Tbilisi addresses preserving fragments of Georgia’s Sovietization.
Text and photos by Tamar Esakia
Photo: National Archives of Georgia
Kojori is a small town near Tbilisi – actually, it is technically in Tbilisi, because the administrative division places it within the city limits.
Located at 1350 meters above sea level, Kojori – with its long cool summer, moderately humid subtropical climate, mountains, forests, and lots of O2 – is a remarkable destination and the best refuge from Tbilisi’s dusty haze since ancient times. This medieval fortification, besides fulfilling defensive functions, also doubled as the summer residence for many of the kings of Georgia. The former orphanage in Kojori previously served as a villa built by the Viceroy of the Caucasus Mikhail Vorontsov, only to be replaced with a women’s gymnasium by the Saint Nino Society.
In the early 20th century, Kojori took on a new significance. This quaint small town enveloped in greenery turned into a most fateful spot symbolizing self-sacrifice bordering on despair and a foregone conclusion in one.
On May 7, 1920, a peace treaty was signed between Bolshevik Russia and the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia, which nonetheless did not prevent Soviet Russia from unleashing open aggression.
In February of 1921, Georgia engaged in a full-blown war with Russia. Two locations: Kojori and, a bit lower, Tabakhmela, played key roles in Tbilisi’s defense, with volunteers and army school students fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the regular army.
The Tbilisi Military School (148a David Aghmashenebeli Avenue) was established in 1919 in order to supply Georgia’s regular army with junior officers and sergeants. The school’s idea was conceived and initiated by General Giorgi Kvinitadze, who took over as its first principal. After completing the theory course under the school’s two-year program, cadets were divided by four key specialties: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineering. By the time of the military intervention by Soviet Russia, the school had enrolled 183 cadets, with most of them subsequently taking part in the military operations.
“My children! It is my duty to urge you to focus on reading and writing. But there are moments in a nation’s life when you must set aside all else and stand up to the enemy with a gun in your hand. And now I urge you to take up arms.” – Tbilisi State University’s Founder and Rector Ivane Javakhishvili’s Address to Students.
“On the night of February 20 to 21, the enemy received reinforcements and launched two back-to-back attacks on our detachments in the Kojori district. The first assault we beat off with grenades, and the second ended with hand-to-hand combat with bayonets.” – From the press, February of 1921.
“Please send me some hazelnuts and sweets if you can. Take care of yourselves. Kisses! It’s not as cold here. Don’t worry. A glorious victory will soon be ours!” —An excerpt from 19-year-old Sister of Mercy Maro Makashvili’s letter from the front. February 22, 1921
Several attacks on Tabakhmela were repulsed by the Georgian armed forces on February 19-21, with numerous casualties. One of the clashes claimed the life of volunteer Maro Makashvili, a junior natural sciences student of Tbilisi University. She was buried in the churchyard of Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on modern-day Rustaveli Avenue.
Speaking of the cathedral, the construction of this pompous church at 80 Rustaveli Avenue – also known at that time among Tbilisi’s residents simply as Sobor – was completed in 1897 to symbolize the complete subjugation of the Caucasus by Tsarist Russia. In the early years of Soviet rule, the cathedral was demolished, leaving in ruin the graves of the youths who had fought for independence. Today, the government’s administration is housed on this place, which acquired its current building in 1953, after a long period of construction when the main building, similar to other examples of Stalinist architecture, was clad with yellow tuff (8 Rustaveli Avenue).
The day after the burial of the fallen cadets, on the night of February 24, 1921, the commander-in-chief of the Georgian army made a decision to cede Tbilisi and relocate the front. The government evacuated from the city. On the morning of February 25, Red Army troops entered Tbilisi, most likely using the same route as is done today, that is, down the serpentines from Kojori-Tabakhmela, through the narrow Sololaki streets, and toward Freedom Square.
Back then, just like today, it was called Freedom Square. It was here that the 11th Army held a parade after taking over the city without firing a single shot. The flag over the Tbilisi Council was removed and replaced, and the dedicated revolutionary Sergo Ordjonikidze, who personally led the conquest of the Caucasian republics, sent the infamous telegram to Lenin and Stalin in the Kremlin:
“The red flag is flying over Tbilisi. Long live Soviet Georgia!”
Actively engaged in the revolutionary movement from his youth, Ordjonikidze was repeatedly arrested and exiled. Unlike other “illustrious” Georgian revolutionaries who had graduated from Tbilisi Theological Seminary, Ordjonikidze was an alumnus of the Feldsher School at Mikhail Hospital in Tbilisi. Feldsher was the main clinic where the wounded and dead would be delivered in the first days of Sovietization.
As the Red Army celebrated the conquest of Tbilisi, the papers were riddled with obituaries announcing that funeral processions for those fallen in battle would start at Mikhail Hospital (58-60a David Agmashenebeli Ave).
Built in 1868, Mikhail Hospital on the left Mtkvari Riverbank was part of the settlement of German colonists from Württemberg. Its construction was initiated by the German medic Andreas Libau, and the building was designed by famous Tbilisi-based architect Albert Salzmann. The hospital was named after Mikhail Romanov, Russia’s then Viceroy in the Caucasus. The complex’s two two-story buildings facing the road were Libau’s residence and pharmacy, while the main hospital building was located slightly in the back and stretched all the way to modern-day Uznadze Street. Later, a neo-Gothic two-story facility was built to shelter the poor. A newspaper article dated 1906 reads that Mikhail Hospital could accommodate 300 patients in the early 20th century, including 100 in its psychiatric ward and the remaining 200 in the surgery and internal medicine sections.
“The sight was tragic enough to evoke a mix of awe and reverence even in communists and Red Army soldiers, and it never crossed the mind of the new administration to interfere with the procession.”
On February 26, a large funeral procession started at Mikhail Hospital and proceeded toward Rustaveli Avenue.
In the meantime, the legitimate government of Georgia, which had found refuge in the West, kept working. The Constitution of Georgia, ratified three days prior to evacuation from Tbilisi on February 21, was printed and disseminated in Batumi. The Black Sea port city was where the Constituent Assembly convened for the last time on Georgian soil, and from where the government fled abroad after being instructed to evacuate valuables from the treasury and museums and to continue fighting for independence. Threatened by Soviet reprisals, Georgian lawmakers and politicians traveled from Batumi to France via Istanbul. Valuables from the state treasury and those of national importance were shipped to France in 249 boxes, including 4 museum and national gallery collections, and especially valuable goods from palaces in Tbilisi, Likani, Borjomi, and Zugdidi, and from monasteries in Western Georgia. A member of the Constituent Assembly, Ekvtime Takaishvili, was put in charge of the evacuated treasures.
Ekvtime Takaishvili, a Georgian scholar and one of the founders and professors of Tbilisi State University, was a passionate advocate of promoting literacy among the Georgians and a dedicated collector of archeological and ethnographic materials. After having arrived in Marseille, he dismissed representatives of New York’s artistic community and British museums who offered to buy the Georgian treasures from him – he would not so much as negotiate with anyone.
Later on, after France’s recognition of the Soviet Union, the government of independent Georgia was declared illegitimate, and the Georgian treasures, now treated as unowned property, was confiscated based on a court order. The treasures were reclaimed in 1945 on the personal order of Charles de Gaulle, the head of France’s provisional government.
“I wrote a detailed report to de Gaulle. Bogomolov (the Soviet ambassador to France) handed it to him as they were flying together to Moscow to meet with the leader of the Soviet government. The war was still on, and France’s deliverance and liberation depended largely on the Soviet Union. Of course, de Gaulle could not say no, so he ordered the treasures returned to us without delay.” – From Ekvtime Takaishvili’s memoirs
The treasures’ inventory and transportation saw the active involvement of Shalva Amiranashvili, Ekvtime Takaishvili’s former student and Director of the State Art Museum of Georgia, who was delegated from Georgia just for that mission.
“It was documented in full that all collections, individual items and documents had been preserved intact” — Shalva Amiranashvili
After a month of work, these most precious riches were packaged carefully in boxes and flown to Tbilisi in two planes, with Ekvtime Takaishvili accompanying the treasures as their committed guardian (6 Vashlovani str., House-museum of Ekvtime Takaishvili).
In July of 1921, Joseph Stalin, the architect behind Georgia’s occupation, arrived in Tbilisi. This marked his first visit to Georgia since 1907, when he had dodged the gendarmerie during his wife’s funeral. There are several locations in Tbilisi related to that period in Stalin’s life – back when he was neither Stalin nor the Great Leader.
The building in the back of the courtyard at 150 Aghmashenebeli Avenue was constructed in 1860-1861. One of the earliest scientific centers in the South Caucasus, it served as the main facility of the physics and then geophysics observatory complex since 1867 and 1924, respectively. The institution generated data subsequently to exchange with other global network observatories. Similar to Mikhail Hospital, its construction is related to Germans.
From late December of 1899, Stalin, worked in the observatory for over a year. ROOM OF THE OBSERVER OF DUTY, Soso Djugashvili (Joseph Stalin) worked here (22.XII.1899 – 21.III.1901) – reads the laminated plaque at the entrance of the room preserving several items that – as they say – once belonged to a young Soso Djugashvili, including an ornamented desk.
Far more eventful was Stalin’s employment in the Tobacco Factory that once occupied the massive building on the right along the road from Heroes Square down to the riverbank. Back in the day, it was owned by the Tbilisi-based tobacco tycoon Bozarjiants, whose lavish family residence adorned with Venetian glass still stands at 12 Chonkadze Street. Behind the gas station near the tobacco factory there is an obelisk that once had an inscription commemorating Stalin’s time as the factory’s employee – the worker who rounded up his fellow colleagues against their employer and inspired them to go on strike.
Stalin is believed to have had a hand in the establishment of the Avlabari underground printing house (7 Kaspi street) in Tbilisi, which has survived to this day. Truth be told, however, it is likely to be an urban legend fabricated by Lavrentiy Beria to suck up to the Great Leader. In 1903, when the print house was built, Stalin was serving time in Kutaisi Prison. In reality, the undertaking was led by Socialist-Democrat Mikho Bochoridze, one of the most seasoned conspirators at the time. The architecture of this one-story house completely disregards the construction plan approved by municipal authorities, with a secret room arranged at ground level under the house. Accessing this room was no easy task. You had to descend a ladder into a water-filled well that had a secret tunnel cut at 1 meter above ground which led to another, dry well with a staircase leading up into the hideout.
The house was occupied by Bochoridze’s aunt, who spared no effort ensuring against any suspicion by maintaining a homelike atmosphere, including raising chickens, planting trees, and so on… She would be on the lookout while revolutionaries worked in the print house – she was supposed to press a special button hidden behind the wallpaper in case she sensed something fishy. Word has it that Stalin, when visiting Tbilisi, would stay overnight in the printing house, also authoring numerous revolutionary pamphlets.
In October of 1905, with freedom of speech allowed, the printing house was abolished. Then a group of street-fighting revolutionaries worked there, manufacturing hand grenades. The group was eventually exposed by an informant. The former printing house was raided. It was restored in 1936 as “a monument to Stalin’s printed word”. Remodeled into a museum, the printing house showcases the same press used to print pamphlets prior to 1905.
In 1905, young Stalin moved in with the family of his friend Alexandre Svanidze, at modern-day 3 Sulkhan Saba Street, where the Svanidzes had been living since the early 1900s. Alexandre was collaborating with a Bolshevik newspaper, while his sisters, Alexandra, Mariam, and Ekaterine, ran Madame Hervey’s Fashion Atelier, a crazy popular outlet in town attracting scores looking for fashionable clothing. Once, Alexander brought Koba (Stalin’s underground nickname), his friend from the seminary, to spend a night at their home.
Two years later, Koba married young Ekaterine Svanidze. Shortly thereafter, problems related to his revolutionary work forced Koba to move to Baku together with his wife and infant son, Iakobi. This involuntary trip proved fateful for the young woman. Ekaterine fell gravely ill and passed away shortly after returning to Tbilisi. Stalin, devastated by the death of his young wife, would not be let anywhere near guns. On the day of her funeral, he followed Ekaterine’s coffin into the grave, and it took a lot of effort to pull him up.
In due course, he went Stalin even against his own family: in 1937, Alexander Svanidze, previously holding senior Soviet governmental offices, was arrested, charged with espionage, and executed in 1942 together with his wife and sister. Stalin’s son, Iakobi, raised by his grandmother with pretty much no contact with his father, was captured by Germans in 1941, and died in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp two years later.
In 1921, the workers’ club in the Nadzaladevi neighborhood (26 Shalva Dadiani street) on the left Mtkvari Riverbank was chosen to hold a meeting with Stalin.
“Tbilisi must be ironed with the iron of the October Revolution.”
In 1872, after the opening of a railroad line between Tbilisi and Poti on the Black Sea coast, the Tbilisi railroad station’s adjacent territories were appropriated through squatter’s rights. The railroad’s workers just forced their way into ownerless properties without authorization, hence the name of the neighborhood – the word “nadzaladevi” in the Georgian language means “something taken or done by force”. The neighborhood subsequently transformed into one of the key centers of the revolutionary movement not only in Tbilisi, but also throughout Georgia. It was in Nadzaladevi that Stalin took his first steps on the revolutionary path, so giving a speech in the workers’ club in the same neighborhood, and presenting himself as a victor, was crucially important to Stalin. Yet the meeting’s atmosphere turned out to be totally different than he had expected, as reflected in the memoirs of one of the meeting’s participants:
“Stalin’s appearing on the stage caused an unusual commotion. ‘Traitor!’ ‘Murderer!’ people hurled loud insults at him. The noise grew into threats, and the crowd calmed down only when Ramishvili (a former Socialist member of the municipal council) rose to his feet and accused Stalin of his crimes to his face. After Ramishvili, workers’ leader Dgebuadze took over the stage and continued exposing Stalin’s crimes. Stalin’s associates, Cheka officers, tried to hush Dgebuadze, but the crowd stood up for him and chanted ‘The Internationale’ and hymns celebrating independent Georgia.” Stalin was secretly escorted from the gathering.
On the next day, on Stalin’s orders, the Chairman of Georgia’s Revolutionary Committee was replaced at once, and large-scale repressions ensued. The initial wave of arrests affected members of Georgia’s Constituent Assembly: Isidore Ramishvili and Alexandre Dgebuadze. A year later, they were sentenced to exile and, after 16 years of persecution, executed in 1937.
The city’s main lockup was quartered in the enormous prison complex of the Metekhi Castle on the left Mtkvari Riverbank. Although the prison has since been demolished, it has survived in numerous photos, and there are people still alive who had once helped their mothers deliver food to their fathers imprisoned there.
The Metekhi Castle used to be a residence of Georgian kings. The surviving church is dated to the 13th century. In the early 19th century, the newly appointed Russian Governor of the Caucasus Yermolov had the complex’s citadel demolished and used its remains to build a prison. From that time until 1935, it was the main political prison under Tsarist Russia, the Democratic Republic of Georgia, and Soviet rule. The church’s walls preserve inscriptions by prisoners under the different regimes. Prisoners of Metekhi include Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Ambrosi, who was detained after sending an urgent memorandum to the Genoa International Conference in 1922. The conference sought to find ways to regulate economic relations between European states and Soviet Russia. The Patriarch, in his letter, called out the Soviet regime and demanded the immediate withdrawal of occupant forces. Russia, in its policy of abusing smaller nations, “dispatched its occupant forces to Georgia’s borders and, after an unequal battle on February 25, 1921, once again subjected Georgia to the heavy and shameful yoke of slavery unmatched in its intensity throughout the country’s centuries-long history.”
The Catholicos-Patriarch and the members of the Patriarchal Council were charged with misappropriation of church-owned property and anti-Soviet activities. They were tried in the Nadzaladevi Club mentioned above, with mockery and insults hurled against the defendants from all sides.
The Patriarch was sentenced to 7 years and 9 months of imprisonment, and all his assets were confiscated, an indicator that the antireligious movement was on the rise. By 1924, more than 1,000 churches had been closed in Georgia.
In February of 1922, the Georgian Congress of Soviets was elected with blatant violations and in defiance of boycotting anti-Soviet parties. May 26 as the Day of Georgia’s Independence was abolished, and February 25 was declared as the real Day of Independence. In the meantime, anti-Soviet protests continued throughout Georgia.
“Our deaths will bring victory to Georgia!” — Member of the Army Center, General Major Konstantine Abkhazi
Resistance groups fought for Georgia’s de-occupation, notably the Independence Committee and the so-called Army Center consisting of Georgian military officers, who worked hard on a plan for liberating Georgia, with instigating a popular revolt as one of its parts. Unsurprisingly, then, the Army Center became one of the first targets hit by the Cheka. 15 Georgian army officers were sentenced to death for organizing an anti-Soviet rebellion. Based on various sources, it is widely believed that they were put to death on May 20, 1923, in the territory of modern-day Vake Park. Despite this great loss, the Independence Committee pressed on and the following year, 1924, marked a large-scale anti-occupation revolt and equally sweeping repressions.
22 PAVLE INGOROKVA STREET – In 1892-1906, a young men’s gymnasium operated here. In 1906, a grenade hurled by terrorists from the gymnasium’s building wounded the Chief of Tbilisi Police. Consequently, the building was raided, the teachers physically abused, and the principal was killed. On the day when Tbilisi was captured in 1921, the Decree #1 of the Revolutionary Committee handed this building to the Cheka. Since 1925, the building housed the Extraordinary Commission of Transcaucasia, and both agencies cohabitated here until 1934. The rooms on the first floors were used as holding cells, and torture and executions were held in the basements.