This should be the last long one for a while. I keep feeling too lazy to write long posts, so I procrastinate. Surprise!
So I’ve decided to switch to shorter posts, which should begin soon. But here’s one last lengthy bit, from last weekend.
One of the things that consistently continues to surprise me here is the unbelievable amount of empty buildings. Everywhere in this country there seems to be a defunct factory, half-built apartments that have been waiting on on completion for almost thirty years, and buildings once occupied by ministries of governments that vanished when chaos took the reins in Georgia.
In some places this absence is hardly noticed, but nowhere is it more apparent than in Tskaltubo, a small town outside Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city. In its prime, this locale was a favorite among Soviet higher-ups who frequented the mineral baths, at least in theory to enjoy the healing and prophylactic effects of the radon-carbonate bubbling up from the ground below. To me, the attraction seemed a bit more focused on the astounding spas and sanatoria, an atmosphere of luxury and frivolity often denounced by the very bureaucrats who enjoyed these uncommon benefits. Like many things, these institutions were frozen in time when a political ice age descended upon the Soviet world.
With the ascendance of “green” thinking, it’s become popular to imagine a world without humans, or at least a civilization abandoned by those who built it up. While these images can be interesting, if a bit alarmist, such a reality is unlikely to realize itself in the near future. For a more realistic picture of decay on such a scale, we can look to the remains of a great empire that shuddered to its knees just before I was born.
Tskhaltubo rests on a fairly ancient settlement around hot springs, evidence of some exciting geology beneath the region’s farmland. Like many resorts in the Soviet Union, it was built up to accommodate the increasingly international bourgeois tastes of the bureaucratic elite. Drawing on the favorite neo-classical nonsense of the time, with nods to the oriental motifs of local architecture, the government built a fantastically tacky and aesthetically confused resort town. Foreign dignitaries and Soviet leaders alike relaxed in this environment of natural mineral springs and monumental architecture.
With the fall of the USSR, few people were inclined to visit this region which quickly became known for violence, crime, and chaos. Even fewer found themselves at the now-dilapidated resorts that had flourished only on account of massive subsidies. Civil war arrived in Georgia, and hundreds of thousands pushed from their homes and land. Hotels that had stood empty since the collapse filled with families who had nowhere else to stay. Tsqkhaltubo alone housed 9,000 internally displaced people. As you might imagine, the maintenance of these palatial buildings was not among their highest priorities.
Almost 25 years after these hotels stopped taking reservations, we’ve arrived her for a TLG conference. The resort we’re staying at, one of the few undergoing reconstruction, is like a step back in time. The contrast between Soviet-era signs and the pastel plaster of vaguely-classical-looking sculptures provides an excellent backdrop for our presentations. In the same halls where a the workings of a european communism were brought to fruition in the Caucasus, we discuss how to modernize the education system here, bringing a global perspective to even the most remote villages. To me, the parallels are uncanny.
This is not to say that TLG is doing anything wrong. Quite to the contrary, I think it is a program that can, in the long run, have a positive effect on the local education system. But the discord between the realities of the Ministry of Education and Science in Tbilisi, and those of our students in the regions, could not be more harsh. We sit in the apparatchik-chic ballroom, listening to presentations on parent involvement in education, on catering to a variety of learning styles, on bringing technology to the classroom. We break for coffee and cake, go on planned excursions, and enjoy some of the most first-world amenities I’ve seen in this country. Meanwhile, in the schools our absence is felt, but not as much as the lack of basics such as running water or paper. I look toward the ceiling to examine the moldings, my eyes glazing over at the prospect of another three hours in the ballroom, and notice the new paint beginning to flake off the polished walls. The stage creaks under the presenter’s feet, and I remember where I am.
Returning to the natural disintegration of abandoned places, over half the buildings inside the resort are shuttered or used only for storage. Plants grow from gutters and windows, once-proud fountains now seem a perfect petri dish for algae growth. Human life, however, is the main think missing from any view of the compound. There are several hundred of us, but this place seems empty. The dusty windows and slow progress toward modernity promise more of the same, and this is the best case of rejuvenation the city has yet seen.
Elsewhere, thousands of apartments sit empty. Walking to the nearest market, massive complexes shift slowly into the ground, balconies sag, and everything from sport-centers to concert-halls slumps slowly toward moldy ruin. We go exploring in empty sanatoria, looking around at things left behind from the old days, from spa workers, refugees, and folks looking to hide their drinking habits. It looks like this:
Security guards, bored to tears, gave us a tour of one particularly spectacular abandoned sanatorium.
They say Stalin and Roosevelt stayed here, but they key to the presidential suite is missing.
Massive lobbies, windows, and hand-carved paneling made even this dusty relic feel fancy even after it acted as a refugee camp.
The great hall, long unused.
We found this in the “chancellery.” The guard called it a jackal, but I’m not super confident in his animal identification skills.
Someone left candles on the stage, and the guard lit them while Angela and Jo played Heart and Soul, just to solidify the absurdity of the situation.
They said it was a place for dancing
Pigs, overgrown trees, and loose electrical wires: some of the more constant traits of settlements here.
I have too many feelings about this to know where to begin. Someday perhaps I’ll have something important to say about it. Take a look for yourself. My fuzzy camera can’t quite capture the place. But there’s something about actual people living in these surreal spots, reclaiming what was built in the name of “the people,” that I just can’t shake.