Georgia’s Soviet-era monuments: The towering titans of the past

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Spaces, a digital publication exploring new ways to live and work.

Darmon Richter is a travel writer and researcher. He writes The Bohemian Blog, and leads tours to communist-era memorial sites in six countries.

CNN  — 

Throughout Georgia, the past overshadows the present. Cropping up everywhere from back-road village squares to mountain peaks, steel and concrete monuments survive as the legacy of a past many would rather forget.

The Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic existed as part of the USSR from 1936 until 1991, and during those years it built a phenomenal number of ideological monuments. In the years after WWII these largely took the form of Socialist-realist statues speaking to themes of Soviet historicism – stars, fists and Red Army soldiers – though by the 1970s and into the 1980s, this formalism would give way to new and often abstract works of modernism.

Contemporary Georgia’s attitude towards this Soviet architectural heritage is characterized by contradiction. In the capital, Tbilisi, tourists can visit the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, dedicated to the victims of 70 years of Soviet political repression. Just 50 miles down the highway though, the Joseph Stalin Museum at Gori has changed surprisingly little since it opened in the 1950s, and feels more like a shrine than it probably ought to.

The Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes (1985) by sculptor Giorgi Ochiauri initially appeared in Tbilisi, but was relocated to Gori in 2009.

The treatment of Georgia’s leftover Soviet monuments varies from city to city. The Monument to the Treaty of Georgievsk at Gudauri (informally known as the “Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument”), is in the process of being repaired. In the mining town of Chiatura, a hyper-proportioned Soviet memorial still looms over a complex of housing blocks. Many other rural and post-industrial towns seem similarly indifferent to their own local mementos. But not in Tbilisi.

Tbilisi is a city in the process of reinventing itself. Tourism is at a record high, while rapid new development is appearing, in part, by way of large-scale Chinese investment. Much of Tbilisi’s early 20th-century art nouveau architecture (previously condemned as bourgeois by the Soviet regime) has enjoyed recent reassessment and repair, and in 2002 the World Monuments Fund added Georgian art nouveau to its list of endangered works.

Monument to the Hero Sailors (1979) by architect Vakhtang Davitaya and sculptor Elguja Amashukeli in Poti.

Georgia’s Soviet-era monuments, conversely, were effectively outlawed in 2011. A significant number have already been removed, including the monumental arches on what was once Republic Square, nicknamed “Andropov’s Ears,” whose 2005 demolition was presided over by Georgia’s president.

Not every monument built in Soviet Georgia was overtly political, and some succeed in outrunning those former associations: the Monument to Saint Nino (the “Enlightener of Georgia”), for example, or the “Chronicles of Georgia” memorial complex, both designed by Zurab Tsereteli.

Monument to Saint Nino by Zurab Tsereteli (1988-1994) in Tbilisi. This prominent monument overlooking the capital depicts the preacher credited with bringing Christianity to Georgia in the fourth century.

Then there’s Kartlis Deda, the statue of Mother Georgia, an enduring symbol of nationhood with or without the context of her socialist sisters overseas.

In 21st century Tbilisi though – if not quite yet in all of Georgia – any Soviet-era monuments that can’t be rehabilitated as national symbols now increasingly face demolition, or obscurity and decay.

More from The Spaces: Soviet architecture – How do we wrestle buildings from their political pasts?