The Marshrutka Project
Marshrutka Stories A Visual Archive
“It is hard to study marshrutkas. ey are elusive; there are no clear criteria on what a marshrutka is or on what a marshrutka is not. They differ by color, size, and shape. They differ in whom they serve, who drives them, who owns them, who governs them. They differ in the ways they operate, the way routes are laid out, the way they are standardised. Rules of behaviour in a marshrutka also dier. They are quietly codified, not easy to comprehend, requiring familiarity and insiders’ knowledge. ey change, adjust, and adapt quickly. ey shrink and expand, they occupy public space but at points become invisible. ey simultaneously enable and confront. ey signify diverse, and at points contradictory, things for different people at different times. ey have been markers of the decay of Soviet infrastructure and of a Soviet vision of modernity. They have also signfied a new entrepreneurial spirit of capitalist modernity, of flexibility, freedom of choice, and the power of consumer demand. They have been demonized for being pre-modern, unruly, overcrowded and dangerous, while simultaneously representing locally divergent forms of solidarity, sociability, reciprocity, and sharing.”
Published in FA – Failed Architecture
Georgia’s changing political orientation has been continuously reflected in the dynamics of its capital’s former Republic Square: from military parades, to soviet relics and a vertical refugee camp, to sanitised commercial functions.
In the centre of Tbilisi lies the Rose Revolution Square, named after Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003. The place has changed a lot during the past decades, but still retained its character as an important part of the city. On the sunny 26th of May in 1995, the Georgian air force planes created a spectacle for the crowd that had gathered for Independence Day. Still called Republic Square back then, the square itself was also the setting for a military parade in celebration of the Georgia’s independence, which it gained shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the air still contained the strange scent of war on that day in 1995 after a severe civil war, the young independent country was rejoicing. Yet, right in front of the audience stood the run-down Hotel Iveria, which was now home to over 800 Abkhazian refugees as a silent reminder of the recent conflicts. In fact, that very place had been a battlefield only a few years earlier.
Republic Square during a Soviet parade in the mid 1980s.
Almost two decades later, the square is mostly home to noisy traffic and vast empty spaces. The hotel has been emptied of the refugee squat, had a modern renovation and now belongs to the Radisson group. While the square is geographically exactly the same, a lot has changed. The place is not only one of Tbilisi’s few public squares, it is also arguably the place where the political and social transformation are most deeply reflected in urban space and architecture. Here, the country’s and the city’s recent past and present are visibly mixing, creating an absurd, mostly unused transitory space in the heart of town.
The story goes back to 1960´s, when Soviet Georgia was one of the top tourist destinations of the USSR. In 1967, the construction of the tallest building in Tbilisi was finished: Hotel Iveria, a 22 storey high structure designed by the Georgian architect Otar Kalandarishvili in the very geographical centre of Tbilisi and well visible from every point of the city. This prestigious Hotel was clearly not accessible to everyone. In order to book a room one had to make a reservation several months in advance through the official travel agency of the Soviet Union “Intourist”. Only the lucky ones would be able to stay in one of the rooms with a great view overlooking the entire town. Along with the hotel Mr. Kalandarishvili also designed the square in front of the hotel, which was finished much later, in 1983. As described by the architect himself at the time: “In the centre of the city, one of Tbilisi’s most important squares will be established by levelling an existing dip. The so created space underneath the square will contain more than 20 thousand square meters of useful space on three levels that will be used to create a social-cultural centre”.
Yerevan offers the spectacle of an ancient city (it was founded as Erebuni in the eighth century BC — some fortress ruins are preserved in the suburbs) where almost everything you can see was built between the 1920s and 1980s. It also offers the spectacle of a Soviet city where the notion of a “national form” was deployed consistently from the very beginning. Some explanation of this can be found in the horrific events that immediately preceded its incorporation into the Soviet Union. In the 19th century, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires; the assumption that Christian Armenians would sympathise with the Russians was the logic of the first genocide of the 20th century, the extermination in 1915 of over a million western Armenians by the Young Turk government. Refugees streamed into Yerevan — a small city which became briefly the capital of an fragile independent republic in the aftermath of 1917. The Bolsheviks, who had a large proportion of Armenian activists, eventually retook eastern Armenia in 1920, with the Red Army marching in without firing a shot. Within a couple of years, the Bolshevik government of Soviet Armenia commissioned Alexander Tamanyan — an exile from revolutionary Petersburg — to design a town plan for its capital.
The resulting plan is an icon of the city. You can find it on logos, as a relief in cafes, as an object of branding. It is not a 20th-century plan in any way: with its green Ringstrasse, and its radial spokes terminating in a vast opera house, it was more like the Hapsburg Empire reborn in the Soviet Caucasus. And as with a Hapsburg city, the result is exceptionally pleasant, logical and easy to understand. There is a rhetorical aspect to it, too. Many of the main streets lead up to slopes, from where you can get jaw-dropping views of Mount Ararat, the double-peaked mountain where Noah’s Ark ended up, its snowy top roaring up out of the clouds. Mount Ararat is, however, just over the border, in Turkey. The plan seems to have been deliberately executed to create a longing for the lost western parts of Armenia, and for the hundreds of thousands who were massacred there. It’s town planning as either memorial or irredentism, depending on what side of Ararat you’re on.”
Rising from the banks of the Mtkvari River, the structure dominates the landscape like an enormous abstract sculpture. Its ritual function is unmistakable: it is the size of a cathedral and clad in the same warm stone used in Georgia’s medieval churches. It also happens to be exuberantly phallic — a giant cock and balls against Tbilisi’s ancient skyline.The Palace of Rituals, or Wedding Palace as it is universally known, is the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time: a cathedral built in the atheist USSR, a Soviet celebration of Georgian national heritage, a cultural innovation in an era remembered largely for conformity. It is the work of Viktor Jorbenadze — nicknamed Jorbusier for his love of the French-Swiss master — an architect of genius whose daring and provocative buildings defy categorisation. Just like the now-forgotten moment that produced them.
Jorbenadze’s peculiar masterpiece shows the USSR and its modern architecture in a new light. Despite the chasm that separates the Brezhnev years from the modern West in terms of aesthetics, mores, and economics, Soviet architects in the seventies were as concerned with the problem of “placeless” architecture as any globalised city today. Behind the Iron Curtain, a parade of drab, mass-produced towers marched relentlessly from Vilnius to Vladivostok. It took someone like Jorbenadze to subvert this. His work is neither Old City quaint nor tower-and-slab modern. That it is neither of those things is what makes him special. He built big, but with an eye to what surrounded him — a kind of contextual monumentalism. His designs evoked local traditions without fetishising them, creating an alternate route between too precious and too placeless.
In the late seventies Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union
What makes the bold experimentation of the Wedding Palace surprising is not only its design but its dates: commissioned in 1979 and finished in 1984. Across the Soviet Union this was the Era of Stagnation. The time of the gerontocracy, of ageing politburo members catching their deaths watching military parades, of tumbling living standards, drab fashions and stifling censorship. Except, that is, in Georgia. In the late seventies Georgia was rich — as rich as the capitalist countries of southern Europe. Flush with Moscow subsidies, a booming tourism sector and a massive black market, Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union.
The city of Tbilisi, current capital of the country of Georgia, experienced a turbulent set of changes at the dawn of the modern period, from little more than a mass of ruins in 1795 to the 19th-century political center of the Russian Caucasus to 20th-century capital of Georgia. This project seeks to understand cities as intrinsically heterogeneous and historically layered objects: many places in one. Cities are therefore intrinsically “multiple objects” inviting multiple readings. Our website will treat Tbilisi as an “urban assemblage”, composed of heterogeneous networks of human and nonhuman elements and actors. From these heterogeneous materials and actors are assembled and stabilized “imagined cities”: the traditional “Middle Eastern” city, the divided city of colonialism, the modernist city of infrastructures, the socialist “cultured” city and postsocialist cities haunted by past and future.
To study such an intrinsically heterogeneous object is required an equally heterogeneous approach, which renders objects as diverse as literary images of the city and material infrastructures comparable and commensurable within stable “urban assemblages”. Following the grant narrative, this website will divide Tbilisi into five such distinct periods: the maps will be linked to each period.
The City of Balconies: elite politics and the changing semiotics of the post-socialist cityscape
My first experience of Tbilisi was in the spring of 1992, a few short months after the coup that ousted the first post-socialist government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. It also leveled much of a historic portion of the downtown area. The general who had led the coup, Tengiz Kitovani, had been a sculptor in the socialist period. As a result, the devastated downtown region became known jokingly at the time as ‘Kitovani’s exhibition’.
The coup against Gamsakhurdia was transformative in its effects on the Georgian city not only in the plastic arts, but also socially. The emergent political divide between Anti- and Pro-Gamsakhurdia (‘Zviadist’) orientations often boiled down to the inherited cultural division between Tbiliseli ‘Tbilisian’ and provincial Georgian villagers. The nationalist Gamsakhurdia government’s support was strongest amongst present or erstwhile Georgian villagers, whilst old urbanites, and the urban intelligentsia in particular, ranged themselves against the new government.
The 1992 coup was also a family feud within the socialist intelligentsia: A philologist-dissident-turned-president ousted by a sculptor-turned-general (Kitovani) and a criminal-turned-writer-turned-warlord (Jaba Ioseliani), the coup illustrated emergent and opposed tendencies within the socialist intelligentsia. Different self-conceptions of the urban intelligentsia were, as it were, incarnated in the figures who led this coup. On the one hand, the coup, in which a sculptor-turned-general ousted a philologist-turned-president, illustrates a public, exoteric, battle over the self-definition of the intelligentsia, an essentially urban, elitist intelligentsia (represented by Kitovani) turning against a provincial or provincializing one (represented by Gamsakhurdia). On the other hand, the presence of a unique ‘hybrid’, Jaba Ioseliani, a well-known criminal (‘thief of the law’, Georgian k’anonieri kurdi, Russian vor v zakone) breaking the criminal laws of non-engagement with public political life, who was himself also a writer and intelligent turned paramilitary leader, gives the coup another hidden, esoteric dimension. Here urban life and the intelligentsia is characterized not as a public apotheosis of national culture (dividing the intelligentsia from the people as urban to rural, but reuniting them within the framework of the nation), but as an urban bohemian subculture, stressing the opposition between the intelligentsia and the people, private urban subculture and public national culture.
The Baku Commune
The story of the Baku Commune’s leaders, who pursued power democratically and nonviolently, belies many of the myths of the Russian Revolution.
Most accounts of the Russian Revolution tell the story of one city — Petrograd, where the Romanov regime collapsed in February and the Bolsheviks came to power in October. As decisive as the workers, women, and soldiers were in the capital, people all over Russia launched their own revolutionary movements throughout this revolutionary year.
Fifteen hundred miles to the southeast, in Baku, ethnicity, religion, and class divided the population, altering the course of history and influencing the decisions revolutionary leaders made. There, in a metropolis built on oil, October would arrive late.
When it did, the Caucasian Lenin, Stepan Shahumian, tried to win power for the people democratically and nonviolently. The story of the Baku Commune he built provides an important perspective on the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war.
City of Oil
Oil made Baku the largest city in the South Caucasus, a cosmopolitan workers’ oasis surrounded by largely Muslim peasant villages. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was producing more oil than the whole of the United States. Despite miserable living and working conditions, needy migrants flocked to the oil fields to find work.
Baku became the center not only of imperial Russia’s industrial revolution but also a crucible of the labor movement. Indeed, the first collective bargaining agreement between workers and industry was signed there in 1904, and the city served as a refuge for Social Democrats, particularly Bolsheviks like Joseph Stalin, when their organizations were crushed in other, less hospitable cities.
Class distinctions in Baku matched ethnic differences. Foreign investors and engineers sat at the top of the social hierarchy alongside Armenian and Russian industrialists and Azerbaijani ship owners. Russian and Armenian workers held the more skilled positions, and the unskilled workforce consisted of Muslims. As the most transient and vulnerable workers, they ended up with the dirtiest jobs.
The empire’s exploitative relationship to Caucasia was nowhere more evident than in Baku, where accumulating oil revenue trumped all other concerns. The propertied elite — that is, Armenians and Russians — handled city governance, and welfare for the lower classes was largely left to private charity. Political institutions had very few non-Christian representatives, and the regime frequently proclaimed martial law and states of emergency, undermining confidence in the local government or the rule of law.
Both ordinary people and the ruling classes wanted reform, but the tsar offered virtually no institutional avenues to effect change. The situation demanded extralegal organization, and revolutionary activists, few as they were in number, provided the available leadership and direction.
Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) often noted that Baku’s workers, divided by skills, pay rate, and ethnicity, cared more about wages than politics. Fortunately, the oil companies were unusually willing to grant concessions in order to hold on to their workforce, particularly their skilled hands.
By focusing on economic benefits, the general strike of December 1904 won an eight-to-nine-hour working day and significant improvements in wages and sick pay — a contract so good, it earned the nickname the Crude-oil Constitution.
After Tsar Nicholas II issued his “October Manifesto” in 1905, granting limited civil rights and an elected duma to his people, Baku formed a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, one of many such councils that articulated working people’s demands at the end of that revolutionary year.
But workers continued to focus on their economic interests and eschewed politics. Shahumian lamented:
In general the workers here are a terribly mercantilistic group. They are thinking and talking about a new economic strike in order to snatch another greasy piece and increase “bonuses.”
Despite relentless police efforts, revolutionaries maintained an underground presence even after 1905, when the tsarist regime repressed the labor movement and forced many radicals either out of politics or into exile. Their work culminated in a forty-thousand-worker-strong strike in 1914, just as Russia’s war machine was gearing up.
These successes masked the tension that simmered just under the surface. The Russian- and Armenian-majority skilled workers joined unions and took in the Social Democrats’ message while Muslims only reluctantly engaged in protests or strikes.
Observers referred condescendingly to the “Tatars,” as they were called, as temnye (dark) or nesoznatel’nye (politically unconscious). Many Muslim workers remained tied to their villages and religious leaders. Though a small number of Muslim intellectuals preached socialism and nationalism, most Muslims in Caucasia had no interest in politics.
Baku’s ethnic and religious divisions reached a head in February 1905, when the tensions between Armenians and Muslims erupted into riots and interethnic killing. Muslims, alarmed by rumors that Armenians were taking up weapons, attacked first. The police and soldiers sat idle.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), a nationalist party formed a decade earlier to defend Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, used its soldiers to protect the community. Social Democrats and liberals denounced the government’s inaction, accusing officials of promoting a pogrom. After the violence ended, hostilities continued to smolder, and, on the eve of World War I, people feared that another outbreak of violence was imminent.
An impressionable young diaspora Armenian returns to his ancestral homeland to rid its capital of its Soviet heritage and rebuild the city anew. It’s a familiar story in post-Soviet Armenia.
But for Frunz, the hapless but well-meaning hero of Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi’s new graphic novel The Structure is Rotten, Comrade!, “rebuilding” Yerevan is meant literally – he is an architect set on physically transforming the city.
Berberian, a Beirut-born novelist and essayist, has lived in Yerevan for the last four years, a turbulent time for the city. So it’s no surprise that his Yerevan, brought to life by the Paris-based illustrator Kebbi, is littered with cranes; its residents narrowly avoid wrecking balls on a daily basis. Much of this is the doing of Frunz’s father Sergey, who is known as “Mr. Concrete” and directs the tragically misnamed Radical Architecture Department (RAD). The book opens with Frunz having dropped out of architecture school in Paris and joining his father’s business.
But the father and son’s bold visions prove their undoing. The city they regard as a blank canvas for their experiments is home to a million people who do not take kindly to this relentless “redevelopment.” In an absurdist twist, they compensate evicted homeowners with original Alvar Aalto stools, and see the citizens’ ingratitude as evidence of their inability to grasp the architects’ genius.
Ultimately, though, Frunz and Sergey prove to be little more than enablers of oligarchs’ wholesale destruction of the Armenian capital. “The structure is rotten, comrade!” one resident screams at Frunz.
The parallels with the Armenian capital’s predicaments are obvious to anyone who has strolled down Yerevan’s Northern Avenue, where empty luxury apartments tower over outlets of luxury international brands. There is an increasingly common sentiment that downtown Yerevan is no longer a city for its residents.