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The Time of the Patriarch

Beka Mindiashvili
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“For the alchemists, a number of dragons fighting with each other illustrated the state of putrefactio (separating out the Elements, or psychic disintegration). And the winged dragon represented the volatile element, while the wingless creature stood for the fixed element.”
— Dictionary of Symbols

“I am giving you my blessing to write fairy tales.”
— Ilia II

Just recently, the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II visited Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili at his residence and presented him with a gift – a very expensive wristwatch. Much has been said and written about this fact, but let’s not dwell on the price of the watch, especially considering that for both the billionaire and the Catholicos Patriarch some 30,000 GEL is probably tantamount to a mere 30 GEL for the average Georgian. Let’s not discuss whether the law permitted Ivanishvili to receive such a valuable gift either. Let’s also allow the question of how many starving children could have been fed with the cost of that wristwatch to go unanswered. After all, no such discussion would make any sense. Save for his conscience and Christian morals, there is no legal obligation that forces the Patriarch to engage in charity. Just like any other citizen, he is free to use his own wealth on whatever he chooses.

Let’s instead discuss the symbolic meaning of the gift. The symbolic perception of events is an intrinsic feature of religion in general, and especially of Orthodox Christianity. The Church actually animates symbols by adding existential content to them. Symbolism pervades every detail of Orthodox Christian daily routine – the attire, liturgy and every object and action has its metaphorical dimension. Discerning invisible essence beyond visible content is much more significant for the Church than the empirical reality. Ilia II is also inclined towards such an extreme symbolization of events.

However, if until now, the list of gifts from the Patriarchate, as a rule, were confined to religious items – icons, reliquaries, holy books, crosses, and medallions with images of saints; religious relics, in short – the gift to Ivanishvili is of a clearly secular nature. Furthermore, a watch with a dial bears a negative connotation – it indicates the vanity of earthly life, the evanescence of everything. The nervous ticking sound of the hands symbolizes fatalism – that no one can escape the ruthless flow of time. Moreover, taking into account that, objectively, Ivanishvili does not need this item at all, and that both materially and culturally it is absolutely useless for him, it becomes clear that the symbolic connotation of the act of gifting is key here.

The reburial of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Svetitskhoveli cathedral, March 2007
With this gift the Patriarch perhaps hinted to the prime minister that his time is ending; he is exiting the political arena and leaving the country to Ilia II, the only unfading authority in Georgia. With this gift, the Patriarch was perhaps telling Ivanishvili that he will soon join the collection of other political leaders – Shevardnadze, Gumbaridze, Patiashvili, Saakashvili – because the authority of the head of the Church is eternal whilst that of Ivanishvili, regardless of his billions, is ephemeral. One also cannot exclude that with this gift the Patriarch was hinting that the Church already occupies the backstage of politics and that, after the exit of the prime minister, nothing can stand in the way of the Patriarchate openly dominating the political arena.

If our understanding of events with the wristwatch reflects the reality, it logically follows that not everything is fine in the relationship between the prime minister and the Patriarch. This is indeed a matter for discussion. For example, during a New Year dinner at the Patriarchate attended by the Patriarch, President Saakashvili and Ivanishvili, the prime minister jokingly suggested that the Patriarch likes Misha more than him and quite familiarly encouraged the Patriarch to see the President off first. It is thus not difficult to guess the prime minister’s attitude towards the person whom he accuses – even jokingly – of loving Saakashvili, the key object of his excessive hatred and loathing. 

Moreover, I cannot recall any instance from the past 20 years when a head of government publicly criticized the Patriarchate on several occasions. At various times and for various reasons, Ivanishvili has indicated that there are problems in the Church; that representatives of the Church improperly interfere in civil affairs. Nor did he shun openly speaking in favor of protecting LGBT rights, regardless of the strong and unflagging position of the clergy on that issue. He also declared that strict punishment awaits those religious servants who were involved in the assault against LBGT rights defenders on 17 May. That the prime minister’s words and deeds mean, to put it softly, two different things is an absolutely separate issue. However, judging by the lack of investigations or real punishments meted out following the 17 May events or after the dismantling of the minaret in the village of Chela, we are left guessing whether a theocracy has already been established in Georgia or not.

In order to find out whether we really face the threat of theocracy and what the symbolic gesture of gift giving may mean in perspective, let us look through our recent, 20-year-long political history. For me, the most adequate concepts through which to describe the past of my homeland are those which might be useless for an academic analysis of the subject; however, the genealogy of Georgian politics does not itself represent the pure, academic understanding of politics – it too is a locus of myths, fairytales, rituals, anecdotes and all too real apocalyptic nightmares.

The Birth of Myth

Since the 1990s the Patriarch has seen several heads of state come and go. He had different relations with each of them. The charismatic President Zviad Gamsakhurdia tried to totally overshadow the Church leader whose authority was very weak at the time. In an effort to increase his popularity and consolidate power, Gamsakhurdia tried to combine the fundamentals of religious and secular governance under himself in order to gain advantage of the possibilities of religion and to sideline the Patriarch. It is no secret that, for years Zviad Gamsakhurdia had branded representatives of the Patriarchate, including Ilia II, as spies of the security services and that he was looking for a candidate to become a new Patriarch. As a consequence, the Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II became personally involved in the anti-Zviadist movement. In the opinion of several researchers, the Patriarch in fact supported the overthrow of the legitimately elected President. It was for such activities that Gamsakhurdia’s supporters called IIia II “his holiness, the security service spy and putschist.” 

Overall, the period of Gamsakhurdia’s rule can be described as an epoch of myths because it gave birth to the main archetypes that subsequently determined the development (or underdevelopment) of Georgian political and social awareness for quite a long time – the idea of a state built upon religion and ethno-Orthodox civil identity, on the one hand, and the conflicting coexistence of authoritarianism and democracy, on the other. At the same time, Gamsakhurdia created a political image for the nation as the bearer of a distinguished, unique mission destined to show a new spiritual path to the world.

It was precisely those dangerous idols that took to the front lines in the political pantheon of that time and engaged in a deadly fight against everyone and everything. As a result, having failed to escape its own romantic myths and be transformed into a historic process, the Georgian Mount Olympus fatally collapsed, remaining a constant tragedy of the “golden epoch.” In this war of the gods, the Patriarchate, after a 200-year-long Russian imposed interval, was born anew as an inseparable, though yet weak, coauthor of politics. From its defeated rival in this epic battle the Patriarchate seized a very valuable trophy – a marker of Georgian identity and messianism – a sort of Golden Fleece.

Discovery of Religion

During Eduard Shevardnadze’s era, myth was replaced by the discovery of religion. One of the most cunning ministers of the former empire now positioned himself as a sort of political Moses; he was supposed to first somehow confine Georgia, a country disorientated after escaping from Soviet captivity, within the boundaries of the law and then lead it to the promised land – the democratic West. The modus vivendi of that time was akin to roaming in a desert, aiming,  sooner or later, to reach that goal. The precise metaphor and definition of Shevardnadze’s politics can be found in the expression “light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.”

Illia II, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze. Tbilisi, 1994
Having come to power as a result of a coup, Moses, as the leader of the nation, needed an additional pillar – religion. Or, to be more precise, the specific legitimizing function it offered. He needed his brother, Aaron, a clerical hierarch to support him; to create a sacred aureole for his pragmatic, historic path; and provide justification for his political steps. Such a service could not be rendered to Shevardnadze by anyone other than his old “colleague,” “his impeccability” (which is how he called the Patriarch); however, just like in the story of the exodus from Egypt, a conflict ultimately erupted between the two. According to the narrative of the Bible, when Moses was on Mount Sinai talking to the invisible god and receiving the Ten Commandments, Aaron, down in the camp, built a golden idol, engaged in idolatry and wanted to begin the yoke of slavery again. Something comparable happened in Georgia too. When Shevardnadze started speaking about integrating the country with Europe, the Patriarch erected an idol – an “Iberia that will shine” – severed ties with Western Christendom and turned its vector towards Russia.

During that period, as a result of persistent demands from the Patriarchate and the heedlessness of Shevardnadze, the Georgian constitution, i.e. the secular canon, became encumbered with a form of antagonistic marriage between the Church and the state; it came to hold two texts – a secular law and a concordat that placed the Patriarch outside the realm of law. Because of this dichotomy, the constitution offered constant possibilities for undesirable interpretation. It could, for example, be read in either of the following ways: the Church is a state inside the state; or the state consists of the Church and the state proper.

Finally, by the end of this period of roaming in the desert, the Patriarchate had been formed into a body which was the producer or supplier of Georgian identity; the key source of political legitimization; and the key power for consolidation of the nation. Orthodox Christianity, meanwhile, degraded from a religion into an ideological idol of a totalitarian nature that came to essentially oppose the promised land – the idea of the liberal-democratic West.

The Time of the Fairytale

The time of the fairytale began on the brink of reality; when changes prompted by the inner logic of historical developments are vitally important, but the means of achieving those changes are beyond real possibilities. The plot of the fairytale has a hero embark on a difficult path to achieve the final aim of freeing an imprisoned maiden. The hero does this by breaking taboos, not shunning engagement in principled conflicts; dealing with threats, taking risks and making changes and, to this end, he employs various clever ploys and magic machines – but remains virtuous throughout the quest. By freeing the maiden, the hero turns the qualitative novelty into reality, and then returns home.

The epoch of the fairytale was the biggest challenge to the Patriarch’s authority so far because  Mikheil Saakashvili’s government initially tried to distance itself from the Patriarch: it changed almost all the discriminative laws, arrested religious offenders, launched modernization initiatives, opened up the door to universal cultures and values, supported the enhancement of liberal attitudes, declaratively made the Western orientation real, and pitted civil nationalism against the ethnic chauvinism wrapped in religion. It seems that the Patriarch was unable to see an acceptable place for himself in this new national narrative; one that would amount to a distinguished, monarch’s throne. He thus perceived all of those initiatives as an attempt to weaken and belittle the influence of the Church.

Mikheil Saakashvili greets Ilia II. Tbilisi, 2012
It is not at all strange that the power of Patriarch reached its peak in this fairytale epoch. The unlimited jealousy which was caused by that distancing, nolens volens, transformed him into a real monster. With his entire ideological apparatus and the idea of restoring the Orthodox monarchy, he set out to oppose not only Saakashvili, but also the idea of a secular, liberal, republican state; whilst counterbalancing civil nationalism with an anti-Western, Russian-oriented surrogate. To put it in simple terms, the Patriarch created a virtual alternative to the fairytale, progressive and modern Georgia; in its doppelganger, he performed the central role.

While the hero of the fairytale moved incessantly and, in so doing, incessantly wasted his charisma, the Patriarch was accumulating magic capital by remaining motionless. He became a sort of dozing dragon guarding the source of a magic spring, from which flowed the myths of Gamsakhurdia’s vintage; those which equalized Georgian ethnicity with Orthodox Christianity. By emitting sacred fire and with the blinding shininess of its scales, this dragon was enchanting more and more citizens.

The situation came to resemble an unwinnable fight against something that keeps getting stronger – you cut one head off and two grow in its place; a fight, in which, at some point, the creature will force you to become like it internally and thus make you yield unto yourself. Saakashvili kept repeating that he was fighting mummies, zombies, witches, werewolves, dragons and other wicked fairytale creatures, but in the midst of battle the combatant president came to face the strong temptation of turning into a monster himself. This threat became especially conspicuous during his second term in office. In this context, for example, the reconstruction of Bagrati Cathedral, which was an attempt to animate a symbol of monarchical absolutism, of secular and clerical unity, clearly indicated his political degradation.

The problem ultimately stemmed from the reality that Saakashvili was unable to refuse the Patriarchate’s legitimization; even if only doing so unilaterally, in contrast to the political opposition, he was unable to reject the involvement of phariseeism in political rivalries. Quite the contrary, proceeding from this very reasoning, he started to financially strengthen the Patriarchate. It thus seems that his plan was to ensure the peaceful political dozing of the monster; he could not imagine that its sacred sleep and silence would turn out to be way more dangerous than it awakening and kicking up a fuss.

At the end of the day, however, the fairytale of democracy ended with the hero defeated in the elections; his chapter thus closed and cleared the way for another. Saakashvili was spared from turning into a dragon himself by the inevitable necessity of any democracy, and the key form of magic – the elections. In that regard, the reason for celebration was not as much an election won, but an election lost.

Even though the fairytale hero fighting against evil escaped the danger of turning into a monster himself, ultimately the fairytale still failed to perform its mission to the end. It failed to qualitatively transform the real world. A key reason for that failure might be the fact that undertaking political reasoning in terms of fairytale characteristics has seriously damaged the political perception of reality. In simple words, it seems that Saakashvili and his team lost sense of reality and, at the same time, forgot the main aim they sought to attain when leaving their homes and embarking on their quest. Because of that fatal forgetfulness, both the fairytale and the reality experienced a rather incomprehensible, unexplainable and strange deformation.

The Epoch of the Anecdote

Where myths, religious stories and fairytales all contain certain spatial-temporal dimensions and intentions, with their heroes all heading from point A to point B, an anecdote, by contrast, abolishes space and time factors altogether, it merely does not acknowledge them. It fits everyone and everything – contrasting events, various personages, conflicting phenomena, historical or fictional characters – into a short, brief frame of narration and uses each and every element of that to try and ridicule everything. At the same time, it always remains unclear who the precise author of an anecdote is. Anecdotes are devoid of any moral orientation, they perfectly exploit existing stereotypes and ridicule any value. For example, in an anecdote a henchman does not cause any loathing, whilst a hero is not the subject of admiration. In them, the most appalling torture, killing or rape completely loses its tragic essence and becomes merely a source of laughter. In short, anecdotes are the language of a circus in which absolutely anything may happen.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Illia II. Kutaisi, 2012
If the period of Ivanishvili and his political awareness can be evaluated as anything at all, then that is an anecdote. Reasoning is performed through conflicting notions and values, activities undertaken without considerations of time or space, and a rather peculiar style of pseudo-psychologism is employed for crisis management – because, as is said, an anecdote is nothing more than a form of reaction to a crisis. The anecdotal government of the Georgian Dream has indeed erased contours of time and space and, what’s more important, has lost the very aim of their movement. One can already say quite assuredly that a total confusion of values is evident. The social field, for example, has become packed with goblins defending human rights and tricksters fighting for justice. In the epoch of the anecdote, the entirety of Georgia has been turned into a small, strange, comic story on the world map – and yet Ivanishvili calls this project a democracy that will amaze Europe.

The administrative system presented by Ivanishvili also takes on the form of the telling of an anecdote. That is not to say that he likes to tell anecdotes. When, for example, the prime minister says that he wants to move to the civil sector and to continue to control the government and society from that poor sector, to which he plans to provide only intellectual support rather than financial assistance; or when he says that he will ensure the country joins NATO and will simultaneously settle relations with Russia, this is nothing more than anecdotal structuralism. More importantly, Ivanishvili succeeds in turning himself into the key, enigmatic, invisible subject of his narration, and even thanks himself for transforming both his political opponents and his supporters into the heroes of anecdotes, the real author of which is still unidentified for many, even though we know who he is.

As a rule, the culmination of the anecdote is “agon.” In ancient Greek comedy, agon was the convention of a rhetorical conflict occurring between two antagonistic parties, two opposing realities, in which one often represents good and the other evil. Defeat in this game ultimately solves the problem, causing laughter and the ridicule of the loser. If we look at Ivanishvili’s manner of verbal debate with his two main opponents – Saakashvili and, as Ivanishvili himself declared, the journalist Merab Metreveli, we will see that the prime minister is quite skilled in the methods of such a fight.

At the height of this crisis management, in the middle of this rigmarole, the head of government must, naturally, have developed an acute desire to lure Ilia II and all his retinue into the realm of anecdotal and agonic rhetoric, because it is an objective reality that the Patriarchate has great potential to cause a crisis. For example, what was that photo recently released on Facebook, in which the prime minister, the Patriarch, and the Patriarch’s retinue are all lined up next to a billiard table in Ivanishvili’s glass palace looking at a Picasso canvas on the wall, if not just a form of anecdotal confusion?

However, we know that desire is one thing and reality quite another. We must admit that bringing the Patriarchate into the prime minister’s anecdote, unfortunately, exceeds the prime minister’s intellectual or financial capacities. Not because the Patriarchate is not comic itself, but because the Patriarchate has already gone beyond that limit whereby anything they do can cause laughter. Against the epoch of the anecdote, the Patriarch pits, just as it did against the times of myth, religion and fairytale – an absolutely different grim and universal chronotope – an apocalyptic Iveria. This is already approaching and threatens a political flood.

The Patriarch’s Rhinoceros

Here and now, the Patriarchate is the only institution which demonstratively disobeys secular legislation and openly resorts to violence. Not only does it remain unpunished for doing so, but it even effortlessly forces the state to become engaged in acts of violence too. True, it is not formally the government, but it has all the necessary prerequisites to appear as the real ruler of Georgia in the near future – to this end, it does not necessary require a theocratic coup. For this to happen, an all-encompassing dominance over the collective consciousness will suffice.

By emitting sacred fire and with the blinding shininess of its scales, this dragon was enchanting more and more citizens

It is, therefore, natural that the Patriarchate is the only entity which can indulge in wealth and luxury without any moral loss; the only one that can abuse the West and, at the same time, arrange costly trips to London, Paris or Berlin; the only one which can meet Putin, the occupier of Georgia’s territories, and call him a kind and generous person; the only one that can praise, in the name of God, the greatest villain – Joseph Stalin – without feeling any discomfort. This is not a grotesque, it is not an anecdote or a story, which has a short-circuit effect like that of Ivanishvili; this is a sign of the Patriarchate’s total influence on minds. It is a phenomenon of the influence of “a millennia-long kingdom” that portends nothing else but the dominance of Georgian fundamentalism in the near future.

Ilia II declares himself to be the Patriarch of the end times; the Patriarchate too has been constantly threatening apocalypses for years now. The Patriarch principally views himself only in such a narrative, in its time and space, and nowhere else. The Patriarch’s time restores the Orthodox kingdom in the consciousness of every Georgian; it erases the mental boundary between the state and the Church; denounces liberalism, democracy, and exposes Western perversions.

It is this very powerful Patriarch that gave a wristwatch to Ivanishvili as a gift. In so doing, he indicated who, in reality, is the ruler of time, reason, spirituality and everything else in this country. He showed who the invincible dragon of this kingdom is, the one for whom the enchanted and dazzled clergy and laity will diligently and zealously defend, with fire and sword, the identity of Georgians from the rest of the world and from ordinary Christian, human morality.

Signs of an approaching national apocalypse can already be discerned. Let’s even leave aside the obvious examples of the 17 May rampage and the persecution of Muslims. We have learned that in Batumi, for example, a bookstore has priest-appointed consultants who purchase all the literature that they think is immoral. They purchase it for only one reason – to burn it. In Kutaisi a taxi appeared with “Have mercy on me, O God!” inscribed on it. Under the Patriarchate’s blessing, a fast food restaurant – Wendy’s – was inaugurated in Tbilisi, selling blessed cheeseburgers, baconators and milkshakes; whilst at a ceremony marking the start of the new academic year at Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, the Education Minister told the students being blessed by the Patriarch that they could not have hoped to experience anything better that day. Just recently, a photo was released on Facebook, which, for me personally, was an undeniable sign of approaching disaster: a huge rhinoceros head could be seen hanging on the wall in the reception of the Patriarchate, right next to an icon of the Virgin Mary.

In Rhinoceros, a play by Eugène Ionesco, a master of the Theater of the Absurd, a small French town is startled one day to see a rhinoceros unexpectedly appear. Soon, there is an army of rhinoceroses plaguing the streets and gradually the citizens of the town each turn into rhinoceroses themselves. The play ends with the following scene: Daisy, one of the characters, is very scared; rhinos are everywhere, she hears them trumpeting on the telephone line and over the radio; the walls, floor, and ceiling of the building are shaking because the rhinos are rampaging all over town. However, this threatening trumpeting soon turns into a melody and Daisy suddenly declares that the rhinos are in fact cute creatures, very energetic, joyous, musical, and it is a pleasure to watch them… Her friend and only human companion, Berenger, slaps Daisy for those words. In response, Daisy leaves him and goes to join the pretty and musical rhinos. Berenger, now alone, starts to wonder whether it would be better for him to have a horn growing out of his forehead, to find a pretty rhino skin and to start bellowing and trumpeting like a rhino. Nevertheless, he finally decides not to submit; he takes his gun and begins to fight the rhinos.

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