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“We Are in Soviet Times Again”

from the magazine

“We Are in Soviet Times Again”

The struggle for free expression in Tbilisi, Georgia Winter 2020
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

It was hard to teach a writing seminar when the city’s writers were all boycotting the Writers’ House. In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, it was late July—the sweltering season when snakes sometimes appear in the wells or in the ezo courtyards that dominate the warren of the Old Town—and nobody was exactly sure what was going on. Georgia—a former Soviet republic, nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea—was in crisis.

A few weeks earlier, Vladimir Putin had announced that he was shutting down direct flights between Russia and Georgia indefinitely—in reprisal for anti-Russian protests earlier that summer in Tbilisi’s streets—which threatened to damage the country’s thriving tourism industry. A visiting Russian politician, Sergei Gavrilov, had been permitted to address an international legislative assembly from the Georgian Parliament floor, stoking the ire of many Tbiliseli, who saw it as the latest in a series of indignities inflicted on the Georgian people by a corrupt pro-Russian government. Since 2012, the Georgian Dream Party has governed the country under the watchful eye of its founder, pro-Russian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister—he stepped down in 2013—widely assumed still to be pulling the party’s strings. Some 15,000 people showed up to protest; 240 were injured. One, an 18-year-old woman, lost an eye to rubber bullets and tear gas. The Georgian parliamentary speaker, Irakli Kobakhidze, resigned.

Protesters, albeit only 100 or so, were still gathering nightly outside the Parliament building to demand the resignation of Giorgi Gakharia, the Russian-educated secretary of the interior, who had invited Gavrilov to speak. Several wore eye patches. Over the border, in a newly aggrieved Russia, a proposal for the Consumer Protection Agency is trying to rename khachapuri, the popular Georgian cheese bread ubiquitous in Eastern European fast-food joints, as a mere derivation of the Russian pierogi.

And in Tbilisi, the Writers’ House was closing down.

The art nouveau house on Machabeli Street—with its taxidermied lion and its intricate wooden paneling, the house where everyone says that the ghost of Symbolist poet Paolo Iashvili still lurks (he shot himself in one of the upstairs rooms in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge)—is being taken over by the government. The plan was to rent out the mirrored parlor for weddings or photo shoots. The hipster restaurant in the back garden was being forced to close, some said.

“When I heard, I thought it was, like, we are in Soviet times again,” Natasha Lomouri, the house’s former director, told me, as we sat in the garden of a cappuccino chain in the heart of the city’s historic center.

The most recent iteration of the house, opened in 2013, became an emblem of the new Tbilisi, a city heralded in Western travel magazines as the new Paris, the next Berlin. It was, to the city’s admirers, renewed evidence of Tbilisi’s dynamism and cosmopolitanism: what you’d expect from a onetime Silk Road capital variously occupied by Arabs, Mongols, and Persians.

Once the private residence of Georgian brandy magnate David Sarajishvili, then the home of the Soviet-era Writers’ Union, the house had since 2008 been under the aegis of the Georgian Ministry of Culture. Three years later, Lomouri had come onboard to find a flaking wreck of a mansion and painstakingly restored it, often by hand, to its former grandeur. Foreign and local writers—Boris Akunin, Orhan Pamuk—regularly gave lectures and readings. International literary foundations held workshops there, like the one at which I had come to teach, Mikhail Iossel’s Summer Literary Seminars. The house had a presence at Frankfurt, where Georgia was the guest of honor at the 2018 Book Fair.

Meantime, celebrity chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s in-house restaurant, Cafe Littera, had become a byword for the city’s culinary renaissance, serving up haute reimaginings of Georgian mainstays like Black Sea mussels in chakapuli plum sauce and trout tartare topped with the yellow jonjoli flower. It was the sort of place frequented not just by curious tourists and well-heeled expats but by Tbilisis burgeoning, largely pro-Western intelligentsia class—the same twenty- and thirtysomethings who drank cocktails at the citys dozen or so burgeoning speakeasies and danced all night at progressive techno clubs like Bassiani, located beneath a Soviet-era football stadium across the Mtkvari River. Together, Lomouri told me, she and Gachechiladze functioned as a kind of two-person PR team for the modern, bohemian Tbilisi: often regaling foreign diners with winking tall tales that they were the direct descendants of Sarajishvili himself.

The house was shut down overnight. On June 20, the same day that protests over Gavrilov had begun, Georgian prime minister Mamuka Bakhtadze had, without warning, signed a decree abolishing the house, which had formerly been a self-governing entity. Instead, he announced, the Writers’ House and the Georgian National Book Center would merge into the National Foundation of Georgian Literature, which would occupy an office somewhere in the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports. The government would take over the Sarajishvili mansion, potentially using it for something more immediately profitable than lectures. Lomouri was summarily fired, as was the Georgian National Book Centers Dea Metreveli.

My own seminar series was permitted to continue, as was Cafe Littera, at least for now. But local Georgian writers almost unanimously boycotted the venue, refusing to attend any of the programs readings or receptions. The restaurant, for its part, began to open at odd times, or not at all.

A month later, Lomouri was still not sure what had happened. One could blame sheer bureaucratic incompetence—a common charge leveled against the Georgian Dream government, with its 20 percent approval rating—and a shortsighted desire to profit from the beauty of the Sarajishvili building. It would be possible, too, to blame the Writers’ Houses discomfortingly European values—Lomouri informed me that, as director, she frequently refused to hold events for Russian writers whom she deemed artistically bankrupt or propagandistic.

Lomouri did not say explicitly that she blamed the Russians—or, at the least, Russian-influenced politics—for the Writers’ House’s collapse. But she, like many educated Tbiliseli, saw the influence of Russia everywhere. You could see it, for instance, in the waves of new hotels and restaurants that have popped up around the country, with primarily Russian-language menus, catering to the 1.6 million Russian tourists who come to Tbilisi annually. “They don’t spend any money,” she sniffed. “When you see them in Gudauri”—a popular ski resort about three hours away—“they bring packed sandwiches and cut in line for the chair lift.” You could also see it in the growing closeness between the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches, historic enemies that have found common cause in denouncing a sexually degenerate West. Back in 2013, the country’s first anti-homophobia parade was violently shut down by about 20,000 counterprotesters, largely led by Georgian Orthodox priests; in spring 2018, armed police, in full riot gear, raided Bassiani and another nightclub, arresting at least 60 people, ostensibly on drug charges, acts widely seen as attempts to target LGBTQ-friendly spaces. That summer, several of Georgia’s top news anchors at the opposition-affiliated station Rustavi 2 quit on air, after their new owner—the Ivanishvili-affiliated Kibar Khalvashi—tried to muzzle critical coverage of the Georgian Dream government.

Against such a backdrop, the closure of the Writers’ House seemed anything but coincidental. Since Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, the country has navigated—with varying degrees of success—the tightrope of presenting itself as both the “it” destination for trendy American and European travelers and a stalwart conservative Russian ally, a bulwark against the perversions of modern Western culture. A robustly funded tourism PR department promotes Georgia as the next big thing for American and British travelers (I’ve done advertorial work funded by the Georgian Tourism Board), while both the Georgian Dream–dominated government and the Georgian Orthodox Church regularly issue jeremiads against the “homosexual West.”

Take a walk down the labyrinthine streets of neighborhoods like Sololaki and Vera, and every other ezo holds a speakeasy, or a former speakeasy, or a speakeasy in various stages of construction. The aptly named Woland is hidden under an Elvis-style American diner, in which every cocktail is a riff on Mikhail Bulgakovs anti-Soviet classic The Master and Margarita. The year-old Hotel Stamba, in a converted Soviet-era printing factory, is the first restaurant in town to serve avocado toast. Yet the walls of the Old Town are covered in both pro- and anti-Russian graffiti, antigay slurs, and swastikas. Clubs like Gallery and Bassiani now enforce strict entrance policies: would-be revelers must submit their social-media information to organizers in advance, so that their profiles can be checked for potential homophobic or violent tendencies. When I entered a rave at Gallery at midnight on a Tuesday, my male companions were patted down and checked for guns.

After I left Tbilisi, Lomouri contacted me with good news. After several months of protests and petitioning, the government caved to public pressure. The Writers’ House was restored, and Lomouri returned to her previous position. At the same time, former secretary of the interior Giorgi Gakharia—the pro-Russian target of the June protests—is now the country’s prime minister, following Bakhtadze’s resignation in September.

Flights between Russia and Georgia remain canceled.

Photo: Before its recent tensions with Moscow, Tbilisi had been heralded by travel magazines as “the next Paris.” (VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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