Andrew North

In Georgia, a Longing and Loathing for the Soviet Past

Letter From Tbilisi

On the left bank of the river that runs through Tbilisi is one of the less obvious legacies of Georgia’s many decades as an outpost of the Soviet Union. Sprawling along a busy road that runs beside the river Kura (also called the Mtkvari) is a vast open-air market selling secondhand Soviet hardware. It is a place where you can find everything from rusty Russian hacksaws and wrenches to 70-year-old motors that once kept the escalators moving in the metro stations. The items are not for collecting, but for practical use even if there is something sentimental about this free market selling the communist past, so to speak. It is certainly a unique window into how one group of former Soviet citizens views the Soviet Union a quarter century after its demise.

Jaba Nakashidze was in his late teens when the Soviet Union collapsed, and he lived through the civil war and economic meltdown in Georgia that followed. “The Soviet Union wasn’t bad,” he told me. “But it didn’t do anything good for us. If it had done something good for us, we wouldn’t have wanted independence.”

We spoke at the back of his covered booth, behind stacks of reconditioned Soviet machinery he has been selling here since the early 2000s. Nakashidze was one of several stall keepers I sketched and interviewed several months ago for a multimedia documentary of the market. Known as Eliava after a nearby street, this bazaar emerged in the 1990s in the chaos and turmoil of Georgia’s early years of independence while the country was riven by separatist conflict and civil war. What began as a few stands selling Soviet tools, and as a place to hire day laborers, grew steadily into a large ensemble of shops since jobs were scarce at the time and recycling was a necessity. It was not until the 2003 Rose Revolution that Georgia began to stabilize both politically and economically, by which time the market had

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