Soviet mosaics of Tbilisi. What they reflect and why they vanish
Soviet mosaics as artwork can tell a lot about Georgia’s recent history and its socio-cultural transformation. Reducing them to communist propaganda to erase their artistic value is a destructive attempt to wipe out the legacy of the Soviet past from cultural memory.
Soviet Mosaics were created and constructed when Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. The monumental art which was commissioned by the state included murals, reliefs, sculptures, fountains, pools, and bus stations, adorning such buildings as factories, schools, and other institutions. They can be found in many areas across the country.
The art of mosaics has a long history, starting in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC. Mosaics with patterns and pictures were widespread in classical times, both in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. This art flourished in the Byzantine Empire from the sixth to the 15th centuries mostly for decorating temples. The tradition was then adopted by the Kingdom of Sicily, Republic of Venice and in many other places as they became very popular, intensively created by artists and craftspeople around the world. Mosaic patterns and images were made with different materials such as coloured stones, ceramics, stained glass, shells, beads and many more.
Mosaics can be made with different techniques, but in the Soviet times, the most common ones were made with “Smalti” (pieces of tinted glass) which were produced in other Soviet republics and then exported to Georgia. Due to their durability regardless of time and weather, Smalti mosaics are considered one of the most expensive and valuable. Mosaics as part of decorative and monumental art created during the Soviet time are often reduced to being strictly ideological – propaganda that was depicting the “great industrialisation” and “happiness of the communist society”. But is it as simple as that?
The Soviet art was indeed largely characterised as Socialist realism, work that displayed defined political content in heroic style which created extremely optimistic depictions of life in the Soviet Union. It manifested in architecture and many different art fields, especially in propaganda posters as well as paintings, pictures and photos displayed in Soviet museums and galleries. Needless to say, the mosaics of this period were not liberated from suppression of ideology by the regime, nor were they free from censorship. In creating mosaics Georgian artists were also asked that their work reflect “the new social order and happiness”. Nevertheless, many of those mosaics also depict different subjects and national themes, such as winemaking, hospitality, traditions, heroes from Georgian history, characters from Georgian legends and fairy-tales, and so on. Some are also made in a pure abstractionist style.
Therefore, these mosaics often carry a very important artistic value by representing a key period in Georgian Modernism and present more than just “Soviet propaganda”. Georgia became an independent state in 1991 after 190 years of first being annexed by the Russian Empire and later forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia experienced a drastic economic decline and went through difficult processes of social, cultural and political transformation. The period of transition was very tough, wars and economic stagnation caused huge chaos in the country.
As a result, much of the cultural heritage and legacy was not on the radar of conservation and protection by the state. Privatisation of many enterprises triggered an unsystematic and arbitrary transformation of the urban space. There were no restrictions on the new private owners regarding any changes according to their desire or taste, often those unprompted interventions caused damage or destruction of these mosaics.
Recently, a brutal vandalism in Tbilisi took place. One of the Soviet-era mosaics which had survived in good condition and for many represented a unique piece of Georgian art from the second half of the 20th century was destroyed by a local meat factory. The owners of the meat factory and others responsible destroyed the mosaic (half of it was cut) and replaced it with an ugly door for a guard booth of the factory. Why owners of the factory and others responsible did not see the gravity of such damage and why in the country both government and society still had a controversial and irresponsible attitude towards it? Who is responsible for this crime? Those questions are still unanswered.
The act was completely ignored by the municipality of Tbilisi and by the city hall inspection. Soviet mosaics are not protected by the state as a part of cultural heritage, they are not officially documented and mapped, even though in many countries they are listed as materialistic cultural heritage and are protected by the state.
Unfortunately, this is not the only case when mosaics are destroyed or mistreated. Even in public spaces which are not privatised, they are often damaged. Besides all this historical background, local spectators or international visitors often enjoy and are impressed by the artistic scale and technical accomplishment of those mosaics. This is the impressive artistic heritage that fascinates a lot of locals or foreign visitors. Each year many tourists arrive in Georgia to explore Soviet architecture and Soviet period art. Many buildings built in the Soviet modernism style in Georgia have received global recognition and appreciation, monumental, decorative mosaics as artworks and as an inseparable part of this period’s architecture are also a big subject of interest internationally although on the state level this legacy is not valued and cherished.
Soviet mosaics as artwork can tell a lot about Georgia’s recent history and its socio-cultural transformation. Reducing them to communist propaganda to erase their artistic value is a destructive attempt to wipe out the legacy of the Soviet past from cultural memory. What can save them from being completely vanished? Today, only the presence of a new cultural policy, which would initiate first of all researching and mapping of the mosaics, and then a recognising them as a materialistic cultural heritage could eventually lead to their protection by the state. But this requires new political will and greater public awareness to help to save them from total obliteration.
Natalia Mosashvili is a freelance writer, researcher and cultural guide. She has worked on various social and humanitarian projects, including projects with IDPs in a post-conflict zone, the “Tbilisi Migrants Stories” project and a reintegration programme for emigrants returning to Georgia.
Dear Readers - New Eastern Europe is a not-for-profit publication that has been publishing online and in print since 2011. Our mission is to shape the debate, enhance understanding, and further the dialogue surrounding issues facing the states that were once a part of the Soviet Union or under its influence. But we can only achieve this mission with the support of our donors. If you appreciate our work please consider making a donation.