The dirt shone red-orange in the car headlights, the road little more than a trench cutting through endless miles of dry terrain. Night had caught us by surprise, still hours from our destination. We sped through the moonlit wilderness, one single light in a rocky land dotted with pylons, ruined churches, and every few miles or so, looming ghostlike out of the darkness, the vestigial remains of Armenia’s Soviet monuments.
Somewhere near the village of Dashtadem, down in the southwest corner of Armenia, we lost the road altogether. The tarmac, half hidden under dust, took a sudden, sharp turn to the right while we carried on straight ahead. The car shuddered into the dirt, bouncing to a violent halt; and the small halo of light that had surrounded us erupted into a glowing cocoon of dust and smoke.
Nearby, an invisible siren whooped. In all these empty miles we had managed to plough into the verge just a stone’s throw from a police patrol car (I wondered how long it had waited there, like a trapdoor spider, for anyone to pass), and now we were due for a reckoning.
As one officer leaned down to the driver window, we told him we didn’t speak Armenian. We might have just about got by in Russian, but we told him – in English – that we didn’t speak that either. We assumed that the harder we made this, the more likely the police would just send us on our way… and it worked, though not without one final test to pass.
This Armenian police officer motioned the driver to get out of the car, then he cupped his hands and mimed a gesture of breathing into them. Our driver – an American – did as he was told, he emptied his lungs into the man’s palms and the officer took a good hard sniff. If he’d been expecting vodka breath, he was pleasantly surprised: we weren’t drunk, just tired.
As we reversed back onto the road the two police officers had a good laugh at our expense. They waved us off, muttering something that I can only guess meant “Stupid tourists.”
SOVIET MONUMENTS IN ARMENIA
Armenia has an incredible number of monuments, and many of those that stand today were built between 1922 and 1991 in what was then known as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. According to Garnik S. Shakhkian, author of the 1989 collection Architectural Monuments in the Soviet Armenia, more than 40,000 such structures were built.
A lot of these monuments have a distinctly Armenian feel about them. Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is sometimes known as the ‘Pink City’; its buildings characterised by the use of tuff, a volcanic stone formed from Armenia’s ancient lava flows and which glows red-pink or orange in the Caucasian sun. The same stone appears frequently throughout the Soviet-era monuments that scatter the landscape, so that even generic Soviet memorial themes – monuments to the victims of the Great Patriotic War, monuments to the Red Army – are here unmistakably Armenian in construction.
Yerevan is reported to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It was founded by King Argishti I in 782 BC, on land that had been settled even for some three thousand years before that. Back then, it was known as Erebuni.
The city grew rapidly with the influx of refugees after 1915, Armenians escaping Ottoman oppression in the west, and after WWI Yerevan was declared the new capital: Armenia’s twelfth. Armenia entered the Soviet Union in 1922 and the following year the Russian-born Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan relocated to Yerevan – where he would oversee the creation of a Soviet-style neoclassical metropolis. A model Soviet city rendered here in glorious pink stone.
There is plenty of fine monumental work in the capital alone. The Yerevan Cascade is one of the city’s defining landmarks, a stepped ensemble that rises from the centre, level by level, all the way up to Victory Park on the hilltop above. Construction began in 1971, to the design of architects Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan and Sargis Gurzadyan. The idea was that each successive gallery would detail a different period of Armenia’s ancient history, time beginning at the bottom and flowing upwards, to finally reach the Victory Monument: an obelisk at the top of the steps that symbolised the arrival of Soviet socialism.
Phase One of construction was completed in 1980, though the Cascade was still far from finished. Despite another burst of activity, 2002–2009, the Cascade remains unfinished today and the current of time, at least to my eyes, appears to have reversed from the original design. Time seems to flow down the Cascade these days, not up, moving from the tired-looking Soviet monument at its peak down into the lively cafés, the modern sculptures and contemporary street culture that surround the lower end of the installation.
The Yerevan Cascade survives today as a national symbol but in the capital, as with elsewhere in Armenia, those monuments and monumental installations focussed on more generic Soviet themes seem to be largely abandoned.
In Gyumri, up in the northwest of Armenia, we spied one Soviet monument hiding behind a fence in someone’s yard. Whatever this building was once it had since been privatised; garden walls growing up to cocoon the forgotten memorial site. The silver figure now stood on display for no-one, facing into the bushes at the corner of the garden while around it the outline of a grass-choked plaza disappeared beneath the new-built fence dividing this garden from the next.
Another day we visited the city of Vanadzor. Armenia’s third largest city, Vanadzor reported a population of 148,876 people in the 1979 census. Since then it has halved, its parks, plazas and apartment blocks now beset on all sides by the smoke-stained hulks of abandoned Soviet industry.
In Chemical Factory Workers’ Park a supersize bust of a Soviet soldier in white stone looks out across the remains of a dilapidated fairground. Brambles poke through rusted holes in the carousel. A local man passed me as I photographed the monument; “Это было красиво,” he said, simply, gesturing around the park – It was beautiful – then shook his head and moved on.
Across the country monuments to the Red Army, monuments to the Socialist Revolution and monuments to Soviet leaders were generally amongst the most decayed, unloved structures I saw. Though there were exceptions, of course – and notably in the case of local heroes.
The town of Stepanavan – situated on the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway – is named after Stepan Georgevich Shahumyan: a homegrown Bolshevik revolutionary whose role in the Russian revolution earned him the nickname ‘the Caucasian Lenin.’ In post-Soviet Stepanavan his likeness still rises proudly from plinths throughout the town.
In Alaverdi, a former mining community where rusted cable cars hang like cobwebs over the streets, a monument to the Armenian aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan – the ‘M’ in MiG – still looks relatively well cared for by the people of his hometown. Behind his bust a MiG-21 forms part of the memorial ensemble while a nearby museum charts his life’s achievements. But in Yerevan, controversy surrounded the proposal to build a new monument to Artem’s brother, Anastas Mikoyan: a Minister of Foreign Trade under Stalin and later, under Brezhnev, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Of these two Armenian brothers, the engineer remains a celebrated local hero while the politician has become problematic.
However, these overtly Soviet memorial themes – Soviet heroes, Soviet victories, Soviet ideals – account for only one portion of the Soviet-era monuments scattered throughout Armenia’s wild and violently rocky landscapes. Of the others an incredible number, rather, were dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide.
MEMORIALS TO THE VICTIMS OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
I never expected it to be so hard to find food in Armenia. We would get hungry on the road, and tell ourselves we’d pull over at the first restaurant we saw. Two hours and six villages later we’d have seen nothing, barely a shop.
In Yerevan, grill restaurants (serving the national barbecue cuisine, khorovats) dotted the cartwheel of roads leading into and out of the capital – sometimes alternating with seedy-looking strip clubs, of which Armenia has a prolific number – but the further we drove the harder it became to find sustenance. Village shops existed, of course, but they were very often small, unsigned establishments, tucked away in rows of pink stone buildings. Restaurants, meanwhile, appeared almost non-existent in these rural provinces… but even the smallest nub of a village, sparse settlements adrift in the endless rolling plains, had a prominent monument commemorating Armenia’s historic struggle against the Ottoman Empire; the massacre of Armenians under Ottoman rule, and the bloody Turkish–Armenian war that followed.
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire had begun the systematic arrest, deportation and execution of Armenians living within its borders. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died as they were marched to the Syrian desert, and those that survived the journey were processed at a network of concentration camps. Whole villages were burned, and mass graves were filled with tens of thousands of bodies at a time. Many scholars put the number of Armenian victims at around 1.5 million people, and 29 countries have officially recognised these events as constituting a genocide; that is to say, an attempt by the Ottoman authorities to entirely extinguish the Armenian race and its cultural legacy.
The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was born the same year the Ottoman Empire died. No doubt the Bolsheviks must have looked like angels back then, at least compared with Armenia’s western neighbours.
During Armenia’s Soviet period an absolute fortune was spent on preserving the memory of the genocide victims. In the countryside we drove past old Soviet monuments that rose as ruins, broken fingers of orange stone – occasionally even with storks’ nests perched on top – but the genocide memorials in town and village squares were altogether different, treated as places of enduring pride and respect.
We stopped in Ujan to visit the Monument to the Seven Fidain.* As we walked around the sun-blasted plaza beneath the memorial two local men, quite elderly, crossed over the road to join us. They wanted to know what we thought about their town’s monument – and they were patient enough that we could exchange a few comments in broken Russian.
[*Fidain is a local word for a commando or guerrilla.]
“These, our heroes,” one man explained, gesturing towards the memorial with its bloom of seven sculpted faces. “The war,” he added then, as if any further clarification were needed. “The war of Armenia and Turkey.”
The other man then told us to wait, said something about a translator and started making a call. The sun was baking my head, so I took a stroll beneath the trees while we waited. At the lower end of the park, a pool and fountain would have welcomed visitors at the original entrance to Ujan’s memorial complex. A sculpture of Mother Armenia sat enthroned above the pool; though the water had long since turned to dust.
I followed the path back up towards the central monolith. There was a chamber beneath it, built into the earth under the plaza, but the door was locked. One of the old men was watching me: It’s empty, he said. That’s when the translator arrived but it seemed there was some confusion; this young man – someone’s nephew, I think I understood – did not in fact speak a word of English either. He was no less friendly than his elders though, and after a few more strained exchanges in Russian we bid the group farewell and made back for the car.
The Ujan monument was loved and remembered, but many others we saw that week were treated with almost religious respect. Even now, even in otherwise meagre settlements with broken roads, poor plumbing and sparse employment, amidst closed-down shops and crumbling industry, these stone and marble monuments are often maintained to a slavishly fine condition. Flags fly, and spotlights set them ablaze by night.
Perhaps the most extraordinary we saw was the Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex, opened in 1968 to commemorate the place where the Ottoman Empire, having already begun the extermination of Armenian minorities on its own soil, crossed into eastern Armenia in 1918 to be turned back by Armenian forces in the Battle of Sardarapat. That battle was a turning point in the war. Discussing the possibility of an Ottoman victory, the British historian Christopher J. Walker wrote: “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”
Above the one-horse town of Araks, two towering red-rock oxen face off across a courtyard, their powerful forms reminiscent of the deific guardians at ancient Assyrian temples. The memorial complex spills back behind, all landscaped gardens, museums and sculpted stone reliefs. A team of staff worked diligently amongst the hedges and flowerbeds as we explored; squatting, weeding, and splashing these plants with more water than I had seen in all the past hundred miles of dry Armenian terrain.
At Sardarapat, and not for the first time in this trip, I got to wondering exactly what percentage of Armenia’s GDP is today spent maintaining its lavish monuments to the victims of Ottoman atrocities, and to the victors of anti-Ottoman struggle. While generic Soviet monuments have been allowed to slip into ruin, anything associated with the conflict with Turkey appears to get almost sacred treatment. From an outsider’s perspective these monuments appear to be more than Armenia can afford; both in terms of upkeep, and effect.
Regional conflicts have left Armenia without many neighbours to trade with. It shares four borders: to the west, the Armenian-Turkish border has been closed since 1993 (and though attempts were made in 2008 to restart diplomatic conversations, those conversations were dropped in 2009 and in March 2018 Armenia annulled the normalisation protocols). To the east is Azerbaijan, a country Armenia is still officially at war with over post-Soviet border disputes (the most recent clashes occurred in 2016, in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, and cost the lives of roughly 350 people). In the south, Iran is under heavy sanctions itself which leaves only Georgia in the north, and Russia beyond that. As a result Armenia, a landlocked country, is cut off from any easy access to international commerce.
It may be that Turkey will never acknowledge nor attempt to atone for the genocidal crimes committed against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. But if Armenia cannot find a way to rebuild diplomatic relationships with modern Turkey regardless of this historical injustice, then it denies itself access to European trade routes to the west; thus forcing the country into ongoing economic hardship, and greater dependency on Russia. Meanwhile the Soviet-era memorial sites that Armenia still chooses to maintain – totems of victimhood and monuments to Turk-killers – don’t feel particularly conducive to any kind of change in this status quo.
Perhaps this effect is no accident. From the 16th century up until WWI, a total of 12 wars were fought between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. After WWI Armenia joined Russia in the Soviet Union, becoming a border country between the lands of Russian influence and of Russian enemies. Naturally it would have been in Moscow’s best interests, back then, to support and even fund the construction of extravagant monuments that fanned the flames of the long-standing animosity between Armenia and Turkey. As was ever the case, the USSR defended its borders not only with tanks, but with dogma.
The Soviets had sought to secure Armenian loyalty with a volatile gift; a physical heritage which perpetuated the region’s perceived conflicts, and yet which no self-respecting Armenian could ever allow to fall into disrepair.
MEMORY & IDENTITY IN POST-SOVIET ARMENIA
Armenia is still building monuments. Some of the newer ones are positively uplifting – such as the Armenian Alphabet Monument at Artashavan, around an hour from Yerevan. Opened in 2005, the characters of the Armenian alphabet have been carved from stone and spread across the hillside in a celebration of national culture. This gesture in itself is almost an act of defiance, in the context of Armenia’s difficult history, and like most of the other contemporary monuments in the country this one is modest and manageable… setting it well apart from those lavish Soviet-era marble-and-fountain affairs.
The problem of maintenance is not unique to Soviet monuments in Armenia, of course: communist architecture in general was very often characterised by huge, overblown statements, the kind of monuments built by people who were blind to the possibility of their own eventual downfall. It’s a fact that makes communist heritage sites the world over doubly difficult to reconcile – it’s not just the sociopolitical implications of these places that need to be addressed, but also the steep price that many would cost to maintain.
Other new Armenian monuments sometimes adhere to design aesthetics made popular by the Soviets (for example, the striking Socialist-modernism of the Monument of Gratitude in Yerevan), but these newer ones are much smaller and less extravagant than their predecessors. Increasingly, they seem also to celebrate the positive – rather than commiserate the negative – aspects of Armenia’s history. Contemporary sculptures of Armenian artists and composers, not to mention anonymous street sweepers and backgammon players, add vibrancy to the streets of Yerevan in place of former Soviet monuments to the Red Army.
Nevertheless, the citizens of post-Soviet Armenia have inherited a national identity defined by a history of struggle. Search for Things to Do in Yerevan on TripAdvisor, and the first result is a mountain range not actually in Yerevan (or, indeed, entirely in Armenia). Result number two is the Armenian Genocide Museum and the third result is the Genocide Memorial, technically a part of the same memorial complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill.
It rises like a barrow: stone fingers clutching around a single eternal flame, a half-formed fist against the distant mountains. The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex was opened in 1968, and it adheres closely to the familiar Soviet template. A gas-gobbling fire within a cell of contemplation, visitors dwarfed by heavy geometry.
The monument seems to mirror the shape of Mount Ararat on the horizon: the mountain where, in Christian tradition, Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood. Both Ararat and the ark appear on Armenia’s coat of arms, and the name is synonymous too with Armenia’s celebrated Ararat cognac.
That Mount Ararat itself is located now within the borders of neighbouring Turkey, not Armenia, is a bitter irony; the Armenian people can’t even contemplate the core symbols of their nation without looking west and remembering what they lost there. Meanwhile in every village, town and city throughout the country, Soviet-built obelisks list the names of the victims: a mantra against ever forgetting the past’s injustices.
If you were looking to cast the villain in an urban development battle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Worth about $5 billion, or a third of Georgia’s gross domestic product, he’s the country’s wealthiest person by a long shot. A former prime minister and the founder of the ruling party, he’s also Georgia’s most powerful figure, infamous for pulling government strings from behind the scenes since leaving politics in late 2013. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, a cache of leaked tax documents revealing how the world’s richest people exploit tax havens. He’s eccentric enough to dig up and ship a lone 650-ton tulip tree across the Black Sea, and his Tbilisi home is tailor-made for an evil mastermind: a 108,000-square-foot steel and glass palace, poised on a hill overlooking the city and complete with helipad and shark tank.
No surprise, then, that not only is Ivanishvili behind the largest real estate development in Georgia’s history — a controversial project known as Panorama Tbilisi — until recently he owned some of the land slated for development. If all goes as planned, Panorama would bring three new hotels, two cable cars, 1,800 underground parking spaces, luxury residences and a convention center to the Georgian capital. The project has become a lightning rod amid a nationwide boom that has attracted international developers, including one Donald Trump — who until January had planned to back construction of the country’s two tallest towers.
As rapid construction has taken hold in the capital, Tbilisians have watched green space shrink in the city center and the horizon crowd with towers. The number of cars in this city of 1.5 million people has doubled in the past seven years. Meanwhile, Georgia’s per-capita rate of air pollution-related deaths ranked number one among the world’s nations in a 2012 report from from the International Energy Agency.
As construction begins on Panorama, locals fearing more congestion, deadlier pollution and the loss of their beloved Old City have rallied to the cause. Some want to kill the project, but most would be happy to move it to a different location, or shrink it to better fit to its surroundings. “Look at Amsterdam, Paris, you don’t have great skyscrapers in the main heritage areas in those cities,” said Tbilisi urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania.
The municipal government, meanwhile, finds itself squeezed between modernization and preservation, between an oligarch who controls the purse strings and power and an electorate increasingly concerned about the impact of unfettered development. “The result is that city officials don’t want to upset the public, or Ivanishvili, and are always looking to find a balance,” Erekle Urushadze, program manager for the anti-corruption program at Transparency International Georgia, said in a recent interview in a Tbilisi cafe.
That balance is rarely found. As a result, Georgians are learning the extent to which committed citizens can participate in development, if at all, in the face of an all-powerful developer-oligarch. And whether Ivanishvili is indeed a villain.
SILK ROAD TO SILICON VALLEY
Dusty, 15th-century-old Tbilisi is a head-spinning crossroads of culture and religion. Periods of rule by Arabs, Mongols, Iranians and Russians have left their mark, sandwiching eras of independence. Tbilisi grew to some 100,000 people during the Georgian Golden Age in the 12th-13th century, emerging as a regional power, a node of Silk Road trade and a center of culture. From the early 19th to the early 20th century, it served as the capital of the Caucasus.
Today, dozens of conical-roofed churches dot the Old City skyline beneath the imposing stone walls of Narikala, a rebuilt fourth-century fortress, and the gleaming steel statue of Mother of Georgia. Sleek, modern buildings rise from streets radiating like spokes from Freedom Square, site of 2004’s Rose Revolution. The nearby neighborhood of Sololaki is seeing swift gentrification, with hip locally-sourced restaurants and a busy farmer’s market. Up Shota Rustaveli Avenue, the Soviet-era institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin has been topped with a gleaming blue skyscraper and transformed into the Biltmore Hotel. Along the Kura River, two gherkin-shaped glass towers are rising, set to become the high-end King David Residences. There’s also Axis Towers (a five-star hotel, with residences, retail and office space), a new Sheraton across the river in Avlabari, and talk of a new Radisson next to the Biltmore. After decades of post-Soviet instability, Georgia appears to have found its stride: Economic growth peaked at seven percent in 2011 and 2014, and Tbilisi is booming.
The New York Times’ T Magazine recently dubbed Georgia “the California of the Caucasus,” in apparent reference to its wine, natural beauty and casual hipness. But the makings of a tech industry have also begun to emerge, thanks to new incubators and coworking spaces, the recently opened Tech Park, a sleek government-backed mentoring space, and Silicon Valley Tbilisi, an Israeli-supported IT academy, with satellite offices of 60 foreign firms. Outside town, construction recently began on Georgia’s Technological Institute. A Chinese conglomerate is building a new city along the Tbilisi Sea, in an effort to revive Silk Road-style trade. Nearby, a Slovakian firm is building an “Eco Green City” of its own. It’s expected to cost up to a billion dollars, with 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
GEORGIA’S DREAM PROJECT?
Some credit Georgian Dream, the ruling party, for Tbilisi’s growth spurt. The party rose to national power in 2012 behind the backing of Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister for about a year. Weeks before he stepped down, in late 2013, he announced the creation of the $6 billion Georgia Co-Investment Fund (GCF), to which he contributed $1 billion of his own money. With investors like Ras Al Khaimah (one of the seven emirates of the U.A.E.) and the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the fund aims to spur foreign investment and economic growth in Georgia and has already backed some $2.1 billion worth of projects in industry, agriculture, energy and tourism.
In March 2014, GCF presented plans for Panorama, showcasing a 10-story, “seven-star” hotel at Freedom Square, luxury apartments and a convention center overlooking the Old City from Sololaki Hills, near Ivanishvili’s mansion. Toss in two other GCF projects — Tabori recreation area, with a golf course, hiking paths, planetarium and aquarium, to be built further above the city on Sololaki Rise and linked to Panorama by cable car; and Galleria mall, already under construction across the street from the Freedom Square hotel site — and the total cost comes to about $580 million. (Consider that at a Georgian bar a beer costs about $1 and you begin to appreciate the relative scale of $580 million.)
New development is popping up around Freedom Square.
One of the largest-ever private developments in the Caucasus, Panorama would be built amid some of Tbilisi’s oldest buildings, on protected land. City Hall swiftly rejected the plan, advising GCF to build outside the city center. Three months later, Georgian Dream swept to power in Tbilisi, with their mayoral candidate, David Narmania, taking more than 72 percent of the vote. Later that year City Hall changed the zoning category of the Sololaki Hills land, lifting the heritage protection status. The next spring three companies were granted permissions to build there, in a process that activists saw as rushed.
In a conference room at the downtown offices of GCF, a trio of staffers recently sat down to explain how the Panorama plans first made public two years ago were far from final. Public input led to alterations, including the removal of a cable car that would run through the Old City and the reduction of the footprint of construction on Sololaki Hills. A new video rendering of the completed Panorama project showed the Sololaki Hills apartments and convention center hidden behind tall trees and Ivanishvili’s mansion, and difficult to see from the Old City.
In the rendering, the 10-story glass tower for the Marriott Autograph hotel at Freedom Square stood out from its historic, low-rise surroundings. But it also reflected the square back to the viewer, expanding the sense of place, to an extent. GCF argues that Panorama will enrich Tbilisi’s core and become the city’s calling card. Responding to accusations that Panorama would harm the environment and only benefit the elite, Tsotne Ebralidze, GCF’s Managing Director of Hospitality and Real Estate, pointed out that the project expects to plant some 30,000 evergreen trees and employ up to 6,000 people during construction, with 2,000 employed after completion in 2019.
In addition, cable cars running from the top of the Freedom Square hotel to Tabori would be open to the public for the cost of a metro ride — giving Tbilisians a vast green space minutes from the mostly gray and concrete city center. “It’s accessible and affordable,” Ebralidze explained at the meeting. “Anybody can just take the metro to Freedom Square and get on the cable car and you’re at this huge recreation area in 5-7 minutes, able to run and bike and enjoy.”
A COSMETIC URBANISM?
Nata Peradze, a leader of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi, is among the many who disagree. Last fall she organized a protest to call for several city officials to resign. A hip, young crowd of about 150 people — lots of full beards, dogs and dreadlocks — gathered on the grounds of City Hall one early afternoon. Next to 5-foot-tall speakers, a DJ started spinning 70s funk. Municipal officials returning from lunch in twos and threes slipped past the crowd and into the building. After a short speech, Peradze oversaw an auction of environmentalist artwork by local activists. The proceeds, more than 700 Georgian lari, would help plant more trees.
“Our form of protest is not based on aggression and violence,” Peradze later explained. “In our post-Soviet reality, because of the nihilistic attitude of society, we choose a form of protest that is creative and peaceful. We manage to achieve way more by adopting these methods.”
That’s not to say Georgian activists are soft. Organizations like Guerilla Gardening and Tiflis Hamkari, which works to preserve the city’s heritage, argue that Panorama will increase congestion and upset the architectural style and character of the Old City. Transparency International Georgia complained that no investors other than Ivanishvili had been named and that some of the land was sold too quickly for others to make bids.
Urushadze, of TI Georgia, points out that dozens of government officials are former employees of Ivanishvili, from mid-level officials up to the minister of the economy and the prime minister. “Whenever Ivanishvili wants a project he finds a way,” he said. “There’s really nobody to stop him. He controls the government entirely — all branches and all levels of government.”
That control has given Panorama a boost. Last year, more than two dozen NGO’s and activist groups joined forces, creating the Ertad (“Together”) Coalition to organize as one against the project. But the coalition essentially disbanded earlier this year after dissolving into petty squabbling over strategy and objectives.
“Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to stop Panorama,” Elene Margvelashvili, director of Iare Pekhit, a pedestrian rights group, said during a recent interview at a cafe overlooking Freedom Square. “But there would have been a precedent of a big crowd coming together over this kind of issue.”
Margvelashvili and others admit that, despite growing activist numbers, still too few people are involved to make much of an impact. One problem is a lingering, top-down Soviet mentality, among officials as well as citizens, particularly people over 40 years old. This will likely change as today’s younger generation matures.
Construction of the Panorama project is underway.
Still, the battle over Panorama is far from over. In August, a Tbilisi court accepted a case arguing that the city’s 2014 re-classification of protected areas to enable Panorama construction contradicted a 1985 cabinet ministers decree and a law on cultural heritage, and was thus invalid. The case was suspended at an October hearing, and as of early April, remained suspended. If the judge agrees with the plaintiff’s argument, the decision could ultimately invalidate the building permits and halt construction.
Such a reversal would not be unprecedented. In 2013, Guerrilla Gardeners Tbilisi set up a camp at the site of construction for a major new hotel in Vake Park, preventing bulldozers from doing their work. When the new government arrived the following July, they halted work on the project. A Tbilisi court soon decided that the construction permit had been issued illegally. Today, there’s still a big hole in Vake Park.
From a distance, the city appears to be embracing urbanist ideas. It’s installing vertical gardens, sprucing up several streets and aging buildings and adding pedestrian-only areas as part of the $8.5 million New Tiflis project. When he took office, Narmania promised to plant one million trees in his first year, and his City Council invited activists to monthly meetings to offer ideas.
But critics say these steps are small-bore and predominantly cosmetic. Margvelashvili points out that some of the newly pedestrianized streets were already car-free, and that city officials never listened to activists at those monthly meetings.
Of the half million trees Narmania planted, many reportedly withered and died because they’d been planted too close together. Meanwhile, Georgia’s ministry of environment has questioned the methodology of the IEA report, which found that in 2012 Georgia had the world’s highest mortality rate attributed to air pollution — nearly 300 deaths per 100,000 people. The ministry argues that pollution-related mortality should also take other factors into account, such as indoor air quality and the prevalence of smoking.
Activists point to increased construction, reduced green spaces, poor-quality fuel from Azerbaijan and old, high-emission vehicles due to the absence of mandatory inspections. The World Health Organization says cities should have at least nine square meters of green space per resident. Tbilisi has maybe half that.
Last year the city hired a planning firm to develop a comprehensive urban plan. Meanwhile, it has continued to approve major projects like Panorama while waiting for the plan’s completion later this year. Activists are growing impatient. At a recent meeting between NGO leaders and top city officials, a member of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi urged officials to address the city’s environmental problems rather than make populist statements. In response, Mayor Narmania called him a “monkey, son of a donkey” (a harsh Georgian insult), and expelled him from the meeting.
“All these problems work hand in hand and will soon make the city unlivable,” says Peradze. “Already it’s dangerous and can have serious physical and mental health effects. If no imminent changes occur, health problems will skyrocket, forcing people to leave Tbilisi.”
In September, Narmania acknowledged that the number of cars in Tbilisi had doubled since 2010, from 200,000 to 400,000. He called for steps to reduce congestion, including better roads, improved public transport and stronger regulations. He also promised to implement restrictions to regulate the height and size of buildings in central neighborhoods and encourage green roofs.
Zhvania advises locals wondering how quickly the city might implement such plans to contemplate the forest of empty apartment towers surrounding City Hall. They were built years ago, then left to rot after the developer went bankrupt.
Urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania stands before City Hall-area construction.
“What do you expect from an administration — both the previous and the current — that has this view from their windows?” asked Zhvania, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Fulbright scholarship in 2014-2015. “How can these people take care of the entire city when they can’t even make their own block look decent?”
Yet when the powers-that-be want something to happen, it gets done. A few years ago Zhvania served on a council protecting Tbilisi’s culture heritage. It had one non-voting member, plus 12 independent experts — architects, planners, historians. But in 2014 it was folded into a federal agency and filled with officials from the ruling party. “This way, the government could be sure that any project they wanted to go through would go through,” Zhvania explained. “The reason for this was very clear: Panorama was coming.”
Legend has it that Tbilisi was founded after a fifth-century king found his hunting falcon drowned in a hot spring and decided to build a city on the site. The name Tbilisi is derived from the Old Georgian for “place of warmth,” a reference to the sulfur springs that still today feed the city’s public baths. These days, Tbilisi is as unruly as those bubbling waters. Sidewalks are crowded with parked cars, so walking space is scarce. With few crosswalks, one often sees pedestrians, even the elderly, standing in the middle of a busy street, turning their heads this way and that and waiting, Frogger-style, for a break in the stream of passing vehicles.
Georgians are conservative folk, and particularly resistant to change. Yet the capital’s varied architecture — Medieval, Middle Eastern and Modernist; Stalinist, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau — suggests change has been one of the city’s few constants. Across the West, a debate has been raging about the insertion of contemporary architecture into historic urban areas. Some tilt toward conservation, imitation and preservation, while others embrace progress and the inevitability of urban change. The goal is striking a balance between private profit and public good, finding a way to preserve the character of an historic area while facilitating enough progress to sustain it.
Whatever its shortcomings, Panorama links Georgia’s two great assets: the capital’s charming historic core and the country’s lovely mountain scenery. Richard Tibbott, chairman of international advisory services at the real estate consultancy Cushman & Wakefield, has advised London’s tourism department and worked on the London Eye and other Thames attractions. He argues that Panorama does not contradict or compete with Tbilisi’s historic environment, but complements it. “This is a very bold mixed-use investment that appears to provide a very strong boost to the Tbilisi visitor economy,” he wrote in a review of the project for GCF.
Thanks to Ivanishvili, Tbilisi tends toward the example set by Dubai or Istanbul — cities dominated by the vision of an all-powerful leader. Yet the country’s richest man has done much to improve Georgia. In the last couple decades he has resurrected Tbilisi’s 400-year-old Botanical Gardens, which had fallen into disrepair, and built the Sameba Cathedral, the country’s largest church and an immediate tourist attraction, along with national parks and hospitals. He has helped renovate Tbilisi arts outlets, and in his home district built roads, an army base, a cinema, library, water-treatment plant and more. More broadly, GCF has invested in several major projects likely to benefit all Georgians, including $1 billion worth of hydropower projects.
Few Tbilisians would call themselves NIMBY’s, and many locals appreciate what Ivanishvili has done. “We don’t mind development, we just want to keep our city as attractive as it’s always been,” Zhvania said during an interview at a stylish bar just off Rustaveli Avenue. “Building Panorama right here destroys the character of the Old City, disturbs the setting, takes away any chance of gaining UNESCO Heritage status. … Let’s keep this area the way it is, keep it charming, and do the big projects outside the center, where we have more space.”
The state has a monopoly on building monuments and erecting statues in public spaces and each one comes with a message and benefits the rooting of a particular ideology that serves the state at the time of its installation.
If we look at how many monuments have been erected in Yerevan and how many were dismantled, how many were moved or altered, we’ll have an extensive overview of the political currents and ideological tendencies that swept through the country since independence.
As per the list provided by Yerevan Municipality to EVN Youth Report, 51 statues and busts were erected in Yerevan since independence in 1991, excluding 2005-2006, when none were erected. These statues were the images of men — characters from novels, films (Men), artists (William Saroyan, Arno Babajanyan …), military figures (Garegin Nezdeh, General Antranik, Marshal Baghramyan …), philanthropists (Alexander Mantashev, Calouste Gulbenkian…). There is only one statue of a woman, “Armenuhi” which is a collective image of the Armenian woman, not commissioned by the state but rather retrieved from the artist’s studio by her granddaughter in 2009. The majority of these statues are in the center of Yerevan.
We erect statues to fortify the past or at least save it from oblivion and when we deconstruct them, then the time has come to re-evaluate history.
Six statues (not counting the statue of Stalin dismantled in 1962 and replaced with Mother Armenia in 1965) have been removed in Yerevan’s relatively recent history, and each has a bit of mystery around them but their removal comes as no surprise.
No one was shocked by the removal of Lenin’s statue from Republic Square post-independence. The Soviet leader’s beheaded body lies in the backyard of the National Gallery of Armenia today with three gunshots still visible on his iron bust. Who shot at the statue when and why remains a mystery.
However, Lenin was not the first casualty of change in Armenia. While in 1988, the Karabakh movement unified the people of Armenia around the demand for the reunification of Nagorno Karabakh with Soviet Armenia, today’s Sakarov Square was named after Meshadi Azizbekov and featured the bust of the Azerbaijani Marxist, one of the 26 famous commissars. One morning in 1988, Yerevan woke up to news of a truck driving at the statue and toppling it over. It was said but never confirmed that the driver had a heart attack at the wheel and lost control. The bust was never re-installed. In 1991, the square was renamed after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and human rights activist who was outspoken about the pogroms of Armenians in Soviet Azerbaijan. Sakharov’s bust was installed at the square in 2001.
Ghukas Ghukasyan’s statue was next. In 1990, in the middle of the night, unknown people blew up the statue of the Soviet revolutionary located on Abovyan Street, at the student’s park. In 2009, the slot was conveniently given to famous astrophysicist Victor Hambartsumyan, because the park also has a small observatory.
According to artist, art critic and independent curator Ruben Arevshatyan, contextual and paradigmatic shifts deriving from political or regime change assume the consequent elimination of certain symbols. Statues, as the symbols of veneration of individuals or their servitude to society are the first to go.
Another reason for the fall of monuments may be that some statues are not properly articulated, their aesthetics or symbolism producing mixed vibes, says Arevshatyan.
An example is the statue of the Worker or “Working Glory” unveiled near the “Gordzaranayin” (from the Armenian word “gordzaran” meaning factory, Gordzaranayin roughly translates to “industrial”) Metro Station in Yerevan in 1982, thought to represent the Soviet worker despite sculptor Ara Harutuynyan’s insistence that his Worker is not about Socialist ideology but depicts a man walking towards Western Armenia. Evidence of the discrepancy around what the statue represented is the urban legend about how the Worker initially had a copy of the Pravda newspaper in one hand and a hammer in the other that were later removed. Archival photos from its installation however prove that the statue was what it was, a stylistically formalistic collective representation of a man with empty hands.
The statue that was included in the list of monuments protected by the state, was dismantled overnight by the decision of the state in 1997. The reason – it was not sturdy enough and was at risk of collapsing. Many disagreed at the time; the statue was firmly attached to its base by metal rods. Maybe it was, or maybe it was not worth the effort to fortify, or maybe it had come to represent the collapse of Armenia’s economy or had become a reminder of times of employment and easier living, or maybe 1997 was just not a good time to be reminiscing about Western Armenia.
Dismantling Lenin’s statue, 1991.
Azizbekov Square in Yerevan.
Ghukas Ghukasyan’s statue at the former Ghukasyan park, now Student’s park.
The Worker was unveiled in 1984, dismantled in 1997.
Another problem with statues and monuments is oversaturation, or crowding of imagery and symbolism. Arevshatyan explains, “it happened a couple of times during the Soviet Union; during Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Symbolism needs space and when symbolic representations are placed too close to each other, by the sheer fact of their proximity, they are viewed in relation to one another and the result is an awkward new context.”
Try to read the city through its statues and monuments, there certainly is an accumulation of contexts, at least in central Yerevan. Take just one part of the circular park, there is the writer Mikael Nalbandyan, the alleyway of diasporan philanthropists, then there is the monument to the friendship of Russian and Armenian people, opposite is the monument honoring the Assyrian Genocide. Walk a couple of meters and there is the famous Armenian painter Hovhaness Ayvazovski; cross the street and there is the poet Avedik Isahakyan, the hands symbolizing Armenian-Italian friendship, across from there another poet, Vahan Teryan. Look to the left there is the monument in honor of the victims of the Holocaust and the Genocide… not counting the ones that were left of out the list. There is the woman (another collective representation of the female sex), a tree of life… All of this within a ten minute walk.
The saturation of urban space with symbolism with no consideration for the right placement of the monument, the size, the style is exactly what will make the surrounding work against the monument, says Arevshatyan.
“Take Aram Manukyan’s, Admiral Isakov’s, Hovhaness Ayvazovski’s statues, all these statues try to reproduce the aesthetics of Soviet Monumentalism. But the aesthetics came with its own social, political and economic context,” Arevshatyan explains. “When the context is not there any more, the use of the derivative aesthetic of that specific context is pointless. New work becomes a copy of the copy, this is the issue. This is where we most often seen banal, almost anecdotal symbolism, when you get a statue of Aram Manukyan emerging from tricolored bundle.”
It should also be noted that the placement of the statue did not go without severe criticism either; the statue of the Founder of the First Armenian Republic was erected literally on the Soviet Modernist complex of the Republic Square Metro Station, the work of famous architects Jim Torosyan and Mkrtich Minasyan.
Collision of Stereotypes & Statues
Contrary to the heavy, monumental placement of Soviet style statues, it is interesting to observe the lives of moving statues; the experience of the personal collection of statues of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts (CCA) that are placed with no “political” context in the center of Yerevan.
“Society continues to perceive statues as ideological tools, these statues have an important characteristic, they are not static, they constantly change their place. This is an important feature but one that is hard for society to grasp. How can a statue be treated like a house on wheels that be moved from one corner to the other? This is an example of the deep cultural conflict that happens when you maintain the post-Soviet perception of things,” says Arevshatyan. “Regardless of whether or not you like them, these statues have become the conjunction where the statue and the public’s stereotypes about statues collide.”
On the eleventh minute of the walk from Nalbandyan’s statue through the circular park there is the latest addition to the statues of Yerevan, unveiled on August 23, 2018, is a statue of the Armenian shepherd dog, the Gampr, a gift from the Armenians of Amsterdam to the Yerevan on the occasion of the 2800 anniversary of the city. The Gamper is meant to protect the city as it has protected Armenian families and their livestock for centuries.
The majority of statues in Yerevan look like bookmarks inserted to remind society of values and people from the past, three dimensional reminders of history, tools for education. This begs the question, is there room or demand for statues to also do what in art is their privilege – push the boundaries of form and imagination, tell about human sentiment and a vision of the future?
In July 2015, I met the urban planner Vladimir (Lado) Vardosanidze in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall, a round, glass-plated building located at the convergence of a bewildering traffic pattern where two multilane one-way streets combine in a swirl of traffic to form a bidirectional road that becomes the main drag in Tbilisi’s downtown. Lado, a spry seventy-year-old professor with specializations in urban planning, architecture, and culture, greeted me with a smile and told me that he had selected this location to meet because he wanted to point out some features of the urban landscape that were indicative of larger trends in the development of Georgia’s capital city. This area, he told me, was nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle because of the erratic traffic patterns that render it particularly dangerous for pedestrians. As we walked toward his home office nearby, Lado drew my attention to a variety of sidewalk hazards: a set of plastic bollards that had been cut off at the base to allow cars to park on the sidewalk, loose and missing bricks in the pavement that made walking treacherous and wheelchair travel impossible, and a kiosk situated so close to the curb by a bus stop that it forced riders to wait on the street rather than the sidewalk, with the sharp edge of its exterior metal counter positioned at eye-level overhanging the ramp from sidewalk to street.1 Cars were parked on the sidewalks, and pedestrians dodged traffic to cross the busy street. The boundary between street and sidewalk was at risk of collapsing, and with it, the moral orders that the sidewalk symbolically supported.
Cars have steadily colonized the sidewalks in downtown neighborhoods in Tbilisi since I first visited in 2009. In recent years, the process has intensified. According to Lado, the municipal and cultural acceptance of behaviors such as driving or parking on sidewalks is one of several developments in Tbilisi urbanism since the 1990s that have set new unfortunate precedents. Once established as normative, certain modes of public comportment prove difficult to reverse. Lado contended that many decisions by the local government had ignored urban planning and environmental considerations in crafting Tbilisi’s urban landscape, demonstrating the triumph of private over public interests (Vardosanidze 2003, 2009). After the political instability and economic hardship of the 1990s, the pattern of urban development since 2003 shifted toward the privatization of transportation and a rise in what some critics have termed “investor urbanism” (Van Assche and Salukvadze 2013, 94). Following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement (UNM) ousted Eduard Shevardnadze and came to power, implementing changes to the built environment as a means to remake public perception. Transformations of public space, such as the construction of glass police stations meant to symbolize transparency, have provoked scholarly inquiries into the political and social significance of the broader project that is afoot in the architectural reshaping of Tbilisi urbanity (Frederiksen 2012; Curro 2015).2 Mundane elements of urban material culture, such as parking, also underwent renovation during the same period. This article focuses on the politics of parking as a way to understand contested visions of the public good taking place at the edges of official, large-scale urban development projects.
The sidewalk bisects public and private life, and as a consequence it has become an enduring trope in narratives about how modernity can be reconstituted. In Georgia, this reconstitution has involved literally standing on cemented layers of the Soviet past, while tempering the meaning of these layers with corporate interests, emerging environmental concerns, and visions of a European material and ideological future for the built environment. Disputes about parking engage fundamental questions about the forms that urban public spaces and transportation systems should take. The conflict between two dominant modes of urban order—vehicle-centered or pedestrian-centered—is a central object of concern for citizens, planners, and urban theorists alike (Jacobs 1961; Berman 1982; Holston 1999). Resolutions, compromises, and redescriptions of this fundamental conflict manifest different perspectives on the functions that sidewalks serve as elements of public space. Although the tension between pedestrianism and automobility has been present in urban modernism since the nineteenth century, in the twenty-first century this conflict has become more pressing as privatization-centered urban growth and a dystopian present of automobility grind against desires for ecological sustainability and urban livability. As this conflict has become more acute around the world, the remaking of the city has received increasing attention: from the promotion of bike lanes, pedestrian zones, and green spaces, to a restructuring of public transportation.
Shame has entered into discourses of urbanism as an instrument of pedestrian activism. For example, members of the Young Greens (Green Party; akhalgazrda mts’vaneebi), launched a campaign against large vehicles called didi jipi = pat’ara ch’uch’u (large jeep = small penis), which targeted SUVs and other large vehicles as signs of conspicuous consumption.3
This shaming campaign connected masculine insecurity with social and environmental disregard. On June 30, 2015, I met with several members of the Young Greens to learn about their organization’s vision and programs. Following the large jeep = small penis campaign, they were working on a policy document focused on transportation in Tbilisi. They defined themselves as a leftist political and activist organization with a broad agenda of political change, in which ecological and transportation issues were just two dimensions. I inquired about why, in recent years, the number of organizations of young people in Tbilisi trying to change urban space had increased and become more visible. One of the members, Stela Namgaladze, offered multiple reasons, including an increase in old and cheap cars (that make it so you “can’t move” on sidewalks), a lack of ecological regulations resulting in greater emissions, and a government under which “young people see that they can express themselves more freely.” She added that “this kind of activism became cooler than it was five years ago . . . but only in terms of this ecological stuff and this urban stuff, not with worker rights or something.” She added that for urban and ecological issues, they could mobilize thousands, whereas other campaigns, such as the May 1 International Workers’ Day events, only attracted a hundred supporters. In reference to the large jeep = small penis campaign, another member of the group emphasized that the proliferation of vehicles in urban space partly resulted from the social status that these vehicles conferred, an association that the campaign sought to challenge.
It is not surprising that affect plays a role in activism. What is distinctive, in this case, is how shame operates to inform, but not determine, the perspectives around which activists mobilize in Tbilisi. Shame draws together a series of asymmetric power relations without catalyzing a particular form of politics against them. As Silvan Tomkins (1995, 139) points out, shame-humiliation “does not renounce the object of identification permanently, whereas contempt-disgust does.”4 Shame, as a dominant affect and discursive hinge in activist interventions, organizes a series of asymmetric power relations, including geopolitical (between Russia and Georgia), modal (between local car-driving elites and proponents of pedestrianism and public transportation), and aspirational (between an imagined European order and a lived urban experience characterized by dismal frictions). While shaming belongs to the domain of environmental activist tactics in many parts of the world, what is notable in this context is that the promotion of pedestrianism, as a seemingly neutral ideology about comportment in public space, is politically underspecified and can therefore be associated with either capitalist or socialist values.
This article draws on fifteen months of fieldwork conducted in Tbilisi in 2009, 2011–2012, and 2015. My perspective on Tbilisi urban life is informed by the traffic, parking, and pedestrian discomforts I witnessed there. The rapid growth of car ownership since the 1990s has exerted pressure on urban infrastructures, as the city was not planned with extensive automobility in mind. Old, cheaply purchased cars crowd the roads, producing environmental strain, road fatalities, noise, and an increasingly congested road and parking system.5 Cars comprise part of a larger infrastructure that the sociologist John Urry (2004) has termed “automobility,” or what Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez (2010, xi) term the “car system” (see also Lutz 2014).6 Within the Tbilisi car system, I found that contestations over sidewalk space revealed a moral underpinning to the banality of parking. In the media, political discourse, or casual discussion among friends and acquaintances, conversations about sidewalks quickly turned to the moral qualities that the city has engendered in its citizens. What seemed like a chaotic collapse of sidewalk order gave rise to a host of responses about the primacy of certain material and social practices as pathways, literally and figuratively, to civilizational modernity (or what Saakashvili, in a speech in 2013, referred to as Georgia’s “European destiny”). Like much of the public symbolic repertoire in Tbilisi, sidewalks function as a prism refracting the neoliberal cityscape through the mixed legacies of Soviet modernism.
In what follows I first describe some of the frictions in Tbilisi’s car-and-sidewalk system that have emerged from the juxtaposed logics and legacies of liberal and socialist urbanism. I then focus on two authorities that organize public parking in the contested zone of the sidewalk in Tbilisi: the corporate parking company CT Park and self-appointed parking attendants. The afterlife of socialist urbanism has resulted in a situation in which different institutions of parking order coexist, for the moment, under the pressures of an expanding car system. In the final section, I analyze how pedestrian activists in postsocialist space share forms of engagement by connecting the Georgian case with the contemporaneous Stopkham (“Stop a Douchebag”) campaign in Moscow, Russia. Activists attempt to redirect their frustration and sense of shame toward obnoxious drivers, transforming imagined global hierarchies into admonitions about failures of personal responsibility. The comparison between Russian and Georgian activists demonstrates an emerging sensibility of pedestrian rights across postsocialist spaces. Even as Georgian activists recognize a substrate of commonality with Russian activists, they are careful to disavow direct Russian influence on the strategies they adopt.
SIDEWALKS IN SOCIALIST MODERNITY
Sidewalks show the economic, political, and social stakes of the public good at a different scale than other transportation infrastructures, such as roads and highways. The adjacency of the sidewalk and the road has meant that the tropes each engages (such as freedom, connectivity, and movement) work in parallel.7 Social-scientific scholarship on the sidewalk has registered the power relations, ideological orientations, and imaginative and affective parallels among the various institutions and actors that exert influence over the contours of public space. Jane Jacobs (1961, 29) famously wrote that sidewalks, the “pedestrian parts” of the streets, “serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians.” Research on sidewalks has stressed their multiplicity of functions, particularly as domains of commerce, mobility, and sociality (Duneier 1999; Kim 2015; Goldstein 2016). Much of the literature on urban design celebrates the multifunctional, crowded sidewalk as a source of enjoyment and prosocial frisson, providing what William Whyte (2000, 242) termed “vital frictions.” By contrast, I concentrate on the negative dimensions, or dismal friction, of Tbilisi’s sidewalks as infrastructure elicits shame and provokes debate about what constitutes the public good.8 As the car system’s demands exceed the capacities of infrastructure constructed during the socialist era, the public/private distinction comes under stress in architectural zones like the sidewalk, spaces that have fallen outside the main foci of research on architecture and material culture.9
The sidewalk represents a crucial zone for ethnographic attention and anthropological theorization because it is the ground on which memories of past urbanisms accrue and claims to potential future urbanisms are staged. The case of Tbilisi epitomizes the contested status of the sidewalk, where certain social actors see it as a space for the growth of commerce and parking, whereas others are fighting to promote pedestrianism by restricting automobility. The idiom of personal freedom, which provided a rationale for the growth of automobile use, also forms the basis for activist contestations of the resultant car-crowded sidewalk space. Pedestrian activists describe the inferiority of Tbilisi street-and-sidewalk spaces with reference to what they imagine to be superior “European” modes of order, predicated on sharp boundaries. At the same time, they recognize that European cities, too, are struggling with automobility and its discontents. A new set of solutions must transcend, rather than recapitulate sharp divisions between what Fernando Rubio and Uriel Fogué (2013, 1037) have described as the political surface of human relations and domesticated nature, on the one hand, and the black-boxed subpolitical spheres of infrastructure, on the other. In Tbilisi, aspirations to pedestrianism risk appearing either as a return to a form of failed socialist modernity or as an anachronistic imitation of European modernity. Because pedestrianism does not have a clear political anchor in the Georgian context, it is a signifier with a mutable relationship to the utopian visions of socialism that the sidewalks in Tbilisi once served. Without a positive ideal, the pedestrian activist project lingers in contradiction: it is a campaign of hope conducted in the negative.
The present-day dismal friction of Tbilisi sidewalks is rooted in an uneasy relationship to twentieth-century state socialism, which incorporated many material and ideological elements from the nineteenth-century European liberal city. This included the street-and-sidewalk complex as a manifestation and index of modernity. Writing about the taken-for-granted dimensions of the logics of sidewalk infrastructure, the geographer Nicholas Blomley (2011, 36) argues that “pedestrianism” holds the facilitation of mobility as the self-evident rationale for the orderly sidewalk.10 He contends that pedestrianism, as a logic of circulation that focuses on the entanglements of people and things rather than primarily on the human subject, departs from the commitments of civic humanism that scholars of urbanism have mobilized for understanding the production, regulation, and evaluation of public spaces. Blomley (2011, 47) interprets the genealogy of the modern European and North American street-and-sidewalk complex in terms of fashioning a “nebulous collective end of the ‘public good,’” rather than of the individual liberal subject. Meanwhile, the historians Patrick Joyce (2003) and Chris Otter (2007), also working within frameworks that emphasize materiality and technology, have described how the Victorian city street enabled forms of governance and subjecthood. Developing and displaying civility in the Victorian city involved crafting “public spaces conducive to the exercise of clear, controlled perception: wide streets, squares, and parks” (Otter 2002, 3). Blomley’s view is compatible with Joyce and Otter’s arguments about liberal subjecthood in this crucial way: the design features of the modern liberal city can be mobilized by engineers and other municipal actors to generate an abstract principle (circulation) for an abstract collective (the public), while at the same time producing certain modes of liberal subjecthood. Pedestrianism, as a seemingly neutral, apolitical rationale for public space as a zone of circulation, can be mobilized to support differing concepts of the public good under socialism and modern liberalism. In Georgia, new impingements on pedestrian mobility have catalyzed discourses of entitlement about the use of public space, thereby prompting the specification of a previously nebulous public good. Rather than approach the issue through the lenses of legal dispute or expert discourse, I focus here on popular discourses about what has gone wrong with cars and sidewalks in Georgia and what might be done to set things right.
Contestation about how to reconcile the inheritances of the European liberal city and their refraction through socialist modernism has been a hallmark of the postsocialist order (Manning 2009a). The Georgian experience of liberal modernity, moreover, was filtered through socialist modernity (though the two are, as one reviewer of this article put it, “uncanny doppelgängers”). The sidewalk-and-street infrastructure of contemporary Tbilisi is a product of socialist modernity, as the transport network was Soviet-made (Van Assche and Salukvadze 2013; Salukvadze and Golubchikov 2016). The organizing ideological principles of the neoliberal postmodern order in Georgia exhibit inheritances from liberalism, which enabled ruling through freedom (Joyce 2003) via technosocial affordances of a built environment that was organized around clear vision, movement, civility, and socialism. Under socialism, the inculcation of interior moral dispositions was achieved in part through the doctrine of kul’turnost’ (culturedness), which offered a system of exterior, material forms allowing one to express one’s civilized status and encompassing both private domestic spaces like apartments and public spaces like parks (Dunham 1990; Fitzpatrick 1992; Boym 1994, 102–106; Kelly and Volkov 1998; Volkov 2000). The forms and social meanings of kul’turnost’ changed over time. Kul’turnost’, as a “program for proper conduct in public” (Dunham 1990, 22), represented Soviet ways of displaying and interpreting the material world as expressive of moral qualities related to civilizational ideals. One of the postsocialist legacies of kul’turnost’ was the notion that sidewalks, and the ways that one comported oneself on them, constituted symbols of a moral order. Kul’turnost’ provided a template with which to understand diverse practices of consumption and comportment as constitutive of embodied civilizational modernity.
New corporeal competencies proved to be crucial components of urban space, as car and pedestrian instructional texts and warnings attest. The wide sidewalks that flank major avenues were once conducive to a pedestrian culture that embodied what Joyce (2003, 213–15) has termed “liberal walking.”
TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY SIDEWALK ORDERS
The conditions of Tbilisi’s present-day street-and-sidewalk system reflect an acceleration of investor urbanism, which has exacerbated and made visible tensions among different aspirations toward urban harmony. Many sidewalks operate according to a de facto model of shared space, one often experienced as dismal friction, reducing pedestrian enjoyment of the city.11 Wide sidewalks on Rustaveli Avenue, once intended to support a pedestrian culture, have now been overtaken by outdoor seating for restaurants and cafés. Elsewhere, as on Chavchavadze Avenue, sidewalks have provided the space for an expansion of the parking system. Cafés are potent symbols of the everyday infrastructures of sociability under modernity (Manning 2013). But installing a café does not suffice to ensure the creation of European-type sociality. Activities on the sidewalks outside cafés and other places of commerce also contribute to the forms of sociality that the city engenders. The Saakashvili-era government targeted merchants, as unwanted social pollutants, for removal from public spaces like these (Rekhviashvili 2015). Outdoor seating for cafés, like automobile parking on sidewalks, can function either as a sign of affluence and freedom or of waste and selfishness.12 In Tbilisi, the perimeters of restaurants and roads have expanded, engulfing the sidewalk archipelagos that lie vulnerable between them.
The colonization of the sidewalk by cars has not occurred evenly throughout the city; instead, it has concentrated in areas of commerce. Certain areas of Tbilisi, including much of the downtown strip of Rustaveli Avenue and Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, are designed with physical barricades to prevent cars from invading the sidewalks. Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue underwent major renovations beginning in 2010. Then president Saakashvili said about these renovations: “This area most resembles Paris, and we will make it look like Paris” (Kirtzkhalia 2010). The resemblance to Paris, however, remains purely aspirational.13 A more accurate analogy would be to Saint Petersburg, but Saakashvili’s distaste for Russianness precluded such a comparison. Installing bollards that firmed up the boundaries of street and sidewalk was one element of the project intended to make Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue look like Paris. Barricades include waist-high metal posts, elevated flowerbeds, and small trees. Such demarcation is modeled on an imagined European city in which the respective worlds of car and human remain clearly marked off from one another. When a recent renovation program on Davit Aghmashenebeli was finished in 2016, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili remarked at the opening that “the price of the real estate has shot up fivefold . . . this will be one of the most attractive districts in Tbilisi for all tourists” (Georgia NewsDay 2016). The most carefully controlled pedestrian zones in Tbilisi are those that are intended to be tourist-friendly shopping areas. These zones are fashioned as European spaces conducive to orderly forms of commerce. Distinct conduits for pedestrian and automotive movement, with a backdrop of leisurely commerce, are interpreted as signs of Europeanness.
Within the ecology of transportation infrastructure in Tbilisi, another factor that has contributed to a predominance of cars is the class-linked devaluation of public transportation. In Tbilisi, many who have aspirations of upward mobility avoid public transportation, including metros, minibuses, and buses, in favor of private cars or taxis. One afternoon on Kostava Street, I counted as forty taxis drove by in one minute. The ubiquity of the taxi is connected to its special status as semipublic and semiprivate, symbolizing multiple forms of freedom, including commerce, movement, and distance from other commuters. Public transportation, including the metro, constitutes an infrastructure of public life in which there was considerable investment under socialism (Jenks 2000). In the postsocialist world, narratives about human potential have been tethered to transport, as Alaina Lemon (2000, 2015) has described in the forms of order and disorder attached to the Moscow metro. In Tbilisi, this has meant that the metro, as a socialist-era infrastructure, has diminished in status, having become associated with low social class as a consequence of an expanding car culture. As Inga Grdzelishvili and Roger Sathre (2011, 44) argue, based on a survey of more than three hundred transportation users in Tbilisi, combating the growth of an increasingly “car-oriented culture” depends on “making public transportation options competitive with the perceived advantages of the car.”
PARKING CHAOS AND CORPORATE ORDER
Frustration, dissatisfaction, and shame emerge against the backdrop of large-scale changes in the ways that a growing car culture has impacted street-and-sidewalk order. For this reason, it is important to take stock of who controls parking in Tbilisi, and how public and governmental actors have assumed responsibility for sidewalk governance. Parking politics offer a lens onto disputes about the public good. In 2007, a private group called CT Park signed a contract to serve as the exclusive parking-management company in Tbilisi until 2022. The company’s practices provoked public frustration and a new focus on the forms of authority governing street and sidewalk parking. Parking politics in Tbilisi also open a window onto contests for control among actors including the municipal government, CT Park, and a fleet of self-appointed parking attendants (st’aianshik’ebi) who direct cars into spots on the sidewalk and street for spare change.14 A holistic account of parking labor must take into account the uneven relationship between CT Park and the st’aianshik’ebi, who operate around, and at times within, the official zones of CT Park.
St’aianshik’ebi, who have existed in Tbilisi at least since the 1990s, represent an entrenched form of parking organization that operates alongside yet out of the control of the painted lines, metal signs, and ticketing mechanisms of CT Park. Because they manage to work alongside CT Park in a fashion that solves the immediate problem of where to put cars without creating new material infrastructure, st’aianshik’ebi have fallen outside of activist, political, and corporate concern. They are mediators, filling the gaps between multiple, overlapping systems and temporarily resolving the contradictions among them.15
In a pathbreaking article on the anthropology of parking, Liviu Chelcea and Ioana Iancu (2015) describe self-appointed parking attendants (parcagii) in the Romanian context, offering a portrait of parcagii as human laborers who function as infrastructure (cf. Simone 2004). Like the parcagii in Bucharest, st’aianshik’ebi in Tbilisi command a strip of pavement in areas of downtown that are tourist or work destinations—and hence car destinations. Attired in the weathered garments of the urban poor, they are identifiable by a bright neon sash or a loosely fitting neon vest. They often wield a white baton, modified with electrical tape or neon strips to enhance visibility. Their interactions with drivers consist primarily of directing drivers into empty parking spots, whether in makeshift lots on the sidewalk and edges of the street or in official CT Park spaces, after which they solicit donations in the form of spare change. Some English-speaking expatriates refer to st’aianshik’ebi as the “modi-men,” because they say modi, modi! (“come, come!”) to beckon drivers into free spots, particularly when apprehensive drivers in conditions of low visibility halt before backing up far enough. St’aianshik’ebi engage in other traffic services for regular customers, such as reserving spots and coordinating situations of double-parking or other parking maneuvers (cf. Chelcea and Iancu 2015, 66–67). Unlike in Bucharest, many of the self-appointed parking attendants in Tbilisi have a reputation for alcoholism, and it is not uncommon to find parking attendants who drink on the job.
Citizens as well as governmental officials have criticized CT Park. Aliko Elisashvili, a member of the city council, vocally reprimanded CT Park for the way the company has handled city parking. In 2014, Elisashvili even pursued an annulment of the city’s contract with CT Park. Mayor Davit Narmania, who was elected in 2014 and served until November 2017, has also been critical of the company.16 In a television interview, Narmania asserted, for example, that CT Park profits from the chaotic parking culture in Tbilisi but does nothing to improve it. “I’ll put it plainly,” he said, “CT Park will not remain in Tbilisi for long.” Yet canceling the contract with CT Park would cost an estimated 25 million Georgian lari (about US$10 million), exceeding what the local budget can supply. City Hall has sought renegotiation on several points of the original contract, while stopping short of proposing an annulment. In January 2015, Mayor Narmania announced that a new multilevel parking structure would be built in Tbilisi, one that would serve as a competitor to CT Park. Speaking to a journalist, Narmania said: “As for City Park’s fate, it currently remains unsettled” (Agenda.ge 2015). Later that year, the Georgian Parliament approved changes to parking laws that reduced the range of cases for which CT Park could tow vehicles.
A few months later, my friend Ilia17 and I conducted a telephone interview with a public relations representative from CT Park, Levan Tabidze. We inquired about why the organization had developed a negative reputation. Tabidze answered in this way:
First of all, there is no parking organization in the world where most people meet such an organization positively, as [such an organization] is associated with fines and taking cars away. It is associated with the negative. The kindness that this organization does nobody recognizes. . . . Let me give you a very simple example. I live in Vake. . . . I remember what chaos there was in my nearby street in terms of parking. Since CT Park entered the market and established the rule that cars can be parked on the left and not on the right, the traffic is more simplified now and is not so complicated. Even pedestrians, who can walk on the sidewalks normally nowadays, they don’t remember this. . . . We must also take into account the situation in Georgia before. We drew a city map of Tbilisi and the plan of how and where to draw the parking lines, we planned the city, we put up the signs—as for the [no parking] sign, there was none in the city. There were no parking methods, which we have nowadays. There was total chaos in the city, and nobody responded to it. We didn’t have parking problems resolved over the years, we didn’t have parking culture itself at all. There were no parking problems in the Soviet Union at all, and in the 1990s everything was ruined and complete chaos was set up. And from the 1990s up to 2007 the number of cars increased tenfold, and CT Park started to clean up this chaos.
Tabidze argued that parking problems did not exist in the Soviet Union. Once automobility intensified in the 1990s, CT Park stepped in to create parking order from “chaos.” The swirl of public, activist, and governmental discontent with the “parking culture” promulgated by CT Park raised questions about its efficacy. Meanwhile, CT Park policed only the zones in which they had been granted jurisdiction. In many other parts of the city, cars roamed freely.
Right before we interviewed Levan, a neighbor called to let Ilia know that his car, which was illegally parked on an adjacent street, was being ticketed. When Ilia came back inside after moving the car, I asked him how the ticketing system worked. He showed me the online CT Park interface, where customers could check and pay for their fines. I noticed that his account had eight unpaid fines. When I asked about this, he remarked that he would never pay them. This reaction reminded me of what James Scott (1985) calls the “weapons of the weak,” forms of everyday resistance available to the relatively powerless. Yet CT Park, as a private organization without widespread popular or governmental support, was also relatively powerless. Ilia did not consider the organization’s authority over parking legitimate, and was unconcerned about the possibility of CT Park’s retribution. He told me that CT Park mailed tickets in hard copy, but Ilia refused to accept the mail. The mailman understood Ilia’s refusal and would simply return the CT Park tickets, indicating that the intended recipient was not home.
THE STOPKHAM CAMPAIGN IN RUSSIA
Georgian activists and politicians alike hold a Euro-normative conception of modernity as an aspirational target for Tbilisi, even if they may disagree on the forms its material infrastructures ought to take. For Georgian activists, Russian influence, even in the form of inspiration for social action, is undesirable in part because of associations with the Soviet past. Russia figures as a second-order version of modernity, and many distance themselves from deploying signs of Russianness, as they call up the history of hierarchy in which Georgia held a subordinate political and cultural position. In an example of this insistence on Georgian difference, a pedestrian rights organization called iare pekhit (literally, “go by foot”) released a YouTube video in April 2015 that discussed the genesis and goals of their sidewalk social activism.18 In this video, called “vin aris Anonymous Georgian?” (Who is Anonymous Georgian?), a masked person called Anonymous Georgian introduces him or herself as a chveulebrivi mokalake (a regular citizen) and goes on to narrate the video in a low voice modulated to conceal the speaker’s identity.19 Anonymous Georgian describes how the idea of putting flyers on cars arose as a reaction to the parking and traffic problems in Tbilisi. The speaker refers to another activist who curates an online repository of photos of drivers in violation of rules (the Facebook page is called gaitsanit samartskhvino mdzgholebi [meet shameless drivers]), and says that Anonymous Georgian had likewise begun making videos of drivers, even going so far as blocking cars from passing on the sidewalk. Then the narrator makes a connection to the practices of Stopkham in Russia: “When I said this idea [of blocking the sidewalk] loudly, someone sent me a link to Stopkham. Some also accused me of plagiarizing Stopkham, but that is not so. I heard about the existence of Stopkham at the end.”
What is Stopkham? In Russia, drivers have taken to the sidewalks to circumnavigate congested roads. The Stopkham (“Stop a Douchebag”) campaign began in Moscow in 2010. The group, founded by Dmitry Chugunov, is a government-sponsored organization that spun off from the controversial pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. According to the journalist Eva Hartog (2016), Stopkham received about 18 million Russian rubles (US$300,000) in federal grants between 2013 and 2015. The concept behind Stopkham is that a group of citizens prevent motorists from driving on sidewalks by physically standing in the way and then, if motorists persist, as they often do, affixing large stickers to their windshields. They also affix stickers to cars whose drivers violate other traffic regulations, such as double-parking or parking in inappropriate locations. The stickers say mne plevat’ na vsekh / parkuyus’ gde khochu (I don’t care about others / I park where I want) or, for those driving on sidewalks, mne plevat’ na vsekh / ezzhu kak khochu (I don’t care about others / I drive how I want).
These encounters with so-called douchebags are video-recorded, edited with an electronic music soundtrack, and uploaded to YouTube.20 Aside from providing a valuable repository for students of Russian swearing (mat), these videos, some of which have millions of views, are demonstrations of a new form of vigilante justice in action.
In addition to the entertainment value of these videos, the recordings also show how activists have intervened in public space to police the public/private divide. Upon discovering that the activists and the Stopkham stickers will not budge, drivers often scream that Stopkham is encroaching on their chastnaya sobstvennost’ (private property) or, more simply, their sobstvennost’ (property). The calculated indifference that members of Stopkham express at this sentiment reflects their mission to preserve the sidewalk as a domain for public, pedestrian movement. Their campaign assails the sanctity of the private vehicle by lacquering it with stickers. In a way, the Stopkham campaign refuses a nesting of the public and private. The same logic holds true for Stopkham antismoking videos, in which the activists extinguish pedestrians’ cigarettes with a spray bottle, thereby refusing to acknowledge the smoker as freely passing through public space in a private bubble. They treat smoking as a violation of standards of publicness. The Stopkhamcampaign thus contests the rights of private properties to pass or waft through the public space of the sidewalk.21
This form of activism is noteworthy as much for its innovative use of social media as for its focus on the public/private distinction as a crucial site of societal transformation. Though the teleology it presupposes is no longer from capitalist to socialist, the Stopkhamcampaign asserts boundaries between public and private property in ways that are reminiscent of earlier utopian projects of social transformation.22 For Stopkham, the target of transformation is renegade private property that rolls over curbs and down pedestrian paths. Such actions taken against private impingements on public space, however, should not be understood as reflecting a straightforward political position. Targeting the excesses of automobility, even if activists do not frame it in these terms, suggests that such excesses are the signs of a moral boundary has been crossed.23 Social actors who seek to transform urban parking culture by targeting excesses, through policy or advocacy, define modes of desirable (or adequate) urbanity in the process. The moral order that the Stopkham campaign asserts does not present a positive ideal, but mobilizes negative correctives against certain private behaviors that impinge on shared public space.
Such public shaming tactics raise the question: how are shame and freedom related in the liberal tradition of the city? Activists hope that shaming a douchebag driver will rebalance the pedestrian-versus-vehicle divide in a way that affords more freedom to the walking subject. But drivers, too, assert that their own freedoms are being impinged upon. In the Russian case, it is the state that restricts certain car freedoms in order to promote pedestrian freedoms. The Georgian state, by contrast, has ceded parking authority to CT Park, with poor results. With that, I return to the Georgian case to provide more detail on the contours of pedestrian activism and shame.
As the parking system expands, how do social actors envision new urban harmonies? In addition to being a generative topic of complaint in everyday conversation, the filling of sidewalk space with cars has also served as a point of critique for a variety of activist organizations. Here, I highlight the pedestrian rights organization iare pekhit.24Challenging uses of sidewalk space in Georgia, as activists have increasingly done over the past decade, has involved redefining publicness through the figure of the pedestrian, whose ambulatory paths have faced a changing bevy of obstructions including other people. The primary tension that has come to the fore in protests is the conflicted cultural symbolism of the personal automobile: a sign of comfort and individual prosperity, but also of disregard for pedestrians and the environment. Signs of prosperity are impoverishing pedestrian life. As cars circulate along sidewalks, activists have concentrated their work on defining and policing the threshold where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.
To describe models of the city to which Tbilisi might aspire, social actors often refer to other real or imagined urban landscapes in the manner of collage, fashioning a discursive composite of places such as Barcelona, Shanghai, Berlin, and Paris, as if they possessed a common denominator. The templates of imagined order to which activists appeal discursively combine diverse postmodern cities into a placeless modern composite, for which the car-free walking subject constitutes the centerpiece of urban life. In one example, Elene Margvelashvili, the then leader of iare pekhit, said in an interview that she wanted to meet Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, because in her view Peñalosa had managed to change public perception of pedestrian rights.25 Government officials and activists alike positioned Tbilisi uneasily amid a palette of eclectic, incommensurate modern elsewheres. Later in the same interview, when asked what her dream is for iare pekhit, Margvelashvili replied:
A city that fosters human dignity and respect, development, a sense of freedom. But a sense of freedom that stands a lot higher than your personal freedom. A sense of a community, equality, and just, you know, a cool city, where you really do enjoy your time outside. Because I miss this so much that sometimes I just want to rush out of Tbilisi and go to somewhere like Berlin where I can just lie down in a big park and just enjoy my day, which is something impossible in Tbilisi today. So yeah, European city [laughs].
Here, Margvelashvili simultaneously invests Tbilisi with aspirational resemblances to Bogotá and Berlin.26 In another interview, in response to a question about how people can help, Margvelashvili replied that what her organization needed was “foreign experience.”27She went on:
Many countries in Europe have managed to convince their government and managed to stop this unbreakable cycle of turning cities into places not for humans but for something else, for making money, for business, for prosperity of higher levels, for higher-income people and communities.
The sentiment that cities are turning into environments hospitable only to businesses, not people, serves as a reminder that iare pekhit centers the pedestrian in its reimagining of the street. Margvelashvili’s concern that Tbilisi was becoming a city “for making money” rather than one for “humans” also contained a critique of emergent class divisions. The relationship between pedestrian life and class divisions begs the question of how organizations like iare pekhit deal with the legacy of the Soviet past, as the Soviet reformulation of public space was also intended to disrupt class divisions. Margvelashvili’s solution was to selectively borrow from the Soviet past, rather than framing it as a nostalgic ideal. In the earlier interview, she simultaneously praised and criticized the Soviet experience for imbuing and depriving citizens of a “sense of community”:
This sense of community, which should be there, because the Soviet Union was actually very community-oriented, is not there. Because what the Soviet Union, I think, killed in our community is the sense that one person is responsible for the common good, and can actually contribute to the common good. This understanding was not there because everything belongs to everybody, and this responsibility of every single person to do something for the general development, for the general well-being, is not there. So this is where education should come in, and this sense of, you know, civic engagement, civic responsibility, the responsibility of every person to do good, not just in terms of pedestrian issues.
Margvelashvili does not provide an explanation of what the problem with the “community-oriented” Soviet Union was. Instead, she uses the Soviet era as a reference point to discuss the personal and community responsibility that education must address. The class politics of this vision for freedom and responsibility in urban space remain unclear. Perhaps she meant to suggest that the Soviet experience valued the right thing (“community”) but in the wrong way, or with the wrong effects. Referring to an array of urban places that have supposedly achieved a higher level of civilizational modernity than Tbilisi also served as a way to describe Georgia’s capital in terms of a state of comparative lack. Even though Margvelashvili’s comparisons included urban centers in South America and Asia, she nevertheless referred to these places with the shorthand of “European.” It is as though Europe were a roulette wheel on which it would be a privilege for Georgia to fall, regardless of the particular tile.
Redescriptions of an idealized past often form the basis for claims about future political trajectories (Gotfredsen 2014; Khalvashi 2015). As Katrine Bendtsen Gotfredsen (2014, 251) has discussed, under Saakashvili, an unambiguous rhetoric of development and prosperity was constructed as an antithesis to the Soviet past. Preindustrial, Soviet modernist, and capitalist European forms served as reference points in narratives about clashes of values in the present. In Tbilisi, pedestrianism is not a return to an imagined harmonious past, but a new mode of order resonant with European forms. Reasserting boundaries, which activists imagine as a form of European order, stands as a mode of anachronistic imagining—but one without a clear relationship to the Soviet past.
A variety of other organizations in addition to iare pekhit are invested in so-called eco-urbanism in Tbilisi, harboring broad agendas for political and social change. My final example comes from a group called aighe kalaki (“take the city”), which promoted the construction of planters as makeshift sidewalk bollards. The group created a YouTube instructional video in which they describe how to craft bollards from car tires. In the video, group members fabricate bollards on Tbilisi streets with a portable lamp illuminating their work in the dark. This type of time-consuming DIY intervention straddles art and utility. The video ends with a shot of the completed bollards, standing on an otherwise empty sidewalk. Superimposed text reads daik’ave q’vela t’rot’uari! (Occupy all the sidewalks!). Like the Anonymous reference in the campaign by iare pekhit, this form of Occupy-style messaging links sidewalk politics to international protest movements. Tires filled with potted plants are more than barriers to cars: their digital representations are signs of belonging in an era of mediatized protest.
CONCLUSION: Walking into Modernity
The public shaming tactics that I have described—campaigns insisting that SUV drivers have small penises, or posting pictures of instances of rude driving and parking online, or extinguishing cigarettes with spray bottles—are intended to catalyze self-regulation on the part of their targets. They form part of a broader moral policing of how automobility has allowed public space to become invaded by a swarm of mobile metal private spheres. Self-regulation is taken as the mark of a modern, ethical liberal subject, as well as its socialist twin. Another aspect of the use of such tactics, however, is that they are designed to catalyze an affective response, and in doing so, to function as a means of exerting power over the target. As performative acts, such shaming tactics may accomplish a wide variety of ends, including occupying, insulting, threatening, and refusing. While shaming campaigns may generate reflection on the boundaries of acceptable public comportment, the more immediate activist goal is to generate attention and discomfort. Martha Nussbaum (2004, 15) describes shame as “normatively unreliable” as a punitive measure, in part because of the indeterminacy of its effects on subjects.28 In the context of social activism, though, the indeterminacy of shame’s effects can be beneficial insofar as the goal is to stir up sentiments, rather than to settle new norms of behavior.
In Tbilisi, emerging contests over parking demonstrate how local actors make sense of the aesthetic and economic conditions of urban lack. In response to the erosion of sidewalk boundaries, shame, as the “affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation” (Tomkins 1995, 133), occupies a primary position. One reason for this is that shame emerges in situations of unmet ideals. It operates, as Tamta Khalvashi (2015) has described, as a diffuse but pervasive affect in conditions of peripherality. Activists throughout the world wield shame as an instrument of social change; what is specific to the case of urban Georgia, though, is that shame, as a discursive hinge, joins dimensions of inferiority that exceed a singular politics and do not coalesce into a program with a positive ideal. Rather than offering a cultural-psychological explanation for the appearance of certain affects, then, I have focused in this article on how a series of interrelated conditions shape the particular contours and transformations of shame in urban postsocialist activism. As precipitated in encounters with material infrastructure, shame articulates a sense of comparative lack. In turn, activists minimize their experience of this negative affect by redirecting it toward inconsiderate drivers, thereby converting it into a tool of public good. Restoring or preserving the pedestrian function of the sidewalk is framed as a way to keep civility and personal dignity intact. Without a consensus about the ideal form of public good or an agreed-upon balance among logics of automobility, pedestrianism, and public transportation, a circuit of negative affect remains open. The lack of consensus about the shape of the public good remains an underlying cause of the dismal friction of Tbilisi’s urban condition. Pedestrian activists’ rhetoric about the desirability of European boundaries animates unfulfilled modernist dreams and, in so doing, draws attention to the irreparable gaps between the promises of urbanism and the practical realities of investor urbanist development. Furthermore, such rhetoric signals an ambivalence about the meanings of collective and material life in European modernity, encompassing nineteenth-century ideals of pedestrianism and their afterlives.
1. See Hartblay 2017 on practices and discourses around disability access in Russia.
2. Fountains, especially those equipped with amplified music boxes, came to be emblematic features of the urban development that Saakashvili promoted during his presidency (2004–2013). In front of the Concert Hall, for example, a large fountain decorated with a painting of a red rose had been installed. Paul Manning (2009b, 927) argues that the Rose Revolution formed a “culture of erasure, in which western capitalist brands were deployed to banish, once and for all, the last vestiges of socialism.” This erasure was a precondition for the material inscription of a European orientation, which, in turn, was to influence “mentality” (cf. Jones 2006; Curro 2015). For further discussion of the Rose Revolution, see Manning 2007 and Jones 2012.
3. I follow the Apridonidze system of transliteration for Georgian to English, except in the case of personal names and other proper nouns, for which I leave off the diacritic markers in the English transliteration. All translations of Georgian and Russian are my own unless otherwise noted.
4. I follow Silvan Tomkins’s (1995) conceptualization of affect as a motivational system that operates alongside the drives.
5. In Georgia, everyday interactions with the car system reflect the consequences of poverty. In neighboring Azerbaijan, by contrast, the uneven consequences of renovation and hyperbuilding are objects of scrutiny in making sense of aesthetic and economic surplus and its discontents (Grant 2014).
6. Lutz and Lutz Fernandez (2010, xi) define the car system as “a mix of industry, infrastructure, land use, governmental activity, consumer behavior, and habitual processes of daily travel.” I use the terms car system and automobility interchangeably in this article.
7. Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox (2015, 3), in comparison, analyze roads as a mundane infrastructure that allow us to “register histories and expectations of state presence and state neglect.”
9. Scholarship on the links between socialist material culture and ideology has found distinctive footholds either in inner domestic spaces, with housing serving as a preeminent example (see Humphrey 2005), or in the construction of monumental public forms like statues. When semipublic spaces, such as the corridor or courtyard, appear in analyses of socialist and postsocialist architectural forms, they are often positioned as buffer zones between the inner realm of the communal apartment and the outer realm of the public street. Susan Gal (2002) has observed that the public/private distinction constitutes a malleable, shifting mode of oppositions.
10. Blomley’s concept of pedestrianism is not to be confused with competitive speed-walking, a sport popular in the nineteenth century that went by the same name. For an account of recent scholarly work on the social practice of walking, see Lorimer 2011.
12. For a history of the Soviet automobile, including its cultural symbolism, see Siegelbaum 2008.
13. For Georgian modernist conceptions of Paris as an incarnation of the fantastic Western European urban cosmopolitan wished-for homeland, see Manning 2013.
14. The Georgian term st’aianshik’ebi is a calque from the Russian stoyanshchiki, formed from the noun stoyanka (parking).
15. My use of the term mediator echoes Bruno Latour’s (1993, 77–78) opposition between intermediaries, which simply “transfer, transport, and transmit,” and the mediator, which is an “original event and creates what it translates as well as the entities between which it plays the mediating role.” Latour revisits the intermediary/mediator division in Reassembling the Social, where he explains that mediators effect transformations (in meaning) while intermediaries do not: they simply “transport” it (Latour 2015, 39).
16. The newly elected mayor Kakha Kaladze has also spoken out about ongoing public concern over CT Park’s practices and their overall effect on Tbilisi’s parking culture (Morrison 2017).
17. This is a pseudonym selected by the informant. All other names in this article are real.
21. The fate of the Stopkham movement, however, has grown uncertain as participants have enforced traffic laws against political elites, rather than exempting them (Hartog 2016).
22. Susan Gal (2002, 86) points out that the “public/private distinction was . . . directly targeted by communist theorists in the nineteenth century—and by Soviet and, later, East Central European communist parties—as essential points for transforming bourgeois, capitalist society through social engineering.”
24. Iare pekhit was founded by an American named Mark Mullen. In June 2015, I spoke with him about the genesis and goals of the organization. He believed that without the consistent enforcement of parking rules, the problem of sidewalk drivers would remain. Mullen was optimistic that a zero-tolerance policy would fix the traffic problems of Tbilisi. By way of analogy, he described the seat-belt regulation, championed by Vano Merabishvili (minister of internal affairs from 2004 to 2012) as an example of a zero-tolerance policy that created rapid social change. Prior to the regulation, almost no one in Georgia wore a seat belt, but within a matter of weeks, that changed because drivers and passengers were fined 40 lari (about $15 at the time) for not doing so. Nevertheless, cultural obstacles to seat-belt use exist, as refusing a seat belt may be read as a sign of masculinity (Matosyan 2009).
28. Nussbaum (2004, 15) argues that within the context of liberal democracies, there is a variety of reasons “to inhibit shame and protect [liberal society’s] citizens from shaming” as a punitive measure. Nussbaum’s perspective on the use of public shaming is informed by her commitment to political and legal systems that promote human dignity and mutual respect among citizens. For this reason, she favors penalties that promote “reparation and reintegration” (Nussbaum 2004, 233).
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Old stairs and narrow alleys from Proshyan, Saryan, Paronyan and Leo streets lead you into a hidden city within a city. As you enter what appears to be an uncharted world, wooden doors, walls constructed of asymmetric bricks and labyrinthine lanes take you on an adventurous journey to old Yerevan. Residents, with their doors and hearts open, welcome you and often forcibly invite you to have a cup of coffee. While your eyes try to grasp and remember every single intricate detail, they start to tell you the history of their life and proudly proclaim that they are the residents of Kond – the oldest district of Yerevan.
Historically, Kond was one of the three main districts of Yerevan. Perched above the city, it gets its name from the Armenian, which means “long hill.” In the 18th century, the main residents of Kond were Armenians engaged in farming, cattle-breeding and gardening. Later, when Persians and Turks captured Yerevan, the district was renamed Tapabashi (Turkish for “top of the hill”). Throughout the centuries, Kond was one of the most vibrant districts of Yerevan and was home to several ethno-religious groups. Other residents included Boshas or Caucasian/Armenian gypsies. Historian, literary critic and folklorist Yervand Shahazis, in his book about Yerevan (published in 1933) notes that 46 families lived and worked in the territory of Saint John the Baptist Church (Surb Hovhannes) and actively participated in city life. According to ethnographer Hamlet Sargsyan, in 1830 of the 4,300 residents of Kond 1,568 were Armenians, 2,537 Tatars, and 195 Boshas (Caucasian Gypsies).
Kond was also the residence of the aristocratic Melik-Aghamalyan family. According to Shahazis, the family owned numerous buildings and land in the territory of Kond. For several centuries, Surb Hovhannes was known as their ancestral church and the family donated money to rebuild it after it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1679; their name is inscribed on one of the walls of the church. Famous for their participation in several battles in the territory of Yerevan, the Aghamalyans were considered one of the richest and well-known families of Old Yerevan but for the current residents of Kond, the Aghamalyans are famous for their kindness and generous support to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. As Kondetsis recall, the Aghamalyan family provided shelter to the orphans and immigrants from Western Armenia.
However, the descendants of the Aghamalyans suffered tremendously during the Stalin repressions. The last member of the aristocratic family, Sasha Aghamalyan was ousted from his home in Kond during the Stalin purges and died in a small basement apartment.
Currently, there is a gold watch kept in the Yerevan History Museum that was presented to the Melik-Aghamalyans from Russian Tsar Nikolai I for their contribution to the Russian-Persian war. Their princely residence constructed of black tufa stone, standing half-ruined near the entrance of the quarter, is the only reminder of the family’s existence.
Dating back to 1687, the Thapha Bashi mosque, the remnants of which only remain in Kond is listed as a historical monument and is protected by the Armenian state. When Muslims left Armenia in the beginning of the 20th century, the mosque became a residence for many survivors of the Armenian Genocide. One can still see the influence of Persian architecture that fortunately remain intact. As the residents recall, the “huge dome” of the mosque collapsed more than two decades ago, several years after the Spitak Earthquake.
Though one can get lost among the dozens of small and narrow lanes of Kond, the district does have three main streets: Rustaveli, Simeon Yerevantsi and Kond. Many houses are covered in vines, while simple rural-style communal springs appear at corners of its narrow meandering roads.
While the novelty of the district often attracts the curious, residents of Kond feel ignored and abandoned by the municipal and national governments. Conversations with locals reveal widespread discontent with the former authorities who for the most part were not able or refused to address issues faced by the residents – from lack of proper services to poor road conditions. An older woman living in Kond, a supporter of Karen Demirchyan, the late Soviet Armenian leader and native of Kond who became parliament speaker after independence wanted to highlight the socio-economic conditions of the district, hoping for some reaction from municipal authorities.
A Soviet era building now stands entirely abandoned in the middle of Kond. It used to house a library and a pharmacy until it became a dumping ground, just like the public toilet close by.
Like Demirchyan’s parents, many of the residents of Kond are descendants of Western Armenian refugees. Many genocide survivors from Van, Mush, Erzerum and elsewhere settled in Kond after 1915. Though Muslims (mostly Azerbaijanis and Persians) lived in Kond in the early 20th century, only a few remained by the late Soviet period. One resident says he was friends with his Azerbaijani neighbors, some of whom were “thieves in law.” He says Turks, Yazidis, Jews, and Boshas (Gypsies) formerly lived in their quarter.
Harutyun, a 68 year-old retired sculptor, is a typical Kondetsi. “We had several opportunities to leave Kond, but we stayed here,” he said. Named after the resurrection of Jesus (Harutyun is Armenian for resurrection), the old man said he speaks baradi lezu, simple language, staying true to his origins. The locals are well aware of the district’s status as the only surviving part of “old Yerevan.” A local guide, a woman in her 30s, pointed to several houses. “These are from the 1920s. You won’t find buildings this old in Yerevan,” she claimed. A neighbor reacted, “Not 1920s, but older. Both my grandmothers were born in these houses in 1908 and 1912.”
View of Kond, 1909.
The Mosque in Kond, 1923.
Sevada Petrossian, an urban architect who has researched the quarter with fellow architect Sarhat Petrosyan, notes that Kond’s value is not only in its historical buildings, such as Surb Hovhannes, the Persian mosque, the Aghamalyan residence but the fact that the layout of the streets have largely kept their original form from the 18th century. “Moreover, people are the ones who give a distinct local identity to a district,” Petrossian explains. “Kond is one of the rare places in the city where generations have continuously lived.” It is because of this longevity that residents of Kond identify more with their district than with Yerevan.
However, because of the unbearable living conditions – lack of running water, decrepit buildings, outhouses – residents have been trying to reconstruct their homes and as such are altering the original structures, many of which have historical value. While this is destroying the feel, ambience and value of the district’s old buildings, Petrossian understands and notes that “people do not have other options.”
Though there have been plans to reconstruct Kond from as early as the 1930s (according to Alexander Tamanian’s plan for Yerevan) they were never realized. “Tamanian had an idea of a transforming Kond into a museum district, and Kond has always been in the city reconstruction plans,” Petrossian notes.
The last big project for the district was initiated in the 1980s by Karen Demirchyan who wanted to turn it into Yerevan’s Montmartre. Kond was declared eminent domain by the authorities. The large scale initiative that was under the direct supervision of Demirchyan was conducted by young architect, Arshavir Aghekyan. Unfortunately, after the 1988 earthquake and the dire social and economic situation of the country, the project was never finished. After independence, mainly in the 2000s, there were several revitalization projects for Kond which, again, were never realized.
While there are no current plans for redevelopment, Petrossian sees a future for Kond. With minimal investment, the district could become an amazing place, he said. Today, Kond is the only preserved district of Yerevan that has a great potential to become a center for tourism in the capital.
Calvert 22 Foundation curator Will Strong on wrestling buildings from their political pasts
Across the former Soviet Union there are countless examples of monolithic structures rising high from the ground to shelter, collect or govern the citizens living in their shadows.
These strange, sloping forms, concrete parabolic rises and angular designs signify an age of futuristic optimism manifest in the built environment. But what is the relationship between monuments or buildings designed by one regime and passed onto a public for whom that no longer applies? What is their legacy? How are these spaces recontextualised in contemporary society?
Falling into disrepair in the latter days of the Soviet Union, the park is currently the centre of a large city-led regeneration investment programme, renovating the many pavilions that celebrate the scientific and cultural prestige of the former nation.
‘The coherence of this urban ensemble,’ says curator Sergey Kuznetsov, ‘and its necklace of national and thematic pavilions create a territory which is capable of accumulating and multiplying society’s intellectual and cultural energy, and it is this which in the final analysis is helping us win the battle for quality of life.’
Given the recent history of many of these spaces and the complex environment that they came from it’s no wonder they are so fascinating. In Moscow we see grand structures of socialist realism such as the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ statue. Originally designed for the World Fair in 1937 in Paris, it towers over the public platform of VDNKh, designed as ‘a multi-format cultural and educational space, accessible to all’.
Contrast this with the Narkomfin building in Moscow, originally designed as the architectural manifestation of the Soviet ‘social condenser’. It now stands derelict and semi-ruinous at the centre of a commercial dispute over land.
This example presents us with a dichotomy that echoes globally. The safeguarding and abandonment of space at very least raises questions about what the intentions of these buildings were, whom they are for and what agency decides their preservation.
Can space designed with utopian ideals effectively traverse periods of different socio-political orthodoxy? Do these structures belong in contemporary society? VDNKh Urban Phenomenon provides food for thought on the cultural value placed on the inherited architecture from Soviet times.
The film’s four chapters explore landmarks of Soviet constructivist architecture, presenting them as allegories for a contemporary reflection on their utopian intention. Turo gets its name from the word for ‘tower’ in the artificial international language of Esperanto. ‘Each part of the film is a metaphorical tower that gets deconstructed throughout the duration of the chapter,’ says Ginzburg about the work. ‘It still resonates deeply with contemporary culture, but today it exists as an archive of ruins, the record of fragmentation.’
We are guided through Melnikov House, the Narkomfin Building, ZIL (an automobile factory designed by Vesnin brothers, now demolished) and the Monument to the Third International, designed by Vladimir Tatlin but never realised. Ginzburg places the iconic unbuilt structure in the ‘ghost mode’ of a video game, siting this tower in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, famously decimated in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. In Turo, Ginzburg is able to explore the cultural legacy of these real and imagined spaces, from the stage of their own dilapidation.
Each of the four towers stood once as lofty pillars of high modernity, signifiers of an optimistic wave of the Constructivist avant-garde. This is now the vantage point of their critique. Two of the three buildings from the film have at least survived the drastic changes in Moscow following the collapse of the union.