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The Saintly Fathers Declare

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A commonplace phrase heard in my youth – “the crime bosses decided” – bore significant connotations. It meant that a specific issue had been discussed and the truth about it had been established by people well-versed in the issue.

In epistemology, one of the criteria of establishing the truth is called an appeal to authority. The opinions of those with significant experience and knowledge on a given issue are applied as a form of proof.

In the 1970s, such “authorities” in Georgia were crime bosses or, in the local vernacular the so-called “thieves-in-law.” Their “expertise” was not limited to only the criminal mindset or “understanding,” but extended to numerous other spheres of social relations too.

That was a time when society had lost its trust in the Soviet ideology and hardly anyone treated it seriously. Everything non-Soviet and conflicting was attractive, but such rhetoric could not be heard anywhere. The intelligentsia actively cooperated with the government; artists criticized the system, at best, by employing allegory; coerced dissidents offered public confessions of their wrongdoing; diaspora and emigrates were weak and virtually unknown. In the eyes of society, the only segment capable of opposing the loathed system were those thieves living “beyond the law.” As a result, we got a situation in which these thieves, as the only actual “opponents” of the political system, acquired the glory of knights and thus filled the niche of moral authority figures. In short, the lack of trust in the administration of the country translated into granting thieves the roles of authority figures and experts in establishing the criterion of truth.

One must also underline that to be perceived as an authority figure, the personal qualities of that figure – their skills, intellect, charisma, financial resources, et cetera – did not play a decisive role. It is a universal phenomenon to assess a person not by their internal qualities, but by the place they hold in public space, the position they are perceived from. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a piece of art, not because of its inner qualities – it is an ordinary porcelain urinal – but because it is perceived from the position of art. Should the same urinal be placed in a street instead of a museum or exhibition hall, it would be perceived as just a piece of discarded waste. Likewise, to turn a person into an “authority figure” the Georgian mentality back then needed this person to assume the position of an outlaw (a “thief-in-law”).

If anyone thinks that phenomena of “thieves-in-law” being turned into all-knowing authority figures is farfetched, let them remember that relations based on “thief-like” behavior extended across numerous social and economic spheres in those times. Such a mentality became a necessary attribute for achieving success in the social sphere. Moral and ethical criteria such as being a “brave man” or an “ideal person” were evaluated from the standpoint of the thief mentality. This “understanding” could justify any behavior and portray it as ethical. The violation of order (theft, aggression, physical retaliation, drug abuse, et cetera) became an expression of “higher” lawfulness and morality as compared to Soviet immorality and lawlessness. “Wisdom” was also formed from the position of unlawfulness.

This situation was well illustrated in a novel published during those times, Data Tutashkhia, regarded as the “most Georgian novel.” The protagonist of the novel, a bandit by vocation, was portrayed – and perceived by many readers – as the embodiment of “universal generosity and the highest morals.”

In parallel with the processes developed in Georgia, in Poland, another country falling within the Soviet bloc, the place of authority and the leader of the nation was taken by the Catholic Church. At that time, the Georgian Orthodox Church had a rather bleak existence. It did not show any desire to gain influence over its congregation or to replace the criminal “understanding” and the “thieves-in-law” as the institution for establishing moral and ethical criteria.

The Georgian Orthodox Church, which was subject to Soviet control and staffed with those under the employ of the security services, was merely an addendum to the state. The Church had not only been destroyed physically, but it was also broken morally, in stark contrast to the Polish Catholic Church that proved to have sufficient inner strength to oppose the hell of communism.

In the late 1990s, when the state bureaucracy and the world of the “thieves-in-law,” were closely interconnected, the Georgian Church started gaining momentum. This ultimately resulted in it replacing the authority of the “thieves-in-law.” The intelligentsia was also given the chance to associate themselves with the Church and thus make it onto the list of mentors.

Even though the pseudo-authority of the “thieves-in-law” was replaced by the authority of the Church, the mental outlook of the former was not replaced by the latter. This is seen in the similar style of language and behavior that these two institutions adopted: an aggressive manner of speaking, heavily loaded with street slang and vulgarity; unrestrained belligerence and swearing in public; and imposing their own agenda on others. Everything that was characteristic of the criminal mentality has become a norm for the Orthodox Church. “The priest with a stool,” as seen chasing LGBT rights supporters on 17 May, is more the rule than an exception.

The most important thing is that the only criterion of truth left in the Georgian intellectual space is the appeal to authority. If the earlier symbols of authority were the regalia of the “thieves,” today they are a priest’s vestment or a nun’s headwear. If earlier the truth was perceived from a criminal standpoint, today the truth is possible from the standpoint of the Church alone. A common phrase of the past, “the thief said,” has been replaced by the “saintly Fathers declare.”

Characteristic of the reasoning of society when appealing to authority is the notion of “doublethink.” This term was coined by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a concept that perfectly suits the Georgian reasoning built upon what the “saintly Fathers declare.”

According to Orwell, doublethink is the ability of an ordinary person to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs and opinions as correct. A perfect example of that is the attempt of the post-Soviet Orthodox Church to exonerate Stalin – something that was echoed in a statement the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II made last year when claiming “Stalin was a believer… He ensured that theological seminaries and academies were opened because he was himself a seminarian. He knew the price of spiritual education.”

In the Patriarch’s words, such fundamentally contradictory notions as being an atheist and a believer, a communist and a Christian, are perceived as being equally correct statements. Yet it is clear that no logician or dialectician would be able to harmonize the concepts of communism and Christianity with each other. The former rests on the materialistic interpretation of life and, for it, god is an illusion created by the imagination, whilst religion is a product of ignorance and fear. Stalin, who strictly followed this ideology and hence was a “genuine communist” cannot, by definition, be considered a believer. However, in the mental space of doublethink, there is hardly any room for logic.

Doublethinking means knowing and not knowing simultaneously; to know conflicting facts and yet to believe both to be true. Under the leadership of Stalin, communists delivered the hardest blow to the Orthodox and other Christian churches: out of 57,000 active churches existing before 1917, only several dozens were left standing in the USSR. Leaving aside the “atheist five year plan” that Stalin himself declared and the terror conducted against believers and the clergy by its implementing unit, the League of Militant Atheists, during the purge of 1937 alone, up to 168,000 religious servants were exiled to concentration camps and 100,000 of them died. Not knowing these facts or driving them out of one’s consciousness is impossible, especially for religious servants.

Stalin was the main architect of the demise of the church, an achievement which he repeatedly boasted about. At the same time, the doublethinkers believe that Stalin was a believer and that he “ensured that theological seminaries and academies were opened because he himself was a seminarian. He knew the price of spiritual education.” In this case the fact is correct, but the explanation is wrong. Indeed, Stalin allowed a certain liberalization towards churches during the Second World War, but he did so only for pragmatic considerations – for the patriotic mobilization of the population. Once the war ended, he resumed the destruction of churches with renewed force. Moreover, how one can sincerely shed tears about the tireless enemy of religion just because he opened a seminary? “I was a student of theological seminary when he [Stalin] died. During his burial, we all were standing in the meeting hall of the seminary and crying,” Ilia II said.

In his attempt to rehabilitate Stalin, the Georgian Patriarch follows in the footsteps of the Russian Church, an organization which has almost consecrated the despot as a saint. Doublethinking is the mode of reasoning for the Orthodox Church as an institution. Based on the same facts, a person can be perceived as both a henchman and a saint. Doublethinking is the constant ability to forget when it is convenient to forget, and to recall when it is convenient to recall.

Doublethinking is to deliberately lie, and to then believe in that lie yourself. It is the ability to deny an objective reality, but to take that reality into account when necessary; to replace scientific progress with fairytales, and to return to science when necessary – “to repudiate morality while laying claim to it,” as George Orwell said.

Doublethinking is to fabricate facts to write a new narrative, and then to believe in the history you have just invented. It is a form of mythological, imaginary, dreamy reasoning.

In Orwell’s novel people had to study doublethink – it was needed to adapt to public opinion, to be in the mainstream, to feel comfortable and gain influence. Georgians do not need to learn this. Their imagination is incomparably more developed than their abilities of rational reasoning; they feel better at ease when dreaming about reality than judging it, and this is equally true for the clergy and the laity, the government and the people.

For a ruling force – and such a force in Georgia is the Orthodox Church – doublethinking is the best means for brain washing, deceiving and maintaining power.

In order to strengthen one’s power, one must first weaken the sense of reality and strengthen the dream, the imagination. This is managed by those mantras repeated with a clever countenance: that Georgia is a land “blessed by the Virgin Mary” and that “heavenly powers safeguard Georgia.” In such a case doublethinking transforms nonsense into wisdom, easily molding whatever the “saintly Fathers declared” like dough, so that it can be interpreted as is convenient, regardless of any conflicting propositions. Nothing is said that would require much reasoning or deduction – that is how it is, end of story! Moreover, everything is ensured because opposing “authority” is not a common trait of the Georgian character.

To manipulate those who are dreaming is easy – the flow of regulated, controlled knowledge only contributes to strengthen the doublethinking. “A non-believer receiving education is dangerous,” the Georgian Patriarch said in one of his Sunday sermons late last year. Indeed, that is true – it is dangerous for the very institution that propagates this belief. Any knowledge controlled by the dogma of belief is ignorance or, at best, doublethink. Ignorance and doublethinking are the main pillars of the ruling force for maintaining power. The motto of the totalitarian state depicted in Orwell’s novel, which is repeated to the population through every information outlet, is that “Ignorance is Strength.” Luckily, the Georgian equivalent to this slogan, “Education is Dangerous,” has yet not been promoted with such intensity throughout the media.

The social environment, prompted by what the “saintly Fathers declare,” has also changed the coordinates of the customary Georgian collective imagination (dreams). A fundamental fantasy, which forms Georgian national identity, is that of David fighting Goliath. Georgia, which constantly laments its small size, endures its existence in an environment of far larger hostile forces by identifying itself with David. “True, the present is not conducive to us, but our time will come and like David defeated Goliath, we will also gain an upper hand over those forces much superior to us in strength.” The myth of David and Goliath, alike the myth of Amirani chained to a cliff, incited action. We must act here, on earth, in order to break our chains, to defeat Goliath. Even the “thief-in-law” was imagined as David opposing excessive power, and the respect towards such figures partially stemmed from that too.

The situation where religious persons turned into authority figures required a change in this basic Georgian fantasy. Faced with the political reality, the image of Georgia as David fighting against Goliath has been left in the past. Russia has become a “wise and generous neighbor,” whilst viewing the West (or even the former president) as Goliath is hard to imagine, even in a dream. As regards the realm of imagination, let’s again turn to the Patriarch: “Georgia is a country belonging to the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Mary will not allow its disintegration.” In other words, the fate of Georgia has already been determined as a result of the favor in which it is held in the heavens. If this is so, then what is the sense of undertaking any action, in fighting, striving to defeat Goliath, breaking chains, et cetera?

The dream that, to a certain extent, mobilized Georgians, giving them inner charge and incited them towards action, is being replaced with a fantasy of inactivity and complacence. We are Georgians and we will “survive” – that’s how the heavens have decided. When being Georgian is itself a mandate of “survival”, any earthly effort loses sense. Is 20 percent of the country being occupied and the border gradually moving deeper inside the country? This is nothing to worry about because the “Virgin Mary will not allow the disintegration of our country.” “The fate of war is decided in heaven. A war – a spiritual war – is first won by the priest (having grown wise through spiritual activity), then the visible (political) victory happens on earth,” said the late Archimandrite Giorgi Basiladze, who was dubbed the “unseen patriarch.” According to him: “Georgia is Christ’s country and Christ will not give it up. God will show the entire world the true face of Georgians and this will happen soon. Georgia is a country of saints and we are not doomed to destruction… Georgia will regain all its lost lands, remember my words! Watch what God will do to the enemy!”

If the “survival of the country” is leased out to priests who have turned wise as a result of their spiritual activity, then what else is left for an ordinary mortal to realize and dream about, save for dealing with their daily routine problems?

The recent vision of a nun, Mother Paraskeva, which sparked a mass pilgrimage in Georgia, is a logical end of the clergy having been turned into the authorities, a move that was supported by that political force aptly named the Georgian Dream. A grotesque intensification of such activities by a complacent, doublethinking society that pins its hopes on “watch what God will do to the enemy!”, with its intrigues in the king’s court; the kaleidoscopic changes of legitimate heirs to the throne; the fetishizing of the Choka, the Georgian national costume; adult men and women competing with one another to kiss the hand of the under-age “heir”; the promotion of scenes of knights and maidens, et cetera – these are the results of the harmful psychological environment created by what the “saintly Fathers declare.”

An accurate metaphor for contemporary Georgians would be Mother Paraskeva brandishing a stool. The fight for Georgian statehood is the fight to change this metaphor – something that might prove more difficult than a direct clash with an external enemy.

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