With the October Revolution in 1917, Georgia declared itself independent from Russia, but independence did not last long. In 1921, the Democratic Republic of Georgia was occupied by Red Army troops and incorporated into the Soviet system.
Sergey Tretyakov (1892-1939), an influential artist, journalist and art theorist of the Soviet era, spent several periods in Georgia. His mission was to orient Georgian film-making towards the propagandistic line of the Soviet film industry. The most famous product is the film "Salt for Svanetia" (1930), for which he wrote the screenplay together with director Mikhail Kalatozov. Today, "Salt for Svanetia" is viewed by most viewers, if one reads the internet commentaries, to be a realistic depiction of the living conditions in Svaneti as late as the 20th century. However, it bears fictional traits and pursues a clear propagandistic message, which is hard to overlook.
In Svaneti an entirely new world was to be built: The Svans, whom Sergey Tretyakov called "Gorge People" (1928), did not live according to this conception in a grown culture that was significant for itself. According to him, the Svans, imprisoned in the geographical space, led a life like in the early Middle Ages. Moreover, their irrational belief in pagan and Christian customs would force them to remain there because they were not allowed to leave their dead. Thus the suffering of the people is repeated year after year, from which only the Soviet power could free them. In Tretyakov's view, the Soviet system made the Svans into human beings in the first place, into Soviet people.
Tretyakov's text is presented and commented in three parts in English translation. Step by step, the ideological backgrounds that led to Soviet planners making Svaneti a kind of showcase project within the First five-year plan (1928-1932) are to be made clear.
Part I: Tretyakov’s approach to social space: The Svans live in the real and metaphorical darkness of the gorges of Svaneti.
Seen from above, Svaneti looks like a leaf: The gorges are the veins of the leaf, the green flesh of the leaf is the towering ridges between the canyons.
White rivers have eaten their way through the gorges like worms. When you stand at the water, you have the impression of standing on a narrow street in a city surrounded by steeply rising five-storey buildings. But the „street“ in Svaneti of which I speak is not paved with cobblestones but with white foam crowns of the glacier water that flow by jumping and roaring.
The Enguri is the central vein of Svaneti. It hastily throws its water from stone to stone. Geology has caused the upper end of Svaneti to be almost two kilometres above sea level.
Tretyakov does not mean the origin of the Enguri at the Shkhara glacier, but the location of the village community of Ushguli at 2000 to 2220 metres.
If you climb the slopes of the gorges, you can see the white ridge of the Caucasian mountain massif. This ridge looks like the back of a sturgeon. The peaks of Tetnuldi, Ushba and Stavler rise like bones.
Occasionally you can see potato fields lying underneath them, short barley crackles in the wind. Below the kick of the horse’s legs, meadows with hundreds of small creeks give off smacking noises, just like the sound of juicy salad washed in a bowl.
In the following Tretyakov's perspective becomes concrete. He takes the view of an industrialized modernity: The towers he sees would only have value if they had a modern productive character.
The Svan settlements look like bird’s nests with their twenty meters protruding towers. To the city residents, these towers look like either a collection of abandoned blast furnaces or abandoned oil drilling towers built in unproductive places. If there were oil here, the towers would soon be bathed in black. But in these towers, there is neither ore nor oil. They are home to a dusty, medieval love of freedom and the musty mould of the blood feud.
The women knead calfskin and sew soft shoes with the fur turned outwards. They spin threads and the fine tip of the spindle dances sounding on the stone doorstep. The women twist cords of hemp and knot circular nets for trout fishing, which are then weighed down with plumb bob. They also roll goat’s wool into wet felt and stretch it on wooden moulds to make the typical bell-shaped caps. They sew and stuff the Caucasian caftans.
Tretyakov's interest is to draw the traditional life as a joyless life. He follows the same strategy in his film script for "Salt for Svaneti" (1930).
I watched them at work often and for a long time, but not once did I hear them singing.
Meanwhile the men attach iron spikes to a fresh branch. In spring, they use this branch to harness the oxen to plough the sloping fields. In the underside of the threshing boards they hammer new pebbles picked up in the mountains. With long-handled axes they prepare new runners for the sledges.
In the following the motive of religious superstition is introduced: This is opposed to any modernization and is responsible for the regression of the region.
Four days a week pass in slow, silent work. But Friday, Saturday and Sunday are holidays. This is because three influences cross in Svaneti: the Muslim influence demands Friday as a day off, the Jewish one Saturday and the Christian one Sunday.
The Svan scythes and sickles lazily scratch the grey-green forehead of the mountains. The barley harvest is meagre. Small herds of goats and flocks of narrow-legged, striped, long-legged Svan pigs graze in the woods. Shepherd boys cut off young alder branches with their daggers and feed them to the animals. Bee houses are rare and, where they exist, small. They place skulls of horses on poles next to them, to protect the bees from evil eyes. The Svans believe that bees are such delicate creatures that they stop flying as soon as someone comes too close to the hives. If only to count the colonies.
Old Svaneti lives in its towers, in the threshing board, in hand-woven clothes and the thought of blood feud and murder.
See part II of Tretyakov's text: The Soviet pioneers liberate the Svans locked up in the mountains by building roads and thus gain their trust. See part III of Tretyakov's text: The new Svaneti and the people who build it
Translation: © Stefan Applis (2020); note: the translation of the text from Russian into English cannot reproduce Tretyakov’s particular linguistic style in all sections. For the sake of clarity of content, the focus will be more on conveying the perspective of content.
Tretyakov first published the text in the 15 April 1928 edition of Pravda.