Temraz Nizahradze was head of the Ushguli collective farm for the last two years before the collapse of the Soviet system. Agriculture and cattle breeding has always secured the livelihoods of the people in Svaneti, which is characterised by two long mountain rivers.

While Upper Svaneti (Zemo Svaneti) lies along the course of the Enguri River, which has cut deep gorges into the north-western mountain ranges of Georgia, Lower Svaneti (Kvemo Svaneti) surrounds the gorge of the Tskhenistskali River. Upper and Lower Svaneti are separated by a mountain range, which has always limited economic and social exchange between the two regions. The narrow valleys and steep slopes offer little opportunity for any other use than that of mountain farming, which is characterised by severe hardship. Forestry has always been part of the economy, but the higher the altitude, the more limited this activity becomes.

In 1951, Temraz explained, all property that had previously been declared state property was transferred to a collective farm. The cultivation of grain, which had shaped the landscape for centuries, was abolished. Instead, potatoes were introduced, and livestock numbers increased significantly. However, it took several years to find a variety that grew well at altitude. The first attempts failed. The potatoes rotted in the soil, which led to significant supply problems, especially since the importation of flour had been necessary ever since. In the beginning, everyone was also enthusiastic about the communist idea that everyone was equal, and a great mood of consumption prevailed. But then everyone would soon have started to work worse and make use of Community funds wherever possible.

Everyone here is just like that, looking more to himself and his family, then to the other relatives and not to those who do not belong to him.

Svans have a strong sense of honour and justice, says Teimuraz. He speaks slowly, weighing every word carefully. You keep still, be patient, say nothing for a long time. When Svans then sit together, drinking wine and Chacha, conflicts that have not been resolved may break out. That is why he himself had been a member of councils of elders and legations in the past, in order to solve land conflicts or to prevent blood revenge. This still happens elsewhere, but no longer in Ushguli. Therefore, he says, it is important to visit each other, maintain contact, sit together, drink and talk in order to overcome difficulties.

In the Soviet system, everyone had worked well and diligently only on the land that remained in family ownership to provide for themselves and sell the surplus. The state tried to respond with greater control by turning Ushguli into a Sovchose in 1970. But even that did not help in the end. Hardly anyone here ever believed that the land on which they lived belonged to the state or the collective. After all, the land had been owned by the different lines of descent for centuries.

I ask if he knows Tschingis Aitmatov’s story about his studies in Djambul. The great Soviet-Kyrgyz writer, who, coming from the village, studied cattle breeding in the Soviet system and then became a veterinarian, tells about having only one teacher who left the classroom with the students and took them to the bazaar to test their knowledge on real animals. At that time it was frowned upon among academics to have direct contact with the ordinary people, who were considered uneducated and uncultured, reports Aitmatov. It was only with this teacher that he could find out how much he knew from childhood on. Temraz nods his head violently. Aitmatov’s experiences are familiar to the boy from a family of mountain farmers. Temraz nods his head violently. Aitmatov’s experiences are familiar to the boy from a family of mountain farmers.

That is precisely how it was. We learned nothing at the university. Everything I know about agriculture and animal husbandry, I know because I grew up here. We had to study Marx and Engels, but none of our teachers was interested in exactly how the world works.

For Temraz, the family values of the Svans are to help each other, listen to each other, follow the advice of the elders and stand up for each other. Family and land are united in Svaneti. The whole landscape, says Temraz, and he waves his right arm far out, talks about the families and their history. Anyone who grew up here can trace who lived there and to which line of descent everything belongs on every piece of land, every pasture, every wood, every field, every house. In the Soviet Union, everything was de jure state-run except for the farmland. De facto, however, people had lived on as before. After the end of the Soviet Union, everyone got back their family property, even if nothing had been registered. The forest is still state-owned today. ‚De jure!‘, emphasises Teiumraz and raises his finger. But in fact, everyone behaved as if it was always family property. Even in the past and during the Soviet era, there were areas where anyone could cut timber. And that is still the case today. But no one would ever strike a tree on the territory of another. Even the areas of those who have not lived in Ushguli for a long time remain untouched. Not stealing, not lying, not killing anyone else – these are the most important basic principles. Everyone is different, sees things a little differently, and that is a good thing.

It has been getting better for about ten years, every year for seven years, sometimes month by month.

The state’s idea after the end of the Soviet Union, that small agricultural economic units should join together in cooperations, which would then receive state support, did not work either. Why should he and his neighbour join forces? Teimuraz raises his shoulders, opens his eyes wide and shakes his massive head. He can’t think of any reason for it himself, and neither can any other Svan if you get the impression as a listener. They belong to different families, he confirms. Teimuraz squints his eyes together and turns his head slightly towards the neighbouring house. Each one observes exactly what the other one is doing, then thinks about what is appropriate for himself and then makes his own decision. You do look at each other, he says, raises his finger and waits a moment before continuing: But first of all, everyone is obliged to themselves and their families.

The soil here is ideal for growing potatoes in large quantities. During the Soviet era, this worked very well, and cheese and meat could also be produced in high quality, he says, if only they could be marketed accordingly. The conditions were excellent for producing high-quality organic produce. But for that to happen, the state would have to invest in the entire organisational structure of Ushgulis, and in the long run, that would be essential.

Life is hard up here. In winter we barely go out of the house for half a year. At the beginning of the winter, everything you need is brought into the house. Then the snow comes, and you stay among yourself. You visit each other at the festivals, talk, eat and drink. For a painter or philosopher, there can be no better life.

The best thing about the Soviet system was that there was a shop where you could buy anything, today the distances are too far. But there was no freedom, and freedom is the highest good. For him, there could not be a better life. He has cows, two pigs and two horses, which he only has to take care of for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening, the rest of the day he is free of work.

Ushguli does only have a future if young people want to live here permanently.

The young people who return to Ushguli in summer, says Temraz, remember their childhood here. But you can’t cross the river without getting your boots wet. Of course, times change, he says, and that has always been the case. And he doesn’t worry about whether tourists are watching him in the garden or not. And if they were, he wouldn’t mind.

In Ushguli, everyone lives best on his own.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2015, 2018, 2019)