This whole time I’ve been putting out these posts about Georgia, I’ve been the most excited to get to the end. Not because I just wanted to get through it, but because I was saving Tbilisi for the end.
And I love Tbilisi.
From the first moment I arrived and stepped onto the street from Rustaveli Station in downtown Tbilisi, I was hooked. I’ve come to decide that I very much enjoy cities that are more unfiltered. I loved it in Kathmandu because it didn’t feel like it was trying to be anything other than what it was. Beijing felt like it was hiding something from me. After being in Baku for the previous week, a city that was simultaneously slightly grimy in that big city way but also quite well-manicured, I was anxious for something a little more raw.
So when I stepped out of the train station and was promptly harassed by a group of Romani beggars, I knew I was in for an interesting ride.
Throughout the time we had in Tbilisi (broken up by our forays into Khevi and Svaneti), I was continually surprised by just how cool this city was. A little run-down in places, sure. Startling at times. But never anything other than Tbilisi. And that’s awesome.
But before I get into the primary part of these posts — the photos — let’s look into Tbilisi through the ages, so we can get some understanding of Tbilisi today.
Ancient to Not-So-Ancient History of Tbilisi
The history of Tbilisi (and the Caucasus as a whole) is long and rife with conflict and conquerors. There aren’t a lot of places in the world that are such clear cultural crossroads as the Caucasus. Georgia’s history, therefore, is similar in many respects to Azerbaijan’s given its location. However, Georgia’s conversion to Christianity relatively recently in its history makes it an absolute outlier in both its region and the Silk Road as a whole (yes, Georgia is part of the Silk Road, albeit on the fringes).
Archaeological evidence suggests that the area along the Kura River where modern-day Tbilisi sits has been continuously occupied in some form since as early as the Bronze Ages, and possibly before that. Stone artifacts found suggest inhabitation since even the Paleolithic era. So the area of inhabitation is old, even if the concept of “Tbilisi” is relatively younger.
But here’s where the history gets really interesting (to me, anyway). I’ve been talking time and again about the Caucasus’ position as a global crossroads. That position has made the Caucasus, and Tbilisi in particular, as a near-constant source of contention as foreign powers vied for control. Such prime trade real estate is not conducive for long-lasting civilizations, as Tbilisi has forever existed with a target on its back.
Throughout history, Tbilisi has been the object of a tug-of-war between some of the world’s most formidable empires. At one time or another, Tbilisi was under the control of the Romans, the Parthians and Sassanids (both from modern-day Iran, the latter being the final Iranian Empire before the rise of Islam), the Arabs, the Turks, and the Byzantines. The constant geopolitical struggles came to a head when Tbilisi changed hands every hundred years, constantly shifting between the Arabs and Byzantines before the Turks pushed both out in 1068.
As was the custom, the Turks barely lasted more than a generation before King David IV besieged Tbilisi and established the first Georgian state in 1121. Thus began Georgia’s Golden Age, where Tbilisi was the crown jewel in a culture that became renowned for its literature, art, religion, and thriving economy. Tbilisi was the essentially the capital of the entire Eastern Orthodox world at this time, a Christian stronghold surrounded by Muslim neighbors.
However, the Georgian Renaissance came to an abrupt end in 1226 when the Khwarezmian Empire rose out of Persia and conquered Tbilisi once again. Ten years later, the Khwarezmians were forced out by a new player — the Mongols. Tbilisi remained under Mongol rule for 100 years before the Mongol Empire collapsed in the 1320s, and an independent Georgia state rose once again.
The next 500 years were a rough ride for Tbilisi, which was marked by continual struggles between Georgian revolutionaries and Iranian rulers. Tbilisi was totally burnt to the ground on more than one occasion. The push and pull between Georgia and Iran continued until 1801, when the Russian Empire entered the scene and swiftly incorporated Georgia.
Tbilisi Under and After Russian Rule
Imperial Russia recognized Tbilisi’s potential to be a major economic and cultural hub once again, and invested heavily in transportation infrastructure to connect Tbilisi to the Black Sea port of Batumi. Tbilisi was expanded and built up in Western European fashion, and became a major trading center by the 1850s.
Throughout its time under Imperial Russia, Tbilisi was the object of affection for some of Russia’s most prominent figures, from the Romanov family (the Imperial royal family), to Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Pushkin (some of Russia’s most famous poets), to Leo Tolstoy (regarded as one of the greatest authors ever). The point is that Tbilisi, with its long and difficult history, emerged as one of the great cosmopolitan centers of the region.
After the fall of Imperial Russia in 1917, Tbilisi became the capital of the extremely short-lived Transcaucasia, a state that roughly encompassed what is now Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. However, Transcaucasia became the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1921, and Tbilisi came under Russian rule once again. The TSFSR was, along with the Russian SFSR, Ukrainian SFSR, and Byelorussian TSFSR were the original four members of the Soviet Union.
Tbilisi remained the Bolshevik-occupied capital of the TSFSR until 1936, when Transcaucasia was reorganized into separate Soviet States (this also more-or-less established the modern borders of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). Under the Soviet Union, Tbilisi became more industrialized, but remained an important cultural center for the USSR. In fact, Tbilisi was the site of the USSR’s first state-sponsored rock festival.
Tbilisi was also the site of massive anti-Soviet protests. From the 1950s on, the city became increasingly unstable as unrest began to stir in the USSR. When Nikita Khrushchev began moving away from Stalinist policies in 1956, Georgian Marxist-Leninists protested, primarily in Tbilisi. The protests quickly grew city-wide, demands escalating into calls for a new government in Moscow and the independence of Georgia. Local Georgian authorities were simply unable to handle it and appealed to the Soviet military for help, which quickly opened fire on protesters. As public opinion of the Soviet Union deteriorated in Tbilisi and Georgian Communist party officials expressed solidarity with the people of Georgia, the government in Moscow began replacing Georgian officials with Russians.
Despite the deadly protests of the 50s, the rifts sown were more-or-less smoothed over in Georgia. Still, those in Tbilisi continued to hold grudges against the Soviets, and underground separatist groups were formed in the aftermath. Among these first separatists were then-teenage Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who would become some of the most prominent figures in Georgia’s independence struggles in the 80s.
Protests popped up intermittently throughout the 70s and the 80s, including one on April 9, 1989 where the Soviet Army opened fire and killed 21 protesters. April 9 is now an annual public holiday, the Day of Public Unity.
When the Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991, Tbilisi had a particularly rough go of things to say the least. Tbilisi saw conflict during the Georgian civil war in 1991 and 1992. Instability leftover from the sudden collapse left room for illegal businesses and mafia groups to rise, which often fought with each other. Unemployment and poverty rose, and corruption was rampant at every level. Tbilisi’s residents became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned, eventually culminating in 2003’s Rose Revolution. Peaceful protests swept Tbilisi and facilitated a change of power into a pro-Western government, and Tbilisi has been much more stable ever since. Crime rates fell, the economy rose, and real estate grew.
When my older brother Peter and I were at the bus station looking for a ride to Stepantsminda, he looked around at our surroundings and made a succinct and poignant statement:
“Man, the Soviet Union really did a number on this place.”
Though things are looking up for Tbilisi and Georgia, the wounds are still fresh. Georgian independence from the Soviet Union is within the lifetime and recent memories of many. Don’t forget that Russia invaded Georgia during the Ossetian War of 2008. Russian “peacekeeping” forces are still at the Abkhazian border. Russian planes bombed the area surrounding Tbilisi in 2008. They regularly infringe on Georgia’s border even now. It’s not unheard of for farmers in northern Georgia to go to sleep in Georgia and wake up in Russia.
Now here’s what’s really surprised me as I’ve been reading up on Tbilisi current events in preparation for this post — we arrived in the city immediately after huge anti-Russia demonstrations. I walked through the remains of the overnight protests to get to my hostel. Full disclosure, we were in Georgia at the beginning of July. These protests took place at the end of June. A Russian lawmaker had sat in the parliamentary speaker’s chair during a religious ceremony, which was an unwelcome reminder of the conflict Russia has continued to sow in Georgia. The primary party in the Georgian government, Georgian Dream, has been actively trying to repair relations with Russia, something that has been ill-received by the general populace. Only 21% of Georgians support the party, and that number is falling ever since Georgian Dream ordered police to fire rubber bullets and tear gas on the protesters this past June.
I’m not writing all of this to define Georgia by its relationship with Russia (which is why I’ve saved digging into this for the end), but it’s important context to remember. This is a country that has been locked in a struggle for independence for literally thousands of years, and despite all that, has come out a vibrant and diverse place that I’m extremely happy to have been able to visit.
So, here’s a little preview of what’s to come in the next couple of posts. I took more photos in Tbilisi than in the rest of Georgia combined, so I’m excited to be posting what’s gonna basically be a series of photo galleries about Tbilisi.