Reinventing Georgia's Soviet Houses of Culture

Author: Zurab Balanchivadze

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.


Naira Natroshvili in front of the House of Culture in Upper Machkhaani. The fall of the USSR hit the villages' cultural life and also devastated the local economy. Slowly but steadily, people moved to cities in search of work. Natroshvili’s own family now lives in Tbilisi.

The grand, faded facade of Upper Machkhaani’s cultural house. Built in 1955, it officially opened a year later and soon became the heart of the area’s social and artistic life. Despite a chronic lack of finances, locals still use it for activities like music classes.

As Upper Machkhaani’sconcert hall is at risk of collapse, Georgian dance lessons are held in the cultural house’s foyer.


Reinventing Georgia's Soviet Houses of Culture

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.

With the local government’s help, villagers converted the Upper Machkhaani cultural house’s backstage area into classrooms. Lessons for elementary-school students are held here.

Shoes outside the dancing classroom in Upper Machkhaani’s cultural house. The building is still used for various activities, although not as intensively as before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Navazi residents Gvantsa Nadirashvili, Lika Agashenashvili and Mariam Elkanashvili perform the Georgian folk song “Morning Laughs with the Mountains” (“დილა მთებს დასცინებია”).


Reinventing Georgia's Soviet Houses of Culture

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.

Otia Muzashvili is a psychologist by education and an educator by profession. The 35-year-old moved to Navazi in 2010 and has since helped revive the village’s cultural life.

A reading room in the Navazi library, part of the village’s repaired House of Culture. The books were donated or purchased.

This one-storey building used to be Navazi’s village club. It closed down in the 1990s and sat abandoned until 2010, when it was transformed into a wedding hall. It eventually fell into disuse.

Otia Muzashvili's dream is to move the library and its books into the village's medieval castle, once owned by the noble Mukhranbatoni family. Should that happen, the current library would turn back into a cultural center with events and exhibitions.

The staircase leading to Upper Machkhaani’s concert hall is in ruins. Manager Naira Natroshvili maintains that the room, which can hold up to 800 people, has good acoustics.

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 spaceIt is not just a place to display books.”

Muzashvili agreesFor 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 unrepairedOnce 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.

Members of Upper Machkhaani’s Gantiadi (Dawn) ensemble, including cultural house manager Naira Natroshvili, sing a Georgian folk song.


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