For reasons that can only be guessed at you can’t look at a British newspaper, go to the BBC website or by looking for information about the Georgian town of Tskaltubo without coming cross articles, pictures or videos about the ruined health spa buildings (which were hugely popular in Soviet times and even after the so-called ‘collapse of Communism’) in the town.
It’s not that these buildings have been in the condition they are found today for a short period of time. They fell into disrepair when relations turned sour between Georgia and Russia over the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which led to open warfare in August 2008. The fighting war only lasted 5 days but the consequences have been around for much longer.
One of those consequences which has had a direct impact on the town of Tskaltubo was the use of the former spa resorts and hotels as homes for some of the thousands of refugees.
I don’t know exactly in what state these buildings, some of them huge and which had been the holiday home for hundreds in their heyday, were in the summer of 2008 but a refugee crisis that could have been handled with some sort of compassion seems to have been left totally to individual initiative and lacking any semblance of organisation.
By that I mean to imply that those who arrived first took what was useful to themselves and there was no communal approach to make the fullest – and most efficient – use of the structures of the former hotels.
Under the ideology of the Soviet Union (when it could still have been considered a Socialist state) the emphasis in such establishments would have been placed on the communal areas. This would have meant that the lower floors (including basements) would have been devoted to dining and concert rooms, general meeting areas and facilities for leisure activities (such as cinemas and theatres) and extensive kitchens to cater for so many people in a relatively short space of time.
It would have been on the upper floors where the bedrooms would have been found – but they were likely not all to have had en suite facilities (this was an invention even the likes of Britain took some time to adopt) and certainly no means of cooking.
Yet these were the spaces the refugees rushed to and which they then adapted to cater for the individualistic lifestyle they were attempting to establish. No doubt, in the process, any useful materials would have been looted from the communal areas below making them virtually useless at any time in the immediate future.
By all accounts there were many more refugees from the conflict in Tskaltubo than there are now but I visited at least seven of the old resort sanatoria which still had a substantial population in the autumn of 2019.
What dismayed me (but which the cretinous film crews and semi-professional photographers that have been swarming all over the place in recent times) was the very degradation and filth that characterises the communal areas. Some of this decay can be witnessed in the slide show a the end of this post. There could have been many more examples but I started to become both angry and depressed at recording such wanton vandalism and thoughtlessness that had made the living conditions of so many people so much worse.
I had the ‘opportunity’ of only visiting one person’s home – that of an old Abkhazian woman who tried to sell over-priced booze and cakes to any foreigner, like myself, who pointed a camera in the direction of the buildings. She was in the sanatorium I have called ‘It’s my business’ as I haven’t been able to discover its proper name and that was the phrase she used all the time during the few minutes I was in her ‘home’. I was given to believe that there are women like her in some of the other refugee occupied hotels.
It was truly sad to see how the fine entrance halls, staircases, dining and concert rooms – with decorated and vaulted ceilings – and the general communal areas had been allowed to arrive at such a state of filth and decay. Nothing that was considered communal was of consideration at all. This also meant there was no lighting in the entrances and stair wells meaning torches were a necessity once it got dark. Such a situation would do nothing in creating a feeling of safety and security
Wooden parquet flooring had been torn up, presumably to be burnt for cooking and/or heating. Anything of use on these lower floors – such as floorboards – had also been torn up leaving the surface below to degrade and in the process creating holes into the cellar. And the general lack of concern for an area that was ‘not their’s’ meant rubbish started to accumulate – and here I not just talking about historic rubbish but contemporary plastic drinks bottles. I suppose once the collective decision to live in shit has been accepted any more shit is neither here or there.
Broken water pipes and dangerous electrical wiring was everywhere and added to the build up of inflammable rubbish creating a haven for disease and vermin as well as storing up problems for the future.
The refugees from the 2008 war could have lived in relative luxury. They chose not to but to live in dirt and degradation.
But the Western European pricks with their expensive cameras and drones to provide an overall view of these once magnificent buildings don’t see anything other than an opportunity to demonstrate their cultural superiority.
But there’s also a political aspect of this highlighting of these sad ruins. Such a situation is always described with reference to the Soviet past implying that it was the Socialist system that was in some way responsible for the consequences of the present.
It is conveniently forgotten that even the Revisionist Soviet Union ceased to exist 30 years ago (and it hadn’t been a socialist country for more than 40 years before that), that in the years since the so-called ‘fall of Communism’ the ‘superior’ economic system of capitalism has singularly failed (as it could but not do) to resolve the ‘problems’ that existed under Socialism.
Even though the present Russian leadership and all its robbing hangers-on would have ended their days in a Siberian gulag at the time of Socialism they are considered to be tainted with the ‘evil’ of Communism. Any attack on Russia (as indeed is any attack on the now capitalist China – witness the way matters are being twisted over the management of the present (2020) coronavirus crisis when if it had broken out in the capitalist west free market economic forces would have prevented any effective measures to contain the outbreak – can anyone believe that any British government would put London in lock down?) has nothing to do with what policies they are pursuing at the present time but a propaganda effort to make sure that they get punished for being the first country that had the effrontery to challenge the capitalist system and establish a workers and peasants socialist republic.
And the targets for this denigration of any idea of establishing revolutionary socialism are the very people whose only long term guarantee of freedom from exploitation and oppression is the making of such a revolution – that is the workers and peasants of the world.
At the same time it has to be recognised that there are some very strange examples of how those people who had been brought up in a socialist system react to the environment around them when those systems (for various reasons) have collapsed.
Present day Albania is a prime example where the people seemed to have accepted the destruction of the very economic basis of their country for nothing in return. There’s a definable correlation between the vast migration of Albanians from their country to elsewhere in the world to the existence of an almost limitless number of abandoned and looted factories in the country. Added to that the division of the land into small plots virtually killed off a national agriculture.
But it isn’t just in the post-Communist countries that we see people destroying the vestiges of a past social system and reverting to a more basic economy. When the Roman Empire retreated from Britain in the 4th century the remaining Britons were incapable of taking any lessons from the invaders and reverted to a life style similar to what they had followed more than 400 years before. Lessons in hygiene and sanitation which the Romans had developed (of course only for a few) were forgotten and diseases related to such poor or non-existent sanitation were to kill millions in the subsequent centuries – cholera doing its worse well into the 19th century in Europe.
A look at some of the buildings, both those being now used as refugee accommodation and those that were visiting Soviet workers would visit to take ‘advantage’ of the curing radon infused waters and mud.
This is one of the newer buildings that make up the whole complex of Tskaltubo, i.e., constructed in the 1960s or 70s when demand for places at the spa town continued to rise.
As is the case in all the buildings the gardens and approaches immediately surrounding Aia hasn’t been cared for in years. The ground floor which housed the communal areas and dining rooms had been stripped of anything decorative and all you are left with is the bare concrete floors. Where it was coming from I don’t know but there was a lot of standing water. This water would have come from inside the building suggesting that the pipes (fresh water or sewage) are not in the condition they should be. I would also have thought a breeding ground for mosquitoes in the summer.
Aia also demonstrates something which is common in all the buildings, some of the finest dating back to the 1940s (or earlier), and that is the efforts to grab more living and storage space from the limited amount available. Many of the balconies had been blocked in with various scraps of wood or metal thus grabbing a few more square metres for the inhabitants.
Aia is basically a shanty town in the air.
Another common addition was the satellite dishes. I haven’t seen a great deal of Georgian television but I would be surprised if they are served up anything more edifying than the mind-numbing generic productions that dominate most country’s TV output.
As I was walking around this building the woman who directed me to the decoration in the old dining room also suggested that I go to the first floor where there was a woman who would sell the chacha and cake. Each building, it seems, has one.
The Tile Mosaics
Aia – Grape Harvest
I don’t know why but I was expecting more internal decoration in the hotels than was the reality. Previous to my visit to Aia I seen the facade of Spring No. 6 – which has the bas relief depicting a visit of Joseph Stalin to the town. Many of the older buildings do have the lavish use of marble, parquet flooring, chandeliers and a general feeling of opulence but there was no real presence of the Socialist Realist art that I was expecting. Apart from at Aia – where there are two examples.
The first is in the area that would have been the dining room where one wall is covered with colourful tiles depicting the whole of the wine growing process. In the centre, and by far the largest characters, are two young Georgian woman reminiscent of the statue of Mother Georgia in the hills above Tbilisi. There is some damage, some of it which looks deliberate, but considering the circumstances in which the mosaic has to cope it is in a surprisingly good shape. There’s no protection from the elements, the damp conditions can’t help and it can get cold in Tskaltubo in the winter.
There’s another tile mosaic high up on the wall that would have looked down on the hotel’s garden. This depicts musicians and dancers in traditional Georgia dress. Unfortunately, this has not fared as well as the one in the dining room, many tiles have fallen away and it also shows signs of serious staining and water damage.
This was one of the grand creations of the early days of Tskaltubo as a spa resort. Built slightly up the hill from the main park which was the location of the bath houses Imereti is a neo-classical structure – not the utilitarian of the later Aia.
To approach the main entrance the visitor had to go up a sweeping, double set of steps to arrive at an imposing facade. Once in the building the entrance hall has marble classical columns which direct the visitor to a wide and high staircase that would lead to the bedroom floors.
At one end there is a rotunda that housed a concert room with a vaulted ceiling and an internal circle of narrow columns, breaking up the space.
It would have been an impressive sight to a visiting Soviet worker. Now it’s a ruin in which no one should live – not even the cow that was feeding when I visited.
At the back of the building was a square where visitors would have congregated on warm summer evenings but now some of the space has been used as small vegetable gardens and the communal clothes washing area.
Sanatorium ‘It’s my business’
‘It’s my business’ Spa Hotel
Try as I might I haven’t (yet) discovered the true name of this building – hence the nickname based on the phrase used by the Abkhazian woman I met on my visit.
This is another of the really large and impressive early buildings. (Although I haven’t seen any dates for the construction of all the spa buildings a large commemorative urn that sits on a table in the main entrance to Spring No. 6 has pictures of many of the spas in Tskaltubo in full operation. The urn is dated 1961. The later Revisionist leaders of the Soviet Union went for utilitarianism rather than style.)
This takes its influence from early Italianate buildings, with large blocks of stone being used at the lower level and the square column topped towers that rise up on either side of the main entrance.
Apart from the ‘standard’ large communal rooms there are internal patios (with now derelict fountains) at the back together with roof gardens. Now all filthy with mould and overgrown with weeds.
It’s a long time since the lift in the main entrance was used and various side rooms are being used as plastic rubbish bins.
One interesting external decoration is the bas relief (I assume metal) high up on the east wall of the building, looking down on the terracotta mosaic of telephone workers.
This is one of the most impressive of the sanatorium which takes its architectural influence from the classical period. In a sense the area of the main entrance is purely decorative and serves little function. It’s more the impression the visitor got (and still gets – even though now in disrepair) when approaching the building.
The stone clad circular entrance has an external stair on either side which leads to a first floor colonnaded area. This is open on all sides and serves, really, no practical purpose. From here there is access to the main building but everything appears somewhat mundane after the initial reaction provided by the approach from the road. If this area does have any practical use it’s as a viewing platform of the area of the park and the hills around Tskaltubo.
As in some of the other hotels there are also patios and roof areas where visitors in the past would have enjoyed the summer warmth.
The not so interesting accommodation which is off to the left of the main decorative entrance is yet another that is being occupied by refugees. I can only imagine that the conditions on the lower floors are the same as in the places already mentioned. After a while it gets draining and depressing going into the different buildings to witness the same level of decay. It becomes even more depressing when you know that these are peoples’ homes and that some have been there for years and it seems an intrusion to constantly make a record of the squalor which surrounds them.
(I perhaps haven’t mentioned that there are a number of the old hotels which are completely empty of any refugees – or any other occupants with problems in finding a proper home – which are like blots on the landscape of the town. There is supposed to be an intention to develop some of these buildings but some are so huge and the clientele numbers will never reach anything like what was achieved during Soviet times that so many of these plans will remain pipe dreams.)
In front of Medea’s accommodation block there’s a small, circular fountain which is surprisingly deep considering there would have been many children in the area. Obviously this fountain is nothing more than a dirty, waterless hole now and the statues (of a young girl on an ‘island’ in the centre and four young, naked boys kneeling on the rim) are in reasonable, if not perfect, condition.
This is another building whose true name I have been unable to discover. It sits just outside the main park, in the north-west, beside the road that goes around the park. This one was, in fact, the first one I visited and it didn’t look that bad from a short distance, much of the building being shielded by the mature pine trees that separate the building from the road.
Once close up the same signs of decay mentioned before emerge. Like many of these hotels the entrances are impressive this one having a stone balustraded stairway on both sides of a small (now totally ruined) fountain, reached by a few flights of steps from the road.
The two storied building to the right of the entrance would have been the communal area and is a total ruin, to the extent that all the windows have been removed. On top there’s an open yet covered roof patio, again providing an outside area to enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Where there are people living they have followed the same practices as already mentioned. All of these buildings are architecturally unique but they have been reduced to the lowest common denominator by the addition of the makeshift additions and adaptations as well as the ubiquitous satellite dishes.
This is the sanatorium which is located furthest from the main park and the area of the baths but in many ways is one of the most attractive. There are not that many pictures of this building in the slide show as after I had squeezed my way through the corrugated sheets supposedly preventing access I didn’t have much enthusiasm to explore more.
I assume that this building would have been used to house refugees in the past but there is no one living there now. Added to that all the doors and windows have been removed so this might have been a tactic used by the local/national authorities to prevent the re-colonisation of these buildings when the previous inhabitants had either been rehoused somewhere more appropriate of had found an alternative themselves.
Unique in its design it has hexagonal stairwells at various points along the facade which are surmounted by small columned, hexagonal towers. The main entrance door is very distinctive in that it is under a very tall columned loggia, which extends two floors in height.
The ground floor entrance and the beginning of the main staircase is also in a better condition than many, much of the blue paint of the walls remaining as well as the plaster work on the ceiling being in a good condition. Probably why it has appeared in most articles about these sad buildings.
Spas, Springs and Baths
As well as the hotels a number of the spas, that are predominantly located in the central park, have also fallen into disrepair. These are in a different category to the hotels and resorts that were used to house refugees after the Russian-Georgian conflict. Tensions between the two countries increased, the spas and bath-houses that were built to cater to thousands were receiving fewer and fewer visits and after the war there was no where for them to stay.
Present day visitors can still take the water (and mud) treatments in Springs No. 1, No 3 and No 6. Numbers 1 and 3 are relatively modest buildings where Spring No. 6 is a much larger and grander structure. It is also the Spa that contains the extremely luxurious spa that Stalin used on his visits to the town.
Spring No. 4
Spring No. 4
There’s not a great deal that can be said about Spring No 4. It’s a one level, square building, probably built in the 1950s but today (of all the buildings from the glory days of the Soviet Union) it is the most difficult to enter and it is protected by substantial locked gates. Whether it is hiding some particular gem I have yet to discover. It can be found at the northern end of the park, close to the Palace of Sport.
Spring No. 5
Spring No. 5
Spring No. 5 is a little bit more decorative that No. 4 – probably indicating it was built some years earlier.
As I type this I start to think that probably the change in the architectural styles indicate the the simpler, concrete structures, of both the hotels and the spas, were part of Khrushchev’s attack on the Socialist developments that were achieved under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. The magnificent Metro stations that were in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad also started to become more mundane and ‘normal’. This change in approach started very soon after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (of 1956) where Khrushchev – in a secret speech – denounced the great Marxist-Leninist leader of the party and implicitly all that had been achieved in the years since 1917.
The words Khrushchev and culture didn’t, and still don’t, really belong in the same sentence. He had no concept that what was produced for the workers and peasants should have been as good, well constructed and attractive as – or even better – than that produced for the wealthy. But he was a mere manager and started the thinking in the Soviet Union that was to soon lead it to revert to being a bastion of capitalism – even when under the name of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.
It’s the largest of the abandoned springs and is second only to number 6 in size. The impressive loggia over the front, principle entrance is its main attraction but the large, individual tile faced baths which shoot off from the main corridor indicate it was a centre for water treatment.
Spring No. 8
Spring No. 8
Spring No. 8 is another interesting construction. Probably from the late 1950s it’s a low, one level, circular building which doesn’t seem to have a special entrance. In the middle of the concrete ceiling there would have been a large glass dome (long gone), both bringing in natural light and the heat when the sun was shining.
The very layout and decoration of this building indicates to me that it was designed for children. They could play in the warm waters, supervised, whilst their parents might have been having treatment for whatever their medical ailment might have been.
Tskaltubo’s Springs and Sanatoria
Click on image to download a much larger pdf version
Avtozavodskaya Metro station – now on Line 2 – was one of the seven stations completed during the anti-Hitlerite War and was opened on 1st January 1943. It’s original name was the Stalin Works Station, after the armaments factory that was above ground at that time. This name was changed in 1956 as part of the campaign against Socialism. Avtozavodskaya translates as ‘Car factory’.
Often the art work inside the Metro stations had a relationship with the area that the station served. In 1943 this area was one of heavy industry and some of the images reflect that fact. As time goes by areas change their use and importance in the economy of the country – especially in Russia as so much fell apart with the chaotic destruction of the Soviet Union. This creates a certain disconnect from the immediate area but the art can give pointers to the past.
It’s also common for there to be military references in those stations completed during the years of the Great Patriotic War as a way of increasing awareness of the need for the people to bear in mind the dangers the country was facing. There’s a permanence with the military references in the Soviet Metro stations but this would have been mirrored in the London Underground with its ‘public information’ (the British don’t use ‘propaganda’) posters.
All the Moscow Metro stations are bright but Avtozavodskaya is even more so as the columns are narrow and there are no walls between the central corridor and the two platforms. Together with the light bouncing off the tiles and marble that was used in the construction this means that when you come off the escalator you enter a large, bright and airy space, not really what you expect underground. According to the architect’s wife he got his inspiration from reading a book about plants whilst at the same time listening to Bach’s music.
On the Platform
On the platform level there are eight, long, narrow mosaics and four square stone bas reliefs – four and two on each side respectively. Between the bas reliefs there’s an empty space. This is the result of political vandalism that probably goes back to the latter part of the 1950s. If there’s nothing on show now then it almost certainly had a reference to Comrade Stalin, perhaps a mosaic with a meeting with workers, a Party celebration or perhaps, as the station was completed during the war, a reference to Stalin’s role in that war. Whether whatever was there was removed and destroyed or merely covered up I have no idea. There must be photographic records of the stations at the time of their opening but these remain elusive.
The Eight Mosaics
During wartime virtually all industrial production is given over to those products which support the war effort and for that reason half of the mosaics depict industrial scenes. Whereas the others show aspects of industry in general this one shows a tank production line – this could possibly be the famous T-34.
In the centre, and dominating the scene, are three, large completed tanks. In the foreground, to the side of the tanks are two groups of workers who are in the process of assembling the chassis of the next generation of tanks. In each group there are two men and one woman, all carrying out the same type of work. Three of the men are using hydraulic bolting tools. This indicates that women were working in industry in an equal capacity as the men, showing how the society had developed in just a generation.
Before the Revolution Russia was just a peasant economy with little industrialisation. That all changed with the rapid development of agriculture and industry in the 1930s. Without that development the Soviet union wouldn’t have been able to confront, and finally defeat the invading Nazis. At the time the mosaic was created the tanks would have been driven out of the factory and then immediately sent to the front.
The growth of industry would not have been possible without the mechanisation and collective reorganisation of agriculture – in fact the development of one depended upon the development of the other. The next mosaic shows a scene from the countryside at harvest time at either a large collective or State farm.
In the centre we see the level of mechanisation with a tractor (with caterpillar tracks) pulling a combine harvester and a lorry alongside to collect the separated grain. Also to show how the role of women had changed since the Revolution a woman is operating the harvester. There’s another harvester slightly behind and to the left of the main subject – this one operated by a man, indicating the interchangeability of roles in the new society.
On the right hand side there’s a man and woman in conversation. She is holding, and reading from a sheet of paper. he is dressed in overalls and holds a wrench in his right hand. At their feet is a set of wheels. He is almost certainly a mechanic, a necessity in the countryside to keep the machinery in working order – especially at the busy time of harvest. She could well be a Brigade leader going through the progress of the jobs he has been allotted or telling him what he should do next.
Here it’s important to stress that it was only in the Soviet Union, at this time, where women were in positions of responsibility and authority. I’m not saying that complete equality existed in the Soviet Union in the 1940s but at least there was an effort to create such a situation. It took the capitalist west more than a generation to get even close.
On the left hand side is a small group of three, two men and a woman. One of the men is much older, with a white beard and wearing glasses. He is not dressed for working in the fields as he is dressed in a white suit. He’s inspecting the ears of the corn which is in the sheaf that the woman is holding. He would be a scientist checking the quality of the harvest. The third member of the group is a younger man, taller than the older man, dressed in farm clothes and sporting a black mustache. He’s looking on the inspection process awaiting for the verdict.
The whole scene is a reference to the way in which Soviet agriculture had to advance. It was bringing mechanisation and industry to the countryside together with advances in science to ensure a bountiful and healthy crop. This is the basis for modern agriculture and was a million miles away from the feudal level of agriculture before the Revolution.
The next scene is of a busy commercial quayside – almost certainly not Moscow – which is a hive of activity.
The centre of the panel is the background, across the dock from the quay on which the people are standing. Here we see a large crane in the process of loading (or unloading) a cargo ship, whose mast is right of centre. Behind is the outline of quayside warehouses and on the right there’s steam billowing out from an electricity station cooling tower.
On the right hand side the background is created by the black stern of a large ship that’s tied up to the dock. There are what looks like two chains coming down from the (unseen) deck of the ship to two bollards on the dockside. This is strange as you would never tie up a ship, of whatever size, with chains. I can only surmise that the artist knew nothing about the actuality of a port and guessed at what would have been used. There’s no problem with artists (and intellectuals) not knowing the facts, it’s another that no one sought to enlighten him/her.
Standing on the quay in front of this ship are two people, a man and a woman, involved in fishing. He is still dressed in his oil skins and is holding up a large fish in both his hands. He’s smoking a pipe. The woman is bent over emptying a large basket of fish on to the quay at the same time as looking at the fish the man is holding as if to say ‘It’s been a good catch’. At the extreme right hand edge a number of barrels are stacked and I would think this is for the salted fish that would have been the main way that fish was preserved in the 1940s. Laying parallel to the bottom of the panel is a large fish – this will almost certainly be a sturgeon, long time associated with Russia (for its caviar).
On the left hand side a group of three men are in the process of loading barrels on to a lorry. The man at the rear of the vehicle is guiding a barrel, which is hanging from the hook on a cable from an unseen crane, on to the flat back of the truck. To his left the other two men are in the process of connecting another barrel to the hoist line.
The man on the left is older, is dressed in a white suit (a bit inappropriate for dock work I would have thought) , is wearing a cap and holds the hook end of the loose line in his hands. The other man, to his right, is standing behind a barrel ready to help him connect the line. All the three men are wearing large, white protective gloves.
Behind the lorry, and on the edge of the quay, are what could be bales of rope. On the extreme left hand side of the panel is a small stack of sacks, waiting to be loaded on to the next truck, perhaps.
Behind this scene a small, two-masted sailing boat is in the process of coming into the picture.
There are flames everywhere in this scene from a foundry. On the right hand side we see two men guiding a large crucible of molten metal, hanging from an unseen gantry crane. which they’ve just taken from the furnace, the metal giving off a glow at the top. They are taking this over to the left hand side where two other men are in the process of pouring metal into a cast. With large casts the process has to be continuous and organisation is the key. At the cast you can see the white stream of metal leaving the crucible and the whole process is being supervised by a woman who is on the other side of the cast to the men. She is wearing protective googles and a hat but otherwise seems to be wearing ordinary clothes.
The only other person in the scene is a woman who is standing in the middle, between the activity of casting. In her hand she is holding a small piece of testing equipment. It’s close to her eye as if she is looking through a small glass window to inspect whatever is inside. There’s a small hopper at the top of this device which would allow the insertion of what she wants to test. In a foundry everything depends upon the quality of the sand and the moulds into which the metal is poured and I assume that it’s somewhere along the line of this testing process that is her responsibility. She has a clip board tucked under her left arm and she is wearing ordinary working clothes.
There’s a nice little touch at this point in the mosaic. As I’ve said there are flames all around and what the artist has done is to give her a shadow so to her right is a larger silhouette of herself.
The next mosaic is another industrial scene – this time in an assembly shop. On the right a woman is riding on an early electric fork lift bringing in a container of links for the production of caterpillar tracks. This appears to be an assembly shop for small tracked vehicles, putting these tracks together seems to be what is happening on the left hand side. The size of the tracks are far too small for military use so it’s likely that this part of the factory is making agricultural equipment – as important in the war effort as armaments.
It’s difficult to work out what’s the two men in the centre are doing but it’s obviously another process in the production line. This is only one small part of a very much larger factory as can be seen from the large presses in the background.
Forge and Pressing Shop
We are in another part of the factory for the next mosaic – this looks like the pressing shop. On the right hand side a man is taking a long, heavy piece of metal from the furnace, looking over to his left to see if they are ready for the next piece to process. He grabs the white-hot metal with a long pair of tongs, the weight of the metal being born by a rod that hangs down from a pulley system.
In the centre two men are in the process of the initial shaping of another piece of metal, standing in front of a hammer press which gives the metal close to its final shape. The metal still being hot from the furnace the sparks are flying in all directions. One of the men, on the right, is wearing goggles whilst the other, his right hand holding the long tongs, uses his left hand to hold a welders mask in front of his face. The man on the right seems to be holding a hose which is directed to where all the sparks are flying. Is this a jet of air? i don’t know enough about these processes to be able to say.
The other worker, on the far left, is working alone at another, perhaps smaller press. The metal is still white but it’s shape is now more defined, getting closer to its required format. Standing slightly facing the viewer we can see that he wears full protective gear and goggles.
So here the artist has sought to present three stages of the pressing process. Perhaps these are meant to be the presses seen in the background of the assembly shop.
The Red Air Force
Most of a Soviet twin engine medium bomber dominates the mosaic that refers to the Red Air Force. We know it’s a Soviet plane by the large red star on the tail fin. It’s possibly an Ilushin Il – 4 or a Tupolev Tu – 2.
Standing behind the wings are two airmen (of a three man crew), one with a map in his hands as if they are discussing the upcoming mission. They are possibly the pilot and navigator.
The bomb bays are open and two of the ground crew are loading large bombs by way of a hoist into the aircraft. Standing at the front of the plane, looking up into the air with a pair of binoculars, is possible the third member of the crew – the gunner.
In the background is another bomber sitting on the apron and looking underneath the belly of the aircraft can be seen a truck.
The Red Navy
The last of the mosaics commemorates the Red Navy and is a very busy picture. In the background, and taking up the full length of the mosaic is a large battleship in full steam – with smoke coming out of its twin funnels and creating significant waves. There’s a red flag flying from the bow with a large golden star.
Dwarfed by the battleship a small, two man speedboat is racing alongside, its bow up out of the water. There’s a red flag from both the bow and the stern.
On the right of the scene two men appear to be on the top of a coning tower of a submarine. One is already in place and is sending a semaphore message. His comrade is climbing up the steps to join him.
On the left hand side, in the foreground, are three sailors at a bow gun on yet another ship. One of them has a shell cradled in his arms and is about to push it into the open breach. The second sailor is looking ahead as if to work out the settings to make on the gun. Another sailor stands behind the gun but we only see parts of his uniform.
A couple of things stand out in these mosaics. One is that the skill of the artist is such that all the faces are distinctive and unique. You get an idea of what they are thinking as they carry out their tasks. Another is that women were always represented in an equal manner apart from those images which show the armed forces. Women did take an active and front line role in the Great Patriotic War (I’m not too sure about the Navy) but very often in women only squads.
Four Bas Reliefs
The bas reliefs are divided equally into rural and industrial scenes but one thing that unites them is the way they have been constructed. They are very large (I can’t say exactly as they are high up and on the other side of a railway track) but instead of being carved on to one piece of stone they are very much like a jigsaw puzzle – but a puzzle that has different sizes of blocks each time.
Socialist Realist Art is not always realistic. It’s a way of telling a story about the life of the workers and how they are attempting to build a new society. It’s an art form which places workers and peasants at the centre of public images which does not exist anywhere outside of those societies that have made a revolutionary change to the previous exploitative and oppressive society. And we have an example here which introduces unreality into a Socialist Realist image.
The male kneeling is in the process of servicing an aircraft piston engine, the engineer standing on the right hand side is making notes on a clip board. The hook at the top is ready to take the engine for repair. But in 1943 how many Muscovites would have known where the engine came from? How could they relate to an important part of the defence of their city and country?
That’s easy. Add a couple of men dressed in pilots uniforms and give one of them a propeller which is taller than himself. It’s not very sophisticated but it’s no more strange than Catholic martyrs being depicted with the instruments used in their death. And there’s nothing strange in works of art being produced in a Socialist society which bears the hallmarks of the old society, including its religious imagery. I discussed this in the post about the statue by Odhise Paskali (Shoket- Comrades) in Permet Martyrs’ Cemetery.
Until a new form of art, which has been able to develop outside of the influences of capitalism, then Socialist art will always exhibit aspects, tropes, of that old society. It may look strange but that is all part of the development of ideas and how those ideas can be communicated in a way that ordinary people can understand and appreciate. We must remember that the Constructivists, at the beginning of the 1930s, moved into design and away from painting because ‘paintings could not be understood by the masses’.
This is another harvest scene – but it’s difficult to work out which part of the vast Soviet Union the scene is set. I thought perhaps in the Ukraine – as the bread basket of the country – and then Georgia – due to the connection with Joseph Stalin. But couldn’t come to a definite conclusion. The head-dress of the young woman on the right is quite distinctive as are the boots of the woman on the left.
This is the harvest as the woman on the left is dragging a sheaf of grain in both her hands and the woman on the right is plucking fruit from a tree and has a basket of fruit balanced on her right shoulder. One of the children is ‘helping’ the other looks bemused – as does the young foal in the centre of the image.
Life in the Tundra
This is another rural scene but this time from the tundra. But I’m not sure how to interpret what we see. On the far right we have a young woman who’s holding a somewhat struggling goose. Sh’e got a grip of the goose’s left wing under her arm but the goose’s right wing is flapping and fluttering above and in front of her face. She’s also dressed in light summer clothing, as is the little girl at her feet.
The man appears to be putting on a heavy winter animal skin coat and is half dressed for different seasons. When we go further to the left both the woman and the small child (are they the same as on the right but at a different time of year?) are dressed for the harshest of winters, complete with a reindeer.
Finally, we have another industrial scene – a little bit more straightforward than the first bas relief, but only a little bit. Here we seem to have different aspects of production brought together but with little clue as to how they fit together.
Of the two central characters the one standing is dressed in a suit and is using a set of dividers on a sheet of paper that’s resting on the knee of the man sitting. This could be a designer explaining to one of the workers what the nature of the task he is asking him to carry out.
On the right hand side we have a standing worker who is dressed in the same sort of protective gear we saw in the mosaic about the foundry – together with the large tongs to be able to manoeuvre the white-hot metal.
On the left hand side there’s a female worker cradling a cannon shell in her arms so that indicates that the action is taking place in an armaments factory.
There is a tenuous connection between the mosaics and the bas reliefs but I don’t think that in Avtozavodskaya the connections had been fully thought through. There is much more of a unified theme in many of the other stations.
The more I look at these bas relief the less I like them – a shame when there are so many wonderful examples on the Metro network in general.
At the top of the escalators
The Defence of Moscow
The large mosaic at the top of the escalators is very different, in many ways, from those that run alongside the platforms below. The materials that make up the mosaic are different; here they are much larger pieces of cut stone, which covers a range from brown through to green and on to yellow. The feel is also different in that this is one of celebration, the celebration of the end of the blockade of Moscow (that lasted from October 1941 to January 1942) and the beginning of the counter-attack which would eventually lead to the destruction of the Hitlerite forces in their own lair in Berlin in May 1945.
I have no idea of the artist of this mosaic – it’s certainly not Frolov, he would have been trapped in Leningrad when the decision was made to create this celebratory work of art and it’s so very different in style from his other designs in the station.
The design is on two planes. In the foreground we have the Russian Red Army. In the centre, coming straight at the viewer, with its gun barrel pointing at you, is an almost life-size depiction of a tank.This is quite probably one of the many versions of a T-34 tank – the most produced and most successful tank of the Second World War (although the drivers gun should be on the right hand side at the front). However, this tank is not in fighting action, more as part of a celebratory parade as the central figure of three who is standing on top of the tank is saluting.
Presumably he’s the tank commander and on his right, slightly behind, is another tank crew member, wearing the classic Russian ribbed tank helmet. In his hands he holds a gun of some kind (a little indistinct) and he is looking over to his right. Below him, and on the cowling over the right hand caterpillar track, is another soldier behind a heavy, wheeled, machine gun. This is probably a PM M1910 Maxim Machine Gun. (This weapon seems to have had an even greater longevity that the AK47 Assault Rifle – having been produced first in 1910 and versions reported to have been seen in the Ukraine in 2017.)
To the left of the commander is another soldier, facing forward and probably not from the crew, who has the butt of his long rifle – with bayonet attached – resting on the cowling over the tracks of the tank. He’s wearing a greatcoat and has the straps of a dispatch pouch, which rests on his left hip, across his chest. It’s possible to make out a star on the front of his fur hat. To his left is another soldier, kneeling with one knee on the cowling of the tracks, and in his hand he holds a tommy gun – the circular ammunition magazine clearly seen. He also has a star on his hat.
On either side of the principal tank are two other tanks with their gun barrels fanning out. Here we move away from the idea of a celebratory parade and get the impression that these weapons are ready to cover all areas in defence of their city and State capital. There are no people seen on these defensive tanks.
And what they are defending is the city of Moscow. Whereas the tanks and soldiers were in yellow and brownish stone the city itself, in the background, is constructed of gradations of green stone. We know it’s Moscow as three of the iconic towers of the Kremlin are shown with their distinctive red stars. Those stars, lit up at night, still shine to this day. During Soviet times the ‘Hammer and Sickle’ was attached to the stars but unfortunately they have been removed now. The other towers in the image have flags flying from their summits.
Kremlin Star with Hammer and Sickle
In the centre of this representation of Moscow is a strange figure. Merging into the buildings is the upper torso of what looks like a warrior from the 16th century as we have a mustachioed and heavily bearded face and he wears a Turban helmet on his head. Although no hand is visible a large spear is on his left side, the point extending as high as the stars on the Kremlin towers. To make matters even more strange this figure is saluting, mirroring the action of the (smaller) tank commander below.
I can only guess who this is supposed to be. My suggestion is that this is a representation of Tsar Ivan IV ‘The Terrible’. He fits into the time scale and he had a relationship with Moscow (as ‘Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533-1547, before he became Tsar and it was in this period that the St Basil’s Cathedral – the multi coloured, domed building at the end of Red Square – was built). But why he should make an appearance in a celebration of a victory by revolutionary workers and peasants I don’t know.
If many of the thousands of travellers who pass through this station don’t notice ‘The Defence of Moscow’ mosaic before jumping on to the escalator down to the platform even fewer will be aware of the large ceiling mural that covers most of the area above the vestibule.
It is a circular design with a sun effect, offset from the centre, which has lines radiating out in all directions. Cupping underneath the sun is the arc of a huge sickle which is made up by different red coloured, parallel sheaves of grain, the staggered heads creating the serrated effect found in most representations of the peasantry in the Soviet emblem. The handle of the sickle is made up of a combination of a maize cob, some more sheaves of corn (flowering) and a sunflower head.
Passing underneath the sickle, close to the handle, and also in red is a large hammer – the representation of the proletariat. This is a geometric presentation of industry with symbols for electricity (the zigzag design and a couple of insulators), coal mining (a couple of underground trucks), girders, cogs and diagrammatic representations of different machinery.
Just above the ‘sun’ and close to the edge of the main design is a large red, five-pointed star – the symbol of Communism. If we go clockwise from that star we come across different aspects of Soviet society, related to work, leisure and science, all in a simple, basic (even primitive) style.
First there’s an oval sports stadium. from inside this structure a very tall flag pole emerges and it flies a flag with the letters ‘CCCP’ (USSR). Below the stadium is another symbol I haven’t yet been able to work out.
Continuing around next are a couple of male football players, tackling each other for the ball just in front of a goal mouth, part of the net is shown in blue. Below the lower player there are three flowers in front of what might be the outline of a building.
The other side of the handle of the sickle is a large building which might be a school or a Palace of Culture – it’s certainly not anything to do with industry. The building has a large main entrance with steps coming up from street level. There are clouds in the blue sky and to the left of the building there’s a tall tree, and below that are a couple of smaller shrubs. Scattered around the grass in front of the building are numerous flowers. In the bottom corner of this sector is a mask, a common symbol used to denote theatre in general so whether this is suggesting that the building is a theatre or reinforcing the idea of the arts I’m not sure.
The next segments introduce the world of work and industry, more specifically the production of automobiles – which gives the present name to the station. I can’t work out exactly what is happening in the first bit but it seems to me all part of the production line process. The first man seems to be moving things on the line and in the second segment two men are moving a completed internal combustion engine on to a chassis. Next we have a man and a woman beside a milling machine. He seems to be holding a piece of paper in his hand, perhaps the design specifications for the piece of work she is about to create. She is on the point of putting on safety goggles indicating that she is the skilled person to be doing the work – again an example of how advanced the Soviet Union was (even in its Revisionist stage) in moving towards equality between the workers – not perfect but at least heading in the right direction.
That’s the scene inside the factory the next image is of the exterior of the factory, with its smoking chimneys, the smoke being blown in the wind.
The story then moves on to scientific advances. A male is sitting at a what looks like an early computer control console. In his left hand he holds a board, perhaps with data he’s inputting or a series of instructions. This might be a reference to the nuclear industry as the next symbol is one of those for nuclear energy, with three protons circling around a neutron. On the edge of the circle is a meter so this could well be a Geiger-counter.
Finally, as we come almost full circle, we come to the exploration of space. Following the curve of the circle we have the trail of the launch of a rocket (in red). This trail bisects the atmosphere between that of space and the Earth’s. In the darkness of space we see a satellite and crossing between the two we see a capsule returning to Earth, with its parachute deployed to slow it down in the heavier atmosphere. In the background are the stars.
There’s little text in this image but what is there declares the aims of Socialism; CBOБOДA (Liberty), PABEHCTBO (Equality), БPATCTBO (Fraternity) and CУACTЪЮ (Happiness). Also on some of the red lines that swirl around the space around the design can be seen the word MЍP (Peace).
It’s difficult to date exactly this design. It looks to have been heavily influenced by the designs of the likes of Andrey Gulobev and Daria Preobrazhenskaya, who both worked in textiles, in the early 1930s. Looking at the state of the technology I would guess at the late 1970s. The Moscow Summer Olympics took place in 1980 and with the messages in the text it would make sense that this, relatively new addition to the decoration of the station, was created in readiness for this event with many foreign visitors using the Metro.
Avtozavodskaya station plaque
In many of the older and impressive stations there will be a plaque giving information about when the station was opened and who was involved in the construction. These plaques are normally found at the bottom of the escalators to the platforms.
In Avtozavodskaya we know it opened on January 1st 1943 and that it had a name change – as stated at the beginning. Also the architects were Alexey Dushkin and N Knyazev. Dushkin (24th December 1904 – 8th October 1977) also worked on Kropotkinskaya (1935), Ploshchad Revolyutsii (1938), Mayakovskaya (1938) and Novoslobodskaya (1952) as well as the Red Gates Administrative Building (1953) – one of what are known as ‘The Seven Sisters’, the huge buildings which sour into the sky in the centre of Moscow which were built after the war. I’ve not been able to find out anything about Knyazev.
The mosaics were created by a V Frolov. I think this must be Vladimir Alexandrovich Frolov (1874, St. Petersburg – 1942, Leningrad) as he is the only Frolov mosaic artist I have identified. If this is the case then he would have died (of starvation in the 872 day Siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War) before the work was completed. This would be possible as plans for the construction and the decoration would have been made long before the actual opening of the station. Whether he ever saw any of his designs in actuality is unlikely but it’s almost certain he never saw the completed art work.
When I first started to investigate the history of the Moscow Metro I thought that all of the early stations were built well underground. That’s not the case. Why I don’t know – as yet. Especially as this station would have served the workers of an important armaments factory.
The bas reliefs and mosaics of the Vlora Palace of Sport
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 Palace of Sport (now the home of the town’s basket ball team, Flamurtari – the same name as the football team whose home ground is in the long-established stadium less than a hundred meters from the hall) is located at the bottom end of Rruga Sadiki Zotaj, the main street running from north to south through the town, at Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square). Although the facade, and the square in front of it, has had some cosmetic work done in recent years the money seems to have run out for any further modernisation of the interior of the main entrance. For this reason, to the casual visitor, the building looks abandoned – like so many public buildings dating from the 1970s and 80s – with graffiti scaring the white paint work and entrance to the court is now at the back of the building.
Flamurtari signifies ‘flag bearer’, not in the personal sense but in the figurative sense. Vlora ‘prides’ itself as being the town where formal independence was declared in 1912, hence the very large monument to the event at the northern end of the main street. So it’s the town that is the standard-bearer. This was emphasised during the time of Socialism but now gets formal acceptance by most of the so-called ‘democratic’ political parties whilst they preside over the very real giving away of that very independence so hard-fought for. For the workers and peasants the day of true independence was achieved on 29th November, 1944, when the Fascists were defeated throughout the country. That celebration is now sidelined and ignored by the bourgeois parties as it would mean a recognition of the role of the Communist Partisans in the National Liberation War.
The Bas Reliefs
Southern Bas Relief
Of the two the bas-relief in the best condition is the on the southern face of the building, on the right as you look at the main entrance. This is probably solely down to the fact that it looks down upon one of the expensive bars attached to one of the hotels that are mushrooming throughout the country. The bas-relief is high up and as with all such of the Socialist period it tells a story.
Starting from the bottom we have a number of athletes taking part in various sports, both representing sport in general as well as some of the activities that would have taken place in the building. On the extreme left is a male in the act of about to throw a discus. Next are two males wrestling. These images represent those sports that were practised in classical antiquity to date.
Matters are brought up to date with the next images of two females. One is in the act of leaping to throw the ball, clasped in both her hands, into an unseen netball ring. Her opponent is also leaping, her right arm high above her head, in an attempt to prevent the goal.
Next in line is a return to antiquity with a male with his back to us. His right arm is stretched behind him and in his right hand the he holds the shaft of a javelin. He is running forward and the tension can be seen in his body as he is just about to put everything into his throw. Finally, amongst this group, we have another female facing towards the back of the building. She has her arms outstretched, her right leg raised and bent at the knee whilst she stands on her toes on her left. The element of grace in this image indicates that she is a gymnast, following a floor exercise.
There is a suggestion of gender difference here as the males are involved in trials of strength whilst the women are following those sports which in the past were considered more appropriate for females.
This traditional idea is challenged somewhat in the image above the first group. Here we have a group of ten runners, seven male and three female. The fact that the two genders are introduced in the same race seems to indicate that here is represented something akin to the modern-day marathons where gender plays no role in the entry qualifications. It also represents athletics in its purest and most basic, running needing no special equipment – despite what the sports manufacturing companies spend a fortune in promoting.
The three women are at the back of the group and for some reason one of them is actually looking backwards. As they are all running at full pace this is difficult to explain. The only time an athlete would be looking backwards would be at the time of changeover in a relay race but this doesn’t make sense here.
The idea of any gender difference gets blown out of the water in the final panel on the left hand side of this bas-relief. Here we have a group of five standing males (with their left legs forward) and four kneeling females (their right knees on the ground, the foot being bent, whilst the left leg is bent at the knee and the foot firmly place on the ground for stability) all in the act of firing, or about to fire, their weapons. The rifles are pressed against their shoulders, their left hands on the barrel and their right fingers on the trigger.
The figures are presented in a row, the one behind slightly in front of the one before, the symmetry of their stance being demonstrated by the left legs of the males stepping forward and the left, bent, leg of the females. This all gives an impression of depth on a flat plane.
As is almost always the case in Albanian Socialist Realist Art there is an indication that Socialism is something that represents all the people, from whatever part of the country they might come call their homeland, whether they be peasants or workers. The male closest to the viewer is dressed in the jacket and hat that is most associated with the mountains. He also seems to have a brez (a wide cloth belt) around his waist, as seen on the statue of Bajram Curri in the northern town which bears his name. We only really see the heads of the figures behind the first but all the faces are different and they all display different characteristics but it’s not easy to define ethnicity. What can be seen is that two of the others are wearing caps, the last two being bare-headed.
From the images of the women we can get no idea of their background, all of them being dressed in what, at the time, would have been, more or less, the uniform of the militia. This, for women, meant a step away from tradition as although it might be very attractive in its own right such clothing was not entirely practical for modern warfare – although there are images of fighting women in traditional clothing in lapidars such as the Arch of Drashovicë. All four of the women are wearing caps and we can see the long hair of the female closet to the viewer.
Here I don’t think that the rifle shooting is being introduced as a sport as it might be considered nowadays. However there is a link between sport and the armed militia. Physical activity would have been encouraged during Socialism and such Palaces of Sport built in all towns and villages to promote the well-being of the people. After centuries when the vast majority of the population would have been living a subsistence existence the last thing on the minds of the ruling class would have been the promotion of a strong and healthy working class or peasantry – especially one that knows how to use modern weapons. On the other hand a Workers’ State depends upon an armed and trained militia to defend itself against the many attacks made by the defeated capitalists.
(Witness the hysteria in capitalist countries about any weapon in the hands of ordinary people whilst at the same time the state spends billions on weapons which are accessible only to their puppet armed forces in times of conflict – which can just as easily be used against their own population if the workers ever decide to get up off their knees and oppose oppression and exploitation.)
When it comes to nutrition things haven’t changed a jot in the present day. The cheapest foods available in the vast majority of countries tends to be the most unhealthy in the short and long-term. Just consider the proliferation of fast food outlets throughout the world and in present day Albania the cheapest food is the fatty meat and ‘E’ numbers laden sauces that make up sufflaqe, or its local variants.
It has to be remembered that military service was obligatory for all young people in Albania during Socialism and there is no point in having weak and sickly soldiers (of whatever gender) to defend the homeland. The poor health of so many young men after a century and a half of the Industrial Revolution in capitalist Britain showed how badly the working class had fared in that time and was dramatically demonstrated when they were expected to go to the front in the murderous, imperialist war of 1914-19 (euphemistically called the ‘Great War’ by some).
Another aspect that should never be forgotten, and a matter I have constantly stressed when writing about Albanian Socialist Realist Art, is that in these images the women are armed. Armed with modern weapons but also with an ideology that uses that armed force for the benefit of women within the general society. So far, on this blog, when describing the lapidars, when weapons are an integral part of the image, the only one where the women have NOT been armed is on the bas-relief in Bajram Curri, a later piece of art which, in some ways, presaged the future.
Even though armed and provided with more equal rights than in any other country worldwide the Albanian women, just like the men, threw away those conditions in favour of short-term material gains and so-called bourgeois ‘freedoms’. This has led to the present situation where the country has lost any semblance of independence and with an economy that is totally at the whims and mercy of international financial interests and investment.
Although the primary focus of this bas-relief is towards the front of the building, looking from right to left, the firing men and women are directing their anger towards the back of the structure, otherwise they would be shooting their comrades in the back.
All of the images so far have been placed on a background in the shape of a lower case J. I have tried to work out the meaning of this but without success. Working on the basis that all aspects of such a work of art mean something this one has got me beat.
What is relatively clear, however, is the grouping of the flags at the top of the image, above the sporting and military figures. There are an uncountable number of them, at the top of flag poles whose serried ranks again give an impression of depth. However they are fluttering in both directions. This is obviously impossible. As I’ve stated elsewhere Socialist Realism doesn’t mean realistic imagery, it’s allegorical and attempts to tell a story in a new and innovative manner.
Banners above the military
One interpretation of this image is that it’s a transitional stage to what we see as part of the main image to the left, that they are leaves of a book and, by extension education in general. Sporting expertise without education just provides society with such as the rich, mindless and illiterate footballers in the modern game, unable to string two words together in any known grammatical structure. Being able to kill people without an understanding of the political situation in which this killing takes place only produces mercenary killers and not liberation fighters.
The main subjects of this bas-relief are two athletes, a man and a woman, running flat out, their legs as wide apart as is possible when in a race. They are running on the bottom curve of the ‘J’ and their hands reach as high as the flags. There’s obviously a classical reference here, the only difference being that the two figures are clothed, the man with shorts but bare-chested whilst the female wears shorts and a T-shirt (female public nudity not being an element of Socialist Realism). On their feet it is easy to make out that they are wearing running shoes.
They are runners but not only runners. Within this image there are a number of ideas. We have the fact that they are healthy and fit, capable of strenuous activity that is not connected with work but for pleasure.
The woman is closest to us. She has her left arm fully outstretched behind her and her right arm is fully extended above her head. In that right hand she holds a rifle close to the end of the barrel, the rest of the weapon hidden by her arm and body. Her face is in semi-profile and her long hair flows out behind her by the force and speed of her forward movement.
Allegory of Socialism
The male is partially hidden by the female. His left arm is fully extended above his head, parallel and just behind the right arm of the woman. His hand grips the handle of a pickaxe just where the shaft meets the metal cross-piece. To all intents and purposes the rifle and the pickaxe are touching. This is in reference to the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania ‘advancing towards Socialism with the pickaxe in one hand and the rifle in the other’. This is interpreted as meaning that work alone will not achieve Socialism unless it is protected by the same level of force of those capitalist and imperialist forces who seek to deny working people the control over their own lives and the wealth of their country.
As if it is not enough to run with a heavy pickaxe held high he is also carrying a large book in his right hand, pressing it against his waist.
The whole combination of elements surrounding these two young people is an attempt to show how the society – at the time of its creation – was going forward towards Socialism. This relief was almost certainly inspired by the statue of the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ (1937) by Vera Mukhina, presently situated at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy in Moscow.
This bas-relief is in a good condition and it looks like it has very recently been cleaned and repainted. As I’ve already stated it faces down on a fancy cafe attached to a new 4 star hotel. It’s good that this ‘public face’ has been respected – but as so few people actually look up higher than their own eye level I don’t know how many have actually noticed this unique and interesting piece of history.
Unfortunately fate has not been as kind to the mirror image that is in a similar location on the north side of the building. I say a ‘mirror image’ but that’s not quite the case.
Most of the elements on the south facade are repeated but with a few minor differences. On the bottom panel where five different sports are represented, new ones have been inserted. From left to right we have; discus throwing, weight lifting, netball, wrestling and a female gymnast. Those which are repeats are the same as on the south side apart from the stance of the gymnast. She is still engaged in a floor exercise but here her left leg is on the ground, her right leg raised high behind her. Her right arm is raised high above her head and her left stretched out behind her with her head bent back.
The weight lifter, a male, looks like he has just achieved success in the jerk technique, his left leg bent and his right out behind his body, providing the balance.
The running group above is also slightly different. It’s still a mixed gender group, bunched up as in the early stages of a distance race but this time there are only seven runners.
At the front are two males running almost together, there being little seen of the runner behind apart from his legs. The runner fourth – as is the one in fifth, sixth and seventh – place is a female, we know this by their long hair, flowing behind them. It’s impossible to make out any of the facial features of the runner in fourth due to deterioration of the image.
Long hair for males wasn’t common in Socialist Albania and the press and governments of the capitalist west made a big issue of this in the 1970s when visiting young people were ‘obliged’ to have a haircut at the border if they wanted to get a visa. Whether this was more of an urban myth, promoted to denigrate Socialism, is more than likely it being almost impossible at that time to arrive at the border and obtain an entry visa – very much like it is at present on seeking entry into the belly of the capitalist beast, the United States of America. Stones and glass houses comes to mind.
Anyway, the length of the hair is still the clue to the gender of any person on any public Albanian art from before 1990 – their being no comparative artistic endeavour produced under capitalist controlled Albania. That’s not a surprise, how can you represent the idea of hope and a future when the measure is the amount of material goods one has and in a system that is prone to economic crisis. The image of a rich man or woman surrounded by all they can possess would be seen more as a parody rather than an aspiration for those without anything.
In the panel that shows both men and women firing rifles the stances are very much the same, the men standing and the women kneeling, but here the number of women has been reduced to three whilst the men stay at five.
However, the ethnic element is still present with the male who is most visible being dressed in a traditional country jacket and hat whilst the other four sport modern caps or go bare-headed.
The arrangement of the flags is the same and the only significant difference between the two main characters of the story is that what they held in their right hand on the south facade they now hold in their left, and vice versa.
Deterioration to north facing bas relief
As I’ve stated before his bas-relief is not in as good a condition as the one on the other side of the building and hence is sometimes difficult to read clearly. It’s north facing and doesn’t get the same amount of sunshine and that has led to a proliferation of black mould. Lack of cleaning and maintenance also means that the plaster is starting to come away in places. This deterioration is quite noticeable in the five and a half years between my visits to the Vlora Palace of Sport. It also suffers from looking out over a dusty, dirt car park and probably not noticed by the vast majority of people who might pass by. A little bit of tender loving care wouldn’t go amiss – although I think that’s highly unlikely to happen in the near future.
Of the artist I have no information whatsoever. Normally such works would have been created by local sculptors, especially in the late 1970s early 80s when I estimate this building was constructed. But who I have yet to discover.
To appreciate the bas reliefs you only have look up from the street when passing by, close to the ferry port. However, there are a couple of gems that can only be seen by looking through the dirty windows of the unfinished renovation of the main entrance hall to the building, fronting on to the main street.
These are two mosaics which tell the story of the development of sport in Albania from the period in the past when ‘sport’ used the technology available at the time to the late 20th century when sport became much more of an organised activity.
The first mosaic is seen inside the left hand entrance to the building. Here all the individuals are dressed in the everyday clothing of the peasantry up to the end of the 19th century. They are engaged in what we now call sport but would have been more a form of local entertainment in the past, as well as competition between the young men to attract the attention of the nubile women as has been the case in tribal societies throughout the world for millennia – there’s only one woman portrayed on this mosaic but she is there as part of a political statement rather than a participant in competitive activity.
This last statement is not made as a criticism of the imagery on the mosaic. Women were involved in the actual fighting against foreign invaders from very early times. This was especially the case from the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The ‘People’s Heroine’ Shote Galica, who is often depicted in photos as heavily armed as any man, died young (at the age of only 32) and was a virtual legend in her time. She was commemorated during Socialism by the marking of her grave in Fushe-Kruja and a large bust of her in Kukës.
The involvement of women, especially those we now call teenagers, in the struggle for the liberation of their country increased exponentially in the anti-fascist liberation war – the example of Liri Gero and the 68 young women of Fier being a fine example. Many fine young women of Albania fought and died for their liberation – one of the reasons their sacrifice and effort was celebrated during Albania’s Cultural Revolution and on lapidars throughout the country.
The ‘progressives’ in capitalism ‘celebrate’ when women crash through the ‘glass ceiling’ – when most of them do exactly the same as the men in the positions they achieve, that is make capitalism function at the expense of the workers and peasants (just refer to the experience under of Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher). True ‘female liberation’ occurs when women use their bravery, initiative and ability to wield a weapon to gain their freedom and in so doing aid the liberation of all the oppressed and exploited – as happened in China and Albania.
Back to the image. In the top left hand corner there are two men standing and facing one another. Their elbows rest on a flat surface and their right hands are clasped together. They are arm wrestling. The image I have in mind with this activity (for no other reason than this is how it is normally depicted in cinema) is that they should be sitting but, it seems, in Albania it was carried out standing up. But what more simple a test of strength can you get? One on one, no technology involved, and can be carried out anywhere.
As with the majority of the men on this mosaic they are dressed (starting from the top) in a qeleshe (felt skull-cap), xhaqeta (waistcoat), tirq or brekusha (trousers, sometimes tight, sometimes loose), brez (cloth belt), corape (long socks) and opinga (the shoes that have a ball of sheep skin at the toe to keep the water out – this might be more familiar to those who have seen pictures or the reality of Greek ceremonial soldiers) and in all cases here the balls have been dyed red.
Below them, on the left hand side, is a group of men all huddled together in what looks like a rugby scrum. It can’t be a contact game as they are all wearing loose clothing and that’s definitely a disadvantage if you are going to be chased (and a felt qeleshe is certainly nothing like a modern rugby protective cap). But, so far, I’ve been unable to come across a credible explanation of what they are doing.
Next to them is another conundrum. Here we have a young boy with a rope. If you look carefully you can see there’s a loop in the end of the rope that he holds in his left hand. This is reminiscent of a lasso, but that doesn’t make sense (at least to me) in a society where the principal domestic animals were sheep and goats – not much challenge, surely, in lassoing a sheep? It doesn’t appear to be a skipping rope as if the artist wanted to depict skipping surely s/he would have shown the boy actually jumping in some way. (Here I’m suggesting the artist might have been a woman, however, from what I’ve learnt so far about Albanian Socialist Realist art (of whatever kind) there seems to have been a dearth of women artists. Yes, the role of women was to be celebrated but by works created by men.)
This young boy is dressed slightly different from the men so far described. Most Albanian Socialist Realist works represent people from different parts of the country and this boy is wearing a fustanella, the skirt like attire worn by males (again familiar to those who have seen Greek state ceremonies) and more common in the south of the country.
Whatever the sport it was something that was still common during the period of Socialism. Inside the entrance at the back of the building is a statue of a young woman, this time, swinging the rope above her head.
Female Athlete with rope
Two central figures dominate the mosaic. One is a male who is on the point of loosing an arrow from his bow. Although the bow and arrow was the precursor of the gun this weapon doesn’t appear that often in the imagery of the late 1960s to the mid 80s. Yes there are a lot of them shown on the murals in the Skenderbeg Museum in Kruja and might appear as the accoutrements of war in other images, but rarely as a truly aggressive weapon of war. And the Kruja murals are a relatively late addition to the pantheon of Socialist Realist Art and appeared at a time when the politics in the country were starting to undergo major changes.
(If we go to the National Historical Museum, there is only one bow and three arrows on display, indicating it wasn’t that common a weapon of war. The rest of the fighting relics are heavy axes, spears or halberds or pole-axes. Warfare in those times wasn’t in any way sophisticated, you won the battle if you were able to bludgeon to death more of them than there were of you.
For me the cheapest weapon of choice in a mountainous country is the sling shot or the hand-held catapult. Simple to make, as cheap as the surrounding materials, i.e., free, and deadly as any modern rifle in the hands of an expert. David slew Goliath with a pebble and in the early days of the armed struggle of the Communist Party of Peru in the 1980s a sling shot took its toll on the enemy. Or just drop a stone from a great height, images of such activity being common throughout the art galleries of the country. Any guerrilla army uses whatever is to hand to defeat the enemy, the enemy’s technology often being its weakness more than its strength in unfamiliar circumstances.)
He is also dressed in the traditional clothing of the time but with a very loose and long flowing sleeve. Now I’m no expert in archery but I would have thought flowing sleeves are not the type of clothing to be wearing in a war like situation. And if you are going to choose the bow and arrow as your weapon of choice it would seem to make sense to protect the very vulnerable fleshy part of the forearm. The British archers who were so crucial to the victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 knew this and had leather arm guards.
I don’t think I’m nitpicking on this issue. Socialist Realist Art is not real representation of an event or situation but at the same time it can’t go so far from reality as to cause a suspension of disbelief. As I suggested in the post about the bas-relief in Bajram Curri the greater the period of time between a revolution and its depiction the greater will be the disparity between the image and the accepted reading of the event shown.
The debate about what is truth in history will go on for many more years than I will be around and ultimately depends upon the perception of the victor. If the victor historically is ‘defeated’ many years later then we are into a different ball game. The ‘re-writing’ of history has been going on for a long time and takes place today. However, in a Socialist society which is attempting to write a history for the working people it is incumbent upon artists to get the ‘facts’ correct. After all, however little they might be receiving in recompense compared to their contemporaries in capitalist societies they live a better lifestyle than the vast majority of the working people.
This is not necessarily wrong if they are doing their job because the task they have been given is an important and crucial one. If they are opportunist and just seek an ‘easy life’ they are no better than those artists in history who produced works of art, of whatever quality, for a patron who ‘paid the piper and called the tune’.
It is for this reason that what we can call ‘intellectuals’ have a responsibility over and above that of the vast majority of those in a Socialist society. They are privileged in a way no other section of society is or can be. For that reason they have to be held to account in a way that is different from the majority of people. With rights come obligations. Intellectuals have never understood this and this is why they will always have supporters in the capitalist/imperialist countries. Not because they believe in artistic freedom, just the opposite. They just use this myth of ‘freedom’ to challenge any attempt to undermine their control of the world’s wealth and peoples.
This is a call for intellectuals in any future society to know their place, to take pride in the privileged position they hold and to stay faithful to the people who have put them in that position.
The woman is shown with a rifle to her shoulder and she is in the act of firing in the opposite direction to the male, that is towards the right edge of the panel. This is not a modern weapon but something that would have been around during the middle to the end of the 19th century, having a much longer barrel than later weapons. We don’t see much of her face but we are shown her right eye open as she sites her target. Her head is covered in a scarf and she is wearing a white, long-sleeved dress which reaches down to her ankles. Over this she has a purple, sleeveless waistcoat. Around her waist is a belt with a large golden buckle. Over all this there is a long either woollen or sheepskin open jacket, which extends down to her knees. On her feet she has leather shoes with the toe curled upwards. These are a version of the opinga, with the curve upwards at the toe but it was only the men who wore the shoes with the woollen ball attached.
Both these characters stand on a stylised platform representing the hills and mountains of Albania. As in many paintings and lapidars this places the scene firmly in the Albanian context and has been a trope used since the very early days of Albanian Socialist Realism.
The top right of the panel has two males involved in a sword fight. The one on the left has his back to us and is wearing a black xhaqeta (waistcoat) whilst his opponent’s is white – so this could have been the way they delineated the teams – and we see the right side of his face in profile. The other we see his body front on whilst the left side of his face is in profile. There’s no real sense of aggression in this image as the swords, which are crossed at waist height, both point downwards as if parrying an attack. The swordsman on the left has his left hand resting on the top edge of his scabbard, which is worn at his waist and which has a slight curve at the end. This seems to be a bit strange in any contest as a scabbard would only be a hindrance in competition. His opponent, on the other hand, has his left arm extended behind his back (which anyone familiar with present day competition fencing would recognise) aiding in his balance when either attacking or defending. Although it’s not possible to see the end of the swords they look as if they are straight, without any curved ends.
Below the fencers there are two scenes. On the left two males are wrestling against each other, only being able to see the face of the one on the left as the wrestler on the right has his head down, seemingly straining to get an advantage over his opponent.
The other, and last, individual on this panel is of a single male grasping a huge rock to his chest. This is obviously a weightlifting contest, there being an awful lot of rocks in Albania and the only criteria needed in such a competition was to select one that was heavy, no world records being attempted and therefore no strict measurements being needed. This competitor is only the second on this panel to be wearing a fustenella and he is also the only one to be sporting a bushy, black moustache – a sign of his physical age.
For reasons I don’t understand some (though not all) of the figures, as well as their instruments, are surrounded by a translucent lilac halo. This seems to have little use as the figures and their sports equipment are clearly delineated from the background, which is a light, reddish-brown throughout, and the fact it is not used all the time is even more of a mystery.
At the top and bottom edge of the panel there are geometric, pyramidal, designs in red, white and black, a pattern which is repeated three times along the length of the mosaic. There are no such designs on either edge, the action scenes going to the end on both sides. The whole mosaic has a red wooden border around the four sides.
It might be pertinent to point out (again) that, apart from the woman with a gun – which is an important statement in its own right – women are not shown as taking part in sporting activities, although there must have been sports or games in which peasant women would have taken part on a regular basis. This just goes to show that it’s a bit of minefield when we wish to represent those things of the past in the present – what you leave out being as important as what is included.
Although the location was a building site (in suspension) when I visited, in the summer of 2016, the mosaic looks in a reasonably good condition, a little dusty, perhaps, but not showing any real signs of damage – either intentional or accidental. I wasn’t able to ascertain what the plans were in completing the renovation of this area but it is hoped that when it is eventually finished and people pass on the way to the basketball games they will be able to appreciate a little of their cultural past (although a local person I spoke to, who had visited the Sports Palace during the period of Socialism, couldn’t remember these mosaics).
I’m not exactly sure of the date of this mosaic but there is a clue (possibly) to the artist as in the very bottom, right hand corner (just below the right foot of the weight lifter) are the letters ‘LNSH’. Who that represents I have yet to discover. If that is the artist it would date the mosaics more towards the late 1980s as it was in the final period of Albanian Socialist Art that attribution, either names or initials, started to appear on the works.
The panel representing modern sport is of exactly the same size of that depicting traditional sport and can be found on the right hand side of the main entrance hall. (I didn’t measure the panels but a rough estimate would be that they are about 2.5 metres high by 8 metres long.)
This modern panel contains much more movement as well as being more colourful, the athletes wearing clothing appropriate to their sport rather than what was the normal, everyday clothing which is seen in the representation of the traditional sports.
In the top left hand corner there’s a group of seven young women taking part in a medium to long distance run – they’re all bunched up which wouldn’t be the case in a sprint. They are in various colours, both in their shorts and vests. This is a very much more modern representation of women who have come a long way in a short number of years. Pre-liberation the role of women in Albania was very different from what it became under Socialism. After 1944 women were involved in all aspects of society and it should be remembered that there was only one woman depicted in the ‘traditional’ panel so the inclusion of this large group tells the story of how things had changed in a matter of very few years.
Of the seven we see four of the faces in profile, one in semi-profile, one just the hair and one who seems to be looking out at the viewer, smiling. In fact there’s no impression of real effort on the faces of any of the young women. They are running for pleasure not for the victory. This is especially the case of the one in yellow vest who we see in full face. She seems to be saying ‘this is fun, join in’. Whilst all of them have their arms and hands moving in rhythm to their legs she seems to be waving at the viewer, the palm of her hand facing outwards.
The happy runner
And amongst all the colours there’s no sign of the ubiquitous number plate which has become obligatory in individualistic sports, where the winning is all and the participation of those non-competitive are considered a nuisance.
Neither are they running in specialist footwear but simple, light shoes. This has become an industry in its own right, causing all kinds of problems for parents whose children wouldn’t even consider running around a proper track but need this ‘specialist’ footwear just to go to school.
Here we get the representation that sport is something that should be encouraged but not something that becomes the be all and end all. I’ll accept that this was distorted under revisionism where sport was another battlefield in the so-called ‘Cold War’, but that’s not what it should be in a Socialist society.
Following the same pattern as in the previous panel, there is action on two different levels.
Below the female runners we have a couple of males playing football. One of them, on the left, is in a red strip, with a red shirt, shorts and socks, whilst the other is in a blue shirt with white shorts and yellow socks. They compete over a football, both their right feet almost in contact. It’s clearly seen that they are wearing football boots.
To their right is a swimmer just about to leave the starting block in a race. He’s wearing a yellow skull-cap and green swimming trunks and both his arms are thrown back just at the second before he leaps off the block. There’s a bluish-green representation of the water in the pool just where he’s about to jump.
To the right of him is a female netball player, at full stretch as she leaps off the ground attempting a goal, the ball firmly grasped in both hands. She’s wearing a red vest and green shorts.
As in the previous mosaic the central figures take up (almost) the whole height of the panel. Here again it is a young man (on the right) and young women (on the left), but in an image that is full of meaning.
The Pickaxe and Rifle
They both face out directly towards the viewer and both are dressed in a red vest and white shorts. They appear as if they are slowing approaching us along a red running track. But these are not ordinary athletes. On her right shoulder a rifle hangs from a strap. We can see the top of the barrel just to the left of her head and the dark, wooden butt peaks out behind her thigh. She grips the strap with her right hand, at chest height.
Her left arm is fully extended and clasps the hand of her male comrade. He is slightly taller than her so is right arm is slightly bent at the elbow. His left arm is also fully extended above his head and he grips a pickaxe handle, at the top of the shaft just before the metal cross-piece. Here, as on the bas reliefs on the exterior of the building, we have the visual expression of the slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania; ‘With a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other, marching forward towards Socialism’. Their clasped hands providing a physical connection between the two parts of the slogan.
Behind their raised arms flutter a group of red flags. The poles of these flags can be seen either side of the male’s head, framed by his upraised arms. These do not carry the symbols of the black double-headed eagle or the gold star of the national flag of the Albanian People’s Republic so these red flags simply represent the Communist movement in general.
Their stance is mirrored in that their right foot is forward and the left close behind, partly hidden. It is here that the first signs of damage, on either of the mosaics, appears. The tiles around the male’s ankle have fallen away and it appears that a somewhat amateurish repair has been made, basically filling the area with plaster. But there is also evidence that this area has had problems in the past as there’s a sizeable area to the right of his feet where the tiles have been replaced but in such a manner that the repair is evident.
Immediately to the right of the two central figures is a male handball player. He mirrors the female netball player on the other side. He is also dressed in a red vest and green shorts, is leaping off the group and is just about to hit the handball with his right hand. The mirror image includes the arching of their backs as they attempt to put as much effort as possible into scoring their goal.
The next image, that takes up the top, right hand corner of the panel contains two parts, one of which is slightly disturbing. The right hand side of this depiction, on the very edge of the panel, is a male and a female, both in the uniform of the People’s Army, including the red stars on their caps, in the act of firing their rifles out of the panel. They have their rifles up to their shoulders and both are kneeling. Behind them, and standing up as she fires, is another female soldier/militia woman firing her rifle. Long, dark brown hair spills out under her cap, which also displays a red star. This little detail says quite a lot as in many parts of the country these small representations of Communism have been vandalised
So far so good. In a Socialist country, constantly being threatened from outside (and by inside renegades and traitors) it’s quite rational that fire arms practice should appear on a panel which is devoted to sport.
Another aspect of defence is that a healthy and fit militia force is much more effective than the sickly individuals that make up so much a proportion of the young population in many capitalist countries in the present day. It’s somewhat ironic that a hundred years after the First World War (where so many conscripts were basically unfit to fight) the health levels of the young people in a country like Britain are at as bad a level as they were following the century of capitalism using, or more accurately abusing, people’s bodies for profit. A hundred years ago it was by exploiting young people in the factories, mills and mines of Britain, now it’s in feeding them cheap, fatty, over-sugered so-called ‘fast’ and convenience foods – and blaming them for their condition.
Being hit by a rifle butt
The disturbing portion of this image is to the left of the rifleman and women. Here we have a militia man hitting, seemingly at full force, another militia man in the face with the butt of his rifle. The militia man doing the hitting wears a cap with a red star (and it’s also possible to see the bayonet fixed, if you look closely enough) but the reaction of the man being hit is real, this is not play acting. I can accept that hand to hand combat is part of military training but this seems to be an extreme manner in which to represent this sort of training. Your aim is to kill or disable the enemy, not your own side.
Finally, in the bottom right hand corner, matters return to the ideal of sport rather than training.
In the same location as in the panel on traditional sport there are two men wrestling. Now no longer encumbered by clothing and constraints of the culture of yore they are shown more akin to the wrestlers of classical times. They wear shorts, one is in red, one in blue, and they are head to head in an exact sense as we only see the tops of their heads, the muscles of their bodies straining to get the better of the other.
The last figure is that of a young female gymnast. She is dressed in a pink leotard and is in the act of performing a routine with a ring. Her left hand is outstretched above her head, her right hand grips the ring whilst her left leg is bent high as she stands on tiptoe with her right – all elements giving the impression of movement and grace.
This panel is the same as the first in that the top and bottom of the action is decorated with similar geometric designs and the whole thing is encased in a red, wooden frame.
As I started to look in a detailed manner at the two mosaics I started to think that the images were so different that more than one artist was involved. Then I realised that the same letters, NLSH, can just be made out on the very bottom frieze, between the feet of the footballer on the extreme left, in an area where there has been some slight damage. This made me think that it’s possible the letters don’t refer to an individual but to a collective, the letters SH being the abbreviation of Shqipëri (Albania). So the letters could stand for an artistic grouping – but that’s just speculation
Access to the mosaics isn’t easy. I was able to convince someone in the office (accessed from the entrance at the back of the building) to allow me to see the traditional panel. We went across the basket ball court and then through a temporary barrier to come to an area that is part building site, rubble and debris strewn around.
There is, however, a substantial barrier between the two mosaics at present. Originally all the glass doors at the front of the building would have gained entrance to a common foyer. The stairs up to the main sports hall are located between the two mosaics and the foyer would have served as such places do throughout the world, as a meeting place either before or after the performance.
With the most recent ‘renovation’ this common area has been broken up and a substantial dividing wall now exists between the mosaics. I had to go back early the following morning to meet up with the key holder of the right hand section as this is now the location of the local weightlifting (peshëngritje) club, the mats and weights in the area in front of the Socialist work of art. They could use the image of the weight lifter in the traditional panel as a logo, to give their club a distinctive image but I doubt if anyone has ever thought of that.
The erstwhile Palace of Sport is found set back from the road at the bottom end of Rruga Sadiki Zotaj at Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square). This is close to the roundabout that takes you right to the docks and ferry port and straight on to the hotels and beaches (coming from Fier).