There’s no shadow of a doubt that Spring No. 6 is the most impressive of the Soviet era bath houses in the Central Park of Tskaltubo – the spa town less than 10km from the second largest (now) city of Kutaisi. This was the particular spa Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, used to visit on regular occasions both before and after the Great Patriotic War. Up to the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s there were more than 20 spa locations and/or hotels with spa facilities in and around the central park. Fortunately, to this day – after a recent restoration (by a private company called Balneoresort) – it still stands out as a special building.
Its neoclassical frontage and the entrance hall is what makes it so special. Corinthian columns support a classic Greek inspired portico but what makes it really special is the frieze high above the entrance on the interior of the portico. By the age of Uncle Joe and the other images included in this bas relief it would indicate it was created after the Great Patriotic War when the buildings in Tskaltubo reverted from being hospitals to their original use as health spas for Soviet workers and peasants.
The ‘Welcoming Uncle Joe’ frieze
This frieze is in three parts and depicts the arrival of Joseph Stalin in the town and the welcome he is being given by either local people or other visitors, like himself, from the rest of the Soviet Union.
Spring No 6 – Welcoming Comrade Stalin
The central panel
In the central panel an avuncular Joe (in the last ten years of his life) is shown in a left profile. He is dressed in what was becoming his normal garb of a dress suit of a Marshal of the Soviet Union following his role in the defeat of the Nazi invaders, murderers and aggressors. (I accept there’s a problem with the development of ranks and medals/honours within the Red Army and would like to address this issue at some time in the future – but time is limited here.)
Over his left arm is his (again) traditional overcoat and in his left hand he holds a bouquet of flowers which have just been presented to him. He is smiling and looking towards a woman with whom he is shaking hands. She is probably part of an official welcoming committee. Whilst she shakes Joe’s right hand with hers’ she cradles a young child (can’t determine the gender) in the crook of her left arm. The child is facing us and s/he extends his/her right arm around the neck of the woman – presumably the mother. The child’s left arm is extended towards the General Secretary, thereby acting as a conduit, establishing a unity between the woman and Joe. The child is relaxed and smiling, as are the two central characters.
Between Joe and the woman, and underneath their clasped hands, is a drinking fountain – suggesting the healing quality of the local waters of Tskaltubo. On each of the two sides visible of the pillar are a face and a cup of a fountain.
Behind Comrade Stalin are two young people, a girl and a boy. She is closest to Joe and holds another, larger bouquet of flowers in her right hand. The boy, slightly further back, is carefully cradling in both his hands something that looks like a ceramic tower (perhaps to be presented to the visitor) This is, perhaps, a symbol of the town (but it’s difficult to say as it’s indistinct from ground level). The girl has her left arm behind the boy and seems to be encouraging him to come forward and meet the great leader of the working class.
Behind these two younger children is an older girl holding a large basket of fruit, at shoulder height, which she is bringing to present to the honoured visitor. The three children are in contemporary dress. i.e., late 1940s early 1950s and are in left profile.
Behind the woman and child greeting the General Secretary is a man and a woman. He seems to be dressed in more traditional clothing from Georgia and holds high another gift to the visitor from Moscow. This looks like a cornucopia of grapes, representing the grape and wine culture of the region/state. I can’ make out what the woman at the rear is bringing. She seems to be clutching a couple of items to her chest. They are in right profile and they seem to be wearing traditional peasant dress of the region.
On the wall behind Joe, and appearing in a couple of other places behind the other characters, are white/cream markings. These perhaps represent a fluttering flag but the overall impression is somewhat confusing. The more I look at it the more I get the impression it’s a disintegrating halo – which is a little disturbing if that was the intention.
Spring 6 – Welcoming Comrade Stalin – right hand panel
The right hand panel
On the right hand panel we have a continuation of the procession wanting to meet the leader. At the front is an older couple. She seems to be holding another bunch of flowers and he, much more frail and needing support, has his left on her left shoulder and in his right hand (which we can’t see) he is holding a walking stick – part of which we can see. This would seem to reference the healing claims of the spa resort.
Next is a young sailor – and I don’t really understand this reference. We are talking about only a few years after the most devastating war the country had ever had to encounter. Yet he looks young and healthy. Therefore, why is he depicted? Beside him is a very young girl, five or six, who has another bouquet of flowers but seems to be pleading with the sailor, presumably her father, for something. She is really close to him, pressing against his leg, and he has his left arm protectively resting on the top of her back.
The final individuals in this panel are a couple of newly weds. They are hand in hand and rushing to meet Stalin. He is dressed in a formal suit and she seems to be dressed in the traditional attire of a Georgian bride of the time. (Now you can’t move in present day Georgia for ‘desirable’ western style wedding dress shops – almost certainly with a price tag which inversely matches the lack of sophistication of the design.) He holds high, in his right hand the certificate of their marriage and he seems to be asking for some sort of blessing from the leader of the Communist Party. It takes a long time to eliminate these practices of getting some sort of secondary justification from a ‘superior’ entity. I don’t like the depiction of this in a Socialist Realist piece of art work but it probably represented the feeling of the time and its depiction confirms a reality without providing a way forward. In her left hand the bride is carrying what looks like a book, what and why I have no idea
Above the couple are vine stems/leaves as a sign of fertility. Yet again, another throw back to feudal superstition. As I’ve suggested in other posts on Socialist Realist Art we are still a long way from throwing off the old traditions and thinking and that comes across in the art produced – even during those few years of Socialist construction.
Spring No 6 – Welcoming Comrade Stalin – left hand panel
The left hand panel
The left hand panel contains five characters. Closest to the centre is a young, wounded Red Army man, in uniform. He has no obvious disability but he does have a walking stick in his left had to provide him with some sort of support. An interesting little bit of detail is that he has a camera on a strap over his left shoulder, his right hand under the strap at his chest with the camera resting on his right hip. This is possibly a Zenit or a Zorki, 35mm SLR, a huge number of which were produced after the Great Patriotic War.
Behind him is a young woman with her left hand on his right shoulder. She seems to be looking beyond him as if she were in a crowd of people wanting to get a glimpse of the visiting hero. Perhaps she is using his shoulder to allow her to get a slightly higher view of the proceedings. She is dressed in late 1940s clothing and her hair style is also from that period. She is also carrying a book in her right hand so a pattern seems to be developing here. Both of them are in right profile.
Behind the heads of this couple are what look like palm branches coming from above. They are similar to what we find in the central panel but there the leaves are totally chaotic, here more recognisable.
Next is an older man, dressed in contemporary 1940s semi-casual dress – he wears a tie but not a jacket. Unlike all the other characters in this story he is not looking in the direction of Uncle Joe. He is in left profile as he is looking back to others of his family who have come to greet the visitor from Moscow. His left arm is high above his head as if pointing in the direction of all the activity. He seems to be encouraging those behind him to hurry up and is pointing to where everything is happening.
His right hand is supporting the left elbow of a young girl who holds yet another large bouquet of flowers. She has her long hair tied back over the nape of her neck, her right hand on her hip and around her neck is a scarf which indicates that she is a Young Pioneer and is dressed in the uniform of the organisation. Her stance is as if she were running. In fact there is a feeling of movement in the depiction of this small family group which is completed by the presence of an older woman who is holding a banner, which is billowing out behind her, in both her hands. This presumably is the banner of the Georgian People’s Republic but any such detail is impossible to make out.
Above the heads of this last group a couple of branches of a vine come down from above, indicating the production of wine in the area.
I’m sure that many of those who enter the building are not really aware of the decoration that sits above their heads. With perhaps a few exceptions (those part of the building that have not yet had a major make-over) the only other part of the building that is interesting for its Soviet past is the main entrance hall.
The entrance hall of Spring No 6
In the renovation of the building it was fortunately decided to try to maintain the impression those thousands that had entered the building over the years would have experienced.
The impression of space;
Spring No. 6 – Entrance Hall
the high ceiling;
Spring No. 6 – Entrance Hall ceiling
the magnificent commemorative urn (more details of which will be published shortly) in the middle of the floor – with an interesting clock on the wall behind;
Spring No 6 – Commemorative Urn and clock
The tall ceramic lamp standards;
Spring No 6 – Ceramic light
and the two, small stained glass windows;
Spring No. 6 – stained glass 01
Spring No. 6 – stained glass 02
The rest of the building
Spring No 6 is a huge building and won’t be getting anything like the number of visitors that it used to receive in the heydays of the 1980s and before. On my visits there were only a handful of people and that would indicate that the renovation that has taken place would not have covered the whole of the building – there would have been no chance to make any significant return on the investment – unless it was all part of a money laundering exercise.
The ‘renovation’ I saw was basically a total destruction of the original interior and the replacement by what would be found in a new build for the same purpose. That’s a shame as I’m sure the baths and rooms used for all the other services would have been tiled and decorated in an even more ornate manner that what can be seen in the abandoned and derelict spas that lie in ruins in the Central Park and surrounds.
So far I have been able to visit one very small part of the building that has undergone minimal ‘restoration/renovation’. That was the room I was told was ‘Stalin’s private bath house’.
But it is a working spa and there are a number of treatments that can be tried. One of the reasons there are few visitors now is that, for Georgians, any visit to the spas are very much a luxury and the foreign tourists who visit the country (and could afford it) might not be prepared to spend a couple of hours getting cleansed, pummelled and covered in mud.
An introduction to some of the treatments available will appear soon.
The driveway into Spring No 6
The main entrance to Spring No 6 is part of the public Central Park in Tskaltubo and there’s no strict dividing line between where the private and public meet. However, as part of the original project of Spring no 6 a large fountain – with a statue from Georgian mythology – was included. This is also worthy of a look.
Spring No. 6 – Fountain
Spring No. 6 is in the northern part of Tskaltubo’s Central Park, about a ten minute walk from the present day market in the centre of town.
How to get to Tskaltubo
Marshrutka number 30 leaves from its terminus on the western side of the Red Bridge, which crosses the Rioni River beside the main Kutaisi market. Closer to the market is the stop for a number of buses but you walk through that area (passing a cheap out door bar on the right) to cross the red painted iron bridge. The marshrutka will be on the left once on the other side. They leave roughly every 20 minutes. Cost GEL 1.20 (not the GEL 2 as in some guide books – although some of the drivers will take the GEL 2 and say nothing although others are honest). The price will be on a piece of paper somewhere, normally at the front of the vehicle.
Journey takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Tskaltubo. Once you cross the railway track (after 20 or so minutes) you are at the bottom end of Central Park. The marshrutka then follows Rustaveli Street on the eastern edge of the park passing the railway station and information office, the Municipality, Court and Police buildings, and then the entrance to the huge (now luxury 5 star) Tskaltubo Spa Resort all on the right. (The marshrutka takes the same route when going back to Kutaisi and can just be flagged down anywhere along this road.)
When you get to the northern edge of the park the road widens out and after passing the Sports Palace on the left and the now being renovated (although seemed stalled to me) huge Shakhtar Sanatorium on the right the marshrutka heads up to the main market. Get off when the bus turns right at the corner by the ugly, modern Sataplia Hotel. This is where you would look for another marshrutka if you wanted to go to the Prometheus Cave.
To get to Central Park go back along Tseretseli Street (not the road you came up), pass the mural of the telecommunication workers on your left and head down to a very wide road junction. Cross this wide expanse of tarmac towards an arch and at the open space at the top end of the park head south and pass by the right hand side of Spring No. 3. Continue south until you reach the white, side wall of Spring No. 6. The entrance is on the west side of the building.
Alternatively (if arriving by marshrutka) you could get off at the main entrance to the Tskaltubo Spa Resort and walk towards the back of Spring No. 6 through the park.
Everything you want – or need – to know about Albania ….
…. or almost. If not already it is hoped in the not too distant future to be able to answer many questions people might have about the small Balkan country that has been the centre of conflict for centuries.
What follows are links to pages or posts that try to fill in the gaps of peoples’ knowledge of a country that was vilified for trying to maintain a real independence in the face of severe difficulties caught up, as it was, in the ideological struggle within the International Communist Movement which saw breaks first with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1961 and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1978.
The overwhelming emphasis is upon the period from the beginning of the National Liberation War against fascism in 1942 to the success of the counter-revolution in 1990. Here you will find links to material that tells you about the history of Albania; the history of the Party of Labour of Albania (the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party that led the Albanian people in the fight against the fascist invaders and then towards the construction of Socialism from 1944-1990); documents produced by the Party of Labour of Albania which give an idea of how the party saw the construction of socialism in an Albanian context as well as comments on the developments within the International Communist Movement; the writings of Enver Hoxha, the great Marxist-Leninist leader who led the Party and the country after liberation in November 1944 until his death in April 1985; be able to read many (still unfortunately not all) of the issues of the monthly political and informative review Albania Today, from 1971 to 1990; various issues of the bi-monthly, large format, political, social and cultural illustrated periodical New Albania; views of Albania and its efforts to construct socialism whilst under great threat from the encircling capitalist, revisionist and imperialist countries from fraternal parties and friendship organisations in countries throughout the world; articles and speeches of (the later to be disgraced) Mehmet Shehu; and some of the writings of the last leader of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, Ramiz Alia.
Art as a means of promoting Socialism
All those countries that achieved a socialist revolution – and were led by parties that followed the Marxist-Leninist ideology (and for me there are only really four; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania (PSRA) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV)) – realised the importance of art as a propaganda tool to promote socialist ideals and to counter the propaganda of capitalism. Each country produced that art with their own national characteristics and that produced in Albania was particularly unique and extensive, covering many aspects of the plastic arts.
Theses drafted for discussion at the meeting of the Bureau of the Party Committee for the city of Tirana which, on March 21, 1958, was to take up with the consideration of the report ‘On the work for the education of intellectuals’.
When I first visited Albania in November 2011 I hadn’t been there too long before I realised a number of things about the monuments that had been constructed during the socialist period (1944-1990). The first was that there were a lot of them – at that time I didn’t realise just how many. Secondly, that some of them were quite remarkable, and unique, examples of Socialist Realist Art and, thirdly, they were all in danger, whether it be through ignorance, simple neglect or vandalism – be it ‘official’ (as an expression of political hatred, as has already happened in a number of cases, such as the Five Heroes of Vig in Shkoder and more recently The Four Heroines in Mirdita) or ‘unofficial’ – some people destroy because they are themselves unable to create.
This was the most comprehensive survey ever carried out which documented as many as possible of the lapidars (monuments) that were still in existence at the time of the survey in March 2014. The survey recorded the physical state of the monuments (some badly damaged and neglected) and added any other pertinent information available – such as artists involved, date of inauguration, exact location using GPS technology, etc. – as well as creating an extensive photographic record of their condition at the time.
Following the survey three volumes were published, both in physical form as well as a downloadable pdf. Volume 1 contains a number of articles introducing the concept of the lapidars and their role within Albanian Socialist society. These articles appear in both Albanian and English. This volume also contains the information of the 659 lapidars that were recorded at the time. (A number of others have since been added.)
Volume 2 includes one or two photos of each lapidar in the northern part of the country, Volume 3 in the southern part – the dividing line being set at N40º42’38”.
The representation of the last military action of Vojo Kushi, Sadik Stavaleci and Xhorxhi Martini in Albanian Socialist realism is an interesting one as it has been depicted in a number of formats so offers a (possibly) unique opportunity to compare how the event has been presented to the Albanian people, history and posterity. Although the sacrifice of the three is commemorated it is Vojo Kushi who is in the forefront of these representations, his last action of storming an Italian tank being an act of bravery that has transcended even the counter-revolution of the 1990s.
The National Martyrs’ Cemetery, Tirana, is the most important monument to those who fell in the struggle against Italian and German Fascism between 1939 and 1944. It’s also the location of one of the largest examples of Socialist Realist sculpture in the country – Mother Albania.
Although the plan is to attempt to record all the monuments from the socialist period in Albania’s history there are, and will be, occasions when I will have arrived too late. Either the ‘democrats’ (a mixture of monarchists and neo-fascists) have got there first and destroyed the works of Socialist Realist art as it represents all that they despise and fear – such as any of the statues of Enver Hoxha – or those lumpen elements who see only scrap value in a piece of metal – that has led to the damage to the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig in the northern city of Shkodër. Destruction and vandalism has been the fate of the Monument to the Artillery in the hills to the south of Tirana, close to the town of Sauk.
Looking like a cross between a pistol and a huge road sign, the Monument to Heroic Peze sits at the junction to the village of Peze, along the old road between Tirana and Durres. This huge block of concrete, in its imagery and words, tells the story of the important role that this small village played in the war against fascist occupation (both Italian and German), the formation of the National Liberation Front and the concept of People’s Power.
The Conference of Peze, which took place in September 1942, was only possible as the Peze Çeta (Partisan Guerrilla Group) was so feared by the fascist invaders that they could provide a safe environment to enable the discussions on the formation of a National Liberation Front to take place. This was in a location only 20 kilometres from the capital of Albania, Tirana. As the war developed the organisational structure of the People’s Army changed and became more organised. After final liberation the efforts of these men and women started to be recognised throughout the country and hence the Monument to the 22nd ‘Shock’ Brigade.
The third major monument in the Peze Conference Memorial Park is the cemetery to those from Peze who fell during the anti-Fascist war of Independence. The Peze War Memorial is a short distance from the main area of the park and you could be excused for not knowing it’s there.
The Peze Conference on 16th September 1942 was important in establishing the organisational structure for the forthcoming struggle for liberation against the Fascist invaders, first the Italian and then, when Italy fell to the Allies, the Germans. This important meeting took place in the home of Myslym Peza who had a large house and land on the edge of the small village of Peze, about 20 kilometres south-west from Tirana and this is now the location of the Peze Memorial Park.
Like many of its kind in Albania the Librazhd Martyrs’ Cemetery sits on a high location over the town. This is both to give due reverence to those who gave their lives in the National Liberation War as well as to reflect that the war itself was very much one that was won and (for the Fascists) lost in the mountains.
There are some of the lapidars in Albania that can truly be called monumental in all meanings of the word. One of these is the massive and impressive Arch of Drashovice and another is the Qukës-Pishkash Star, to the side of the road from Librazhd to Përrenjas, just opposite one of the impressive viaducts of the, now, sadly neglected Albanian railway system. The sheer scale of the star can be appreciated when you look at the picture above which includes the team who catalogued the Albanian lapidars in the summer of 2014.
As is the case in many towns and villages in the UK (and also in Western Europe) where it’s common to come across a war memorial (originally for the war of 1914-18/9, the ‘War to end all wars’ but which became only Part 1) this is also the case in Albania. At the time of the National Liberation War from 1939-44 the population of the country was a little more than a million and so it’s no surprise that the ‘Martyrs’ (as they are known in Albania) came from even the smallest places. Progër is no different in that case. What makes the village different is the substantial lapidar commemorating the First Communist Party Cells. This small village, off the main road, also has a Monument to the First School and a Martyrs’ Lapidar.
The majority of the lapidars throughout Albania celebrate the events of the National War of Liberation and those who fought and died in that struggle. Others celebrate and commemorate events in the period of the construction of Socialism but there are few (probably a surprise to many) that are specifically devoted to the Communist Party of Albania (later the Party of Labour of Albania). One such – I only know of one other and that’s on the facade of the museum in Ersekë – is to the First Party Cell of the PKSH in the small village of Progër, close to Billisht and Korçë, not far from the border with Greece in the south-east of the country.
Many of the martyrs’ cemeteries in Albania are situated on hills above the towns and villages and this is certainly the case with the Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë, where the highest point is a fair hike from the centre of the town below. However, it’s worth the effort as, on a clear day, you have a fine view of the town, the fertile valley below and the mountains to the west as well as a fine example of Socialist Realist Art.
Being the main port of invasion by the Italian Fascists on 7th April 1939 it’s not a surprise that in commemoration of that event, and especially the resistance that was shown by a significant proportion of the population (but not the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog who ran away as soon as the Italian ships came into sight) that there are a few monuments to this, constructed in the Socialist period. One is to the individual sacrifice of Mujo Ulqinaku (that used to stand close by the Venetian tower at the bottom end of town) and the other is to the general principle of ‘Resistance’ in Durrës, which is located right next to the waterfront and very likely one of the places the Italian fascists would have landed.
The first shots in Albania’s National Liberation War (although it wasn’t called that at the time) were fired on 7th April 1939 when the Italian Fascist forces invaded the port city of Durrës (as well as other locations along the coast). For years the country, ruled by the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog I (even before he was dead he was planning a dynasty!) had been a puppet state of the Italian Fascists and when the invasion did take place no official structure was in existence to defy the invaders. It was therefore left to brave individuals, such as Mujo Ulqinaku, to take up the banner of resistance. His sacrifice is commemorated by a monument close to the coast where the invasion took place.
The overwhelming number of Socialist Realist monuments in Albania are constructed from either concrete or bronze. However, there are occasional variations from this norm and there are a few mosaics (though not on the massive scale of ‘The Albanians’ on the National History Museum in Tirana) including those in Bestrove, Llogara National Park and at the Durrës War Memorial.
Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania have a statue of one or more Partisans to stress that those commemorated were those who died in the National Liberation War of 1939-44. Sometimes there’s just one male Partisan, as in Korcë or Ersekë, sometimes there will be both a male and a female, as in Librazhd, sometimes (though rarely) there’s a group of three, as in Pogradec but there are also times when the symbol of sacrifice is in the form of a single female, as in Saranda and Fier. There’s a certain commonality between many of these statues, having been constructed at a similar time, but the statue of the female Partisan at the Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery is quite unique in style and presentation.
Shoket – Comrades – was one of the early sculptures to be placed in the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania, a simple monolith (lapidar) being the most common form of monument. It is the work of Odhise Paskali and was inaugurated in 1964, the same time as the monument to the Permet Congress was unveiled in the main square of the town.
The statue of a Partisan and Child, just beside the main road passing through the small village of Borove in the south-east of the country, is one of the most charming of Albanian monuments but its charm obscures a much darker story. That story is less obvious now than it was in 1968 when it was created, in a different location and part of a bigger tableau.
Many of the lapidars in different parts of Albania have suffered from vandalism and neglect. This is sad as it is displays a lack of respect of the Albanians for their heritage. Those with a particular Socialist message have suffered the most, attacked by the monarcho-fascists when the country was going through a period of anarchy in the late 1990s. Caught up in this denial of the past are also some of the monuments dedicated to the country’s ancient ‘national hero’, Skenderbreu, and a bas-relief called ‘Skenderbeu’s Wars’ the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokaster has likewise being ignored and allowed to fall into decline.
Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania are situated on hills, sometimes quite high hills, in the vicinity of the cities and towns. This is the case with the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery which, when it was constructed, would have been clearly seen from the centre of the town, the area around Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square) and the Bashkia (Town Hall). Up to the 1990s the buildings weren’t that tall but subsequent construction of high-rise flats has meant that you don’t really see the cemetery until you’re almost upon it.
There are a lot of mountains in Albania and they played a role in the success of the Communist led Partisan çeta (guerrilla groups) in defeating first Italian and then German Fascism. For that reason most of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries in Albania tend to be high above towns, in the surrounding hills, as is the case in Tirana. On my first visit to Gjirokaster I was, therefore, scanning the hills above the old town looking for the tell-tale signs of a white lapidar indicating the location of the cemetery.
There’s a unique lapidar in Gjirokaster, in southern Albania, which was erected to commemorate the struggle for education in the Albanian language when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. This monument to education is an obelisk in the shape of a stylised scroll, or a certificate rolled up, upon which are carved images depicting the struggles of the past as well as the intentions for the future. Its official name is ‘Obelisku kushtuar pionierëve të arsimit shqip’ (‘Obelisk dedicated to the pioneers of education in [the] Albanian [language]’.)
Most of the monuments in Albania are not complex works of sculpture. Many are simple columns, with inscriptions, some of those being quite small. These are known as ‘Lapidars’ in Albania. (‘Lapidar’ doesn’t have a direct translation into English although ‘monolith’ is a possibility – and might even have a German root.) In between the monumental and the columns are stand alone statues and structures and the Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra, is one of those.
Through its monuments and memorials you can tell a lot about a country, its history, its heroes, its respect for itself, the class relationships, the political balance of power, even the state of the economy.
A number of Martyrs’ Cemeteries have a single female partisan as the principal statue, Fier and Lushnje are two that immediately come to mind. This was also chosen as the case in Sarandë’s Martyrs’ Cemetery.
A journey along the valley of the Shushicë River is interesting under any circumstances, the road is rough in places (most places) but the view of the mountains and the countryside is astounding and makes the effort worth it. When you add the Arch of Drashovice 1920-1943 it’s almost an obligation.
The magnificent Arch of Drashovice is such an amazing structure with so much to tell us that I’m breaking the description up into three parts. This is the second and addresses the images relating to the battle in 1920 against the Italian invaders, a battle (and war) fought by an irregular army of peasants, workers and intellectuals against a heavily armed imperialist force.
If victory was only temporary in 1920 (due to the betrayal by the despot and usurper ‘King’ Zog) the success in 1943 led to a situation where, really for the first time in Albania, the people had the opportunity to build a life and a country for themselves, by themselves. With the expulsion of the Nazis at the end of November 1944 the country gained true independence and it was then for the people to take their own destiny into their hands. No longer could they put the blame on others. The battles that took place in September and October 1943, and which are depicted on the Arch of Drashovice, played a major role in that final victory.
Mosaics play a small part in the history of Albanian lapidars but when they do appear they do so in an impressive and memorable manner. Although not strictly a lapidar the most impressive is the huge the ‘Albanian’ mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Also interesting and worth a visit is the mosaic in the Martyrs’ Cemetery of Durrës. Each of these have their distinctive aspects and the mosaic, near the village of Bestrovë close to Vlorë, is another unique monument in its own right.
In the last days of the fight for the National Liberation of Albania by the Communist led Partisan army a crucial battle took place along the road from Elbasan to Tirana, south-east of the capital. To commemorate this battle the Mushqete Monument was erected at Berzhite.
The early Albanian lapidars were relatively simple affairs, uncomplicated memorials to those who had died in the National Liberation War against Fascism and for Socialism. Come the Albanian ‘Cultural Revolution’ – starting in the late 1960s – the intention was to use such monuments in a much more educational manner as well as establishing a distinctive Albanian identity. This meant that artists who had been educated and trained under the Socialist regime were encouraged to depict events and memorials in a much more figurative manner. Examples of this approach are seen in the Musqheta monument in Berzhite and in the Peze War Memorial. As the Cultural Revolution moved into the 1980s a new approach developed. This was one where the monument told a story which had developed over time, showing a continuum of the struggle. This is seen, in a truly monumental manner on the Drashovice Arch (close to Vlora) and in the Albanians Mosaic on the façade of the National History Museum in Tirana but also on the more modest, at least in size, bas-relief and statue in the north-eastern town of Bajam Curri – although it also presents some new questions of the meaning of Socialist art.
Celebrating solidarity and the willingness towards self-sacrifice in the common cause the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig once stood in one of the central squares of Skhodër, in northern Albania. After a period ‘out in the wilderness’ – close to the city rubbish dump and subject to crass, petty thievery it has now found a new permanent home in the centre of a roundabout to the north of the city.
As time went by that search for, and recording of, the Albanian lapidars grew into a more general search and recording of other artistic works in the public domain. This included mosaics, bas-reliefs and group statues. On top of that were the works of art in the (few) remaining museums and art galleries.
Mosaics and bas reliefs
In order that the ALS didn’t become open ended many public works of art that had been created during the Socialist period (1944-1990) were not recorded. However, in my travels I have encountered many of these and have treated them in the same, hopefully, thorough manner as I have the ‘official’ lapidars.
The wonderful and impressive ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, which has looked down on Skenderbeu Square, in the centre of Tirana, from above the entrance of the National Historical Museum since 1982, is starting to show it’s age. Less it’s age, in fact, but really the signs of intentional neglect which is tantamount to an act of political vandalism.
Although they are being neglected, and sometimes need dedication and determination to view them, there are still a number of artistic works from the Socialist period on many of what would have been public buildings. The most impressive (and becoming one of the most neglected) is the grand mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Another example, which can easily be missed, is the bas-relief on both the north and south sides of the Palace of Sport in the town of Vlora. Even more easily missed are the two interior mosaics on either side of what would have been, in the past, the main entrance to this sports centre.
The more I see of them the more I like the mosaics that were created in the Socialist period of Albania’s history. In many ways they capture a feeling of optimism and hope for the future which other art forms just can’t achieve. Yes, paintings can do that but the very scale of mosaics, out in the public view all the time, just seems more immediate. Mosaics have been around for a long time but in the past representing non-existent, mythical goods or the ‘rich and famous’. Those created in Albania in the 1970s and 1980s put the working class and peasantry into the forefront, showing that their lives are important and, if they but know it and chose to take on the task, that a better future will be theirs. Such is the mosaic on the façade of the Bashkia (Town Hall) of Ura Vajguror, between Berat and Kucove, in the centre of the country.
Socialist Albania was a colourful place in its time. Banners would decorate cities on anniversaries of important occasions, such as the Day of Liberation from Fascism, and when conferences and congresses were taking place banners and posters would celebrate these events. Slogans, often quotes from Marxist-Leninist leaders, would call upon the people to work to build Socialism in opposition to a hostile world surrounding the small Balkan country. Many of these symbols of the building of a new society were temporary and would be replaced when another anniversary arose or a different meeting was taking place. However, there were a number of more permanent works of art transmitting this message and one of them is the bas-relief over the main entrance to the local Kukesi Radio Station in the eastern town of Kukes.
There are more than six hundred lapidars so far listed by the Albanian Lapidar Survey but they are not the only examples of Socialist Realist Art that tell the story of the country, especially after Independence in 1944. Although a considerable number of lapidars are in a sorry state, whether due to neglect or outright political vandalism, there seems to be a move, at present, to ‘preserve’ those which are still in existence. However, I’m not aware of a similar programme (whether nationally or locally organised) that pays attention to the many statues, mosaics and panels that celebrate the achievements of the people. The panel to the miners in the small village of Krrabë is one such example.
The work of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, in documenting and quantifying the monuments throughout the country, has produced an invaluable resource for those who have an interest in the Albanian version of Socialist Realism. However, due to time, resources and the difficulty of identifying the vast amount of examples of a new form of popular expression (made even more difficult with the criminal destruction of the archives of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists) many unique pieces of art were not part of the survey. The concrete bas-relief on the facade of the (former ‘Stamles’) Tobacco Factory, close to the seafront in Durrës, was, therefore, one of those not documented and now it has gone (unless someone with foresight was able to save it) forever.
This small relief, at the bottom of the stairs into a high school in the old part of Gjirokastra, commemorates an event in 1942 when the local students from the gymnasium (college), together with their teachers, demonstrated against, and clashed with, the occupying Italian fascist forces.
Paintings, murals and sculptures
As with the mosaics and bas reliefs there are still many other examples of Socialist Realist art which it is possible to appreciate throughout the country. Sometimes they are on permanent show as they are out in the open air, others are in museums and art galleries. Many of these public areas of exhibition were vandalised post 1990 but there seems to be a trend, slow and often partial, to renovate some of these old exhibition spaces and to show what had been shown in pride of place in the past.
There are also a few reprints of articles published during the Socialist period. These have been reproduced in an attempt to give a wider view of the role of art in a Socialist society.
The article below was first published in New Albania, No 6, 1971. It discusses the general idea of art in a socialist society, how the Albanians saw ‘Socialist Realism’ with mention of a handful of works (out of 180) that were displayed at the National Exhibition of Figurative Arts in Tirana in the autumn of 1971.
There’s a perception by some (normally the ignorant and anti-socialist) that any work of art created during the construction of Socialism is necessarily ‘Socialist Realist’ art. They don’t understand, or refuse to accept, that the construction of Socialism is a long task. When it comes to art this involves asking the people to challenge their view of what is going around them and to look at artistic works in a critical and thoughtful manner and that this involves the unmasking of the hidden messages in a painting, sculpture, film or any other creative endeavour. One such work that needs to be seen in this light is the Wedding Mural which covers one of the walls of the Korabi restaurant in the hotel of that name in the town of Peshkopia.
The mural that covers the whole of one wall in the room of the National Historical Museum in Tirana that’s devoted to the War of Liberation against the invading fascists of 1939 to 1944 is one of the few which can still be appreciated at leisure by any visitor.
Each time I’ve been to Tirana I’ve made it a point to visit the impromptu ‘sculpture park’ that has been created behind the National Art Gallery, just down from the main Skanderbreu Square in the centre of Tirana.
No, Vladimir Ilyich and Uncle Joe, you shall not go to the ball seems to be the message given out by the pro-Western government in Albania. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin are covered up by the Albanian reactionaries in an attempt to prevent them from spoiling their Independence party at the end of the month.
This post will consist of images of the paintings (and a few sculptures) from the Socialist period of Albania’s past. The first floor of the National Art Gallery is almost now solely (with one notable exception, which I’ll come to later) devoted to the period before 1990 when things fell apart.
There are fine examples of Socialist Realism in the Armaments Museum in the Castle in Gjirokastra, but you might have to ask to go upstairs to enter this older part of the museum – especially out of the summer season. ‘Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military’ is one such sculpture.
Originally my project to describe, in detail, the magnificent examples of Socialist Realist Art that are embodied in some of the lapidars throughout the country has now expanded as I’ve encountered other incidences of the unique manner used in Albania in its attempt to impart the message of Socialism. Whereas some of these are truly monumental in all senses of the word, such as the Drashovice Arch, many others are, if not actually hidden, difficult to find unless you are looking for them or, as in this case, are directed towards it by a knowledgeable local. The emblem over what used to be the Headquarters of the Party of Labour of Albania, in the mountain town of Peshkopia in the north-east of the country, is one such example.
Many monuments, statues and lapidars from Albania’s Socialist period have suffered over the years, through outright political vandalism or just neglect. However, there has been a bit of a sea change in recent years but this has not come without its own problems. Here I want to develop the ideas of Albanian Socialist Realist art by looking at two works produced to commemorate the life of a young partisan woman, Liri Gero, and also a work in commemoration of 68 young women who also left their home town of Fier to join the partisans fighting the Fascist invaders.
Tucked away at the top end of Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli (Square) in the old part of Gjirokastra is a small statue which you could easily miss. Next to the potted plants in front of the Tourist Information Office is a white stone statue, of the upper body, of two women. This is a representation of Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima who were executed by the German Nazis in 1944. From that time they became known as the Hanged Women of Gjirokastra.
Although there are many monuments and statues that are overtly political, in that they commemorate events or people involved in national liberation struggles (whether that be against the Ottoman Empire or the Italian and German Fascists of World War Two) other aspects of Albanian life are also represented in various locations throughout the country. As Gjirokastra, in the Socialist period, had become the centre for periodic folklore festivals it’s not surprising to find a frieze depicting traditional musicians and dancers located there.
although he probably never left, just ‘hiding’ for a while.
Almost thirty five years after his death and thirty years since the reaction was able to gain control in Albania it is very difficult to come across public images of Enver Hoxha, the leader of the country for just over forty years. In the 1990s the reactionaries needed to personalise any difficulties in the country and someone who had been dead for five years was an ideal candidate – even to the extent that Comrade Hoxha was considered responsible for events that had happened after his death. So he had to disappear from view.
Albanian Socialist Literature
As of this time this is a very thin section. The hope is to include other examples in due course.
It wasn’t just in the plastic arts that Socialist Realism had a role to play in the construction of Socialism. Putting the role of the working class and peasantry in the forefront of all that happened in society, in the post, present and future, was also a task of writers of short stories and novels. For those interested in this aspect of Albania’s road to Socialism the various foreign language publications (especially the large format, monthly colour magazine, New Albania) provided translations from the Albanian language in English, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic. The story below appeared in New Albania, 1971, No 6.
Albanian folklore – music and dance
This is also, presently, a thin section. More will be added as material becomes available.
The article below, written by R Sokoli, first appeared in issue No 5, 1971 of the magazine New Albania. It is reproduced here (slightly edited) to aid a greater understanding of some of the works of art that were produced during the Socialist period (1944-1990) of Albania’s past. Although folklore hasn’t been totally abandoned in the present-day capitalist Albania traditional dress and culture don’t hold the same important role in Albanian society as in the past.
Post Socialist Albania
The counter-revolution in the 1990s destroyed virtually all the industry and seriously damaged the rail infrastructure. What ‘modern-day’ capitalist Albania produces, in spades, is religious buildings of all denominations – Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Islam. But what I find interesting in some of the paintings that line of the walls of these religious spaces, in particular the Roman Catholic variety, is the artistic link it has with the style of socialist realism.
Religion is interesting in Albania. Travelling around you can’t help but notice the new mosques and churches (both Catholic and Greek Orthodox) that are appearing everywhere. Whether there’s a real need for so many is debatable, I’ve hardly seen any evidence of what could be called a ‘religious revival’. However, the Catholic Church, in particular, is on the offensive and that can best be seen with the anti-Communist paintings in the Franciscan Church in Shkodër.
There doesn’t seem to be any money to improve the infrastructure in Albania but plenty for building churches and the new Resurrection of Christ Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana has taken a big chunk of that budget.
You think that when someone buys a soft toy or a blow up Tele Tubbie it’s destined for a baby or a young child. In Albania it could well be for another purpose. This is all part of the ‘tradition’ of the dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania.
Post-revolutionary points of interest
All post-Communist societies have a problem when it comes to history. The ruling capitalist and imperialist lackeys don’t want to remind the people of the time of Socialist construction – they might wonder why they ditched the socialist past in favour of the capitalist present which offers them little hope – unless you are one of those ‘lucky’ enough to have your snout in the corruption trough. That dilemma has resulted in a number of ‘interesting’ items about which I have written.
On Sunday 11th November 2012 the British Embassy organised a Remembrance service at the English Cemetery in Tirana Park, behind the State University, in the centre of the city. There were few people in attendance, as the English community in Tirana is relatively small, but included the British Ambassador and the Prime Minister of Albania, Sali Berisha.
Some building developers rub someone in authority up the wrong way and they find their building plans didn’t go quite as they expected.
What does Independence mean in Albania today?
Any visitor to the country will soon become aware of the schizophrenic approach the people and government have towards the idea of ‘independence’. Images of the 15th century national hero Skenderberg are everywhere. November 28th is still a national holiday as it celebrates independence from the Ottoman Empire. November 29th – which is the day of the liberation of the country from the fascists in 1944 – is not. Yet NATO troops and vehicles are more evident than the national army and the government does nothing of note unless it gets the green light from external capitalist masters. And like many others throughout Europe who call for ‘independence’ – such as the Catalans, the Basques, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish – Albania begs to become a member of the European Union. I find that a bit of a contradiction but these ‘nationalist’ groups don’t. For the ordinary Albanian they see membership as a lifeline and a means of getting an improved infrastructure, for those in real control it’s an opportunity to get their noses into the trough.
Today, the 28th November, Albania celebrates the 100th Anniversary of it independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The streets and buildings throughout the country are festooned with red bunting and representations of the black, double-headed eagle but how independent is Albania really?
For such a small country, in terms of geographic size and population – yet big in the sense of having taken on the challenge of the building of revolutionary socialism – Albania has two days on which it celebrates its independence. The first was from the Ottoman Empire on 28th November 1912 but by far the most important and significant is that of the 29th November 1944 – the date of true independence for Albania.
Foreign interference in Albania’s internal affairs
I have also, briefly, looked at efforts of capitalist nations (principally the United Kingdom) to undermine the construction of Socialism in Albania after the ending of World War II (the National Liberation War for the Albanians).
After liberating their country from the fascists Albanians were under continual external pressure from hostile government forces. At this time Albanian-British Relationships were at an all-time low. In not bowing down to this the Albanians were criticised for being ‘isolationist’ and ‘xenophobic’ whereas their actions were more a matter of survival.
Politics and ideology within International Communist Movement
Although a small country in the ‘socialist camp’ – when such an entity existed – the Albanian Party of Labour, and its leader Enver Hoxha, played a major part in the struggle against revisionism within the International Communist Movement. How this was fought out can be seen in the writings of Comrade Hoxha himself and it the material produced by the Party throughout its existence.
In July 1978 the Party of Labour of Albania published (in an open and public forum, that is, as a supplement to the July/August, No 4, edition of Albania Today) a letter which the Party had sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This letter was promoted by the sudden – though not totally unexpected – move of the Chinese to remove all support, materially, financially as well as personnel, from Albania, a country which, up to that time, had held the closest fraternal links with the much bigger Party, country and people.
Travelling in Albania
A number of posts provide some information for those travelling around various parts of the country. This includes information on transport as well as a number of specific locations.
One of the best ways into Albania is via the ferry from Corfu to Saranda in southern Albania. What follows is the practical information of what you need to know to make that process easy and – hopefully – trouble free.
One of the joys of travelling is the unexpected. Well, I suppose, many people have come across a form of the unexpected they would rather not have experienced but those unpleasant situations can happen in your own country. The unexpected that I’m talking about is the experience when something happens, something changes, something develops in a manner that was totally unforeseen at the beginning, but all ends up well.
I’ve done the Amazon, the Yukon and the Zambesi but you have to go a long way to beat the beauty and splendour of the Lake Komani ferry journey from the hydro-electric dam at Koman to the port of Fierza, on the way to the town of Bajram Curri – and it lasts for less than three hours.
An archaeological site that goes back almost 2500 years, Butrint has the imprint of both the Greek and Roman civilisations. Important for its location to both those cultures it was also pivotal under Venetian rule, its decline only really beginning after it fell to Napoleon’s armies at the end of the 18th century.
Syri I Kaltër, the Blue Eye is one of the natural attractions in the Saranda area in southern Albania, especially if you are not interested in the beach or are looking for a change. A visit here can also be put together with a day trip to Gjirokastra from Saranda.
After his death on 11th April 1985 Enver Hoxha was buried next to the Mother Albania statue in the Martyr’s Cemetery overlooking Tirana. However, the counter-revolution that took place in 1990 allowed his political enemies to take their revenge by denying him a place of honour in the country’s history and he was reburied in the main public cemetery of the city.
You have to admire the work that was expended and the organisation needed to construct the room and infrastructure for the illegal printing press that the Tbilisi (Tiflis) branch of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (which, after the October Revolution of 1917, eventually became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik)) created in the first years of the 20th century.
There’s a number of things to admire about this project that was in revolutionary use between November 1903 and April 1906.
First it was obviously a well thought through and planned project. The Georgian revolutionaries needed a printing press, they needed it well hidden from the Okhrana – the Tsarist ‘secret’ police – and they needed it to be open enough to allow the constant comings and goings that would be necessary for the printing and distribution of thousands of leaflets and pamphlets needed to spread the word of the young, revolutionary Marxist organisation in Georgia.
One remarkably bold enterprise of the Caucasian Union of the R.S.D.L.P., and an outstanding example of the Bolshevik technique of underground work, was the Avlabar secret printing press, which functioned in Tiflis from November 1903 to April 1906. On this press were printed Lenin’s ‘The Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry’ and ‘To the Rural Poor’, Stalin’s ‘Briefly About the Disagreements in the Party’, ‘Two Clashes’ and other pamphlets, the Party program and rules, and scores of leaflets, many of which were written by Stalin. On it, too, were printed the newspapers Proletariatis Brdzola (The Proletarian Struggle) and Proletariaiis Brdzolis Purtseli (Herald of the Proletarian Struggle). Books, pamphlets, newspapers and leaflets were published in three languages and were printed in several thousands of copies.
A decisive role in the defence of the principles of Bolshevism in the Caucasus and in the propagation and development of Lenin’s ideas was played by the newspaper Proletariatis Brdzola, edited by Stalin, the organ of the Caucasian Union of the R.S.D.L.P. and a worthy successor of Brdzola. For its size and its quality as a Bolshevik newspaper, Proletariatis Brdzola was second only to Proletary, the Central Organ of the Party, edited by Lenin. Practically every issue carried articles by Lenin, reprinted from the Proletary. Many highly important articles were written by Stalin. In them he stands forth as a talented controversialist, eminent Party writer and theoretician, political leader of the proletariat, and faithful follower of Lenin. In his articles and pamphlets, Stalin worked out a number of theoretical and political problems. He disclosed the ideological fallacies of the anti-Bolshevik trends and factions, their opportunism and treachery. Every blow at the enemy struck with telling effect. Lenin paid glowing tribute to Proletariotis Brdzola, to its Marxian consistency and high literary merit.
Second it needed meticulous organisation, the involvement of many people with different skills and abilities and – perhaps most important of all – a revolutionary unity and confidence which kept the real intention of the project away from an all pervasive and vicious secret police known to depend upon traitors, collaborators and agent-provocateurs to achieve their aims. And that’s just for the building of the structure.
There’s no way that the press could have been installed after the construction of the building itself – a large house that would have been on the edge of the town of Tiflis (now Tbilisi). The very complicated nature of access and also the size and location of the room with the printing press (as well as the printing press itself) meant that the space had to have been excavated under the cover of constructing the building’s cellar.
The extra work needed for the illegal aspects of the construction site would have needed to be monitored carefully. The building workers were almost building two buildings under the pretence of one but they would have had to have completed the work in the normal time it would have taken to construct one such house – otherwise people would have started to ask questions and suspicion would have been aroused, especially in a predominantly peasant society.
Third, there would have been the need for an not inconsiderable amount of money for such a large and complicated project – as well as a state of the art lithographic printing press, plus all the paper and materials needed once in operation. We must remember that we are here talking about industrial workers who were barely earning enough to feed themselves and their families. The finances for such a major enterprise would have never have been available without the introduction of finances from other sources. Banks had those finances and they assisted in the development of the revolutionary movement by contributing to the coffers by way of the intermediaries, Comrades Kamo (Simon Petrosian, whose bones you might walk over – between the fountain and the Pushkin bust – on the way to the Tourist Information Centre in Pushkin Park) and Koba (who used to share a room with VI Lenin in Red Square, Moscow, but who now has a niche in the wall of the Kremlin.
An idea of the complex project
Plan of the project
As can be seen by the plan above there was no direct access to the room of the press from the house. Looking at the diagram it would seem to me that much of the construction of the vaulted room of the press and the tunnels and shafts leading to the well shaft would have used access to what became the cellar/kitchen of the house itself. This would then have been filled in to give the impression of ground level. It’s possible that the present day access to the underground room would have been the place of access at the time of construction. So much soil and rock would have to have been removed that any other manner of excavation seems to hard to make sense.
The well and access to the room
The ‘access’ well
Once the building was finished and the press installed the only way to get to it was via the well, covered by a small hut a few metres south-east of the main building. This is a deep well as the builders had to go down more than 18m before reaching the water level. Access down this well would have been by a removable rope, I’m assuming, anything more substantial would have raised suspicions in the event of a raid by the Okhrana.
Just before the water level (at 17.5m) a tunnel was constructed at right angles to the shaft, 8m long back towards the building. Then a shaft 15m high was built up towards ground level. At 8m another, short tunnel was constructed to provide access to the underground room itself. (This shaft goes up another 7 or so metres after the tunnel – but I can’t work out why.) Along the whole length of this shaft a ladder was fixed to the wall. Both the tunnels at the top and bottom were high enough for a person to walk through if bent double. Now electric lighting has been installed but, presumably, in the early 20th century the only lighting would have been oil lamps or candles.
All the tunnels and shafts are brick lined and the tunnels are arched.
The underground room
The underground room – looking towards present day entrance
It’s a surprisingly large room if you think of the relatively narrow shafts and tunnels the Georgian Communists would have needed to negotiate to get there before starting work. I estimate the vaulted room to measure, roughly, 11m long, by 4m wide and 4m high – to the apex of the vaulted ceiling. This is large enough not to feel too claustrophobic to someone down there for a few hours.
But this isn’t the result of a group of amateurs. This is a well-made, professional construction. The floor is brick lined and the walls alternate with layers of brick and then large stone blocks cemented in place. The ceiling is a brick lined, barrel vault.
All that’s in the room now is a rusting-away, manually operated, lithographic printing press.
The press with the clandestine entrance
At the height of its use there would have been benches for the preparation of the plates, places for cutting the sheets for leaflets and folding and collating areas for pamphlets. I wouldn’t have thought it would have been possible to produce substantial books given the confines of the location but at the same time this location was constructed for the production of large scale, immediate propaganda and the aim would be to write the text, print and distribute in a relatively short time. More substantial books, such as some of the works of VI Lenin, would have been produced in commercial printing establishments outside of the country and then brought in illegally.
I can’t imagine this would have been the most healthy of places to have worked. Printing inks are, and have always been, quite toxic and there wouldn’t have been a great deal of ventilation in the cellar. I’m not aware of any through draft which could have taken the stale and chemical air out and bring fresh air in. The construction of a shaft to the ground above would have created a security threat as if stale air had a way to escape then so would noise.
Structurally, the tunnels, shafts and the room itself seem to be in remarkably good condition considering they have been neglected for most of the 117 years of their existence.
The Printing Press
The printing press
I wasn’t able to make out any manufacturers marks but I understand it is of a German make and was smuggled into the country in pieces. By all accounts it was state of the art machine at the time of its installation. Yet another expense that was ‘donated’ by the Tsarist state. By the beginning of the 20th century these presses could turn out thousands of copies relatively cheaply and from one plate.
The house above would have been a relatively wealthy but basic house at the time. The living area is up a few steps and on to a veranda which leads to two reasonably sized rooms. Now they are quite dirty, unorganized and nothing like they would have been at the time they were the cover for illegal revolutionary activity.
There are a number of pictures, plaques and the like of the revolutionary Marxist leaders, Marx, Lenin and Stalin as well as piled up books by those same leaders.
There’s also an interesting picture that gives the modern viewer an idea of how the underground room would have looked like when it was being used. No idea of when the picture was created but certainly long after the 1917 October Revolution and decades since the press printed in anger.
The press in operation
In the corner of one room (the one on the left) is an old, single bed – with a very lumpy mattress. Above this bed is a photo of Uncle Joe at about the age when the press was functioning. The guide will encourage you to have your picture taken, by him if you are alone, lying in ‘Stalin’s bed’. Here is another example of where tourism distorts history.
Any revolutionary who came to work on the press would not have stayed overnight in the house. That would have compromised security and put the whole of the project in jeopardy. And even though many of the leaflets and pamphlets would have been written by Uncle Joe he was not a printer and would have been in the way. Revolutionaries don’t always have to be able to carry out all tasks.
After April 1906
I haven’t been able to find out exactly why the press was abandoned in 1906. I can’t see that it was discovered by the Okhrana as I’m sure they would have destroyed the access shafts and tunnels – if not the whole of the building above. In the revolutionary movement there are always changes in trajectory, reaction becomes powerful for a period of time curtailing certain activities and then when circumstances become more favourable the revolution has moved on to other areas. The main focus of the Georgian Communists might have moved to other areas, for example Baku. Whatever the reason it wasn’t ever used again for its original purpose.
I’ve picked up a bit of information to indicate that it was opened as a museum in 1937 – probably at the time that Lavrenty Beria was in command of the Georgian Communist Party. That might have been when the present spiral metal staircase and new entrance to the underground room were created. Then the Great Patriotic War would have intervened.
Whatever might have been the fate of the building in subsequent years it now has no ‘legal’ status as a state museum and is showing serious signs of decay. The spiral staircase is a bit dodgy and the ladder that allowed access to the print room is rusting away in sympathy with the press itself.
Next to the house, on the right as the gates to the grounds are on the left, there’s a relatively modern, red brick building. This has a couple of ‘Hammer and Sickle’ images on the doors. This looks like it was, at some time in the past, a small museum to accompany the visit to the cellar. It looks derelict but I have no information if it is possible to enter. Having someone with Georgian/Russian language skills could possibly solve the problem.
There don’t seem to be any official opening times. The Guardian of the space seems to be there all the time during the day (and night). He doesn’t speak English but takes you to all the places and you can work out how matters stood over a hundred years ago.
There’s no entry charge as such but a tip of GEL10 seemed to be reasonably well received.
Location and how to get there by public transport
Arrive at 300 Argel Metro station. Leave the station and take the left, uphill. Take the second road right, towards the hospital, on Tsinandali Street (there’s a small bakery on the right, at the end of the street as you enter from the main road). Continue along this road, with the hospital on your left, to the end to arrive at a junction, going through two pillars of an entrance gate. Turn left, again uphill. This is Kaspi Street. Continue uphill, keeping to the left at another junction, and you will soon see a red brick building on the right. In the garden of the house with the press there are a couple of large plane trees. This is Kaspi Street 7.