Prevailing Attitudes on Soviet Architectural Heritage in Georgia: A Historical Perspective

Levan Asabashvili, November 2012

In this paper my aim is to illustrate the dominant attitudes towards the soviet architectural heritage of late modernist period in contemporary Georgia. This subject cannot be located in the framework of the narrow disciplinary debate. Rather it is an integral part of the broader social, economic and political narratives emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly post colonial discourse of nationalism having deep roots in the historical process taking place in the region. Furthermore in order to fully grasp the logic of the dominant narratives and subsequent approaches for treatment of the Soviet late modernist architectural heritage it is necessary to draw the parallels and outline interrelations to the socio-cultural changes taking place from 1960s globally and above all in the United States. The choice of the United States for closer consideration is not arbitrary, taking into account the rivalry of two great powers during the cold war, subsequent mutual influences they had on each other and the post Soviet condition where Georgia emerged as a main allay of the US in the region.

The history of modernization of Georgia goes hand in hand with the history of its relation to Russia, first as a tsarist empire and later as a center of the Soviet Union. These two epochs have their internal periods of development and are quite different from each other. However what they have in common is the tension of double currents: on the one side social and economic development of the peripheral colony and on the other it’s resistance to the centralized power and will of autonomy and self determination. According to Ronald Grigor Suny “In Georgia, resistance to the Russian rule was extremely differentiated process, one in which pressures for accommodation with the existing regime was as great (at times greater than) counter force that produced resistance” (Suny, 1994).

The first hundred years of Russian imperial rule was crucial for Georgia in the process of its formation as a modern nation and later as a state. Resistance to the assimilatory policies of the Russian governors and their attempts of adjustment of local traditional patterns of life with the uniform imperial bureaucracy played a crucial role in formation of the early sense of nationhood with ethnic and religious overtones among Georgians. This was supplemented by the increased modes of communication among Georgians, economic advancement and political unification of the formerly isolated regions and finally western culture and education entering through the Russian empire. The mid-19th century can be regarded as a culmination of Georgian romantic nationalism which glorified past days of grandeur and represented political interests of local aristocracy deprived from the former privileges. Later this ideology was reflected in the liberal discourse and towards the end of the century was pushed aside by socialism.  Even though nationalism was not at the forefront of liberation movement in the period close to the 1917 revolution, it had constant presence in the political discourse of that time and many revolutionary socialists were engaged in these discussions, among them was Josef Stalin, who was appointed people’s commissar of nationalities affairs right after the revolution. It is important to understand Georgian romantic nationalism of the second half of the 19th century in order to grasp nationalism of Stalin’s epoch which has its strong influence on Georgian society until today.

In the end of the 19th century Georgian urban centers were dominated by Armenian merchants and Russian administrators. In the building design exclusively Russian and European professionals were commissioned (A. Zaltsman, O. J. Symonson, K. Tatishchev, A. Shimkevich, G. Skudieri, etc.), which brought European trends to Georgian cities [pic. 1]. Ethnic Georgians were mostly concentrated in the rural areas. The process of industrialization and rural-urban migration of impoverished Georgians caused conflict between these two sides. The conflict was accelerated by language and cultural differences. This condition helped to add the ethnic color to Georgian nationalism. Georgians were relatively new to the urban culture by the end of the 19th century. Thus by the time when capitalist class was cleansed by the Revolution, Georgians, left in cities, were not yet urbanized.

Pic. 1 presentation of the model on the building site. End om XIX century

The nationality policy of the Soviet Union, throughout its existence, was often inconsistent and contradictory in different periods. Korenizatsiya or “rooting” policies designed in the 1920s by Lenin aimed at promotion of the national cultural and economic advancement of the non- Russian minorities: priority was given to the local languages in education, national cultures were subsidized the Soviet administrations were stuffed by local nationals. Although opposed by many Russian party members, these policies helped to further develop local leadership and national identity associated with particular territories of the Soviet republics.  These policies were accompanied by NEP[1] – more decentralized and liberal economic policy with capitalist elements.

Georgian constructivist architecture of this period depicts its relation to more radical architectural experiments in Russia and other Soviet republics. In peripheral Georgia constructivist architectural ideas came with a delay. Furthermore architecture of this period bares clear signs of attempts of adopting national architectural elements such as arches, decoration or traditional towers [pic. 2, 3, 4].

Pic. 2 Film studio in Tbilisi “Georgia -Film”, Architect M. Buzogly, 1930
Pic. 3 Editorial offices “Zarya Vostoka”, Architect D. Chisliyev, 1928
Pic. 4 Hydro power plant in Avchala, Architect s A. Kalgin, M. Machavariani, K.Leontiev, 1927

Early Korenizatsiya policies led to the purges of its beneficiary local leadership when Stalin took power. With economic and political centralization of Stalin’s epoch, Soviet republics lost great share of their autonomy. Paradoxically, in the condition of rapid industrialization, urbanization, increased mobility and material wealth the official endorsement of nationhood accelerated with a greater pace. In culture a strong emphasis was put on ethnicity, folk culture and traditional conservative values [pic. 5]. The official history was rewritten glorifying and mythologizing heroes of the past and showing Russian empire as enlightener of the backward nations. This contradiction was condensed in the famous formula of socialist realist art: national in form and socialist in content.

The Stalinist architecture, as many other fields of art, was well adapted to carry out the program corresponding to the broader social and political aims of the dominant power. By applying Georgian medieval architectural forms and decoration, with it’s essentially facadist nature it cultivated nationalist myth of great past and strong tradition in the unshakable multinational state. [pic. 6] The monumental buildings and spacious boulevards demonstrated power and hierarchy, hiding behind decaying working class neighborhoods. The facadist feature of Stalinist architecture is strikingly similar to the massive projects initiated by the recent Georgian Government (The ruling party, being in power for 9 years lost the elections on 1 of October this year) which will be discussed below.

Destalinization initiated by Nikita Khrushchev was met by popular protest in Georgia. In contrast to Poland and Hungary, where in 1956 popular anti-Stalinist uprisings occurred demanding democratic reforms. The same year, in Georgian capital protesters marched in the streets outraged by the removal of Stalin’s monument from the city center [pic. 7]. Destalinization campaign was perceived by them as an attack on everything Georgian.  As the dispute proceeded, the demands were put forward to separate Georgia from the USSR. The protest wave was defused by gunfire from the units of army. The essence of the protest is debatable until today. There is an argument that rather than a direct support to Stalinism, the protest was an attempt to openly express the nationalist sentiments of Georgians. However, the fact is that no demands were made similar to Poland or Hungary.

Pic. 5 Youth festival in Tbilisi 1949
Pic. 6 House of culture in Tkibuli, Architect s K. Chkheidze, V. Sikharulidze, 1954
Pic. 7 Tbilisi, 7 March, 1956 protest gathering at the Stalin’s statue

The first attack on Stalinist building policies appeared in the communist party resolution of 1955 “on elimination of excesses in construction and design”. The changes initiated by Khrushchev were met with hostility by the established architects and planners privileged in power hierarchy, while young and progressive professionals hoped for new experiments (Matthews, 1979). The tension inside the professional circles and underlying cultural features in the moment of transition is very well shown in 1956 film “Abezara”, directed by Nikoloz Sanishvili.

The protagonist of the typical love story of the time is a young architect. In one of the scenes portraying his professional life, he tries to persuade a chief of the studio about the disadvantage of the decoration and monumentality of Stalinist architecture. In the same scene there enters a younger architect who tries to gain the approval of the typical project but while presenting it to the boss confuses the up and down sides of the drawing. The chief gets angry and warns the protagonist with prediction that his tendency will bring him to the similar projects.

Excerpt from 1956 film “Abezara”, directed by Nikoloz Sanishvili

Khrushchev’s policies of standardization and rationalization of architecture and planning gained full force very quickly and remained more or less unchanged almost till the end of the Soviet Union.

Earlier contradictory trends of simultaneous modernization and re-nationalization continued after Stalin’s death but in relatively freer social, political and economic atmosphere. According to Suny, this became the main reason of emergence of new nationalism in this period. More precisely he names four main reasons for its appearance: 1. Reduction of political penalties after Stalin, which enabled freer expression of nationalist sentiments; 2. Consolidation of local power in the hands of local elites favoring nationalism and national pride; 3. General historic fear of small nations that they will be swallowed by larger nations in the process of modernization; 4. The erosion of Marxist ideology within the Soviet Union which cleared the way for patriotism and nationalism (Suny, 1994).

As Suny states: “The picture that emerges from Georgia is complex and at times indistinct, but available evidence indicates that modernizing forces from beyond the Caucasus and nationalizing forces within Georgia itself have been engaged in an intense struggle ever since the heavy hand of Stalinist police rule loosened its grasp”. It should be noted that this tension persisted not only between the local and foreign forces. Within Georgian society itself, there existed a fierce debate about the question of nationalism and nationhood. There were supporters of the officially established narratives of nationality and newly emerging more radical dissident nationalists calling for struggle against the USSR and bringing up questions restricted in the official discussions such as religion, 1918-21 independence, Soviet terror etc. Contrary to the early hopes of the Soviet party leaders that nationalism would disappear with the process of industrialization, “rather than a ‘melting pot’, the Soviet Union became the incubator of new nations”(Suny, 1993).

Despite the fact that implementation of the new policies enabled the government to provide much greater amount of housing and public amenities, already in the second half of the 1970ies the calls emerged for major changes in architecture and planning. The critique was mainly directed towards the results of standardized and rationalized building and planning methods that over the two decades had produced spatially, functionally and socially homogeneous environments. The issue was raised on the low quality of the buildings as a result of over rationalization of the industry and corruption that flourished in it. The outstanding examples of architecture were not in the focus as they constituted a small share in the overall built space produced in this period.

One of the great examples of the sarcastic critique of the standardized planning was Eldar Ryazanov’s 1975 movie Ironiya Sud’by (Irony of Fate). The film was an open critique of standardized apartment blocks where not only streets, buildings and entrance doors were the same, but equally kitchens, bathrooms and furniture. The same spirit was expressed in Georgian writer Nodar Dumbadze’s novel “Build quickly, cheaply and…” where the hero of the novel visits a friend in a newly finished apartment and finds out that every detail of the building is falling apart.

The calls for humanizing of planning and architecture were constantly heard in the professional literature since the late 1970ies up to the end of the Soviet system. It is important to note that in the same period post modern trends in architecture and planning where proliferating in the advanced capitalist countries. In searching answers to the inherent problems of standardized and rationalized planning methods, Soviet architects became interested in post modern tools for their solution. In the periodic literature of the time more and more research were occurring interested in old city centers and their cultural implications, roles of signs and symbols in creating unique cultural identity of the place and other main topics of post modern architecture.

Although officially criticized, the interest in post modern culture was not expressed only in architecture. This was a broader trend encompassing almost all aspects of life, as a result of dissatisfaction with the Soviet late modernist policies. This desire was strengthened by the cultural bases shaped in the recent past and official suppression of any bourgeoisie expressions of culture. Gorbachev tried to meet the popular demands and liberalize the soviet system but failed for number of reasons. Among them, disability to cope with the economic downturn, strong nationalist separatist movements in the peripheral republics and inside party conservative opposition.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse neoliberalism found fertile soil on post soviet cultural fields. As strong was the state control on the economy during the soviet times, as enthusiastically were embraced free market policies by the new political leadership of the post soviet republics and among them of Georgia. Nationalism became a bonding agent of the new regime in the condition of growing inequality and uneven development.

The reason of giving so long account before going to the actual subject is to introduce the cultural background and it’s shaping forces from where the judgment on Soviet late modernist architectural heritage arises in today’s Georgia. However, to fully grasp the present context it is essential to look closer to the cultural currents occurring after the fall of the Soviet Union. David Harvey’s account on the emergence of postmodern trends in US in the 1970s is helpful to illustrate the process that took place 20 years later on the ruins of the Soviet Union. Furthermore it is useful to see what kind of political, economic and cultural processes were taking place in the advanced capitalist countries and particularly in the US – the main rival of the Soviet Union, in the latest period of USSR’s existence.

Harvey describes the transition from the Fordist economy to what he calls flexible accumulation after the recession of the post war boom in the US. In contrast to the first, more constrained (spatially and legally) and state controlled mode of production, the new regime is marked “by a startling flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption“; Emergence of the new financial systems and markets enabled the greater flexibility of the capital accumulation resulting in shifts of patterns of uneven development between the geographical regions as well as different sectors. The skilled labour was unable to resist, hit by the high levels of unemployment and displacements of the industries in the newly industrializing countries. This process was accompanied by austerity measures and reduction of social spending by the state (Harvey, 1990).

Harvey further explains how cultural and intellectual life has been radically transformed hand in hand with the political-economic transformations. The utopian idea of modernity had been eroded by the time and the critical responses against modernist rationality, functionality and efficiency of the revolutionary movements of 1960s were effectively accommodated and commercialized by the newly emerging post modern cultural trends. A new culture played an active role in adapting itself to more flexible regime of accumulation and finally, the new regime reemphasized the class content of the spatial practices.

Harvey names three main aspects of these transformations: 1. Impoverishment and informalization; 2. Production of symbolic capital and 3. Mobilization of the spectacle;

In the first matter he describes the massive impoverishment of different social groups: migrants from the third world countries, people of depressed rural economies displaced in urban areas or urban working class: “In some cases, particular urban communities tied to a dominant local employment source have been plunged as a whole into a condition of impoverishment by a single plant closing.”

As a result these people were drawn into informal sector, practices such as drug-trafficking, prostitution and semi legal small scale production and trading of services. This process had its immediate social consequences, affecting social relations within low income communities which became “much more entrepreneurial, with all of the consequences of excessive and often extraordinary exploitation (particularly of the women) in the labor process.”

Pierre Bourdieu defines “symbolic capital” as “the collection of luxury goods attesting the state and distinction of the owner (Bourdieu, 1977).” In the second instance, Harvey borrows this notion to describe production of symbolic capital as the market’s new trend of product differentiation under the regime of flexible accumulation, exploring the “realms of differentiated tastes and aesthetic preferences in ways that were not so necessary under a Fordist regime of standardized accumulation through mass production.” Symbolic capital is an ideological tool for the dominant class to reproduce established order and perpetuate domination through the realms of culture and taste.

This trend is related to the emergence of post modern architectural language and modes of urbanization. “It has a lot to tell us about the material processes of gentrification, the recuperation of “history” (real, imagined, or simply re-created as pastiche) and of “community” (again real, imagined, or simply packaged for sale by producers), and the need for embellishment decoration, and ornamentation that could function as so many codes and symbols of social distinction.”

The cultural discontents of 1960s, in the United States are important feature in this process. Flexible accumulation provided the profitable response to it, in contrast to the earlier period of standardized production when too few opportunities existed to capture symbolic capital. “To the degree that political economic crisis encouraged the exploration of product differentiation, so the repressed market desire to acquire symbolic capital could be captured through the production of built environments.”

Further Harvey argues that, in the condition of mass unemployment and impoverishment, as the class polarization grew, the need for mobilization of spectacle occurred as a unifying and controlling tool of the divided society. This was articulated in the mass festivals, sports events and fairs: “Even whole built environments have become centerpieces of urban spectacle and display.” Numbers of American inner city monumental spaces, expressing corporate domination and permanence have been reshaped by the playful language of “official” postmodernist style “that explores the architecture of festival and spectacle, with its sense of the ephemeral, of display, and of transitory but participatory pleasure.”

If we generalize these events, the parallels to the logic of post Soviet development are striking. Only in post Soviet context the processes seem to be more extreme, as the shift was made between two, from each other further distant systems, accompanied with many other destructive events. The Georgian government, as a main allay of the United States in the region, was pioneer in adopting “values of freedom and democracy” and implementing them in its country. In the new cultural milieu the reaction against the Soviet Union and Russia has been a main determining aspect of the Georgian political discourse as well as its collective identity.

This is the context from where the dominant judgment and the ways of treatment of Soviet late modernist architectural heritage arise. The architecture of this period is the victim of the ideological hegemony of the neoliberal regime trying to demonize Soviet Union as a tool for reproducing its political legitimacy. In parallel the new regime tries to erase the modernist urban artifacts of the Soviet Union. Stalinist architecture is tolerated as it fits the tastes of the new elite. The cases of brutal changes of modernist architecture pieces are abundant. In the central areas, where the accumulation of symbolic capital and spectacle occurs they are aged or modernized depending on the context and location. In other cases they are left for decay and neglect. The facadist approach is evident in the new government subsidized interventions as they are the parts of the bigger social process of the strategic importance [Pic. 8-12].

After the fall of the USSR, it took almost 20years for Georgian society to start slowly shifting the main topics of the political discourse from nationalism and independence to the social and economic problematique. The parliamentary elections of October 2012 also indicate this trend. The task of the new government is to find solutions to the overwhelming social and economic problems and democratize the political system of the country. In this condition the Anti-Russian and Anti-Soviet rhetoric loses its power base. Now the biggest responsibility of progressive change lies upon the public willingness of doing so.

Pic. 8 Different stages of Tbilisi funicular’s lower station starting from late 1800s to present. Architects of the modernist version G. Batiashvili, T. Kutateladze, built in 1971, reconstructed in 2005 and 2012
Pic. 9 Tbilisi, building of the state planning institute, Architect S. Revishvili, built in 1968, reconstructed in 2009. The picture shows fire erupted soon after reconstruction .
Pic. 10 Borjomi spring water pavilion, Architect G. Jabua, built in 1965, demolished and new building erected in 2005
Pic. 11 Telavi, residential block, Architect unknown, built in 1969, reconstructed in 2012
Pic. 12 Telavi, theater, Architect G. Jabua, built in 1967, reconstructed in 2012


Bourdieu, P.: Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.

Matthews, M.: Social Dimensions in Soviet Urban Housing. In: French, R.A., Ian Hamilton, F. E. [eds]: The Socialist City, Spatial Structure and Urban Policy, John Wiley and Sons, 1979.

Harvey, D. Flexible Accumulation by Urbanization, Perspecta, Vol. 26, Theater, Theatricality, and Architecture. (1990), pp. 251-272.

Suny,R.G.:The Revange of the Past, Natinalism, Revolution and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1993.

Suny,R.G.:Making of the Georgian Nation. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994.

[1] New Economic Policy was proposed by Lenin in 1921 allowing small scale private enterprise in the Soviet economy as a response to the severe economic downturn of the time.