Category Archives: Public Space

Yerevan’s Statues

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.

Dismantling Memory

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. 
Image source.

Overcrowded Imagery & Symbolism

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?

Tbilisi’s Sidewalks

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Automobility and Shame in Tbilisi, Georgia

Peer Reviewed Open Access

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.

The “Bermuda Triangle” traffic pattern in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall. The glitzy rotunda stands on a concrete expanse flanked by steps descending to the tunnels of an underpass, a series of underground crosswalks by which pedestrians traverse a city block in order to reach Vera Park, where there is a busy bus stop and taxi pickup point

Figure 1. The “Bermuda Triangle” traffic pattern in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall. The glitzy rotunda stands on a concrete expanse flanked by steps descending to the tunnels of an underpass, a series of underground crosswalks by which pedestrians traverse a city block in order to reach Vera Park, where there is a busy bus stop and taxi pickup point. Map data by Google.

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 20032009). 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 2012Curro 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 1961Berman 1982Holston 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


Figure 2. Image from the didi jipi = pat’ara ch’uch’u (large jeep = small penis) campaign. Image by the Georgian Young Greens.

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 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 1999Kim 2015Goldstein 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 2013Salukvadze 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 1990Fitzpatrick 1992Boym 1994, 102–106; Kelly and Volkov 1998Volkov 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.

This 1949 poster reads: “Protect the children!” (Georgian: <em>gauprtkhildit bavshvebs!</em> Russian: <em>oberegaite detei!</em>). The man physically diverts the scooter-riding child away from the road and onto the sidewalk. A series of such street behavior posters focuses on instilling rule-and-norm-abiding behavior in drivers and pedestrians alike

Figure 3. This 1949 poster reads: “Protect the children!” (Georgian: gauprtkhildit bavshvebs! Russian: oberegaite detei!). The man physically diverts the scooter-riding child away from the road and onto the sidewalk. A series of such street behavior posters focuses on instilling rule-and-norm-abiding behavior in drivers and pedestrians alike. Image by I. Kutsenko for the State Traffic Police,
This 1947 poster reads: “Walk on the sidewalk, only on the right side.” Pedestrian comportment was an object of state-directed instruction

Figure 4. This 1947 poster reads: “Walk on the sidewalk, only on the right side.” Pedestrian comportment was an object of state-directed instruction. Image by the City Council Utility Division,

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.”


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 (20002015) 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.”


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.

A self-appointed parking attendant at work, 2015. The three cars on the left are parked on the sidewalk in an area adjacent to Chavchavadze Avenue

Figure 5. A self-appointed parking attendant at work, 2015. The three cars on the left are parked on the sidewalk in an area adjacent to Chavchavadze Avenue. Photo by Perry Maxfield Waldman Sherouse.

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” ( 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.


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).


Figure 6. Stopkham sticker that reads: “I don’t care about others / I park where I want.” The text in the outer circle reads: “Federal Program Against Rudeness on the Roads.” Image by Stopkham.

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


Figure 7. Still image from the video “Arrogant Smokers,” in which activists extinguish smokers’ cigarettes using a spray bottle. Image by Stopkham.

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 2014Khalvashi 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 2006Curro 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).

6Lutz 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.

7Penny 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.”

8. On networked infrastructure and technological mobilities, see Graham and Marvin 2001.

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.

11. Shared space is a “traffic engineering concept that eliminates physical barriers separating motor vehicles, pedestrians, and other road users to facilitate a sharing of street space” (Imrie 2012, 2261). This design model has negative consequences for vision-impaired populations (Imrie 2012Sánchez Criado and Cereceda Otárola 2016). As the scholars of urban planning Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht (2009, 33) have observed, historically, the figure of the pedestrian has been equated with the public, a process that characterized by social exclusion.

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.

18. The video is available on YouTube at

19. On the organization Anonymous and its links to protest, social activism, and hacking, see Coleman 2014.

20. The English-language channel is no longer available, but the Russian-language channel is available as of this writing at

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).

22Susan 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.”

23. On the concept of excess, see Phillips 2010.

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).

25. The video is available at

26. Note that this perspective flattens the ongoing urban modernization histories of each city. For a post-Haussmannian perspective on urban political ecologies, see Rubio and Fogué 2013.

27. The video is available at

28Nussbaum (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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Memory Politics in Tbilisi

Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation  Feb. 2018

Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to the creation of 15 independent states that faced the necessity to construct their new identity – both internally and externally. The latter would pave the way to joining the “international community”. “To some extent, identities create opportunities and constraints for foreign policy-making, and also frame relations between countries.”[1]

The identity construction of a new state is a complex process requiring special instruments. Modern political communities use a collectively shared notion of the past as one of the main tools. Appealing to the past is a convenient instrument and resource for the legitimization of the existing political order. How the shared past is conceptualized and processed constitutes the politics of memory within a society.

In its turn, the politics of memory uses various instruments for the construction of a shared notion of the past. The official historical narrative is the principal of such instruments and is complemented, disseminated, and popularized by others. Among them, nation-wide holidays and commemoration days, school programs, national symbols, the creation of memorial sites and museums are the most efficient tools for the instrumentalization of the past and the construction of the state’s official narrative of history.

Undoubtedly, in this process those who carry out and experience the politics of memory have to deal with the heritage of the previous periods as well. “The history of most post-Soviet countries is characterized by the rise and triumph of nationalism and a radical revision of approaches to the history writing that dominated in the previous periods.”[2]Across the post-Soviet space, these revisions brought an overhaul of not only the official historical narratives but also the entire memory landscapes of the societies. This analysis looks into the post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscape in Tbilisi by re-visiting its memorial sites and monuments.

Georgia: History Revaluation

Caucasus Edition

The area of today’s Rike Park in the Soviet period. Electronic copy of the photograph obtained from the National Archives of Georgia.

Georgia was one of the first countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ever since, the state is seeking to form its identity. Like virtually every former Soviet Union country, Georgia started a revaluation of history as part of this quest. The political elites had to provide a memory project aimed at establishing a new foundation narrative, or a new “story” of beginnings, bringing back the “lost” historical memory[3]. The revaluation of history manifested also in commemoration policies and the memory landscape. Before delving into the examination of memorial sites and monuments in Tbilisi, let’s look at a few milestone events catalyzing this revaluation of history.

From Shevardnadze to Saakashvili

In Georgia, due to the chaotic political processes of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a new state politics of memory was not systematic or targeted. The ethno-political conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed by their independence claims as well as the economic and political crises in the country drew all efforts towards policies aimed at stability. Consequently, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither attention nor resources were directed towards conceptualizing and implementing a new politics of memory.

The shaky times of the first decade of independence unfolded under the rule of one of the most prominent Soviet politicians Eduard Shevardnadze, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. This period ended with the so-called Rose Revolution highlighted by massive protests against the results of the 2003 parliamentary election, skewed in favor of political parties supporting Shevardnadze. The name of the Rose Revolution derives from the culminating moment of the protests, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hands. Shevardnadze resigned in November 2003, and Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections.

The Rose Revolution

The Rose Revolution and the developments that followed marked a new direction for the independent Georgian state. The Saakashvili government made an unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with Western institutions and adoption of its system of values. As Saakashvili took the presidential office, the politics of memory emerged as the key instrument for constructing a new, modern, and pro-Western Georgia.

History was the first target of revision. The events of the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised. Even though since 2003 Georgia has changed 3 presidents and even switched from the presidential system to the parliamentary system, the politics of memory of the country remains sufficiently consistent. Perhaps the August 2008 war was the next milestone cementing this politics.

The August 2008 War

The August 2008 war played a crucial role in the formation of the new Georgian identity and became a catalyzer for the revision of history. The August 2008 events were perhaps the junction point where not only the relations between Russia and Georgia split into periods of “before” and “after”, but the entire Georgian politics of memory and identity.

It is true that starting from the early 1990s, Georgia’s major foreign policy objective has been balancing Russian power and influence, which is seen as key to enhancing the country’s national security. Yet this foreign policy was the result of the quest, driven by political elites, for a new national identity rather than pragmatic considerations[4]. Thus, the 5-day war of 2008 was a “logical” extension of the Georgian identity-driven foreign policy struggling to be within Western and Euro-Atlantic spheres of influence, contrary to Russia’s aspirations to keep Georgia in its own zone of influence. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the events of August 2008 reinforced this identity-driven foreign policy. The Georgian politics of identity and memory turned into a radical rejection of the country’s Soviet past and of any Russian influence at large.

One of the consequences of the war was the adoption in May 2011 of the Charter of Freedom with three main tenets: strengthening national security, prohibiting Soviet and Fascist ideologies and eliminating any symbols associated with them, and eventually creating a special commission to maintain a black-list of persons suspected of collusion with foreign special forces.

These events both influenced the emergence of a new politics of memory and were influenced by it. Moreover, their reverberations spread across the physical appearance of Tbilisi. As we view the transformations of the post-Soviet memory landscape, manifested in the memorial sites and monuments of Tbilisi, we have considered both those created in the Soviet period and those constructed in the independence period.

Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi

The 70 years of Soviet rule had a huge impact on the political, economic, and cultural domains of life in all Soviet Republics as well as the countries of the communist bloc. Bolsheviks, coming to power after the fall of the Russian Empire and the emergence of another empire – the Soviet Union, started creating a new cultural heritage that would reflect the communist view on political and social structures, their meanings and functions. The memory landscape and urban environment of the Soviet Union were the direct projections of the prevailing political system and its values. And of course, Tbilisi was not an exception.

As everywhere else in the communist world, in Tbilisi too there sprung up monuments bearing the mark of the Soviet political and social system. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meaning of those monuments and even their very construction was revised.

“[…] it is not a surprise that during times of political turbulence and change, some of the monuments gain an extra meaning and significance and become objects symbolizing or externalizing societal dynamics and changes.”[5]

The extra meaning and significance of monuments in times of political turbulence can mean both the construction and celebration of new ones as well as the destruction and demise of old ones. The early 1990’s was a period of Georgia’s release from the Soviet past and many monuments embodying the Soviet culture were dismantled from Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war brought a new wave of revolutionary changes to the urban environment of Tbilisi.

And yet, despite all the effort of the new Georgian political system to erase the legacy of the Soviet past, rather than to deal with the past, there is still political, social, and cultural memory that persists. And of course, there are still monuments of Tbilisi that date back to the Soviet times. In the new political system, these monuments gain new interpretations, meanings, and significance for the Georgian society.

We have examined two monuments erected during the Soviet times, preserved until now, and – in our opinion – significant for their social and political value. We have looked at how they have been reframed within the modern political system of Georgia and the construction of the new Georgian identity.

The Mother of Georgia Monument on the Sololaki Hill

The monument Mother of Georgia or Kartlis Deda was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli and erected on the top of the Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The 20-meter-tall aluminum statue, wearing a Georgian national dress and holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, is said to symbolize the Georgian national character; wine stands for hospitality and the sword represents every Georgian’s strive for freedom.

The notion of a “mother of the nation” and embodiment of this notion into a monument of a woman is not unique to Georgia; many states of the former Soviet Union have the very same statue. Moreover, these statues are all in the style of socialist realism hovering over Kiev, Volgograd, Yerevan, and other cities of the post-Soviet space.

Caucasus Edition

The “Mother Armenia” monument in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Tatev Bidzhoyan.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland Calls” monument in Volgograd, Russia. Photo Credits: Yuliya Drachenko, taken from

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland” monument in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Nevertheless, the modern Georgian society by and large does not perceive Kartlis Deda as a cultural remnant of the Soviet Union but rather as a collective image of the Georgian people. Not manifesting a specific individual, Kartlis Deda was easily integrated into the new national discourse and is supposed to be a figure that every Georgian could identify themselves with. Mother Georgia is “the most important woman in all Georgia: its protector and a standing definition to others of what Georgia is”[6].

Memorial of Glory in Vake Park

Another colossal monument erected during the very last years of the Soviet Rule, more specifically in 1985, is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to the 300,000 citizens of Georgia that lost their lives during the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the victorious triumph of May 9 over Nazi Germany.

The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze conceived the idea of the monument, aiming to prove his loyalty to the central Soviet government. This was an effective move since “Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia – or rather, the Russian-speaking world – was presented as its epicenter”[7].

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing de-Sovietization policies, made efforts to change the meaning of the monument and the significance of the victory day itself. For example, in 2005, he celebrated the victory in World War II, and no longer in reference to the Great Patriotic War, with the US President George Bush in Liberty Square, and not in Vake Park. A further attempt to downplay the Soviet meaning of the monument was the multiple depiction of the modern Georgian flag on the lower part of the monument.

In 2011, in another move aimed at re-focusing attention between historical events, Saakashvili’s government initiated a project that would mount a new memorial in Vake Park, dedicated to the 1924 anti-Soviet riots. The site was to commemorate Kote Abkhazi, a well-known leader of the liberal nobility of Georgia, and his division that the Communist regime shot in Vake Park in 1923[8]. The installation of the monument was planned for February 2012. However, the monument was not erected. The Georgian government that came after the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party returned the celebration of the victory in World War II to Vake Park. Nevertheless, in both official and public discourses, the celebration is said to commemorate the victory in World War II, and not in the Great Patriotic War.

Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi

Caucasus Edition

The cityscape of Tbilisi from Rike Park. Photo Credits: Katie Sartania.

Modern Tbilisi is a dynamic city with a multi-layer architecture. It is an eclectic mix of the medieval, the imperial, the Soviet, and the modern. The most remarkable monuments of the memory landscape in the capital of independent Georgia were constructed after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government paid a special attention to the politics of memory and symbols.

We have examined three monuments crowning the city-scape of Tbilisi and that – in our opinion – best illustrate the new politics of memory of independent Georgia.

The Statute of Saint George on Freedome Square

The statue of Saint George tops the column in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The square itself, or rather its name, deserves a small excursion into its own layers of transformation. Its name unveils the turns in Georgian history. When Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, the square bore the name of Knyaz Ivan Paskevich-Erivanskiy and was called Erivanskiy Square. This name lasted until the Sovietization of Georgia. In the Soviet era, it was initially named after Lavrentiy Beria and later on renamed after Vladimir Lenin, with his statue erected in the square in 1956. Following Georgia’s independence, the place was renamed Freedom Square. This was the name of the square at the time of the first Georgian republic that existed in 1981-1921, between the fall of the Russian Empire and Sovietization. Despite this change that bridges the old and the new, even today, some of the older residents of Tbilisi call the place Lenin’s Square.

In the place of the dismantled statue of Lenin’s, a new one dedicated to Saint George was mounted on November 23 in 2006. Designed by the well-known Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the monument embodies Saint George killing a dragon.

In the new political mythology of Georgia, Saint George is not only the patron saint of Georgia and its protector, it is the symbol of Georgia’s fight for freedom and independence. In this new interpretation, the defeated dragon on the monument symbolizes the imperial legacy – both Russian and the Soviet. Hence the monument not only echoes the distant mythological past but also the recent past. Moreover, as literary scholar Zaal Andronikashvili argues, it promises a future victory as well. The mythological past is projected onto the modern political context and foreshadows the future[9].

Heroes Memorial

One more remarkable example of Mikheil Saakashvili’s sophisticated politics of symbols was the opening of the Heroes Memorial on the Heroes Square in 2009 right after the August 2008 war. The 51-meter memorial is dedicated to Georgians who died in the fight against the Red Army in 1921, the anti-Soviet revolt of 1924, the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Around 4,000 names of soldiers are engraved on the marble tiles of the memorial.

The Heroes Memorial not only fuses together the past events by the mechanism of analogy but also alludes to the future. As former president Saakashvili noted, the memorial is not only for the heroes who have already died for their country but for the heroes who will sacrifice their lives for the country in the future as well. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he made a clear point: “If we want Georgia to exist, we should all be ready to put on this uniform [referring to the military uniform he was wearing]; we should all be ready to take arms in the decisive moment; and we should all be ready to fall on our land and ready to inscribe our names on the empty parts of this monument. That is the genetic code and historic experience of our country and a major guarantee of our future”[10].

Earlier, in 2003, near the same square, another memorial to Georgians fallen in the wars of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was put up again following the initiative of Mikheil Saakashvili who was then the head of the Tbilisi City Council[11].

The opening of both memorials gave two specific messages made by the government of Georgia to its society and the international community. The first message is that Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are absolute values. And the second message was about the government’s perception of who is perceived as a threat to those absolute values. The Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, as well as the August 2008 war followed by the recognition of their independence, contributed most to the formation of the perception of Russia as the number one foe of Georgia.

The Statue of Ronald Reagan in Rike Park

New memorial sites and monuments appeared in Tbilisi not only to mark the distancing from the Soviet past but also to mark new alliances. The relatively new statue of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan is an example of that element of the new politics of memory and symbols in Georgia. Unveiled in November 2011 near the Mtkvari River in Rike Park, the statute depicts Ronald Reagan, sitting on a bench with crossed legs, smiling, and looking off into the distance towards north, perhaps in the direction of Russia? Inscribed on the bench is one of Reagan’s remarkable phrases: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.

Following the pattern, Mikheil Saakashvili presented the statue as a symbol of freedom and victory over the biggest evil – the Soviet Union. During his speech on the opening ceremony of the statue he said in reference to the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words: “the leader of our invader state has announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Soviet Union that was brought down by Ronald Reagan – was the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical catastrophe. […] While they [Russia] have restored the anthem of the Soviet Union, we are unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan as a sign of the difference between our ideology and theirs”[12]. Referring to the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Mikheil Saakashvili once again associated the Soviet Union with Russia only and made an attempt to distance Georgia from its undesirable past.

Dealing – Away – With the Past

A changing politics of memory is always indicative of a changing political course and is called to justify that course. In this analysis, we looked at a number of memorial sites in Tbilisi both from the soviet and post-Soviet periods, analyzing them from the perspective of the modern Georgian political system, the quest for and construction of a new Georgian identity, and the politics of memory and symbols.

The revaluation of Georgia’s past in the Imperial Russian and Soviet realms, the celebration of freedom and independence, and Georgia’s turn towards a pro-Western path of development are at the core of this politics. Some old monuments that have no hope of surviving in the new system of coordinates are demolished. Others are revised and reinterpreted into the new paradigm. Yet new ones are mounted and unveiled.


[1] Kakachia, Kornely. 2013. “European, Asian, or Eurasian?: Georgian Identity and the struggle for Euro-Atlantic Integration.” In Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security, 41-53.

[2] Kirchanov, Maksim. 2017. “Politics of Memory as Historical Politics in Georgia: From Desovietisation to the Invention of the Sovietness.” Georgia Monitor. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[3] Toria, Malkhaz. 2014. “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. Historical Analogy as a Memory Project.” In The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and Its Successors, edited by Stephen F. Jones, 316-335. New York: Routledge. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[4] Kakachia, Kornely. 2012. “Georgia’s Identity-Driven Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Its European Destiny.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 4-7. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[5] Javakhishvili, Jana. 2016. “Stones Speaking: Reading Conflicting Discourses in the Urban Environment.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 8-11. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[6] Constable, David. 2012. “Kartlis Deda: The Importance of Georgia’s Most Famous Woman‏.” Huffington Post. October 29. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[7] Edwards, Maxim. 2016. “Victory Day in Tbilisi.” Open Democracy. May 10. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[8] 2011. “In Vake Park the Memorial to be Installed in Commemoration of 1924 Riot.” GHN News Agency. August 28. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[9] Andronikashvili, Zaal. 2011. “The Glory of Feebleness. The Martyrological Paradigm in Georgian Political Theology.” In Identity Studies, Volume 3, 92-119. Tbilisi: Ilia State University. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[10] 2010. “Saakashvili Addresses Nation on Independence Day.” Civil.Ge. May 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[11] 2004. “В Тбилиси у мемориала воинам, погибшим в боях в Абхазии и Южной Осетии, установлен почетный караул.” Ria Novosti. February 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[12] 2011. “Ronald Reagan Statue Unveiled in Tbilisi.” Civil.Ge. November 23. Accessed January 7, 2018.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos of this story were taken by Katie Sartania and Tatev Bidzhoyan unless credited otherwise.

*** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

Designing the Soviet Union

Soviet architecture had diverse and ambitious ideas for transforming the spaces people live, work, and travel in.

An abandoned Soviet-era bus stop in Chiatura, Georgia. orientalizing / Flickr

For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.

Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.

But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.

There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.

It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.

Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.

Theory and Practice

Zurab Tsereteli — one of the designers of Herwig’s totally awesome Soviet bus stops —maintained a successful career well into the post-Soviet period. The Russian-based Georgian sculptor shifted from expressive, mosaic-clad organic modernism to a monstrous form of figurative, neo-imperialist sculpture in bronze, leaving a trail of horrors in his wake.

Moscow’s Peter the Great statue is Tsereteli’s most notorious creation, set on its own artificial island. German scholar Philipp Meuser christened this style — which combines late Tsarist, high Stalinist and Las Vegas aesthetics — capitalist realism in other words.

As editor at Dom Publishers, Meuser has been responsible for an impressive program of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture publications. In just the last year, these have included a series of city guides for the Latvian capital Riga, one of the most western of ex-Soviet cities, and for Slavutych, an extraordinary planned city in northern Ukraine designed to rehouse workers displaced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The small housing estates in Slavutych were “donated” by various Soviet republics. You can find a Tallinn Quarter, a Baku Quarter, a Leningrad Quarter and so forth, each reflecting the styles and spatial ideas of their namesake republics. The guide, from Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, strikingly demonstrates how diverse Soviet architecture had become on the eve of its collapse.

However, other recent Dom books, such as Hidden Urbanism — on the astonishing underground palaces of the Moscow Metro — reveal a remarkable level of continuity in Soviet design. The subway stations all share a similar, space-age crypt idiom, whether they were built in 1985 or in 2005.

Another recent Dom book, Meuser and Dmitrij Zadorin’s Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR, focuses on the flipside of special projects like the Metro, Slavutych, and the bus stops. Instead, it examines the immense prefabricated house program, the largest experiment in industrialized housing ever attempted. This deadpan, obsessive-compulsive book attempts to catalog each apartment building series, which were rolled out of specialized, assembly-line factories like automobiles.

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing reveals that by the 1970s Soviet architecture had almost entirely eliminated the figure of the individual architect, who traditionally works on a specific design for a specific site. For this massive urban housing initiative, the USSR transformed architects into industrial designers, except when it came to the creation of showcase public buildings.

Some of Dom’s recent publications focus on these prestige designers — like Felix Novikov, a mercurial figure whose career included Stalinist palaces for the nomenklatura in the 1940s, Khrushchev-era mid-century modernism like the Moscow Palace of Pioneers, and neo-Persian bathhouses and bazaars in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the saddest of these books, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Program, focuses on the engineer-architect who designed the ergonomic interiors and streamlined casings for space capsules and stations. Balashova created real, constructed human environments that floated in space or rotated in orbit, but her most recent work consists of watercolors of her family in Tsarist-era military costumes. Whatever else could be said about it, Soviet collectivism made people do things that they wouldn’t have considered possible, before or since.

One of the few books in the Moscow Institute of Modernism’s series of publications on Soviet architecture to be translated into English is Anna Bronovitskaya and Olga Kazakova’s heavy volume on another prestige architect, Leonid Pavlov.

All the facets of Soviet architecture appear on his resume: he began as a Constructivist, passed through the Socialist Realist period of opulent, elite classicism, and then found his metier in the 1960s as an architect for Gosplan, the agency that officially planned the Soviet economy.

As readers of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty will already know, in the 1960s the Soviet Union made an abortive attempt to computerize its economy in hopes of solving the socialist calculation problem. Pavlov designed several Moscow-based computer centers for Gosplan, using a pure, mathematical, and finely detailed modern idiom of clean lines and precisely calculated grids, sometimes integrated with abstract sculpture — a Soviet cousin to postwar America’s corporate architecture.

However, the construction industry couldn’t keep up with the pace of Pavlov’s ideas, and most of the centers were completed at least a decade after their design. By that time computers had shrunk, and the computer rooms were changed into conference rooms or left unused; an apt metaphor for the gulf between theory and practice in Soviet planning.

Pavlov’s late work, tellingly, was devoted to sacred spaces for the cult of Lenin — like the Lenin Funerary Train Museum in central Moscow or the Lenin Museum at Gorki, where Lenin lived and slowly died in the early 1920s. These designs borrow from ancient religious architecture and Miesian high modernism in an attempt to create an appropriate architectural language for a secular cult.

One historical study and one city guide — both published in the last year — provide the most interesting analyses of what Soviet architecture actually was and what (if anything) sets it apart from ordinary capitalist architecture.

The first is Richard Anderson’s Russia: Modern Architectures in History, which presents a panoramic history of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture from the late nineteenth century to the present. It starts with Victorian eclecticism, “style modern,” and Constructivism, then turns to the eclectic, anti-modernist Socialist Realism of the Stalin era and the standardized and plural modernisms of the 1960s through the 1980s, and ends with a very mixed picture of contemporary Russian architecture, dominated — especially outside Moscow — by an overbearing, unplanned, and speculative monumentality.

Whereas the book covers profound social changes, Anderson pulls out an unexpected thread of continuity, as institutions such as Mosprojekt — the municipal architecture-construction department of Brezhnev-era Moscow — reinvented themselves in the 1990s by designing horrific mirror-glass and marble edifices for the new rich.

Anderson’s book also adroitly uncovers some of the lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century “socialist architecture.” Beyond the famous icons of the avant-garde, Russia: Modern Architectures in History takes in the garden cities in Lenin’s Moscow, the oddly Finnish low-rise housing in post-Blockade Leningrad, the entirely new territory Brezhnev attempted to create through a series of planned towns strung along the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and the various imperial exports found both within the Soviet Union — in the Soviet “East” of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and in the imperial baroque style that represented the central power in Eastern European capitals like Warsaw, East Berlin, and Riga.

The most politicized recent book on Soviet and post-Soviet architecture deals precisely with this imperial legacy. The collectively produced The Book of Kyivwas published to mark the city’s biennale last year, largely by affiliates of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a leftist non-governmental organization.

The Book of Kyiv works as a guide to the city by presenting a series of carefully chosen buildings, almost all from the Soviet era: a ghost mall known as the House of Clothes; a Metro station left half-finished just outside the city center; the National Museum of Ukraine, done in the Stalinist Roman Empire style; the haunting, organic Crematorium, designed in the 1970s; various emblematic spaces like the former Dzherzhinsky Square, which features a flying-saucer-shaped Institute (featured in no less than Chaubin’s CCCP) and a gigantic monument to the Cheka, only demolished last month; and various soon-to-be de-Communized mosaics and monuments.

Among the spaces that feature in The Book of Kyiv is the dramatically authoritarian, late Stalin-era Independence Square, best known by the Ukrainian word for square: maidan. The VCRC supported the 2013–14 uprising there, and combine this with a sharp critique of the Ukrainian built environment’s de-Communization, now underway through a legally enforced process of renaming and vandalism.

But what makes The Book of Kyiv a real antidote for the likes of Soviet Bus Stopsis its sympathetic account of Soviet architecture and planning, which lets equal stress fall on its failures, continuities, and successes, and trains a ruthless eye on the capitalist city, which has survived by cannibalizing the Soviet legacy, building on its interstices, slathering its public spaces with advertising and cheap commerce, straining its infrastructure, and maintaining a violent divide between rich and poor.

This becomes all the more poignant when it’s enforced on an urbanism that, for all its serious flaws made a serious attempt to create an egalitarian metropolis defined by public space, equality, and planning. It is in that contrast that you can begin to understand what that elusive thing — Soviet architecture — actually was, and what distinguishes it from capitalist architecture. Appropriately, the book is made for the pocket, rather than the coffee table.

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi, Georgia — A globalizing metropolis in a turbulent region

By Joseph Salukvadze and  Oleg Golubchikov

Published in Cities

Volume 52, March 2016, Pages 39-54


Tbilisi, a city of over a million, is the national capital of Georgia. Although little explored in urban studies, the city epitomizes a fascinating assemblage of processes that can illuminate the interplay of geopolitics, political choices, globalization discourses, histories, and urban contestations in shaping urban transformations. Tbilisi’s strategic location in the South Caucasus, at the juncture of major historical empires and religions in Eurasia, has ensured its turbulent history and a polyphony of cultural influences. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi found itself as the pivot of Georgian nation-building. Transition to a market economy also exposed the city to economic hardship, ethnical homogenization, and the informalization of the urban environment. The economic recovery since the early 2000s has activated urban regeneration. Georgia’s government has recently promoted flagship urban development projects in pursuit of making Tbilisi as a modern globalizing metropolis. This has brought contradictions, such as undermining the city’s heritage, contributing to socio-spatial polarization, and deteriorating the city’s public spaces. The elitist processes of decision-making and a lack of a consistent urban policy and planning regimes are argued to be among major impediments for a more sustainable development of this city.


Post-socialist city
Post-Soviet city
Urban planning
Urban governance

1. Introduction

Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a post-Soviet country in the South Caucasus.1 The 2014 census estimated its population at 1.118 million (Geostat, 2015).2 Tbilisi is not only the largest city in Georgia, but is also one of the key socio-economic hubs in the Caucasus as a whole. The city presently accommodates 30% of Georgia’s population, but produces almost a half of Georgia’s GDP and, furthermore, contributes 60–75% to the country’s key statistics in entrepreneurial and construction activities (Geostat, 2014a; Geostat, 2014b).

‘Tbilisi… is like a Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other Europe’, wrote the Zakavkazskiy Vestnik newspaper in 1847 (Vardosanidze, 2000). Such hybridity remains a hallmark of the city located at the conjunction of the European and Asian continents, different cultures and geopolitical realms.

Tbilisi rose to its prominence through the centuries of a turbulent history. Its location on the edge of ancient and modern empires (Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian) and on major trading routes, rendered the city geopolitically and economically significant — if only guaranteeing a continuous struggle for survival. The historical dynamism has left its marks on the social and cultural hybridity of the city. Tbilisi traditionally featured a cosmopolitan and multicultural character, as well as the tolerance of ethnical and religious differences (Frederiksen, 2012). Its urban forms and spatial fabric similarly inherited a peculiar mix of different cultural layers, superposed on the city’s rather peculiar topography.

The modern Tbilisi could have recreated itself through this indigenous tradition of distinctiveness, polyphony and tolerance. Becoming the capital of a newly independent Georgian state in 1991, the city, however, found itself entangled in the turbulent economic and political processes. The installation of a market economy coupled with an economic freefall in the 1990s, the rise of nationalism and the territorial disintegration of Georgia, as well as its government’s entanglements in the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the NATO powers have all produced a myriad of previously untested challenges — which have also left their marks on the city’s social and physical change.

As a globalizing city in a small nation in an economically peripheral and yet geopolitically strategic region, the case of Tbilisi can make an important contribution to urban studies, such as with respect to the meaning-making of the trajectories of “ordinary” non-Western cities in global urbanism (Robinson, 2006), to comparative and conceptual post-socialist urban studies (e.g. Borén & Gentile, 2007; Golubchikov, Badyina, & Makhrova, 2014; Sjöberg, 2014; Sýkora & Bouzarovski, 2012; Wiest, 2012), to a better understanding of variegated pathways of transition and neoliberalism (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010; Pickles & Smith, 1998), or even to the critical urban pedagogy of transition (Golubchikov, 2015). However, despite attention to Georgia from the disciplines such as international political studies, there is still a lacuna of internationally circulated knowledge of urban change in Tbilisi (although see Van Assche, Salukvadze, & Shavisvili, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). With this contribution, we intend to further unlock Tbilisi for urban studies by providing an overview of its urban trajectories as a basis for hopefully further localized and comparative investigations. By doing so, the paper outlines some of the essential, even if controversial, processes, problems and outcomes of the city’s convoluted past and present.

The paper is structured as follows. We start with outlining the location, demographic and physical conditions of Tbilisi and then proceed with its main historical development phases — from the medieval period to the Russian Empire and Soviet eras and to the more recent period of post-socialist transition. We then consider the establishment of the real estate markets and recent urban policies and transformations in the built environment, and pay particular attention to the current urban development initiatives and associated political, planning and governance issues and concerns.

2. Physical, administrative and demographic settings

Tbilisi is located 120 km south of the Great Caucasus Mountains, on the Kura River (Mtkvari in Georgian). It shares the latitude of cities such as Rome or Barcelona, similarly enjoying a mild climate. The city has a complex topography, shaped like a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains on three sides. These physical conditions, once favorable for controlling the valleys, today represent a physical obstacle for urban growth. However, the climate, topography, and hydrography have also granted Tbilisi a unique cityscape, attractive panoramas, and peculiar architecture featuring laced wooden balconies and internal patios, traditionally used as places for socialization (Fig. 1).

Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 1. Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The present-day Tbilisi has a special status of the capital of Georgia. Internally its territory is divided into six administrative districts, with five of them being further subdivided into Ubani — 30 in total. These spread on the territory of 504 km2. However, the city topography circumscribes an island-like geography, with a few densely built-up areas surrounded by undeveloped land: more than half of the city’s incorporated territory is not built-up. The mountainous environment particularly limits new development on the right bank of the Kura River; at the same time, the built-up area on the left bank of the Kura stretches for 40 km.

Tbilisi’s present spatial structure is a product of a long historical process and expansion (Fig. 2). However, the city’s territorial expansion mostly occurred during the Soviet era: between 1921 and 1991 Tbilisi expanded six times in terms of population (Fig. 3) and ten times in terms of incorporated territory. Tbilisi’s Master Plan (Fig. 22) illustrates the city’s resultant layout, including built-up areas squeezed between mountainous areas. The city expansion has recently accelerated even further, aggravating the problems of the integrity and connectivity of the city.

The administrative expansions of Tbilisi

Fig. 2. The administrative expansions of Tbilisi. Source: Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2013.

The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011

Fig. 3. The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011. Source: General Population Censuses; * Estimates.

After gaining the independence, Tbilisi experienced a dramatic 15% population reduction. This was due to a mass outflow of population, mostly to Russia, coupled with a very low natural growth to compensate the out-migration (Meladze, 2013; Salukvadze & Meladze, 2014). However, the population growth reversed to positive in the 2000s, fuelled by migrants from rural Georgia. The city has consequently undergone ‘Georgianization’ — the acceleration of even a longer-term trend of the replacement of its once multinational composition by ethnic Georgians, due to a disproportional outmigration of Russians and Armenians (Fig. 4). Recent demographic trends have also included: aging population; a smaller family size; decreased levels of marriages and increased divorces. Coupled with lifestyle change, these factors have amplified demands for housing and developable land.

Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi

Fig. 4. Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi. Source: UN HABITAT, 2013:208.

3. From a medieval capital to an imperial powerhouse

Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century AD, although archeological findings reveal even earlier settlements. Emerged as a stronghold in the Kura valley, in the vicinity of the ancient Eastern Georgian capital and a religious center of the Orthodox Christianity — Mtskheta, Tbilisi eventually became a strategic settlement for controlling the lowlands between the Greater and Minor Caucasus ranges and major trade routes. In the 6th century AD, Tbilisi was made the capital of the Eastern Georgian kingdom Iberia. Since then it has maintained its status of the chief city of either Eastern Georgia or a united Georgian Kingdom.

The strategic location of Tbilisi between Europe and Asia made it vulnerable in the context of the rivalries between the main powers in the region, including Persia, Byzantium, Arabia, Mongols, and Ottomans (Lang, 1966). At the dusk of the Middle Ages, Georgia, the only Christian enclave retaining its statehood in the otherwise Muslim region found itself squeezed between hostile powers — Persian and Ottoman Empires, and North Caucasian tribes. Due to constant wars, Tbilisi shrank in population and economically. This required seeking protection from the growing Russian Empire in the north, sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, with whom Irakli II signed a treaty in 1783. This did not avert, however, a devastating Persian invasion in 1795. The Russian Army eventually liberated the Kingdom, but this cost the abolishment of the Georgian independent kingdom altogether in 1801. At the time of the incorporation in the Russian Empire, Tbilisi had only 15,000 survivors (Lang, 1957).

The consequent rebuilding of the city under the Russian rule marked the start of a post-medieval era in Tbilisi’s development. Known as Tiflis in the Russian Empire (like even today in some languages), the city retained its primacy and started serving as an important administrative center of the empire; from 1844 Tbilisi became a seat of the Emperor’s representative (Governor) in the Caucasus (Namestnik Imperatora na Kavkaze). The political importance of the city also boosted as the authorities regarded the city as a strategic military stronghold for protecting the south-western borders of the empire, as well as for monitoring and controlling political processes in the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Tbilisi had retained the status of the largest trade center and the most populous city of the region until the oil boom made Baku a larger city in the second half of the 20th century.

Tbilisi, hitherto a compact settlement with a medieval social organization and an irregular oriental-style layout, started a transformation towards ‘European-style’ patterns. Through an active city-building process, it gained the feature characteristic for a colonial ‘dual city’ with oriental-type, irregular, topographically diverse and culturally mixed Old Town, and newly-built European-style areas, established in accordance with a regular plan on relatively plain terrains (e.g. Sololaki). This changed the main axis of territorial development from the Kura River to the new wide avenues, which were named after the Governors Golovin and the Grand Duke Michael Romanov (today named after, respectively, Rustaveli and David Agmashenebeli) — one stretching westwards from the Old Town and the other located on the left bank of the river. The new districts were socially more homogeneous, residing the emerging strata of bureaucrats, affluent entrepreneurs, and Georgian aristocracy.

The appearance of the city and its internal structure and centrality changed dramatically (Fig. 5). The old town, rebuilt from ruins, with its labyrinthine of courtyards and balconies, contrasted with the new districts of neo-classical architecture (Fig. 6) (Suny, 1994; Rhinelander, 1972). The involvement of European architects brought in Western influences: neo-renaissance, neo-baroque, Italian Gothic and Art Nouveau (Ziegler, 2006; Baulig, Mania, Mildenberger, & Ziegler, 2004). Among newly introduced components were administrative buildings (e.g. the City Hall, currently the City Council) and palaces (e.g. the Governor’s palace, currently the Youth Palace), usually located in commanding heights and conspicuous locations, as well as squares connected by boulevards (e.g. on modern day’s Rustaveli Avenue), and parks (e.g. the Alexander Park, currently the 9th of April Park). A botanic garden, an opera, theaters, museums and schools also emerged in the city over 19th and the early 20th century.

A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov)

Fig. 5. A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov).

The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century

Fig. 6. The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century. Source:

Tbilisi of that era became a visiting venue or a place of residence for many prominent people. Writers, intellectuals, and artists who then visited or lived in Tbilisi, included, among others, Russians Alexander Griboyedov, Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Feodor Chaliapin, French Alexandre Dumas the father, Norwegian Knut Hamsun, German Arthur Leist and Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt, British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop, German businessmen the Siemens brothers, Armenian oil magnate and financier Alexander Mantashev, German architect Otto Simonson.

By the late 19th century, Tbilisi had grown as a major trade, culture and manufacturing center of the Russian Empire. The railroad (built in 1872) and new roads were built to connect Tbilisi with other major cities of Russia’s Transcaucasia – Batumi, Poti, Baku – and other parts of the empire. The abolition of serfdom in Russia and the growth of capitalist manufacturing and trade attracted many rural residents, mostly of Georgian origin, to Tbilisi. Some informal settlements emerged accommodating the growing in-migrant population turned in the proletariat on the slopes adjacent to the newly built railway (e.g. Nakhalovka).

The social composition of the population also diversified across ethnicities and confessions (Suny, 2009). Several neighborhoods (e.g. Avlabari on the left bank) had a strong Armenian flavor; some others were Muslim (mostly Azeri, but also Kurdish, Persian — e.g. Abanoebisurani: ‘a neighborhood of baths’), Jewish (e.g. Bread Square in the Old Town) and even German (e.g. Alexanderdorf or ‘German Colony’ built from the 1840s). This composition made the city’s life cosmopolitan and multicultural: Tbilisi developed a distinct urban culture that transcended ethnic origins (Gachechiladze, 1990).

The transformation of the city also touched upon the way of life of Tbilissians. For example, the traditional meeting places such as bazaars, baths (especially the sulfur baths in the Old Town), and feasting places (e.g. Ortachala gardens) were succeeded by new gathering places, such as the opera, literary salons, and even the Georgian national drama theater (opened in 1850, then closed in 1855 and reopened in 1879).

The Georgian national theater and Georgian newspapers played a significant role in raising a national liberation spirit and consolidation of national identities. Additionally, the new education system – schools, gymnasiums and seminaries – brought in not only literacy but also anti-Tsarist attitudes, which eventually lead to spreading socialist, nationalist and liberal ideologies, the formation of political parties and their struggle for workers’ rights, on the one hand, and anti-imperialist values, on the other hand. Notably, Joseph Stalin (born in the neighboring town of Gori with the birth surname Jughashvili) was converted Marxist while studying at the Tiflis Seminary at the turn of the century; Tbilisi effectively became the site of early revolutionary activities for the later most powerful Soviet leader.

4. Soviet Tbilisi: urban growth and industrialization

In the period preceding and following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tbilisi was in the center of political struggles over the future of the nation. After the February Revolution of 1917 in St. Petersburg, the Russian Provisional Government installed the Special Transcaucasian Committee (Osobyy Zakavkazskiy Komitet) to govern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi took the function of the de-facto seat of the Committee. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, on 24 February 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat proclaimed the establishment of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic with the capital in Tbilisi. The new political entity was short-lived as its members showed divergent geopolitical preferences — Georgians’ orientation was perceived to be pro-German, Armenians’ — pro-British, whiles Azeris’ — pro-Ottoman. As a consequence, the federation fell apart, following the proclamation of an independent Georgian Democratic Republic on 26 May 1918 and the declarations of independence in the other two republics within two days.

During a brief period of independence of 1918–1921, Tbilisi became a seat of important nation-building projects, including Tbilisi State University, the first university in the Caucasus.

In 1921, the Bolsheviks finally gained control over Georgia and the republic was integrated into the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Tbilisi took the function of the regional capital once again. In 1922, the three South Caucasus republics were organized into yet another confederation, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (TSFSR). It was disbanded in 1936, after which Tbilisi became the capital of a separate Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Under the Soviets, Tbilisi was transformed from a medium-sized and relatively compact settlement into a large industrial metropolis. It was an important political, social, and cultural center of the USSR — even if remaining behind the ‘first-tier cities’ of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad with regard to its economic status. While the main driving force in the 1930s through the 1950s was the expansion of industrial activity (during WWII also fueled by the evacuation of manufacturing from the European part of the USSR), since the 1960s, industrial growth slowed down, and mass housing became the main driver of the city’s territorial growth.

Tbilisi developed according to the master plans (Genplans) of 1934, 1953 and 1969 (Van Assche et al., 2009). The growth of Tbilisi was in line with the Soviet policy of stimulating hyper-urbanization of the capitals of the Soviet republics to ensure ‘agglomeration effects’, i.e. economic gains from the concentration ‘of decision-making, diversified employment opportunities and better infrastructure in the capital city and its neighborhood’ (Gachechiladze, 1995: 157). The growing city enjoyed diversified public transport services with different transportation modes — busses, trolleybuses, trams, cable roads. In 1965, Tbilisi became the fourth Soviet city, following Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, to gain an underground metro system. The Tbilisi Metro has proven to play a pivotal role in the city mobility, not least by providing accessibility to remote and otherwise isolated districts.

Architectural approaches evolved over the Soviet era (Bater, 1980). The Stalinist monumentalism with neo-classical and national elements, as well as the Soviet constructivism is notable in the Rustaveli Avenue (Fig. 7) and other main streets (e.g. buildings of the Zarya VostokaEasts Dawnnewspaper, and the IMELI Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin). However, from the late 1950s, with the shift in policy to mass housing, the preference was given to mass-produced cost-efficient and uniform built environment (Fig. 8). Of the late Soviet era, internationally renowned were still, for example, the Road Department (Fig. 9), the Palace of Celebrations (currently a private residence of the family of late tycoon Patarkatsishvili), the Sport Palace, and the Dynamo Stadium. Many engineering mega-projects were completed — such as the embankment and retaining walls for the Kura River, a large water reservoir (18 km2) inside the city administrative boundaries (known as the Tbilisi Sea), the metro. All of these remain essential for the city’s functioning.

The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building

Fig. 7. The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance

Fig. 8. Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters)

Fig. 9. The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

In 1978, with a growing attention to heritage protection, a large-scale reconstruction of the old town was launched. Old Tbilisi had remained largely untouched in the Soviet period (apart from some destructions occurring for new roads and embankments) and therefore preserved its historic unity and ambience. Although the reconstruction was criticized for its ‘facadism’ (Khimshiashvili, 2001), it had a positive effect on the pre-Russian sections of the city and boosted tourism. The project also enhanced the urban environment of Old Tbilisi and prolonged the lifespan of many buildings.

Soviet Tbilisi was not only an important economic and administrative center of the Soviet Union; it was also a center of political struggles of various factions, including those breeding the Georgian identity (Suny, 1994). As a rare scene of mass protest for that era, Tbilisi witnessed ethnic-based riots in 1956 in protest against the de-Stalinization policies of the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; these were violently suppressed by the Soviet Army. New mass demonstrations took place in Tbilisi in April 1978 in response to an attempt by government to change the constitutional status of the Georgian language from being the sole state language in the republic to giving an equally official status to the Russian language. Moscow conceded to the popular demand to allow the status quo to continue, thus boosting the morale of Georgian nationalism. However, this also stirred up discontent in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, some fractions of which began seeking to split from Georgia. The radicalization of the anti-Soviet opposition and protests in the late 1980s also culminated in the so-called Tbilisi Massacre of 9 April 1989, when the army violently dispersed an anti-Soviet demonstration, resulting in several deaths. In both the popular and political culture, this event still demarcates Georgian struggles for independence.

5. Post-Soviet transition

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tbilisi, like other ex-Soviet cities, stepped on the post-socialist transition treadmill. Following the laissez faire political ethos and conditioned by the expediencies of capitalism-in-the-making, the city turned away from planned development in favor of spontaneous real estate markets. This was, however, against the backdrop of a civil war and political and institutional disorganization and instability in Georgia under Gamsakhurdia Government (1991–1992) and the early years of Shevarnadze Government (1992–2003). Violent conflicts erupted over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence, but also in other parts of Georgia and even in Tbilisi itself, which witnessed a militarized outbreak of violence in winter 1991/1992 over state power, which eventually ousted Gamsakhurdia. As a cumulative effect, the Georgian economy was one of the most hit among the former Soviet republics. By 1994, its real GDP collapsed to less than a quarter of its value five years before.

That was a shock to Tbilisi; as documented by Gachechiladze (1995:164),

Factories stopped; so did most urban transport; electricity failed; central heating radiators became useless decoration in the apartments… The city emerged as unprepared for the new situation, unable to purchase raw materials, fuel or machinery at market prices and in the quantities required for an urban settlement of such a size.

In just a few years, trolleybuses and trams disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi and public busses significantly limited their operations. Private mini-busses (marshrutkas) alongside the metro became the only street public transport routes for many years.

These problems coupled with the increased levels of crime and interethnic tensions promoted the out-migration of many Tbilisians to Russia and other countries — starting with ethnical Russians and Armenians but followed by Georgians themselves (Gachechiladze & Bradshow, 1994). The majority of these were educated white-collar workers. The population loss was offset by in-migration from provincial towns and rural areas and less educated and poorer groups. Rural in-migrants often struggle to adapt to the urban way of life, especially as employment was curtailed due to the crisis. The omnipresence of the newcomers was perceived by the native Tbilisians as the ‘provincialization’ of the capital (Gachechiladze & Salukvadze, 2003:20). Tbilisi also witnessed an influx of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs), fleeing, particularly, from the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Soviet-era image of Tbilisi as a well-off and educated city, albeit somewhat exaggerated, in a short period transformed into its opposite.

Tbilisi’s IDP population is still estimated at up to 10% of the city population. Many of IDPs have struggled with the integration into the mainstream society. The unemployment rate exceeds 50%; most of them live in the so-called Collective Centers. These are state-owned buildings converted from other functions such as hotels, schools, kindergartens. The IDPs adaptation strategies have involved changing these buildings to accommodate their everyday needs, building extensions, and illegal occupation of surrounding spaces (Salukvadze, Sichinava, & Gogishvili, 2013). Until recently, IDPs occupied almost all Soviet-era hotels, including those in the city center, giving these areas a slum-like impression. The attempts of the Government of the President Saakashvili (in power between 2004 and 2013) to clear up such areas by removing IDPs to other parts of the city (e.g. providing moderate funds to buy apartments in remote districts) and to rebuild those deteriorated structures has improved the appearances of many areas (Fig. 10). However, a lack of a coherent strategy towards the resolution of the problems of IDPs, along with a virtually non-existent social/public housing sector, ensures that these problems will be haunting the city.

The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the…

Fig. 10. The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the Radisson Blue.

6. The establishment of the housing and real estate markets

A cornerstone of the market reforms in post-Soviet Tbilisi was destatization and the privatization of land and real estate. As early as in 1990, the mass privatization of housing already started, followed by leasing out of urban plots and sale of non-residential buildings. Although the Soviet system maintained a considerable portion of public and cooperative housing – which made the entire stock of the apartment bock buildings – by the late 1990s, more than 90% of the housing stock in Tbilisi was privatized. In 1999, the privatization of urban land began. The land and real estate market, however, emerged under the conditions of incomplete and weak institutions, poor governance and murky practices. A poorly regulated land market was locally described as a ‘wild market’, emphasizing its violence-based nature (Salukvadze, 2009).

In the 1990s, almost no investment went into important development projects. Emerged institutionalized developers focused on businesses that did not require large investments but could generate fast returns: petrol stations, car repair shops and washes, restaurants and bars, open markets, guesthouses. The most desirable places were those located between residential neighborhoods, in proximity to major street and highway junctions or easily accessible from metro stations.

Large housebuilding activities disappeared; rather the episodic construction of villas and otherwise cheap homes took place, often ignoring formal permission systems. A more widespread phenomenon was a ‘do-it-yourself’ extension of homes and apartments. That process was actually triggered by the late Soviet decrees of the Georgian Republic, particularly the 1989 resolution “On attaching of loggias, verandas, balconies and other auxiliary spaces to the state and cooperative houses at the cost of the dwellers/tenants”. Following that, apartment building extensions (ABE) mushroomed across Tbilisi. Initially, the construction was carried out by state companies following prescribed procedures; however, after the disappearance of the public construction sector as such and especially following the housing privatization, this process went out of control. Tens of thousands of ABE were completed — in various forms and materials, and violating the norms of security, safety and esthetics (Fig. 11) (see Bouzarovski, Salukvadze, & Gentile, 2011).

Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi

Fig. 11. Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi. Photos by Joseph Salukvadze.

Despite the possibility to marginally increase living spaces through ABE, housing conditions of the population generally deteriorated. The new homeowners showed institutional and financial inability in managing multi-family apartment blocks (UNECE, 2007). There were no effective obligations on apartment owners’ to maintain common spaces in privatized houses. Problems rapidly grew with leaking roofs, broken elevators, lack of thermal insulation, and other structural problems. All these have become problematic and, in some cases, have rendered buildings unsafe. In order to improve the situation, from the early 2000s several municipal programs for housing maintenance were initiated, centered on the establishment of homeowners’ associations (HOA). In 2004, the city of Tbilisi established Tbilisi Corps, a municipal unit for supporting the development of HOAs. Buildings managed by HOAs are eligible for municipal co-financing for repair of common spaces (roofs, staircases) and public spaces (courtyards). Between 50% and 90% of the cost is covered by the municipalities. Currently there are more than 6000 HOAs in Tbilisi; almost all multi-apartment buildings are managed by them.

The period from the early 2000s witnessed improved macroeconomic conditions, including resumed economic growth in neighboring Russia and increased volumes of FDIs (including by Georgians living abroad) and remittances. As elsewhere in post-Soviet space, the economic recovery was uneven, favoring larger cities and their proximity (Golubchikov, 2006). This bolstered economic growth in Tbilisi and changed the demand of the population and the business sector towards housing and the built environment. The development of the real property registration and cadastral systems assured better property security and facilitated the establishment of the credit market and the involvement of banks and other stakeholders in property transactions.

7. Urban policies and transformations in the built environment

The spatial development of Tbilisi has been lacking plans and planning laws for a long time (Ziegler, 2009; Salukvadze, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Rather, the building and planning activities were guided by the old Soviet legislation unless they were substituted by new rules. Such a regime was supported by the 1995 Constitution and a decree of the Minister of Urbanization and Construction of Georgia from 5 February 2002 on the Prolongation of the Terms and Validity of Construction Norms and Rules and Other Normative Acts (UNECE, 2007:8). However, in eyes of many, the old Soviet legislation was already outdated, if not lost legitimacy, and was not obligatory to follow. At the same time, when the new rules were introduced, they were increasingly relaxed, following the new worldview rejecting the Soviet planning practices as ‘unreasonable restrictions’ (Golubchikov, 2004).

The arrival of the liberal president Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 via the so-called Rose Revolution, only further legitimized a liberal urban development policy regime. On the one hand, such policies significantly reduced corruption in planning, architectural and land administration systems; the acquisition of land plots and getting permissions for construction became relatively easy. For example, according to the Doing Business survey Georgia is ranked 3rd worldwide for the ease of issuing building permits and 1st for registering ownership rights (The World Bank, 2014). On the other hand, the same neoliberal approach has failed to attune to public needs. Hence, it is capital/investors that have determined the urban development process through the past decades, with one result being that the development is focused on the more lucrative central areas of Tbilisi, producing many infill constructions, over-densification and urban congestion.

Several key dimensions further characterize urban transformations more recently. Housing construction has skyrocketed after a near-stoppage in the 1990s, and reached the volumes of the 1960–70s (Fig. 12). The peak was in 2007–2008 when almost 2 million m2 a year was completed. The global financial crisis and especially the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia resulted in a rapid drop in construction activities, with many suspended projects (Fig. 13). However, Tbilisi municipality moved to inject confidence into the market by guaranteeing to purchase all finished developments at the cost recovery price of US$400/m2. This guaranteed at least a cost-basis return on investment and while no significant amount of such transactions was actually pursued, it lowered the perception of risk, unlocked banks’ willingness to offer credits, and encouraged developers to unfreeze projects (Gentile, Salukvadze & Gogishvili, 2015).

Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction

Fig. 12. Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction.

Source: JLL, 2012.

A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010

Fig. 13. A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The new housing projects, even if customary delivered as ‘core-and-shell’ (i.e. without any internal decorations or installations), exceed the quality of the previous-era constructions. However, the majority of the population cannot afford buying homes in organized housing developments. New projects rather cater for those with high disposable incomes, so that the proportion of so-called luxury apartments in new construction has been 40–50% (Fig. 14).

Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold…

Fig. 14. Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold dwellings in Tbilisi in 2006–2012. Source: JLL, 2012.

Again, some projects, seeking high profit, fail to comply with the preservation regimes and damage the historical and cultural identity of many areas. This is encouraged by widespread neglecting (even relaxed) building norms and rules, as well as by allowing developers to purchase ‘additional height limits’ over those specified in zoning regimes. This has had a negative impact on the quality of urban space, architectural composition, traffic, car parking and public spaces. In many neighborhoods, old structures are torn down to give place for new high-rises (e.g. Barnovi Street, Paliashvili Street, Piqris Gora, Sairmis Gora).

Old Tbilisi has been particularly vulnerable. The retreat of the state from the housing sphere had damaging effects on the older housing stock in Old Tbilisi, which due to its age is prone to deterioration (Fig. 15). This was aggravated by the retrenchment of conservation protection; according to Khimshiashvili (2001), Georgia’s monument protection authorities had the budget in 1999 which was less than 1% of their 1990 budget. The local population, often living at the edge of survival, could neither afford investing in the maintenance of their estates. Many buildings in Old Tbilisi have become unsafe for habitation and a few fell apart (Khimshiashvili, 2001) — the situation was further aggravated by an earthquake in 2002. Some areas now appear slum-like with collapsed homes amid a deteriorating built environment. However, the potential land value in such central locations is high. Even so, the unwillingness of the local residents to move to distant parts of the city, coupled with still extant heritage restrictions in these areas, for many years curtailed commercial redevelopment projects (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). In the 1990s and early 2000s, few rebuilding projects were accomplished here – mostly as hotels, restaurants or small estates – often lubricated by corruption and enforced through violent means such as a deliberate damage to the existing structures to force the residents to move out. Despite this, the process of gentrification, like in in many other ex-socialist cities in the 1990s, was more piecemeal than systematic.

Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 15. Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

However, more recently, the gentrification of Old Tbilisi has become rather policy-led (cf. Badyina & Golubchikov, 2005), as the government began providing investor-oriented funds and programs for the reconstruction of the old town, such as the New Life for Old Tbilisi. The scheme was described in the following terms:

The government provides working capital that allows developers to finish residential blocks. Slum dwellers, if they agree, then move in to the new housing, vacating land in Old Tbilisi. The government puts the land out to tender for property developers to develop, sell off and use the profits to repay their original debts to the banks (Economist, 2010).

This approach targets particular neighborhoods and has helped to improve some areas both in the old town (Fig. 16) and in the 19th century part on the left bank along the David Agmashenebeli Avenue (part of former Alexanderdorf) (Fig. 17). Hundreds of families have been given a chance to acquired better homes through this scheme. At the same time, the process mediates gentrification, changing the social composition and cultural diversity of the historic areas. It also causes the criticism of heritage professionals, because buildings are normally not repaired but demolished and ‘rebuild’ creating replicas of traditional houses, but destroying the original authenticity of the neighborhoods (Fig. 18).

Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction

Fig. 16. Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction

Fig. 17. David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014)

Fig. 18. Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014). Photos by Oleg Golubchikov.

Policy-driven gentrification of the old town appeared, however, only part of the urban ambitions of president Saakashvili. His policies were particularly aggressive in promoting the construction of ‘shiny’ glass-and-steel structures. Investments especially focused on the historic center. As a result, Tbilisi began changing its spatial structure even more rapidly — which at least until the late 2000s was happening in the absence of any urban strategy framework. Investing in flagship projects is a common feature of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, including in ex-socialist space (Golubchikov, 2010; Kinossian, 2012). Similarly, Saakashvili regarded extravagant post-modernist structures designed by world-renown architects as a quick fix in achieving a modernized and globalized image for the capital and, by implication, in linking the whole nation to the ‘European civilization’. Dozens of such ‘geopolitical’ projects were inserted in the fabric of the old town or its vicinity, at a considerable public cost. While the projects such as the Bridge of Peace (designed by Michele de Lucchi), Public Service Hall and Rike Park Theater (both by Massimiliano Fuksas) are certainly nothing short of masterpiece, many find them distorting the scale and flavor of historic Tbilisi (Fig. 19). Among other new-built dominants are also the Presidential Palace, the Trinity Cathedral (Fig. 20), as well as some hotels and commercial buildings (Fig. 21).

The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi's panoramas

Fig. 19. The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi’s panoramas. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004)

Fig. 20. The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008)

Fig. 21. The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The public opinion has been divided over such major infills. One could argue that some of these projects are better tolerated than the others. For instance, out of the signature projects the glassy Bridge of Peace and mushroom-looking building of the Public Service Hall are better accepted than the ‘the tubes’ of the new musical theater or the Shangrila Casino buildings, which are almost universally considered as inappropriate for the Old Town fabric.

Even so, these projects have created a new powerful landscape that has significantly modified the perception of the city, and project the city in a new light onto the international scale.

A common feature of ex-socialist cities has been a rapid suburbanization (Stanilov & Sykora, 2014). While the booming housebuilding sector in Tbilisi has aggravated the pressures on suburban land and made the city further sprawl, some authors note that the suburbanization trends in Tbilisi do not qualify as ‘strong’ (Sulukhia, 2009). This is because suburbanization is not necessarily taking the conspicuous form of detached homes or gated communities as in many ex-socialist cities (Hirt, 2012), but rather continues the Soviet patterns of (sub)urbanization through the expansion and absorbing of existing satellite settlements or high-rise developments on the metropolitan periphery (Golubchikov & Phelps, 2011). Gated institutionalized developments do exist around Tbilisi but so far not on a scale of a phenomenon that creates its own dominant urban patterns (e.g. in Digomi, along the E-60 highway, and Tsavkisi: see Sulukhia, 2009).

8. Urban planning and future developments

In the context of rather chaotic and ad hoc development process, the establishment of a new planning system for Tbilisi has been long advocated by concerned professional societies (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). The adoption of a new general/master plan for Tbilisi in 2009 might be seen as a substantial step towards finding a balance between planning and the market. The plan envisages a number of strategic changes in Tbilisi (Fig. 22). Inspired above all by the US zoning system (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011), it divides the city into different functional zones, separates commercial, residential and industrial areas, identifies heritage protection areas, and introduces the layouts of land-uses and general regulations for building and development for each functional zone.

The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009

Fig. 22. The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009. Source: Tbilisi City Council.

It is important to note, however, that the production and implementation of the city plan has not been without its own controversies. Firstly, many urbanists, architects, and planners complain that the plan was drafted and adopted without participation of professional and public circles. Secondly, the plan fails to incorporate sufficiently detailed schemes for transport and infrastructure development, thus raising questions over its usefulness for spatial development. Thirdly, it is rather a declarative document, as it lacks a solid view of what kind of city with what priorities will be developed. Furthermore, the emerged tradition of ad hoc development has not ceased after the adoption of the new city plan. The provisions of the plan can be changed by the Building Development Council of the Tbilisi City Council; for example, from December 2009 to February 2014, more than 1500 changes were applied to the functional zones, such as changing recreational and landscape protection areas into a residential, commercial or transport use. Besides, the government officially allows developers to buy ‘excesses’ deviating from designated building parameters in certain zones, thus actually allowing them constructing much larger and taller buildings.

The city plan still envisages several larger-scale projects. One of those is moving the railway line – rerouting it along the east side of the Tbilisi Sea to bypass the central districts of Tbilisi – thus releasing the city from transit traffic. This is envisaged to free up more than 150 ha of centrally located land for redevelopment and to better integrate otherwise isolated parts of the city. The space under the current railway infrastructure will accommodate a new public-business center with offices, retail, convention facilities, recreation and luxurious housing. Among other large-scale projects, the priority is given to the (re)construction and installation of high capacity motorways that should relieve the congested traffic regime in many parts of the sprawled city.

With the arrival of a new government in 2012 (the Georgian Dream coalition), the city authorities started a revision and partially stopped some projects approved by the Saakashvili government. For instance, the already initiated project of the bypassing railroad was halted for several months, although resumed with some changes in 2015. Some dimensions of the 2009 Master Plan have been reconsidered and it is likely that Tbilisi City Council will be requested to revisit the plan. As a step in that direction, the city government has prepared a City Development Strategy. It proposes a vision for Tbilisi in 2030 to become ‘a hub for global supply chains — creating a bridge between different civilizations in the competition for talent, technology and market’ (Tbilisi 2030, 2013: 5).

For its part, the new national government has also begun promoting new strategic projects in Tbilisi, continuing the practice of ad hoc interventions. For instance, a new flagship megaproject is envisaged to be the Panorama Tbilisi, which is to embrace formerly protected landscape areas of the Old Town. It is advertised as “the largest ever real estate development in Georgia’s history,” consisting of a multi-functional development of hotels, serviced apartments, offices, exhibition centers, conference halls and swimming pools linked by a series of cable cars. Financed by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund (GCF), driven by the tycoon, ex-Prime Minister and informal leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, it envisages a total funding of USD 500 million, supported by a number of foreign funds (Anderson, 2014). However, numerous opponents – urbanists, architects, planners, cultural heritage protectors – argue that its implementation will finally kill the authenticity of Old Tbilisi (as well as ruining the hopes of including it on the UNESCO World Heritage list) and will aggravate the traffic conditions and environmental problems. Yet, after an initial refusal in March 2014, Tbilisi City Council, following a pressure from the national government, has hinted that it will approve the project.

Although so far the powerful stakeholders manage to overplay other voices, protests increasingly disturb the former. Urban activism fuelled by younger groups begins to make a strong presence in Tbilisi and often manages to halt some projects (e.g. in Gudiashvili Square). The activists efficiently use social media to consolidate the public opinion. This tendency of a growing public interest and involvement of social groups in the urban development process gives the hope that a more balanced and participatory processes will finally gain momentum.

9. Conclusions: evolving urban governance

The modern-day Tbilisi reveals a peculiar juxtaposition of the layers of urbanization shaped around the successive historical and geopolitical rounds of empire building, industrialization, independence, marketization, and associated struggles. The present post-Soviet era in the development of Tbilisi has yet been the one that lays bare the contradictions of transition and globalization. Basing on our analysis, the period can be conceptualized as consisting of three loose phases, following the evolving configuration of the most prominent actors in urban governance:

In the 1990s, during the period of political instability, economic hardship, and weak state institutions, it was population’s small-scale initiatives that dominated the development process — though in a limited way, due to a lack of capital. Their development practices were limited to ‘self-help’ small projects and fixes. That phase could be seen as a ‘Do-It-Yourself Urbanism’.

From the late 1990s, the improvement of economic situation and strengthening business and banking sectors allowed development companies to benefit from weak planning institutions. Developers found that it was possible to enter formerly restricted yet attractive public spaces. As a result of that opportunistic ‘Investor urbanism’ phase, infills mushroomed and filled up vacant public spaces in central areas of Tbilisi, over-densifying spaces and often ruining urban landscapes.

The consolidation of the state power from the mid-2000s put national government as a major player in urban development. The ‘Rose Government’ initiated many development projects, most of which took place in the central city, dramatically changing it. The adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009 brought some regulatory frames, but the government still commonly violates them. This ‘Politically-determined urbanism’ phase has not finished with the arrival of ‘The Georgian Dream’ coalition in power.

Overall, the entire post-Soviet period has witnessed an imbalanced urban process. Tbilisi, the city that had been developed under the Soviet planning system for 70 years, has been largely rejected planning as a tool for urban regulation and consensus building. This situation is not unfamiliar in the South Caucasus more widely (Valiyev, 2014) or indeed in the ex-socialist space (Stanilov, 2007). Even during the Soviet era, Tbilisi was not a good example of a well-planned city and existing plans were not followed too strictly (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Nevertheless, the new practices of non-planning have been of quite a different scale.

While the early transition process was the one of institutional disorganization, which may be argued to be responsible for the initial neglect of urban planning processes, the more recent lack of progress in that direction, under the arguably neoliberal yet authoritarian government of Saakashvili, rather hinted at a more deliberate ideological choice, where geopolitical aspirations for integration with the European and Transatlantic institutions were sold to the population in conjunction with laissez-faire deregulations and a further neoliberal package of reforms. However, weak urban planning also meant fewer obstacles for arbitrary interventions, including from the government itself and other powerful circles, and by no means a non-interventionist approach. Indeed, a modus operandi that emerged during the Saakashvili rule was that the central government began acting as a de-facto principal ‘driver’ of urban change, even if in a peculiar, urban entrepreneurial format. Most notably, in the name of the renovation and modernization of Tbilisi, the government initiated and sometimes co-financed fancy post-modernist signature projects designed by famous architects from abroad. In combination with the historic areas’ rebuilding, these have considerably changed the city’s outlook.

From a certain perspective, these post-socialist unregulated and ad hoc urban processes are innovative, affording varied participants the opportunity to contribute in the creation of new spaces: liberated from planning regulations, they have transformed the city from the uniformity tendencies of the previous era towards a post-modern eclectic and irregularity. However, professionals and the public are seriously concerned about the impacts of this state of affairs on urban integrity, functioning and heritage. A sporadic character of such constructions, violations of building norms and rules, the occupation of public spaces by buildings of oft-questionable quality and esthetics, and the dramatic change of the historic cityscape all attract criticism of both professional community and the civil sector. More and more frequently, one could hear that Tbilisi deserves a more careful approach in order to protect its uniqueness and traditional features. Irregular infills by modern high-rises and other commercial projects in inner city are no longer easily tolerated by citizens. Both the city and national governments have recognized the need in a comprehensive urban plan for Tbilisi and have started working in that direction, as evidenced by the adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009. Overall, this suggests that the citizenry becomes more sensitive regarding city development. The population is increasingly recognizant of the importance of more ordered spatial processes. This also gives the hope that a more inclusive urbanism, which would balance different interests with a strategic vision as well as functionality, will eventually manifest itself more vividly.


The study was supported by the Academic Swiss Caucasus Net (ASCN) operated by the Interfaculty Institute for Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (grant “Social Contents of Changing Housing Landscapes of the Capital Metropolises of Armenia and Georgia: Institutions, Stakeholders, Policies”). The authors are also grateful to the Urban reconfigurations in Post-Soviet space research network (IRA-URBAN) for offering further opportunities to refine this research. Views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.


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The South Caucasus region refers to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also been historically referred to as Transcaucasia, from the Russian Zakavkazye, “the far side of the Caucasus”, reflecting the Russo-centric geopolitics of the previous eras.


This was a 3.4% increase in comparisons with the 2002 census, although this growth was mainly due to the expansion of the city’s administrative territory.

Public Space and Informal Mechanisms in Beirut

Life in a Street: How Informal Mechanisms Govern Scarce Public Spaces in Nabaa, Beirut

By Petra Samaha

Published in Jadaliyya

[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]
[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]

The informal mechanisms of organization in everyday public life have been at the core of concerns of many researchers and practitioners (e.g., Rukmana and Hegel in Indonesia, Mehrotra in India, and Nagati in Egypt). While examining these processes in different contexts, the focus was typically on their interplay with “formal” regulations or in relation to the private built environment. Few highlighted the significance of these informal arrangements per se and their importance in governing public shared spaces (Simone 2004 & 2009, Bayat 1998 & 2010). These mechanisms lend some sort of spatial flexibility to the street transforming it into much more than a space for circulation, but rather a holder of mixed uses, leading therefore to an altered definition of public life.

Perhaps the best known of all books addressing the topic of public life is Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities where the author described streets and their sidewalks as the main public places of a city–its most vital organs. Density, walkability, mixed uses and human scale are described as main criteria for livable cities. Even though these concepts are usually used to define well planned cities, they seem to also describe very well the lively streets in areas typically tagged as informal. Such vibrant streets are often the result of unplanned and complex processes that offer us many more interesting lessons when disentangled and understood.

Taking the case of Nabaa (Bourj Hammoud) I look into the ways in which the dwellers share the scarce public spaces of the neighborhood and highlight the importance of their efficient organization/management as mixed-use spaces[1]. There is a lot to learn from the informal mechanisms and practices that govern the space of the street and the sidewalk. Vibrancy in such spaces often stems from widespread economic activities and social life. However, over-crowdedness inevitably leads to conflicts whereby the better connected and the more powerful in the neighborhood’s social structure are able to make stronger claims over space and the more vulnerable (i.e., elderly, children, women, and migrants) learn to navigate their way and adapt through other self-devised alternatives.  These multiple claims might seem chaotic or unorganized. However a detailed investigation revealed they are ruled by a set of codes that aim at anticipating, mitigating, and resolving conflicts. What and how can we learn from these complex informal mechanisms of conflict resolution and space reallocation that street users in dense informal areas deploy in their everyday life?

Nabaa is a dense low-income neighborhood located immediately at the eastern edge of Beirut’s administrative boundary and houses a large percentage of vulnerable population groups including foreign migrant workers and refugees. The area offers a unique blend of religious, national, and ethnic mixity that is vividly reflected on the neighborhood streets through banners, street signs, graffiti and stencils but also storefronts and dress codes. The streets of Nabaa are rife with commercial and economic activities either happening on the ground floors of buildings or using the space of the street/sidewalk itself. Through direct observations, mapping and interviews, I looked into the ways in which the dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood and manage the multiple claims over the scarce shared spaces.

Given the high population density and scarce open spaces, dwellers come up with ad-hoc solutions to fulfill their daily needs and, at the same time, improve the spaces of their neighborhood (i.e., greening, open space appropriation, and waste management). The space of the sidewalk/street acquires different meanings through time since dwellers assign functions to it through their own practices. The space is hence defined by social and economic processes rather than planned top down schemes. It becomes hard to distinguish pre-set boundaries between public and private, sidewalk and street, inside and outside… Hence, conflicts are solved through deploying complex informal mechanisms that rely on the flexibility of both time and space.  While I narrate the stories from the streets of Nabaa, I propose that the efficient, perhaps creative, management of the shared spaces of the city by the street users themselves can mitigate or even evade conflicts. The informal arrangements render the space of the street to be much more than a passage, but rather a holder of mixed uses increasing its effectiveness in responding to conflicting needs and pressing demands.

Dimensions of Space and Time

In order to understand how the multiple use and users coexist in Nabaa through space and time, I mapped the main commercial and social practices on a busy artery in Nabaa (Sis Street) while highlighting the dimensions of time and space. Hence, the patterns of use and meaning of space are in a constant shift over the course of a single day, sometimes hours.

Due to high population density and scarcity of space, the area of the street is constantly rearranged to accommodate a multiplicity of users and needs. Rather than a mere circulation space, it is also a space for socialization, play, and daily economic exchange. As these configurations change, the street transforms, turn in turn, into a parking, a playground, a market, a workshop, a café, a display and/or a terrace. In so doing, narrow streets are constantly negotiated and reorganized to accommodate the changing needs of a wide variety of users: shoppers, dwellers, shopkeepers, street vendors, and children (Table 1).

[Table 1: Main users and practices of Nabaa’s narrow streets can be profiled based on two broad categories. Table by Petra Samaha]
By observing the use of space across time, the street is highlighted as a shared space with a multiplicity of mixed uses. In Nabaa, a typical day starts after shops open in the early morning and storekeepers lay out their products on the sidewalks as trucks deliver goods, blocking the roadway. In the afternoon, the street gets busier with more pedestrians, vendors, and cars, as well as children walking back from schools. In the evening, while commercial activities are still ongoing, the sidewalk transforms into a terrace for afternoon coffee, water pipe, or a round of backgammon. It’s the busiest time of the day. The importance of the time dimension here is paramount. While some practices retract at night, after street vendors clear the streets for example, the flexibility of space is highlighted, showing how the street is eventually defined by a patchwork of practices that works according to an elastic schedule. Ultimately, it is through this flexibility and the constantly shifting delineation of both the uses and boundaries that the street can fulfill the multiplicity of roles that it is ascribed.

Visitible and Inivisible Tactics

While looking at the ways Nabaa dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood, practical arrangements and creative survival innovations were revealed. I present here the tactics used by the dwellers to fix the claims they make. Negotiations over space through bodies, cars, strollers, carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and trucks may well be organized to delineate the duration of each occupation. However, conflict is always only one step away as claims may often overlap.

In addition to the shops that extend their private spaces to use the sidewalk as displays or as working places, street vendors also have multiple arrangements for instance. They make careful choices in selecting trajectories, parking stops, and the location where they leave the cart at night. For them, the street cannot be reduced to a simple geographic trail; it is their survival place. Hence, their arrangements are often defined by day-to-day circumstances, which make them negotiate also with shopkeepers and pedestrians for space.

To better illustrate the different meanings that the space acquires over a day, or even an hour, I zoomed on a street corner and represented the percentage of occupation of the sidewalk/street by different uses along the day between religious, commercial, leisure and parking (Figures 1 & 2). The graph shows how the commercial aspect of a main street in Nabaa is mainly what enlivens it during daytime.

[Figure 1: A day in the life of a street corner. Image by Petra Samaha]

[Figure 2: Percentage of occupation of the street corner by different uses along the day based on the previous mapping.
Image by Petra Samaha]
The analysis of “time charts” was adapted from the methodology of Annette Kim’s work in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She underlined the significance of mixed use sidewalks and their organization/management, and regulation in order to be shared between various kinds of uses and users transforming hence into more than a space of circulation. Kim argued that the sidewalk can become a cooperative and livable space if planners incorporate ‘time’ into planning its space in order to expand its flexibility. Kim also described the significance of local self-control at the neighborhood levels to define how sidewalks operate and are managed. Hence, the sidewalk embeds a variety of spatial practices that comprise both innovation and conflict. Learning from street users about the conflicts and negotiations that produce the observed spatial arrangement, Kim called for ‘space sharing’, rather than ‘partitioning’ between the large group of legitimate street uses and users ensuring both fairness and urban vitality. Mapping how the sidewalk system in Ho Chi Minh City operated and transformed over time brings about questions of how the different users (vendors, property abutters, and police) negotiated space. This showed a high level of cooperation not only between property owners and vendors, but among vendors themselves, taking turns on the sidewalk or sharing the costs of capital investments such as plastic chairs and tables for their customers. Hence, the flexibility of the sidewalk accorded by the variables of “time, alternative narratives, and local enforcement” seemed vital for resolving conflicts or even anticipating them.

Similarly, changes of use of that street corner in Nabaa do not abide by pre-set boundaries.

The eventful history of the neighborhood from the 1950’s till the civil war (1975-1990) has made it rife with political parties today. Hence, the use and significance of spaces are governed by specific power relations and political structures within the neighborhood that dictate its usage at specific times of the day. On that corner, these hierarchies are represented by Abou Ali, a man in his sixties and affiliated to a powerful political movement in the area. In the memory of someone deceased in the family, Abou Ali has placed on the public space of the sidewalk a sabeel (fountain) that serves water for passersby (Figure 3). It is supplied with a reservoir, planters, a projector and a sound system that plays chants from the Quran. Abou Ali has a schedule to turn it on or off. Located on the street corner, the space becomes a place for gathering in the evening. On this corner, Abou Ali has the ability to dictate what, how and when the space can be used or not (i.e. who can park near his shop, what fees one has to pay, who uses his water sabeel).

[Figure 3: Located on the street corner, the space around the sabeel, which is supposed to be a memorial,
becomes a place for gathering in the evening. Image by Petra Samaha]
Broadly speaking, on every other block there is another Abou Ali belonging to a certain political hierarchy and setting the rules on his part of the territory. For instance, a block away from that street corner, where the main square and the busiest commercial street of Nabaa are, photos are not allowed to be taken on the streets, a rule imposed by another political party for security reasons. During religious ceremonies, streets in that area are completely closed to vehicular traffic and controlled by the personnel of that same party.

So these power structures embodied by multiple ‘Abou Alis’ materialize on the streets of the neighborhood. The spaces do not abide to planned designs and pre-set boundaries but become subject to the circumstances. Pedestrianizing roadways, turning sidewalks into private parking spots or small gardens, and other tactics contest the ‘conceived space’ of the neighborhood and allow a constant reproduction of the street as a ‘lived space’ to accommodate all the users’ needs.

These tactical arrangements of conflict anticipation deployed by users to fix their claims manifest either concretely (through visible tactics), or in abstract more subtle yet powerful ways. Invisible ways can be imposed and taken for granted (i.e., Abou Ali), or spoken, negotiated and defined through one-to-one conversations (i.e. between street vendors and property abutters, be they shop owners or dwellers), where the main justified persuasive negotiation argument is economic livelihood, or rez‘a) (Figure 4).

[Figure 4: Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by: Petra Samaha]


In these negotiations, one’s position in the local socio-political hierarchies is key determinant of the particular configuration on which the street sets temporarily before it is changed again. And even though conflicts always seem in sight, especially with the diversity of nationalities and sects in the neighborhood, cooperation (like the case of Ho Chi Minh City) and tolerance seem to play an important role in negotiations. While this might seem surprising, a similar observation was noted by Jan Nijman (2009) by analyzing the space in Dharavi (a slum that houses about one million inhabitants in Mumbai, India). He described “a milieu that is conductive to intense social organization and economic production”, where boundaries between different space functions, public and private, inside and outside, are blurred and hard to distinguish. The open space of the neighborhood serves as workplace, a playground, a market or a resting place for elderly (Figure 5). Nijman argued that these different claims over space are not only governed by territorial control but also a high level of tolerance ‘in terms of human density and movement’ which mitigates potential conflicts.

[Figure 5: The open spaces in Dharavi (Mumbai) serve as a workplace, a playground, or a terrace. Image by Petra Samaha]
Most common strategies of mitigating conflict over spatial appropriation in Nabaa consist of diverse small gestures of neighborhood improvement, particularly greening, that serves as a strategy to fix a claim over space. In fact, the neighborhood’s streets are rife with pots and planters that are often made from up-cycled material. They serve as greening strategies, but also as a strategy to “reserve” a “spot” (e.g. securing a parking slot). By doing so, dwellers do not stop at fulfilling their personal interests, but also contribute in making the common areas of the neighborhood a better place. The majority being rural migrants, perhaps this is their only way to make Nabaa look a little bit like home. At times, the items used are flags or other sorts of markers that reflect certain identities or beliefs. Other movable and flexible items used are water bottles, chairs, and light bollards (Figure 6).

[Figure 6: Movable and flexible items to appropriate the space for a limited time. Image by Petra Samaha]
The more powerful the claim(-er), the more permanent/immovable the arrangement becomes: fencing, chains, metallic bollards, and other sorts of barriers. While plastic chairs are seen almost on every sidewalk, sofas are spotted at some corners depicting a more permanent claim over the space (Figure 7). Typically, metallic bollards placed around Abou Ali’s shop also reflect the power he has allowing him a long lasting appropriation of the sidewalk (Figure 8). While these practices are common almost everywhere in Beirut, very few streets can compete with the vibrancy and density found in Nabaa.

[Figure 7: More permanent and non-negotiable claims. Image by Petra Samaha]


[Figure 8: The Metallic bollards and heavy planters placed by Abou Ali. Image by Petra Samaha]
Additionally, the neighborhood is rife with shrines.  While the religious values that dwellers hold on to are not to be contested, another raison d’être of such shrines is reportedly to stop street littering, given that people typically refrain from throwing garbage in front of religious spaces. Indeed, I observed numerous corners where shrines had been set up to be green and well-maintained by dwellers, sometimes serving as refuge for children to gather and play (Figure 9).

[Figure 9: Religious shrines as a strategy to stop littering. The corners end up becoming clean and green and, at times,
serve as play areas. Image by Petra Samaha]
Nabaa, as many other places in Beirut and surroundings, represents a mesh of overlapping political, social and sectarian power structures. In addition, the neighborhood casts very well the challenges of security and high percentage of Syrian refugees. Hence, resorting to a negotiated use of space, while avoiding conflicts and violence, becomes a meticulous challenge. Bearing that in mind while analyzing public space organization and management in Nabaa unfolds three main findings:

  1. Nabaa dwellers make and remake the spaces of their neighborhood on a daily basis. In the ways they crowd the street, appropriate and green the sidewalk, mainly satisfy their needs, they acquire their right to the city, or at least part of it, not only in terms of space appropriation but also in shaping and shifting the meaning and use of space. These practices that are deemed temporary and informal can eventually become permanent urban planning and design strategies that cater for the needs of city dwellers instead of fighting against them. After all, formal and informal do not live in dichotomy, especially not in Beirut. They coexist at different levels, and while the pendulum between the two swings at various degrees, there is some sort of a practical balance that can be sought.
  2. The flexibilities allowed by informality bring into question the impracticality of static and rigid policies sometimes deployed to deal with them. The tolerance of low-income communities in Nabaa facing high population densities and scarcity of space, notably within the public realm, reveals a whole set of informal mechanisms of space management and organization that can be eventually deconstructed to also inform urban policies and projects. As, Jane Jacobs wrote (1958): “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
  3. Finally, even though these negotiations allow low-income dwellers to participate in city making, they do not necessarily entail a just sharing of space. Being mainly controlled by political structures that reflect wider sectarian clientelist hierarchies across the country, they most probably reproduce inequalities at yet another level. After all, such structures are somehow at once the cause and effect of the weakness of the State.

So the concluding question becomes: how can we understand these processes that make the most challenging spaces of our cities work? And how can we build on them for better livelihoods and a more inclusive city?


[1] Research on Nabaa was initially conducted for the completion of a thesis for the degree of Master of Urban Design at the American University of Beirut (2015). Other findings are published in “Rethinking Shared Space: The Case of Nabaa Neighborhood, Bourj Hammoud,” working paper co-authored by Petra Samaha and Rouba Dagher, with the support of the Social Justice and the City Program at the Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut. A special thank you goes to Mona Fawaz for her comments on an earlier version of this article.


Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

By Heather D. DeHaan  
In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.