Freedom Square Tour

How much is there within one small circle

Text by Tamar Esakia

The main city square of Tbilisi often does not seem itself, sometimes because of turmoil and protest rallies or because of hellish traffic jams, but sometimes because of a more enjoyable reason: New Year’s decorations. Now is the time when anything can trigger yet another transformation of Freedom Square. Since December the place has been brightly lit and adorned. Yet a very exciting story is hiding behind these snowballing exterior accessories. This travel guide offers to take you through this story. Just hold our magazine in Freedom Square and look around – numerous extinct or surviving buildings will bring Tbilisi’s past back to life.

It’s hard to imagine now but Tbilisi’s main Freedom Square was an unpopulated area surrounded by gardens and almond tree alleys just a couple of centuries ago. Located outside the city walls, it was not exactly a square either, because it was split in two by a ravine with a seasonally overflowing river and even becoming quite dangerous during rainy periods.

And this level area was favored by the residents of the city’s surrounding villages who would bring cartloads of firewood for sale, which is why the place was labeled sheshis moedani (Firewood Square). On weekends, a noisy fair would be held, where one could buy or sell pretty much everything from fresh herbs to furniture or cattle. The marketplace was so colorful and diverse that, as people would say at that time, one could enter the place naked and leave all dressed up on horseback.

The first official designation of the square celebrated the then general of the Russian army in the Caucasus. Don’t be surprised! By that time, Georgia had been annexed and turned into a Russian province. The Viceroy of the Caucasus, General Paskevich, achieved a major victory in the Russo-Persian War by capturing the Yerevan Fortress. After his triumphant return to Tiflis (Tbilisi), the emperor granted him the title “Count of Yerevan” (with the title Yerevansky added to his surname), and the previously nameless square was named after him. Technically, it was Paskevich-Yerevansky Square. But, Tbilisi’s residents, apparently felt uncomfortable pronouncing so many syllables, so they simply shortened it to Yerevansky.

The development of the square started in the 1st half of the 19th century. The place’s most famous building has been long demolished, though stories about it are still told throughout Tbilisi.

The first opera house in the Caucasus was built on the initiative of Viceroy Mikhail Vorontsov, which only makes sense because Vorontsov was really into the European lifestyle. In addition, as a loyal servant of the empire, he was skillful in using culture, alongside weapons, to contribute to the cause of colonization. The city could not afford a theater, which is why Vorontsov offered Tbilisi’s merchants to establish a partnership, chip in, and build a structure to accommodate their shops and an opera house in one. Yet some backed down because of a supposed lack of finances, others feared the loss of clientele. One way or another, Gabriel Tamamshev turned out to be the only one to accept Vorontsov’s offer and financed the project in full.

The opera house, designed by Italian architect Giovanni Scudieri, was built in 4 years, and a lavish ball was held in 1851 to celebrate its grand opening. The two-story building, with its Italian arched facades and distinctly Western Asian interior, was one of the earliest examples of Eclecticism. Its central section was reserved for a richly embellished 700-seat auditorium. A mammoth chandelier was shipped from Europe, and an exquisite curtain was designed by the celebrated artist Gagarin. The hall was surrounded by 266 commercial facilities like shops, taverns, warehouses, exchange booths, and the like. An Italian troupe opened the opera house’s inaugural season, with Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera by Donizetti. That day the city became obsessed with opera.

I must admit that the Tbilisi Opera features the most spellbinding hall I have ever seen”.

Alexandre Dumas

The 23rd season in 1874 proved fateful for the opera house. On October 11, the opera Norma was about to be performed. The singers, with makeup on, were ready to go. Suddenly, a commotion broke out in the auditorium. A fire that had started in the store of one Kazarov was spreading fast and threatening to consume the whole building. The city’s understaffed firefighters appealed to Tbilisi’s tulukhchis for help (tulukhchis were water boys who carried every day water from the Mtkvari in skins).

For 16 hours the tulukhchis carried water from the river, but to no avail. Everything burned down: the furniture, decorations, library… Arson was suspected from the very outset, because stores closed early, and the authorities prohibited trading by candlelight. The investigation revealed that merchants were not overly happy about a theater operating in the middle of their trade center, so it seems plausible to assume that a lit candle was deliberately left in one of the shops. The owner of the shop was sentenced to 9 years of forced labor and exiled to Siberia for life. As for Tbilisi, the city was forced to forget opera for a long time, because Tamamshev refused to finance the opera house’s restoration, leaving only commercial facilities in the renovated building. Much later, in the 2000s, during the construction of a fountain in the middle of the square, the well laid-out foundation of the opera house was discovered, which is currently under the Statue of Saint George. The sculptures of griffons in front of the City Assembly are the only things that have survived from that fabled opera house building. Back in the day, they adorned the entrances of the opera house, and lit the path leading therein with lamps attached to their tops.

The fair, previously held in the middle of the square, was pushed to the edge. To attract crowds, low-cost circus performers were often hired. The place was quite lively until the 1870s, when the marketplace was relocated to build the so-called New Garden in its place. After the unveiling of the bust of the brilliant Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in 1892, the garden was named after him and so was the street where he lived when visiting Tbilisi. The street leading from Freedom Square down to the riverbank is still called Pushkin Street, and the poet’s bust is the oldest sculpture in town.

Behind the garden there is a columned building dating to the 1820s, the initial stage in the square’s development. The structure has almost entirely survived in its original form. Once housing one of the biggest hotels in Tbilisi, the building is currently occupied by the Art Museum of Georgia. Interestingly, its history is linked to a most notorious crime story.

Built to replace an old caravanserai, the three-story hotel – one of the most prominent examples of Neo-Classicism in Tbilisi, designed by architect Giuseppe Bernadazzi – was owned by famous philanthropist and entrepreneur Iakob Zubalashvili. In 1873, a ball was held to honor the visiting Russian Emperor Nicholas I. Shortly thereafter, Zubalashvili sold the building to a church for the price of a brick, meaning for next to nothing. In 1840-1911, a theological seminary operated here gradually transforming into a genuine alma mater of revolutionaries, instead of serving its direct educational purpose. To illustrate this paradox, it suffices to name one of the most controversial figures to have ever studied there, Ioseb Jughashvili, better known by his revolutionary nickname, Stalin.

“No other secular school, or any other school for that matter, produced as many atheists unable to accept any religion as the Tiflis Theological Seminary did.”

F. Makharadze, seminarian, Bolshevik, and one of the architects of Georgia’s occupation in 1921 

At that time, the autocephaly of the Georgian Church had been abolished and was governed by – instead of a Georgian Patriarch – an exarch dispatched from Russia. The seminary persecuted everything Georgian. The inhumane barrack-style discipline and degrading methods of punishment caused discontent among the seminary’s students, who were often expelled for keeping prohibited literature. The most scandalous case took place in 1886, when student Ioseb Laghiashvili’s diary and Georgian handwritten magazine were discovered. The student was expelled and blacklisted, never to be allowed in any school of education again, which meant that the young man would be left with no means of survival. His repeated appeals to Rector Chudetsky, who was notorious for his hatred of everything Georgian, proved unsuccessful. After another failed attempt, the desperate student stabbed the rector to death right at the seminary.

Georgian author, translator and  opinion journalist Tedo Sakhokia wrote that the seminarians were over the moon as they watched Chudetsky die and absolutely nobody, felt sorry for him…

Georgian society sympathized with and supported Laghiashvili. He was defended in court by one of the finest attorneys. The process drew immense interest, and those whom the packed courthouse could not fit waited outside. Despite the attempts of the exarch and the viceroy of the Caucasus, the court did not sentence the defendant to death. He was exiled to Sakhalin for 20 years, from where he is rumored to have escaped to Japan and then to America.

The building of the theological seminary was sold once again in 1917, and was remodeled into a hotel. Throughout its history, the building has changed its name several times. A booklet printed in the 1820s reads that Palace Hotel was one of the biggest hospitality facilities in town, with the finest restaurant serving European and Asian cuisines, a nice barbershop, bathhouses, and a large decorative garden.

In the 1930s, the hotel was shut down. After a full reconstruction, it was handed over to the Museum of Visual Arts. The building, then nearly two centuries old, was temporarily closed due to major reinforcement work.

Across from the museum there used to be diners and taverns lined up and down Pushkin Street. Earlier though, the feudal city’s defensive wall passed through the area, with the wall’s remnants visible just under the busy thoroughfare. Judging by the massive surviving section of the defensive wall and three watchtowers, medieval Tbilisi must have been a well-fortified city. Its defensive capabilities were further enhanced by the ravine running along the defensive wall through modern-day Freedom Square, representing a natural obstacle for invading enemies. Presently, the ravine is under the street, and the waters run through an underground canal to feed into the Mtkvari River.

former Tbilisi Municipal Credit Society , currently Bank of Georgia

The former Tbilisi Municipal Credit Society at 3 Pushkin Street first appeared on the city map in 1897. It was a nongovernmental financial organization, a branch of the Credit Society of the Russian Empire which issued loans secured with collateral properties throughout Tbilisi. It was one of the first banking institutions in the city. In the 1900s-2000s, it was entirely remodeled, though inside is the columned hall with excellent stained glass windows and still-operating cashier booths for banking operations.

Just next to the building, where Kote Apkhazi Street meets Freedom Square, one of the gates of feudal Tbilisi is suggested to have stood.

The square’s entire southern section between Dadiani and Galaktioni Streets is occupied by the Tbilisi Municipal Assembly building. Since the early 19th century, an unseemly building of the gendarmerie used to stand in its place. After the introduction of partial self-government in Tbilisi in 1840, the gendarmerie was joined by a six-member municipal authority. Later, a drill tower for firefighters was added to the structure to control the city’s entire perimeter, to detect smoke in a timely manner. Ironically, the opera house consumed by a fire was the closest building to the fire station.

Fountain running in front of the opera was designed by the author of the opera house, architect Giovanni Scudieri. It was about this fountain that Georgian poet Ioseb Grishashvili was writing when relating the story of the opera house fire. The poet said that there was no drop of water running from the fountain.

Kavakaz Hotel Headquarters of the Armed Forces and the Palace Street (Nationa Library collection)

After reconstruction in the 1870s-1880s, the firehouse acquired modern, pseudo-Moorish features. The drill tower was transformed into the town hall with a giant clock which, once in an hour plays some memorable chords from the most popular tunes that had been composed in Tbilisi.

The entire western section of the square, from Leonidze Street to the District Authority building, has been through some serious trials and tribulations. The buildings were destroyed beyond repair during the 1991-1992 civil war, so they had to be replaced with new structures. The devastated buildings included Kavkaz Hotel, opened by one Guillaume, a Frenchman who had previously served as one of the most successful and reliable chefs in Saint Petersburg and Tbilisi. The hotel changed hands repeatedly. In the 1910s, its 1st floor was occupied by the photo gallery of a famous photographer named Dmitry Yermakov. The gallery offered “a collection of views and images of the Caucasus”. The archives of the National Library of Georgia preserves Yermakov’s photos, some of which are featured as illustrations to our article.

Presently, Rustaveli Avenue starts in Freedom Square, though its predecessor, Golovin Avenue, started at the former Palace of the Viceroy, currently the Palace of Youth at 6 Rustaveli Avenue, and was linked to Freedom Square by the narrow Palace Street. On the right side of Golovin Avenue there were hotels and an Armenian church, and the left side featured the Theater of Georgian Nobility and the Headquarters of the Transcaucasian Armed Forces, the only building among those across from Palace Street that survived the civil war. Dated to 1824, it is one of the earliest examples of Russian Classicism which, along with the Art Museum, was built at the initial stage of the square’s development.

Among the presently nonexistent hotels once operating in the square, we must mention the hotel operating in the house of Ivane Zubalashvili. Hotel Italia was its original name, and it was later renamed Hotel Europe. Maison Zoubaloff, as it was referred to in ads, was one of the finest hotels in Tbilisi. It is in this house that Alexandre Dumas stayed during his visit to Tbilisi in 1859. At first, the hotel was operated by a certain Italian entrepreneur named Villa. Later, Frenchman Arsene Barberon ran the establishment for 25 years. In 1865-1880, Europe was hailed as the best hotel in Tbilisi. In 1970, the building was demolished to be replaced with a Central Committee building. Today, the lower station of Panorama Tbilisi is under construction here.

Throughout its relatively short history, the square has seen a myriad of interesting events and stories. On June 13, 1907, for example, 250,000 rubles acquired through appropriation by the Treasury of the Russian Empire were stolen. The incident had casualties and was widely covered in the international press. Despite immense efforts, the gendarmerie failed to crack the case. Word has it that the amount was personally smuggled from Tbilisi on Stalin’s orders by revolutionary Simon Arshaki Ter-Petrosian, better known as Kamo, who used furniture and suitcases to transport the money. Later, Kamo died under suspicious circumstances and was buried somewhere in Pushkin Garden.

After Russian Emperor Nicholas II abdicated the throne in 1917, Yerevansky Square was renamed Freedom Square.

In February of 1921, the 11th Red Army entered Tbilisi through the narrow streets of the Sololaki district to hold a parade here and fly the red flag. A year later, the Communists called the place Transcaucasia Square, to celebrate the establishment of the Transcaucasian Federation.

After 1940, the square was named for Lavrentiy Beria, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia and later short-lived leader of the Soviet Union. After Beria’s execution in 1953, a statue of Lenin on a tall platform was raised and the square was renamed after the first leader of the USSR.

At sunrise on April 9, 1989, Soviet tanks, followed by armed special forces, made a move to punish peaceful demonstrators that had gathered on Rustaveli avenue. The operation claimed 22 people’s lives.

In 1991, the statue of Lenin was removed, though one of his legs remained standing on the platform for a while.

In 2006, a 40-meter Statue of Saint George was erected in the middle of the square.

The main square of Tbilisi is now again known as Freedom Square.

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