"Those of us who fought in the war, we can’t ever go back. They’ve got our names in the system. If we come back, they’ll take us away. We’ve been living in this place for 24 years! What has the government done for us? They promise to finally resettle us into a new apartment block. We’ll see.”
The man in the image below was the first person I spoke to at the derelict sanatorium in Tskaltubo. I never got his name. He was a refugee from the early 90s Abkhaz war, as was everyone else living in the buildings which were once the medical holiday destination for the Soviet elite.
“Why are you here?” He asked. “I’m photographing some of the Soviet relics around Georgia.” I replied.
“Soviets… ah, they fucked everything up. That’s why we’re still in this mess.” I think he was the first person I met over 50 who didn’t speak nostalgically of the good, old times.
I asked if I could look around. "There's nothing to see here, it's a shame really, but sure, go ahead."
I went up the stairs that the man pointed out and entered what I thought was a completely abandoned building. I navigated through corridors, taking care not to fall through holes in the floors.
It turned out that the building wasn’t abandoned after all. It still housed around 10 people. Vakhtang (below) is one of the residents. As soon as we met, he invited me to his place for coffee. I gladly accepted the invitation. I wanted to find out more. And I really wanted to see what the living conditions were like for people who live in a building that looks like it could collapse any minute.
Inside, the hotel-room-cum-apartment was actually very normal. There was a lounge room, one bedroom, one storage room, a bathroom and a balcony converted into a small kitchen. The photo of Vakhtang making coffee was taken in this kitchen. Everything was very well kept, clean. Complete contrast to what I saw outside.
Vakhtang is 83 years old, but he’s in great shape. He’s a fascinating character. When I asked if he ever got lonely, he told me he has no time for loneliness. He’s working on a book about Georgian history that dates back at least 10 centuries. It takes up most of his time. He dreams that one day it will be published, but it would be too large to carry around. Vakhtang’s idea is to place the gigantic book into a museum. Rather than have people open the book to read it, he wants to write about the key historical scenes under exhibits depicting those scenes.
We had a few drinks. I was joined by a friend from Norway. He took some for the team, since I was driving. As the sun started its descent and began to enter the lounge room I realised that we spoke about the most varied topics and we’d spent close to two hours at Vakhtang’s place. Before pouring another glass of wine for my friend, he paused and said “You asked me if I get lonely. Of course I do. I’ve really enjoyed your company though. Let’s drink to our friendship."
Things made more sense when I learned about the photos on Vakhtang’s wall. At the top are his parents. The boy and the soldier –– that’s his son. Both Vahktang and his son fought in the war, unfortunately his son was killed.
When I said that I wanted to fly my drone over his building. Vakhtang became very curious. He followed us to see the gadget that would have been impossible to imagine during his youth.
As we stepped outside of the orderly apartment, we were again confronted by the reality of a dilapidated structure that Vakhtang and 10 other people call home. He told us that there were many more people living there before and that around 90 residents still occupy the neighbouring building. Vakhtang said that only a tiny percentage of people was able to buy property and move out. They were all eagerly waiting for the apartment block promised to them by the government.
A pitiful sight today, in the Soviet times the sanatorium had one of the more lavishly decorated interiors in all of the USSR. Vakhtang told us that you couldn’t come here as a regular Georgian. The rooms and treatments were usually reserved for high-ranking officials from Moscow and people with connections. Most Georgians had never been inside before the place became a refuge for those who who escaped the Abkhaz war.
Vakhtang told us that when the refugees arrived they were shocked by the beauty of the sanatorium. The place was like a palace and initially seemed like a very pleasant alternative to living in a new war-struck country focused on cleansing itself of ethnic Georgians.
Over the years every little thing was stolen by officials of the time and looted by anybody else who could get access to the place.
What was one of the the more sorry sights–a large room with nothing inside except for piles of rubbish, turned out to be a former cinema. Vakhtang claims that for whatever reason it housed the latest available movie projector technologies, all of which were of course also stolen too.
Just as Vakhtang finished sharing the little bit of history with me, some pigeons flew in through a large hole in the roof. He's looking up at them in the photo below.
I flew the drone to the surprise of some of the other residents, one of the women is taking a photo of the drone with her phone. Vakhtang was delighted and said that if he ever got a chance, he would buy a drone too. He asked me to write down the model name.
I took down Vakhtang’s phone number and told him that I’ll probably be back next May. “You’re welcome any time. I’ll be happy to see you again, if I’m around.” He said with a smile.