I went to Georgia to take part in the annual meeting organized by LeftEast, and this gave me the opportunity to visit the small town of Tskaltubo for a few days with some comrades. Here I share a few thoughts, feelings, impressions and a photo essay of what I observed there.
We arrive in front of a building site, the renovation of an old Soviet-era resort. “Private investors are necessary, without them how could we do it?” says a man standing to one side, introducing himself as a resident of this dilapidated building. He offers us some chacha, the national brandy. Stray dogs hang around us, as they do everywhere here. That evening, as we walked along, they began to follow us. After a while there were no less than 10 street dogs milling around us, happy and friendly. One of them, in the middle of a thick, heavy night, started running and barking at cars passing on the road at breakneck speed. We thought he was going to get run over. Then he did it another time, and again we thought he was going to get run over. And so it went every time. Then other dogs started imitating him. It’s clear to me: sooner or later, this little game is going to get them killed.
Seeing these stressful scenes, I was reminded of the man’s words in front of the five star hotel construction site. There he was, praising the enormous private investment in the building he’d perhaps occupied for decades, while offering us some of his chacha. Now, the new hotel will serve wealthy tourists, local or foreign, but not at people like him for whom the old sanitarium was meant. On the contrary, this investment is being made against people like him. In fact, this site represents the gradual construction of his expulsion from the area, the construction of his exclusion. It will be the end of his chacha, of his presence, and perhaps of street dogs’, too (although the latter seems less certain). That evening, the dogs running and barking at the cars, endangering their lives in a kind of game, offered a vivid metaphor for the situation of this man who, in celebrating the arrival of private investment, seems to be chasing a wheel ready to crush him.
We’re in Tskaltubo, a small town in west-central Georgia. In Soviet times, it was one of the most popular vacation and health retreat destinations. Indeed, its sanatoria and spas were very popular, not only for resting but also for treating visitors/patients. Even Stalin himself had a bath reserved in the area. Some claim that, at its peak, Tskaltubo could accommodate up to 125,000 people every year. To cope with this demand, 20 sanatoria were built around the park. Although in the Soviet Union the ruling bureaucracy enjoyed indecent privileges over the workers, these sanatoriums were not just reserved for members of the nomenklatura. Workers from all over the USSR could be prescribed a stay in one of the Tskaltubo sanatoria for treatment or to rest with their families.
However, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent restoration of capitalism meant the destruction of Georgia’s industrial sector, as the country was almost totally de-industrialized. And this is quite visible throughout the country. On the outskirts of towns and along freeways, next to infrastructure sites built by Chinese companies, it’s possible to witness a sinister spectacle of abandoned factories, skeletons of industrial sites and isolated chimneys in the middle of a field, bearing witness to a distant industrial past.
But in a country where unemployment and underemployment affect 60% of the population, the most unequal state in the entire post-Soviet region, the restoration of capitalism has not only meant the destruction and abandonment of industries. The general impoverishment of workers and the population, coupled with the logic of capitalist profits, led to the destruction of public services that were part of the socialized wage of the Soviet working class. Inevitably, many of Tskaltubo’s sanatoria were sold off for nothing or directly left to deteriorate, gradually swallowed up by nature and decay. Only a fraction survived, and went into the hands of speculative investors.
But don’t let the dilapidated condition of some of the buildings and the ruins visible throughout the town fool you: incredibly, some of them are still inhabited. Indeed, during the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia, which pitted Georgian security forces against Abkhazian separatists and displaced around 200,000 ethnic Georgian refugees, an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 internally displaced persons landed in Tskaltubo. These refugees were precariously housed in abandoned resorts in the town. Although this situation was supposed to be temporary, thousands of people are still living in the ruins of these old hotels, 30 years after the end of the war.
The humiliation of the working class confined to these lands permeates everything, as nature reclaims its rights in the face of abandoned buildings. And yet, “without investors, how could we do it?” For many, this seems the only realistic prospect. But this alienation is not just the ideological victory of capitalism. Or, to put it another way, it was prepared for over several decades of domination by a Stalinist bureaucracy which, while usurping the name of socialism, banned and repressed all political, trade union, social or cultural expression of the working class in the Soviet Union independently from the official organizations. In this sense, when the official ideology and organizations collapsed along with the regime that supported them, the working class, largely confined to a position of passivity and at the same time in a state of stupefaction in the face of the violence of the “shock therapy”, found itself bereft of organizations and of the political and ideological tools to resist the capitalist offensive.
In this way, the Soviet Stalinist apparatus provided most of the politicians who would ultimately carry out capitalist restoration. But it also disarmed the proletariat politically, organizationally and ideologically through the passivization, repression and crushing of workers’ revolutionary and socialist aspirations in the USSR and other states of the so-called “socialist bloc”. How can we expect this man, who seems to have lived in ruins for 30 years, in a country plunged into poverty, to hope for anything other than “private investment” in the hope that things will improve when even representatives of “official socialism” were advocating private property and the entrepreneurial spirit in the face of the Soviet Union’s crisis?
Could the existence of revolutionary, socialist and workers’ political organizations independent of the Soviet state apparatus have averted disaster and capitalist destruction? This is by no means certain. However, the working class and its allies would undoubtedly have been in a better position to resist the foreign and domestic capitalists (whether “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian”) who have worked hand in hand to crush the rights and advances of Soviet workers over the last thirty years.
You can view the entire photo essay here.
Philippe Alcoy is a member of the editorial boards of the French website RevolutionPermanente.fr and the internationalist platform LeftEast. He researches and writes regularly on news and the history of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Recently, he published “Hongrie 1956: les jours où les travailleurs ont défié le stalinisme” about the Council Revolution of 1956 in Hungary.