Ulyanovka: Living on the Border of Existence
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There is no sign to Ulyanovka, an abandoned Pontic Greek village in southern Georgia, 1,300 feet up a mountain near the Armenian border. Only two men – 67-year-old Muraz Shersevadze and 20-year-old Yuri Rurua – call this ghost village home.

Named in honor of the Soviet Union’s founder, Vladimir Lenin (Ulyanov), Ulyanovka is one of hundreds of deserted or underpopulated villages scattered throughout Georgia since the USSR’s collapse in 1991.

It contains no gas, electricity or running water, yet its unoccupied pastures and scores of forgotten houses – one with laundry still on the line  – spelled opportunity for Shersevadze and Rurua.

Shersevadze, a former policeman from the village of Dirbi, near the central Georgian town of Gori, came here two years ago just to graze his pigs and cows. The livestock helps supplement his 180-lari ($70.83) monthly pension.

 

Muraz Shersevadze, 67, stands on Ulyanovka’s main street with a stray dog he has taken in. All the houses that line the road have been abandoned.
Muraz Shersevadze has turned one of the village’s abandoned house into a pigsty. The pigs graze on the overgrown lawns of deserted residences.
A pair of shoes still stands on the veranda of one of Ulyanovka’s abandoned houses.
Muraz Shersevadze, wearing a vest bearing the acronym for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, claims he once worked as “a state security agent.” He lives by himself in Ulyanovka.
Shersevadze sits on his bed in the abandoned, two-storey house he calls home.
A folder carrying the emblem of the Georgian Security Police, the official body for protection of strategic sites, lies amidst salt, yogurt and matches on Muraz Shersevadze’s table.
A discarded bottle stands on the veranda of the house next to Muraz Shersevadze’s residence.
A stray cat, perhaps a visitor from another village, sizes up a rare visitor to Ulyanovka’s main street.
One of Ulyanovka’s many stray dogs wanders down the village’s main street. Shersevadze and Rurua feed these strays.

In Ulyanovka, he likes being able to choose whichever residence he wants despite his limited income.

As winter approaches, though, the seven large rooms in his selected two-storey residence are frigid.  He only uses his wood-burning stove at night and to heat river-water to wash himself.

Yet Shersevadze, who primarily works outdoors, says the cold doesn’t bother him. He boasts that he’s as “as strong as [Soviet dictator Joseph] Stalin,” Gori’s most famous native, even though he relies on a hearing aid.

"Surviving here is not a problem for me. I am not afraid of wild animals or anything . .  .”

It’s a solitary existence. Sheversadze, who claims he once worked for the KGB, is not married and has no children.

“I tend to live with my companions: the cows, pigs and dogs,” he says. 

A deserted house, fronted by forgotten fields, stands at the entrance to Ulyanovka.
Pigs forage for food among the ruins of Ulyanovka, a former ethnic Greek settlement.
Muraz Shersevadze poses with his dog outside the building he has appropriated for his pigs
A pig pokes its snout through a cracked door. Muraz Shersevadze has converted this two-storey house into a pigsty.
A former inhabitant’s clothes hang on the clothesline of an abandoned house in Ulyanovka.
The interior of one of the many abandoned houses of Ulyanovka. Many random possessions still remain in these buildings.
A deserted house sits among trees that line the hillsides that surround the dilapidated village of Ulyanovka.
Muraz Shersevadze, who cannot hear without a hearing aid, gesticulates as he talks about life in Ulyanovka. “I am not afraid of anything because I look like Stalin,” he claims.
Muraz Shersevadze shovels pig manure in a former house that he has turned into a pigsty.
Yuri Rurua stands in the middle of Ulyanovka’s main street. Apart from winter, when he heads to Tbilisi, the 20-year-old accounts for half of the village’s population

Ulyanovka’s only other inhabitant, Rurua, calls it a “hard and boring” life. “It’s a strange way to live, without any human contact,” he says.

The pair, however, do not live in total isolation. In warmer months, residents of nearby villages sometimes come in cars and trucks to gather wild herbs for themselves and grass for their livestock. A military base is not far off.

But Ulyanovka’s original residents never return, it appears. Thousands of rural Georgians have moved to Greece, Russia and Ukraine since the end of the Soviet era, the government reports. Overall, 98,300 Georgians emigrated in 2016, a 2.4-percent increase from the preceding year.

The migration, though, is not just outward. Rurua’s family, displaced from Abkhazia,  settled in Ulyanovka 13 years ago to raise pigs, cows and chickens. After a few years, they moved on to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, since the work did not pay.

Yuri Rurua looks out at Ulyanovka from the house where he has been living alone for the past few years. His other family members live in Tbilisi.
A slowly deteriorating empty house stands on the side of the gravel road that cuts through the village of Ulyanovka.
Yuri Rurua poses on Ulyanovka’s single street.
A solar charger for his phone, walnuts, nail clippers and a rearview mirror for shaving lay on a table on the veranda of the deserted house Yuri Rurua has chosen as his Ulyanovka residence.
Yuri Rurua chops wood for the stove that warms his room in an abandoned Ulyanovka house.
Left-behind items are scattered throughout Ulyanovka’s deserted houses.
In the early afternoon, the sun sinks behind the forested hills that rise above Ulyanovka.
Colorful graffiti adorns the front walls of a deserted house in Ulyanovka.
A lone cat basks in the sun at the Ulyanovka house where Yuri Rurua lives.

Rurua, their youngest child and a former private at the nearby base, stayed behind to tend to the animals.

“I do not have a job yet. I help my family by keeping animals. Sometimes my mother also comes and stays here in the village.”

If Ulyanovka’s two residents need to go someplace, they must walk along rough, stone-studded, zigzagging dirt roads to a village that’s  about a 20-minute trip by car.

From the village, a public bus makes the roughly 45-minute trip to the border village of Sadakhlo.

In winter, Rurua takes this route to join his parents and elder brother and sister in Tbilisi. Shersevadze, who rarely returns to Dirbi, looks after Rurua’s animals until his return.  

If, all alone, he ever catches a sense of the life that once filled this village, he does not say. 

Chai Khana
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