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.
There is no denying the ecstatic cries of the children and the content faces of their parents who have been flocking with their families to the newly inaugurated 2800th Anniversary Park of Yerevan. The mosaic-laden, grid of fountains, benches and astonishingly schmaltzy statues is a massive success. The general jolliness of the public inadvertently silences those naysayers who decry the supposed ‘tastelessness’ of the park. Just like the derided Northern Avenue, this new initiative by the city’s municipality – realized through the auspices of private capital – has given Yerevan’s residents a much-needed stretch of public space where people can socialize in relative comfort and safety. So what is the issue here and is there an issue at all? If we were to strip back the layers of meaning and intent in this site, what we’d find hidden is not so much herd mentality and tastelessness, but quite the opposite. This park, along with its even more grotesque twin – the recently reconstructed Central Avenue square adjoining Mashtots Avenue – are taste-full. Overwhelmingly so, in fact.
To put it crudely, ‘good taste’ is a historical and cultural phenomenon that evolved in the Western world during the early modern period in the 17th century and served as a way of delineating the aesthetic judgement of the nobility and the upper classes, from that of the ordinary folk. Possessing ‘good taste’ meant being aligned with superior levels of power and political standing – a position reflected through luxurious material objects and richly decorated residences. While it transformed dramatically during the 19th and especially 20th century, the concept of ‘good taste’ was always decried by Marxists and the artistic avant-garde as the epitome of petit bourgeoisie, and was passionately fought through the standardization of mass-culture and lifestyle in communist republics such as Soviet Armenia. Nevertheless, the ambition for social elevation remained an undercurrent drive that exploded with untamed force after the collapse of the USSR. This repressed desire to show one’s ‘taste’ in fine things – and hence, higher social ranking – was reflected in every aspect of everyday, post-Soviet Armenian life: from the extraordinary number of luxury cars to the neo-imperial style of the gargantuan private and public buildings constructed in the last two decades. The two newly reconstructed parks in Yerevan’s center boldly extend this tendency into the development of public space. Attendant political, sociological and cultural implications of such conversions have been ignored by the popular media and despite some critical reactions, the local intelligentsia has passively shrugged the matter away. The present article is an attempt to continue the discussion and examine the wider consequences behind the relentless subjugation and transformation of existing public spaces in Yerevan, under the auspices of private capital and neo-liberal cultural policies.
Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay
“Archaeologist Dr. Lori Khatchadourian spoke with EVN Report about her current archaeological and ethnographic research in Armenia that focuses on the afterlife of socialist modernity, focusing on the forces shaping industrial ruination. Khatchadourian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, the co-director of a long-term field project in Armenia called the Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS), co-director of Cornell’s Landscapes and Objects Laboratory and co-founder and co-director of the Aragats Foundation.”
Since the early 2000s, the Azerbaijani state has made enormous efforts to turn its capital Baku into a showcase of modernization in urban infrastructure, housing and architecture. The authoritarian government of the oil-rich country has forged large infrastructural projects, such as renovating the old city, the seaside boulevard, parks and metro stations, as well as constructing luxurious hotels and elite housing estates in the context of Baku hosting international mega events like the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ (2012), the ‘European Olympic Games’ (2015) or the ‘Formula One Grand Prix of Europe’ (2016). Preparations for these events were accompanied by largescale demolition of pre-Soviet neighbourhoods, which is often legitimized by their deficient infrastructure. Many such neighbourhoods were replaced by new infrastructural model sites such as the Flame Towers1 or park areas in the central districts. In this context, infrastructure constitutes a key concept in public discourse.
In her film My Pink City, Greek-Armenian film director Aikaterini Gegisian examines Yerevan as a place where the past meets the present. What does it look like when Armenia’s politics have changed but the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission?
How are our impressions of urban space constructed? What happens to a place when its monuments outgrow their function of supporting an ideology that is no longer the official line? Can a city ever really break with its past, or does it take on a life of its own that resists and spills out from beyond the confines of its official representations? My Pink City (2014), Greek-Armenian artist Aikaterini Gegisian’s filmic portrait of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, combines archival photography and film, location footage, voiceover narration and images filmed from a television screen. It interrogates the city as a nexus of memory and amnesia, the official and the personal, Soviet past and Yerevan’s present, visualising its ability to disorient time and resist the official narrative of a smooth transition from past to present.
While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission
The city is animated by the movement of a female fruit and nut seller, a voice that proclaims: “Her past is an undigested and indigestible meal, which sits upon her stomach.” Could the protagonist be speaking about Yerevan itself as much as about the woman? Like that indigestible meal, the city’s Soviet past presses onto its present, in the form of now-derelict or disused public spaces and recognisable symbols of communist ideology. Only the washing that blows in the wind or the occasional bored woman leaning on her elbow rupture the rhythmic patterns formed by row after row of windows and balconies of Yerevan’s modernist housing blocks.
In 1920, with the founding of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Yerevan became the site of rapid urban transformation in accordance with the state’s new ideology. Such high-rise building blocks replaced the bazaars, baths, mosques and churches that had made up the fabric of the city. Much like in other post-Soviet states, these blocks remain the predominant source of housing.
A disused and unkempt open-air Soviet-era theatre, complete with an abandoned mattress, is a place without use in present-day Yerevan, but which nonetheless persists and refuses to disappear from the landscape or the memory of the city. The distinctive modernist circular control tower of Zvartnots Airport’s Terminal 1, built in 1971 as part of the Soviet architectural “rebirth” between the 1970s and 90s, no longer functions as part of the city’s infrastructure, having closed in 2011. The building, now an abandoned and unmaintained Soviet ruin, with cracks quickly forming in the concrete, is technically useless. Nonetheless it remains within the fabric of the city, remaining in place, stubbornly recalling the country’s Soviet past and inadvertently acting as a testament to the impossibility of having full control of the topography of the city from above. While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission.
Yet how different are these two systems? Pink tufa hammer and sickle carvings appear in various locations around the city, one after another, as the still-visible signs of Yerevan’s Soviet past. Contrast this with Yerevan’s present-day landscape — the garish, luminous signage of casinos and supermarkets. In one shot in Gegisian’s film, a supermarket sign sits on an archway framed by two communist symbols. How different are the mechanics of each system that offer up images for consumption, even in the service of two conflicting ideologies? For Gegisian, this became one of the main threads of the film. She comments that, “the idea of the […] transitional narrative is hardly ever a radical break with the past. Maybe the forms of the ideology have changed but the way power is articulated is more or less the same. In the film I wanted to point to such complexities especially through destabilising the idea of the transition and the break with the past.”
Yerevan’s Circular Park: Commercial Interests, Illegal Construction Deprive Citizens of Much Needed Green Space (Part 1)
By Amalia Margaryan and Ani Hovhannisyan
“Yerevan’s Circular Park was envisaged as a green space, some 2,500 meters long and averaging 120 meters wide, to provide residents with a respite from the noise and fumes resulting from a fast-developing urban landscape in the Armenian capital.
Little of the green remains today. Cafés, amusement parks and other assorted commercial establishments have been built on the land over the years.
Hetq reporters filed a query with the Yerevan Municipality and obtained copies of 57 contracts between private companies and Yerevan Municipality on privatization, construction and rent in the Circular Park.”
This article was originally posted in the March NewsNet; for a full list of sources please see the original.
Over the past three years, I have been conducting a historical study of gentrification and displacement in Washington, DC. At the same time, I have also been working on a project about the 1980s debt crisis from the perspectives of the Second and Third Worlds. I find it stressful to work on very different projects and follow several, very different literatures – for example, on the one hand, American urban sociology and, on the other, Eastern European Studies focused on economics and finance. It often seems like I am operating in two different, unconnected worlds. This sense of disassociation results at least in part from the post-1989 reorientation and ultimately destruction of networks that had once connected these worlds and literatures. Here I explore these connections and apply the lessons of post-socialist studies to a less conventional space, specifically Washington, DC.
Post-socialism may seem irrelevant to DC since it has long been a major center of capitalism. However, one could argue that everyone, and especially major actors in the Cold War, have experienced “the global post-socialist condition” in some form or other(Gille 2010). The city of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank reshaped Soviet and post-Soviet space, relating to it in new ways. Yet, there are many DCs. For example, in the late 1970s, the city of Black Power forged DC into a democratic socialist space, connecting many parts of the city to the socialist and Third Worlds. After 1989, within DC, the city of the IMF and the World Bank implemented the same shock of post-socialist neoliberalism that Black Power fought against. The lessons of post-socialist studies should, in fact, be helpful to the study of DC. Here I have put together a list of potential applications of these lessons.
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.
This Special Issue of the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy is devoted to the question of the transformation of public spaces in post-Soviet cities. The Special Issue seeks to contribute to the existing body of multi-disciplinary literature on public urban spaces in general and to the discussion on public spaces in post-Soviet cities in particular. Given the diverse urban contexts and trajectories of post-socialist space and the limited research at hand, the Special Issue aims to advance the understanding of public space and its (re-)production in post-Soviet cities, while paying special attention to the consequences of change, i.e. to the controversy surrounding the (re-)construction and loss of public space. The aim of this editorial is to embed conceptually the interdisciplinary and empirically rich papers presented here in the hope of stimulating much needed future research on public space in the post-Soviet region. The editorial summarises the main arguments of the papers included and brings forward initial observations in terms of contextual specificities, characterising and framing the ongoing transformation of public space in post-Soviet cities.
The Special Issue builds on the acknowledgment in interdisciplinary academic literature of the importance of public space as a site for power and resistance and as a facilitator of social and economic exchange, as well as a stage for art, architecture and performance (Orum and Neal, 2009). Public space brings social cleavages into the open, while at the same time shaping them. Public space is, in consequence, a highly interesting issue for urban research, local practice and urban life. This is especially true with regard to the transformation of publicness and public space in post-Soviet cities, which has so far lacked scholarly attention apart from notable exceptions such as an edited volume on “Urban Spaces after Socialism” (Darieva et al., 2011). This lack of scholarly attention is regrettable given that critical debates on the transformation of public space can serve as an opportunity to better understand post-Soviet societies; their cleavages and cohesion, functioning and negotiation, inherited and newly adopted values and concepts.
Our interest in the transformation of public space in post-Soviet cities stems from both its promising theoretical value for different disciplines in the social sciences and its practical relevance in terms of local quality of life and future urban development. Both interests are linked on the one hand to the fundamental and abrupt shifts in society and space which took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and on the other hand to the specific and long-lasting experience of Soviet state socialism, in contrast to other urban trajectories in Europe. So, even though the boundaries of the public/private dichotomy and the relevance of public space in the Soviet Union are still debated, there is a considerable consensus among scholars which suggests that public spaces in the Soviet period were of limited use, due to extensive political control and surveillance which effectively turned the ideal of “everyone’s space” into “no-one’s space” (Zhelnina, 2013). Recent developments in post-Soviet cities also imply ambivalent but relevant trends for public space. They suggest new liberating opportunities for reconstructing public space after 1990, and at the same time imply the loss of publicness due to new exclusive hierarchies (Darieva et al., 2011) caused by a number of fundamental, post-socialist shifts. Among these shifts are:
the ideological and political shift, which among other things puts into question the meaning of public space for state representation, nation building and collective identity/memory on the one hand (Virág Molnár, 2013) and the level of state control and surveillance over urban space on the other hand;
institutional reforms, which triggered hybrid urban governance and planning arrangements (Stanilov, 2007; Lankina et al., 2008), offering new opportunities for civic participation in urban space as well as producing new exclusive decision-making practices (Tynkkynen, 2009);
economic changes, which are linked to the emergence of new types of economic infrastructure such as central business districts (CBDs), shopping malls and revitalised city centres, as well as the emergence of new economic practices such as privatisation and commercialisation on the one hand, and tenuous informal practices on the other; and
the social shift, which includes processes of socio-economic polarisation and marginalisation in urban communities as well as changing values and concepts, underlying citizens’ perceptions and treatment of urban public space.