By Aliia Woodworth ’23
The Global Research Institute’s Summer Fellows Program provides international experiential learning opportunities to W&M students. This post is one installment of a series highlighting the 2022 Fellows’ key discoveries and formative experiences.
As we drove into Tbilisi from the airport, I watched the beautiful scenery of the Georgian countryside, and a wave of nostalgia swept over me. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be able to return to a place where I forged some of the most precious memories of my childhood. Before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War broke out, my family and I had lived in Tbilisi for a couple of months due to my dad’s position as a UN Peacekeeper. Having been born in Kyrgyzstan and raised there until I was seven years old, this was the first of many life-changing moves I would have to make with my family. Although my memories of Georgia have been blurred by time, I always remembered the hospitality of the Georgian people. In particular, my parents and I befriended Ana, the landlord of the apartment we lived in. Ana and her family became lifelong friends of our family and treated me as if I was their granddaughter. I remember going on walks down Rustaveli Avenue, playing at Mtatsminda Park, and exploring Uplistsikhe, the ancient cave town. These are memories I look back on fondly.
Arriving in Tbilisi after 12 years was an interesting experience because everything felt so familiar, yet foreign. Undeniably, the city had completely transformed over the years, and I felt excitement at the idea of rediscovering the various sites around the city. Prior to being in Georgia, my parents and I visited my family in Kyrgyzstan after nine years of not seeing them. As my parents returned to the US, they were able to accompany me to Georgia for a few days, and we reunited with Ana and her family.
May 1, 2008: My birthday dinner with my dad and our family friends in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Immediately after my arrival, all of the GRI Summer Fellows and I got to work. We met with myriad people with drastically different experiences, upbringings, and points of views. We came into the country with the aim of understanding the motivations behind Georgian military participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. However, with more and more people we interviewed, our scope broadened. We met with various political figures, NGOs, military officials, and academics — eventually jointly conducting over 40 interviews, which is a feat I am so proud of us for. Almost like a puzzle, each interview fit a piece of the narrative and helped us understand the bigger picture. We found that Georgian politics and foreign affairs were intrinsically complex. Some of the most important takeaways of our interviews were the urgency of EU/NATO candidacy, the passion of Georgian soldiers to serve and protect their small, but hearty nation, and the importance of strengthening US-Georgia military relations (especially in the wake of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War). In a way, our interviews were often very intimate. I never thought I could learn so much about an individual in such a short time span, and I always stepped out of the meeting feeling that each person’s story and experiences were invaluable.
June 25, 2022: This is a picture of me with Mtskheta, the old capital, behind me. This picture was taken on our way to Gori to meet with Georgian soldiers.
Some of the most memorable interviews include meeting with impressive individuals who worked at Georgian Strategic Analysis Center (GSAC). Within my first week in Georgia, we were offered the positions of Academic Associates at GSAC, which we graciously accepted. While working at GSAC, I not only had the opportunity to help write grant proposals, but I also developed a strong bond with the people who worked there. Our days consisted of meeting with interviewees — whether at their office or in a random coffee shop — and then going to GSAC to help write proposals. In between these periods of working, we interacted with Georgian locals and immersed ourselves in their culture. Being Russian speakers allowed Summer Fellow Daniella Marx and I to interact with people who often did not speak much English. It was particularly interesting to be speaking Russian, against the backdrop of the Russo-Ukrainian War and the mass influx of Ukrainians and Russians into Georgia. The older generation, which grew up in the Soviet Union, gladly spoke with us in Russian, while the younger generation that had experienced the trauma of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War felt understandably uncomfortable.
When we weren’t conducting interviews, transcribing them, or working at GSAC, we were able to unwind and travel. One of my favorite memories from the trip was meeting Gia, a tour guide who also operated his own winery and film company. With Gia, Katrine, Abby, Daniella, Maia, and I embarked on a journey to the beautiful Kakheti wine region while also catching views of the stunning Caucasus mountains.
June 18, 2022 – This is a picture I captured on my film camera of Katrine, Maia, Gia, Daniella, and Abby as we explored the Schuchmann Winery in Kisiskhevi, Georgia.
This experience is one that I will never forget and will always cherish. It not only allowed me to revisit a part of my childhood, but also allowed me to experience the beauty of Georgian culture. I am incredibly thankful for the GRI Summer Fellows Program, Professor Daniel Maliniak, and my four fellow researchers. When I look back, I will remember each of our unique interviews, the treks around the city, the taste of the wine and Khachapuri, interacting with ambassadors at a GSAC event, haggling with vendors at the bazaar, interviewing local Georgian soldiers in Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, and finally, the vigor of the Georgian people. I forged new friendships, made connections, and met incredible people who had valuable insights on not only Georgian domestic politics and military affairs, but also life.