Now that Georgia is independent again — it was annexed by Russia in 1801 and broke free from the Soviet Union in 1990 — it is keen to reassert its identity and encourage visitors. But there is a PR problem with its three best-known celebrities: in ancient times the murderous Medea and in modern times Stalin and his hatchet-man Lavrenti Beria.
On a recent trip organised by the Georgian Department of Tourism, with a direct flight with BMED from Heathrow, I and three other British journalists were driven to and from an ancient cave city, passing through the town of Gori. Were we not going to stop in the birthplace of Stalin? No, we were told, that was not part of the official tour, and the museum, which still displays Stalin’s death mask spotlit against red velvet in a twilit rotunda, was due to be revamped. After some argument we were finally allowed to see it — mostly a plodding hagiography — but it was clear that the new Georgian government, which ousted President Shevardnadze two years ago, does not consider Stalin one of its tourist assets.
Slightly smaller than Scotland, Georgia makes most other countries look like parvenus. The Georgians began to cultivate grapes for wine in the Stone Age — they still grow about 400 different varieties — and when the Argonauts sailed there in the Bronze Age to steal the Golden Fleece they were visiting a people already well settled and expert in metalworking, especially gold. The same people have lived there ever since, between Asia and Europe, overrun from time to time by Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Turks, but resolutely Christian since AD 337, with their own Georgian Orthodox Church, their own language and their own eccentric alphabet. When you walk down Tbilisi’s central avenue, you still see a remarkably homogeneous race — black-haired, dark-eyed, long-headed — looking like the mediaeval frescoes of their two greatest rulers, King David the Builder and his great-granddaughter, Queen Tamar.
Alas, too many of the frescoes in their innumerable churches have been damaged or obliterated, some by time or earlier invaders, others by the rivalrous Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century. The warrior archangels Michael and Gabriel frequently figure in those that remain — perhaps in the hope that they might protect the country from all those big neighbours — and I saw two dramatic, if na