Tskaltubo as a destination for communist heritage tourism – in search of a lost Soviet paradise

Part II: In search of the extraordinary spatial experience – the late modern tourist self on expedition in the material space of Tskaltubo

From 2004 to 2012 Georgia saw large amounts of foreign capital entering the country, and with it increasing numbers of visitors from abroad to Tskaltubo, first of all, backpacker tourists who have shared photographs and reports on their experiences on websites and blogs. These travellers produced the nostalgic narrative of a defunct bygone era, with the extraordinary possibility of meeting local people living in the wake of traumatic experiences and the loss of their worldly goods. Without wishing to doubt the genuineness of this interest in others’ difficult experiences and lives, it would not be inappropriate to refer to such tourism as ‘dark tourism’ or ‘poorism’. Soviet nostalgia is another factor behind the renewed spa tourist trade.

Overview and some background

As a result of the war in Abkhazia about 10,000 of the approximately 250,000 Georgians who flew the conflict were accommodated in the sanatoria of Tskaltubo. As they had been living in Abkhazia for several generations, they lost all their property with the expulsion from their homes (cf. Zhvania 2010 for an overview on the privatisation of residential property in Georgia). This left them at an acute disadvantage when it came to rebuilding their lives; many remain living in the sanatoria to this day (cf. Mestvirishvili 2012 on structures of social exclusion in Georgia). The article series gives an overview on today’s Tskaltubo’s urban space as a space of conflict around the interpretation of its material space between the resident displaced persons, tourist industry stakeholders, NGOs active in the town, and various groups of tourists.

Go back to Part I: From Soviet paradise to a material symbol of the decline of the Soviet system and the crises of the new Georgia

Communist heritage tourism in central-eastern Europe is part of a stale process of decades-long transition from centrally-planned to market-oriented societies. […] For most post-communist countries in central-eastern Europe, communist heritage is rendered as ‘controversial’ and politically sensitive (Iankova & Mileva, 2014; Ivanova, 2017). This is because it incorporates distorted representations of geo-politically sensitive images, local and regional identities related to communism (Rátz et al., 2008).

Ivanova & Buda 2020, p. 1 ff.

On the other side, the four-star Tskaltubo SPA Resort hotel illustrates how this form of tourism insulates itself from the de facto reality of Tskaltubo as a refugee camp by employing security staff and charging high prices for the use of its facilities.

If you explore websites and blogs that deal with Tskaltubo’s photographic and textual production as an extraordinary space and temporality, you will encounter some specifics of digital culture in general (cf. Horst et al 2016). Websites and blogs are sites of the fusion, at the hands of the digital ‘culture machine’, of all possible formats, such as text, images, sound sequences and games (cf. Reckwitz 2017, 235-238).

Traces of the transformation of the space in the Gelati Sanatorium: the former common rooms such as the theatre, cinema and dining rooms were dismantled by the people in search of exploitable resources.

Travel reports by private individuals are the principal beneficiaries of the relative ease of publication which the internet offers. Speaking with Reckwitz, we might term the subject of late modernity, in interaction with digital technologies, as a ‘profile subject’ (Reckwitz 2017, 245), constantly engaged in cultivating its visibility, i.e. raising its profile, in the web. Three representative excerpts below shall in the following illustrate this focality of authenticity:

Is it worth to visit Tskaltubo? If you like grand Soviet architecture with all its details and are a fan of abandoned spaces and urban exploration, if you visited Chernobyl and loved it then Tskaltubo is for you and you’ll enjoy the place as much as I did. I felt like I’m in a candy store, every corner of the town was exciting for me. (Linda* 2019, *name changed)

In Tskaltubo the digital subject has the opportunity to demonstrate its self-formation/self-education in surroundings which themselves carry the cachet of uniqueness and authenticity (cf. Reckwitz 2017, 249). The author of a different blog narrates the encounter with Tsqaltubo thus:

We arrive in Tskaltubo in the early afternoon, entering the town along the wide promenade’s [sic] that is [sic] so often seen as the staple of Soviet architecture. Instantaneously dozens of crumbling concrete buildings come into sight through the thick vegetation that grows; adrenaline starts to kick in. The town already has a strange eerie feel around it. […] We decide to break ourselves in gently and walk up a gentle hill behind our hotel, to a non-descript grey building we assume used to be part of the sanatoriums. […] Not accustom [sic] to trespassing, I take the first steps up, fighting my common sense and every step feels like it is against my natural instinct, but I proceed and soon I’m inside.  […] Still, I knew this was just the beginning and together with my rapidly increasingly [sic] pulse, I pushed through to walk down one side of the building.’ (Nusl, undated)

(Paul*, undated, *name changed)

The narratives generated on such websites largely fail to accord with historical realities. These principles include e.g. the simplistic reproduction of an image of Stalin which is positive to neutral in tendency, including such elements as the notion of him a moderniser representing a glorious, positive, life-affirming era. Various websites also of tour operators for architectural tours, which offer to explore the Soviet brutalism in Georgia, draw Josef Stalin as the brilliant builder of Tskaltubo and his biggest fan.

A further element of the narratives at work here links to the faded splendour of the erstwhile sanatoria as a sort of paradise lost, evoking the idea of a Soviet elite which had virtually sole use of the facilities; the intent here is presumably to generate a sense of exclusivity. The discourses additionally bear the traces of an aesthetic of lost spaces transferring itself onto present subjects; at a general level, the sanatoria’s current residents appear to be allocated roles as, so to speak, members of the chorus on a stage performing a period piece redolent with nostalgia for Soviet times. This narrative of Soviet spa culture as a virtual paradise finds itself seized on effectively right across the spectrum of commercial players in the local tourist industry, whether via booking.com or other popular platforms whose tourist target group consists of independent, that is, non-package travellers (cf. D’Eramo 2017, 71-77, on forms of medical tourism).

Some of the blogs explored in the course of this research engage with the ethical issue around the appropriateness or otherwise of self-educative endeavours in this context:

It comes across a bit like a parallel world when you encounter one of these places [,] and I myself didn’t know how I could/should/wanted to be thinking and feeling here. On the one hand, the architecture, some of which was very beautiful, enthused me, and at times I forgot where I was [;] on the other hand, I would suddenly happen upon barricaded doors, saw old people in the corridors or children playing, which reminded me again that it’s also a home to people who had once lost their real home.

(Andy* 2019, *name changed)

Traces of the presence of the forcibly displaced people in Tskaltubo: a ping-pong table, a wood block, a seating group, soot marks on the walls indicate the balconies converted into kitchens.

On the subject of tourism voyeurism and whether or not it is appropriate to visit occupied buildings, this is something we have considered in depth. But as an interesting National Geographic article entitled Is ‘Dark Tourism’ OK? states, it’s all about intention. I wouldn’t put Tsqaltubo in the category of dark tourism (visiting places associated with death or suffering) but some of the considerations are the same. Our reason for visiting Tsqaltubo was to explore the sanatoriums and learn about the history of the town and the spa culture. It just so happens that the history of the sanatoriums has become mixed up in more recent ‘dark’ events which have changed the use of the buildings. Maybe we are being over-sensitive and I’m not sure how I would feel in that situation. Maybe the people living there don’t think much of it? And although we were met with smiles and kindness we were very conscious that some people might think it was strange for a couple of camera-wielding tourists to be wandering around. Cameras are sensitive subject and somehow we feel far more intrusive carrying a large DSLR (even if we’re not using it) than we do an iPhone. But it’s not just about people living in poor and cramped conditions becoming tourist attractions. It’s about waltzing into their lives uninvited with camera shutters clicking. That’s what the paparazzi do and we are not the paparazzi. Our interest is genuine and we are extremely sensitive when intruding into the lives of those less fortunate than us. This didn’t stop us feeling self-conscious however and we always made a point of smiling at and speaking to a passing resident to try and explain our presence: we were interested in the history of sanatoriums or were looking for a particular mosaic. Our Russian is close to non-existent but we used the phrases ‘mozhno’ (may I?) and ‘pozhaluysta’ (please) often.

Sandra & Fred*, without date *Names Changed

Traces of memory and coping with life in Tskaltubo from the rooms of the forcibly displaced people.

Nevertheless the IDPs’ function is to satisfy tourists’ desire to encounter authentic ‘locals’, the affective response to whom endows the tourist experience with success. The advocacy promoted online, in its turn, meets the need of the travellers, who would shudder to consider themselves tourists, to augment their self-concept and point up their divergence from the mainstream. The performative facet of what Reckwitz (2017) has described and detailed as the ‘sequential dynamics of social practices’ instrumentalises the residents of Tskaltubo’s decaying ex-splendour, turning them and their lives into integral components of the Soviet nostalgia staged in that Tskaltubo presented to its visitors as an archetypical spatiality, an atmospheric ‘place’.

[In late modernity], tourist destinations […] [could] no longer be content to be uniform holiday spots for the mass tourist market. Instead, the tourist gaze seeks out the uniqueness of a place, the special town or city with an authentic atmosphere, the outstanding landscape, the quirky local life.

Reckwitz 2017, 7

The tourist economy of the late modern age, with the emergence of a new middle class of travellers, is promising the subjects who are its customers an educational experience via a ‘culture of the authentic’ and a ‘culture of the attractive’. In this way, a social logic of particularity rises increasingly to eclipse the social logic of generality, and subjects enter into the associated practices to the end of performatively augmenting their own value, that is, of essentially curating their selves via education. Travellers in late modernity take an active role, alongside specialist operators in the field, in curating their travel.

[This is a] culturalising, singularising activity […] in search of special places and moments in their authenticity.

Reckwitz 2017, 321

The paradox of this construction of the authentic, in the context of the modern tourist industry, lies in its unachievability: ‘The dilemma of authenticity is that, if it is to be experienced as authentic, it must be signified, tagged as authentic. Yet, as soon as this happens, it is itself mediated; it becomes a signifier of itself’ (d’Eramo 2018, 55).

The forthcoming third part will deal with the plans for the new Tskaltubo and the associated redefinition of space. Here, the multiple attempts to make the refugees invisible as people present in the space will be addressed. Tskaltubo is to be defined, so to speak, as a space consisting of empty objects.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)

The historical photographs were released by the Tourist Office of the Tskaltubo Municipality. I would like to thank Deputy Director Irakli Maisashvili for scanning and transmitting the pictures. It was not possible for the Tourist Office to trace any individual rights to the pictures.

References

D’Eramo, M. 2018. Die Welt im Selfie. Eine Besichtigung des touristischen Zeitalters [The World in a Selfie: An Inquiry into the Tourist Age]. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Iankova, K., & Mileva, S. (2014). The destiny of the communist heritage of Bulgaria and its integration in the tourism industry. 7th World conference for graduate
research in tourism hospitality and leisure, proceedings book (pp. 394–403).

Ivanov, S. (2009). Opportunities for developing communist heritage tourism in Bulgaria. Tourism, 57(2), 177–192.

Rátz, T., Smith, M., & Michalkó, G. (2008). New places in old spaces: Mapping tourism and regeneration in Budapest. Tourism Geographies, 10(4), 429–451. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616680802434064.

Reckwitz, A. 2017. Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten [Society of Singularities]. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

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