Journey to Karabakh by the Georgian writer, Aka Morchiladze is set in the post-Soviet Georgia of the early 1990s and in the heavily contested region of Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This book can be read as a metaphor for the meaning of individual freedom and social as well as cultural constraints imposed on us, and/or as a snapshot of everyday life in the Caucasus, especially in the early 1990s Tbilisi, Georgia as well as the ethnic tensions in the region of Karabakh and the relation between three countries in the Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia gaining the independence, Tbilisi of that era is portrayed by Aka Morchiladze as a hopeless place, with no opportunities for the young generation with strong social and cultural constraints imposed on the youth, both men and women.
This short novella tells a story of a young 24- year old Georgian man, Gio from Tbilisi who gets caught unintentionally in the midst of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan when he and his friend , Goglik decide to travel to Azerbaijan to buy cheap drugs. On their way they get lost and accidentally drive into the contested region of Karabakh. They are taken prisoners first by the Azeris, and then by the Armenians.
During his imprisonment by the Armenians, Gio reflects on his life he had back in Georgia, his domineering father, his relationship with woman he loves but not accepted by his family, his future, the meaning of personal liberty, the senselessness of civil war in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Gio’s generation seems to live from one day to another, without any plan for the future, with no opportunities for a better life, and personal development.
Gio and his friend are locked in the cell by the Azeris, but while held by the Armenians Gio is treated in a very friendly manner. He is more of a guest rather than a prisoner – at least this is how it looks like on the surface until the arrival of the Russian journalists, when he realises that the superficial freedom and friendliness of the Armenian side might not be what it is in reality. It prompts Gio to question the meaning of freedom and if there is an actual difference between being held by the Armenians in a war zone and living in Tbilisi in a relative safety. Ironically, Gio feels tranquility and more at peace while being held by the Armenians in the midst of war, than while he was in Tbilisi. He realises that he was often forced to accept social and family rules which constrained his life.
Eventually, Gio and Goglik return back to Tbilisi to the their ‘old’ life, however with Gio emotionally changed, being completely withdrawn from his current life. The author leaves the reader with an open question, does severe depression that Gio experiences on his return to Tbilisi is a result of him being held a prisoner in the midst of war or is a result of Gio returning to his life in Tbilisi and the exactly same constraints awaiting him as prior to his journey to Karabakh?
Journey to Karabakh is an extremely interesting read, it is a book of self-discovery which shows how the events like war and conflict impact everyday life of people, even those who do not wish to have anything to do with it. This book also negatively portrays the position of women in the early 1990s Georgia as well as to lesser extent in the Armenian society.
I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in the region of the Caucasus and in self-discovery.
For those unfamiliar with the Caucasus, I include a few more details below which might be helpful when reading Journey to Karabakh.
At the time when Aka Morchiladze wrote this book in the early 1990s three Caucasian countries: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had just became independent after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The period of 1992 is the time when the book is set which for Georgia was a tumultuous time just after the first democratically-elected president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in the violent coup d’etat in December of 1991. It was also the time of the Georgian Civil War which lasted from 1991 to 1993 and took place in the region of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The early 1990s were the time of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh heating up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, ultimately becoming a full-blown war. Karabakh is a region in south western part of Azerbaijan and eastern Armenia. The First Nagorno Karabakh War was initially a conflict which turned into an ethnic war and took place between 1988 and 1994 in Nagorno Karabakh (a part of Azerbaijan) between the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh supported by Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan resulting in over 700 000 Azerbaijanis being expelled from Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh while between 300 000 and 500 000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan being displaced. Currently, the Nagorno Karabakh region is in a state of legal limbo with occasional armed clashes occurring between both sides.