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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 become well established.
It is far off the tourist trail, but everyone who lives in Tbilisi knows Eliava. It has even become trendy, with designers flocking there to buy up old Soviet lamps and other paraphernalia to give their interiors a retro look. More people can now afford modern tools, but there is still a market for the cheaper, albeit heavier and noisier, alternatives from the past. Hundreds of people work there, as Eliava became a magnet for hard-up people from smaller towns looking for jobs. Many of the market traders hail from a manganese-mining town called Chiatura, in western Georgia, where the local economy collapsed as demand for the material dropped with the loss of guaranteed purchases by the Soviet Union. But the traders who work there also hoped Eliava would be a midway station on the way to something better, and many are frustrated that they are still there, in some cases more than two decades later.
In this past year of global populist revolt, these vendors have expressed the same kinds of anxieties and complaints as those in the West who voted for Brexit and propelled a reality-TV star to the White House. Nakashidze, for example, is bitter that years after Soviet dissolution he is still selling “communist scrap metal.” He is one of the market’s many out-of-towners, growing up in western Georgia before economic hardship forced him and his family to move to Tbilisi. But having lived through the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet Union as a young boy and the turmoil that followed, he didn’t have much time for school. “I didn’t get much of an education,” he explained, and it has been a struggle to find any other work. On top of that, Georgia’s economy has been on a roller coaster since the end of Moscow’s rule, going through periods of sharp decline and promising boom.
Nakashidze is not a wholehearted believer in a pro-West Georgia; he worries that the country’s cultural traditions are under threat. At the same time, he deeply resents Moscow’s past and present incursions and wants Georgia to join NATO and the EU. However, the West has been a fickle friend. Having once dangled the promise of membership to its most exclusive clubs, Europe is now keeping them out of reach. It fears both a backlash from its own electorates, since expanding the EU has become so unpopular, and the risk of further increasing tensions with Russia, which made clear with its 2008 invasion of Georgia that moving toward NATO membership was crossing a redline.
The market is also a place where one finds plenty of lingering nostalgia for the Soviet Union—particularly its guarantees of employment, health care, and other basic needs. Marina Esebua has been selling snacks and cigarettes in Eliava for nearly a decade. But in Soviet times, she said, her life was much more stable. She and her husband had secure factory jobs and, as a Soviet citizen, free health care. You can get far better medical care today in Georgia, but only if you pay for it—and that is well beyond her means. “We didn’t know what poverty was,” she said about her life in Soviet times. “But my children know all about it.” She wants Georgia to be friends with its giant neighbor. “Everyone seems to want to be close to America now,” Marina added, “but I’m used to Russia.” Hers is a minority view, but an increasingly popular one; and perceptions that the past was better have been fed by Georgia’s fitful economic performance. Like most former Soviet states, the country initially went into sharp decline. But Georgia boomed in the early 2000s after the Rose Revolution, with annual GDP growth averaging ten percent from 2004 to 2007, spurred on by the liberalizing reforms of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. In recent years, however, growth has faltered once again to a more pedestrian two to three percent, affected partly by the regional impact of Western sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, as well as by internal government decisions.
“There was a little euphoria when the Soviet Union collapsed,” Vazha Jamagidze admitted with a skeptical grin. “As if independence would be good for us.” He works near Nakashidze, selling an array of reconditioned Soviet faucets and other plumbing materials. But democracy and capitalism have brought only “anarchy and filth,” he said, and he fears Georgia’s Christian Orthodox traditions are being degraded by “Western ideas” such as LGBTQ rights. That, of course, is now a well-established populist refrain across the former Soviet Union, catalyzed by Moscow’s incendiary offensive against so-called gay propaganda.
It was no surprise, then, when Jamagidze told me that he is a fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his pugilistic leadership style. But he also admires “the Iron Lady,” referring to the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I pointed out that she was a close ally of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s in the Western alliance against the Soviet Union. “But strong,” he insisted of Thatcher, clenching his fist for emphasis. Neighboring stall keepers murmured in agreement.
After the U.S. election, I found several stall workers giving a thumbs-up for Donald Trump. They liked what they had heard about him on Georgian television and his attacks on “the elite.” He has an “objective view” of the United States’ problems, said one trader. Jamagidze, for his part, was pleased about Trump’s friendly overtures toward Putin. Just as elsewhere, something about the Trump style of leadership is resonating here, especially among those who have found it difficult to prosper in post-Soviet Georgia.
Pridon, another market worker I got to know (who didn’t want me to use his last name), also falls into this category. He is an energetic 48-year-old who works part time selling electric motors and he used to support Georgia’s efforts to become a Western-style market democracy. But he was never able to secure a proper job after the end of Soviet rule and, with a young family, he is increasingly worried about the future. “I hated the Soviet Union,” he told me. “But now I hate my freedom.”