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.
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.
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.
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.