In the context of these celebrations there was inaugurated, a few hundred meters below the Holy Cross Pass, where one has the first beautiful sight over the southern slopes of the Caucasus when coming from Russia, or the last one when leaving Georgia, the Russian-Georgian Friendship Look-out, or as it is called in the Russian sites, Арка Дружбы, the Arch of Friendship, designed by Zurab Tsereteli. The look-out indeed offers a stunning panorama on the uppermost section of the Aragvi river in depth, called the Devil’s Valley in Russian, and of the huge clouds in the heights, drifting downward from the northern side of the Caucasus. No wonder then that everyone pulls off the military road to take a photo. Here I first heard some teenage girls use the Russian phrase давай поселфимся, “let’s make a selfie!”
Reading of the mosaic decoration of the look-out starts from the center. A mother is sitting here with her child, surrounded by two groups of dragon-slaying knights, three Georgians and three Russians, as secular Holy Georges. This remote Madonna theme is likely the popular socialist allegory of “the next generation”. Next to her, the quote of Rustaveli in two languages asserts that a friend always helps his friend, and this is what we see unfolding in the panneau, basically from right to left, from the Russian side to the Georgian one. Already in the Middle Ages, Russians tolled church bells and rushed to the help the Georgians. (The artists here probably do not allude to the first chapter of Georgian-Russian relations, when Prince Yuri Bogolyubsky twice invaded Georgia in alliance with Muslims. Queen Tamar both times defeated him, and forgave him, and only after the third time was he sentenced to prison for life.) After the fairy tale figures come other heroes, the red sailor of the Revolution and the soldiers of the Civil War, the Soviet hero trampling on the swastika, and finally the image of the brave new world. On the Georgian side, the bucolic-ethnographic representation of Georgian folk life are likewise traced out, in a great leap, with revolutionary figures of the popular uprisings, and then the same brave new world. Life is day by day more joyful. As if even the shape of the building illustrated that verse of the national anthem: дружбы народов надежный оплот, “a strong bastion is the friendship of peoples!”
Союз нерушимый республик свободных – Unbreakable Union of Freeborn Republics
In the occasion of the celebrations, a friendship monument was erected not only at the middle of the route, but also at its two ends. Both were entrusted to the same Zurab Tsereteli, who, with genial pliancy, has since served all systems with his over-dimensioned monuments. The statue Узы дружбы, “The bond of friendship” at the start of the military road in Tbilisi, where the text of the Treaty of Georgievsk was written in the inner side of two interlocking rings, was demolished in 1991, and I failed to find a photo of it. In Moscow, however, still stands the column called Дружбы навеки, “Eternal friendship”, crowned with Russian ears of corn, embraced by Georgian vine, and announcing in two languages the words “Friendship”, “Union”, “Work” and “Peace”. The column was erected in the center of the former Gruzinskaya sloboda, the former estate of the Georgian king Vakhtang VI. For a long time, this square hosted the Georgian market, whose removal provided the Moscow city government with the necessary space to raise the column of Russian-Georgian friendship.
Two years later, in 1985, another monument was inaugurated in Georgia, next to the dam of the Zhinvali hydroelectric plant established somewhat below on the Aragvi river, just as next to the Zages plant sixty years earlier. This one, however, does not portray Lenin. The structure, cast of concrete, has the shape of an ancient Georgian fortress tower, on which warriors stand outside, to protect the women and children clinging close to the wall inside.
The monument has no inscription, and on the internet there is almost no reference to what it depicts. The Russian sites call it “a war memorial”, and some even “the monument to the workers of the construction of the Zhinvali water reservoir”. Only Google Maps displays next to it the title, only in Georgian, “300 არაგველი”, “the three hundred Aragvians”.
The three hundred Aragvians were three hundred Georgian soldiers from here, the upper valley of the Aragvi river, who during the 1795 Persian invasion, when the promised Russian support was awaited in vain, fought to their deaths against the Persians, like the three hundred Spartans, thereby ensuring the king’s escape. This anonymous monument was erected in their memory here, on the northern military road, clearly indicating who you can rely on when the homeland must be defended, and from which direction you have to defend it. This monument is an unspoken response to the official platitudes of the Friendship Look-out, which, however, has been clearly understood by everyone. Inside, as the traces of soot show, they often light candles, just as in the churches. The reading of the inscription on the circular iron plate around the central iron column is not an easy task even for a Georgian:
სამშობლოს არვის წავართმევთ, ნურც ნურვინ შეგვეცილება, თორემ ისეთ დღეს დავაყრით მტერსაც კი გაეცინება
samshoblos arvis ts'avartmevt, nurtrs nurvin shegvetsileba, torem iset dghes davaq'rit met'ersats ki gaetsineba
“We do not want to rob anyone’s homeland, but nobody can rob our homeland either from us, because we fight so fiercely for it, that even the dead will laugh at it.”
The quote, says Jacopo, while polishing the translation, is taken from the poem of the great patriotic poet Vazha-Pshavela (1861-1915), which was set to melody and sung as an unofficial anthem already in Soviet times.
Mgzavrebi: Vutia vutisofeli (text by Vazha-Pshavela)
A third monument also stands on the pass, right at the column marking its location, with the cross set on the hilltop, according to tradition, by Queen Tamar. On the map we see a small cemetery here, at the very top of the pass, many, many kilometers from any inhabited place. It arouses our curiosity, and so we stop. Crosses in groups of three. Under the central, solitary cross, an inscription: “Hier ruhen Kriegsgefangene, Opfer des zweiten Weltkrieges.” “Here lie prisoners of war, victims of the Second World War.” After coming back to Berlin, I find in the military cemetery register, that after 1943, German prisoners of war built the road here, across the Holy Cross Pass. Judging from the dimensions of the cemetery, the life of POWs was not everywhere as idyllic as that of Hubert Deneser in Uglich. To this monument of the recruits who senselessly perished after a senseless war, no triumphal or patriotic song belongs. Only the noise of the trucks as they speed along north to the Russian border, the dripping slush, the cawing of the crows that fly over the fields.
Holy Cross Pass, cemetery of German prisoners of war. Record by Lloyd Dunn