One of the things that initially drew me to Georgia was actually the lack of relevant, available resources. An Amazon book search for “France” turns up over 274,000 results, ranging from travel guides and sappy memoirs to head-achingly specific analyses of ancient Gallic customs or the lives of fashion icons. Searching names of even the most obscure French villages will produce volumes of history as well as a barrage of photos, restaurant reviews, and sightseeing suggestions. One can literally experience France without ever leaving the proverbial armchair.
Not so with Georgia. An Amazon book search for “Georgia Caucasus” (so as to avoid the inevitable results for Georgia the U.S. state) turns up a scant 800 or so–and many of those are quite general and usually even outdated. Dr. Bruce Grant of NYU stated,
“I was struck that there was relatively little scholarship about the Caucasus in English beyond the perennial standards of military history, archaeology, linguistics, folklore, and more recently, conflict studies, given that many of the armed conflicts in the former USSR had taken place in the Caucasus” (2009).
So not only does Georgia merit an in-person experience, but if you hope to gain the slightest understanding of it, Georgia demands an in-person experience. And by God do I love rising to challenges. And so, it seems, do most other Georgiaphiles, which makes for a self-selected set of adventurous, interesting, and even intellectual peers.
That said, a visit to Georgia can seem like a trip down the rabbit hole unless you have some knowledge of the reasons behind why this region developed the way it did. This page is dedicated to books, films, and articles about the Caucasus. Many of them will focus on Georgia specifically, but it is impossible to understand modern-day Georgia in isolation from its neighbors, so relevant regional works will also be featured.
After a dry spell in the 1990s dominated by political books and travelogues now laughably outdated, the literature on Georgia and the Caucasus as a whole has skyrocketed. There are several reasons for this: socio-political unrest in the Middle East has made research there dangerous and expensive, so many scholars are turning towards a comparatively safer yet still “emerging” region at the crux of European, Asian, and Middle-Eastern issues; the 2003 Rose Revolution wrought enormous changes in Georgia that merited closer examination from the political and academic community; and the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict brought Georgia into the spotlight as an example of the region’s complex ethnic issues (and imperialistic motivations on Russia’s part).
In any event, the Caucasus has exploded onto the literary-academic scene since the early/mid-2000s, I am going to leave out books specifically dedicated to language-learning and tourism in Georgia (those belong on my Resources page). Some travel books are included below, but these are memoirs and serve more as first-person historical accounts from a visitor’s point of view.
This book is well written and not technically a difficult read, but the subject is so complex that it is not a good choice for someone new to studying the region. I had trouble remembering all the ethnic players, their sociopolitical situations, languages, and leaders from page to page. The book really starts in the 18th century, which unfortunately leaves out a lot of really significant ancient history (trade with the Ancient Greeks, the Silk Road, several invasions of great cultural and political importance). King places most of the emphasis on ethnic and national identities, which didn’t even really exist–for most of history, an individual in the Caucasus would identify with his extended familial clan or local tribe, as the abstract concept of “nation” wasn’t a unifying force until the late 19th century. I admire King for examining complex issues from multiple perspectives, but wish he had included more on ancient history and the Armenian genocide.
This book is an excellent contribution to social and political research in the region, investigating issues of ethnicity and political transition/transformation for the numerous peoples living between Russia and the Middle East. It is a compilation, but almost all of the authors succeeded in explaining the historical precedents for current events while still discussing the applications of contemporary sociopolitical theories. That said, I am not sure how certain essays in this book will age–the Caucasus is undergoing rapid changes, and I can easily see certain predictions completely disproved as totally unexpected factors arrive.
This is a beautiful coffee-table type book that essentially serves as a catalog for an international exhibition of Georgian art. The objects span 8000 years, from the late Neolithic stone through the 20th century. In addition to the illustrations, 23 essays by international scholars examine Georgia’s material culture through the region’s history. One of very few English-language works regarding Georgian artistic traditions.
While the [British] author of this book did travel extensively during a pivotal time in Georgia’s history (the late ’80s-early /90s, just as the country was preparing to declare independence), and her observations are sometimes astute, her opinions became annoyingly intrusive and even disdainful. Although I would be the first to admit that Georgia has significant problems regarding gender (even more so at the time this was published), I think Russell is unnecessarily harsh in her judgment of a developing post-soviet society by contemporary Western standards. Although she repeatedly asserts her love for Georgia, it becomes clear that this love is a bit abstract and directed more at an ideal Georgia than Georgian reality. This book is a good personal account of how things were at a specific time, but should definitely be taken with a grain of salt as far as datedness and the author’s perspective are concerned.
This study was “the” book on Georgia for many years, and even today, it’s hard to find a new publication about Georgia that doesn’t cite it at some point. The author, Ronald Grigor Suny, is a third-generation American-Armenian with numerous scholarly publications in the field of Soviet and post-Soviet studies. But as a result of his ethnic background, this particular work has been both praised as objective (and it is indeed more so than many publications produced in Georgia, which feature marked ethnocentrism), and denounced as “Armenian propaganda.” Readers new to the subject should know that the turbulent history of the Caucasus and the legacies of Soviet-era scholarship result in bitter, ongoing debates and intensely-politicized historiography in which the most basic facts are routinely challenged. I found “Georgian Nation” a fairly clear and evenhanded analysis, and well worth reading if you are interested in Georgia specifically.
If you have the time, this exhaustive tome will provide you with an effective contemporary history of the struggles of Caucasian minorities (particularly North Caucasians). As a journalist, Bullough imbues his work with a personal touch (anecdotes, interviews, travels) that makes the usually-confusing welter of events stick with the reader. To be honest, however, I was surprised when I discovered that the author was a journalist and not a professor or scholar or some kind. The amount of research he put into this is staggering. The one consistent thread throughout the book is the conduct of the imperial Russians, and later the Soviets. Ultimately, “Let Our Fame Be Great” is a history of Russian brutality and duplicity, surpassing the scale and severity of even the U.S. treatment of Native Americans. As a result, there are several instances of melodramatic and cliched writing, but in light of the wrongs done to the Caucasian tribes, it didn’t get on my nerves too much. Notwithstanding a few flaws, the book reads easily enough and deserves recognition for sharing the history of a neglected corner of the world long ignored by historical revisionism and denial.
When I discovered this book, I almost cried, and it was 50% joy, 50% sorrow, because it covers exactly the subjects about which I was writing my undergraduate thesis. In fall 2011, this collection of scholarly articles from urban planners, preservationists, anthropologists, urban historians, and architects was my Bible. I love it not only for this, but because it is truly an excellent example of collaboration between a wide variety of professionals, and many of the sources have never before been available to English-speaking readers. If you can get a hold of it (copies on Amazon are now about $170, although I purchased my copy from the publisher in 2011 for only about $30) this book will explain so much about Tbilisi’s rapidly-changing urban culture and landscape.
This is a poignant love story set in Baku (Azerbaijan), in the turbulent decade leading up to WWI. The romance is between Ali (an Azeri Shiite) and Nino (a Georgian Orthodox Christian), so the obvious quandary is then “a bird may love a fish, but then where shall they live?” The couple travels around the Caucasus, in the process undergoing some typical, eye-candy Orientalist adventures–hiding out in the wild mountains or in luxurious Persian palaces, etc.–all in lyrical prose. Beyond the pretty factor, what made the story truly compelling for me was the conflict of values that faced and continued the face the entire region. Ali sees the Caucasus as primarily Eastern, while Nino believes it to be Western, and that they must continue to Westernize in order to survive future conflicts. Both characters make strong cases based on their upbringings and previous experiences, so they don’t just sound like mouthpieces for the author’s opinions. The ultimately unanswered question and its consequences for Ali and Nino are haunting.
If you want to learn the truth about the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict…this is not your book. While I agree with Asmus’s overall argument (that this seemingly small war in a seemingly obscure country represents much more in terms of international politics than many initially realized), readers need to take his account of the surrounding events with a grain of salt. Asmus is the former deputy assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (under the Clinton administration), and he is a die-hard EU/NATO expansionist, as well as a friend to Georgia. While I have nothing against loving Georgia, I do take issue with those who view the 2008 conflict as a Hollywood good-vs.-evil scenario with Russia as the villain and Georgia as the underdog. Read “A Little War” in connection with other sources (de Waal’s “The Caucasus: An Introduction,” or Shnirelmann’s “The Value of the Past,” for example), and draw your own conclusions.
Unlike Michael Berman’s “Georgia Through Its Folktales” (see below), David Hunt’s anthology is beautifully translated and expertly annotated. One hundred stories, epic poems, and songs are included, representing many of the Caucasus region’s cultures–Abkhaz, Balkar, Lak, Georgian, Chechen, Avar, and Ingush, to name a few. Hunt helpfully divides the folktales into twelve subcategories based on content (warriors and blood revenge, family relations, hunting, Prometheus legends, etc.) and provides and introduction to each chapter. There is also an extensive glossary to clarify the meaning and origin of certain historical names, places, and everyday things.
This is one of those books that definitely sheds an awful lot of light on how perceptions formed long ago can just refuse to die. In “The Captive and the Gift,” anthropologist Bruce Grant (co-editor of “Caucasus Paradigms”) explores the long and tumultuous relationship between Russia and the Caucasus (mostly Georgia and the North Caucasus), and the means by which sovereignty has been exercised in this contested area. Beginning with Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1822 poem “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” Grant explores the extraordinary resonances of the themes of violence, captivity, and empire in the Caucasus through a variety of media–mythology, poetry, short stories, ballet, opera, and film. Grant argues that while the recurring Russian captivity narrative reflected a wide range of political positions, it most often and compellingly suggested a vision of Caucasus peoples as thankless, lawless subjects of empire who were unwilling to acknowledge and accept the gifts of civilization and protection extended by Russian leaders. This book not only helped me to better understand the Caucasus and Russia, but also the deeper meanings of empire and gift-giving.
This is exactly the sort of book (and collaboration effort) that Caucasus regional studies needs more of. The result of a 2006 workshop at the Max Planck Institute, “Caucasus Paradigms” brings specialists together from a variety of fields. Papers discussed linguistics, historiography, trade, medicine, and more. Many of the subjects included have never before been addressed, or never received a thorough re-examination. All exhibited much higher standards of scholarship than are usually found in the field, and I hope this will help raise the bar for the Caucasus in academia. I recommend it to anyone with a foundation in Caucasus studies looking for fresh interpretations of the region’s famously complex paradigms.
de Waal’s “The Caucasus” is one of the best brief yet comprehensive independent references for anyone interested in the region. For a number of reasons, information about the Caucasus tends to represent low standards of scholarship and professionalism. While this book has a few drawbacks, it is a huge breath of fresh air from the barrage of obscenely biased publications and the “noise” surrounding recent events. The Armenian-Azeri conflict is somewhat oversimplified, but de Waal speaks quite freely about the Abkhazian and Ossetian conflicts, which most authors simply depict as conflict between Russia and Georgia. Here, the author does not shy away from describing the assimilation policy against Abkhaz during Soviet years, mentioning that Abkhazians fought with their “backs against the wall,” and he even reprimands Georgian nationalists a bit. The book’s strengths are clearly in its analysis of modern events, however, so I cannot recommend it as a strong source if you want to know about early history in the region. Additionally, the focus here is on the South Caucasus, so those interested in Chechnya, Daghestan, and other North Caucasian republics will not find much.
This is Michael Berman’s most recent anthology of Georgian folktales. It is definitely a step up from his “Georgia Through Its Folktales” (2010), and constitutes a significant contribution to the very small world of Caucasian folklore published in English. Although Berman is clearly enthusiastic about sharing Georgian folklore, I still recommend David Hunt’s “Legends of the Caucasus,” for its superior translation and explanatory materials.
This love story seems almost to be a recent rewrite of “Ali and Nino”: a couple madly in love but struggling to negotiate a dual identity. In fact, it is based on a true story, and the author did a surprising amount of work procuring diaries and historical papers to inform her writing. Originally published in French, the English version is fairly fluid and it can be quite moving at points. I still prefer “Ali and Nino,” however, because there was much more tension and more at stake for both characters. Although Lisa is a remarkable young woman, she doesn’t have as much at stake as Nino does–she is more or less comfortable in her identity as a member of the Russian imperial elite and has only to worry about how her choice of husband will affect that status, effectively leaving Jamal to struggle with his identity crisis on his own. This reduces Lisa to a more supportive role, whereas Nino personally underwent the same internal conflict that Ali did. All in all, it’s not bad though. Also, fun fact: the girl on the cover is actually a portrait of Alexander Pushkin’s wife, Natalia Goncharova, at her society debut. When she was 16. Awkward.
This was one of the first books I read about Georgia in undergrad, and it’s a pretty good place to start. Peter Nasmyth is a journalist from England who traveled extensively in Georgia. Many expats living in Tbilisi know him as the owner of Prospero’s Books and Caliban’s Cafe, an international bookstore/coffeeshop off Rustaveli Ave. He currently lives between London and Tbilisi and remains highly involved, publishing much-needed guides about Georgia’s nature and hiking trails. What I liked about this book was that Nasmyth focused on Georgian culture and his interactions with Georgians, dedicating each chapter to a specific region or site. This is important, because although Georgia is a tiny country, the beliefs and norms of each region vary dramatically. Many journalistic accounts of Georgia in same period (late ’90s-early ’00s) emphasized only Georgia’s “post-Soviet chaos”: Steavenson’s “Stories I Stole,” Zurcher’s “The Post-Soviet Wars,” and Goltz’s “Georgia Diary,” for example. While there is a place for that, I found their Orientalist depiction of Georgians as naturally combative and conniving to be really grating. Nasmyth mentions conflict where necessary, but his focus is squarely on Georgian culture and people.
If you like historical romances, the 11th century Georgian setting of “The Girl King” is a refreshing departure from the standard Tudor romances and Jane Austen fanfic. This book was recommended to me because I have lived and studied in Georgia, where Tamar Mepe (the “Girl King” of the title) is still widely revered by the Georgian Orthodox faithful (she was canonized as a saint), artists (her reign was considered a “golden age” under which Georgia’s art, architecture, and literature flourished), and women (who look to her as a strong role model in a country with emerging feminist beliefs). Her life is really the stuff of legend and it does merit a good novelization. This, however, is not it. The story is clumsily written and populated by the usual fantasy/YA/romance tropes. On the whole, “The Girl King” comes off like any other run-of-the-mill chick lit story, it just happens to be masquerading in poorly-researched Georgian trappings.
This book actually seems to have been published in several incarnations with varying subtitles, this 2004 edition being the most politically correct–there was also “In the Wake of Warriors” (2001) and “Mountain Men and Holy Wars” (2003), which may have been just a tad Orientalist. Just a tad.
Georgian folklore continues to thrive as a delightful fusion of Christian and pre-Christian influences, and I enjoy reading both the tales themselves and analyses of them. However, I’m not really a huge fan of this book, a hybrid of a folktale anthology, travelogue, historical overview, and part…”spiritual exploration.” My main issue is that it seems as though Dr. Berman couldn’t decide whether this book should be professional and academic, or personal and reflective. Trying to do both certainly doesn’t work. I appreciate that the folktales are unmarred by some of the abstract indulgences you might hear in an academic, ethnological work, but Berman uses an awful lot of disparate (and poorly-cited) sources, only tying them loosely together with generalized conclusions. The book itself is poorly produced, translated, and edited, and overall not really worth it unless you’re a hardcore Georgiaphile.
If you are prepared to handle chapters of archaeological jargon and statistics, this book will blow your mind. Its massive scope is impressive enough on its own, but the researchers’ attention to detail and willingness to try anything in the name of testing their hypotheses (including riding around on horses with several different kinds of bits) are what really sets this book apart. The only major issue I have with this book is that it seems to be two books mashed into one. The first half is absolutely fascinating–a demonstration of how seemingly innocuous changes in the archaeological record can actually reflect huge socio-economic developments. The second half is more like a dry, soul-killing summary of archaeological site reports from two decades of work in Russia/Eurasia, and for this reason many people find the book misleading. Even so, I can still strongly recommend the first part for a rigorously-researched survey of what life might have been like in ancient Eurasia.
This book was re-released in 2002 under the title, “Autonomy and Conflict: Ethnoterritoriality and Separatism in the South Caucasus-Cases in Georgia,” with a more specific focus on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Yes, there are indeed two books entitled “The Caucasus: An Introduction.” One by de Waal (2010), and this one by Coene (2011). After reading both, I think Coene’s book might actually be more useful to the reader looking for a clear, concise, and comprehensive reference. Both the North and South Caucasus are included, although more emphasis is placed on Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (South Caucasus). It is not easy to “dehydrate” such a complicated topic into manageable chapters, but Coene manages impressively. Sections include everything from geology to contemporary regional politics. The early history of the region was done quite well, with clear maps to provide the reader with a better reference of how borders changed over the centuries. Also useful was the section on international politics, which described how each of the three major Caucasian states relates to their neighbors and to major international powers.
Although Steavenson is obviously a creative and observant writer, I would not recommend this book as the “travelogue” or “introduction to Georgia” that it is often vaunted as. Travelers hoping to visit Georgia will find more information on the effects of the 70-year Bolshevik regime and an unnerving lack of attention towards the other millennia or so of Caucasian social and cultural development. The style is more that of a memoir, as the author doesn’t generally even bother to record the names of locations she visited, and a few chapters are dedicated solely to her then-boyfriend. I found Steavenson is cynical, narcissistic, and unnecessarily critical of a nation that was struggling through so much at the turn of the 21st century.
This is a beautifully illustrated book for those interested in understanding the history and perspective of the Georgian Orthodox faithful. The Orthodox Church in Georgia has been resurgent since independence, which makes it all the more relevant as a cultural force in need of greater attention. The Church has a tumultuous history, yet has survived the centuries and is thus considered by many to be a kind of “genetic” religion for Georgians that is sometimes used to define Georgian identity (for better or for worse) and serves as a vessel for national heritage. Iconography is flourishing as painters are commissioned to restore frescoes neglected and defaced during the Soviet period, or to create new icons and frescoes for the recent church-building craze. Most Westerners, however, are not able to “read” the visual language of icons and understand their stories, which are drawn from both the Bible, lives of the saints, and legendary Georgian history. This book provides a helpful background of the Orthodox faith, its art and symbols, and then uses icons to describe figures and scenes commonly found in Georgian cathedrals.
This study explores a series of related stories about the identity of North Caucasian mountain peoples in the context of the purpose and mission of Russian imperial rule. What I liked most about this book was how it changed my view of imperial history in Georgia and the North Caucasus. Many Georgians today insist that Russia has always been a brutal oppressor. While it was at different points, particularly towards the beginning and end (which are the points that seem to stick most clearly in the public memory), most of the 19th century was marked by Georgian-Russian cooperation in an alliance against the perceived threat of Islam. It would seem, then, that contemporary Georgians have co-opted the narrative of the Caucasus’s [Muslim] mountaineers, who suffered disproportionately in various ways described by Jersild–forced conversion, exile/relocation, outright genocide, destruction of property, and others.
Intended as a family history representative of larger historical trends, this book ultimately comes down to a wealthy Pakistani woman researching her roots and as such is not exactly professional. Even while emphasizing Georgia’s historical lack of unity as a nation, the author rarely distinguishes the many legitimately distinct ethnic groups, often just referring to the peoples (Circassians, Svans, etc) as “Georgians,” a concept that didn’t really exist until much later in the 19th century. Her understanding of the history of the Persian Empire seems a bit more informed, but this book really should be taken as one woman’s dedicated research to support her family heritage as opposed to actual history, and as far as scholarship is concerned this one is pretty questionable.
Dangerserviceagency.org, the personal website of Professor Paul Manning (Trent University). His publications page includes downloadable copies of his working papers, which include various anthropological studies of life in Georgia. No, I don’t know what’s up with all the GIFs.
Atiga Izmailova was arguably the greatest ethnographer in the Cold War-era Soviet Union. She had a distinguished and wide-ranging career focused on the Caucasus. Her personal website features PDFs of nearly all of her publications (Russian).
Film and Theatre
Miscellaneous, Online Sources
GeorgiaPhotoPhiles: shameless plug for my other blog on this account, designed to be a landing place for all the cool historic photos of Georgia floating around the internet
UC Berkeley’s Georgian Language and Culture Site: website with various resources on Georgian language and culture run by cultural anthropologist and Georgian language instructor Shorena Kurtsikidze.