- A City of Poets:The Cultural Life of Tbilisi 1910–1930
Tbilisi, your poets have gathered,
And the tavern now thunders like the sea—Aleksandr Poroshin
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Due to its singular location at the crossroads of North and South, East and West, Tbilisi—or Tiflis, as it was then widely called—has often been compared to the two-headed Roman god Janus, whose one head was turned eastward and the other westward. The geographical position of the city, along with [End Page 289] cultural and historical conditions specific to late imperial Russia, created a fertile environment for the rise of modernism during the 1910s and the 1920s. “One found the strangest people there,” noted British journalist Carl Bechhofer Roberts: “poets and painters… philosophers, theosophists, dancers, singers, actors and actresses…”1 The Russian revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war shattered the material foundations of cultural life throughout much of the crumbling tsarist empire, compelling many Russian artists and intellectuals to flee to Tbilisi, which served as the capital of independent Georgia between 1918 and 1921.
In 1922 the Georgian modernist poet T’itsian T’abidze wrote of the recent past:
Three years ago Russia was something phantasmagorical. All over Russia it was snowing frozen icicles of astral dust. The devastation of the civil war, the freezing Arctic cold, the bloodthirsty Cheka [the Bolshevik secret police], and a famine that acquired the proportions of a mystery play. Subject to inhuman terror, exiled émigrés spoke of unspeakable things. People of culture would kiss the ground of Tbilisi right before our eyes and begin to cry on seeing the light of electric lamps…2
This vision of Tbilisi as “an oasis in the desert [for] those seeking to escape the storm of war and revolution”3 was further elaborated by the doyen of Georgian modernism Grigol Robakidze:
Tbilisi is a strange city, but in 1919–1920 it became stranger still. Russians who had been expelled or who had fled Russia took shelter here. The voice of [Russian actor Vasilii] Kachalov could be heard on stage… [The actor Nikolai] Khodotov was also in Tbilisi and his voice resounded from the stage as well. The drunken composer [Alexander] Cherepnin would visit cafés and brood over Russia… The artist Sergei Sudeikin decorated the walls of a restaurant which Georgian poets dubbed the Kimerioni—and Sudeikin truly filled the restaurant with chimeras. The artist Savelii Sorin painted beautifully contoured profiles of elegant women from the Georgian nobility on canvas… Who was not in Tbilisi at this time? It was here too that the [Russian] futurists shifted to dada. They created the organization ‘41°.’ Il’ia Zdanevich was also in Tbilisi, truly magnificent as he recited his Death of Garro in the cafes. [The Russian Futurist poet] Vasilii Kamenskii visited Tbilisi as well. There were others, too.
Tbilisi became a city of poets. In the Café Internationale Tbilisi was pronounced the city of poets. Moreover, people began claiming that real poetry could only be found in Tbilisi… The world was going downhill and Tbilisi was the only city to greet its ‘downfall’ with poetic songs. Such was the Tbilisi fantasy.
One day … at the Café Internationale a leader of the young Georgian poets, P’aolo Iashvili, climbed onto a table and loudly declared that Tbilisi, and not Paris, was the center of the world culture.4
The cultural and artistic life of Tbilisi during the 1910s and 1920s was arguably the single most significant phenomenon in the history of modern Georgian art. The achievements of European modernism were rapidly assimilated and adapted by the inhabitants of a city that had itself been transformed over the previous century by the rapid growth of manufacturing and trade. From the second half of 1910s, the rapid [End Page 290] renewal of urban life and a desire for radical change provoked by unprecedented social, political and psychological conditions established an environment saturated with elements of modernity. The old forms of expression were no longer perceived as useful; a new life needed a new artistic language, and Georgian...