Not THAT Georgia

The Caucasian state stepping out from the Soviet shadows. 

Words by Stephanie Adams

Travelling through Georgia is like travelling through time: everywhere you go, you can see traces of the past. Thousands of years of interaction with neighbouring cultures have fused into a proud and eclectic national identity, and though much of the 20th century was traumatic, Georgia is nevertheless putting its own, unique spin on its Soviet legacy.

Walking through the streets of Tbilisi, talking to locals, it’s evident that the USSR is still missed by some members of the older generations. Elderly men wear their Soviet medals, and will tell you -- rightly or wrongly -- that their country was a lot better, and safer, during the Soviet era, with no war or corruption.

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There’s a daily flea market open 11am to 5pm on Tbilisi’s Dry Bridge. Here, stall holders gather, laying out their wares on the pavement. They offer a glimpse into the past, preserved in the keepsakes of uncountable families. There are art books, maps, and novels, most of which are in Russian, though there are a few Georgian titles, too. If you’ve an eye for a bargain, you can pick out dusty treasures: medals awarded to heroes of the Great Patriotic War, costume jewellery, decorative perfume bottles, objets d’art, and retro household items such as telephones and light fittings. Elsewhere in the world, these have either disappeared from view, or are polished up and sold at inflated prices in boutiques and antique shops.

I crossed the bridge to the other side of the river, wandering along one of the wide streets to Fabrika. This former Soviet textile factory has been completely revamped into an awesome hostel/hotel, with shops and bars in the courtyard, and one of the city’s best urban art and performance spaces. The exterior of the building is a vast canvas for graffiti artists, who have decorated it concrete facade in technicolour.

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Fabrika epitomises the rapid changes that have happened in Tbilisi since I lived there in 2012: the city is reworking its past, and has suddenly become incredibly cool. Fabrika -- like its more upmarket sister properties, Hotel Stamba and Rooms Tbilisi -- has grasped its Soviet architecture (and the starkness of the concrete), and made something inspiring, contemporary, and very much Georgian. I can think of no better place to get under the skin of the city, to mingle with locals and foreign backpackers alike. This is without doubt the place to be.

One of the things I’d picked up at the Dry Bridge market was a dog eared portrait of Stalin, the kind of print which must have sat framed on millions of mantelpieces when he was at the peak of his power in the 1950s. Looking at it in Fabrika, a DJ’s beats pulsing around the courtyard, it seemed incongruous, but as you might remember from school history lessons, Stalin was a Georgian. His history is inextricably entwined with the country’s, and in his horrific purges, he showed his fellow countrymen no mercy.

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Stalin was born in 1878 in Gori, a small and these days unremarkable city a couple of hours west of Tbilisi. It is easy enough to get there and back on a daytrip, and the drive gives you the chance to appreciate Georgia’s incredible landscapes: mountains, forests, and rivers, with a scattering of dilapidated -- but nevertheless attractive -- single storey houses along the way.

Stalin’s was a humble beginning by anyone’s standards. Stalin -- or rather Iossif Vissarianovich Dzhugashvili as he was born -- was the son of an abusive alcoholic, and he was the first child in the family to survive infancy. When his father’s business as a shoemaker failed, they moved through a succession of rented accommodation. In the house in Gori -- which is really no more than a wooden hut -- the entire family shared one room; the landlord had the room next door.

The hut is dwarfed by the ostentatious Graeco-Italian pavilion which now surrounds it, and the Joseph Stalin Museum complex dominates Gori’s main square. The site is almost as controversial as the man himself: the museum was closed in 1989, but reopened as a popular tourist attraction; the main statue of Stalin was taken down in 2010 as part of Georgia’s de-Sovietisation process, but there are those campaigning for its return. In spite of the horrors Stalin inflicted on the Soviet Union, there are still those who come here like pilgrims to pay their respects.

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The museum’s halls are filled with personal effects and documents relating to Stalin’s life. It’s an overbearing, depressive Soviet propaganda exercise, though a couple of items such as Stalin’s death mask did catch my eye. Arguably the most important artefact here is the Pullman railway carriage which was part of Stalin’s private train. Armour plated and weighing 83 tonnes, Stalin used it to attend the Tehran and Yalta Conferences during WWII.

Back out in the fresh air, I browsed the souvenir stalls near the museum. Stalin stared out at me from the postcards. In some of the photos, he was young and handsome. This surprised me: I’d never thought of him like that. It was as if the older, more powerful, and more paranoid he became, the faster his handsome features vanished. How much is our physical appearance an expression of our character, or a reflection of our behaviour?

Georgia is endlessly fascinating. The survival of its cultural identity is nothing short of a miracle given the upheaval of the past century. But what really grabs me and makes it such an enthralling destination is how the Georgian people have taken Soviet relics -- concrete buildings, bric a brac, and even Stalin -- and transformed them into something we actually want to experience. That shows imagination, and that Georgia really has taken back control.

Fact box

Georgia specialists My Caucasus (www.mycaucasus.com) offers a Soviet themed tour of the country, On the traces of the USSR. It costs €1,790 for 12 days, and includes not only Tbilisi and Gori but also the Soviet spa resort of Tsqaltubo and the vineyards of Kakheti.

Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) flies twice a week directly from London Luton to Kutaisi from £42 return.