Abkhazia: Self-Expression in a Bus Stop

Author: Dmitry Stateynov

At first glance, a bus stop might seem the most mundane of spaces. But in Abkhazia, a surreal series of shelters shows that a bus stop is more than just a place to wait for a bus – it’s an opportunity to mix the ordinary with the extraordinary.   

In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union went through a phase when it decided to use monumental art to bring fine art to the masses. Tbilisi-born painter-sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, today the president of Russia’s Academy of Arts, got the pick to design nine bus stops in western Abkhazia, in the popular resort towns of Pitsunda, Gagra and Novy Afon.

Built out of reinforced concrete, the fanciful structures make ample use of mosaics and cobalt glass – a weather-hardy material which, as Sukhum chief architect Tamara Lakrba notes, “at that time, was in fashion.”

The stops’ interpretations of shells, waves and sea-life reflected Abkhazia’s location on the Black Sea, but their bright, garish, futuristic designs initially did not please everyone.   

The Soviet ethos of not doing your own thing made such individualistic art difficult to understand for some people.

When Tsereteli’s multi-speckled, multi-humped “Shell” bus stop appeared in Novy Afon, locals heatedly debated its appearance, remembers one older woman who works in a small store across from the stop.   

“This was a little crazy for people. After all, such creativity was not accepted by the authorities,” explains the woman, who gives her name as Zinaida. “[Locals] said that there’s way too much of a Western influence, that it’s somehow not Soviet.”

Sukhum’s chief architect, Tamara Lakrba, sees in Tsereteli’s “brutal architecture” an influence from the modernist Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudi, but one which the artistreinterpreted for his own purposes.

“In my view, Tsereteli demonstrated his ‘creative self’ in these stops,” Lakrba says. “This style was then very fashionable, contemporary, but, at the same time, most people didn’t like it. For that matter, the style also wasn’t to my taste. But now, after many years, I like it.”

Tsereteli, whose mammoth art works routinely spark comment, if not controversy, has not gotten into the specifics about why he created these Abkhaz structures the way he did. “I cannot answer why there is no roof, why is this, why is that . . . I, as an artist, do everything artistically,” he is quoted as saying in Christopher Herwig’s 2015 “Soviet Bus Stops.”

Building the stops, though, was “very complicated and expensive,” Lakrba says. They were projects requiring “a lot of people with various specialties . . .”

Herwig claims that his budgets were “virtually unlimited” since the stops were located near where senior Soviet officials vacationed. Indeed, some Abkhaz joke that Tsereteli, known as an “effective manager” for his prestigious commissions and posts, earned his first million working on Abkhazia’s psychedelic bus stops.

The one glitch appears to be their usability. Lakrba terms only Gagra’s “Wave”  and Novy Afon’s “Shell” stops as “more or less suitable.”

Most of those interviewed described the stops, which generally handle regional buses heading north, as inconvenient. Many are not in the center of towns.  

Rather than standing at the stops, “[m]ore often, people stand in the street [to hail a bus] because it’s not convenient to them to go after transportation [by going to a bus stop],” says Lakrba. “They go inside the stops in extreme cases, when there’s strong rain, hail, snow.”

In general, comments Sukhum’s chief artist, Ruslan Gablia, other than in Pitsunda, the stops “do not really successfully blend in with our reality.”

Novy Afon’s “Shell” bus stop, used by buses headed from Sukhum to the Russian border. “The key thing is that it looks beautiful and a lot better than plastic constructions,” comments one local woman.

Gagra’s “Hippodrome” bus stop is located at the entrance to this most popular of Abkhaz resort towns.

The “Fragment of a Dolphin” bus stop in Gagra handles town buses as well as those headed to Gudauta, Novy Afon and Sukhum.

The “Fragment of a Dolphin” bus stop in Gagra handles town buses as well as those headed to Gudauta, Novy Afon and Sukhum.

Many locals jokingly call “Fragment of a Fish,” outside of Pitsunda, “Tsereteli’s Thesis.” The nickname is meant as a commentary on Tsereteli’s relative lack of experience at the time of the stop’s construction – he was in his early 30s – and a critique of what some see as the structure’s “crudity.”

Outside of Gagra, near the hamlet of Tsandripsh, the “Wave” bus stop mimics the nearby Black Sea.

The “Extraterrestrial Dish” bus stop, outside of Pitsunda. “I cannot answer why there is no roof, why is this, why is that . . . I, as an artist, do everything artistically,” Tsereteli said of his bus stops in Herwig’s “Soviet Bus Stops.”

Pitsunda’s “Variation on the Theme of Sea Inhabitants” reflects what some have called Tsereteli’s embrace of “magical realism” – “a synthesis of reality and myth,” his site states.

That criticism does not faze Zinaida. Novy Afon’s seaside “Shell” stop may not be “entirely convenient,” she says, but “[t]he key thing is that it looks beautiful and a lot better than plastic constructions.”

Stella Adleiba, a young onlinejournalist in Sukhum, recalls thinking as a seven-year-old that the bus stops depicted characters “from some cartoons.”

Today, she believes the avant-garde stops prompt people to ponder the meaning of life.  If they were restored, they could rank among “the best bus stops in the world,” she ventures.

An attempt at restoration has been made, but, so far, without success. In 2015,some 600 residents of Pitsunda, Gagra and Gudauta petitioned the government to place the bus stops on a planned list of protected historical monuments and to restore them. The stops are popular destinations for tourists, a key part of Abkhazia’s economy.

Abkhazia now has a committee on monumental architecture, but no word has surfaced yet that the government will protect the stops.   

Not long ago, a traffic accident badly damaged Pitsunda’s “Octopus” stop, next to Inkit Lake. Local residents say that a speeding car flew into the low-lying, bright-blue structure. As part of the cleanup, municipal workers disassembled the Octopus. Now, just its frame protrudes from a grassy lakeside plot. Fragments of its mosaic are scattered everywhere.

Nonetheless, barring more such accidents, one 40-something male resident of Pitsunda, Adgur, believes Tsereteli’s works will last “for a very long time.”

At the time they were built, he says, “everything was done conscientiously, simply. It was difficult for people, raised under Soviet rule, to welcome such a blaze of creativity, although some people saw elements of genius in it. And they were right.”

As for Tsereteli, he told writer Herwig that, if he had to do the bus stops over again, he would not do them the same way: “You should not repeat but create new things.”

This material may contain terms which are not favored by all parties of the dispute/conflict over Abkhazia. Terms used in the story belong to the author and not Chai Khana.




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