Sergey Tretyakovs (1892-1939) writing on different cultures pursues a clear propagandistic message, which is hard to overlook. In Svaneti an entirely new world had to be built: The Svans, in Tretyakov's view, did not live 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. The medieval buildings and towers have no value; they merely preserve a dusty love of freedom and the musty mould of blood revenge. They are also a constant source of conjunctivitis, which is rampant among the Svans. In Tretyakov's view, the Soviet system made the Swans into human beings in the first place, into Soviet people. See Part 1: An overview on “Gorge People” (1928) by Sergei Tretyakov: Svaneti in the Soviet period See Part 2: The Soviet pioneers liberate the Svans locked up in the mountains by building roads and thus gain their trust.
The Svans who are essential to Tratyakov are brave foresters or members of a pioneer battalion. These blow away rocks seven days a week and build the long-awaited road to Kutaisi. In their spare time, they enjoy the radio reception at the post office in Mestia, which connects them with the Soviet world. They play chess of the Executive Committee meeting room and are interested in football. But most of all they consider how many new houses they could build from the stones of the demolished towers.
Tretyakov paints the Soviet future of Svaneti as that of a redesigned space in which nature is tamed for the benefit of mankind. Ores are mined there, sawmills and paper mills exploit the abundance of timber, cable cars overcome the dangerous gorges. Everything in education is accessible to the people, and the landscape resembles a paradisiacal spa park, where tourists can starve their bacteria and accumulate red blood cells.
Part III: The new Svaneti and the people who build it
The town of Mestia is the heart of the new Svaneti. In the middle of the large square stands the large two-storey Ispolkom house, apart from the musty, towering towers.
Around the square are the post office, the building of the local cooperative and the ambulance. The telegrapher has to shout to hoarseness because of the lousy receiver through which the man has to transmit telegrams to the town of Zugdidi, 150 km away. In the cooperative, salt dries on bast mats, which costs one ruble per pud, while delivery already costs four rubles. The surgeon tells me that at the beginning of her work, a Svan woman took the blood oath from her relatives before she was treated. Should the operation fail, they should take revenge on the doctor.
Furthermore, the canteen of the cooperative is located at the central square. Here the employees of Ispolkom dine, as well as Svans and foreigners passing through.
The strangers wear woollen stockings that have slipped down to their ankles, backpacks over their shoulders and sticks in their hands that look like pickaxes. These are the mountaineering tourists who descended into the valley. Before that, they have hiked over snow and ice and climbed the peaks.
In the canteen, you can also hear the noise of the 700 Komsomol members from Svaneti. They have gathered for a congress here.
The tourists sigh when they think of the many towers in the villages they have passed.
„What’s here in Mestia?“ they say. „You have to go to Ushguli, it’s just like in the old days, and the mud is so original there.“
„Oh, you know, it’s so beautiful there. The moon on top, the glacier river below, and a half-decayed tower in between.“
But the Komsomol members talk about other things.
„There are only two iron ploughs in all of Svaneti. We’d need more of them. And the work on the Becho agricultural trial field must be pushed forward.“
„One and a half million rubles will cost a passable road. Admittedly, that’s a lot of money, a hundred rubles per Svan, but the mountains of Svaneti are covered in forest. Maybe for this timber we can finance a good road.“
The Komsomol members go to the Ispolkom club, they enjoy chess and football. They worry about the radio going silent, because the battery easily breaks down. The people of Ispolkom eagerly enumerate what metals are hidden in the Svanian mountains. They are anxiously awaiting the news when the paper mill in Dzvari will be built. There will be a railway line from Zugdidi to Dzvari and a hundred workers of the factory will surely be Svans. They will first be sent to the paper mills in the north to train them. Ispolkom has already received 500 applications for such jobs. The proletarianisation of Svaneti is a big thing. However, there is a frightening rumour going around that there is another major project which is in competition with the project in Svaneti. The construction of a factory in the malaria-ridden Zugdidi would be possible without the participation of the Svans. And they would also have to forego the railway line. The Supreme Soviet of the National Economy is responsible for the project in Dzvari, Tbilisi is responsible for the project in Zugdidi. Whose project will come through is still uncertain.
Tourists walk through Mestia. And through Mestia walk Svans, who have already got used to the bulbous Ispolkom building. The tourists stop enchanted in front of sledges and towers. Meanwhile, the people of Ispolkom think about how many new houses could be built from the stones of the old towers. They imagine bringing a travelling cinema to Svaneti. And they consider how the water, which is uselessly rushing along below the cliffs, could be clamped into the yoke of a dam.
A sluggish Svane has built a distilling plant in the middle of the road, consisting of copper kettles, troughs and water channels. The won arak is for the upcoming celebration in memory of the dead. He taps off a liquid, white and murky like the glacier water of the river, and offers us a glass of his homemade product.
We renounce and move on. We dream of the time when vast herds of cows graze on the beautiful Svanian meadows. Then, in the cheese dairies, they will load cheese as big as mill wheels into the cars of the cooperative, so that they can be taken to Dzvari by the railway line. The sizzling spring water, which today flows unused, will be bottled.
Hotels will be built for the tourists who come to see the Svan mountain sun to starve their bacteria and accumulate red blood cells. There will be electricity in the villages from the power of the tamed rivers. Red and white earthenware from Dzvari will drive the wooden vessels and copper wars from the houses.
And anew the Argonaut saga will arise when the ancient goldfields in the Chuberi area are exploited. Sawmills and paper mills will grind the wood of the tribes from the mountains instead of the Enguri. And you may hear the humming of an electric mountain railway over the steep faces from which horses and people fell on black ice as late as last year in winter.
Back to part I of the text: An overview on “Gorge People” (1928) by Sergei Tretyakov: Svaneti in the Soviet period Back to part II of the text: Part II: The Soviet pioneers liberate the Svans locked up in the mountains by building roads and thus gain their trust.
The civilizing program that the Soviet power carried out in Svaneti, regardless of how one might ultimately evaluate it, was of enormous scope and cost. On the one hand, the Sovietization of Svaneti brought about an improvement in living conditions. Still, on the other hand, it also demanded a devaluation of the centuries-old ideas of life. The founding of kolkhozes and sovkhozes did not progress as quickly as Tretyakov might have hoped, initially because of the Second World War and the severe conditions prevailing on the ground. In Ushguli, for example, the local kolkhoz was only founded in 1951. Those who experienced the Soviet-era intensively, above all point out the differences to today: medical care was safe, building materials were cheap, one could work for oneself and one's own family and also a little for the collective. There was always a market for all agricultural products; transport to the cities was regulated and cheap. There was a shop in every village community for what you didn't produce yourself. The children attended secondary schools in the region, learned Georgian, Russian, some English and German. They had been able to study themselves or their brothers and sisters and had found work with their degrees – today, the situation is much worse.
Translation: © Stefan Applis (2020); please 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 his text in the 15 April 1928 edition of Pravda