Zahesi quarter. The sound of the name of the Soviet housing estate, established in the north-western edge of Tbilisi to support the hydroelectric power plant suggests ancient Georgian origins. However, the name is neither ancient, nor Georgian. In fact, it is a Russian acronym for Земо-Авчальская ГЭС (гидроэлектростанция), that is, “Upper Avchala Hydroelectric Power Plant”, which was built in the 1920s to realize the dream of Lenin, the GOELRO Plan for the electrification of all Soviet Russia.

Soviet power plus electrification is communism. The eight flagships of the great plan were designated in 1923, spread all over the country. One of them was allotted to Georgia, partly to industrialize the largest city in the Caucasus, and partly to control the river which often flooded the city. The location of the hydroelectric power plant was sited directly above Tbilisi, where the river Kura enters the city, above the thousand-year-old Avchala village, which only became part of Tbilisi and a Soviet industrial quarter in 1962, and by the present day, a deserted ghost town. True, the power plant reservoir, and according to the old maps, even the dam, belonged to the much more significant Mtskheta. Under this town, the seat of the Georgian Church, the Aragvi river, running down from the northern mountains, discharges into the Kura, which comes from the south. Today, as a result of the damming, they constitute a magnificent frame for the city, even as they cut into some of its lower-lying streets along the river.

In the period, however, it would have been unimaginable to name a hydroelectric plant after a church center, especially if the former also bore the name of Lenin, as did all of the first eight power stations. It was already disconcerting that, whether they liked it or not, the oldest church in Georgia, the 7th-century Jvari, that is, Holy Cross, towered over the dam. It was surely to visually counterbalance it that, in 1927, after the completion of the power station, they also erected a monumental statue of Lenin next to the dam, one of the first Lenin monuments in the country.

The statue was designed by sculptor Ivan Dmitrievich Shadr (in original name, Ivanov, 1887-1941), whose artistic qualities and revolutionary commitment rested above all suspicion. Before 1917, he studied in Paris, where he was a follower of Bourdel and Rodin, and after 1917 he worked closely with Lenin on the realization of the “monumental propaganda” envisioned by the latter. The Lenin statue planned next to the ZAGES is a major branch of the Lenin iconography, which was solidifying just at that moment, the prototype of the “pointing Lenin”, which would be imitated in thousands of variations across the empire. The type was further popularized by illustrations that propagated the image of the realized hydropower plant across the country, such as the printed graphics of Ignaty Nivinsky, or the monumental fresco by Vasily Maslov, recently discovered in the Bolshevik House in Moscow’s Korolev district.

Ignaty Nivinsky: Monument to Lenin at the ZAGES, print, 1927

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During the last century, a lot of water flowed down in the Kura. The hydroelectric power plant grew old, and the Georgian state, which has no money for reconstruction, sold it in 2007. The new owner, GeoInCor operates it only intermittently. From the two settlements bearing the name of the plant, the Zahesi housing estate and Avchala industrial quarter, the residents flee. The first one to disappear was Lenin himself, whose statue was removed in 1991. The still vacant pedestal has been charitably covered by the growing trees. If you stop at a certain point of the Mtskheta-Tbilisi road, and look through the small forest, and wade through the knee-high grass to the bank of Kura, you see that after a short interlude, the river and the mountain have taken back their thousand-year-old reign over the landscape.

L. Utesov: Suliko, 1930s

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