A Different Country
An offer to play for Russia’s rugby team triggers a reckoning with Soviet history and the discovery of a Georgian identity
- Text by Matthew Janney
- Visuals by Sofiya Voznaya | Photo courtesy of Matthew Janney
I don’t know what my grandfather’s voice sounded like, whether it was high and hoarse or low and rumbling. I don’t know whether he – like me – enjoyed rain, or preferred waking up to bright morning skies. I don’t know how many languages he spoke, whether he listened to Bach or Blues and whether he slept well at night or stayed up smoking, like those lonely men do in movies from the 50s. I do know that he was born on the fringes of the Russian Empire, fleeing before the Bolshevik Revolution. And I do know that in 2014, Russia tried to rewrite his story.
It began with a rugby match at the end of 2013 between Oxford University and Russia. I was playing for Oxford, preparing for our annual match against Cambridge. Russia’s national rugby team were touring Europe and the promise of an international opponent generated a crowd unlike anything I’d experienced in our modest Iffley Road stadium. As the game kicked off, I remember Russia’s bright red strip and the way the November sun made it look fluorescent. The game was physical, fast-paced, tight. Russia won by a narrow margin, and the teams enjoyed toasts towards mutual friendship and brotherhood after the game. It is strange now to think how sanctions, Skripal and souring relations between the UK and Russia lay just around the corner. For on that November day, the mood was characterized by optimism, potential and mutual respect.
At this point, my grandfather’s nationality was inconclusive. He died when my father was five, and whenever I asked about him as a child, I only ever received wooly replies: “he was from Russia, or Georgia, or something”, my family would respond. No one could say – or wanted to find out – where he was from. I was born and raised in London, but I had always felt an inclination to an identity beyond my immediate surroundings. Like a watermark in the corner of a page, the question of where I came from was forever visible in my mind’s eye.
Talking to the Russian coaches after the game, I told them about my link to Russia and Georgia. In their eyes, undetermined ancestry meant Russian ancestry, so they invited me to trial for the national team. Proving my eligibility would be simple, they suggested. For them, it was a chance to try new blood during their World Cup qualifying campaign. For me, it meant international rugby: I didn’t have the talent to play for England. It also meant, perhaps, a step closer to unearthing the true story of my grandfather. Seizing on this opportunity, I went digging in the archives, assisted by Rugby Union Russia, ostensibly to prove I was Russian.
Around that time, serendipity struck. My uncle discovered he had a cousin he never knew about, living close by in Kent. This cousin was my grandfather’s nephew, who until very recently, had been non-existent in our family story. For decades, not a single word was said about him. But he knew all about my grandfather, having heard about him from his mother, my grandfather’s sister. He entered my story at precisely the right moment.
One evening in early 2014, we organized a phone call. I had dozens of questions. Where was my grandfather born? Why did he leave? What happened to the family when they came to the UK? And where had this man been for the last 20 years? Hearing his voice was peculiar. At first he sounded far away, like there was more than just a mobile phone between us. Was I meant to feel close to him, my newly discovered relative? We spoke for at least an hour. I remember sitting in my bedroom in my university flat, hunched over my desk taking notes. They were almost illegible as I was shaking for most of the call.
When someone dies, something happens to their handwriting. It takes on a visceral quality, both emphasising that they were here and also that they are now gone. During that phone call, I felt as though I was seeing my grandfather’s handwriting. It was the first time I had heard his story in detail and its effect was palpable. I felt him around me. But simultaneously, he was consigned to the past even more concretely than before. Whereas previously he lived in the liminal spaces of uncertainty, he now belonged to a series of events that had happened and were buried.
This relative confirmed to me that my grandfather was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, somewhere between 1911 and 1913 (there are discrepancies in our various accounts). He was born into a Georgian Jewish family with the surname Djanashvili, a fairly common surname with connections to the region of Kakheti in eastern Georgia. Anticipating the Bolshevik Revolution the family left around 1918 and settled in Istanbul. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that my grandfather arrived in the UK. This in-between period had all the hallmarks of a classic 20th century story of migration and exile: false passports, name changes, death, financial strain, separation, reunion. Gulags featured too, which – considering I was taking a module on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that term – felt eerie. And while there were missing details, untied ends, a litany of unknowns, I could now say that he – and therefore I – was Georgian. I now had some clarity.
Clarity also ended my chance to play international rugby for Russia. The lines had been drawn. Though Georgia had been a republic of the Soviet Union, and occupied by Russia during the days of the Tsar, it is a separate country with its own unique alphabet, language, literature, religion, customs, cuisine, history, attitudes, norms, and is now no longer under Russia’s dominion. Or at least, this is what I had presumed.
Assured in my newly discovered Georgian identity, I arranged a call with the vice-chairman of Rugby Union Russia to deliver the news. I could no longer legitimately play for Russia. For me, I was simply correcting something that now felt wrong and misrepresentative.
I took the call standing outside on a balcony during a rainy afternoon in London. I can’t recall for how long we spoke. But one perplexing question from the vice-chairman stood out. I don’t remember what I had said in response. Perhaps I mumbled some incoherent rebuttal or perhaps I stayed silent, lost for words. On the surface there was humor, a comical disbelief in what I had just heard. But the underlying feeling was one of acute discomfort: this was a fabrication of history, not just my own and my grandfather’s, but the history of a people. What the vice-chairman had asked me, was whether I could get an Oxford historian to write a document asserting that a Georgian born in 1912 would have felt Russian.
At exactly the same moment nearly 2,000 miles away on the Black Sea coast, Russia was in the process of annexing Crimea. Western media outlets decried the annexation as an unlawful landgrab, an impulsive response to the Maidan protests in Kiev that saw the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Other sources cast the move as a defensive maneuver by Russia, in response to the threat of further NATO expansion. While some suggested the deeper explanation related to Russia’s imperial attitude to its bordering nations, an attitude that had been reinvigorated since its pride was severely wounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union. How did Russia legitimize the annexation? By casting their move as simply reclaiming what was rightfully theirs, by drawing on historical and spiritual ties between itself and Crimea and notably, by claiming that Crimeans would have felt Russian.
The vice-chairman was deploying that same imperial mindset to my grandfather. At the time of my grandfather’s birth, Georgia was under the control of the Russian Tsar. In his book Edge of Empires, leading Georgian scholar Donald Rayfield writes that in 1913, “Tbilisi was an Armenian city, administered by Russians. Of 23 bookshops, four were Georgian; of the listed prominent householders, 10 per cent were Georgian.” Georgians, at this time, were minorities in their own home. By all accounts, Georgian sentiment towards Russia was largely defined by resentment that the Russians weren’t honoring the Treaty of Georgievsk (or “trakat”) of 1783 that had guaranteed Georgia its internal sovereignty. It stands to reason that Georgians would have felt even more pressure to preserve their heritage and identity during this period, in opposition to the cultural hegemony of the Russians.
While attempting to rewrite my grandfather’s story, they were also claiming ownership of mine. I love Russian culture, its language, its stoic people. I spent eight months living there, and remain in awe of Moscow’s architectural splendour and the melancholy beauty of the frozen Volga in winter. My bookcase at home houses several editions of Pushkin’s poetry and nearly all of Nabokov’s novels. But to claim Russianness, would be to rub out my history, and overlay it with something counterfeit. It would be a performance.
There is an old Soviet joke that says: “The future is certain, it’s the past which is unpredictable.” A flimsy relationship to the past allows misrepresentation to flourish, and with it, lives to be airbrushed out, stories to be forgotten. What happened to me is a moment in a much bigger story. I think of the thousands of Georgian protestors who flooded Tbilisi’s streets in 1978, decrying the Soviet Union’s decision to remove Georgian as the sole state language of Georgia. In what is now annually celebrated as a defining moment of Georgian resistance against Soviet Russification, Tbilisi forced Moscow to back down that day and the Georgians saved their language. Or I think of the man who “went to bed in Georgia – and woke up in South Ossetia,” (a breakaway territory of Georgia occupied by Russia) in 2015, as reported by The Guardian, as Russian forces moved its border almost a mile farther inland, threatening Georgia’s East-West highway. These instances are weightier, with far more political significance. But they all are notches along Russia’s timeline of overreaching nationalism.
The concept of nationality is unquestionably complex. To what extent is it self-determined or externally applied? Does a passport carry more weight than blood? And what does historical precedent count for? Within the former Soviet Union republics, determining national identity becomes even more ambiguous. For example, someone like my grandfather may have considered himself Soviet, Georgian, a Soviet Georgian, a Soviet Jew, a Georgian Jew or use all these terms interchangeably. (This is not to mention the numerous ethnic subdivisions within Georgia itself that many Soviet citizens might have identified as – Megrelians or Svans for example – which have their own separate languages.) The Soviet project’s identity problem – at its core – lay in the party’s attempts to create a supranational, unified group of “Soviet People” against a kaleidoscope of republics with distinct values and cultures. This already rather confused sense of identity was further splintered by the regime’s chaotic collapse in the early 1990s.
On the one hand, the dissolution of the Soviet Union allowed certain national groups – who had felt left behind by the Russo-centric regime – reclaim and reassert their autonomy and independence. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005 all overthrew Russian-favored leaders in support of democratic reform. The citizens had spoken, they wanted to move on. On the other hand, many people who considered themselves Soviet Citizens first and foremost were left in an existential funk, whose rose-tinted nostalgia for the years under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev only developed into a deeper hue. In his book The Long Hangover, Shaun Walker reveals how these people “had lost not an empire or an ideology, but the very essence of their identity. If they were no longer Soviet citizens, then who were they?”
Later, Walker writes: “Russia was like a party host who awoke the morning after, started making a cursory effort to clean up the mess all around, but after a while simply gave up and slunk back to bed to nurse its hangover.” In uncertain times, we look for simple answers. I have met many people – in both Russia and Georgia – who yearn to go back to Soviet life, who yearn to simply “slunk back to bed”. I have some sympathy for these people. When I was living in Russia, my landlord once told me her memories of the Soviet Union could be distilled into a single vignette; an idyllic scene of children and their families at her local ice rink in Yaroslavl, smiling and skating in the early spring snow. It is a perfected, saccharine image of Soviet life – like a snow globe, its frozen contents protected by a glass dome of unbreakable belief. And this goes some way in explaining why Russians might continue to see Georgians as their fellow citizens – the reality of today being too complex, too messy, too dynamic to digest.
By itself, this nostalgia may not appear altogether threatening – an understandable pining for the simplicity of yesterday. But when underscored by Russia’s deeper imperialistic urges, it becomes problematic. In Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick’s epic account of the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet historian Yuri Afanasyev tells him: “The Russian consciousness has always been flawed by a yearning for expansion and a fear of contraction. Unfortunately the history of Russia, is the history of growth. This is a powerful image in the Russian soul, the idea of breadth as wealth, the more the better.” In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising, indeed inevitable, that Georgia continues to be considered as part of Russia’s sweeping identity. “Empires are not lost happily,” Remnick adds.
I first visited Georgia in April 2012. What struck me was the way the city looked as if it was falling into the the Mtkvari river. Worn houses sat precariously atop jagged cliffs that rose out of the water. The place had a simmering energy, bubbling like the sulphur springs on which it was built. I had come with some friends who I’d been studying with in Russia on my year abroad.
While in Georgia, I was frequently mistaken for a local. Without hesitation shop owners, waiters and taxi drivers would speak to me in Georgian. That felt important. Whereas before I had used Russian and Georgian interchangeably when asked about my heritage, this external confirmation internally moved the needle. When I later discovered that my grandfather was Georgian, not Russian, small details such as these began to take on a new significance. Like small clues that eventually formed a coherent picture; I was Georgian all along.
While on the phone to the vice-chairman, I had mentioned I would now seek to play for Georgia, in light of my recent discoveries. He followed up our phone call with an email later that day, writing: “In respect of your potential eligibility to play for Georgia, having thought about it this may not work, as you[r] grandfather’s birthdate was during Russian times […] and you would need to demonstrate your own Georgian affinity”. It was cordial, on the surface, presenting itself as nothing more than some cautionary advice. But the subtext said this: you can have phoney Russian heritage, or nothing at all.
When I tell this story to people in Britain, there is often a feeling of anticlimax, as if what the Russians had done wasn’t that bad. In the world of elite sport, countries are always looking for creative ways to deepen their talent pool by recruiting foreign players. The art of ‘eligibility’ has become an accepted, commonplace practice in sports, and a way for teams to gain that competitive edge. One only has to look as far as the English Rugby team. Two of its recent standout players Dylan Hartley and Billy Vunipola were both born overseas, but qualified through ancestry and residency respectively. But in my case, it felt different. I didn’t want to play international rugby at all costs. For me, it wasn’t just about proving my eligibility, but also affirming my identity.
The inclusion of foreign players can also have a social advantage, a statement of a country’s championing of multiculturalism. As crowds flooded the Champs-Élysées after France won the FIFA Football World Cup in 2018, one key fact seemed to dominate their story: 19 out of France’s squad of 23 players were migrants or the children of migrants. What’s more, the whole of France was behind them. This was both a conscious acknowledgement of France’s complicated relationship with minority groups, and a gesture towards a more equal society, making space for migrants to become part of the national story. This was a hopeful sign that progressive politics might shine brighter than the increasingly anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric on the rise in much of Western Europe. This was, above all, proof that representation in sport and national identity are intimately connected.
But to have played for Russia, would have been to choose eligibility over identity. I didn’t feel Russia was welcoming Georgia as part of its story, offering up a more cosmopolitan understanding of its national identity. To the contrary, I felt as though Russia was erasing Georgia’s story altogether, flexing its imperial muscles as it has done so many times before. This is why when I tell this story to people in Georgia there is no anticlimax, no excuses are made, no one suggests that it wasn’t that bad. There is only an all too familiar anger: that feeling that something has been taken away from you, destroyed, reassembled, and given back to you in a way that feels completely wrong.
On July 11th 2015, I played my first game for the Georgian National 7s team at a Grand Prix Sevens tournament in Exeter, UK. I was officially a Georgian citizen, an external marker of identity that now mirrored what I had long felt within. What’s more, I was representing Georgia at rugby, more national symbol than professional sports. The ancient Georgian game of lelo – where the populations of two opposing villages would have to force a heavy ball over to their opponent’s field – is considered by Georgians to be a precursor to modern rugby today, and an explanation for their world-renowned strength in scrummaging. As we lined up against our opponent, studs anxiously clinked and clunked on the tunnel floor and motivational cries in Georgian echoed off the walls. They were louder than usual; they were incandescent. For my first ever game for Georgia, was against Russia.