Stumbling on Tkvarcheli was a near-cinematic experience, says the Russian photographer, whose images of the town's faded glory have now been published as a book
Maria Gruzdeva is no stranger to remote and solitary parts of the world. Her last book, The Borders of Russia, saw her travel more than 6000km along the border of her home country, documenting the isolated communities at its edges. While shooting it she came across the near-forgotten town of Tkvarcheli, and became so intrigued it turned into a spin-off project in its own right. Her work on it has now been published as a photobook, The Song of Tkvarcheli, funded by the Gabriele Basilico International Prize in Architecture and Landscape Photography.
“In the Soviet era, the region was widely known for its opulent nature, salubrious climate, seaside resorts and sanatoriums,” says Gruzdeva; Tkvarcheli was once heralded as one of the most perfectly designed towns in this feted area.
“In better times, working and living in Tkvarcheli was regarded a privilege – not just by miners, but by engineers and academics as well,” she explains. “The town was created to embody a dream. An idea to create a perfect city pervaded the minds of Soviet architects and practitioners after the Second World War when a lot of cities were rebuilt almost from scratch.”
At the height of its success, Tkvarcheli was home to approximately 35,000 residents, and a burgeoning mining economy. Built in luscious mountains it had an unusual bi-partite structure – with the lower town the main working district, and the upper town, reached by a seemingly futuristic cable car, boasting sweeping boulevards and homes with unprecedented vistas.
In the rapidly-changing world of the 1990s, these fortunes reversed. Mining became less important and the Soviet Union disintegrated; in the ensuing Georgian-Abkhazian Civil War between 1992 and ’93, Tkvarcheli was under siege for almost a year. In that time ethnic Georgians across the entire region of Abkhazia were faced with mass ethnic cleansing and expulsion. Many of the city’s Georgian population (which made 23.4 per cent of the total) were forced to leave as the violence in the region worsened.
By the mid 1990s, the once prosperous city had declined, and today it’s nearly abandoned. For Gruzdeva though, its fall from grace only underlines the town’s former glory. “It may seem that the dilapidation of some of the buildings suggests that the place has lost its former might, but I think it only emphasises its power and beauty,” she says.
“Abundant southern vegetation seen through the empty windows of the railway station or the columns of the residential houses remind me of ancient civilizations, which were destined to be great, yet somehow became mysteriously lost and unattainable.”
Gruzdeva first visited the area to shoot pictures of a waterfall, and says that stumbling on the town felt almost cinematic. “A turbulent river, suspension bridges, a backdrop of lush southern vegetation. Then an incredible railway station, so monumental – bearing arches, large windows, porticos and coloured stucco,” she says.
But the town is no fantasy, and nor is it completely deserted – despite the struggles of war, economic decline, and increasing isolation (the railway line no longer connects to the national network), some 5000 people still live there. “There are a lot of residents who have lived in Tkvarcheli since the day of its inception and they reminisce about the better days when the town was thriving,” says Gruzdeva.
“Many residents from different generations share stories about the tougher times of the town’s history as well. Those are the stories of incredible strength, faith, outstanding endurance and bravery. It was not just the siege – this highly developed town and its residents have survived a number of dramatic events.”
The remaining townsfolk have developed a strong sense of identity, with many saying they wouldn’t dream of leaving, and those who do finding themselves inexorably drawn back. The town is de facto part of the country of Abkhazia, but this country is only recognised by a handful of other states, and Russia is its only large ally. Instead, Abkhazia is recognised globally as a de jure part of Georgia, leaving a vacuum in which the citizens of Tkvarcheli identify with the town more than anything else.
“The people are united by their love for the town they call their own, and a sense of belonging penetrates those stories,” says Gruzdeva. “The Song of Tkvarcheli is the roar of the industrial machine, the sound of the mines, the voices of the people that once lived there and still live there today. It is a story of a great ambition, an aspiration to create something perfect and unique, something that traverses time.”
www.mariagruzdeva.com The Song of Tkvarcheli is published by Danilo Montanari Editore, priced €25 www.danilomontanari.com The Song of Tkvarcheli is on show at the Fondazione Studio Marangoni, Firenze, Italy, from 03 November-03 December www.studiomarangoni.it
++ This story was updated on 02 November to include reference to the ethnic cleansing which contributed to Tkvarcheli’s depopulation in the 1990s. BJP is grateful to Chris Booth for pointing out this omission++