I’m not sure what drove me to pick up the faded red-booklet sitting on the table alongside a box of plastic Soviet pins and medals. There was nothing particularly special about it. The pages were tattered, and the passport size photo of its owner which had adorned the inner cover had been cut out. Maybe it was the handwriting, an intensely beautiful cursive that seemed to be wasted on something as impersonal and bureaucratic as an identity document. It had a certain pride to it as if the clerk who had filled out each line of data viewed it as a work of art.
Each time I visit a new country, I always buy one, and only one, souvenir. I look for some object that speaks to me, that seems to represent the country more than anything else. Sometimes this task is easy. Other times it is not. I was having a particularly rough time finding an item that summed up Georgia. Maybe because I couldn’t seem to get a good grasp of the country, an ex-socialist republic straddled between Europe and Asia.
I reached into my pocket and paid the 2 Lari (about a dollar) for the document and walked home. My host family, an ethnic Russian couple that had long since retired, was waiting for me when I returned. My time with them in their Tbilisi flat had been unusual. Despite their superb hospitality, there seemed to be an invisible wall between us, made all the stronger by the difficulty in communication.
Siting down at the kitchen table, Katya poured me and her husband, Mikhail, a cup of tea. Mikhail motioned at the black plastic bag containing my purchase from the flea market that afternoon. I took out the document and placed it on the table.
“Wait!” said Mikhail, springing up from his chair and darting out of the kitchen. Katya was smiling. I had never seen her smile.
Mikhail returned to the kitchen holding something in his hand. He slammed it down on the table. “Look!” he said. “I have one too. We all had one.” Laying on the table next to my purchase was the same worn red booklet. “Internal Passport. Soviet Union. Come, I want to show you something.”
I followed Mikhail into his study. He closed the door. “No women allowed,” he joked as he opened up a desk drawer. Inside were hundreds of pins and medals. “Look this one is from the Olympics 1980. This for being a paratrooper.”
“You were a paratrooper?” I asked.
“Yes. Look.” He pulled a photo album from a row of books and began to thumb through the pages on his desk. “Look that’s me.” He pointed to a younger version of himself in the middle of a group of soldiers. “They were my comrades. Like family. Soviet Union like family.”
I suddenly realized why Georgia seemed so obtuse, so difficult to wrap my head around. Mikhail was born in Georgia. He spoke Georgian, cooked Georgian cuisine, and drank Georgian wine. But he was not a Georgian. Nor was he a Russian, even though much of his extended family lived in St. Petersburg. Mikhail was in-fact a Soviet. Not in the political sense, of course; he was no communist. But this was his identity. It was the country he grew up in when the boundaries between Georgia and Russia were more of a formality than an actual border.
When the Soviet Union vanished so too did Mikhail’s identity. He became a minority in the only country he really knew. Mikhail could have, of course, immigrated to Russia. But Russia was not his home. These feelings only intensified after the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, a war that pitted the nation of his ancestors and extended family, with the country of his birth.
Mikhail’s situation is not unique. Ethnic Russians really do deal with discrimination throughout many former Soviet Republics. But the problem isn’t just about nationalities; it is also generational. For better or for worse, the Soviet Union created a new type of citizen, a Homo sovieticus, who believed in something bigger. Adhesion to ideology was the primary glue that bounded people together in the USSR. When that glue was dissolved in the solvent of nationalism, the Homo sovieticus found himself a stranger in an unfamiliar environment, left involuntarily on the margins, unable to fully join society because of a new culture that valued ethnicity over principles; his life reduced to pages in a little red book.