Ukranian and Georgian orphans from the 1930s

‘Some of these people are Georgian, some are from Ukraine. No, I don’t know them, but I can see from their faces,’ he said, pointing at the faded black and white photograph showing a group of dark eyed children with hollowed faces. ‘It’s a group of orphans who came from Ukraine to Georgia around the early 1930s. At this time there was no food in Ukraine, and a lot of people came to Georgia. They lived together in a house for poor people, like a commune. I don’t know about your country, but in the Soviet Union there were houses for orphans. At that time there was food in our country – not a lot, but there was, and these people had nothing, maybe their parents died in Ukraine.’

Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly, created during the conversation which unfolds below.

We stood there on a cold, grey, misty afternoon in the flea market in Tbilisi, Georgia. Scattered across the bonnet of a faded green car lay an assortment of faded black and white photographs. Leaning across the bonnet and sifting through the photos he used them as a window to talk about the past, gradually unlocking memories. He wore a heavy black coat and a thick red scarf to guard against the cold, his eyes became animated as they moved across the images, taking in the faces and places, the stories lost in the mists of time.

‘This one is the most interesting… It’s from before the Soviet period, these people are not Soviets. You can read the name of the ship on the sailors’ hats,’ he took a magnifying glass and peered closely at the photo. ‘Aurora!’ He exclaimed, and passed the magnifying glass to other stall holders for their confirmation, confusion and surprise flickering across his features. ‘Aurora was the ship which marked the beginning of the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917. It’s a well known ship from the Soviet period and it’s written in Georgian letters just here, on their caps. I cannot explain this… Aurora was a Russian ship in the Baltic sea at St. Petersburg, the revolution started in St. Petersburg – so it should be written in Russian. It is impossible for this ship to have been in Georgia, because here it is the Black sea, not the Baltic.’

Looking up from the photographs he peered at us through his thick rimmed glasses as we asked about his own memories from the Soviet period in Georgia, our curiosity about an unknown time and place. He gathered his thoughts and began speaking slowly, ‘governments in any form, in any country, are not good. I don’t like the government. But in the Soviet Union the government did more for the people than any other government. For example, they provided flats and accommodation free of charge. Travel around the Soviet Union was so cheap – anybody could travel the 4,000 km to St Petersburg. Food was cheap, you cannot imagine how cheap. The cost of electricity and gas was next to nothing. The Soviet government paid money to provide these things. Also, Trade Unions were strong and supported their workers.’

‘Yes, the government took a lot of money from people, and the leaders were very rich. We didn’t have a lot of money, but even so we lived normal, decent lives. Now, the government takes a lot of money, they are millionaires – but we don’t live like normal people anymore, today we live like dogs. Now they don’t do anything for normal people like us. I think that all over the world normal people are being exploited for the benefit of a few rich people.’

‘Now in Georgia everything you can see is from America, nothing is Georgian. For example the food, I don’t know how to say in English – food you cannot eat. Not only fast food, but things like Coca Cola, food with nothing inside it. When you eat such food you cannot function. Unnatural food. I know one Frenchman who works as a specialist of natural food, he told me that he could never live in Georgia because there is only artificial food. Before, during the Soviet Union, we ate only natural food. They changed it, quickly. It’s easy to change. Yes, of course we feel the difference and we know all about it but there is nothing we can do about it.’

‘Of course I was more happy before. I graduated from university, and then I worked in St Petersburg in the medicine institute. I didn’t like this work, but during the Soviet time it was easy to change professions. So I started working in a physiology institute, and then I changed again to work in metereology and I worked for 12 years in the Caucasian mountains. I was happy. But I have been working here, at this market stall, since the end of the Soviet Union and I think that this is the worst profession I’ve ever had because you must be a liar. If someone wants to buy something, and asks me how much I paid for it, I must tell them a lie. If I paid 1 GEL I will say 2 GEL, not 1! And I will try and sell it for 3 GEL! Before I was an honest man, but this is a dirty business. I think that it’s the same all over the world, and in politics. It’s a trade, it’s a dirty business, it’s the same! Capitalism, Socialism, it doesn’t matter. Lies, lies, lies, told to the people by the government. It’s only lies.’

He paused and spoke to a neatly dressed family, children in blazers, the women in headscarves, as they picked up objects from the mix matched selection on his stall and enquired about prices. After a brief exchange in Georgian he shrugged as they left without buying anything. Seemingly deflated, he continued.

‘Yes, the Soviet era was a bad time for freedom, and so on. For example a lot of people, maybe 30 million, who were against the Soviet Union were killed by Stalin, by the government. For this 30 million people it was a bad time, of course. So yes, it’s true, but it’s only half a truth. Less than half a truth, maybe a quarter. But there were 200 million people in the Soviet Union.’

A young boy in thick plastic glasses was shuffling around the stall in the perimeters of our conversation. ‘My son… We are Georgian but we speak Russian at home, because I had a Russian education. My parents were Georgian but we spoke Russian at home, and today I speak with my son in Russian because I want him to leave Georgia.’

‘I have four sons, what can I do for them? This is the youngest. He’s 12 years old. He is not so intelligent but he picks up languages very quickly, without effort. He can speak Georgian, Russian, French and English, but he doesn’t have to work for it. He’s a natural, he was born with this gift. It’s my dream that in 10 years he will go to Canada. I don’t want to leave, I must stay here. But for children today this is not a good country. It’s difficult to explain – in Georgia today young people are without knowledge, nobody likes education, everybody likes money and they are aggressive. He is not aggressive. But he doesn’t work, he only wants to play on the computer.’

‘When I was his age it was not difficult for my parents to think about my future, it was clear and it was promising. They thought this, and it turned out this way. But I worry for my son’s future in Georgia, because he only wants to play, he only likes enjoyment. But pleasure and enjoyment are not good foundations for life. If you are only consuming, taking without making something, it’s not a good thing. Today this is a problem in Georgia. Before, it was not like this.’

‘Yes, there was less enjoyment in life back then, but I don’t think that pleasure and enjoyment are good foundations for life. The path of enjoyment begins with computer games but it leads to drink, leads to narcotics, and so on. There are other paths, maybe one of these is knowledge, maybe one is working. During the Soviet Union there were some people who chose the path of enjoyment, but it was not the most popular, there were many other options. Now, enjoyment is the main road. Just take everything for yourself.’

The stall holders around us were starting to close up, untying the tarpaulin shelters and starting to clear the folding tables. By now the cold had crept into our bones and we started making farewell greetings. He nodded, and smiled at the portrait Hannah had sketched of him as he spoke.

‘Maybe you are thinking that what I’ve told you is not true. But I tell you the truth. I was living at that time, I have thought about it a lot and I have told you the truth. Now, Georgia is not a country, it has nothing to do with freedom. We are an American state, but the lowest, most down trodden American state. They do anything they want here, they can change our government in a day if they want to. 2 days ago, they opened the border with Iran.’ He rapped his knuckles on the car bonnet as if to reinforce this point.

‘I don’t like democracy. It’s not a good thing because bad people can use it as a vehicle for bad actions. Democracy can be used by bad people to carry out their bad intentions. It should be something that cannot be used for your own bad actions.’

As we walked away, trying to breathe warmth into our freezing fingers, we realized the significance of his words, his memories, his experience. Generally, our experience of history is one-sided and our understanding of the Soviet period is mostly based on Cold War propaganda and a Western curriculum. But reality and human experience is much more complex than this and it is only through hearing personal, lived experiences from that time that our preconceived notions begin to crumble. Despite what we are led to believe under Western capitalism, no political system is entirely good or bad. There are more than two sides to every story; reality and political ideology are by no means black or white, and the layers of human experience often occupy the grey area inbetween.