Legacy and Empathy

I am sometimes guilty of being incredibly frustrated with the Georgian way of doing things. I believe they have a long way to go in terms of building a culture that will help develop the economy and improve life here. In general, there isn’t a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit or creativity. Which means there aren’t a lot of new businesses or job opportunities. And for some strange reason, like-businesses all seem to cluster together. So you will have a whole block of electronics stores selling the same products at virtually the same prices, a whole street lined with car washes, or a mini-market every half block selling exactly the same things. I’ve asked Georgians why this is and they suggest it is for competition. My thought: you’re doing it wrong!

Maybe I underestimate the impact of being an American steeped in advertising, marketing, and capitalist ideology from birth. But, in general, Georgians don’t seem to understand the importance of making their business stand out in some way to attract customers. This might also be related to the fact that, in general, Georgians don’t really like to try different things. Maybe the business people just understand their customers better than me. Seems pretty likely. But then how do you get someone to come to your electronics store instead of the identical one next door? At any rate, this is just one legacy of Georgia’s Soviet history. And it frustrates me because it seems to be holding them back from building an economy that can actually employ people. The unemployment rate here is quite high although there doesn’t seem to be as much anxiety about that here as we would have in the States. This is probably because most Georgians live in a home that has been passed down from previous generations, often grow their own food, and have very few expenses in general. Georgia does not have the consumer culture that Americans are accustomed to. 

And perhaps they aren’t as driven to improve things because life is already a lot better than it was ten years ago.

I often use my English conversation class to learn more about Georgian culture and history. A few weeks ago, I decided to ask about the days after the Soviet collapse. The 1990s in Georgia are often referred to as “the dark years”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia went through many years of political instability, unrest, and armed conflict. With the government focused on holding on to power, little to no focus was given to maintaining or building infrastructure. Thus, “the dark years” were quite literally dark. My students shared that typically they would have electricity and running water just one hour a day. There was no petrol. So, if you lived far away, it was difficult to get to work. One of my students is a pharmacy professor. She told me that she spent years walking 8 km, each way, to and from work to teach her classes. She also sat huddled in a small room by the pechi (wood stove), with the rest of her family, translating Russian medical books into Georgian by lamplight. Classes were to be taught in Georgian even though there were no Georgian text books. She said she lost ten years from her career because of those days. There was no progress, no change, no hope. After dark, you couldn’t go outside because lawlessness ruled the streets. The police were corrupt and demanded bribes to do their jobs. Home robberies and muggings were the norm. The mafia were in charge. Very few people were lucky enough to be employed. This period didn’t end until the Rose Revolution in November 2003, when the government that had ruled for a decade was forced out (very similar to the recent Ukrainian ouster of Yanukovych) and Mikheil Saakashvili was ultimately elected as President. 

I can’t imagine what going through more than a decade of these sort of conditions, with no hope for the future, does to the psyche of a people. Americans are spoiled. No living civilian American lived through any sort of armed conflict or the chaos it inevitably leaves in its wake. As I listened to stories of these years, I realized I am often a bit harsh with my judgment of Georgians. I get frustrated when “tradition” is always the answer for why they do things in a certain way. Being a true American (I realize this more and more everyday), I don’t value tradition much. But I suppose, when everything around you has collapsed and life is pretty miserable, tradition has a sustaining power. And when times are relatively good again, you don’t forget that. So, I’m trying to be more sensitive to the reasons that Georgians think the way they think. I’m trying to develop my cultural understanding so that I can be more empathetic. But peeling back the layers of how the Soviet era, or the dark years after, shaped the Georgian psyche is difficult. Georgians are still too close to that period to think critically about it. So, often when I ask questions, they can’t answer.

But in terms of business,etc, that is part of the reason I am here. I have experience I can share to maybe help them look at things a bit differently and learn to market their businesses better. I’ve just started working with a new project in which I will get to do that with a number of small business. So perhaps, little by little, things will change here.

P.S. Thanks to all of you who encouraged me, kicked me in the ass, and have held me accountable since my last post. I REALLY appreciate it. It has been a big help. Special shout out to Jack Silbert who has been particularly good at keeping me on task.

P.P.S. Photos above are from my trip to Vardzia over the Easter holiday.