In 1713, King Vakhtang VI of Georgia sent his former teacher, the famed polymath and writer Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, to France and Italy on an urgent diplomatic mission. Squeezed on all sides—by the Persian Empire to the southeast, the Ottoman Empire to the southwest, and Russia to the north—Georgia needed Western allies. Orbeliani seemed the perfect choice to petition the French monarch and the pope, the power brokers of the time, for help. His eloquence and erudition, according to historical records, charmed Louis XIV. Orbeliani made the case that as a Christian nation Georgia was a natural pro-Western ally and a gateway to the Caucasus and farther east. But in the end, he failed.
Although the Turks, the Persians, and the Russians were France’s rivals as well, Louis the Great was consumed by problems closer to home and had no appetite for intervening in the Caucasus. For Georgia, it meant another period of conquest and subjugation by its neighbors. First, the Ottomans grabbed chunks of territory in the west. Then, as the Persian threat from the south grew, the king of what was by then eastern Georgia signed a treaty with Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783 to protect what was left of the country. But for Georgians, it proved an early lesson not to trust their giant northern neighbor. When the Persians did invade the following decade, sacking Tbilisi in the process, Russia sat on the sidelines. Then, after pushing the Persians out, it annexed Georgia, in 1801. Georgia begged the West to come to its aid again after World War I, when it was briefly independent under British protection, but then the Red Army marched in during the winter of 1921 and installed the Bolshevik regime.
Orbeliani is revered today in Georgia as the standard-bearer for the country’s aspirations to join the West, as the “man who paved the road to Europe.” But this week, which marks the anniversary of its 2008 war with Russia, brings a discomfiting reminder that