Soviet factory towns have turned out to be unworkable under a globalised market economy – but these cities continue to live. I traveled to Georgia’s metal town of Rustavi to find out more.
ABOUT SPEAKING STONES
Listen! See! Say!
Speaking Stones is a tool by JumpStart Georgia which allows you to explore, compare, and engage in the old and new faces of different places, districts, regions, cities, and countries.
Using the slide bar, you can drag the photos overlapping each other so that you can see how places, buildings, statues, nature, or people have changed over time.
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At the moment, Speaking Stones only has photos from Tbilisi. However, JumpStart Georgia plans to widen the scope of the project and add photos from all over Georgia, and maybe beyond.
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Tbilisi, Georgia 0108
You can still find your way in Tbilisi with the old maps of the city published by the Baedeker on Russia in 1914 or of the guide of Moskvich from 1913. But as to the details, everything has changed, as the city hugely expanded, especially to the west and north. So in this city there is a “Europe” in the west – with absolutely no originality –, while to the south or to the east it seems that you have arrived to the Orient.“Europe” is of course where the city expanded in the twentieth century. The windows have preserved all their glasses, there is hot water on all floors, the apartments perhaps were not divided in 1937, after the disappearance of their occupants, the stairs have no missing steps, no metal or concrete block clutters up the yard, the facade was not riddled with bullets in 1991, you do not have to illuminate the corridors with your mobile phone, you do not share the entrance hall of your apartment with a cantankerous neighbor, nobody hangs the clothes in the yard.
What you find in the east and south, is not necessarily the Orient, but it is neither quite Europe any more, and it is this in-between where the city we love and its people thrive: a world in turn asleep or full of vitality; some spaces crumbling slowly and with indifference, and others being vigorously rebuilt; a city stepping forward from a very distant time with its churches dating to the sixth century, several cities in the city inherited from hostile empires – some of which disappeared by now and some others faded, but still alive – that seem to have born spontaneously from the dynamism of their inhabitants; a world where memory and oblivion meet face to face.
In these obviously dilapidated quarters, at any time you walk the dusty streets, you see children playing and others carrying their schoolbag on the back, cats spinning between your legs, women with their bags going to buy things, men lost in the engine of a car getting ever older. On New Year’s Eve everybody shot their fireworks here, rockets and flares fly out of every window. And in the night, to celebrate the new year, men dressed in black dance together in a circle in front of their cars with open doors, and with the radio turned on to the maximum.
There is also the “Armenian” neighborhood – small houses, or even shacks, clinging to the slope of a ravine plowed by the rains just behind the glass roof of the presidential palace. I take a photo of a house, a man comes out and thanks to me. He knows France, his brother lives in Blois. When he went to see him, he visited New Orléans – newpronounced in English, but Orléans in French. I assure him that in France, we have only Orléans, and that New Orleans is in America. He doubtfully shakes his head, after all, he went there… while I, when did I go for the last time to Orléans?
In the early 1990s, a nationalist paramilitary group called the Mkhedrioni stripped Tbilisi of its central heating infrastructure, pipes and all, and sold it illicitly in Turkey. To this day, most buildings are heated by private boilers. At the same time, tens of thousands of internally displaced people (or IDPs) were pouring into the capital, fleeing civil war in separatist Abkhazia, occupying whatever empty buildings they could find. Many are still in place. Then there was the 2002 earthquake that destroyed or destabilised much of the Old Town. Many formerly Soviet cities suffered in the years immediately after the collapse of the Union, but Tbilisi got a rougher deal than most.
What purpose does an architecture biennial serve in a city like this? The high-end example of self-important institutions like Venice won’t cut it here. Tbilisi is a relatively small city and its architectural scene is close-knit, but its problems are profound, and they need intellectual as well as practical solutions. The inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB), held in October and sponsored in part by Creative Europe, attempted to offer some. The artistic directors — Tinatin Gurgenidze, Gigi Shukakidze, Otar Nemsadze, and Natia Kalandarishvili — decided to make “informality” the central theme of the event, with the title Buildings Are Not Enoughreinforcing that TAB was as much about ideas as the built environment.
Informality has been a buzzword in architecture for years now, but what took place in Tbilisi was not an exercise in taste-making. The city’s appearance is defined by a million private modifications and extensions, responses to natural disasters, economic hardships, and population flux. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gldani, the Soviet suburb where the Biennial was based. Here, the uniform, prefab nature of the rows of apartment blocks is constantly and conspicuously disrupted by informal interventions: balconies bricked in against the cold, heating pipes knocked through walls, endless garages erected out of scrap metal.
Georgia: Country-Specific Street Art
Street Art as a Response to Violence by the Clergy
The below painting appeared in multiple places in the central streets of Tbilisi. It was part of the protest wave against violence organized by some clerics of the Georgian Orthodox Church. On May 17, 2013, priests led a mob of thousands against a small-scale demonstration that in turn was organized against homophobia. The mob chased and beat the peaceful rally participants in the narrow streets and in public transport. During these developments cameras captured an image of a priest holding a taburetka (the Russian word for “stool” in turn borrowed from French and still in common use in the Caucasus) and attacking with it the bus and people around it. As a result, the taburetka became a symbol of the church-motivated violence against human rights activists.
Following the developments of May 17, 2013, another stenciled message appeared in the underground passage on Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi. The passage is in front of the Kashueti Church and Tbilisi Gymnasium N1. Its location, accessibility by thousands of people on a daily basis makes it popular among street artists. For the same reasons, the street art depicted on the walls of this passage is subject to stricter judgment and “censorship” by those who disagree with its form of expression or messages.
The words in the below stencil are an allusion to a phrase from the Gospel of John 8:1-11 in the Bible, where Jesus stops the mob from attacking the woman “caught in adultery”. In the story, the mob wants to stone her to death, and Jesus tells them, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her”. Hearing this, the mob retreats. The message of this work reminds of the double standards of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Soon the message was painted over.
** Read Part 1 of this Story here.
What can a person or a group do if they are deprived of voice and the freedom of expression? When they cannot speak up about their problems and raise issues they are concerned about in the public space? When they do not have access to mainstream media to reach wider audiences? When they are oppressed in one way or another or struggle for survival? In other words, how can people cope with structural violence – the systematic harm that can be done through certain social structures and institutions?
For the last few decades, street art has increasingly become a powerful tool for the voice of the oppressed in different parts of the world. People from minority groups, the underprivileged, the marginalized, civic and human rights activists often use it as a means of communication. They create influential images and messages illustrating their concerns and troubles. They trigger discussion about underrepresented or tabooed topics. Often anonymous, street art challenges the dominating public opinion, questioning issues of justice, security, roles in the society, raising the voices of those who are excluded from political decision making and the public space.
Publicity and easy access are both a strength and a weakness for street art. Images or messages are usually placed where people can notice them. For the same reason, they are easily spotted and erased by those who oppose the image or the message. Some of them can “live” for a few hours; others “resist” a few days or weeks. Rarely can street art survive for a few months, especially if it represents “unpopular” views. It is impossible to predict the exact “life cycle” of street art. It is frequently erased, broken, deleted, painted over, and dissolved.
For the past decade, the South Caucasus societies have also seen a surge of street art-ctivism. Groups and individuals have used it as an alternative way of public speaking. They have raised and protested issues ranging from unfair socio-political processes to specific cases of oppression, injustice, and violence.
In this piece, we present selected works of street art – street artwork – in Armenia and Georgia. Most of them do not exist anymore. They have been subject to official or unofficial “censorship” and “cleaning”. The photographs were taken in different cities of Georgia and Armenia and depict deeply embedded issues in these societies. Some of these pieces have common topics and address the same issues in both societies. Others are related to country-specific issues. These artworks belong to brave art-ctivists who deliver “unsanctioned” images and messages to the public space, raise the silenced voices in their societies, and strive for changes in their communities. They “speak” about people’s feelings and attitudes and can, therefore, contain commonly used language, including swear words and other kinds of expressive language.
This 2015 piece of street art in Yerevan tells you that street art-ctivism is “A Method to Struggle”. The artist’s pseudonym is Hakaharvats meaning “counterblast”.
Common Topics in Georgian and Armenian Street Art
Against Political Oppression, Regimes, and Surveillance
George Orwell’s famous dystopian book “1984” describes a system where everyone is under the strict control and surveillance of the state. “Thinkpol” – the Thought Police – identifies and punishes Thought Criminals – those who have the capacity of independent thought. There is no space for real freedom in Oceania. Screens and informers are everywhere. Thinkpol immediately eradicates any alternative to the official version of reality. Only one political party is entitled to set rules, take office, and make political decisions. There is no real freedom of choice, democracy, and public will in Oceania.
A similar interpretation of reality inspired an unknown street artist in Georgia to make a number of drawings. The first photo was taken on May 18, 2012 in Tbilisi. It was during the then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s second term in office. It has been widely believed that back then the government systematically violated the citizens’ privacy. Secret phone surveillance was so prevalent that nobody felt safe. The obtained materials were used for blackmail and political repression. Distrust and fear were rooted in all the layers of the political and social structure. “Big Brother is Watching You” was written onto walls in central Tbilisi, among them the wall of the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia and the underground passage of Liberty Square.
** Read Part 2 of this Story here.
A battle over the fate of one of Europe’s oldest city centers has pitted preservationists and urban planners against a powerful oligarch.
If you were looking to cast the villain in an urban development battle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Worth about $5 billion, or a third of Georgia’s gross domestic product, he’s the country’s wealthiest person by a long shot. A former prime minister and the founder of the ruling party, he’s also Georgia’s most powerful figure, infamous for pulling government strings from behind the scenes since leaving politics in late 2013. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, a cache of leaked tax documents revealing how the world’s richest people exploit tax havens. He’s eccentric enough to dig up and ship a lone 650-ton tulip tree across the Black Sea, and his Tbilisi home is tailor-made for an evil mastermind: a 108,000-square-foot steel and glass palace, poised on a hill overlooking the city and complete with helipad and shark tank.
No surprise, then, that not only is Ivanishvili behind the largest real estate development in Georgia’s history — a controversial project known as Panorama Tbilisi — until recently he owned some of the land slated for development. If all goes as planned, Panorama would bring three new hotels, two cable cars, 1,800 underground parking spaces, luxury residences and a convention center to the Georgian capital. The project has become a lightning rod amid a nationwide boom that has attracted international developers, including one Donald Trump — who until January had planned to back construction of the country’s two tallest towers.
As rapid construction has taken hold in the capital, Tbilisians have watched green space shrink in the city center and the horizon crowd with towers. The number of cars in this city of 1.5 million people has doubled in the past seven years. Meanwhile, Georgia’s per-capita rate of air pollution-related deaths ranked number one among the world’s nations in a 2012 report from from the International Energy Agency.
As construction begins on Panorama, locals fearing more congestion, deadlier pollution and the loss of their beloved Old City have rallied to the cause. Some want to kill the project, but most would be happy to move it to a different location, or shrink it to better fit to its surroundings. “Look at Amsterdam, Paris, you don’t have great skyscrapers in the main heritage areas in those cities,” said Tbilisi urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania.
The municipal government, meanwhile, finds itself squeezed between modernization and preservation, between an oligarch who controls the purse strings and power and an electorate increasingly concerned about the impact of unfettered development. “The result is that city officials don’t want to upset the public, or Ivanishvili, and are always looking to find a balance,” Erekle Urushadze, program manager for the anti-corruption program at Transparency International Georgia, said in a recent interview in a Tbilisi cafe.
That balance is rarely found. As a result, Georgians are learning the extent to which committed citizens can participate in development, if at all, in the face of an all-powerful developer-oligarch. And whether Ivanishvili is indeed a villain.
Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation Feb. 2018
- Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory
- Georgia: History Revaluation
- Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi
- Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi
- Dealing – Away – With the Past
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.”
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.”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.