Above Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has erected a palace. Its façade with decorative Grecian columns and high palatial windows, was no doubt intended to evoke another presidential residence: the US White House.
Tbilisi and Moscow
But there’s a giveaway. Unlike the White House, the Saakashvili residence is topped by a dome of blue glass, a structure locals have dubbed “The Egg”. Inside, a spiral staircase leads to a raised platform where, from an eagle’s vantage, the Georgian president can observe his subjects with detachment.
According to President Mikheil Saakashvili, his new glass-domed palace in Tbilisi 'cost a triffle in comparison with the country’s budget'. Georgian media has estimated the real cost at hundreds of millions USD.
Saddled by this architectural flourish, the residence retains none of the dignity of its intended spiritual brother in Washington. Instead, it communicates with viewers in a familiar voice, using the distanced and dominating visual language of Stalinist power.
Recently, circumstance brought me to Moscow. A long-time resident of Tbilisi, I was struck by the resemblance Moscow’s streets bear to the broad avenues and riverside motorways of the Georgian capital. Both of these cities were built, to a great extent, by architects who spoke the same uniform visual language, imposed on them by powerful Soviet figureheads.
‘Instead of shunning the visual language of Georgia’s former oppressors and rehabilitating the country’s own ailing architectural heritage, Saakashvili instead embraced the grandiose neo-classicisms of Soviet architects.’
Russia has a history of political propaganda that, with the benefit of historical hindsight, takes on a rich ironic quality. Three centuries before Repin painted his dramatic scene of Ivan the Terrible in the throes of emotional collapse (the tyrant had just murdered his son), Ivan himself commissioned an epic painting of himself on horseback beside the Archangel Michael, leading his army to the holy city. Half a millennium later, Stalin cultivated his own, more dangerous cultural myth: by deploying images of the nourished farmer and smiling Stakhanovite miner everywhere from the morning train to the people’s palaces, he compelled all to marvel at the generosity of the Soviet state. This vision of socialist realism was disseminated from Moscow to the farthest reaches of the Union. Its agents were art and architecture.
Moscow’s government buildings employed columns and statues of mythic Soviet figures (the factory worker, the farmer, the engineer) to project authority. This architecture of power is somehow coherent in Moscow, a city whose size, authoritative scope (it rules an eighth of the Earth’s habitable landmass) and history as a regional alpha-state project dominance and strength.
In pre-Soviet Tbilisi, however, there was a much less pronounced culture of political art and architecture. This was only later imposed by Soviet occupiers; today, the towering blocks and grand faux-marble palaces of commerce and transport loom over the rustic country like the shadow of some misfortune. It is the dying legacy of an occupier whom the Georgian people have come to reject.
Old and new Moscow buildings alike represent the architecture of imperial power and wealth.
It is for this reason that Saakashvili’s presidential palace, and other recent architectural projects in the Georgian capital, are so jarring on the eye. Instead of shunning the visual language of Georgia’s former oppressors and rehabilitating the country’s own ailing architectural heritage, Saakashvili instead embraced the grandiose neo-classicisms of Soviet architects. Worse still, he’s imbued them with dated tackiness mistaken for true modernism.
A significant part of Tbilisi’s old town has been surrendered to unaccountable developers who have obscured the derelict facades of traditional Georgian houses with tin-roofed, multi-story condominiums that lack any congruence with their surroundings. The damage these changes have inflicted on this area is difficult to reverse. But perhaps the old town’s decline signifies more than just physical change. The juxtaposition of a crumbling UNESCO heritage site with the restoration of Stalinist architecture has all the hallmarks of Georgia’s ironic and opaque political class: a class that recognises the realities of its rule, but chooses to gild its failures and dramatise its successes. This state of affairs detracts from the many genuine advances Georgia has made in the past decade.
A show of strength
There is a false sense of empowerment that Georgian politics seem to derive from feigning fluency in the language of oppression. Perhaps the closest thing to this phenomenon outside Georgia is in Moscow, which is decorated with the vast creations of Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli [b. 1934] His statues have all the visual power of their Soviet predecessors but have none of the ideology. Many, like the four giant stallions in a fountain by the Kremlin seem to have little in common with their chosen locations. They project power for the sake of power. Like Tbilisi’s architectural projects, Tsereteli’s art is designed as a show of strength. But this strength is only as thick as a layer of paint or a sheet of glass. Its cracks are already starting to show.
Both Tbilisi and Moscow have retained elements of the authoritarian legacies they inherited. But unlike their counterparts in Moscow, Georgian leaders have articulated a commitment to democratic ideals. They have signed a social contract. And in their vocal quest to rehabilitate their nation, they have equated independence with democracy, much to the detriment of the latter.
‘A significant part of Tbilisi’s old town has been surrendered to unaccountable developers who have obscured the derelict facades of traditional Georgian houses with tin-roofed, multi-story condominiums that lack any congruence with their surroundings. The damage these changes have inflicted on this area is difficult to reverse.’
What they fail to recognise is that, in order to take hold, democracy requires more than just the reinstatement of repressed national symbols (the medieval flag, the anthem) and the quiet realignment of political allegiances (by changing its time zone); it requires instead a change in the tone of state propaganda.