By the time I reached the snowfield, four hours into the hike and roughly 11,000 feet up in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, it was raining, and a late afternoon fog was drifting in, soon to veil the rocky peaks. I kept climbing, kicking the toes of my sneakers into the remnant June snow for a foothold, scrabbling on my hands and knees over rocks in steep places. Near the top of the pass leading to Juta, the highest village of the Khevsureti people, I spied three hikers emerging out of the mist, shuffling downhill, exhausted. They were Slovakian. “We are lost,” one of them said. “Now we go down. We look for rest in the willage.”
They were lean and in their 20s, with enough common sense to have invested in stiff-soled, snow-suitable hiking boots. Which underscored how flimsy my own preparations had been. Did I really want to die in some half-baked scheme to conquer the Caucasus? I had started out that morning amid the winding dirt roads and the little stone houses of Georgia’s sparsely settled Khevsureti region; it was time to go back. So now I began slinking downhill behind the Slovaks, and in the endless creases of the valley below, I swear I heard a man snickering, his voice a gleeful mockery as it caromed off the rocks.
The Russian poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) had been there in the Georgian Caucasus before me. These mountains are the setting of his signature work, the 1840 novel “A Hero of Our Time,” and I had become convinced that Mikhail and I hated each other.
Lermontov was a short, bowlegged man, prematurely balding, with a bent back and a nasty temper. After his mother died young, he was raised in Moscow by his indulgent grandmother, a society dowager who permitted little Mishenka to rage on the servants and tear out her manicured shrubbery. He was annoying right up until his death. The day before, his friend was fraternizing with a young woman Lermontov fancied. Lermontov goaded him into a duel with guns. Lermontov lost. We can credit him with the dumbest death in literary history.
Or we can remember him by his eyes. They were captivating and coal black and set in dark sockets. They were plaintive and sad. When you look at old oil paintings, it’s impossible to forget that this dyspeptic brat was also a sensitive Romantic artist. His eyes saw things. They saw beauty, even as Lermontov himself was consumed by a haughty nihilism. Most critically, they saw the Caucasus Mountains straddling Russia and Georgia, more than 900 miles from the salons of Moscow.
When Lermontov was 3 and suffering from rheumatic fevers, his grandmother packed him, along with his French tutor and German governess, into a horse-drawn wagon and set out for the curative airs of the mountains. Lermontov returned at ages 5 and 10, and again when he was in his 20s and an officer in Czar Nicholas I’s army. Russia was occupying Georgia then, engaged in a century-long campaign to conquer the Caucasus’s peoples: the Chechens and Ossetians, and the largest group, the Circassians. Lermontov spent a pivotal year fighting and gathering material for his novel.
“Hero” is a slim, ironically titled autobiographical tale that follows Pechorin, a young Army officer, as he womanizes his way up the Georgia Military Highway, northeast from the capital, Tbilisi, and over the Caucasus into what is today Russian Chechnya. It is filled with grandiose riffs. Lermontov writes, “The dark-blue mountain tops, furrowed with wrinkles, covered with layers of snow, were silhouetted against the pale horizon.”One Georgian damsel comes off as “beautiful: tall, slender, with black eyes which resembled that of a mountain gazelle.”
After Vladimir Nabokov rendered the definitive English-language translation of “Hero” with his son, Dmitri, in 1958, he said Lermontov’s language “is the tool of an energetic, incredibly gifted, bitterly honest, but definitely inexperienced young man.”
Lermontov had almost zero compassion. For him, Caucasians were noxious when they weren’t being exotic. “What wretched people,” his alter ego Pechorin remarks.
“An extremely foolish people,” adds a fellow officer, “incapable of any education.”
I was there in Georgia in part to see what Lermontov had vainly overlooked. But I was also there in homage, for I loved the thrill in Lermontov’s voice. I wanted to know this brilliant young man who tossed away all his talent but still looms large in the Caucasus, remembered by all, reviled by some, and as important to his region as, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne is to Americans. To this day, most Georgian and Russian schoolchildren read Lermontov.
I got down out of the snow, eventually. The slope grew gentler and the sky cleared as I began descending toward the village of Roscha, following goat paths through the clover. The valley grew wider, until it was about a half-mile across — a huge, stunning expanse of rocky green land set against the patchy snow in the distance. After an hour, I saw a few grazing cows.
The first house in Roscha was a crude bed-and-breakfast with a woodshed in the back yard and a cowshed affixed with a TV satellite dish. As I lay in my room there, resting, I could hear a man grunting in labor on the grass just below me. I went outside and found a large, muscle-bound athlete throwing 50-pound rocks. — so they thudded softly on the spongy turf.
Zviadi Gogochuri competes for Georgia’s national judo squad in the 90-kilogram weight class. He was oblivious to me, ensconced next in some exercise that involved pulling on a thick rubber chord. A kid stood nearby, spectating in rapt admiration. “He is training,” Uturga Tsiklauri, 16, said in careful English. “He comes to the mountains for the fresh air. It is important.”
Uturga lives at the bed-and-breakfast with his parents. His father was away overnight, so his mother entrusted him with all the manly duties — such as turning on the hot-water heater so I could take a shower out in one shed. His manner was watchful and serious. He knew things. When he took food scraps out to the chickens, he did so with a solemn reverence. And as we dined — the judoist, Uturga and I — Uturga worked his angles, ensuring that when I got a taxi out the next morning, he and his mother would ride along for free.
The cab arrived at 7:30. The road toward the next town, Korsha, was more of a path, cut into a steep mountainside and scattered with basketball-size boulders. We descended at seven miles an hour. At one point Uturga saw a stray rooster bobbing along through some scrub grass near a wooden drop-off. He leaped out and began chasing the bird into the woods, throwing smalls rocks at it. His mother leaped out, and (why not?) I, too, joined in the chase. By now the bird was scurrying at top speed, squawking in terror. I had an elevated vantage point, with the rooster running right before me. But Uturga, holding his arm up, stopped me. Then he trailed the rooster until it was cornered in the nook of a cliff. He grabbed it by its feet, then carried it upside down, wings flapping, back to the cab. We resumed rolling, now with a live, useful farm animal on board. In the back seat, Uturga’s mother laughed with pride and delight.
“Giji,” I said to the driver, drawing on my scant Georgian skills. “Crazy.”
The driver laughed, too, then pointed his finger to his head and said: “No. Smart.”
About half the size of Rhode Island and separated from Chechnya only by the Caucasus Mountains, the Khevsureti region is just 50 miles outside Tbilisi, but the route there is steep. The place has always felt remote, and its people — nature-worshiping Christians descended from the last crusaders of Europe — are fiercely independent. As late as 1915, Khevsureti men wore chain mail armor when they galloped their horses into Tbilisi.
Today, slender medieval stone watchtowers still dot the hillsides, bearing tiny slit windows, and in the ghost town of Shatili, on the Chechen border, there’s an ancient stone fortress.
The old Khevsureti is crumbling, though, challenged by Georgia’s mounting prosperity and urbanization, and the Khevsureti people boast few cultural preservationists. I was there in Korsha to stay with one of them — a visual artist named Shota Arabuli, who runs the Korsha Guesthouse.
One of my fellow guests, Otari Laliashvili, 62, is a painter and a night guard at a museum outside Tbilisi. A bald chain smoker with a wry, playful laugh, he has extensively studied Georgian history, honing a worldview that is at once hypernationalist and slightly surreal. “Georgians,” he told me, “were the first humans. Before the Tower of Babel, everyone spoke Georgian.” Laliashvili had read all of Lermontov, and his take was decisive: “Lermontov was an unhappy genius-idiot. He knew nothing about the Caucasus.”
Laliashvili had arrived with three friends and a five-liter decanter of red wine purchased at a gas station. As we sat in the airy dining room, we sampled that vintage and homed in on the Circassian war. Over 100 years, the Russians killed roughly 400,000 Circassians, and in 1864, Czar Alexander II formally expelled 500,000 more. Today, Islamic leaders in Chechnya still do not accept Russian authority.
“Lermontov was writing history from the perspective of an occupier,” Laliashvili told me. The novelist’s greatest error, Laliashvili felt, was his failure to lionize a Circassian ruler named Shamil, a guerrilla leader who defeated the Russians in several battles as he spent 25 years trying, unsuccessfully, to unite the disparate tribes of the Caucasus in battle. “Shamil was the true hero of the Circassian war,” Laliashvili said. “Shamil fought for his land, for his own earth. He had a reason to fight, and he told the Russians, ‘Your country is huge. I can ride my horse around my whole kingdom in a day. Why do you need it?’ ”
We replenished our wine glasses, and in time Laliashvili revised his take on the war. The true hero, he declared, was not Shamil, but his deputy, Boysangur, who upbraided Shamil when the warlord at last surrendered, in 1859. According to Laliashvili, Boysangur said: “Don’t give up. You are Shamil. Remember you said we should fight to the end?” Boysangur kept fighting. “It didn’t matter that he had only one arm, one leg and one eye,” Laliashvili said. “He fought until the Russians caught him and hanged him.”
By the end of the evening, we had finished the bottle.
The next morning, Laliashvili woke late and looked somewhat rumpled as shambled to the bathroom. “If you don’t drink, why live?” he said to me with a groggy smirk. “That is the philosophy of your friend Lermontov, and I have been sacrificing myself at his altar.”
Later in the day I settled down with my Lermontov books. There are few quiet moments in the works of Mikhail Lermontov. Reading him, you feel as if you are up in the middle of the night with insomnia — in some spare hotel room, perhaps, watching a super-dramatic old movie on a black-and-white TV, with the contrast dial notched up to 10. His epic poem, “The Demon,” stars an outcast soul who sadly flies over the sinful world, only to launch an ill-fated romance with a Georgian princess. Another long poem, “The Novice,” is about a young monk who flees his monastery (and organized religion) and contemplates dying “between the abrupt and dark rocks.” The poem begins with an epigraph paraphrasing the Bible’s First Book of Samuel: “I have barely tasted the honey; And I must die.”
“Hero’s” wanton antics can be hard to take, but there are passages that sing with enchantment. “All these snows burned with a ruddy glow,” Lermontov writes, “so merrily, so brightly, that it made one wonder why one should not stay here forever.” The Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol said of one chapter, “No one among us has yet written a prose so perfect, so beautiful, so full of flavor.”
But I, myself, was taken most by a letter Lermontov wrote in 1837: “As I careered up and down the mountains in Georgia, I abandoned the cart and took to horseback; I’ve climbed the snowy mountain of the Cross to the very top, which isn’t altogether easy; from it, one can see half of Georgia as though it were on a saucer. … For me the mountain air is balm; the blues go to the devil, the heart thumps, the breast breathes high.”
By “the Cross,” Lermontov meant Mount Kazbek, a 16,512-foot peak that forms the border with Russia, looming over the Georgian village of Stepantsminda. I boarded a bus headed there the next afternoon. En route, we came upon a green hillside where throngs of people toiled up a narrow path, many wearing heavy crucifix necklaces as they towed bleating sheep on ropes. I deduced that things would not work out well for the sheep at the top.
I began climbing. Beside me were young families carrying children, and old women barefoot and bent over walking sticks. Finally, using hand signals to query my fellow travelers, I ascertained that we were all on a pilgrimage. It was Lomisoba, an ancient pagan feast updated 15 centuries ago after Christianity came to Georgia. We were climbing to the Lomisa Monastery to slaughter farm animals and pray at the stone shrine of Georgia’s patron, Saint George.
Lermontov had skipped this one, I’m pretty sure — it was beneath him to mingle with the hoi polloi — but I loved the sight of the crowds before me, moving now through a steep, shadowed meadow spotted with wildflowers. I loved that, even on this holy mission, they had weighted their backpacks with chacha, a grape-based moonshine.
It was dusk. The monastery sits on a knoll at 7,500 feet, and it took most people three hours to hike there. I didn’t have any food, never mind a tent for the inevitable night out in the chill. But I’d built up a certain trust in Georgians by now. Somehow I knew I’d find spirit and warmth up at the top.
There must have been 1,000 people there — a constellation of small groups scattered amid a jumble of giant boulders and grassy ravines. Campfires glimmered, and hundreds of believers waited for hours to light devotional candles before icons of George.
Mostly, though, the top was a party — and, for me, a primer on the delights and perils of chacha. Every time I opened my mouth, pilgrims swarmed around me with bottles of homemade chacha. A typical conversation, translated from Georgian and hand signals, went roughly like this:
Pilgrim: Drink! Drink!
Me: But I have already had four shots of chacha.
Pilgrim: But it is the national drink of Georg-ee-ah! You must take one more shot, for Georg-ee-ah!
Me: I, uh —
Pilgrim: Just one more, for Georg-ee-ah! For the friendship of nations!
A serious, bearded man, a frame maker who shared bread and cheese and olives with me, sold tiny framed portraits of Saint George bearing a broad sword and a gilt Byzantine halo. Some university students, English speakers, hailed me with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as they strummed guitars by their campfire. I heard a long medley of patriotic folk songs as we perched there on rocks in the smoky darkness, and I remember thinking that, even now, 170-odd years after Lermontov’s death, Georgia is still overwhelmed by Russian imperialism. The two countries fought a war in 2008, over a tiny Caucasian territory, South Ossetia. Georgia got crushed, and the sting lingers. After each folk song, the woman sitting beside me synopsized the lyrics the same way: “Finally,” she said, “it is about Georgia.”
I learned the refrain to one song, kind of, but then things got blurry, and I got very tired of being asked to drink chacha. At about 1:30, I located a declivity in a remote meadow and, hiding inside it, drifted into a merciful sleep. Then I was rousted. “Drink!” commanded the man hovering above me with a bottle. “Drink!”
Finally, at 2:45, I began weaving back down the mountain. It was quiet, and in the pitch black hundreds more pilgrims were climbing to the top, intent on making the morning Mass. They scarcely spoke. I heard the hard rasp of their lungs and the slight patter of their feet on the soil.
I would never attempt Mount Kazbek after my vigorous worshiping at Lermontov’s altar. But when I reached the highway at dawn, I stuck out my thumb and caught a ride north, toward Stepantsminda, with a beefy Russian in a sports car. Russian techno music blared over the stereo, so loud the vehicle vibrated. I strapped on my seat belt. We swooped along through small towns, past churches and little stores and patches of snow. I watched the sun rise into the blue sky over the lofty crags of the Caucasus. I was on an adventure way up in the mountains, and at least part of me forgot how bratty and mean and difficult Mikhail Lermontov had been. For a moment, I wished that he were sitting right there beside me, savoring the thin mountain air.
Bill Donahue is a writer living in Portland, Ore.
What to do
The 17th-century Orbeliani Baths, in Tbilisi, offer communal sulfur pools beneath domed bathhouse roofs in a blue-tiled palace.
The Gergeti Trinity Church is a 14th-century stone church that sits on a hilltop in the shadows of snowcapped Mount Kazbek. Hike or drive there from the picturesque village of Stepantsminda.
Lomisoba is a holy celebration and a wild party. On a Wednesday near the summer solstice, thousands of people hike uphill from the village of Arakhveti to Lomisa ridge, to pray to Georgia’s patron, Saint George, and spend the night drinking homemade spirits before they greet the sunrise with a Mass.
Where to stay
Korsha Guesthouse. Two hours north of Tbilisi, this rustic six-room lodge features a stone replica of a Khevsureti tower and sprawling gardens with sculptures of animals carved out of sticks. 011-995-599-74-11-99 or e-mail email@example.com.
Where to eat
Rooms Hotel . Set in Stepantsminda, with a breathtaking view of Mount Kazbek, the restaurant here offers gourmet dining in an exquisitely renovated Soviet-era resort. 011-995-322-71-00-99.
— Bill Donahue