Discovering Rustavi – Which Histories Matter?

On 17-19th of September our ira.urban team met in Tbilisi for a workshop to discuss urban economies of Post-Soviet Cities. Few weeks before the visit to Georgia, our team was discussing outdoor program of our workshop. Visiting Rustavi came up as one of the suggestions. I come from Georgia and I do have the feeling I have seen many parts of the country, but Rustavi is a space I have almost no knowledge of, even if the city is just 30 minutes drive from Tbilisi. My first thought was – “what is there to see in Rustavi”?

On a second thought I realized how ignorant my disregard towards Rustavi was. Rustavi used to be one of the biggest and the most important industrial cities in Georgia and in South Caucasus throughout the Soviet Period. When I finally had a chance to see the city this September I understood Rustavi is essentially the most representative industrial city in Georgia. Unlike other industrial centres that had more diverse functions as well as bigger pre-soviet history, prior to 1950 Rustavi was a tiny economically and politically unimportant town. Nowhere in Georgia can one see a classical Soviet Industrial city structure more clearly than in Rustavi, built around one long avenue leading towards the factories. Locals say that behind the factory gates there are industrial sites much larger than the city itself. The Soviet architecture and the mass housing estates built in different decades also unravel alongside the main avenue.

I also realized that my initial disregard towards Rustavi resonates with and is shaped by a general disregard and lack of appreciation of the Soviet History in Georgia. This became even more apparent once I started researching a little on the history of Rustavi. There is a very limited academic or non-academic literature on Rustavi. Even on the website of the Municipality of Rustavi City there is no mentioning of the industrial history of Rustavi. The website has a special section introducing the city to the visitors, but it rather discusses pre-industrial than industrial period of the city life, even if the industrial history is richer and more formative for the city. The only recent article I found about Rustavi is named “what brought you here”. The author of the article and the photo project, Anka Gudjabidze explains that the city inhabitants would continuously ask her why she came to Rustavi. They were surprised, as they are not used to seeing visitors or artists or researchers interested in Rustavi’s contemporary life or the history. In addition, they seem to have accepted the dominant negative attitude towards Rustavi as a city which can offer nothing to the visitors. Our taxi driver in Rustavi was also surprised with the curiosity of our team to learn about the city. The only site he considered worth visiting was a church in the middle of the city. Seeing everything else seemed pretty much pointless for him.

Rustavi does not attract much attention primarily because it can offer very little of pre-industrial history. I don’t remember a single time in my life prior to the time when we visited Georgia with ira.urban team, when anyone suggested visiting Rustavi. It never even appeared on the list of our regular excursions at high school or at the university, we never talked of Rustavi in history or geography classes. This certainly contrasts with the cities or spaces which are perhaps declining spaces in post-Soviet Georgia, but have richer pre-Soviet history. Those historical sites are visited, cherished and appreciated.

The question is what makes the history? How do we decide when the space starts being historical? Which histories are appreciated, which histories are neglected and why? As I said, disregard towards Rustavi in Georgia is a clear example of rejecting the traces of the Soviet Past. This is not surprising, given that all the Soviet legacies are seen in a negative light in Georgia. Moreover, whatever is wrong with Georgia’s social political and economic life since the independence is usually blamed on the Soviet Union. It is often argued that the Soviet experiences made Georgians corrupt, non-obedient, undermined political culture, artificially created ethnic conflicts, etc. Of course there is a bit of truth to some of these claims, and the Soviet legacies are certainly controversial. However, this amount of hatred towards one part of the national history, I think, also speaks of the inability of the Georgian society to start evaluating that part of the history critically. It seems as if the Soviet Union is still too present in our lives to talk of it as if it’s part of the past. There is not enough distance from it to start appreciating and re-evaluating it as history.

This hatred towards the Soviet past that is not yet experienced as past, but as haunting inheritance penetrating current social and political life deprives Rustavi from a chance to reclaim its identity. Rustavi cannot break from its Soviet mark but cannot take pride in its recent history either. Our visit to the city made me curious to know how the city inhabitants cope with the declined social-economic importance, but more importantly declined image of Rustavi. I would suggest anyone visiting Georgia to go and see Rustavi as a peculiar example of the inability to reinvent former industrial cities. As for myself, I hope I will have a chance to visit the city soon again to find richer narratives concerning the city than the one I have offered in this blog.

P.s. You can see more pictures of Rustavi here:

by Lela Rekhviashvili