Prometheus (un)Bound: Wandering Around the Post-Cosmopolitan Worlds of the South Caucasus

Despite the doubts of authorship, the Aeschylean tragedy remains the poetic source to engage in telling stories about the Caucasus. According to Ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was a Titan who defied the gods and gave fire to humanity, acts for which he was condemned by Zeus to be chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains, one of the pillars supporting the world, and to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle. The Greek hero Jason sailed to its shores in search of the Golden Fleece, but the Caucasus was also granted a special part in the Persian mythology, where it was believed to surround the known world and be the nest of the Simurgh. Running parallel to the main range, the Lesser Caucasus is a second mountain range that overlaps, in its western portion, with the high plateau of Eastern Anatolia. There we find the Ararat massif, the holy mountain of the Armenians, where according to the Book of Genesis Noah’s Ark would have come to rest after the biblical flood.

Historically, the Caucasus has been known as a place where empires clash and disparate peoples live side by side, but the expansion of the nation state in the twentieth century struck a decisive blow to traditional forms of cosmopolitanism and imposed eventually a strictly territorialised mode of politics where alternative ones co-existed. Today, the three sovereign states in the South Caucasus –Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan– try to ascertain their internal and external sovereignty, in the midst of the critical challenges of transiting from Soviet structures, managing frozen conflicts and balancing powerful regional interests. These photos were taken in April 2015, when I went to visit my friend Francisco Martínez in Tbilisi. From there we set out to explore Georgia and then take a marshrutka to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. On our way back we took the train to Tbilisi, invaded by the nostalgia of mythic travels and travellers and curious to experience that particular angle in the crossing of post-Soviet borders. On the night train from Yerevan to Tbilisi, while our cabin was searched methodically, in turns, by the Armenian and Georgian border police –and our passports scanned over and over again, François Fejtő and his Voyage sentimental came to my mind. Just like Fejtő in 1934, on a train at the infant border between Hungary and Yugoslavia, we were scared as one might be before some medical or school examination.

This is not the beginning of the journey”

There is a train rolling on what seems to be no man’s land. The day is dawning and the signs of the catastrophe that followed the end of the USSR are scattered all over the place. Outside the windowpane, the carcasses of the socialist productive mode parade their hopeless solitude under the frozen sun. Amidst the tremble, there is a camera shooting. The subject would have liked to capture the nature of the post-Soviet malaise that runs through the Georgian-Armenian border. Instead, the photo unveils the perspectival amalgamation merging ‘perception’ with ‘the perceived’; a denial of the inquisitorial dichotomy of ‘subject’ and ‘other’ reminding the reader that the real is always for someone and some purpose. The camera does not work as a mere medium for representing the world; it preserves the embodied (re)actions of the knowing mind to what is around. Taken aback by its own thoughts, the subject gets ready for the journey and for other minds.

The splendour of the Caucasus”

From the town of Signaghi the subject catches the sight of the colossal Caucasus extending from the Caspian to the Black Sea and separating Georgia from the vastness of the Russian periphery. From the belfry where it stands now, the subject observes the compact mass of rock and ice that casts its overwhelming shadow and is about to swallow Signaghi with the plateau surrounding it. The picture is factual: there is a town called Signaghi; there is a compact mass of rock and ice called ‘Caucasus’ linking the Caspian to the Black Sea, overwhelming. And yet, the picture is also allegorical: the compact mass stands for Russia, the plateau is Georgia, and from the belfry where the subject stands the spectacle of nature preserves, in petrified movements, the Russian tutelage over the complex and divided region. On the road back to Tbilisi, the signs are unequivocal about the regional stakes: Ankara 1320km, Tehran 1290km, Baku 688km, Vladikavkaz 230km.

Post-cosmopolitan Tbilisi”

As noted by Humphrey and Skvirskaja, a post-cosmopolitan city implies the incompleteness embedded in radical shifts that, during the twentieth century, came to challenge the multiethnic togetherness characterising Eurasian urban settlements for centuries. Cosmopolitanism can survive in the ‘post’, though in renewed forms, occupying different social spaces, pushed to the margins or overshadowed by indifferent tolerance. Seeking out the remnants of coexistence in the everyday life of post-Soviet Tbilisi, Francisco and I took to the Old Town district on a Saturday morning. For the attentive eye, the old quarter unveils scattered signs of the presence of old communities, most of which have shrunk in the last decades, leading to a loss of ethnic diversity: the Azeris and Armenians in Avlabari and Chugureti; the Persians in Said-Abad; the Germans in Alexanderdorf. That Tbilisi has ceased to be the thriving gate it was once, a bridge between East and West, comes as no surprise for the wanderer in the crumbling city.

Times of yore”

From Signaghi, the highway rambles unhurriedly towards Tbilisi. We ask Nikoloz Gambashidze, our taxi driver, to drop us around Chugureti and proceed to cross the threshold of Kukia cemetery, where the tombstones of people from other eras pile up –besieged by dry grass and other debris– sentencing to oblivion, oblivion itself. We roam silently over there, in the hazy fading afternoon, trying to picture the subjects hiding under the threadbare letters of Georgian and Cyrillic alphabets: Abram Nikolaevitch Tetradze, doctor in medical sciences: 1872-1915; Maria Georgievna Tetradze, “peace be with you, dear mother”: 1884-1912; Dmitri Grigorievitch Sessiev: 1861-1907; Max Gabunian, engineer: 1904-1943; Bagrat Arutiunovitch Nazarian, doctor in medical sciences: 1892-1956; M. Bitarov: 1909-1942. The Kukia cemetery reveals, or rather hides, the cosmopolitan past of a city that reached its heyday at the end of the nineteenth century – due to the entrepreneurial Armenian and Jewish bourgeoisies, among others – but that the Soviet and post-Soviet eras came to reverse irrevocably.

Post-Soviet amalgamations: part one”

Uphill from Rustaveli, Tbilisi’s main avenue, we find Mtatsminda, mainly a residential district with its winding streets and hidden courtyards. The day is grey and the rain keeps falling every now and then. Francisco and I take the time to wander around and enjoy the slowness of the neighbourhood. He goes ahead; I follow behind, in pursuit of the trifling footsteps of different cities that coexist in amalgamated layers. I remain faithful to my usual method: avoiding sidewalks, always walking in the middle of the street, often backwards, adopting a double movement of translation and rotation, like a planet around its sun. I set my eyes on the rooftops; from there I follow the rough lines leading down to rump windows, doors, balconies and staircases. Francisco and I barely exchange words. We are tracking the trivial city, the poetics of everydayness, and move on carefully enough lest we disturb the humdrum solitude and neglect of Mtatsminda.

Post-Soviet amalgamations: part two”

Street markets are the truly honest museums in the post-Soviet world, the sites where the remnants of distinctive pasts get amalgamated in the most ironic pastiches you can conceive. These are special kinds of remnants though, that do not usually make their way to museums. These are pins and badges, second-hand flotsam, old samovars, cameras, books and family photos, postcards of Soviet Summer resorts, eyeglasses, Lenin and Stalin busts, playing cards, maps of the Roman empire, flags of Soviet republics and interim flags of post-Soviet statelets, cheap ceramic knick-knacks, Passion of Christ and Our Lady figurines, rusty medals and WWII memorabilia, old enamel, Soviet kitsch, corny alabaster abat-jours, handmade chessboards and all types of Soviet military garment. Roaming around post-Soviet street markets is a treasured excursion into the trivial lives of yore, amalgamated and scattered about on the grubby surface of discoloured rugs. At the Tbilisi Dry Bridge flea market that morning we saw all that and much more.

At Soso’s den”

Did you know there’s a Stalin Museum in Tbilisi?, Francisco asked me. I did not know but was not going to miss the opportunity. It is not really a museum; more like a den, Soso’s den. We come near what seems like a dodgy bar, with the Soviet hammer and sickle painted on the door. An improvised and colourful signboard reads: Open 24/24. Inside, hanging on the walls, there are photos and documents of the Revolution, Stalin and his subversive activities in tsarist Tbilisi, there are busts and paintings, Soviet flags and banners with slogans in Georgian and Russian. Soso is the guardian of the place; he lives in a cabin next to the main building. While guiding us around he keeps vociferating against the Georgian government, the United States and global capital. To make things even, he gives cheers to Portugal and Spain. When his revolutionary zest declines and he shows signs of boredom, he rushes us out.

A man of convoluted gesticulation”

Francisco’s brother joins us in Tbilisi. After strolling around Narikala Fortress the whole afternoon, we stop at the Newsroom Café. It is owned by Nodar, a big guy who Francisco tells me studied Classics in Berlin, served as bodyguard for Gamsakhurdia in the 1990s and became NYT rep in the Caucasus. As we sit down and order a glass of red wine, Nodar introduces us to Yuri Menchitov, Deputy Culture Minister for two months, and we engage in a lively discussion about independence, Saakashvili and the 2008 Five-Day War with Russia. I listen more than talk, attempting to understand the man, his reasons and convoluted gesticulation. Relations with Russia have been the driving force behind Georgian politics in the post-Soviet era and society has learnt the hard way what it means to be a peripheral country and have a neighbour such as Russia. Mr. Menchitov’s vocal reaction to our points of view is his way to make this argument clear.

Stalin snow globes and other memorabilia”

Gori is located at the highway connecting Tbilisi and inner Georgia to the port of Poti, on the Black Sea. It is an uncharacteristic town, with an impressive fortress on the hilltop, invaded by the armies of regional powers several times in the past. Just a few miles before arriving, Nikoloz warns us that South Ossetia is on our right and we remember how Russia occupied the town in 2008, stopping just outside Tbilisi. We are in Gori because this is Stalin’s birthplace. After having a coffee at a pretentious place on Stalin Avenue named ‘Versailles Palace’, we rush to the Stalin Museum. On the first floor, we pay and wait for the guide. Stalin memorabilia is on display: small-size Stalin busts: 40 Lari; Stalin mugs: 10 Lari; Stalin pens: 20 Lari; Stalin snow globes: 15 Lari. I take photos, but the histrionic lady on the souvenir booth stops the shooting. She wants to check she was not caught.

Drinking wine at the Georgian desert”

Udabno is located in Southeast Georgia, bordering Azerbaijan, on that fuzzy corner where Orthodox monasteries on both sides of the sovereignty line were granted a unique regime of free movement for monks. Udabno means ‘desert’ in the Georgian language and became home to the resettled Svans, after a series of avalanches hit the mountainous Svaneti region in 1987. The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the USSR Council of Ministers passed a decree to resettle some 2,500 families in Eastern Georgia, and 300 people still live in Udabno nowadays. However, the place is full of abandoned and torn-down buildings, leaving no doubt the resettlement project of the 1980s was just one more Soviet fiasco. We pass by on our way to the David Gareji monastery and stop for a while. Nikoloz brought with him a demijohn full of red wine some cousin had offered him and we sit there, drinking and contemplating the beauty of the desolate tract.

Post-apocalyptic slumber”

At the Ortachala station in Tbilisi we take a marshrutka to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It is early in the morning, we try to drink a coffee but Francisco is unconvinced at the kind of Nescafé mix a lady in a small shop under the staircase wants to offer us. We sneak back to the marshrutka without coffee and prepare to take off; it will be seven hours zigzagging through the Armenian plateau. Suddenly, in the middle of the wasteland, the road takes an unexpected turn and we enter Alaverdi, the ultimate post-Soviet site. Outside the windowpane a colossal industrial complex rises up. It is all rusty and partially abandoned but a frenetic suburban activity has taken hold of it and all sorts of people rush in and out of its holes. Alaverdi reveals a post-apocalyptic nature; in my slumber, survivors roam about the ruins of a future war-torn civilization. Actually, it is the Soviet civilization gone wrong.

On to Nagorno-Karabakh”

Nagorno-Karabakh is where the USSR started to crumble. I still remember reading in the papers about a distant war between Armenians and Azeris, in the late 1980s, but at that time it looked like some quarrel among Martians. At Yerevan’s bus stop on Budapest Avenue we look for the marshrutka with the sign ‘Stepanakert’ in Latin and Armenian writing. People with plastic bags approach the driver who runs quickly out of places. We head southeast, penetrating slowly the narrow strip of Armenian territory that in official maps separates Azerbaijan from its Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan. The marshrutka keeps going, impervious to war games. Due to the status quo frozen since the 1990s, we never quite leave Armenia but never enter Azerbaijan. Instead, we stop at the NKR border control. Locals present their papers and pay; we register and get a tiny strip of paper with an address on it. Talking about the war, a guy next to me proclaims: “Next time we’ll bathe in the Caspian”.

The man going to a royal ball”

The NKR is a mountainous break-away Republic. Some weeks before I arrived, Francisco suggested we visited Abkhazia but the visa process takes time and the logistics to cross the line with Georgia makes the endeavour difficult to undertake. So we opted for Nagorno-Karabakh. The address we got at the border control took us to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the capital Stepanakert. Inside what might have been a provincial KGB facility during Soviet times, we were received by a guy in his early thirties. He dressed as he was going to attend a royal ball in some fairytale kingdom and explained to us the visa could either be stuck on the passport or just affixed to avoid problems, in case we visited Azerbaijan. The guy disappeared in a gloomy hallway and left us waiting. Till he came back, we occupied ourselves with a Soviet-style military hat some guard had left behind on the entrance desk.

The photograph that was not taken”

I remember the photograph that was not taken. These words by Brazilian anthropologist João Biehl cross my mind while recalling the ghost town of Ağdam. After sorting our visas in Stepanakert, the Martínez brothers and I manage to find a taxi driver to show us around. “There’s lots of monasteries, historic sites”, he says, “Why Ağdam? There’s nothing to see there.” The town was captured by Armenian forces in the summer of 1993 and a corridor was open to allow the Azeri population to move eastwards. Those who stayed were killed in the fighting, the town torn down. Nowadays Ağdam is an immense grassland just outside the Armenian plateau. The frontline is there, frozen, beside the old Mosque. Cows dominate the wilderness and graze carelessly amidst carcasses of concrete. We roll down in the awry car, afraid to cross the police or the military. After a while the taxi driver announces: “That’s enough, we go now; don’t take photos.”

There’s a war going on here”

The night has now fallen on Stepanakert. We are back from Ağdam and ask the taxi driver to leave us somewhere where we can have dinner. We are starving and let the waitress choose for us. Meat and Armenian red wine; a struggling wine, Francisco declares jokingly. On our way back to the guesthouse we buy three toothbrushes for one euro. In the outskirts, it is still possible to notice signs of the war but the city centre is full of fancy buildings housing the Republic’s offices and departments. It is now 10pm and we stroll around the deserted streets bordering Renaissance Square. Playing with my camera, I act as if I wanted to shoot at one of the gloomy buildings over there. Then, the clumsy military at the sentry-box we had not noticed wave at us vigorously, shouting to forbid us. “There’s a war going on here”, Francisco warns me scornfully. We laugh out loud with those guys.

Waking up under the Ararat”

It is Holy Saturday on the Orthodox calendar and the Armenians rush to spend Easter with their families. Buses and marshrutkas in Stepanakert are full that morning and we feel lucky to get a place on a bus leaving soon for Yerevan. It is crowded inside; we are assigned the back seat and hurry to occupy our places there. An old man seating in front of us catches my attention. He is spinning a string with his left hand fingers where I spot the awkward tattoo: Mama 1953. The driver plays a video showing Chechen Heda Hamzatova singing “Brave Armenians” at the Russian-Armenian festival in 2010. A colossal painting of the Ararat occupies the background while the singer utters patriotic words about Sasun and the heroes Chavush and Aghbyur. Then comes a comedy movie about Turk villains and Armenian freedom-fighters. Hours later Francisco awakens me from my slumber. The Ararat is on our left, wrapped up in stormy clouds.

The best ice cream in the whole world”

At 5pm we are back to Yerevan. The bus journey took forever and we will not be able to visit the Holocaust Memorial after all. There is not much left for us to do; we head to the train station and buy tickets for Tbilisi that night. Then we rush to the hostel near Sakharov Square, have a shower and retrieve what we had left before Karabakh. After dinner, the Martínez brothers and I decide to get supplies for the train ride. Among the victuals there is a bottle of Armenian brandy. Around the corner, I spot a freezer with ‘CCCP’ ice cream bars. Suddenly I recall a journalist in 2014 asking Igor Khakimsianov, chief of the defence staff in the self-proclaimed Popular Republic of Donetsk, whether he felt Ukrainian or Russian. He replied: I am a citizen of the USSR; the best ice cream in the whole world was there and no one can take that from me.

Back to the USSR”

We are in the train now, all set for the journey. The roly-poly woman serving as attendant there takes me back to the USSR and another train ride comes to my mind: from Moscow to Leningrad, in 1990, when I was still a teenager. The woman is grumpy but always about to show her lukewarm humanity. After a while, she brings the bed linen and Francisco asks her if we have to pay for it. The woman gets heated: “In what kind of world would that happen?” She spots the bottle of Armenian brandy on the table of our berth and nods acquiescently. We learn she has got tea but decline; the brandy will soon put us to sleep. Hours later the woman comes back to wake us up, escorted first by the Armenian and then the Georgian border police. She takes the task seriously enough, as if suspected enemies of the people took cover under the appearance of common travellers. In the early morning I step outside to contemplate the post-Soviet wasteland. The door of her berth is half-open. Inside she lies helpless in her sleep, the round body exposed and reclined in the manner of a grotesque Delacroix nude.

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