Selling The Past: A Story From Tbilisi
January 27, 2017 7:46 AM   Subscribe

"I focused on one part of the market and set about creating a 360-degree panorama of everyone and everything in my field of view. And after nearly four months of work, always standing in the same place, it became a four-metre-long ink drawing." Artist Andrew North has drawn a 360-degree panorama of the Eliava Bazaar in Tblisi, Georgia.

North: So why draw the Eliava bazaar? First, it's a fascinating visual challenge. Second, as a journalist I see the market as a compelling snapshot of Georgia's post-Soviet story. It's a place that symbolises and caters for the demands of a new aspirational society, and where the Soviet past also lives on. The past is on sale here, in the search for a new future.

When you enter the Eliava, you take a journey through time, into a labyrinth of stalls selling an astonishing array of old Russian tools, power engines and spare parts, providing work for hundreds of people. Most of the stallholders grew up under the Soviet Union; some are struggling to adjust to the new post-Soviet Georgia. Selling the past is helping them make a living in the present.

Public Radio International: Take a tour of the 'Home Depot of Soviet past'
posted by mandolin conspiracy (5 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
That's absolutely fascinating; thanks for posting it. My deepest regret about my visit to the Soviet Union is that I didn't get to Georgia (our tour guide scheduled us for eleven days in goddam Sochi instead).
posted by languagehat at 9:16 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Its really weird but I know of this place, its just across the Mtkvari river from The George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology in the north end of the city, which has its own unique Soviet history and post-Soviet challenges.

Both are named after famed Georgian microbiologist George Eliava who, at the personal request of Stalin around 1934, brought Félix d'Herelle to Tbilisi to join the now eponymous institute to convert it towards research into and the production of bacteriophages. Indeed, Stalin had read both of d'Herelle's books describing the bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) that he had discovered in the previous decade and wanted the institute to provide the Red Army and public health officials with viruses that could be used to prevent and treat intestinal bacterial disease. It was meant to address what was a pretty pressing challenge at the time. The sanitary logistics of the Red Army were in many ways not so dissimilar to those of the army that marched into Paris under Peter the Great, involving a lot of pooping into the same river it drank from to predictable results, and Soviet Union was not able to invest in modern sanitary infrastructure. Félix d'Herelle's preparation of bacteriophages, now known as intestiphage, that infected each of the 20+ strains that were most problematic offered an economical alternative.

The institute became a significant success, rapidly isolating and then industrially producing huge quantities of bacteriophage preparations that were demonstrated after the war to be significantly effective. However, just three years later Eliava and his wife were murdered at the personal direction of Lavrenti Beria, chief of the NKVD. Stalin was reportedly so outraged at Eliava's disappearance that Beria did not dare tell him that the deed had not yet been done and then arranged to have Eliava quietly disposed of. After this d'Herelle was so terrified himself and disillusioned with the whole Soviet experiment that he fled the country leaving behind the harem of hyper-competent women that both men had trained. The oral history of the event passed down from them to the women who still run the institute holds that Eliava had the misfortune to fall in love, and then sleep with, an opera singer that Beria was obsessed with. Though academic opinion suggests that Beria may have been simply demonstrating to the military that even a Hero of Soviet Science who they deeply valued was not safe from his goons - though the more romantic story doesn't seem to be widely known.

Whatever actually happened, even though Eliava was gone, his legacy lived on in the institute that found itself flourishing after the war providing intestiphage preparations by the ton, particularly to the Red Army and nascent Soviet Republics where modern sanitation was still a long time coming. However, it also continued developing a second preparation known as pyophage, which targeted strains involved in infecting purulent wounds. Indeed, even after the war as antibiotic treatment of purulent infections became widespread in the West, the Soviet Union never really participated in the antibiotics revolution to the same degree both because they lacked the foreign currency to buy antibiotics and because they had their own homegrown alternative in bacteriophage. Indeed, the institute continued producing industrial quantities of bacteriophage, and updating the preparation with phage against new strains every six months, right up until khozraschyot sold off the production facilities to what is now Biochimpharm and other firms. For years the institute kept the fridges preserving their invaluable phage collection cold, most of the time, with some money from NATO's efforts to keep Soviet scientists with militarily relevant skills from starving and some money from applying their clinical microbiology skills - but bitter experience has taught them a deep suspicion of Western pharmaceutical companies seeking their knowledge and phage. These days they run a Phage Therapy Center catering to Western medical tourists and have been working on getting cGMP production going to be able to hopefully compete in the Western market once it is eventually established.
languagehat: "(our tour guide scheduled us for eleven days in goddam Sochi instead)"
That is deeply regrettable, if I ever find myself in your neck of the woods I'll be sure to bring some Georgian Chacha.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:42 AM on January 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

Good post. Thank you.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:19 AM on January 27, 2017

Thanks for that additional commentary, Blasdelb, as well as to mandolin conspiracy for finding some true best of the web here.
posted by ambrosen at 10:24 AM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is extraordinary. Thanks!
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:00 PM on January 28, 2017

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