When the West Saved Tbilisi
An excerpt from the forthcoming Where the West Ends.

A view of Tbilisi


Getting into Georgia on the train was easier than getting out. As soon as the Georgian customs officials stamped my passport and finished hand-searching my luggage, I stepped off and into a taxi. A friend warned me in advance that while the train sits at the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan for hours, an inexpensive taxi ride would get me to the capital in less than 45 minutes. So I took his advice and arrived in Tbilisi long before any of my fellow passengers.

The taxi ride was my introduction to Georgia, and it wasn’t pretty. Azerbaijan’s countryside beyond its booming capital, Baku, reminded me of Iraq in some ways with its bad roads, walled-off houses, general poverty, and vaguely Middle Eastern characteristics. But the part of Georgia my taxi drove through was considerably rougher and poorer. It looked brutally Stalinist.

Hideous smokestacks made up the skyline. Nothing new had been built in decades. Homes were falling apart. Monstrous public-housing blocks desperately needed paint, new windows, and general repairs. Many of the factories were shuttered. Very little economic activity was evident. It was as though the area was still operating under a command economy even though it was not.

More than half the cars on the road were banged-up Russian-built Ladas. Nearly all had cracked windshields, including the taxi I rode in. These Ladas are tiny. They have tiny doors, tiny steering wheels, tiny dashboards, tiny seats, and no seat belts. A Lada is the last car you’d want to crash in.

A thick film of gray ash from the skyline of smokestacks covered everything, including the leaves on the trees. This blighted region looked like an apocalyptic dystopia where absolutely everything modern was broken. My heart ached for Georgia.

I really did feel like my 18 hours on the train set me back 18 years as well as sending me sideways a few hundred miles. This portion of Georgia might look even worse now than it did when it was part of the Soviet Union. The buildings and cars have had more time to deteriorate, and nothing has been repaired.

“In the Caucasus,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in Eastward to Tartary, “one could be optimistic in the capital cities, but in the provinces one confronted the hardest truths. . . . Compared to [South Ossetia], rural Georgia was like Tuscany.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. And if South Ossetia was in even worse shape than this part of Georgia, then God help the Ossetes.

The Stalinist apartment blocks were uglier and more dilapidated than any I’ve seen in post-Communist Europe, including Albania. This unreconstructed corner of the Soviet Union gave me an idea just how nasty and oppressive that system was. You can’t always learn much about a country’s past political system by looking at its current physical infrastructure, but in this part of Georgia you can.

Most Eastern European countries were in no better shape immediately after the Communist era ended, but they’ve been able to pull themselves up in the meantime with help from the European Union. Georgia, though, is an outpost of Europe so remote that it is in Asia, too far away to be rescued by the EU or NATO.