When a Toast for Peace Works Best in Russian

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Sakartvelos gaumarjos!" the young man shouted as he raised his brimming glass of wine high above his friends' heads in the traditional toast to his country, Georgia. Then, for the benefit of those of us around the restaurant table who didn't speak his language, he repeated himself, this time in Russian: "Za Gruziyu!" -- "To Georgia!" His friends lifted their glasses and chorused in unison -- again in Russian --"Za Gruziyu!"

Considering that Georgia has just been subjected to a frighteningly calculating display of the Kremlin's military might, and with Russian soldiers still maintaining checkpoints on Georgian soil a couple of hours' drive from the restaurant where this impassioned toast was being delivered, it may seem surprising that the young man chose to voice his patriotic fervor in the language of what most people here describe as the "occupiers" and "aggressors." But, as always in Georgia, things are more complicated than they might first appear.

"Speak Russian, please. Everyone speaks Russian here," I was told in a barber's shop in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, when I dropped in for a haircut before heading to the restaurant. A few meters away, on Tbilisi's main drag, Rustaveli Avenue, propaganda posters depicted Russia as a fat imperialist pig with its evil porky hands grasping for Georgian territory. On television, a pop video describes Russia as "a country of freaks" that is "looting everything, even toilet seats."

But in the barber's shop, the staff were gossiping away about who was dating whom and where they were planning to go on Saturday night -- not in Georgian, but in Russian, the common tongue of the former Soviet Union.

It is true that significant numbers of Georgians under the age of 30 no longer speak Russian fluently, if at all. The education minister once told me that, over the past few years as Georgia's relationship with its former Soviet masters in Moscow deteriorated sharply, the number of schoolchildren choosing Russian as an option has declined, as English is increasingly seen as a more practical choice in a country that views its future as European.

But Georgia has survived over the centuries, despite repeated invasions by its larger and more powerful neighbors, by deploying a cunning sense of pragmatism as well as indomitable self-belief. It is almost impossible to imagine Georgians electing a pro-Russian government any time soon, and it would be even harder to find someone in this country who doesn't utterly despise what the Russians have been doing here over the past few weeks. But that doesn't mean Georgians are going to stop speaking their language.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.