A Road by Any Other Name: the importance of public naming in Tbilisi8 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Georgia, Politics

Tbilisi: the city of hot springs – or, more literally translated, “warm place”, with more than 1500 years of history, holds proudly as the capital of Georgia, a symbol of millennial foothold in the South Caucasus. What matters more: the etymology of the city’s name, or the meaning it evokes when you say it? Toponymy – the study of place names – will tell us right away that it is the latter, the symbolic meaning, which prevails. And this doesn’t only apply to city, country, or state names, but also to streets, squares, even districts and metro stations. They may go by unnoticed most of the time, but place names are a constant presence in our daily lives: every time you ask or give directions, look at a street sign, take the metro. This practicality is extremely useful to keep reminders of important people, concepts, and ideas in the minds of the population, and because of that, something as minute as the name of a hidden alley in your hometown holds geopolitical importance. Governments pay close attention when naming places – especially during big political changes.

Such is the case with post-Soviet republics. Emerging as new entities, most of them had to deal with radical shifts in their government’s discourse which involved replacing elements of Soviet ideology throughout their countries, including, of course, place names. Tbilisi was no exception – in fact, the renamings in the city had started even before that, as early as 1988, resonating with the revolutionary movements that were already brewing. Before that, nationalistic expressions were very controlled; some cultural aspects could be commemorated, as long as they did not overtly display ethnic markers. That left any elements of Christian Orthodoxy (something almost inseparable from Georgian identity) out of the cityscape, as well as historical figures like ancient kings, queens, and princes. Actually, the city which the Soviets molded didn’t have that many nationalistic elements either – before its annexation to the Soviet Union, Georgia enjoyed a very brief period of independence, as a Menshevik Republic (which didn’t provide much time to inscribe identity into the capital), and before that, it had been part of the Russian Empire. Back then, most street and place names commemorated Russian Emperors, their family members, generals of the Russian army, or governors of the Caucasus. The Soviets initially erased those names, leaving only a couple of commemorations of Georgian party members, and started to put Soviet ideology on place names; later waves got rid of ethnic markers overall and promoted a major “Soviet international identity”, which was also put forward in other Soviet Republics.

This past meant that the newly formed, post-Soviet, independent Georgian government had the task of putting a certain national discourse in its cityscapes. You see, memorialization does not have the luxury of writing history in its entirety into the public sphere; as it has to be narrowed down, even in the most democratic spaces, choices must be made. By looking into the names commemorated on the streets, squares, metro stations, and districts of Tbilisi after 1988, we have a picture of this intended discourse. Lenin Street became Merab Kostava Street (one of the main figures of the revolutionary movement, killed in 1989); Lenin Square turned into Liberty Square; Gagarin Street, to Ochamchire Street (a city in Georgia); Stalin Embankment, into Zviad Gamsakhurdia Embankment (the first president of post-Soviet Georgia). Names like “Labor”, “October” and “Pioneers” were gone, giving place to Georgian kings like David the Builder, Parnavaz, and Tamar (despite being female, she had the title of king as well). Christian Orthodox elements saw the light of day, and martyrs of the revolution, as well as later civil wars, started being commemorated too.

The renaming process was carried out by the Executive Committee of the City Council of Tbilisi along with an advisory board of workers, unions, and students. The decrees issued by the Committee can nowadays be found on the Tbilisi City Archives; within which records show how the population participated in the renaming. A decree from August 1990 reads that “the practice of returning historical names to Tbilisi districts and streets is being implemented successfully […] Lately, the speed of the process has significantly decreased which dissatisfies the society of the capital.” Through letters and newspaper publications, citizens asked for Soviet names in their neighborhoods to be changed, and district councils were tasked with choosing new names, in collaboration with their populations. This is part of the reason for the very homogeneous nature of the new names; until 2007, over 90% of the street and place names (new or replaced) were Georgian, mostly referring to people rather than places or concepts. Sometimes, locally-known people would be commemorated, but most of the names referred to famous national artists, athletes, scientists, or politicians. Tbilisi experienced a full-blown expression of the national history and culture of Georgia. Sounds good, right?

Well, every selective process ought to have its problems. In the capital of Georgia, the question was whether to commemorate country-wide traditions or prioritize the urban cultures which had been formed in the past centuries. During the Russian Empire, Tbilisi became the seat for the Governor of Caucasia, developing economically and turning into an industrial hub, even, bringing Armenians, Azeris, Turks, Persians, and Russians to trade and establish their homes in the city. The oldest recorded name for Liberty Square was Erevan Square (from Yerevan, the Armenian Capital). The names of the districts Isani and Avlabari both have Arabic etymology; Chughureti, another district, from Turkish. The history of Armenians in Tbilisi is as important for the Georgian capital as it is for the formation of the Armenian nation. By 1803, three-quarters of the population of Tbilisi was Armenian, while less than a quarter was Georgian. This is seemingly forgotten if we take place names as a parameter for remembrance; in Armenia, too, the importance that the Armenians in Tbilisi have for the development of Armenian nationalism is downplayed, emphasizing their own capital instead (something similar can also be said about the Azeri national narrative – ethnic policies in the Caucasus are quite complicated). Some names from the First Georgian Republic are present on the streets, like Noe Zhordania (the first president) and a couple of generals; the Menshevik nature of the Republic, though, is never mentioned, as it is preferable to eliminate any socialist associations. There are also names with contested pasts, for example, Meliton Kantaria, one of the soldiers who waved the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in one of the best-known pictures of World War II, gets a street commemorating his name in Tbilisi. As Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president who named a street and school after Kantaria, says, his case  was an important example of a Georgian who fought and struggled under Soviet rule; the fact that Kantaria was later exiled, first to Abkhazia, then to Russia, seems forgotten. The Soviet aspect of the figure is taken out in favor of the Georgian aspect, which is understandable, but nonetheless open for contestation.

“Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei.

Regaining sovereignty is a very tricky process. One must choose what is to be remembered and what is to be forgotten, and bear the consequences. While there is nothing wrong with choosing broader national themes to etch in the capital, it is a choice that can raise issues, as it disregards a more international participation (and even national minorities’) in a shared past. One can praise her country’s figures and feats, but carefully enough not to tread on an excessively patriotic, excluding narrative. From a historian’s point of view, it is always best to include as many facts and complexities as possible – reality, however, renders this an impossibility. Taking down statues of Lenin and Stalin, along with removing Soviet ideological elements from the cityscape, is necessary because of their commemorative nature; completely erasing the past, though, besides impossible, is impracticable, or we risk falling into a 1984-esque dystopia. Nowadays, if you take a taxi in Tbilisi, you may end up with a driver who will still use an older name for a street – and have a hard time figuring out where to go. There are even cases when Russian Imperial names are still being used, like “Saarbrucken Square” being known as “Vorontsov Square”, an old governor who developed the city and was much liked by the population. Urban culture took care of preserving that name popularly, even if it was erased from the cityscape. Dealing with the past might not be easy, but we must bear with the task so we can represent it accordingly, reflect on it critically and move forward with an awareness of what we left behind.

This composite image by Levan Avlabreli combines photographs of Tbilisi’s Vorontsov Square from the beginning of the 20th and 21st centuries. More composites by Avlabreli are available here.

An expanded version of this article was published in The Ideology and Politics Journal under the title “Contested Names: (Re-)Naming and Place-Name Politics in Post-Socialist Countries”.
The featured image for this article was adapted from a photo by Amos Chapple for RFE/RL.
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