Donald Rayfield on Researching Georgia, Literature & Politics

Exclusive Interview

Professor Donald Rayfield is a leading British academic, writer and translator specializing in Georgia, Russia and Transcaucasia. He has written one of the seminal English-language histories of Georgia, translated numerous works of literature and poetry, and headed the team that compiled the preeminent Georgian-English dictionary.

He is currently emeritus professor of Russian at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of the Marjory Wardrop Fund.

GEORGIA TODAY spoke to Prof. Rayfield about his life and work, touching on numerous topics from literature and the dictionary to history and current affairs.

When did you first discover an interest in writing?

I was interested in Slavonic languages and then went to university in Cambridge. I’d learned quite a lot of Czech (I had a Czech pen pal), they said you’re an idiot to do Czech if you don’t know any Russian, so I moved to Russian. That saved me from a life on unemployment because there’s not a lot of room for Czech specialists. I taught Russian in an Australian university for three years and then came back to Britain and began writing about Anton Chekhov’s work, and Russian poets. A lot of Russian poets were involved in Georgia and in the early 1970s I realised that there might be a lot of their letters in Tbilisi literary museum. In Soviet days, many things were in some ways easier; there was a cultural agreement in which academics went to each other’s countries for three months and it was paid for, so I went to Tbilisi for three months.

That’s when your interest in Georgia itself began?

I didn’t know how it was going to develop, because I went to the literary museum and it was one of those Soviet comedies where you go in for the first time and they say, “oh sorry, we’ve lost the key”, you go a second time and it’s, “the director’s not here”. Finally, one of the girls took pity on me and said, “look, it’s pointless you coming here; we’ve had a phone call from the central committee and you’re not allowed to see anything”. So, I switched to the university’s language department and thought I might as well try and learn Georgian.

It was a time when there were a number of jubilees of Georgian poets and they desperately wanted them translated into a West European language. I was just what they were looking for so they gave me a very good teacher and I had one to one teaching.

You were a rarity!

Yes. After me there came others and by the end of the ’70s there were several. My predecessor was Professor David Lang, who wrote some very good books on Georgian history and very good translations, but who now turns out to have been compromised by the KGB. Lang was a friend of Inauri, the head of the KGB. He was a somewhat isolated figure, although he was a brilliant scholar, but he denounced the Georgian dissidents and said that all the stuff they were sending out was lies, fiction, and forgery so there was not much contact between me and him.

Anyway, I kept on coming back and learning more and translating more. Then I started writing about the literature.

Did you encounter any difficulties in your research?

The thing about Georgians is that they like people to say nice things about them. If you’re writing critically about literature and you start saying that something is not as good as something else, then people tend to get offended. If you have an author who is writing in the 1930s, you’ll find his great-great grandchild objects to your feeling that his work is not important, or that he was leant on too hard by the communist party. What was surprising about Georgia under the Soviets was that in the 1930s and 50s, the history writers and the critical scholars were in some ways better, almost Western-standard, as long as they weren’t dealing with modern times. There were a lot of very good editions of classical works.

One of the main problems is that in Soviet times a lot of very good work was published with terrible cuts from the censor. Even today, some Georgian publishers reproduce the awful mutilated versions. You have to go to the library and see if you can get the version published before the censors got nasty in the mid-1920s. The Soviet heritage still hasn’t been quite overcome.

What about in terms of access to archives?

In Soviet times, archives always came under the KGB. I was interested particularly in the archives of the Writers’ Union because they had the most extraordinary discussions in which they virtually denounced each other, and several people would be led off to be imprisoned and then shot. I went every day for months in 1989 to the Central State Archives of Literature, and every now and again I’d pass a set of papers and they’d say ‘oh no, that’s marked “S” for secret’. Suddenly at the very beginning of March ’89, I was told “but we don’t have any secret archives” and I could look at whatever I wanted. They gave me all the files from the 1930s when the writers were meeting.

What did you discover?

It was so terrible that the secretary who was taking down the shorthand record of it broke down and couldn’t continue. And the lights went off, people shot themselves in the middle of the proceedings and so on.

All this had to be copied by hand. I had an enormous stroke of luck: a group of trainee librarians were being shown round the building; I was allowed to sit them all down (there were about fifteen of them), hand them each a file to copy, so I have them by absolute miracle. Those files didn’t survive entirely intact because Gamsakhurdia came along in his short period in power and removed anything that he felt was compromising about his father (Konstantine Gamsakhurdia) who was a very good novelist but was a man with very strange connections. He was probably the only genuine fascist in Georgia and yet he was close friends with Beria.

So, information opened up all at once?

Yes, the literary ones certainly had free access, and recently the communist party archives. They’re obviously working on computerizing them but what they need is some enormous foreign grant to digitalize them because there are 2.5 million files, not all of them interesting, in fact some are uninteresting; at the moment, you just have to guess. If ever they get it completely digitalized, then it will be an enormously important [resource]. The manuscript center is supposedly digitalizing but it’s moving at a snail’s pace.

The problem with Georgians at the moment is that people are doing research, but they tend to be doing research on the medieval periods. For modern times –Soviet history – they tend to concentrate on the church as the church has had an enormous revival in Georgia. Part of the problem is that the networks were so close that a lot of people today have family who were involved in the Communist Party, or in the secret police: it’s something they don’t really want to talk about. I think writing a history of Georgia at present is something only a foreigner can do.

Which you did

I did. Once the Russian version came out, then more Georgians read it. They’re fine until we get to the 19th century and then they don’t really like good things being said about the Russian viceroys. If they’re anti Saakashvili then I’m too pro, if they’re pro Saakashvili I’m too anti! It’s always dangerous to talk about living politicians, but then Georgians are not like the Russians: they do forgive foreigners for being offensive, they just assume that we’re all idiots and never really understand and so there’s no point taking offence.

Am I right in saying that there was no Georgian-English dictionary before yours?

Not one that’s any use. If you strive to learn Georgian, you’ll realise quickly that there’s an enormous problem with the verb; every verb has so many prefixes. Their big eight-volume explanatory dictionary, which Stalin supported, took that idea, a lot of entries for every verb. Georgian is full of that sort of thing, so it meant that to compile a dictionary we had to have a lot of money, and we had to have the right people. We were very lucky with both in that British universities have an arts and humanities research council and the year I applied, dictionaries were obviously in fashion. We were lucky to have one Georgian computer expert, Levan Chkhaidze, who had worked for the Soviet military. Levan was responsible for devising a program for scanning Georgian which we didn’t have when we started in the 90s. What we badly needed to know was all the words that are not in the great eight-volume dictionary but are everywhere else. That dictionary began very carefully because Stalin was watching: no quotation from any writer who had been shot or was about to be shot, no idioms that Stalin might find offensive (religious ones and so on), and an awful lot of words which were considered vulgar and not to be included.

Which would presumably include an awful lot!

Well, everything that a taxi driver swears about and lots of other things, too.

I also had a brilliant student called Laurence Broers who has excellent Georgian and above all he can talk to absolutely anybody and not get into trouble. We sent him to various people: priests; ex warlords; forest boys; drug addicts; prostitutes: he contributed an enormous amount. There’s another type of Georgian that nobody ever wrote about: Jewish Georgian, still spoken in Kutaisi. In Soviet times, people did research into it, but the Soviets had banned anybody from publishing any of it. I found someone who had emigrated to Israel. He had his old grandmother with him and we got 2,000 Jewish-Georgian words!

Georgian classical editions of past works usually had very good vocabularies at the end. By working through those editions, we had all the stuff from the Middle Ages. Then there were numerous ethnographical expeditions to the mountains.

The most difficult thing was the language that women use with women when there are no men present but we found a Georgian woman who had been married to a Texan for ten years and had lost her inhibitions.

What drew you towards translating Georgian literature?

I knew Otar Chiladze and I still know his daughter; I’m a great admirer of his. I did hope at one point in 1999 that he’d get the Nobel Prize; I think he came pretty close. By then he had five novels, but a sixth one came out shortly afterwards. They were written extraordinarily cleverly because if you read them carefully they are very anti-Soviet, but the Russian censors were either too dim or too tolerant to notice it.

I thought his most relevant one was his fifth, about the civil war (Avelum) in which a writer’s entire life crumbles and he gets killed at the end of it. It’s not an easy one to read. Someone else was translating A Man was Going Down the Road so I thought I’d wait for this to come out and then publish Avelum but they never got around to finishing it and I got so frustrated with them that I asked Otar if he’d mind if I did it myself.

The problem is, Chiladze is not selling in the West: it’s very difficult to get literature in translation even reviewed, at least in Britain. I have a small publishing house and I’ve managed to help one novel to reasonable success (that is, to sell 1300 copies) but with Chiladze it would be getting over the 200 mark.

What the Georgians really need is some sort of marketing system. Maybe the Georgian novel is not exportable; I’m not sure. In some ways, in Soviet times, it was easier; your writer would be locked up or even shot and that was a great career move! Now, in Turkey, Erdogan is selling Turkish literature like nothing through persecution. Perhaps the Georgians should start shooting their writers! [laughs]

How easy is it to get research funding now? You’re chairman of the Marjory Wardrop fund…

I’ve been a chairman of this trust for a long time. The Marjory Wardrop fund was money left by Oliver Wardrop in his sister’s memory, a big capital sum, and it was enough to finance a postgraduate student every year, but since the financial crisis we only have enough money to give people a grant to do some digging or produce a CD. I think we’re saving up enough eventually to help one postgraduate but the trouble with these foundations that rely on a capital fund is this worldwide collapse of interest rates.

I think postgraduate students can easily get funds to come and study in Georgia from the EU, but now that Britain is leaving the EU, it’s going to be catastrophic for any university activity. In fact, I was just thinking that a Georgian passport is going to be more useful than a British passport in ten years’ time if they’re still on track for EU membership. I’ve got my letter to the president saying, ‘I did the dictionary, can I have a passport?’

There has been a recent self-conscious effort in Georgia to look to the West…

Yes, I think the NATO question is out altogether; I can’t believe NATO will want to have two conflict zones with Russia. On the other hand, they’ve got Montenegro coming in so I think there is a possibility of EU membership. It will undoubtedly annoy Putin, which is a very good reason for doing it, but that may stop some of the Europeans.

Thinking of the two conflict zones with Russia, do you see any hope for a reunification?

There was hope at one point a long time ago when Saakashvili had that very good foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili. She seems, from what I’ve heard, to have had some sort of agreement with Putin that South Ossetia could go back when things were quieter, because Russia doesn’t really want South Ossetia, but then Saakashvili spoiled that with his recklessness. I think with Abkhazia there’s no hope at all; it’s just too valuable to Russia and if I were a Georgian, I would just say, ‘give up’. The only hope in the long term is to make Georgia such a pleasant place that the Abkhaz themselves wish they were somehow federated with it, but I don’t think that the Russians are ever going to allow that.

There was a scramble in the early 90s with everyone hastily redrawing borders along ethnic lines…

You had the people in Adjara wanting to be separate, you had the Armenians in Javakheti who to this day feel resentful, but they’re no worse off in Georgia than they would be if they joined Armenia, and the Azerbaijanis in Rustavi seem to be ok. It’s a pity because the one thing about Georgia before all this flared up is that it was so tolerant.

That was something you wrote in the preface to Edge of Empires…

Yes, they got on well. I mean, they were a bit snarky about Armenians; they had been since 600 AD, but everyone else they got on with. I think there’s no hope of Abkhazia coming back, in our lifetime anyway, although South Ossetia may be negotiable, I don’t know what they’d have to give away. Restoring the railway line along the Black Sea Coast perhaps, but I think Georgian politicians will find that a line too far.

Robert Edgar


Related story

A Man Was Going Down the Road by Otar Chiladze



21 September 2017 19:59