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Tbilisi, 1989

At the end of May, I ventured south to Tblisi, the capital of the Soviet republic of Georgia. This is a city that is about as Soviet as Palermo. Established in the fourth century along the banks of the Kura River in a steep valley, it retains a sort of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean feel, with its narrow streets and sand-colored brick houses hanging on the hillsides. 

Six weeks earlier, the security forces had made an awful tactical and political mistake when they opened fire on a peaceful demonstration and gassed the demonstrators with a toxic gas. About twenty people had died during the violence, and many hundreds had been hospitalized. Nothing that any political organizer could have done could have galvanized Georgian opinion like this one incident. Everyone spoke of "the tragedy of April 9", and on May 26, the 71st anniversary of a short-lived independent Georgian republic, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Georgians gathered in Victory Park for the first Independence Day celebrations since the early twenties. The demand of the masses was very simple -- independence. Not surprisingly, there were virtually no Russians on the street that day.

At the rally, I made friends with a young couple who were delighted to meet an American. "You can tell the people in America about our situation," said Marina. By the end of the day, they had christened me with a name that came from some 12th century Georgian saga and tried to marry me off to a stranger. For the next several days, it was exceedingly difficult to spend money or stay sober, as Marina and Tariel and their friends escorted me to all the sights of Tbilisi and offered toasts to me, my mother, my father, my unborn children, my country, my dead ancestors, my first-born son, and my unborn children again. Such is the nature of Georgian hospitality. Towards the end of my stay in Tbilisi we hiked by the Pantheon, perched on a mountainside overlooking the city.

There, Georgia's writers and artists and other heroes were buried. As we walked by the grave of Joseph Stalin's mother, I could not conceal my horror at the crimes the poor woman's son had committed. Tariel was incensed. Stalin -- who was born less than a hundred miles away from Tbilisi and attended a local seminary before abandoning his Christian faith -- had good reason to kill all those people, he explained. Because if he hadn't done it, someone else would have. 


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