A Christmas Story, sort of
To begin with, that’s “Prince Mtskheta,” all right. Mtskheta is a place in what was the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic at that time, and is now the independent, as long as they can keep it that way, nation of Georgia. The spelling is right. I can’t guarantee the word prince, though. It could have been count or baron, or even something like arch-bishop, but my opinion is that Prince is the term I once gleaned from an immigrant Georgian nurse in my hospital’s intensive-care unit. But my Georgian is poor — no, it is somewhere between lousy and non-existent — and her English was just enough to sustain a green card.
Now get on with the story.
At one time the Soviet Writers Union loved me — other times not so much, as once when I had just written a piece describing the USSR as a “police state.” But at this particular time it was all roses, and they offered to show their affection by comping me to a week’s vacation at any one I chose of a dozen or so Soviet cities. I skipped Leningrad and Kiev because I’d seen enough of them, had no particular interest in the western-state cities or Stalingrad, and settled on Tbilisi, once called Tiflis, the capital of Soviet Georgia.
It turned out to be a good choice, since I wasn’t particularly worried about dying of alcohol poisoning. Those Georgians sure did drink. They met me at their ratty little airport with a congratulations-on-your-safe-arrival stirrup cup and took me to a delicious, and alcoholic, luncheon in a beautiful dining room, and then escorted me to the afternoon’s entertainment.
This was drinking.
When Georgians set out to drink they don’t fool around. They take you to a specified drinking place, and the servitors start coming to refill your glasses. You can’t just toss a shot down when you feel like it, though. You only drink when you are offering or responding to a toast. You can’t even pick your own toast. That is the privilege of — well, of a Georgian word I don’t remember, but it means something like “toastmaster.” He picks, or accepts, a subject for the next toast. It can be something like “To all of our fathers!” or maybe “To the deathless heroism of the Red Army and American Army troops who met along the Elbe River and dealt the death blow to the forces of Adolf Hitler’s Germany!” Then those of us who want to do so go ahead and endorse that toast as flowerily as convenient and everybody drains his glass. Then we refill and celebrate, maybe, the beauty of Georgian women.
We did this on three successive warm, beautiful, chestnut-scented afternoons, in what may have been the prettiest little grove I had ever seen. Then we wobbled our way to a very tasty, I think, dinner, and then one by one collapsed into bed.
For three days.
By the fourth day, I was beginning to worry. Our toastmaster was the executive secretary of the Tbilisi Union of Soviet Writers, and a polished well-spoken man. As the leader of the drinking, I was pretty sure his refills went into a previously empty glass, and when he then emptied it, it was well and truly emptied into his one and only stomach.
Yet every day on beginning the ceremonies he was clear-eyed and articulate, and every evening upon ending them he bid us all a good evening without hint of stammer or slur. I didn’t think I could keep up with him much longer….
But then came the fourth day; the executive secretary did not appear. He had a small indisposition, one of his helpers explained.
I drew a breath of pure joy. “I hope he’ll be well enough tomorrow to go for a drive with me,” I said, “because I’d really like to see something of the area. Meanwhile, do you think I could have a cup of coffee instead of the brandy?”
The winner picked up the marbles. I was the winner. I got my wish. The next morning my friends appeared in front of my hotel in a massive, black, seven-seater car. When I asked what wonders we would see there was a considerable display of grins and head-shakes and fingers across the lips. No hard data, though. I could tell that, wherever we were going, it was not nearby because the car was speeding and we were heading up into the mountains, where I had had no real hope of going.
Wherever that was, it was taking us nearly three hours to get there. We rolled into a mountain town, crept our way to the central square — and there before us, fist raised in wrath, face ascowl,was a three-meter statue of the man best known locally as Josip Vissarionovtch Djugashvili, but known better to all the world as Joe Stalin.
That statue was a total surprise to me. Ever since the reformer, Nikita Khrushchev, had read his “secret” (but not very secret) letter exposing all, or anyway a substantial number, of Stalin’s crimes, murders and other atrocities, the rest of the Soviet Union had been in full-fledged retreat from the mere thought that they had ever heard of the man.
Not so much in Soviet Georgia itself, true. Stalin was unarguably a Georgian himself and, although he had had more Georgians proportionately shot than any other Soviet nationality, his hometown people still had a soft spot for him. You know. “Local boy made good.” I’d even heard, but hadn’t yet checked out, that there was a store in Tbilisi that kept a portrait of him in their window.
But a statue? In the middle of the town’s square? And that wasn’t all, because, giggling as they did, my escorts then took me to a quite prosperous-looking store that sold nothing but small statues of Stalin, in plaster, metal or wood — representing him as lovable, fierce or fiercer.
That was the end of that sight to be seen. We drove back out of town and to a nice little restaurant for lunch, and a few drinks, and then interminably south.
A couple hours later our driver slowed down, looking around in a puzzled fashion, drove on a few hundred meters, stopped again and then turned off the engine, “Mtskheta,” he said, or at least some collection of consonants that I later supposed must have been Mtskheta.
My escort began getting out of the car, so I did, too. We seemed to be in the middle of a park — nicely laid out but not overly gardened. It reminded me, after a moment, of New York City’s twin gems of semi-natural parks, Central and Prospect.
The man who seemed to be the executive secretary’s stand-in approached me. “You want drink?” he asked. I shook my head. Unsurprised, he said, “Yes, we think this. We want, though. Feel free wandering around ad lib, as you say. Impossible to get lost, we promise. We send someone out to you very quick.”
And they left me there.
Well, it was a lovely warm day, and there were drinking-water standpipes with little brass cups chained to them every few hundred meters, and I was glad to be walking around after all the hours in the car. And the plantings were really nice. Random patches of bright red flowers across a pebbled walk from patches of bright yellow ones. Snow-white lilies — at least I could identify a lily — bending gracefully over clumps of tiny blue things. Flowered trees all over — not one or two kinds but a dozen, at least — and industrious honey-bees — well, bees; I didn’t know much about pollinators — kissing blossom after blossom through a planting of a thousand blossoms. And ivies, and sculpted boxwoods, and ferns around a tiny pond.
None of this could be natural. Alerted, I climbed onto a bench and saw one, two, three groups of gardeners at work, a hundred or five hundred meters away. And then a tall man with the handsome Franco-Russian face of a well-kept sixty-year-old and a couple of scrapbooks tucked under his arm, came puffing up to me and said, “We welcome you to Mtskheta in the name of the People’s Republic of Soviet Georgia.” That is, that’s what I thought he probably said, but as he was speaking Russian — and, as I found out later, not very good Russian at that — I had no way to verify it.
It didn’t matter. He was resourceful. He pulled one of the books from under his arm and handed it to me. The first page it flopped open to showed a man in the busby and silver buttons of an English officer’s dress, and when I managed to make out the signer’s lousy handwriting it was a thank you note from the Prince of Wales — Victoria’s son, the one who later became King Edward the something — expressing rapture at the beautiful plantings.
Another page was in Russian, another one after that in what I suspected was Japanese. Then a couple of American senators, apparently traveling as a team. And some Austrians, and — yes, Marshall Foch! And then, when I moved up to the more recent pages, a big one in German, sprawling across a double-truck, and when I parsed it out it was from Heinrich Himmler himself, apparently taking time from his great work of exterminating the Russian people to see if there was any reason not to do the same for the Georgians.
I spent at least an hour that afternoon sitting on one of those benches with that elderly man, and hearing him give voice to who each photo belonged to. He had no real information for me about any of them, at least not in a language I could understand, but he was good on the names. Clemenceau. Florence Nightingale. Several royals, and a flock of nobility.
And then my escorts came looking for me. We’d better leave, they said. They didn’t really trust our driver on the road after dark. He had been drinking, they explained. So I scrawled my own compliments on a brand-new page, and we headed back to Tbilisi.
On the way back to Tbilisi, my escorts told me what they knew about what we had just had seen. Those beautifully kept lands had never been a park. They had simply been the estate of the Prince (or possibly Duke) Mtskheta. When he inherited, he was much more interested in what he could grow on them than on which side he could order their “dead souls” (the serfs who came with the land and could never leave it) to fight when fighting was indicated.
So when that particular season of fighting was over — that is, the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks versus what remained of the Imperial Russian Army — and the Revolutionary Red Guard was summing up what to do about all the people who had picked the wrong side, they had a hard time when they came to Mtskheta’s name. True, the Duke (or Prince) had shown no real interest in anything but his landscaping, but could they spare a man simply because he had done nothing wrong? Sure they could, responded his supporters, especially considering that he had emptied his granaries for the Red Army factions.
“I see,” I said. “Looks like he made a good bargain. He smiled a lot while he was talking to me.”
“Sure he smiled,” said one of the others. “He’s the noble from this region who’s still alive.”
And it was much later, long after I’d learned the poem “Prince Jernikidze,” that I realized whose incarnation I had met.