Unholy bread

The important day is today, but the Soviet past is chasing us all the time, and every day is a struggle for existence. In 25 years we can’t outrun Russian chauvinism and crazy ideas, wars and humiliation. However, happy independence day, my dears…” (A young Georgian)

Twenty kilometers. This is the distance that separates the city of Akhaltsikhe from the border with Turkey. Only twenty kilometers, today. In the past, it was almost impossible to cover these twenty kilometers. In Soviet times, the road linking Tbilisi with Turkey was interrupted a few kilometers after the spa of Borjomi, which was already renowned in Pushkin’s time, and afterward became the favorite destination of the Romanovs, as well as the new Tsars of the Soviet Union, with Stalin first of all. The road winds through gorges and valleys, among houses destroyed by time, as well as grocery stores. Every so often it is interrupted by the passage of grazing cows. Occasionally the green landscape is dotted by old and dilapidated concrete blocks. “It is there”, says Giorgi, a local Armenian and longtime taxi driver, “that the soldiers stood during the Soviet Union”. He makes the gesture of holding a military rifle. “And whoever tried to pass, was shot.” And later: “From here on… only with passport.” During the Soviet Union, the region was a prohibited zone, with many barracks. I have many testimonies from Armenians and Georgians sent to patrol this border zone during their military service. The most controlled zones included the spa town of Abastumani, already famous at the time of the Tsars, which in Soviet times hosted officers of the Red Army and their families. Still today there is an important astronomical observatory on the nearby mountain.

Among the several “sanatoria”, many of which have been abandoned, and among the numerous Soviet buildings in concrete, which still house the few people who remain, there still stands a small Armenian church.

“While they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples […].» (Mk 14,22)

“Places do not have locations, but histories” (Tim Ingold). Built in 1898 by two Armenian brothers from Baku, the Armenian church of Abastumani is today in very poor condition, mainly because of the heavy renovations and changes in Soviet times. In fact, during the Soviet period the church was transformed into a bread oven. Besides partly eliminating and partly walling the gavit, the entrance hall of the church, the Soviets also added two buildings, partly built from the carved stones of the destroyed parts: a warehouse for oil and coal, and another for the storage of bread (to be sold in Abastumani and the surrounding villages). Still there are the big wooden shelves and the metal trays in which the ca. 3-kg loaves of were baked. The interior of the church is unrecognizable, were it not for the presence of the consacration crosses around on the walls, and a large plaque at the entrance with the description in Russian and Armenian, that explains genesis and construction of the church. Inside you can still see the big pots for the bread dough, and the large oven in the middle of the building.

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The Soviet regime has partly attained its goal. The gesture of transforming a church into something else, something secular and industrial, was an attempt to eliminate any reference point and all structures that might stir the feelings of the local population, which, only a few years earlier, represented certainties. For eighty years, the Soviet regime attempted to replace the cult of the sacred with the cult of the idea.

The transformation from a church directly to the production of a foodstuff that has been always taken for sacred in every culture. The complete secularization and industrialization of bread has changed the meaning of ʻbread’ itself, which during the Soviet period, played an exclusively secular role, and even a role triggered by a secular metamorphosis.

“It is then a major disaster, in which the culture is shown to be extremely fragile and precarious, yet indispensable and irreplaceable. The same cognitive categories and symbolic figures through which a community perceives and understands the world and makes it thinkable, lose their meaning at the very moment when they are most needed. It seems that the world literally ends there. The perception of the whole and the sense of an imminent and irreparable doom become unbearable.” (G. Ligi: Antropologia dei disastri)

During Soviet times, a loft was built behind the brick oven, which was also used as a warehouse. Still there are some mills to knead the dough and perhaps to grind flour. To date, the traces of wax and soot near many crosses are a sign of how, over the years, the church has been visited by the faithful, bearing witness to the reappropriation, if not of the whole building, but at least of its recognition as a sacred place.

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In Georgia, the process of transition was one of the most delicate in all the former Soviet world, not only for the violence accompanying it, but also for its contradictions.

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