Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia

25-28 February 2021

  • An online festival of Georgian writers from the Caucasus, with music and food, inspired by the café culture of the first democratic republic of 1918-21
  • Festival marks centenary of Soviet invasion of Georgia and 30th anniversary of independence
  • Katie Melua to open festival with specially recorded song in Georgian

Following the Russian revolution of 1917, the Republic of Georgia experienced brief independence from imperial rule, fuelling a starburst of new writing and art. Its capital in the southern Caucasus mountains became a haven for exiles fleeing the collapsing Tsarist empire – including Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. Avant-garde Modernists thrived in Tbilisi’s café culture. But Europe’s first national experiment in democratic socialism was crushed after only 1,028 days when the Red Army invaded Georgia. The republic was annexed by the Soviet Union on 25 February 1921.

On the centenary of the February invasion, and the 30th anniversary of the restoration of independence in 1991, the festival’s Artistic Director, Maya Jaggi, and Writers’ House of Georgia present four days of online events in Georgias Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, a virtual writers’ festival with an element of music and food, in partnership with the British Library in London and Words Without Borders in New York.


  • Welcome song specially recorded in Georgian by the British-Georgian singer songwriter Katie Melua in lockdown.
  • Opening ‘meet the author’ with Nino Haratischvili, multiple-award-winning novelist of the 900-page family saga The Eighth Life (a Georgian War and Peace or Tin Drum), whose characters include Stalin and his henchman Beria.
  • Georgian-born Russian crime writer Boris Akunin, who has sold 20 million books inspired by Sherlock Holmes in Russia alone, speaking about his Georgian roots, how Russians see his father’s country and how Georgians see Russia – with which the country fought a war in 2008.
  • Culinary demonstration in Tbilisi of one of the world’s fast-emerging cuisines by young innovator Luka Nachkebia, TV juror on national hit MasterChef Georgia, who speaks about feasting as therapy in time of pandemic.

Plus talks including:

  • Lifelong pro-democracy protester and TV book show host Dato Turashvili, whose new play The Republic of Georgia had a staged reading in New York, and leading novelist Aka Morchiladze, on why that moment of freedom a century ago is a growing inspiration for Georgians today.
  • Internationally garlanded filmmaker Nana Ekvtimishvili (whose feature My Happy Family, about a singer’s quest for a room of her own, is streaming on Netflix) and novelist Tamta Melashvili speak about creative women breaking out in the 1920s – and now. Ekvtimishvili also speaks about her newly translated debut novel set in an abusive post-Soviet ‘School for Idiots’
  • Cartoonist and satirist Lasha Bugadze, whose writing so scandalised the Orthodox Church that they threatened him with excommunication in the 21st century, on how he turned the episode into an acclaimed novel in Georgian.
  • Davit Gabunia, novelist, activist and Georgian translator of Harry Potter and Shakespeare, tells Mark Gevisser, author of The Pink Line, about Georgians’ conflicting attitudes to masculinity and Pride. This in the wake of riot police being deployed at Tbilisi screenings of And Then We Danced, Levan Akin’s international-hit feature film (UK streaming at Curzon Home Cinema) about a male dancer’s love for another man.

Georgia in the southern Caucasus, the mythological home of Medea and the Golden Fleece, is a crossroads where Europe meets Asia, with a Black Sea coast, ancient vineyards and a rich literature with its own language and alphabet. Its terrain and culture made it one of the world’s top emerging travel destinations just before the pandemic.

A century ago, Tbilisi – known as Tiflis before 1936 – was a ‘Paris of the East.’ In the 1910s and 20s, its vibrant artists’ cafés – such as the Fantastic Tavern, Argonauts’ Boat, Kimerioni and Peacock’s Tail – became cosmopolitan crucibles of the avant-garde, nourished by Georgia’s ancient culture of feasting and toasting with wine made in egg-shaped quevri. Symbolist poets and Dadaists mingled with Cubists and Futurists, inspired by the tavern paintings of self-taught artist Niko Pirosmani,

Georgia’s Douanier Rousseau. Art of the period survives on former café walls – such as the festival’s lead image of Stepko’s Tavern by Lado Gudiashvili for the Kimerioni café, now in the basement of Rustaveli National Theatre.

After the Soviet invasion of 1921, astonishing innovation continued in Georgian theatre and cinema. But Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s were a brutal coda. Many writers and artists were exiled or executed. Others committed suicide.

As an open house of literature, Writers’ House in Tbilisi honours the memory of purged writers. In this virtual festival, some of Georgia’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, playwrights and screenwriters reflect on the legacy of the first republic, on Soviet history to which they have been eyewitnesses, and on the cultural resurgence and challenges of the past 30 years.

In the run-up to the festival, beginning on February 17, Words Without Borders, the online magazine for international literature in New York, will publish three translated extracts from recent novels that have made waves or won awards in Georgia. The authors, Archil Kikodze, Tamta Melashvili and Lasha Bugadze, will speak about their work at the festival.

Georgias Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, livestreamed for a global English-language audience, is a virtual sequel in the pandemic era to Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, the UK’s first festival of Georgian writers. Curated by Maya Jaggi, this was held in London five years ago.

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