Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 367-382
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Modernism on the Periphery
Literary Life in Postrevolutionary Tbilisi
6303 Dwinelle Hall
University of California at Berkeley
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In 1917-21, Tat´iana Nikol´skaia informs us in the opening sentence of "Fantasticheskii gorod", the Georgian capital Tbilisi "was tranformed into a unique oasis of culture" (FG, 5).1 Passing under Menshevik control and temporarily cut off from the spiraling violence of the Russian Revolution, Georgia enjoyed a hiatus of independence and prosperity that contrasted sharply with the chaos, acute material privation, and rapid shifts in political authority that prevailed in revolutionary Russia during the Civil War and under war communism. The Russian poet Osip Mandel´shtam, who visited Menshevik Georgia in 1920 and 1921, offered the following skeptical summary of this short-lived but vital historical moment: a "small 'independent' state ... pressed by threatening forces, aspired to become something like a new Switzerland, a neutral piece of land innocent from birth."2 The contrast between want and abundance, between revolutionary violence and an economy of frenzied commerce, could have only enhanced the hallowed reputation Georgia already enjoyed in Russian culture as a southern paradise of wine and song; and the years following the October Revolution saw a steady stream of Russian writers, poets, and artists fleeing the "noxious North" for the safety of the Georgian capital. For Aleksandr Pushkin 100 years before, [End Page 367] Tiflis had been an Asiatic town of crooked streets and sumptuous baths, resounding to songs filled with "oriental nonsense" of "some poetic value," and inhabited by a population whose undeniable talents would be fully realized only under the benign influence of European culture.3 By 1917, after a century or more under Russian suzerainty, Georgia's assimilation of European cultural modes had not only taken place but passed through several historical stages; and the cultural life that Russian artists were to discover in Tbilisi could no longer be reduced to a quaint folkloric display of purely ethnographic interest. Georgia had had its romantics, its radical democrats and socialists, and was now witnessing the flowering of its own national variant of literary modernism.
Tat´iana Nikol´skaia's two books constitute a painstaking attempt at tracing the years of a singular Russo-Georgian encounter whose cultural achievements, bracketed by the October Revolution and the ultimate Bolshevization of Georgia, have been largely neglected and certainly under-documented. The complexities of this Russo-Georgian interface are well reflected in the title Fantastic City, which is at least a triple quotation. Referring to the establishment in late 1917 of the Fantastic Little Inn (Fantasticheskii kabachok), a nocturnal Tbilisi venue where prominent figures of the Russian and Georgian avant-garde came to recite, perform, lecture, and be festive, Grigol Robakidze, the doyen of Georgian high modernism, wrote: "Tbilisi has become a fantastical city. A fantastical city needed a fantastical nook as well, and on one fine day, in the courtyard of No. 12 Rustaveli Avenue, poets and artists opened the 'Fantastic Little Inn'.... The bar was open almost every evening, and poets and artists recited their poetry and delivered their lectures there" (FG, 58). The term "fantastic" had literary resonances whose provenance was hinted at by Paolo Iashvili, a Georgian poet who frequented the bar, in a Russian poem penned on the occasion of the bar's opening:
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[Stray and skinny dogs / Were driven from the northern capital, / And into the Fantastic Little Inn / Kuzmin desires once more to settle. / And in the form of a tender deposit / Miss hastens from Petersburg / Like...