Georgia, minute by minute. 2. Kutaisi

Traveling by bus from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, a surprising sight greets and accompanies you along a long stretch of the road. More than half of the 230-kilometer road, Georgia’s most important traffic line, is not yet a highway, but a narrow road winding through villages in the deep valley of the Rikotula and then Dzirula rivers, so it takes about four to five hours to complete it. Now, however, something is changing. Massive highway construction is going on throughout the river valley, with an area laid waste to a width of a several hundred meters, with huge concrete tunnels, highway pillars and other artefacts, and Chinese inscriptions everywhere. Workers’ hostels reminiscent of military barracks every few dozen kilometers, with large red Chinese tatsepaos. Several large Chinese construction companies are working on the nearly one-hundred-kilometer long highway from Rikoti Pass to the Kutaisi bypass. I recall that in 2018, flying from Dali to Kunming, I counted fourteen gigantic highway construction sites from the air only in the middle part of the relatively rural Yunnan province. The road construction in Dzirula Valley is of a lesser scale than them, but in such a small-scale country, this volume is both impressive and frightening.

Road construction at the bend of Dzirula, east of Ubisi. The six pillars to the right were set up back at the end of communism, but they no longer had time to place a highway on top of them. The large white pillars that cut through the bend are already the work of the Chinese construction company.

This giga-building reminds one of the Fudan project in Budapest and other stealthy colonization moves by China. But this is something different. Not a debt trap, like the Montenegro highway, Sri Lanka port, Laos railway and many other projects built from Chinese loans and, after the respective state’s insolvency, taken in Chinese possession. In 2015, the romance between Georgia and China started to be mutually beneficial. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China discovered an alternative transportation route through Georgia bypassing Russia, while Georgia hoped for new markets and new investments from China instead of the short-sighted US governments that have neglected Georgia in the past decade, as well as serious political support to reclaim the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in return for which Georgia strongly supports the One China policy, staying away from Taiwan and never mentioning the repression of human rights in China. In this spirit of mutual benefit, China won a number of construction tenders in Georgia back in 2018 (albeit through a lot of corruption), and they are now implementing them, including the Tbilisi-Kutaisi highway. In the meantime, however, the rosy haze has dispersed. The momentum of the Belt and Road Initiative, launched as a great ideological battle cry in 2013, has by now slowed down, due to the growing difficulties of Chinese economy and the escalating Chinese-US trade war. China cannot now focus on its secondary partners as they thought they could in 2015. And Georgia is dissatisfied with Chinese markets – where they are allowed to export only copper and other raw materials –, as well as Chinese investments and Chinese political support, since the Chinese leadership systematically avoids conflict with Russia over the breakaway territories, and even engages in joint military excercises in the Caucasus with Russian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian troops.

An important difference between the routes of the Soviet and Chinese highway pillars standing next to each other in the bend of Dzirula is that the Soviet highway would have led straight to the millennial Ubisi monastery, perhaps providing an excuse for its demolition, while the Chinese highway bypasses the whole village with a tunnel. Ubisi Monastery was founded in the 9th century by St Gregory of Khandzta (759-861). He was an abbot in Tao-Clarjeti province, now part of Turkey, the only Georgian province that did not come under Arab rule in the 7th century. This was also the cradle of the Bagrati royal dynasty, who gradually reconquered Georgia and Armenia from the Muslims in the following centuries. Gregory supported their policies on an ecclesiastical level. In the recaptured provinces, he erected monasteries to re-Christianize the countryside. Ubisi was one among them. On the outer wall of the sanctuary, you can still read his founding inscription, with the Bagrati lion beneath it.

We also know the painter of the beautiful frescoes of the church. He was called Damiane, and he followed the most elegant style of the 14th century, the Palaiologos Renaissance of Byzantium. The same style which his Western contemporaries, Giotto and Duccio, used to create the Italian Renaissance. I will write a separate post about these frescoes, so I only show a few of them now.

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The wall of the church is also adorned with various graffiti, like in medieval churches in general, especially around the gate, where the bored believers spent time waiting for the liturgy. The figures are not really discernible through the many layers, but the inscriptions written in Nuskhuri, the widespread script of the Middle Ages, are still visible.

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The highway from Tbilisi to Gori and even further, to the Rikoti Pass, has existed for many years. It runs on the northern bank of Mtkvari. However, the ancient, historic route follows the south bank of the river. This is the Royal Route, the historic axis of the medieval Georgian kingdom, densely lined with medieval churches, castles, monasteries, cave towns. From this route, additional dirt roads, accessible only by horse or SUV, branch south to the Trialeti Mountains, where small mountain villages hide many more medieval churches and monasteries. I once set out to see them, but most of them are still to be visited. This will be a separate expedition and minute-by-minute report.

A view from the side of the highway to the Royal Route, and, beyond it, the Trialeti Mountains

On the Royal Route stands the cave town of Uplistsikhe, the oldest surviving settlement in Georgia. Tsikhe means castle in Georgian, and Uplos is the mythological ancestor to whom, like Nimrod, medieval chroniclers traced back the origin of the nation. The cave dwellings were carved into the soft volcanic rock from the end of the 2nd millennium BC. These homes were once complemented by walls of wood and rubble, but today there remain at most only traces of them. Today, the lunar-like lava plateau is interspersed only by a maze of holes, flats and courtyards, and embraced by the green valley of the river. The most characteristic traces of the former civilization are the pits of the grape presses and amphorae carved into the stone, in such density as though the main activity of the inhabitans had been the production and consumption of wine, which is not so unlikely here in Georgia. At the highest point of the rock there lies the princely palace, also carved into the rock, and the walled 9th-century Christian church, which is still in use today, although the city was depopulated during the 13th-century Mongol invasion. Today it is inhabited only by dwarf dinosaurs, agama lizards, basking, playing and tussling on the rocks, their curiousity allowing visitors, who are a rarity today, a close-up look at them.

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Gori also has a medieval castle, but the city is mainly famous for being the birthplace of the most powerful Georgian ruler ever, Stalin. “We respect Stalin very much”, the manager of a local guest house told me many years ago. “Think about it, if he wasn’t born here and his museum wasn’t here, who would come to Gori? What would we live on?” Crystal clear logic. Luckily, the people of Linz have other sources of livelihood.

Stalin photo on a persimmon desk at the Kutaisi market. Who is the other one?

However, the Georgian cult of Stalin is not as overwhelming as it appears. Georgians, especially young people and intellectuals, are aware of Stalin’s true historical merits, the great terror, the oppression of peoples, including their people, the divide and rule politics whose results they suffer now. It is mainly the elderly and simple folk who remember him with nostalgia, which is more of a nostalgia for their youth. A political movement could not be founded on Stalin in today’s Georgia, unlike in Russia. It is also because of the resurgent and officializing Russian cult of Stalin that it is seen with suspicion in Georgia.

The absolute beneficiaries of the Stalin museum are the stray dogs constantly chilling here

I wrote earlier about the Stalin museum in Gori, illustrating with the reports of Witold Szabłowski’s Tańczące niedźwiedzie (Dancing bears. True stories of people nostalgic for life under tyranny), made with the staff of the museum, concerning what they think about the museum and Stalin today.

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On our most recent visit, in one of the halls, next to Stalin’s table with a small lampshade, a TV interview was taking place with a young local celebrity who certainly had not lived in Stalin’s time. The smashing red plastic shoes of the reporter, dressed in Soviet vaudeville style, matched perfectly the color of the “Stand Here” covid stickers glued to the parquet floor.

The same hall has the exhibition object that is most familiar to the Hungarian visitor. Not only because it represents a domestic landmark, but also because of the enthusiastic, warm devotion to the conqueror flowing from its inscription.

“To the liberating Soviet heroes from the grateful Hungarian people, 1945”. Beneath, on the copper plate: “The Hungarian Peasant Delegation, 1951”. It is difficult to explain why Hungarian peasants chose such a distinctively urban symbol. Perhaps, in addition to cotton and oranges, palm cultivation was also planned, and the only specimen found in the country was in the hands of the Statue of Liberty.

Habent sua fata artefacta, not only books, but works of art also have their own history. Laci Holler looked into the history of the peasant delegation of 1951, which donated the above model of the Statue of Liberty, and sent us the following articles from the Arcanum database for the round anniversary. The 200-member peasant delegation led by Imre Dögei, President of the Hungarian Parliament, visited the Soviet Union exactly 70 years ago, from 5 July to 3 August 1951, to “learn first-hand about the world’s most advanced agriculture, the decisive superiority of socialist large-scale production and the happy and cultured life of the Soviet peasantry”. In Moscow they paid a visit to the Timirazev Agricultural Academy and its experimental plants. They visited the Lenin Mausoleum and the museum where gifts from all over the globe for Stalin’s 70th birthday were exhibited. (The same gifts will be exhibited in the Gori Museum after 1957.) They then divided into five groups and traveled to five Soviet republics to study local agriculture. The group lead by Imre Dögei went to Georgia, where they were received by the President of the republic Mikhail Lelashvili, and they also visited the Stalin Kolkhoz in Gori.

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When traveling from east to west, the westernmost junction of the Georgian road network is signed everywhere along the highway and national roads: Sukhumi, like Mosonmagyaróvár in my native Hungary. With the difference that Sukhumi has been the seat of the breakaway Abkhazia since the Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, where Georgian citizens have been forbidden to enter for almost thirty years. If they took the road sign seriously, they would, at the Inguri bridge, crash into the Russian army of occupation checking the passports. So the road sign is, in fact, not information, but a political statement, an irredenta manifesto, a stand for the country’s internationally recognized unity – Abkhazia’s independence is recognized, apart from Russia, only by such great powers as Venezuela and Nauru – and a reminder and call for an effective restoration of that unity.

Georgian soldiers in Sukhumi, 1992. Photo by Giorgi Tsagareli

Sukhumi and Batumi were still referred to together in elementary school Russian classes as the Black Sea twin resorts. The difference today, in self-ironic Russian memes: To the left: “We saved Sukhumi! / Batumi we could not save…” To the right: “Adjarian resort [Batumi], that we failed to liberate from Georgian fascists / Abkhaz resort [Sukhumi] that we managed to liberate from Georgian fascists”

At the Abkhaz border. From George Ovashvili’s The Other Bank / L’Autre Rive / გაღმა ნაპირი, Franco-Georgian co-production (2009)

The center of Kutaisi is the market, or as they say, the bazaar. In fact, the whole lower town on the left bank of the Rioni was created for and serves the bazaar. In the fifteenth to nineteenth century, during the fragmentation of Georgia, Kutaisi was the trade link between the Ottoman and Persian empires, the meeting of worlds where all kinds of peoples could be found, including their quite unlikely subspecies, like Catholic Georgians, Orthodox Tatars and Old Believer Ruthenians. For the same reason, it was also the largest Jewish city in Georgia, even today with three large synagogues in operation, a significant Jewish population, and an even more significant double-dwelling Jewry commuting between Georgia and Israel but celebrating the holidays in Kutaisi.

On the wall of the bazaar overlooking the river, a Soviet ceramic composition made in the 80s sums up the history of Kutaisi. According to archaeological finds, Kutaisi is one of the oldest cities in the world, but in comparison the depth of its past, very few historical facts are known. So legends play an important role in the composition, such as the Golden Fleece, that the Argonauts carried away from Kolkhis, the ancient Kutaisi. The large surfaces between the legends and the historical figures, such as King David the Builder, are filled with happy rural families, allegories of the beautiful new world, and the all-encompassing tendrils of vine. And the bottom of the composition, following the usual historical dichotomy of Soviet monuments – that is, that the age of wars is over, and the abundance of eternal peace now rules – is filled with a pile of weapons from every millennium of Kutaisi, with a special emphasis on the overthrown eagle of the Tsars.

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This eschatological character of he Soviet view of history is particularly strong in World War II monuments, which paraphrase a traditional Christian theme, the victory of good and light over evil and darkness. As in the WWII memorial in Khoni near Kutaisi, whose five relief fields provide a surprisingly articulated myth of 20th-century Soviet history. This history, as recognizable from the clothes and weapons, begins with the October Revolution, as the jahilliya, the age of darkness preceding it does not deserve representation. It is followed by the first era of the peaceful building of socialism, which, looking back from the time of the erection of the memorial, is already a nostalgic past, an emblematic era of the union of the working class, peasantry and army. Then comes World War II, the victory of the five-pointed star and the suppression of the swastika. Then the present, swaying ears of corn, and finally the future that feeds on it, with the New Men rejoicing in traditional Christian orans posture, but, in place of obsolete deities and saints, they gaze upon rockets, doves of peace and – obviously peaceful – atoms in the sky (these latter, judging from their two orbitals, are helium atoms). In front of the pillars separating the reliefs, like the statues on the pillars of a cathedral, stand the busts of local heroes of WWII. On the wall of the nearby house, like the Holy Word in the church, a bilingual inscription proclaims: “No one and nothing is forgotten.” Except, in fact, the whole country.

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However, the most expressive monument of the new approach to history is this Akhalshen specimen from which all the frills have been removed together with the marble cladding, likely re-used somewhere else, and what remains is the abstract concrete expression itself, the archetypal representation of the affirmation of the present and the fulfillment of history. From a humpbacked substructure sinking into the past, the menhir of the YES rises into the sky like a rocket, with a horizontal side dolmen for commentary. It is impossible to say more with fewer tools about the essence of history.

The rocket, cosmos and space travel have played an important role in the public decoration of socialism as a symbol and promise of a future already realized in the present, as is well analyzed in the studies of the volume Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. In the Soviet Union, the mosaic decoration of rural bus stops were important mediators of current ideological themes. Many of them have survived in Georgia. On the way from Kutaisi to the sanatorium town Tskaltubo, there is a largely untouched one, with all the obligatory attributes of the subject, stars, rockets, planetary orbits, and the spacesuited head of the New Man. It certainly must have been of great moral support to the passengers, as they waited in vain for hours for buses which did not come due to a lack of petrol and spare parts.

Теперь нам не надо по улицам мыкаться ощупью.
Машины нас ждут, и ракеты уносят нас вдаль…
А все-таки жаль — иногда над победами нашими
встают пьедесталы, которые выше побед.

Today we no longer have to stumble down the street:
Cars wait for us, and spaceships take us far…
But it is still a pity that under our victories sometimes
there stand pedestals that are higher than the victory.

Bulat Okudzhava: Былое нельзя воротить (The past cannot be brought back)

At the bus stop before Tskaltubo we met the future, but then the future turned off elsewhere. In Tskaltubo we are received by the most miserable past. Due to its radon-carbonate sources, the town was the most popular spa in Soviet Georgia. Its large central park was surrounded by thirty sanatoriums, most of them from 1950 and 1951, and they were visited by 120 thousand guests per year. Then came the change of regime and then the Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, and a part of the Georgians expelled from Abkhazia received accommodation in the spa hotels. I remember well those times, when the grand hotels of Tbilisi were also full of Mingrelian – Abkhazian Georgian – refugees, mostly peasants who kept their most valuable items, their goats and pigs, on the balconies of the hotels. Thirty years have passed since then. The refugees in Tbilisi have been integrated in the local society, they live in normal flats, the men are mostly taxi drivers who, during a longer journey, give a nostalgic description of their homes left in Abkhazia, and the hotels receive guests again. But Tskaltubo is a little town, and the population of the nearby Kutaisi is also only twentieth of that of Tbilisi. In addition, the spa hotels housed mainly broken families, where the head of the family was massacred in Abkhazia, and the women with young children had no chance of finding work and breaking out of the refugee shelter. The former spa hotels are still home to three thousand refugees, mostly old women, middle-aged alcoholics and young unemployed couples, who have never experienced any other way of life. The buildings, full of makeshift additions that have seen no maintenance for thirty years, are utterly dilapidated, and in the former botanical gardens, between the noble cedars and sycamores, corn fields fenced with tin sheets and goat sheds and hen houses, are empty, decomposing, since the first generation that still understood animal husbandry has disappeared. There were once statues in front of the spa hotels, but today only pedestals without figures and inscriptions remain, as if the heroes of Soviet times were ashamed to give their name to this post-Soviet reality.

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Grand Hotel Sakartvelo (Georgia), which was an emblematic building of the heyday, is now also an emblematic building of the decay. Its white building shines far from the cedar groves, and as you get closer, the rusty but still complete name in Georgian and Cyrillic rises above the trees. A once prestigious, but now, after the loss of its marble facings, silent WWII monument stands in front of it. Its ground floor is already overgrown with blackberries and wild pomegranate bushes. Most of the hotel rooms, with boarded-up balconies, are still inhabited, except for a few, which are burned out. In the basement, the thick plumbing has cracked, and water or sewage pours from it with a splash reminiscent of the waterfalls of the Abkhaz mountains, encircling the hotel base with a lake full of algae and garbage. Children play on the shores of the lake and among the ruins, the third generation of Mingrelians who will grow up here, in the past conserved in Tskaltubo.

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But what still works in Tskaltubo is no less a conserved past. Two sanatoriums, out of the previous thirty, still serve their original purpose. One of them is “Bath No. 6”, once officially, now only commonly called the Stalin Bath, where Stalin’s private pool is still on display, and on its façade relief, the Leader himself receives the gestures of love and gifts of his people. Under the watchful eyes of the Leader, in the shade of the colonnade, grateful stray dogs cool off, just as under the colonnade of the Stalin Museum in Gori. A fountain stands in front of the bath with a statue on it, which at first glance we consider to be a relative of the Tiger Slayer of Berlin, and only later, on the Tbilisi flea market we are taught by the cover of a blackgammon game that it was the Knight in the Panther’s Skin, as illustrated by Mihály Zichy. In the magnificent foyer of the spa, porcelan pigeons sit on porcelan fountains, and in the middle of the hall there stands a huge porcelain vase with the pictures of the former thirty sanatoriums in Tskaltubo. And the sight of a Central Asian family in festive dress going around and respectfully inspecting the Soviet vase in the Stalin Baroque foyer would go in any Soviet textbook as an illustration of the friendship between peoples and of “What did the Party give us?”

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The most romantic part of Kutaisi is perhaps the Rioni River, which, running down from the mountains of Lower Svaneti – the provinces of Racha and Lechkumi – runs down with forceful waves even here in its spectacular rock bed. Turn-of-the-century wooden houses with balconies rise up along the two steep sides of the riverbed, as if the twentieth century, which battered the built heritage on the two banks, had somehow blew over the deep riverbed without leaving a trace. Only home maintenance indicates the passage of time, but it makes them look even more romantic. As if Egon Schiele’s turn-of-the-century Vltava views in Český Krumlov came to life in the Rioni valley.

Above the bazaar, two churches face one other on the two banks, looking, respectively up and down, like the Basilica and Matthias Church in my native Budapest, only of course the distances are much smaller. On the “Pest” side, not far above the bazaar, a large-domed Neo-Baroque church, like a Roman basilica, rises on the riverside rocks. An unusual sight here in the Orthodox East. And even more unusual, the inscription on the arches of its vestibule is written in Latin: IN HONOREM IMMACULATAE CONCEPTIONIS B[EATAE] MARIAE S[EMPER] V[IRGINIS] – In honor of the Immaculate Conception of the always Virgin Blessed Mary. If Latin alone were not enough, this concept makes clear that it was a Catholic church. The idea of the Immaculate Conception – which does not mean that Mary conceived Jesus directly by the word of God, without any male participant, which is how most people understand this term, but that Mary herself was conceived without the “macula” (stain) of the original sin passed on from Adam and Eve, so she would be a pure source of Christ’s human nature – has been a specifically Catholic outcome since the late Middle Ages, which would become an official teaching of the church in 1854. Soon thereafter, in 1861 the Georgian Catholics in Constantinople founded their society of the Immaculate Conception to support Catholics in Georgia.

Georgian Catholics? Yes. The Catholic confession was established in Georgia in the 12th century, when Georgians and Frankish crusaders fought together against the Saracens and Turks. Sometimes the Georgian king sent auxiliary troops to the Holy Land, and sometimes the king of Jerusalem sent Frankish knights to Georgia, such as during the reconquest of Tbilisi from the Arabs in 1121. Tbilisi had a Catholic bishopric for Georgians who returned from the Holy Land as Catholics and for Franks who settled in Georgia. And the Georgian kings took the Catholic church under their patronage just as they did with the Orthodox church. After the 15th century, when Georgia broke up into a number of smaller principalities, the Catholic confession strengthened especially in the eastern part of the country, under Ottoman rule, partly because the Georgian Catholic diocese of Constantinople was able to reach this point, and partly because the center of the Georgian Orthodox church was in Mtskheta/Tbilisi, in the hostile Persian empire, from where Turks were reluctant to receive priests. Around today’s south-western border, Akhaltsikhe (Rabati in Ottoman times), a significant number of Georgian Catholics still live in many villages, spiritually taken care of by Polish priests who have learned Georgian. And the Catholic population of Kutaisi, which had belonged to the Turks, was also significant until the October Revolution.

Since the advent of independence in 1990, the former balance and good relations between the two confessions have been upset. As we saw in Tbilisi, in connection with the former Armenian churches of the Bethlehem quarter, the Orthodox Church, which had become the established church of the country, feels victorious, and is waging a full-scale offensive against all other denominations. Since 1990, the Catholich church has also filed for reclamation on their five former churches, but they have received only the one in Tbilisi. The rest were seized by the Orthodox, including the one in Kutaisi, which is now an Orthodox church. Latin inscriptions, papal coats of arms and characteristic Catholic statues and images have not been destroyed, as was the case with Armenian churches, but the church was renamed from Immaculate Conception to Annunciation, and everything is covered with Georgian icons. True, this also happened ambiguously. On the one hand, the side altars – which do not exist in an Orthodox church – were left with their Catholic altarpieces, circled with icons, just as the Neo-Baroque main altarpiece is only counterbalanced with an icon barrier in the sanctuary. On the other hand, a number of characteristic Catholic devotional images which do not exist in the Orthodox icon canon have developed here Orthodox icon variants, apparently based on formulas previously used by Catholic beleivers, such as the Baroque devotional image of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, perfectly transcribed here as an icon. Nevertheless, the Orthodox priests openly detest Catholic believers coming to the church, just like elsewhere in the country. Just as an example, they tried to persuade Georgian girlfriend of my perfectly Georgian-speaking Italian Catholic friend, loud enough for everyone to overhear, to break with her “heretical” boyfriend lest she burn in hell.

No official information in the church is left to remind us of its Catholic past. At the same time, next to the church stands the memorial house of Zakaria Paliashvili, the founder of the Georgian Academy of Music, whose information notes that the master received his basic musical education in the choir of the local Catholic church. But as to where this church was, even though it is nearby, is not mentioned.

The Kutaisi Catholics today gather in this same Newport Street, No. 10, in the communal space and apartment church established on the ground floor and courtyard of a house. In the same kind of fear from the threatening Orthodox majority as was visited on the pre-emancipation Jews and their hidden house-synagogues. Three years ago there was a modest inscription on the street façade of the apartment, it has since been removed.

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To be continued.