The goal of the trip was to meet with the Russian religious group called the Dukhobors. Their villages are just near the Georgia's southern border with Armenia and Turkey. The influence of Armenia is very apparent. Armenian is widely spoken and for Nino and Chaco, Russian was the linqua franca. In Akhalkalaki (about 6 hours drive south from Tbilisi) the local UNDP office was very helpful in setting up meetings with nearby NGO's and Dukhobor community leaders. Our biggest problems though were the roads and Chaco's car. Beyond Ninotsminda (20 kms south-east of Akhalkalaki)the roads became muddy potholed tracks. Everyone told us we were lucky that heavy snow had not yet fallen as by December the Dukhobor villages are usually snowbound.
The constant bumping had loosened the Lancia's timing chain and finding a mechanic on Sunday was tough. To keep our appointments, Nino and I managed to flag down a ride to Gorelovka - about 20 minutes away. Chaco said he'd find us once the car was fixed. My thanks to Zurab and his Lada Niva for taking a long detour home to drive us.
In Gorelovka we met Luba, a Dukhobor leader (sitting to my left in photo). A very resolute and determined woman it took a great deal of negotiations to convince her that our intentions were genuine and that we would respect the Dukhobor culture. Through her we were introduced to several families. Their warmth and hospitality was touching. Over the past decade their numbers have dwindled from 6000 to around 400. The majority have sort new lives in Russia and a number of people we spoke to were intending to migrate to Russia shortly. As it became dark they sang a traditional Dukhobor song for us. It was one of those rare occasions where as a journalist you feel incredibly privileged to be allowed inside the lives of a group of people – even for just a moment. Several toasts of potent wine were made in our honour and in return Chaco, in true Georgian spirit, got up and returned the honour with a long and heartfelt toast.
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