The old communist, Redento Avignano, has come here from Italy as he does every May. The 65-year-old furniture maker, his command of English, like his hair, almost gone now, was once political commissar of the Garibaldi Brigade of Italian partisans. He and other former members of the brigade are once again attempting the impossible -- celebrating the end of a war that in Russia is without end.
The aging partisans wear red bandanas around their necks. They come to this city in Soviet Georgia to meet their old comrades in arms. A unit of Georgian soldiers, captured and conscripted into the German army, deserted in Italy and joined the partisans. Every year, they meet here. The reason is simple. The Italians not only are permitted to travel; they can afford it.
Not so the Georgians. They are poorly dressed old men, built close to the ground like the sheep of the countryside. Their suits are of 1950s vintage -- loose, heavy, shapeless -- and they have the teeth of the poor, which is to say very few.
The Italians, on the other hand, do their country proud. Their clothes, and those of their wives, are in the latest Milan style. Their windbreakers are rich and leathery, their sweaters substantial. The Italian communists, unable to bring off their own revolution, must now live off the bounty of their failure. The Georgians are not so lucky. Here, communism is triumphant. They have their medals.
The Italians greet the Georgians warmly with hugs and kisses. At the sight of one, Avignano's eyes water. He starts to say something, but the words choke in his throat. He throws his arms around the man and kisses him strongly. Then the two look at each other, both smiling.
Sincere though it may be, it is nevertheless the expected emotion for things connected with the war. In the Soviet Union, World War II is called the Great Patriotic War, and more than anything -- more than communism itself -- it united a deeply fractured and ethnically diverse country.
The director of a school here, in remote and once anti-Russian Georgia, is in many ways typical: she lost two brothers and one uncle in the war. It would be hard to find a family that escaped unscathed. Even Stalin lost a son.
The war is not a course of study in the school: it is an overriding theme. There is a room devoted to it with pictures and memorials to the dead. Photos of soldiers are everywhere. Battles are commemorated, the dead honored, heroes praised. Posters still mention the war, memorials are still dedicated to it, and progress measured from it. In some ways, all of the Soviet Union is a vast American Legion hall and everyone belongs.
On the anniversary of the end of the war, the Italians pile into buses. As honored guests at the parade, they are accorded seats in the reviewing stand. The buses need go only across the square, but Tbilisi has been seized by pre-parade chaos and the trip takes an hour. When the parade does start, it is a pip -- units of soldiers who sing as they march, Georgian and Russian folk dancers, folk singers, pop singers and rock singers, children who dance and children who sing, and professional dancers, dressed in World War II uniforms, who recreate the desperate flirtations of men and women about to go off to battle. This is language we all know.
But the generation that fought the war is as old as Avignano, the former partisan. The next generation, often orphaned, raised with hardship and often amidst rubble, now has children of its own. For them, the war as the universal explanation can no longer suffice. You cannot tell a 15-year-old that the lines in the stores, the shortage of goods, the inexplicable pricing, the shabbiness of everything from housing to women's clothes is due to the Great Patriotic War. Progress is measured by memory, not history. The Great Patriotic War is history.
Shortly before the parade began, the Italian partisans were announced and seated. Then slowly, ever so slowly in some cases, came the aging heroes of the war -- men and women resplendent in medals. They walked across the square to perfunctory applause, but the kids paid scant attention. Soon, they will be parents themselves. Then the medals of heroes will rest in dusty cases.
Redento Avignano and his fellow partisans have since returned to Italy. They come from a mountainous area north of Milan, and it must look a lot like Georgia. There are mountains for the eyes and wine for the tongue and tales to tell -- a war that happened, a revolution that didn't. But someday, Avignano will not come back to Georgia, and old men will no longer kiss in May. Then the long patriotic war will finally be over, and a new generation will demand its own parade.