The path through a city leads deep into the present and past of the people living there. By discovering objects und spaces, one can learn much about what is constitutive for peoples’ lives.
„Expose the objects, recover them, make them speak – that is the path of archaeology proposed here. (…) The world is viewed and readable through the history of things, through the analysis of signs and forms of transport, places and routines (…).Schloegel 2017, p. 21
The article series "Georgian Perspectives" provides insights and analyses of contemporary Georgian social life from a geographical viewpoint. This means that all articles examine the social space and the practices taking place within it. This includes both the built space and the non-built space and all communications about places and spaces. It is important to underline that the insights given here must always include views from the outside, as the author is neither a native speaker nor permanently living in Georgia.
Georgia experienced a series of dramatic caesura in the 20th century, whose consequences for the self-understanding of the country’s population are grave. 1918 was the year of the declaration of independence from Russia. However, the Democratic Republic of Georgia only existed until the occupation by the Red Army in 1921 and Georgia was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Georgian SSR. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia again declared independence, followed by wars of secession in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with a total of 150,000 people forcibly displaced. After the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states from Georgia.
The cultural effects of the many and varied interrelationships of Georgian-Russian history have hardly been researched to date (cf. Maisuradze & Thun-Hohenstein 2015). They have left traces in the self-image of the people and space since both the Russian Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union explicitly aimed to transform social space and the practices carried out within it.
At the time of the violent establishment of Soviet power (1921), Georgia had, according to Russian perception, long since become the epitome of the Promised Land, the ’sunny Georgia‘.Maisuradze & Thun-Hohenstein 2015, p. 14
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called Georgia an „ornamental culture“. By this, he meant that Georgian culture was so rich in signs because it had managed to resist internally within its eventful history with occupiers from neighbouring regions. Above all, Georgian culture had taken over the rich heritage of symbols and signs of the occupiers (cf. Maisuradze & Thun-Hohenstein 2015, p. 15).
Many Russian poets of the 1920s and 1930s imagined Georgia as a country where life was a constant celebration, simply because of the subtropical climate and the location of the sea.
Accordingly, flower ornaments are the central decorative element to express the typical features of Georgian culture. This is particularly noticeable in the metal gates in Kutaisi in the former upper-middle-class district of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, which were installed during the Soviet era.
Flower ornaments are the central decorative element on metal gates in Kutaisi.
The symbol of this vision is Colchis – the legendary ancient landscape on the east coast of the Black Sea south of the Caucasus, whose name is inseparably linked to the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece.
On the western front of the Bazaar of Kutaisi is a frieze from the Soviet era. It follows the central demand of Stalin in its structure and presentation. The nations of the Soviet Union were to develop the best features of their national identity to merge into Soviet world culture (cf. Maisuradze, G. & Thun-Hohenstein 2015)
On the frieze one finds all the national topoi and motifs that the Soviet system granted Georgia: the Colchis as the future of the country where the Golden Fleece is within reach, the wine, growing immeasurably on healthy vines, people peacefully standing together in a traditional dress next to ‚Mother Georgia‘ and the national poet ‚Shota Rustaveli‘.
„Soviet Policy did systematically promote the distinctive national identity and national self-consciousness of its non-Russian populations. It did this not only through the formations of national territories staffed with national elites using their own national languages, but also through the aggressive promotion of symbolic markers of national identity: national folklore, museums, dress, food, costumes, opera, poets, progressive historical events, and classic literary works.“Terry Martin, 2001, The Affirmative Action Empire, p. 13.
The centre of the bazaar is the market for vegetables and fruit, which was built in the Soviet era. The Soviet system knew so-called private farmland in addition to the collective land. On these areas, the farmers and other employees from other branches of the economy were allowed to provide themselves with self-sufficient agricultural work. Besides, they were allowed to sell surplus produce at the kolkhoz markets which were not tied to prices. The internal structural problems of Soviet agriculture cannot be discussed here (cf. Brooks 1988, Hedlund 1989). In brief, however, it can be stated that the productivity on private farmland exceeded the productivity of the collective farms and sovkhozes, especially for labour-intensive agricultural products. Over many phases of the Soviet Union, the supply of food to the population was only possible through private farm farming, which was contrary to socialist logic.
A large part of the interior fittings and the objects used from the Soviet era still characterize the image of the ‚Green Bazaar‘ of Kutaisi today.
A Soviet Volga in a side street of Kutaisi
Kutaisi had been connected to the railway station Rioni on the line from Tbilisi to Poti by an 8 km long track in 1877. Between 1880 and 1900 the population grew to 32,500 inhabitants with the rise of a Georgian upper-middle class. The Duke of Oldenbourg, a relative of the Russian Tsar, built a sparkling wine and spirits factory, the Russian entrepreneur Ivanovsky a juice press and mineral water production.
The historical railway station building of Rioni.
Since 26 May 1918, an aspiring national elite tried to bring their country closer to the post-war ideal of a social-democratic Europe by declaring independence from Russia and founding the Democratic Republik of Georgia (cf. Iremadze 2018). In doing so, they opposed the Bolshevik Soviet Russia, which was resurgent after the end of the Second World War.
Travelling under the conditions of tsarist rule, national movements had strengthened in some regions of the Russian Empire (including Georgia) since the end of the 19th century, and a separate class of intellectuals had developed, which saw itself as the legitimate carrier of the national idea. This self-understanding of the old – pre-Soviet – national elites inevitably clashed with the utopian claim of Soviet power. This was supranational in its Marxist core. Not only was a new form of state to be created, but also a new civilization and culture.Maisuradze & Thun-Hohenstein 2015, p. 10
This attempt to break away from Soviet Russia ended in 1921 with the intervention of the Red Army and the forced integration of Georgia, so that Georgia finally remained in the Soviet Union for 70 years (cf. Lortkipanidze 2018). The old residential quarters of the bourgeoisie, which were later occupied by the new Soviet nomenklatura, can be visited between the Rioni River and Maisi Street in the eastern part of the city close to the centre.
Former residences of the Georgian bourgeoisie in Kutaisi
Thus, even if the uncovered things were already unobtrusively visible, they inevitably lead to the people. For their doing is nothing other than dealing with things. Thus, if it succeeds, „the whole emerges from the detail and the world of the other may become a little more readable, or at least recognizable, through the communicated history of things“Schlögel 2017, p. 21
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photography: © Stefan Applis (2019)
Brooks, K. M. (1988): Food Problems. Science, vol. 240, no. 4851, 1988, pp. 547–548. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1701198 (Date 11 July 2020)
Hedlund, S. (1989): Private Agriculture in the Soviet Union. London, New York: Routledge.
Iremadze, I. (2018): Die Demokratische Republik Georgien (1918-1921). Ein Modell des europäischen Sozialstaates? [The Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921). A model of the European welfare state?]. In Luka Nakhutsrishvili & Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung: Georgien, neu buchstabiert. Politik und Kultur eines Landes auf dem Weg nach Europa [Georgia, re-spelled. Politics and culture of a country on the way to Europe]. Bielefeld: Transkript, 63-74.
Lortkipanidze, L. (2018): Siebzig gestohlene Jahre. Die Parteienlandschaft in Georgien vor der sowjetischen Okkupation und in der postkommunistischen Periode [Seventy stolen years. The political landscape in Georgia before the Soviet occupation and in the post-communist period]. In: Luka Nakhutsrishvili & Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung: Georgien, neu buchstabiert. Politik und Kultur eines Landes auf dem Weg nach Europa [Georgia, re-spelled. Politics and culture of a country on the way to Europe] Bielefeld: Transkript, 75-86.
Maisuradze, G. & Thun-Hohenstein, F. (2015): Sonniges Georgien. Figuren des Nationalen im Sowjetimperium [engl. Sunny Georgia. Figures of the National in the Soviet Empire]. Berlin.
Schloegel, K. (2017). Das sowjetische Jahrhundert. Archäologie einer untergegangenen Welt. [The Soviet Century. Archaeology of a Perished World]. C.H. Beck: München.