Photos and Text by Zurab Balanchivadze
Editor: Monica Ellena
The building is a shadow of its former self -- the emerald paint is peeling, the staircase is decaying, the grand columns are lined with wrinkles. Inside, the wooden floors moan at every step. Since the 1960s, the Dom Kultury, or House of Culture, in Upper Machkhaani housed the cultural life of this Kakhetian village in eastern Georgia, and for over 20 years the imposing building buzzed with life.
Those were the days, sighs Naira Natroshvili, the 60-year-old who manages the facility. “There was so much life,” she says. “Now, we do everything we can to keep it alive.”
The Dom Kultury, a sort of community recreation center,was a common sight in villages, towns and cities across the whole of the Soviet Union. They first appeared in the 1930s, acting mainly as platforms for mass propaganda of the socialist project-in-the-making. From the 1950s, though, they morphed into venues for culture and recreational activities, featuring cinemas, concert halls, dance studios, art workshops, theaters and music rooms, and often a library.
Everything was free of charge -- yet another feature of the Soviet right to rest-- and participants were divided by age groups; from school children to retired people. As the USSR went into meltdown, so did the right to leisure and the buildings tasked to offer it.
As Upper Machkhaani’sconcert hall is at risk of collapse, Georgian dance lessons are held in the cultural house’s foyer.
The building in Upper Machkhaani is no exception. It still hosts the library, art and music classes, meetings of the village council, and, following a 2015 fire which destroyed the local school, pupils and teachers. But it is in desperate need of repair.
“Look at those cracks and the rain stains on the ceiling,” points out Natroshvili, who is an employee of the local council. “The grand hall could collapse. We can’t use it anymore and, yet, nobody can help. We calculated that we’d need about 48,000 laris ($18,000) just to repair the roof.”
The local music ensemble Gantiadi (“Dawn” in Georgian) regularly performs there and Natroshvili maintains there is so much more that the building could offer to the community of 1,200 families in the village, and beyond, if properly repaired.
The Houses of Culture deeply marked daily life in rural areas and were instrumental for the country’s centralized ideology.
“The Houses of Culture mostly hosted amateur groups in the regions, but in some cases we also see professional ensembles or companies of actors,” explains Bela Tsipuria, a lecturer of comparative literatureat Ilia State University in Tbilisi. “During the USSR, these institutions were subordinated to the republic’s Ministry of Culture or some local authorities, local collective farming or creative unions. But all of them served the propaganda of central Soviet ideology.”
As the centralized cultural system ceased to exist, the houses of culture ceased serving their propagandistic and leisure purposes. The economic crisis and the socio-political unrest that spread in Georgia in the 1990s meant that the houses of culture fell into oblivion.
As people migrated in search of work, villages gradually emptied and in rural and mountainous areas many of those buildings were looted. The exact number of cultural houses in Georgia remains unknown; some are run by the Ministry of Culture, others by local municipalities. The legal status of still others is unclear.
Yet while many fell into disrepair, others managed to reinvent themselves.
Navazi residents Gvantsa Nadirashvili, Lika Agashenashvili and Mariam Elkanashvili perform the Georgian folk song “Morning Laughs with the Mountains” (“დილა მთებს დასცინებია”).
A dozen pallet chairs are scattered across a few rooms and bookcases line the walls; there is not much more in the former cultural club of Navazi. It now serves as the village’s library.
The life of Navazi’s 300 families feels far more remote than the 35 kilometers that separate them from the capital, Tbilisi. Yet the library, named after Georgian novelist and poet Otar Chiladze, has brought new life to the village.
The single-storey building on the bank of the Aragvi River was built as a village club in the 1960s, but, like many other cultural houses, it stopped operating in the 1990s.
Then, in 2010, Otia Muzashvili, now 35, moved from Tbilisi to Navazi, the village of his father.
“It was a long summer and the hot days lasted almost till the end of September. I spent most of my time with people from the village,” the psychologist and teacher recalls. “We would go to swim together in the river and, during our chats, I found out that some of the kids were missing school. They just didn’t have a goal there and there was nobody who would motivate them to study. It was hard for me to see the place of [my father’s] childhood slowly dying and the young generation rejecting an education.”
Muzashvili decided to do something. First, he wanted to show these kids that there was hope and that they had to finish school. He contacted a few friends, both in the village and in Tbilisi, and set up free classes in the school of Kandidi, a nearby village. Two of the students passed the national university-entrance exam and got full scholarships to study further. This pushed him to do more.
In 2015, Muzashvili thought that a library was the next step. With support from the regional government and the National Parliamentary Library, the old village club was repaired and books were donated or purchased.
To support such rural libraries, Giorgi Kekelidze, the 33-year-old head of the National Parliamentary Library, has joined forces with the Ministry of Culture, the Georgian Presidential Reserve Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and other institutions.
“Since 2012, we managed to supply about 700 rural libraries with books and installed the internet in about 70 of them,” Kekelidze explains. “Modern libraries have almost the same role as the house of culture; that is, to create and share a space. It is not just a place to display books.”
Muzashvili agrees. For him, Navazi’s library is a center for the arts, music and education.
“We’ve already had numerous art events and an electronic music festival, so many people came from the neighboring villages as well,” he states. “The second half of the building still remains unrepaired. Once restored, it’ll become an arts-and-crafts area.”
The cultural house is no longer just a personal passion. Muzashvili is the head of the library, which employs three other people, too, since he managed to transfer the project to the local government’s budget.
Bringing life to the one-storey former village club in Navazi may look like a challenge not as daunting as rejuvenating the grand building in Upper Machkhaani. Yet the latter is a larger community more likely to thrive should it receive more opportunities -- like a restored Dom Kultury and the right to leisure it embodies.