Author Archives: mshiva

Tbilisi from Safavid Persia to Postsocialism

The city of Tbilisi, current capital of the country of Georgia, experienced a turbulent set of changes at the dawn of the modern period, from little more than a mass of ruins in 1795 to the 19th-century political center of the Russian Caucasus to 20th-century capital of Georgia.  This project seeks to understand cities as intrinsically heterogeneous and historically layered objects: many places in one.  Cities are therefore intrinsically “multiple objects” inviting multiple readings.  Our website will treat Tbilisi as an “urban assemblage”, composed of heterogeneous networks of human and nonhuman elements and actors. From these heterogeneous materials and actors are assembled and stabilized “imagined cities”: the traditional “Middle Eastern” city, the divided city of colonialism, the modernist city of infrastructures, the socialist “cultured” city and postsocialist cities haunted by past and future.
To study such an intrinsically heterogeneous object is required an equally heterogeneous approach,  which renders objects as diverse as literary images of the city and material infrastructures comparable and commensurable within stable “urban assemblages”. Following the grant narrative, this website will divide Tbilisi into five such distinct periods: the maps will be linked to each period.

The City of Balconies: Tbilisi

The City of Balconies: elite politics and the changing semiotics of the post-socialist cityscape

Paul Manning

My first experience of Tbilisi was in the spring of 1992, a few short months after the coup that ousted the first post-socialist government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. It also leveled much of a historic portion of the downtown area.  The general who had led the coup, Tengiz Kitovani, had been a sculptor in the socialist period.  As a result, the devastated downtown region became known jokingly at the time as ‘Kitovani’s exhibition’.
The coup against Gamsakhurdia was transformative in its effects on the Georgian city not only in the plastic arts, but also socially.  The emergent political divide between Anti- and Pro-Gamsakhurdia (‘Zviadist’) orientations often boiled down to the inherited cultural division between Tbiliseli ‘Tbilisian’ and provincial Georgian villagers.  The nationalist Gamsakhurdia government’s support was strongest amongst present or erstwhile Georgian villagers, whilst old urbanites, and the urban intelligentsia in particular, ranged themselves against the new government.
The 1992 coup was also a family feud within the socialist intelligentsia: A philologist-dissident-turned-president ousted by a sculptor-turned-general (Kitovani) and a criminal-turned-writer-turned-warlord (Jaba Ioseliani), the coup illustrated emergent and opposed tendencies within the socialist intelligentsia. Different self-conceptions of the urban intelligentsia were, as it were, incarnated in the figures who led this coup.  On the one hand, the coup, in which a sculptor-turned-general ousted a philologist-turned-president, illustrates a public, exoteric, battle over the self-definition of the intelligentsia, an essentially urban, elitist intelligentsia (represented by Kitovani) turning against a provincial or provincializing one (represented by Gamsakhurdia).  On the other hand, the presence of a unique ‘hybrid’, Jaba Ioseliani, a well-known criminal (‘thief of the law’, Georgian  k’anonieri kurdi, Russian vor v zakone) breaking the criminal laws of non-engagement with public political life, who was himself also a writer and intelligent turned paramilitary leader, gives the coup another hidden, esoteric dimension.  Here urban life and the intelligentsia is characterized not as a public apotheosis of national culture (dividing the intelligentsia from the people as urban to rural, but reuniting them within the framework of the nation), but as an urban bohemian subculture, stressing the opposition between the intelligentsia and the people, private urban subculture and public national culture.

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The Baku Commune

The Baku Commune

RONALD SUNY

The story of the Baku Commune’s leaders, who pursued power democratically and nonviolently, belies many of the myths of the Russian Revolution.
Most accounts of the Russian Revolution tell the story of one city — Petrograd, where the Romanov regime collapsed in February and the Bolsheviks came to power in October. As decisive as the workers, women, and soldiers were in the capital, people all over Russia launched their own revolutionary movements throughout this revolutionary year.

Fifteen hundred miles to the southeast, in Baku, ethnicity, religion, and class divided the population, altering the course of history and influencing the decisions revolutionary leaders made. There, in a metropolis built on oil, October would arrive late.

When it did, the Caucasian Lenin, Stepan Shahumian, tried to win power for the people democratically and nonviolently. The story of the Baku Commune he built provides an important perspective on the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war.

City of Oil
Oil made Baku the largest city in the South Caucasus, a cosmopolitan workers’ oasis surrounded by largely Muslim peasant villages. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was producing more oil than the whole of the United States. Despite miserable living and working conditions, needy migrants flocked to the oil fields to find work.

Baku became the center not only of imperial Russia’s industrial revolution but also a crucible of the labor movement. Indeed, the first collective bargaining agreement between workers and industry was signed there in 1904, and the city served as a refuge for Social Democrats, particularly Bolsheviks like Joseph Stalin, when their organizations were crushed in other, less hospitable cities.

Class distinctions in Baku matched ethnic differences. Foreign investors and engineers sat at the top of the social hierarchy alongside Armenian and Russian industrialists and Azerbaijani ship owners. Russian and Armenian workers held the more skilled positions, and the unskilled workforce consisted of Muslims. As the most transient and vulnerable workers, they ended up with the dirtiest jobs.

The empire’s exploitative relationship to Caucasia was nowhere more evident than in Baku, where accumulating oil revenue trumped all other concerns. The propertied elite — that is, Armenians and Russians — handled city governance, and welfare for the lower classes was largely left to private charity. Political institutions had very few non-Christian representatives, and the regime frequently proclaimed martial law and states of emergency, undermining confidence in the local government or the rule of law.

Both ordinary people and the ruling classes wanted reform, but the tsar offered virtually no institutional avenues to effect change. The situation demanded extralegal organization, and revolutionary activists, few as they were in number, provided the available leadership and direction.

Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) often noted that Baku’s workers, divided by skills, pay rate, and ethnicity, cared more about wages than politics. Fortunately, the oil companies were unusually willing to grant concessions in order to hold on to their workforce, particularly their skilled hands.

By focusing on economic benefits, the general strike of December 1904 won an eight-to-nine-hour working day and significant improvements in wages and sick pay — a contract so good, it earned the nickname the Crude-oil Constitution.

After Tsar Nicholas II issued his “October Manifesto” in 1905, granting limited civil rights and an elected duma to his people, Baku formed a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, one of many such councils that articulated working people’s demands at the end of that revolutionary year.

But workers continued to focus on their economic interests and eschewed politics. Shahumian lamented:

In general the workers here are a terribly mercantilistic group. They are thinking and talking about a new economic strike in order to snatch another greasy piece and increase “bonuses.”

Despite relentless police efforts, revolutionaries maintained an underground presence even after 1905, when the tsarist regime repressed the labor movement and forced many radicals either out of politics or into exile. Their work culminated in a forty-thousand-worker-strong strike in 1914, just as Russia’s war machine was gearing up.

These successes masked the tension that simmered just under the surface. The Russian- and Armenian-majority skilled workers joined unions and took in the Social Democrats’ message while Muslims only reluctantly engaged in protests or strikes.

Observers referred condescendingly to the “Tatars,” as they were called, as temnye (dark) or nesoznatel’nye (politically unconscious). Many Muslim workers remained tied to their villages and religious leaders. Though a small number of Muslim intellectuals preached socialism and nationalism, most Muslims in Caucasia had no interest in politics.

Baku’s ethnic and religious divisions reached a head in February 1905, when the tensions between Armenians and Muslims erupted into riots and interethnic killing. Muslims, alarmed by rumors that Armenians were taking up weapons, attacked first. The police and soldiers sat idle.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), a nationalist party formed a decade earlier to defend Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, used its soldiers to protect the community. Social Democrats and liberals denounced the government’s inaction, accusing officials of promoting a pogrom. After the violence ended, hostilities continued to smolder, and, on the eve of World War I, people feared that another outbreak of violence was imminent.

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A Graphic Satire On Rebuilding Yerevan

Book Review

Book: The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade,

By Yann Kebbi and Viken Berberian

Review By Maxim Edwards

An impressionable young diaspora Armenian returns to his ancestral homeland to rid its capital of its Soviet heritage and rebuild the city anew. It’s a familiar story in post-Soviet Armenia.

But for Frunz, the hapless but well-meaning hero of Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi’s new graphic novel The Structure is Rotten, Comrade!, “rebuilding” Yerevan is meant literally – he is an architect set on physically transforming the city.

Berberian, a Beirut-born novelist and essayist, has lived in Yerevan for the last four years, a turbulent time for the city. So it’s no surprise that his Yerevan, brought to life by the Paris-based illustrator Kebbi, is littered with cranes; its residents narrowly avoid wrecking balls on a daily basis. Much of this is the doing of Frunz’s father Sergey, who is known as “Mr. Concrete” and directs the tragically misnamed Radical Architecture Department (RAD). The book opens with Frunz having dropped out of architecture school in Paris and joining his father’s business.

But the father and son’s bold visions prove their undoing. The city they regard as a blank canvas for their experiments is home to a million people who do not take kindly to this relentless “redevelopment.” In an absurdist twist, they compensate evicted homeowners with original Alvar Aalto stools, and see the citizens’ ingratitude as evidence of their inability to grasp the architects’ genius.

Ultimately, though, Frunz and Sergey prove to be little more than enablers of oligarchs’ wholesale destruction of the Armenian capital. “The structure is rotten, comrade!” one resident screams at Frunz.

Comrade image 1

The parallels with the Armenian capital’s predicaments are obvious to anyone who has strolled down Yerevan’s Northern Avenue, where empty luxury apartments tower over outlets of luxury international brands. There is an increasingly common sentiment that downtown Yerevan is no longer a city for its residents.

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Zones of Entrapment in a Yerevan Park

Zones of Entrapment: Yerevan’s 2800th Anniversary Park and the Tyranny of Taste-Fullness

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There is no denying the ecstatic cries of the children and the content faces of their parents who have been flocking with their families to the newly inaugurated 2800th Anniversary Park of Yerevan. The mosaic-laden, grid of fountains, benches and astonishingly schmaltzy statues is a massive success. The general jolliness of the public inadvertently silences those naysayers who decry the supposed ‘tastelessness’ of the park. Just like the derided Northern Avenue, this new initiative by the city’s municipality – realized through the auspices of private capital – has given Yerevan’s residents a much-needed stretch of public space where people can socialize in relative comfort and safety. So what is the issue here and is there an issue at all? If we were to strip back the layers of meaning and intent in this site, what we’d find hidden is not so much herd mentality and tastelessness, but quite the opposite. This park, along with its even more grotesque twin – the recently reconstructed Central Avenue square adjoining Mashtots Avenue – are taste-full. Overwhelmingly so, in fact.

To put it crudely, ‘good taste’ is a historical and cultural phenomenon that evolved in the Western world during the early modern period in the 17th century and served as a way of delineating the aesthetic judgement of the nobility and the upper classes, from that of the ordinary folk. Possessing ‘good taste’ meant being aligned with superior levels of power and political standing – a position reflected through luxurious material objects and richly decorated residences. While it transformed dramatically during the 19th and especially 20th century, the concept of ‘good taste’ was always decried by Marxists and the artistic avant-garde as the epitome of petit bourgeoisie, and was passionately fought through the standardization of mass-culture and lifestyle in communist republics such as Soviet Armenia. Nevertheless, the ambition for social elevation remained an undercurrent drive that exploded with untamed force after the collapse of the USSR. This repressed desire to show one’s ‘taste’ in fine things – and hence, higher social ranking – was reflected in every aspect of everyday, post-Soviet Armenian life: from the extraordinary number of luxury cars to the neo-imperial style of the gargantuan private and public buildings constructed in the last two decades. The two newly reconstructed parks in Yerevan’s center boldly extend this tendency into the development of public space. Attendant political, sociological and cultural implications of such conversions have been ignored by the popular media and despite some critical reactions, the local intelligentsia has passively shrugged the matter away.[1] The present article is an attempt to continue the discussion and examine the wider consequences behind the relentless subjugation and transformation of existing public spaces in Yerevan, under the auspices of private capital and neo-liberal cultural policies.

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Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay

Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay
“Archaeologist Dr. Lori Khatchadourian spoke with EVN Report about her current archaeological and ethnographic research in Armenia that focuses on the afterlife of socialist modernity, focusing on the forces shaping industrial ruination. Khatchadourian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, the co-director of a long-term field project in Armenia called the Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS), co-director of Cornell’s Landscapes and Objects Laboratory and co-founder and co-director of the Aragats Foundation.”

Podcast

Ideologies and Informality in Urban Infrastructure

Ideologies and Informality in Urban Infrastructure:
The Case of Housing in Soviet and Post-Soviet Baku
Sascha Roth

Introduction
Since the early 2000s, the Azerbaijani state has made enormous efforts to turn its capital Baku into a showcase of modernization in urban infrastructure, housing and architecture. The authoritarian government of the oil-rich country has forged large infrastructural projects, such as renovating the old city, the seaside boulevard, parks and metro stations, as well as constructing luxurious hotels and elite housing estates in the context of Baku hosting international mega events like the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ (2012), the ‘European Olympic Games’ (2015) or the ‘Formula One Grand Prix of Europe’ (2016). Preparations for these events were accompanied by largescale demolition of pre-Soviet neighbourhoods, which is often legitimized by their deficient infrastructure. Many such neighbourhoods were replaced by new infrastructural model sites such as the Flame Towers1 or park areas in the central districts. In this context, infrastructure constitutes a key concept in public discourse.

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Heterotopic Landscapes

Heterotopic Landscapes: From Green Parks to Hybrid Territories

Abstract

“This chapter develops an interest in clarifying the meaning of cyberparks through an interrogation beyond its material preconditions. A cyberpark, as a fold in space generated by a hybrid emergent form of co-mediated space, is a disjunctive combination: it presupposes an encounter between open public urban places and the use of ICT tools. Outstretched beyond its physical manifestation as a place of encounter, a «heterotopic» reading might reveal that the subject is displaced in many different ways, from the analogue to the digital landscape, and from the specificity of the local to the universal of the global web. It is in such transferences that several worlds blend, both in its symbolic function and social significance. Impacts of such «Other Spaces» on the nature of human being’s behaviours can be critically reflected by the consideration of the social role of ICTs as tools of alienation through reinforced governances. Hence the question of creating «non-places» arouses, affording both a consensual appropriation process and the representative commodity networks, that henceforth includes natural, technical and human aspects and at the same time constitutes hybrid identities at the interfaces of its users, subjects, objects and places.”

Keywords

Heterotopia Non-place Technology Experience Hybrid-place

 

Setting «Other Spaces» as a Place Theory

Heterotopias are considered to be aporetic spaces: open and isolated, universal and particular, juxtaposed and disaggregated, collective and individualized. A heterotopia is a place of otherness inasmuch as it raises a certain ambiguity on similitude and emancipation, alienation and resistance. In this regard Edward Soja said it is «frustratingly incomplete, inconsistent, incoherent»1 in spite of him devoting an entire chapter to it in «Thirdspace» (Soja 1996). The term arises for the Social Sciences2 in «Des espaces autres», a conference given by Michel Foucault in 1967 in the Cercle d’Études Architecturales, published only twenty years later3. It is a raw work left in abeyance, perhaps even abandoned by Foucault, but powerful if we confront the public space with the new mediations, plus the so called «Internet Galaxy»4. Although the web renders possible the exploration of Foucault’s diverse notion heterotopia, this chapter works with it to reflect on the potential of the possible engagement of technology with space.

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Yerevan’s Soviet Past and Capitalist Present

Beyond history: How Does Armenia’s Capital City Resolve Its Soviet Past with Its Capitalist Present?

 Text Dina Akhmadeeva

In her film My Pink City, Greek-Armenian film director Aikaterini Gegisian examines Yerevan as a place where the past meets the present. What does it look like when Armenia’s politics have changed but the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission?

How are our impressions of urban space constructed? What happens to a place when its monuments outgrow their function of supporting an ideology that is no longer the official line? Can a city ever really break with its past, or does it take on a life of its own that resists and spills out from beyond the confines of its official representations? My Pink City (2014), Greek-Armenian artist Aikaterini Gegisian’s filmic portrait of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, combines archival photography and film, location footage, voiceover narration and images filmed from a television screen. It interrogates the city as a nexus of memory and amnesia, the official and the personal, Soviet past and Yerevan’s present, visualising its ability to disorient time and resist the official narrative of a smooth transition from past to present.

While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission

The city is animated by the movement of a female fruit and nut seller, a voice that proclaims: “Her past is an undigested and indigestible meal, which sits upon her stomach.” Could the protagonist be speaking about Yerevan itself as much as about the woman? Like that indigestible meal, the city’s Soviet past presses onto its present, in the form of now-derelict or disused public spaces and recognisable symbols of communist ideology. Only the washing that blows in the wind or the occasional bored woman leaning on her elbow rupture the rhythmic patterns formed by row after row of windows and balconies of Yerevan’s modernist housing blocks.

In 1920, with the founding of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Yerevan became the site of rapid urban transformation in accordance with the state’s new ideology. Such high-rise building blocks replaced the bazaars, baths, mosques and churches that had made up the fabric of the city. Much like in other post-Soviet states, these blocks remain the predominant source of housing.

A disused and unkempt open-air Soviet-era theatre, complete with an abandoned mattress, is a place without use in present-day Yerevan, but which nonetheless persists and refuses to disappear from the landscape or the memory of the city. The distinctive modernist circular control tower of Zvartnots Airport’s Terminal 1, built in 1971 as part of the Soviet architectural “rebirth” between the 1970s and 90s, no longer functions as part of the city’s infrastructure, having closed in 2011. The building, now an abandoned and unmaintained Soviet ruin, with cracks quickly forming in the concrete, is technically useless. Nonetheless it remains within the fabric of the city, remaining in place, stubbornly recalling the country’s Soviet past and inadvertently acting as a testament to the impossibility of having full control of the topography of the city from above. While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission.

Yet how different are these two systems? Pink tufa hammer and sickle carvings appear in various locations around the city, one after another, as the still-visible signs of Yerevan’s Soviet past. Contrast this with Yerevan’s present-day landscape — the garish, luminous signage of casinos and supermarkets. In one shot in Gegisian’s film, a supermarket sign sits on an archway framed by two communist symbols. How different are the mechanics of each system that offer up images for consumption, even in the service of two conflicting ideologies? For Gegisian, this became one of the main threads of the film. She comments that, “the idea of the […] transitional narrative is hardly ever a radical break with the past. Maybe the forms of the ideology have changed but the way power is articulated is more or less the same. In the film I wanted to point to such complexities especially through destabilising the idea of the transition and the break with the past.”

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Rustavi, A Mono-Town

Rustavi, Georgia: History of a Mono-Town

Soviet factory towns have turned out to be unworkable under a globalised market economy – but these cities continue to live. I traveled to Georgia’s metal town of Rustavi to find out more.

Olga Pinchuk
6 June 2019

Inside Rustavi’s metal plant       Source: Author

Rustavi, a town hastily flung up to support one of Soviet Georgia’s largest heavy industrial plants, is typical of these former factory towns and villages. Once an enormous complex with tens of thousands of workers, for the past 25 years, the Rustavi metallurgical plant has lingered in a precarious state.

The fall of a mighty complex

Rustavi is not far from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi – a 20-minute minibus ride and you’re already passing the rows of pastel high-rise blocks that line the road.

Some of their facades are decorated with bright murals. At first sight, Rustavi seems like a pleasant and orderly settlement. The “new town”, with its animated streets and up-to-date infrastructure, is full of multicoloured buildings, shopping centres and outdoor and indoor cafes. But then it suddenly turns into wasteland. An unattractive clearing followed by a bridge over the river Kura makes for a natural border between the “new” and the “old” town. Totally symmetrical straight lines of buildings in monumental Stalinist “Empire” style line the “old” town’s main street, forming a kind of gate into it.

Inside Rustavi local history museum | Source: Author

Here, in the “old town”, built in the Soviet era at the same time as the factory, the streets are lined by low-rise buildings interspersed by narrow lanes. It’s recently been painted in warm colours – orange, light blue, green, pink. The smooth, clean pavements, the relative lack of traffic and the leisurely passers-by produce the impression that the wasteland and bridge have transported you to another town, or possibly another time, 50 years ago.

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