Ushguli is a village community located in the Upper Svaneti region in the north of Georgia. Since its attainment of UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996 and the establishment of secure state structures and systems around 2010, Ushguli has been seeing an incremental rise in tourism; thus far, it has found itself relatively unprepared for meeting the interests and needs of visitors and for coping with the diversity characterising modern lifestyles. The encounter and in many instances clash of interests between villagers and tourists, occurring in a context in which the economic objectives of the former group are encouraging continuously growing visitor numbers, is correspondingly difficult to channel and manage. It especially includes the particularly crucial task of recording the current state of the physical objects that shape this world, which year on year is suffering perceptible disrepair and experiencing transmutation.
Photo 1: View of Ushguli’s upper villages, towards Shkhara in September 2018; valley pathway with summer pastures in the background. Photo 2: Ushguli in 1910. Photo 3: Mid-altitude village in June. On average, about 800 to 1000 tourists a day arrive in Ushguli in summer.
The region of Upper Svaneti, located in the north of Georgia, is in some ways a special case within the country, as it was in the Soviet era. This region was known then, as it is now, for the substantial ethnic homogeneity of its population, as is typical of some of the mountainous regions of the Caucasus. One factor in this homogeneity is almost certainly the necessity, born of the population’s subsistence from agriculture at an altitude of 1500–2200 m, of a collective lifeworld strongly oriented towards the creation and maintenance of a somehow functioning community. Another, concomitant issue is the population’s clearly defined idea of an own identity as distinct from that of neighbouring groups. From the early Soviet era onwards, the region found itself the target of specific cultural interventions, as were typical of Soviet policy around nationality and national identities. These included reinforcement of an ethnic consciousness through recognition of the region’s distinct culture combined with a reduction in the significance accorded to the national identity through the promise of its supersession held out by the concept of the ‘New Soviet man’. At the same time, Upper Svaneti remained an exemplary instance of the limitations of measures intended to bring about cultural transformation. The authorities failed in their endeavours to effect the dissolution of local notions and institutions of law, such as councils of elders, the use of intermediaries in the contraction of marriage and issues relating to the distribution of land, and the quasi-legalisation of mediation practices in conflicts around the abduction of girls for marriage and attempts to quell vendettas; these institutions eventually found partial codification within Soviet law. Current studies point to high rates of local acceptance of such practices to this day, as well as indicating that non-Svani ethnic Georgians widely attribute to the country’s mountain peoples the possession of an authentic core of ethno-national ‘Georgianness’, inextricably linked to Georgian Orthodox Christianity.
„At the beginning of soviet times“, Temraz Nijaradze, agronom and former director of the kolchose, explains, “everyone was enthusiastic about the idea that everybody would be equal.” He too had been a convinced communist for the time being. At first everyone had worked together, but soon people focused on themselves again, he says. “I believe we Svans are not made for collective working. Everyone just looks at his own family and not to the ones he is not related to.”
Photo 4: Soviet-style balcony of 1930. Photo 5 : View of Ushguli in 1970. Photo 6: Temraz Nijaradze, former director of the kolchose, with his elder brother Fridon, the famous paintor of Ushguli.
Ushguli’s value as a tourist destination lies in its defensive tower houses, which have held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1996, and in its proximity to the foot of Shkhara, the second highest peak in Greater Caucasus and Georgia’s highest mountain, located twelve kilometres north of the community, in the extended Enguri gorge. Hikers, mountaineers and skiers from outside Georgia have been coming to Ushguli since Soviet times, with particularly large numbers visiting in the 1970s. The primary object of interest in this regard is the village’s World Heritage-status ensemble of towers and buildings for residential and other purposes, and the transformations through which their use has passed and is passing.
Ushguli will be gone someday because it lacks permanent inhabitants, says Samir Ratiani, looking at the fact that more than a half of its original population lives in Ushguli only during the summer – when tourists are visiting. “Ushguli as community of people living in Ushguli!”, he affirms. One has to acknowledge what it means to live here, be able to do all the work that needs to be done to survive the winter season. The young people couldn’t do that. “Without the place that you come from, without your traditions you are nothing. The ones that have left don’t really belong to Ushguli anymore.” And there comes no help from the government. The help would be needed though, to maintain the old buildings. Everyone is doing their own thing, altering the old buildings without either plan or target. Like that Ushguli will be gone someday.
Photo 7: An impression of the living-conditions in lower-altitude village with only eight towers intact after disastrous avalanches in the winter of 1986/87 which claimed a total of 82 lives in the region. Photo 8: On the left the first modern house in Ushguli built in 1939. On the right hand one example of the typical mountain architecture of the future?
Alongside the dominant ethno-political narratives about Svaneti, driven additionally by economic motives focused on attracting tourists, there should be payed specific attention to what several scholars have termed ‘Soviet civilisation’. Lifeworlds may be older and more stable than political structures, and they may remain when the demise of a system has already been recorded in the history books. They leave traces which endure long after their passing in languages, the styles of buildings housing administrative authorities and schools, infrastructure, ways of interacting which have been adopted by the new times, educational trajectories and life stories which will possess physical reality and presence on the mental maps of the inhabitants of the now postimperial world even once the state called USSR and its apparatus are forgotten. Part of Ushguli’s particularity stems from these traces. It was in Ushguli that the Georgian/Soviet film director Mikhail Konstantinovich Kalatozov (1903-1973) made ‘Salt for Svanetia’ (1930), his third documentary covering propagandistic and ethnographic purposes alike.
Photo 9: 75-years old former sport’s teacher Saur is a fantastic narrator and full of stories about Ushguli’s past and hope for its future. Photo 10: The showroom of Saur’s guesthouse. Photo 11: ‘Soviet-style’ ceiling of 1939. It was built by Saur’s father and painted by Fridon Nizharadze.
Beginning in 1939, with its first modern building, Ushguli’s physical ensemble bears diverse variations on the familiar repertoire of propagandistic Soviet symbols such as the hammer and sickle and the red star, adorning balconies or carved into the fabric of the buildings. Are these objects and relationships part of Ushguli’s cultural heritage, or simply literally ‘things of the past’?
Saur speeks enthusiastically about his father’s achievement, having brought all the construction materials for this house on only three bull-teamed cartloads to Ushguli. Exempt from three years military service and his study period at the sports faculty in Tiblisi the 73 years old former sports teacher has spent his whole life in Ushguli. His guest house is also something like a museum of contemporary history because it tells stories about all of the national and international guests that visited Ushguli during the Soviet times. For example the film crew of the famous georgian climber Mikheil Khegiani always spent the night at his place. Does the present-day youth have an easier life than the older generations did? That’s a tough question, Saur answers. The young people didn’t witness the terrible times after the disintegration of the Soviet Union consciously, furthermore not their best times as well. In the past at least anyone from Ushguli that graduated was able to work in their field. Life in Ushguli has always been hard – the young people have forgotten that. They graduate, too, but there are no jobs for them in today’s Georgia. Thus they only come to Ushguli in the summer because of the tourists – without the tourists everything would be even worse.
Whichever the case, Ushguli’s residents include numerous individuals with life stories typical of the Soviet era, who have expressed a nostalgic desire for recognition of their life’s work.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photos: © Stefan Applis (2018, 2017, 2015)
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