Russian writers have been imagining Georgia as a paradise-like country since the 19th century. The warmth, the sun, the subtropical climate – Georgia was considered a country where life was a constant feast. This image also influenced the literary texts of the 1920s and 1930s, and it continued to have an impact until the Sovietization of Georgia’s Black Sea coast. The symbol of this vision is the „Colchis“ – the legendary ancient landscape, whose name is inseparably connected with the Argonauts and the search for the Golden Fleece and existed from the c. 13th to the 1st centuries BC. Paradigmatic for this is the novel „The Colchis“ (1934) by Konstantin Paustovsky, which enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union.
Portrait of the young Konstantin Paustovsky from the time he spent on the Georgian Black Sea coast and a redesign of the original book cover „The Colchis“ (1934)
The article series "Georgian Perspectives" provides weekly insights (via Twitter: @doinggeography) 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.
Poti is hardly ever visited by travelers to Georgia, partly because today there are only remnants of the tourist infrastructure from the Soviet era. Beach holidaymakers prefer to go to Batumi or one of the coastal resorts to the north. When you travel along the Georgian west coast today, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that not so long ago the whole coast from Anaklia to Kobuleti was a vast marshland.
Since the end of the 1920s, the Soviet power carried out an enormous transformation of the landscape there. The aim of which was nothing less than the creation of a paradise on earth – the Soviet tropics. If, as a tourist, you want to understand the structure of the landscape and its cities, it is a good idea to use Paustovsky novel, famous in the time of the first five-year plans of the Soviet Union, as a foil for what you see. Paustovsky’s view of the region is powerfully romantic in tone. He develops the vision of a speedy liberation of the ancient Colchis from malaria. Paustovsky feels deeply attached to Lenin’s statement that socialism could not be built without imagination.
The Poti from the time before Georgia’s annexation to Soviet Russia had already been a center of development to which the hopes of the bourgeois elite of the young Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921) had been directed at Poti. A rich architectural heritage is a testimony to all of this, which visitors to Poti can explore.
The Georgian writer and politician Niko Nikoladze, who promoted railway construction to Poti in the period before the October Revolution. As a visitor to Poti, one usually takes the train from Tbilisi to the old pre-Soviet station building in Poti, next to which the central bus station is also located. Nikoladze was the first Georgian intellectual of standing in Western Europe to obtain a doctorate. At home, people soon considered him an enlightener, as he pushed for the modernization of Georgia towards a liberal state, whose politicians should be committed to social responsibility towards the citizens. This brought him into conflict with tsarist censorship, but without diminishing his reputation in Russia. From 1894 to 1912 Nikoladze was mayor of Poti and turned the small port city into an important commercial center. After the Russian Revolution, Nikoladze fought for Georgia’s independence and became a representative of the National Democratic Party of Georgia. During the few years of the Georgian Republic (1918-1921) he participated in significant social and economic reforms. With the Soviet invasion in 1921, independence ended, and Georgia became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia.
Manor houses and villas from the time of the young Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921) await better times.
Former manor houses, bourgeois town villas and trading houses bear witness to the time before that. You can find these houses along the main streets of the city center. They are easily recognizable by the classicistic stucco elements of the facades. Many of the smaller buildings were pure summer houses of the bourgeoisie from Tbilisi or Kutaisi, the two largest cities in Georgia.
But now back to our fictional tour guide, the writer Konstantin Paustovsky. As a young man he lived in Georgia from 1922 to 1923 and visited the Poti area several times to collect material on the draining of the swamps in this region.
One of his main characters in the novel is the engineer Kachiani. In a pathetic speech, he sketches the future of the Soviet Colchis. He speaks to all the people of the region and their past when he points out that it would be a crime against the most fertile and most prosperous country in the Soviet Union if people continued to grow coarse and simple crops such as corn and millet. Instead, he said, tea, tangerines and lemons should be all-round and health resorts should be strung together from Kobuleti to Anaklia. And indeed, even today you still pass by the huge tangerine groves of the former collective farms, on which, however, not as many people work as in the heyday of the Soviet system.
The men who drain the swamps and dig the many hundreds of kilometers of canals are often named Argonauts in Paustovsky’s novel because they find the tropics in the Colchis, just as Jason discovered the ‚Golden Vlíes‘ with his Argonauts. These brave pioneers also include young Soviet scientists who are breeding new tea and citrus fruits that are optimally adapted to the Soviet Colchis.
The landscape has undergone drastic changes since then. Poti was extended as a street settlement, which is crossed by wide streets laid out at right angles. The construction of the Rioni Canal drained the marshes, diverted the water to the newly cultivated areas and created Lake Paliastomi. The latter, located in the south of Poti, is today the core of the Kolkheti National Park. There, visitors can still get an idea of the former richness of nature in the Colchis. There is only one access point from where you can start with boats into the national park, accompanied by rangers.
Kolkheti National Park was established in 1947 during the time of the Soviet Union.
The Kolkheti National Park covers an area of 28,940 hectares, including all protected wetlands. In addition, there is the 33710-hectare protected area of the former Kolkheti State Nature Reserve, which was established in 1947 during the time of the Soviet Union.At the entry point for the boat trips, you will encounter another part of Georgia’s Soviet history. Poti was not only a center of the Soviet production of citrus fruits, a legendary fishing port and one of the most significant transshipment points for goods on the Black Sea coast. The Cold War period also left its mark on Poti in dilapidated and disused facilities of the Soviet military industry. Poti was an essential location in the Soviet defense system of the Southern Caucasus region.
Camouflaged aircraft hangars for seaplanes and stripped-down production facilities of the military industry from the Soviet period
Back in Poti, near the port, you can see the many prefabricated concrete slab buildings and other accommodation for the many former industrial workers of the city. Some of them also bear witness to the impressive monumental mosaic art from the Soviet era, most often on public buildings in Ukraine and Georgia, which testify to the progress and victory of socialism and the working class. In the special case of Georgia many of these mosaics were not just functional art or simple propagandistic Soviet art. Some of them also have an emancipatory character, because they extensively depict Georgian folk national motifs, topoi and figures.
The prefabricated buildings from the Soviet era housed an army of workers in Poti – today Poti, like all former industrial locations in Georgia, has a sadly high unemployment rate.
In the Soviet period, the so-called Caucasian Riviera was one of the USSR’s largest holiday-zones with many health resorts which in the 1970s encompassed ‘approximately 6000 sanatoria, preventative health institutions and boarding houses which hosted getting on for 13 million people each year.
Poti never had large sanatoriums, but many holiday resorts for pupils and students, some of which you can also discover during a walk on the beach. The entire coastline from Anaklia to Batumi was home to up to a third more people in the heyday of the Soviet Union than there was room for in the official, state-run hotel and holiday resorts. Almost everyone who had a house in Poti rented it privately to summer guests. You can explore these residential areas, which are located directly on the beach, by taking a walk. The houses there were built or renovated during the Soviet era. All of them have artistically constructed staircases, terraces and balconies, the gardens are full of fruit trees and vegetable plots. It is easy to imagine what kind of a hustle and bustle must have been here in the summer. And even today, many Georgians who cannot afford to spend their holidays in one of the large coastal resorts still take their time out in such a small house.
Slow summer mood in Poti
The decaying infrastructure on the beaches and in the city is evidence of formerly more extensive tourism. As everywhere in Georgia, not only the houses but also the gardens in Poti bear witness to the economic status of their inhabitants. According to the statistical findings on poverty, there are potatoes, cabbage, aubergines, tomatoes and leeks. Almost everyone uses every free space for growing vegetables, fruit and small livestock like chickens; some even keep a pig in the garden. Here, as elsewhere in Georgia, people praise the fact that all this is organically grown, free of pesticides and other toxins. Those who can afford it, however, buy here as elsewhere in supermarkets, to give expression to a newly acquired status of living. If you look at the gardens and the houses, it is easy to recognise: Most of the inhabitants of Poti are far away from that.
Residential buildings from the Soviet period
Thus, the project of creating the Soviet subtropics imagined by Paustovsky, which was later vigorously pushed forward by the Soviet power, seems to have long since passed. And because of the precarious living conditions of most Georgians, its revival seems to lie in the unreachable distance. Even if Poti has everything, it takes to become one of Georgia’s development centers.
In 2008, the Georgian state initially sold 51% of the port and other areas to investors from the United Arab Emirates, and in 2009 it sold the remaining state shares in the harbour. The property was sold again in 2011. A Danish company acquired 80 per cent of the port area of Poti. Poti certainly has a better employment situation than other Georgian cities because of the port. Still, the considerable investments that should create the necessary jobs have so far failed to materialize.
At the same time, China has for years been interested in establishing itself on the Black Sea coast via Georgia. Since other investors are occupying Poti, there have been plans since 2012 to make Anaklia, located north of Poti directly on the border with Abkhazia, the largest seaport on the Black Sea coast. But Anaklia is also waiting for further developments. So far, no investments have been made in more than concrete and iron breakwaters, and Chinese investors have already offered their shares to other consortia twice. Georgian policy is nevertheless positive. Whoever implements the project, Georgia will play a significant role at the far end of a new Silk Road belt. This is – as ever – also linked to the hope of keeping Russia at a distance by involving other actors. Parallel port projects in Anaklia hinder the development of Poti and vice versa. The respective local initiatives lead to ongoing tensions and ultimately to a development gap. Wherever it may ultimately go, depending on the interplay of global political imponderables. Poti seems to remain Georgia’s waiting city on the Black Sea for the time being. Poti is worth a visit in any case, because it is an ideal-typical example of the undertakings of Soviet power to transform the geography of a space and at the same time create a new human being – the Soviet man.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photos: © Stefan Applis (2017, 2018, 2019)
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