Saturday, 8 October 2011

LIVED TRANSITIONS

The process of transition of Soviet republics from the so called Communist regime to the capitalist economies is depicted on all scales of material world inherited from the Soviet Union: from large scale urban neighborhoods and microrayons to architecture and to objects of everyday use. However it is impossible to fully grasp the current condition of such physical environments without examining the wider socio-cultural, economic and political context of these societies before and through the period of transition. Georgia is one of the former Soviet republics being in the painful transition that has an impact on all aspects of human existence. In this process of permanent shock it is very important to disclose the symptoms that can point us on the often latent forces shaping our lives. The physical world framing our everyday existence is often an excellent field for such observation.

The late Soviet epoch was remarkable for accelerated decay of the system. Seemingly strong state planned economy was entering a deep crisis due to the irrational utilization of resources, high level of bureaucracy and centralization. This was accompanied by the rigid prevention by the state of the demand on consumer goods and real estate that was triggered by the private capital emerged through the shadow economy. The omnipresent state ideology communicating formalized high Communist ideals and denouncing Capitalist society was transmitted in parallel with the strong state censorship of social and intellectual life. As a result, the ideas of internationalism, collectivism, solidarity, active citizenship, political awareness etc. became formalized and distorted and became the subject of irony and nihilism. In contrast, the consumer culture was popularized and easily absorbed. The growth of ethno-nationalism as a counter idea of Soviet centralization and its declared internationalism has been another common feature for all post Soviet societies. Similarly, religion has been more and more popular as a reaction to officially promoted atheism. The international isolation of Soviet Union helped to create the distorted image of the forbidden world beyond the Iron Curtain which was idealized in contrast to the Soviet reality (it still continues to dominate the popular conceptions in public as well as political life). Western propaganda also played its role in creating this collective misunderstanding. Here it is impossible to describe these conditions in their full complexity. It needs far deeper study and analysis going even before the October Revolution. However it is evident that in the late 1980-ies the increasing stagnation of the Soviet system cultivated strong popular distrust in Soviet Union.

In fact the period of Soviet Union’s existence from the point when Stalin took power had been a permanent degradation of positive achievements of the October revolution, nevertheless the Soviet system, by the time of its fall, retained many positive aspects, which could serve as a ground for democratic reforms. The unsuccessful attempt of Gorbachev to reform the system appeared to be ineffective and too late for the depriving state.

In such a context the free market Capitalism found a very fertile ground in Georgia and other post Soviet countries. The shift between the two antagonist systems was implemented almost unquestioned, without little debate on the alternative futures and with no resistance. The series of shocks resulted from the armed conflicts and disorder all over the country and repeated economic recessions contributed to passivity and hopelessness of public in imagining alternatives of the status quo. This was proved by the “Rose Revolution”, when Georgian society, striving to change the corrupted regime of the former Soviet leader Eduard Shevardnadze, failed to put forward progressive, socially concerned economic and political agenda. As a result, the benefits of the change got even more exclusively accumulated in the hands of ruling elites.

The “Rose Revolution” brought to the power ultra right-wing government. This period has been characterized by the intensification of radical Neoliberal reforms, apparent decline in the level of democracy and ever growing centralization of political power. To support this process the official ideology has cultivated a new Georgian identity, accompanied with the patriotic rhetoric and anti-Communist and anti-Russian propaganda. This rhetoric has been omnipresent in almost every field of social life and has become the main point of departure for contemporary Georgian political discourse. In general, the post-Soviet Georgian political and cultural condition can be defined as reactionary towards the nearest history of the country.

In the effort of building a new reality, active transformation of physical space has been characteristic for the new regime. This process reveals the best the nature of modern Georgian politics. However, before mentioning this phenomenon, the recent history of creation of space in Georgia should be described first.

The socio-cultural trends and processes in the late Soviet period, described above, had been reflected in architecture and planning of that period. Similar to many other fields of art and social sciences, architecture and planning of this period have absorbed postmodern ideas and aesthetic as a counterpart to the officially acknowledged approaches. There was an increasing dissatisfaction of architects and planners as well as of the broader public with the rigid system of standardization and regulations on all levels of planning: from the towns to microrayons, housing blocks and units. The demand on individuality and expressive freedom was growing. The critique of the inflexible town planning was also heard in the professional circles. Although the state supported experiments with high socio-cultural and economic ambitions, architecture and planning of that period failed to adopt approaches that would bring more democratization and social integrity in the process of production of Soviet space.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the radical change of the economic base, drastically affected planning and architectural disciplines. They suddenly faced completely different challenges that they were not prepared to cope with. Old knowledge appeared useless and thus old principles were distrusted and negated. The gap between the old and new remained open. Such a helpless situation allowed market logic to subordinate these disciplines solely to its own logic.

As mentioned above, the post-Soviet transition was marked by the chaos in every sphere of state or private sector. The vast infrastructure inherited from the Soviet Union was abandoned and dysfunctional. Many of these buildings were occupied by the thousands of refugees fled from the conflict regions (South Osetia and Abkhazia). This period saw relatively small scale but massive willful interventions into urban space: the extensions on the buildings, garages, small shops etc. that have disfigured the public space. In the following years, as soon as military actions were seized, the real estate market started to develop and the developers, as new stakeholders in urban management, supported by the ruling elites, emerged. In the state of collapsed regulatory system, the real estate speculations often financed by the shadow economy, resulted in dramatic and uneven interventions into the urban space. Considering the revenues associated with these interventions, it is not surprising that even since 20 years from the collapse of the Soviet system very little was done to rebuild the country’s town planning and regulatory system.

In the years following the “Rose Revolution” the building industry, prioritized by the new government, has been increasing its share in the economy of the country and finally took a shape of a financial bubble. The liberalized town planning, construction and monuments protection legislation, the state funded projects such as renewal of historic towns, beautification of the public spaces, etc. were all contributing to the growth of the bubble. However the world financial crisis and military conflict in 2008 have put an end to this growth. Despite the government efforts to bail out the private construction industry the situation yet remains grave. Along with the marching state funded projects, mainly targeted on beautification and tourist attraction, the vast number of half-finished construction sites stay as an ugly reminder of the unsolved problems.

Aside from the financial speculations, at the heart of the problem is almost regular violation of human rights: eviction of the refugees, expropriation of land, real estate, etc. The only logic governing the process of urbanization is the logic of capital accumulation, which doesn’t leave place for otherness, for diversity. The homogenization of urban space, accelerated through the top down decisions, undermines basic principles of democracy, violates consciousness and social integrity of the communities and brutally dictates the principles and values of commercialization.

The new private or most visibly state funded projects reveal complexes of the dominant culture rooted in the period of Soviet Union and mutated through neoliberalization. Such cultural condition is revealed when decision makers try to regenerate bourgeoisie aesthetic of the 19th century and to erase material world inherited from the Soviet Union. This trend is expressed in several cases when the well preserved and functioning modernist buildings were reconstructed in the 19th century style; or in the new law that obliges to destroy soviet symbolic in public space. Along with the old style developments there is a fetish of “ultramodern” that is cultivated through the facades of mirrored glass plates and metal panels. Several well preserved modernist blocks were packed this way to convert into corporate style.

The common feature of all state supported projects is their virtuality: fake facades with decaying interiors; deliberately aged buildings with clipped bronze ornaments, homogenized and sterile public spaces with cheap old style street furniture. Kitschy glamour of the new Georgian reality represents the wider picture of the political immaturity of the ruling elites and points on the fact that such superficial approach is present in every field of state affairs: economics, in healthcare, in education and others. These projects represent the extension of the virtual reality that is produced and reproduced by our media every day to persuade us in the Georgian economic miracle.

Currently in Georgia there are several activist groups or individuals who try to cope with the problematic of the built environment. They protest on specific projects but staying exceptionally on the ground of architecture and planning, often in their critique they fail to address the underlying reasons of such spatial atrocities. Behind these developments they fail to grip wider political economic and cultural problematic, without addressing of which it will never be possible to solve concrete spatial or other types of problems.

By the overview presented above I would like to claim that, at present, it is necessary for all activist groups working on different problems to understand that isolated critique of the concrete results of the wider context of political, economic and social scale will always stay ineffective. It is necessary as ever to divert any activism from the isolated fields to the political ground. In this process we have to admit that along the universal rules of the capitalist mode of production post-Soviet space has its apparent specificities that have to be addressed. One of these specificities is the mark that Soviet Union has put on the culture of its society during the period of its existence. Without analyzing and addressing these specificities it won’t be possible to construct progressive politics.

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