turned worse, and our tent was soon rattled about by 45 mph gusts of wind. Lasha promised to wake us if the weather was good enough to summit, but there was no need as we laid awake freezing, listening to the icy wind blow down off the mountain. The next morning, Lasha explained that conditions were too poor to attempt the summit, and that we would try the next day. I quickly exhausted my weather vocabulary, not finding the right words for the constantly changing winds and freezing conditions. Lasha and his friend Tornike, both experienced alpinists, assured us that this was just “mtis amindi” or mountain weather, a rather convenient phrase for the beginning language speaker. Staring off at the icy mountain and snow in the distance, and blowing into his cold hands, Tornike ruefully stated what every alpinist must have thought at one time, “in the summer I am in the mountains, in the winter I ski, for me every season is winter!” Sitting there in all my clothes trying to warm myself on a bit of the fleeting sun, I couldn’t imagine that just a few weeks prior I had been complaining about the oppressive heat in Tbilisi or that it was even still August.

The next morning, we were awoken by Tornike at 1 am, who happily explained that the weather had changed for the better, and we were ready to set off. After a hearty breakfast of sausage, crackers, and a rich mixture of butter and honey, we headed out, greeted by the clearest skies and only an occasional breeze. As we slowly made our way up the mountain, the wind picked up but never threatened our pace, and a cool five hours later, exhausted and cold, we made it to the top of Kazbegi. The weather was stunningly clear, allowing us to see the entire Caucasian range, including Elbrus off in the distance, while Vladikavkaz appeared like a toy town below us. As we descended to the base camp, tourists heading the opposite direction kept asking Lasha and Tornike about the weather, but they refused to give a prognosis. By the time we got down to town, Kazbegi was hidden behind menacing clouds, mtis amindi indeed.

Ben Bamberger is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Summer 2013 FLAS fellow.  His research interests include Georgian mountaineering, Soviet nation-building, and Soviet tourism to the Caucasus.  Ben received his B.A. in history and economics at American University (Washington, D.C.).  After graduation, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia.  As Ben furthers his studies, he hopes to conduct research in both Moscow and Tbilisi, ultimately incorporating Russian and Georgian sources into a dissertation about Soviet nation-building projects in Georgia, and the ways the local Georgians negotiated and understood these policies.

2012 Midwest Slavic Conference

Ohio State University
March 30 – April 1, 2012

The Midwest Slavic Association and The Ohio State University Center for Slavic and East European Studies (CSEES) are proud to announce the 2012 Midwest Slavic Conference, that will be held at OSU March 30 – April 1, 2012.

Conference organizers invite proposals for panels or individual papers addressing all disciplines related to Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The conference will open with a keynote address and a reception on March 30th, followed by two days of panels. If you would like to participate, please send a one-paragraph abstract and brief C.V. to csees@osu.edu by January 7, 2012. Undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to submit presentations. Limited funding will be available to subsidize student lodging.

Application Deadline: January 7
Notification of Acceptance: February 1
Panels Announced: March 1
C.V. and Paper Submission Deadline: March 15

Midwest Slavic K-12 Teacher Workshop: Islam Outside the Middle East.” This workshop will take place on Saturday, March 31st and is open to all current and pre-service K-12 teachers of all subjects and grade levels. For more information on the workshop, please contact Ms. Jordan Peters at CSEES.Outreach@oia.osu.edu.

For more information…

Center for Slavic and East European Studies at OSU
303 Oxley Hall, 1712 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210

New Directions in Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia – Sergey Markedonov Lecture

Last week REEEC hosted a very interesting lecture by Sergey Markedonov, a visiting fellow from Russia entitled ‘The Caucasus region as crossroads of the interests of Russia, Turkey, Iran, USA and EU’. Mr. Markedonov received his degree in history from Rostov-on-Don State University, located not far from the Caucasus Region, which I am sure affects the insight he gave us on the complexity of the historical narrative and the intricate game of the interests of Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, and the countries of the region.

When compared to the Balkan region the Caucasus  seems as complicated and unpredictable, but is actually even more volatile at the moment and there are still many factors of instability that cause regional and international concern. It appears that the international community, including the United States should pay particular attention to developments in this area if they want to avoid future serious conflicts. Mr. Markedonov stressed on the complex interaction of Russian, Turkish, Iranian, and other interests, which sometimes stir up existing conflicts and complicated relations between Caucasian nationalities. Another important point Mr. Markedonov stated that radical Islamism is gaining ground in the region and escalating the situation. In this line of thought,  he stated that there are a lot of concerns about the possible effects of the Arab Spring on the situation in the Caucasus.

Professor Markedonov also touched on Russia’s intervention in Georgia, an event that provoked a lot of international attention and concern about Russia’s role in regional conflicts. He advocated that Georgia had breached an earlier agreement thus provoking the intervention, further arguing that the Georgian government’s claim that agreements signed by a different prime minister are not binding is rather a “Bolshevik” statement.

Overall, Mr. Markedonov gave the listeners a really informative insight into historical events and the current situation in the Caucasus, a region just as complicated and fascinating as the Balkans. Its complexities need to be examined with care if the international community wants to avoid future serious conflicts.

Written by MA Candidate, Hristo Alexiev, a graduate hourly working at REEEC.  Hristo, originally from Bulgaria, now calls Texas his home and is majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.