Caucasus Journey XII: Last days in Georgia

Friday, May 15, 2009

These are my last days in Georgia, and I can't say I'm very happy about it. As is just about always the case, it's really a bummer to leave.

On Friday I spent my last day in the archive. I have to say, the Georgian Central Archives really impressed me. The director of the reading room is an 89 year-old woman named Christina who is about four feet tall, constantly wears a little white beret, and is sharp as a tack. She's stern--one day she really tore into someone (not me) who was secretly taking photos of documents with his camera phone (digital photos of docs cost about $3 per photo, so there's an obvious incentive for people to sneak their own). But she's also very nice. As is often the case in archives in the former Soviet Union, there are dozens of rules that inhibit things--here, for example, you're only allowed to order ten documents a day and the reading room is only open from eleven to four. But I tried to make up for the order limit by balancing requests for big files with small ones, and was lucky enough to receive permission to work from 10:30 to 5, so everything worked out fine.

The physical condition of the archive leaves a lot to be desired, even though the reading room was refurbished last August. While the temperature is quite warm on the street (in the low 20s, Celsius/in the 60s Fahrenheit), it's considerably colder in the reading room--that's the magic of Soviet architecture (I'm sure it's broiling hot in the summer, hotter than it is outside). In the mornings, I'd take a taxi to the archive wearing long underwear and a thermal shirt underneath a t-shirt. I'd wrap my computer in a sweater inside my shoulder bag, then break out the sweater after an hour or so inside the reading room. By the end of the day, my fingers would be stiff from the cold, and then I'd leave the archive at 5 and I'd see what a nice, warm, sunny day I'd been missing. By the time I got home (I'd take the subway back), I'd be more than a little sweaty from all of the layers I was wearing.

Basically, I've been working on two projects here. One  is a revision of my dissertation comparing relations between tsarist authorities and Muslim communities in three regions of late imperial Russia: the Volga-Ural area, the Crimea, and the southern Caucasus. For this project, there isn't an incredible amount in Tbilisi, but the Caucasian aspect of this project focuses more upon Baku (where I spent five months researching in 2004-2005) anyway. In any case, I was still able to pick up the occasional scrap of interesting material here, especially with regard to the establishment of the Muslim spiritual assemblies (including the Sharia courts) in the early nineteenth century--most of the material on the daily existence of these institutions (which were, in fact, components of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs) can be found in Baku, but data relating to their creation is here (in fact, the assemblies were located in Tbilisi, but a lot of their archival files were sent to Baku in the 1970s). 

The second project I'm working on relates to the border in the relations between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For this, I found an incredible amount in Georgia (not only in Tbilisi, but also in Batumi and Kutaisi, which I visited en route from Istanbul). I'm now looking forward to heading back to Turkey for a few more weeks of research in the Ottoman archives before returning in mid-June to Michigan, where a summer of writing, cycling, and swimming awaits me prior to starting my new job at Montana State this September. 

My trip back to Istanbul isn't a very direct one. I had been planning on flying from Batumi to Istanbul, but then I decided that I had to see Kars. Kars is a city in eastern Turkey that was part of Russia from 1878 to 1920, and as such I've been interested in seeing it for quite some time. Indeed, I've done a fair bit of work on Muslims traveling between the two empires, and people traveling back and forth between Kars and other places in the Russian and Ottoman empires have been a topic of my research (such as with this article) for the last couple of years--I decided I just couldn't leave the region without seeing it. 
Then, having made the decision to go to Kars, I decided to visit Van as well. Van is a place I've wanted to see since I was living in Turkey in the early 1990s--back then, the PKK was much more active in the region than is the case today. In Van, I'm especially interested in seeing some Van cats--animals which like to swim and have one green eye and one blue eye. Apparently, there's a research center/preserve dedicated to them at the local university, so hopefully I'll be able to check that out.  
For now, I'm off to the steam baths and dinner!

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