mardi 9 mars 2010

Kutaisi, old new and new old

Kutaisi recently came in the international media's attention: while blowing up a Soviet World War II memorial, an old woman and a little girl were killed. Because the date of explosion was advanced and the operation poorly prepaired.

Followingly, Russia protested against the pro-western Georgian governement, and announced that it would build a copy of that monument in Russia - in a smaller size.

This revealing demonstration of memory policies through city-planning is also representative of the nowadays strange fate of Kutaisi, caught between a strong Georgian national past, a heavy industrial and Soviet one, and the will of a regime to take a completely new orientation.

One can read these tensions around the city's number one historical monument: the ruins of Bagrati Cathedral. As it was destroyed by the Turks in the 17th century, it became an icon of Georgia. But the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had a will to rebuild it fully and to add to it a glass dome, thus monumentalizing his aspiration to reshape Georgia's glory in a modern, USA-oriented syncretism.

Following protests of the UNESCO and the Orthodox Church, Saakashvili abandonned this idea. But anyway, repairs are currently going on at the cathedral, where workers replace old stones by new ones. Is it just the new making of the ruin, or will the plan to complete the building be finally realized? Wheather with or without a glass dome?
The second Georgian city, officially 230 000 inhabitants, probably less due to constant emigration, is at the same time poor and rich.

Rich of history, beauty, architectural heritage, hospitality, traditions... Rich also of ruined concrete blocks and devastated former industries in its new parts, economically depressed, brain drained, with a very high rate of unemployement.

Actually, the contrast is striking between apocalyptic New Kutaisi and village-like old Kutaisi, a picturesque and brillantly located quarter on the River Rioni, with its multireligious old buildings and its cobbled green streets.

Even there, the contrasts are big: in a few square streets of russian-type imperial architecture, president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to establish a gentrified touristic area. The historical substance was entirely renovated in a homogenic style, and was even quite largely changed, as it got typical markers of the President's taste, present in all the places he let renovate: Street clocks, 'Tbilisi' balconies, facade-oriented rehabilitation, aiming rather at modernization than at historical exactness.

All those combined elements make the area on the one hand look European, and on the other having elements of a film studio's decor.

Right besides, other parts of Old Kutaisi remain untouched - though some parks where rehabilitated, as well as the cable-car leading to an amusement park, whith old buildings falling in disrepair and at the same time beaming with an atmospheric character. The question is still open: will old Kutaisi be entirely remade in a Sighnaghi style (Kakhetian city entirely rebuilt in a modern folklorist manner), or will it fall fully into ruins? In the middle way, will it be able to keep its historical character?

Hard to forsee in a city where almost everything might surprise the visitor: there are almost as many pharmacies and slot clubs as bulidings. Rather strange, in this town where inhabitants should nor fall ill in masses, nor have the economic means to play every day...

Pictures: Nicolas Landru. More pictures: Kutaisi, Imereti, Georgia

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