Wandering among the tombstones and crypts of Tbilisi’s Kukia cemetery, Anna Muradova feels at ease. Many of her ancestors are buried here. She senses a connection between the graves and her Persian-Assyrian ethnic roots.
“I like it here,” says the 45-year-old linguist, as she strolls among marble statues, faded photographs and headless busts.
Muradova recently moved from her native Moscow to the Georgian capital, the hometown of her father’s family. Lingering to study the writing on Kukia’s tombstones, Muradova says that Tbilisi’s mosaic of cultures is helping her settle in.
Few places are better to study that mosaic’s past than in Kukia.
Kukia is reportedly Georgia’s oldest cemetery, with records of its first graves dating back roughly 300 years. It is also one of the few historical graveyards which survived the Soviet demolition-campaign that led to the disappearance of more centrally located cemeteries around town.
From the 1930s, Soviet officials radically redefined cities to reflect the USSR’s collectively minded outlook. Cemeteries, places of individual memories, became a target. At best, certain graveyards were replaced by parks; at worst, they were utterly destroyed.
Nonetheless, the languages and alphabets chiseled onto Kukia’s tombstones still testify to a kaleidoscope of confessions and nationalities – epitaphs in Armenian, Assyrian, French, Georgian, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian. An obelisk with a German inscription tells the story of those who died in the Caucasus during World War I.
Over the centuries, the graveyard has erased the differences between rich and poor, celebrities and common folk. Georgian Orthodox Christians revere the grave of one 20th-century woman, Anastasia Sazonova, for its alleged miracle-performing powers. Also buried here are Joseph Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterine Svanidze, and Dagny Juel, the iconic muse of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Elsewhere, shoemakers and doctors lie next to criminals, priests, teachers, actors and politicians.
Kukia sits on Mount Makhata, in an homonymous village which, today, falls several kilometers outside of Tbilisi’s center. In the 1930s, that distance proved its safeguard against Soviet decision-makers.
Many other cemeteries did not share its good fortune.