I was driving to Yerevan from Tbilisi to work on the Armenia Lifeline Road Improvement Project. It was not a fun drive as we got hit by a very bad snow storm in the mountains with 100 m visibility. I seem to have such luck with my Armenian trips – last time driving from Yerevan we had to leave late and so did it in the dark. Fortunately, I had a very safe driver, and an excellent book to distract me.
In ‘Stories I Stole’ the English author Wendell Steavenson shares her observations of the South Caucasus’ – mainly Georgia – from 1998 – 2001. This was a turbulent time with great hardship, such as no power and limited law-and-order. It makes for a fascinating read as so much has changed in Georgia in these ten years. But one thing has not changed, the fact that both Georgia and Armenia are littered with ‘Large Abandoned Objects’ (LOA).
Wendell devotes an entire chapter to LOA and I reflected how she was able to encapsulate so succinctly with the term LOA what one sees in these countries:
“I stared out the window and mentally collected LAOs…; they were my driving pastime. Rusting tractors, bits of pipeline, lines of coal cars shunted and left along a rail line, half-built bridges and apartment blocks standing concrete and empty; a skeletal, burnt out crane hanging over them. Bits of the past left, ruined collective farm barracks and factories with all their windows smashed and their plant ripped out for scrap. Remnants of something else – a civilization of sorts? – scattered everywhere, lumps of concrete and bits of twisted metal, lying about to stub your toe on. Everywhere lay the debris of the Soviets, the husk of an empire. Mostly there were hundreds and hundreds of piles of reinforced concrete slabs, rotting, crumbling, rusting from the inside. In the villages ruined shops were abandoned, miles of counter and shelves left permanently empty; instead people fashioned kiosks from scraps of metal fence and corrugated iron and bits of wood tied together with wire … ” (page 93-94)
She goes on to describe the Georgian break-away region of Abkhazia as “Probably the largest abandoned object of them all”. I suspect that South Ossetia would now quality for that after the August 2008 war.
LOAs are still everywhere in Georgia and Armenia. Both countries had industrial and mining cities created by the Soviets which were only kept going by large subsidies. That is one of the reasons the Soviet empire collapsed – it bankrupted itself. For example, the photo to the right is from a coal mining town in Georgia. Today the city is still there, with people living in apartment buildings, but the industry is just one LOA.
It is strange that at least the metal has not been recycled and turned into scrap. I recall in Georgia seeing a line of rusting railway carriages with grass growing on them. My colleague Archil commented that with the oxidation rate affecting the reusable scrap, before too much longer they would be totally worthless.
It is not just in the post-Soviet industrial cities or small villages that one sees LOAs, they even exist in places like Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I went for a walk up towards the ‘Mother of Armenia’ statue and came across a large structure on the hill next to the swimming pool complex. Was it once a restaurant? Today it is a LOA. When I asked about a large apartment/office building my colleague Gurgen said it was started in the Soviet time but never finished. The government cannot destroy it since it is private property so we are left with another LOA.
As a road engineer one of the saddest LOAs are the partially constructed viaducts that one sees in both Georgia and Armenia. They built the columns, and in some instances had even started placing the beams, when they stopped and left. After 20 years they look so desolate.
In her book, Wendell visits the Villa in Abkhazia which was built for Mikhael Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, but which he never occupied since the Soviet empire collapsed. Having spent the night in the Mikhael and Raisa’s suite she notes: “As it was, everything fell apart and we, like the rest of the inhabitants of the post-Soviet Union, were camping in what was a shell of its former self”.
It is a testament to the resiliency of the Georgians and Armenians that they have been able to endure the difficult economic crises which led to so many LOAs. I am grateful to have the opportunity in some small way through the World Bank’s infrastructure investment program to help them rebuild and develop new economies. They are great people and deserve much better than they have right now.