Oxford Literary Festival. Out of Stalin’s Shadow: Writing the New Georgia. With Katie Melua, Aka Morchiladze, Dato Turashvili and Maya Jaggi

Sunday, 17 March 2024, 6pm, Sheldonian Theatre, £7 – £20 Buy Tickets Now Buy The Books

Two of Georgia’s leading cultural figures, the multi-award-winning writers Aka Morchiladze and Dato Turashvili, launch the festival’s new programme of Georgian literature and culture with a discussion of Stalin’s legacy, their own writing, and personal experience of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. The event includes performance by Georgian-British singer-songwriter Katie Melua, winner of 56 platinum awards.

Georgia is a crossroads on the Silk Road, with ancient vineyards and churches, and a rich literature with its own language and alphabet. On the Black Sea and the edge of empires, Georgia was fought over by Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Ottoman Turks and Russians, and annexed by the tsarist empire in 1801. Yet when the Soviet army invaded just over a century ago, Tbilisi, the capital, was a cosmopolitan café society, a ‘Paris of the East’ fuelled by feasting, whose avant-garde art fused East and West. Georgia regained independence from Soviet rule more than three decades ago. Yet Stalin, born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia, still casts a shadow. This year marks the centenary of a failed national uprising against Bolshevik rule in 1924, whose suppression presaged Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, when Georgia’s brightest talents were destroyed – a purge still shrouded in silence and trauma. Russian propaganda paints Stalin as a strongman who defeated Hitler. How is Stalin remembered in Georgia, and why does he still have admirers? How do today’s Georgian writers tackle their turbulent history and present dilemmas in an increasingly volatile region?

Morchiladze (the pen name of Giorgi Akhvlediani) is a novelist, historian, screenwriter and sports writer. He has written more than 20 novels, several of which won Georgia’s highest literary award, the Saba prize. His latest book to appear in English, Character in Georgia, written with Peter Nasmyth, portrays an extraordinary land of poets, painters, Bolshevik bomb-makers and bandits. Stalinism, he has said, survives in the way Georgians speak: ‘Everything’s about punishment and betrayal; traitors and enemies.’ Morchiladze’s debut novel of 1992, Journey to Karabakh, was a post-Soviet literary landmark with its postmodern tale in street slang of a Tbilisi youth looking for drugs who strays into the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Turashvili is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, travel writer, mountaineer and veteran anti-Soviet student leader who lives in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He was an activist in April 1989 when peaceful protesters were killed by Russian soldiers, and again in the Rose revolution of 2003 that ousted President Shevardnadze. He now hosts a popular television book show. Turashvilli has written more than 17 books, translated into several languages, and won the Saba prize several times. His bestselling 2008 novel Jeans Generation (translated as Flight from the USSR) is based on the true story of seven young Georgians who hijacked a Soviet airliner in 1983 to escape to the West. The novel – which he has spoken about on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – became emblematic of a trapped generation and Soviet brutality. In Another Amsterdam, he described the history of his grandfather, who fought the Nazis in the Netherlands during the second world war.

Melua, Georgian-born singer, songwriter, composer and arranger, is one of the UK’s highest-selling female recording artists, with more than 56 platinum awards over a 20-year career. Her hit songs include Nine Million Bicycles and The Closest Thing to Crazy, and all her studio albums have been top 10s in the UK album charts. The 2023 tour for her ninth, Love & Money, culminated in a sold-out concert in the Albert Hall. Her 2016 album In Winter featured Georgian polyphony from the Gori Women’s Choir. No Better Magic, Melua’s balladic tribute to London on classical violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s album City Lights, was performed with the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra.

The event is chaired by Maya Jaggi, founding director of the festival’s programme of Georgian literature and culture, who is a contributing art critic for FT. Her award-winning cultural writing has appeared widely, including in The New York Review of Books and The Guardian – where she was a profile writer and fiction critic for a decade. She is chair of the independent jury of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Literature Prize 2024 and was artistic director of the UK’s first festival of Georgian writers, Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, in 2016, and its online sequel, Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern, at the British Library and Writers’ House in 2021 – both of which she originated.

Part of the festival’s programme of Georgian literature and culture.

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