Rustavi, Georgia: history of a mono-town

Soviet factory towns have turned out to be unworkable under a globalised market economy - but these cities continue to live. I traveled to Georgia's metal town of Rustavi to find out more.

Olga Pinchuk
6 June 2019, 12.01am
Inside Rustavi's metal plant
Source: Author

One legacy of the Soviet-era is the continued existence of factory towns and villages which sprang up in their hundreds throughout the 20th century. Under the Soviet Union, these population centres served the official goal of total industrialisation - and helped urbanise vast territories. But after the Soviet collapse, many industrial facilities had to downsize or close down completely. This uniquely Soviet urban geography of small, scattered factory towns had no place under the new market economy, where many of the factories had become totally uncompetitive.

Rustavi, a town hastily flung up to support one of Soviet Georgia’s largest heavy industrial plants, is typical of these former factory towns and villages. Once an enormous complex with tens of thousands of workers, for the past 25 years, the Rustavi metallurgical plant has lingered in a precarious state.

The fall of a mighty complex

Rustavi is not far from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi – a 20-minute minibus ride and you're already passing the rows of pastel high-rise blocks that line the road.

Some of their facades are decorated with bright murals. At first sight, Rustavi seems like a pleasant and orderly settlement. The “new town”, with its animated streets and up-to-date infrastructure, is full of multicoloured buildings, shopping centres and outdoor and indoor cafes. But then it suddenly turns into wasteland. An unattractive clearing followed by a bridge over the river Kura makes for a natural border between the “new” and the “old” town. Totally symmetrical straight lines of buildings in monumental Stalinist “Empire” style line the “old” town’s main street, forming a kind of gate into it.

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Inside Rustavi local history museum
Source: Author

Here, in the “old town”, built in the Soviet era at the same time as the factory, the streets are lined by low-rise buildings interspersed by narrow lanes. It's recently been painted in warm colours – orange, light blue, green, pink. The smooth, clean pavements, the relative lack of traffic and the leisurely passers-by produce the impression that the wasteland and bridge have transported you to another town, or possibly another time, 50 years ago.

But if you keep walking, you start encountering quasi-apocalyptical sights: the monumental symmetry of Stalinist architecture is defaced by flaking paint and cracks on the facades of buildings, potholes in the pavement and smashed streetlights. Now and then you come across the shells of crumbling buildings, and at the end of the street rises the once magnificent, but now ungainly and faded bulk of the plant offices. The complex comprising the plant hospital on the right of the office building and an institute of automation on the left are hanging on in there, bleak, irreparable and greyer by the year. Both buildings have been sold to private owners, who are gradually beginning to repair and restore them.

"When a building was going up, they often only had time to photograph what they had vaguely seen and make some sketches – that was it. So there’s a lot we don’t know – the ancient city is buried under modern housing blocks now”

As well as some well-preserved Soviet-era buildings, 15 minutes from the centre you can find the remains of an ancient fort from the fourth-fifth century BC. The parallel coexistence of the “old” and “new” is the main theme of Rustavi life. It organises the urban space, the stories told by local resident and the contents of the local museum where the ground floor exhibits ancient objects and the second, the “Soviet”, covers the history and development of the metallurgical plant.

“The ancient city stood right here,” the museum guide tells me. “Everything you see has literally been wrested from the bulldozers by archaeologists.”

“When they began to build the metallurgical plant, they started to find the remains of ancient settlements. The archaeologists initiated the dig, but it was difficult – they weren’t able to get on quietly with their work. They were forced to build the factory and excavate the old city simultaneously in a very short time. When a building was going up, they often only had time to photograph what they had vaguely seen and make some sketches – that was it. So there’s a lot we don’t know – the ancient city is buried under modern housing blocks now.”

Finishing the older part of the museum, our guide makes an exception for us and takes us up to the first floor. The main part of the exhibition is closed – the museum is running a show by a young local artist. The Soviet-period artefacts are peeking out from behind white stands in the centre of the hall. We ask if we can draw a screen aside and, in the shadow of the new exhibition, we can see photos and objects of the massive socialist construction programme from nearly 70 years ago.

What remains of the post-socialist town?

“It was a powerful plant! And that power could be felt all over Georgia, at least. Everyone envied people from Rustavi!” says Givi Zurashvili, a veteran metal worker, manager and loyal son of Rustavi.

Typically for Rustavi, Zurashvili’s family history is interwoven with the construction and development of the town’s metal industry. As you hear from many locals, the story begins with mass mobilisation: 5,000 young men born in 1926 were taken from all over Georgia and assigned to training courses in metallurgical facilities in Ukraine and Russia. People from other areas of Georgia were also assigned to construction work in Rustavi, and many settled there afterwards.

Givi’s father was one of the 5,000 people who were mobilised. “My father trained in Yenakiyevo, in Donetsk region,” he tells me. “They had their own metallurgical plant there. That’s where he met my mum, and took her with him – she was 16, he was 19. When they came back in 1947, the first production facilities were already in operation. The young specialists returning to Rustavi were joined by qualified metallurgists from Ukraine and Russia, many of whom went back home over time, but those who could adapt to local conditions stayed.”

Givi Zurashvili
Source: Anna Vorobyeva

In the end, it seems as if the plant, which could manage the entire metallurgical cycle, was built by all of Georgia.

As Givi says, “the plant began with 15,000 workers. Then in the 1960s it was modernised and many processes were automated. In the end, by the 1990s, there were more than 12,000 workers on the books. I can give you precise details of the plant’s operations in the late 1980s: we were producing 1.5 million tonnes of steel per annum, 550 tonnes of pipeline, 900,000 of agglomerate, 650,000 of cast iron, 600,000 of coke...”

“How come you know all these figures?”

“I worked at the plant for 40 years. I was deputy director of personnel for 13 years, and moved to the purchasing department when the business was already going under. I actually joined the firm straight after school, in 1970. I worked for 18 months and then enrolled in MISIS – the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys. After graduating, I returned to my original department at the plant, then moved to the payroll department and from there climbed the career ladder to deputy director, but left in 2010 when there was nothing more to do there.”

The “big build”, and then the giant plant that drew specialists from many towns and republics made Rustavi into an international town. “It was a friendly place!” says Givi.

“There’s no heavy industry in Georgia anymore”

Zoya Vakhtangovna’s life has been connected with the plant for almost 30 years, and she has spent the last few years as head of the Georgian State Institute for the Planning of Metallurgical Plants (Gipromez). She and Givi Zurashvili are colleagues and team-mates, as well as old friends (they finish each other’s sentences). The walls of Zoya Vakhtangovna’s office are covered in a collection of photos of the plant; she chatters and jokes about some old colleagues, reminiscing about old times. But when she talks about the situation today her voice drops perceptibly. Despite not having worked at the plant since 2006, she is up to speed on everything that is happening:

“In January [2019], they’re planning to pause production. Now there are about 900 workers there, plus management, so around 1200 in all. I don’t know why they tell everyone that there are about 2,000 people still working there –that’s not true,” says Zoya Vakhtangovna.

Zoya Maisashvili
Source: Anna Vorobyeva

“There hasn’t been any heavy industry in Georgia for a long time. Those businesses that were left were sold to private owners, many of them from abroad. A lot were bought by Indians. In Rustavi they sold the crane building plant for a symbolic sum, and another plant was sold to Indians in Kutaisi. The thing is that their Georgian and Indian staff have different pay and conditions: they do the same work but the Georgians are paid a much lower rate.”

Zoya Vakhtangovna started work at the plant straight after finishing school, then took a degree at Tbilisi University’s evening department and moved from her academic specialisation to working for a party and trade union organisation: “I was born in Rustavi and never wanted to leave. Every time I left on a short visit, I remember how everything would just feel warm as soon as I came back there. I’d be home.”

In the crisis years, Zoya Vakhtangovna spent all her time and efforts on trying to keep the plant open: “We fought for six years, realising that the sites central to the town’s existence – its main arteries, couldn’t be sold at auction.” But despite all her efforts, in October 2005 the plant was sold.

“When the hammer fell and the shout went up of ‘Sold!’, I blacked out and there were noises in my head,” Zoya tells me. “My friends carried me out of the auction room and brought me round. The next day, I wrote my letter of resignation and left. I just couldn’t stay with the people who were fighting against me. I don’t want my country to be completely dependent on tourism, and my fellow Georgians here just to service that industry.”

The de-industrialisation of Georgia

The history of Rustavi is typical for many industrial cities in the post-Soviet space. As in many other Socialist bloc countries, the collapse of the USSR brought mass de-industrialisation in its wake. During the 1990s and 2000s, dozens of large heavy industrial facilities either went out of business and shut down or lost a large part of their resources – in some cases because their machinery was sold for scrap.

Experts in Georgia’s political economy have analysed the reasons for the problems in its industrial sector, and point first to legislation passed almost immediately after the country’s independence. Many of these measures were aimed directly at its industry and included the privatisation of government shares, deregulation, the opening of internal markets to foreign capital and the creation of a flexible labour market.

According to Tato Khundadze, a political economist and lecturer at Tbilisi’s Georgian American University (GAU), in 1987 roughly 643,000 people were involved in industrial production in the country. By 2015, that figure had dropped to 116,000. De-industrialisation processes have an obvious negative effect on employment in the country.

For many residents of Rustavi, the town’s history is intimately linked to the metal plant – its glorious past when people built, worked and had families together, whatever their origins, status or job

Official figures for the third quarter of 2018 put the unemployment figure at 12.2% - around 237,400 out of a two million labour force. These figures are, however, questioned by experts. According to Georgian legislation, anyone who owns a plot of land is considered as engaged in work, although plot owners have neither the resources to till the land or to receive profit from it. In other words, everyone owning a plot (about 50% of the working age population) can also be considered unemployed.

The factory archive
Source: Anna Vorobyeva

In any case, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian governments’ policies have left workers in a difficult situation. One factor is called the “deregulation of workers’ rights”, and comes from the 2006 shut down of the country’s labour inspectorate (it was reinstated nearly ten years later). Another is the diminishing role of the state, which is particularly clear in the industrial sector. If in 1989, the majority of Georgia’s working age population had stable jobs in the state sector, then after the introduction of the market economy that figure has been considerably reduced (to roughly 15%). As well as a lack of jobs owing to lower production rates and the closure of large industrial facilities, terms and conditions of work have become a priority issue for Georgian citizens.

In recent years, Georgians have organised a range of worker protests. In 2010, for example, workers at the Zestafoni ferro-alloy works stopped work, workers at the Chiatura processing plant came out in solidarity and workers at the GeoSteel processing facility in Rustavi also held protests. In 2011, workers at the Hercules plant in Kutaisi, owned by the Indian company Eurasian Steels Ltd., also held a massive strike. The next year ended with a series of protests: the first by workers at the port of Poti on the Black Sea and then miners from the Georgian Manganese company in Chiatura. Then bus drivers came out in Tbilisi, followed by staff at the Energodistributsia Kakheti service centre in eastern Georgia, while around some 300 workers at the Dzidziguri mine in Tkibuli (in western Georgia) began a protest against the management of Georgian coal company Gruzugol.

In 2017, as well as factory and plant workers’ protests, there were strikes by workers in Georgia’s service sector – staff at two major chains, Fresno supermarkets and Biblius booksellers. Most of the protests were linked to unacceptable working conditions, breaches of labour rights and low pay.

Workers at the Rustavi metallurgical plant had already encountered state reforms at the end of the 1990s. During 1999-2005, plant workers protested against the decision to sell the metal plant off, with the direct support of their own trade union organisation, the successor to their Soviet trade union cell. Despite the protests, however, the plant was sold off for $21 million, only five percent of its value if the infrastructure is included.

For many residents of Rustavi, the town’s history is intimately linked to the metal plant – its glorious past when people built, worked and had families together, whatever their origins, status or job. But through the nostalgic tales of the people we talked to, we could hear the voices of other local people, for whom the social and political processes of post-socialist Georgia awake painful echoes of Soviet history.

The plant, with its powerful production cycles, didn’t just provide work for an enormous number of people. By structuring their work and family lives, the plant turned them into a community. The crash and failure of the plant have set these processes in reverse.

Towns like Rustavi can, however, survive and even flourish. Anthropologist Jeremy Morris believes that factory towns should be seen in terms of both their valuable potential for Georgia’s economic development - and the possibility for residents to reclaim the post-socialist “legacy” of their urban space. This point of view suggests it’s important to remember such concepts as “happiness”, “creativity” and “self-realisation” when thinking about the quality of life in these towns. After all, lives lived in Rustavi are no less “normal” than those in the capitals.

This article was produced in cooperation with OC-Media.

This article was produced as part of the project “Memory guides: information resources for the peaceful conflict transformation”, carried out by the Center for Independent Social Research, Berlin. It was supported by the German Foreign Ministry, via the programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia”. The author is grateful to Maria Viatchina, Sergey Movchan, Anna Vorobyeva, Oleg Zhuravlev.

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