By Laura Kasinof
At age 17, in the wake of her country’s burgeoning and volatile independence, Sidonia decided she was no longer going to live for this world, but rather for eternity. She entered a monastery in the rolling hills of the wine-producing region in Georgia’s east, became a nun in the Georgian Orthodox Church and hasn’t looked back since. She revoked her surname and changed her first to Sidonia, which, according to her church’s tradition, is the name of a woman who instantly died upon touching the robe that Jesus Christ wore during his crucifixion.
“When I graduated from school there was a civil war here and all of us were experiencing all of this religious feeling. Religion was close to all of us,” Sidonia told me while discussing why she joined the monastery in the early ’90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. We spoke in her small studio apartment in a wealthy Tbilisi neighborhood filled with tree-lined streets and European-style cafes. She was dressed in an all black nun habit—a long robe with a black cape that fit tightly over her head and draped over her shoulders, revealing only the ivory, clear skin of her face and not a fleck of hair. The sole adornment she wore was a silver cross-shaped belt buckle.
“The first time, I went to the monastery just as a guest, to be sure this wasn’t a short-term interest, you know,” Sidonia continued. She leaned forward in her chair, running a red homemade bracelet through her the fingers of her right hand like a rosary. “I had a very good situation in my family, I was spending time working with a newspaper as a journalist. I was the head of the communist youth party at my school,” at this comment she saluted the sky as if standing at attention and then giggled softly at the memory. “I wasn’t running away from anything when I joined,” she said.
Sidonia’s turn to faith as Georgia gained independence is far from unusual. She told me that another reason for her interest in religion was “that I wanted to stand by my country. That’s actually why a lot of people turned to religion at that time.” When I talked to Ilia Chighladze, a 30-year-old Georgian priest, he echoed that sentiment: “I was attracted to the history of Georgia, and because being Georgian and being Orthodox Christian is a part of national identity, I decided to become a priest.”
The Republic of Georgia, sitting in the mountainous southern Caucasus, is a Christian nation through and through. It has been officially since 327 AD, despite being surrounded by invading Muslims throughout the centuries, something which elicits particular pride in Georgians. Analysts and polls say that the Georgian Orthodox Church, which is closely related to Russian orthodoxy, is the most trusted institution in the country—much more so than the government, which celebrated its first democratic transfer of power just over a year ago. Most of the population here feels that being Georgian means to be Orthodox, despite the fact that roughly 15 percent of the country belongs to another religion, mainly Islam and the Armenian Apostolic Church. A 2012 Gallup poll on Global Religiosity ranks Georgia as the 11th most religious country in the world.
The Church sees liberalism creeping up on Georgian culture along with modernization, and is trying with all its might to halt both.
This tremendous influence has put the church at the center of a pivotal struggle over Georgia’s future. Georgia sits at a crossroads of the proverbial east and west and this seems to contribute a large part to the country’s identity crisis. Though Georgians often express a desire to be part of Europe, many European social norms clash with their traditional values regarding marriage, women’s roles, and family life. Development has happened at a rapid pace here, in large part due to financial support from the EU and US in the wake of Russian aggression, but it has made many worry about what comes with it. The Church sees liberalism creeping up on Georgian culture along with modernization, and is trying with all its might to halt both.
The power of the Orthodox Church and its anti-liberal stance worries those outside Georgia who have a stake in the Caucasian nation maintaining its pro-western political alliances. In June, Georgian leaders signed a European Union association agreement, the same deal that former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign and which spurred the protests in his country that ultimately led to his disposal and the Russian annexation of Crimea. The agreement promises to ease economic relations between Georgia and the EU, and to bring the country closer to becoming a full member of the Union.
Prior to the signing, however, EU officials worried that the Georgian Orthodox Church could be opposed to this agreement, especially because of the church’s vehement opposition to equal rights for homosexuals. The EU had encouraged Georgian leadership to push through an anti-discrimination bill in Parliament banning discrimination based on language, religion, and sexual orientation. Priests fiercely protested the bill, pumping their fists in parliament and yelling that this bill was going to take Georgia down an ill-fated path. Then, in March, an EU commissioner visited Tbilisi and met with Ilia II, the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, to assure him that Georgia would not have to legalize gay marriage if it eventually became a member of the EU.
“Church is a part of society. And our society, the majority of Georgians, is a society of religious people.”
The Georgian constitution officially calls for the separation of church and state, but in reality the two are intertwined and interdependent. “You don’t really see where the state ends and the church begins,” said Koba Turmanidze, the president of CRRC-Georgia, a local independent think tank. The Orthodox Church officially receives approximately $15 million in government funding, according to a local NGO, and analysts say back-room deals, such as a gifted Mercedes Benz for a priest from a politician, only engender further support. When foreign diplomats travel to Georgia, they pay a visit to Ilia II, an elderly man whose health is failing. When the government pursues an agenda contradictory to the church’s, such as when it forced the aforementioned anti-discrimination bill through parliament, the church needs to be compensated in some way—given funds or a valuable public building. If the church feels completely abandoned by a politician, then priests will encourage their congregations to vote for the opposition—as they did in national elections of 2012, when former President Mikheil Saakashvili was voted out of power.
“Church is a part of society. And our society, the majority of Georgians, is a society of religious people. Therefore the church has a right to vote and take part in political affairs,” Chighladze, the Georgian priest told me.
Sometimes that political participation takes a violent turn. Last year, when a small gay pride rally was held in downtown Tbilisi, it was violently attacked by a crowd of marauding men and priests. The church has come out against sex education in schools and even in vitro fertilization. The patriarch, in a public speech, railed against the liberal ways of the west, which, he argued, were infecting the nation as more young people travel abroad for their studies.
It’s not an entirely misplaced fear. Tornike Kuchava, a 20-year-old law student in Tbilisi, said that he faced such a crisis of faith when he returned to Georgia after spending a year of high school in the US. “When I got home and realized I was comfortable, I started to lose my religion, and not read prayers and stuff. I still pray, but mostly when I need something,” he told me, dressed in a plaid button up shirt and a blue puffy vest, and wearing a yellow bracelet on one wrist and a baby blue bracelet on the other, an homage to Ukraine.
“When you get to know other cultures and you start to think about your religion, that was part of why I went backward in my faith. I can say for sure that I never lost my faith, but it’s really hard to have faith as a smart person. It’s really hard to have faith in something when you can’t get answers.”
Kuchava said that university students his age no longer feel the same attraction to the church. “A few years ago you had to go to church to be cool. Now it’s the other way around, now if you don’t go to church, you’re a cool guy. It’s cool now to be hippie and atheist, or even Buddhist.”
While that trend may be exactly what the church leadership is concerned about, its anti-modernization rhetoric contributes to a growing narrative that the Georgian Orthodox Church is an ally of the Kremlin, despite the fact that Georgia fought a recent war with Russia and doesn’t have diplomatic relations with its neighbor to the north. At the very least, it suggests that the church is an avenue through which Russia maintains influence in Georgia.
“What is coming from the west? Liberalism. Where is the force that can withstand this? It is the Georgian Orthodox church,” said Levan Abashidze, a local religious scholar with whom I spoke. “So there is a natural alliance for the church with Putin’s politics.”
Unlike in Ukraine, where a large portion of the population of Crimea is of Russian ethnicity, any alliance between the Georgian Church and the Kremlin is based largely on ideology. Political analysts told me that the patriarch’s statements toward Russia are fairly mild when compared to his statements regarding western influence in Georgia.
“In Georgia there are no ethnic Russians or too many people who are really wanting to go back to the Soviet Union, but what can you find here? People who are anti-gay. So it is a starting point,” Abashidze said.
Ultimately, the shared values with Russia only further define the stark choice Georgians seem to face today. One Georgian parliamentarian, Davit Usupashvili, who is part of the ruling coalition, said the following after the turmoil the church caused over passing the anti-discrimination law: “Either we go towards Europe and we recognize that we should not chase people with sticks, we should not fire people from a job if we do not share their opinions and their way of life, or else we stay in Russia where it is possible to expel from a city those people, whom you dislike, to ban from entry to shops those people whom you do not like, and simply to go and invade a territory of others if you like that territory.”
The history of Georgia is steeped in Christian lore. Its medieval leaders have been sainted and are lauded as great Christian leaders. The orthodox church teaches that Jesus’ crucifixion robe is buried in a church just outside Tbilisi (along with the body of storied Sidonia) and that Jesus will be speaking the Georgian language on Judgment Day because of a 10th century orthodox text found in a monastery in Egypt’s Sinai desert. Georgian orthodoxy is full of symbolism, iconography, and ancient traditions like animal sacrifices and prohibition of menstruating women in churches. But it also has less restrictive components, like the tradition of drinking wine by the graves of deceased family members on Easter.
After Georgia was incorporated into the Soviet state in the early 1920s, priests were executed and churches were desecrated or turned into public buildings like theaters. In 1943, Josef Stalin—himself a Georgian, born Ioseb Jugashvili—lessened restrictions on Russian Orthodox church, and by extension on its Georgian neighbor, but nevertheless life remained largely secular. Some Georgians baptized their children, as this was considered a cultural tradition, but the few churches that existed throughout the country were primarily attended by the elderly and the institution itself was heavily infiltrated and monitored by the KGB.
Teachers who had been instilling Soviet education began teaching religion in public schools after quickly getting educated about the tenets of orthodoxy by newly ordained priests.
Then, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that which was forbidden became permissible. Hundreds of churches popped up across the country and the anointment of priests was put on overdrive. Unlike the Catholic Church with its strict hierarchy, there was little organization to this process, theologians told me.
“In the nineties, when people turned to the church, it was like when the Roman Empire became Christian,” Abashidze said. “Freedom fell on the head of the church unexpectedly, and freedom is also burden.”
Teachers who had been instilling Soviet education began teaching religion in public schools after quickly getting educated about the tenets of orthodoxy by newly ordained priests. Children came home to tell their parents about what they had learned. I heard stories of some who encouraged their parents to remarry, this time according to the orthodox tradition, so that their marriage would be recognized by God, as they had learned in school. Nino Gudashvili, a 35-year-old English school teacher in Tbilisi, recounted a time in the ’90s when her brother came home from school to tell his parents that he must burn a book they owned about Hinduism. “His karate teacher told him that he had to do it,” Gudashvili told me.
There was another factor pushing Georgians toward their faith. In the ’90s, Tbilisi, which now feels like a modern city, had scant electricity and the mafia, known as the thieves-in-law, ruled the streets. A bloody civil war, followed by another war over Abkhazia, a region in the country’s west now controlled by Russia, ravaged the country. Religion provided solace at that time, Georgians told me.
“Everything that was going on around us was so unfair. The government was so corrupted. For example if you wanted to be a border police, you had to work to bribe the right people for the job,” said Guga Narimanashvili, 33, while telling me about his turn to religion in the ’90s. He now belongs to a Georgian chant choir, carrying on a local, millennium-old religious tradition.
“I went to church and I met some people who were really nice and I didn’t meet them outside in regular life. Society that went to church was different than the streets,” Narimanashvili related.
Now, despite the youthful turn away from religion that the Church fears, Orthodoxy seems to permeate through every part of society here. While I was waiting for Narimanashvili in front of Kashueti church on a busy downtown street, two cyclists rode by dressed in full spandex racing gear and crossed themselves when they came within sight of the church. Taxi drivers frequently do the same whenever a church comes into view. Georgians stick white cross decals on the back of their cars to show that they have been blessed by a priest. Shop owners post the same on their stores’ windows. Teachers, though not officially allowed to teach religion in school, sometimes do. One university professor told me that his kindergarten-aged daughter began reciting the Lord’s Prayer before supper one evening, though this was something that she wouldn’t have learned from her family.
“So she starts praying and we asked where that came from and she says that before we start eating in school the teacher says this,” the professor told me. He requested for his name to not be used because of the controversy of the subject matter. “The teacher said that all children should pray before starting to eat. The worst part is there are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims in her class and nobody says anything about it.”
“I don’t mind if my daughter turns religious, but it should be not dictated by someone,” the professor said.
Such is typical or even mild for what Georgians of other faiths face in a country where orthodoxy plays such a core role in national identity. Beka Mindiashvili, a theologian who also works for the government on minority issues, said that in far eastern Georgia last year, an imam had to flee from his village because, after he tried to build a mosque, the population turned against him. There is also a small and growing cohort of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia, who “have been beaten up by the priests themselves,” Mindiashvili said. Analysts are in doubt that the new anti-discrimination bill will halt such behavior, citing a lack of political will.
Priests are ubiquitous in Tbilisi. They dress in all black, don long beards, and frequently wear long bling necklaces of gold crosses that sparkle in the sunshine. They don’t really smile, at least none that I saw on Tbilisi’s narrow streets. This is far from the cheery Sunday school teacher of American evangelicalism. This is a religion that instills the fear of God in its believers. When the church announced its opposition to new government-issued electronic identification cards in 2013, they claimed the IDs were the sign of the antichrist because the number six could appear three times in a row in the cards’ barcodes. Hundreds of Georgians protested in front of the ministry of justice against the identification cards. In an attempt to allay the fears of the faithful, the ministry aired a public service announcement explaining that “The assumption that the new ID card is the seal of the Antichrist and that it contains the sign of the beast is not correct.”
Yet Georgians bring a lightheartedness to their faith as well. I was in a small mountain village north of Tbilisi having lunch with a local family when their drunk neighbor wandered in. He was an older, gray haired man whose blue eyes sparkled through the large wrinkles he bore from a hard life in the mountains. The man began telling me that Stalin had been a religious man. American history books were mistaken.
Then suddenly, as if inspired by a grand revelation, the old man stood up from his wooden chair and held out his small clear glass filled with chacha, a local version of grappa.
The old man proclaimed his toast:
“To the father, son and holy spirit!”
“Could you have toasted to the trinity before the end of the Soviet Union?” I asked him.
“No, of course not,” he said. “We were too scared.”
The entrenchment of the Georgian Church’s influence has coincided with, and been challenged by, the country’s recent economic revival. Over the past decade, Tbilisi has undergone a tremendous facelift that has been partially supported by foreign direct investment and aid money coming from western nations. There are now shiny new banks, sleek roads, and large European grocery stores. American fast food chains like Subway and Wendy’s have opened up shop. A large abandoned Soviet hotel that used to house hundreds of internationally displaced people from Abkhazia is now a Radisson. And for those who need a reminder of where exactly Georgia’s political allegiances lie, the major highway from Tbilisi’s airport into the city is named the George W. Bush Highway.
Georgia’s signing of the EU’s association agreement will broaden these ties to the West. The EU will cut import tariffs for Georgia in an effort to open up economic trade, while working to improve local industry to meet EU quality standards. More political, human rights, and economic reforms are on the docket as well, all paving the way for Georgia to one day be a full-fledged member of the EU.
Closer ties with the EU are largely welcomed by Georgians who have felt for centuries that they are more part of Christian Europe than the largely Muslim Middle East and who now also welcome the prospect of economic stability and support when faced with Russian aggression. Even Ilia II ended up applauding the signing of the association agreement, despite the Orthodox Church’s outcries in parliament over what EU membership will bring. Speaking to a crowd celebrating the agreement in downtown Tbilisi, the Church patriarch said: “All Georgians and residents of Georgia are celebrating this day. We are getting closer to the European culture as never before.”
His endorsement, though, came with a significant caveat signaling that he was not prepared to get too close. Georgians, Ilia II added, “should remember that this is not only a huge honor for Georgia, but also a huge responsibility. Georgia should show Europe and the entire world our ancient culture, our religious hymns, our past, our values.”
On a recent Sunday I caught a view of this aging man who has led the Georgian Church through communism and capitalism. I was at the largest church in Georgia, Trinity Cathedral, a new structure that was largely funded by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister who many believe still controls the country’s politics even though he stepped down from his role last year. Hundreds of worshippers had come this morning. They stood behind a line of one hundred uniformed soldiers, carving out an entry path for the patriarch. When the spiritual leader entered, other ranking bishops donning tall caps of sparkling silver, gold and colorful stones, leaned forward to kiss him. The low melodies of Georgian chant filled the cathedral, not in an overwhelming way, but rather as a backdrop that made this place feel holy.
The politics of religion appeared irrelevant in the church. There was sincerity in the eyes of these believers that was as evident as the signs of Westernization visible elsewhere in the city.
I saw a young man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties kneel before an icon of Mary. He crossed himself and his faced turned solemn, as if the reason he came to the cathedral this morning was of grave importance. He was dressed in a tight leather jacket and black jeans: a Tbilisi “good fella.” I ran into a drunk man who stumbled around amongst the golden icons with a two liter Pepsi bottle full of red wine. A black robe clad priest approached him before the service started, gave the drunkard an admonishing glare and took his bottle, but nothing more. Across from him, an elderly couple lit skinny tall candles in front of an icon of a stoic Jesus. The silver-haired man whispered a prayer. The politics of religion appeared irrelevant here. There was sincerity in the eyes of these believers that was as evident as the signs of Westernization visible elsewhere in the city.
Outside the cathedral, Salome Kikvadze, a 24-year-old medical student turned back to look at the sandy colored tiered structure, the choir’s chants barely audible here on the patio. “Ah, it is so beautiful. It’s good to see so many people sometimes at church,” she said to me in English. Just then, Kikvadze ran into a friend, a young woman like herself. The friend, sporting a bob hair cut, wore trendy horn-rimmed glasses, a mid-length plaid skirt, and a smiley face printed t-shirt. The two women greeted each other enthusiastically with a peck on the cheek, happy to run into one another.
Kikvadze spent a year studying in the US as an exchange student. She said that she has seen that affect her friends’ faiths, though she is still strong in hers.
“People think that to be tolerant of other people, they have to change themselves,” she said.
Still though, modernity has crept into her life. “When I was around 14,” she said, “I was not wearing pants at all. But it’s not a big deal to wear the pants now, for me. In church we wear dresses and we cover our heads. Outside of church, the pants are much more practical, so I wear the pants.”
After a moment, though, she added an exception: “I try not to wear them whenever Lent comes.”
Laura Kasinof is a freelance journalist currently living in Colorado. She has written for the New York Times, The Economist, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Monthly, among others. Her first book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets, about her experience reporting in Yemen during the Arab Spring is due out this 1October from Arcade.
Reporting for this story was generously supported by the International Center for Journalists, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.