Only one major city in the world is approached from its international airport by a motorway named after President George W. Bush. The Ministry of Defence recently organized a prize essay competition for school students on the theme, ‘Why I want our country to join nato’. The state in question already has a symbolic presence in the ongoing American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its parliament voted in March this year to increase its involvement in both. The government has also offered its territory for stationing part of the new us star wars deployment. It has good reason, being directly on the American payroll.

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We are in Tbilisi, the ancient capital of Georgia, south of the main ridge of the Caucasus. A city of about a million inhabitants—as with most post-Soviet cities, official population figures are not necessarily reliable—its setting is a steep ravine; physical geography offering an unavoidable metaphor for the vertiginous political and economic fortunes of its inhabitants. Alexandre Dumas, visiting in 1858, described it as ‘perched over the abyss, arrayed on the flanks of the mountain and running down to the bottom of the precipice, a frightened city, with houses like a flight of birds that has settled where it could and how it could.’footnote1 The Mtkvari River which bisects the city is not large by continental standards, but it cuts through a rough, mountainous landscape. Tbilisi has a stunning natural verticality, so far unchallenged by man-made skyscrapers. Along the left bank, seemingly hanging onto the cliffs, are rows of lacy wooden loggias and balconies, reinvented as archetypically Georgian in the 19th century.

In a characteristic post-Communist re-sacralization of public space, the skyline is now dominated by the huge compound of the Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral. Completed in 2004, it dwarfs the exquisite 13th-century Sion Cathedral. Second only in scale is the new presidential palace being built for President Saakashvili, with its Reichstag-style cupola and colonnaded facade. Around these constructions, decayed popular neighbourhoods—Avlabari, the old Armenian quarter; the once-militantly organized working-class districts around the railway works and depot—are on their way to demolition or gentrification. In 2001 the former Palace of Weddings, clearly inspired by Tatlin’s design for the Comintern tower, was sold as a residence to the businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, a former associate of Boris Berezovsky. Other post-Soviet fashions are evident in the high-kitsch golden statue of St. George and the dragon atop a massive column, floodlit by night, at the centre of Tbilisi’s main square; it is the creation of Zurab Tsereteli, court sculptor of Luzhkov’s Moscow.

The political history of Transcaucasia has famously been as vivid and violent as its landscapes—the dramatic mountain scenery, lush valleys and high plateaux, stretching some 400 miles from the subtropical Black Sea beaches to the orange groves of the Caspian littoral and flickering Zoroastrian flames of Baku. In pre-Tsarist times, widely divergent social structures underlay this multi-ethnic region: feudal Georgian landowners and peasantry; urban networks of diaspora Armenian merchants and manufacturers; rural khanates and Shia clergy in the east. Established as union republics within the ussr, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan seceded as independent states in 1991. Rather than a synoptic account, however, what follows is a reading of the varying cultural, political and economic fortunes of the post-Soviet South Caucasian republics through the prism of urban development and public architecture.

Georgia’s voluntary entry into the Russian Empire in 1801—its princes seeking the Tsar’s protection against Ottoman and Iranian powers—made Tbilisi the focal point of Tsarism’s southward expansion in the early 19th century. The city had played a central role in Georgian history for over a millennium, as capital of the 5th-century Kartli kings, of a unified kingdom of Georgia in the 12th and 13th centuries, and thereafter of various monarchies struggling to hold off Mongol, Arab, Ottoman and Safavid invaders. But it was during the long Tsarist century that followed 1801 that Tbilisi, or Tiflis, as it was known, became predominant in the region. Until the conquest of Tashkent in the 1860s, it was also the headquarters for Russian operations in the Central Asian ‘great game’. From here the Tsar’s armies made their eastward thrust to Baku, then across the Caspian and the formidable, robber-infested Turkmen deserts to the oases of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.

Late 19th-century Tbilisi was one of the largest cities in the empire, and a significant site for Russian literary history. Pushkin had visited the city, and it was where Lermontov was exiled as a disgraced officer. Griboyedov married a young Georgian noblewoman here, and was buried in Tbilisi in 1829 after being killed in Tehran—where he served as Russian ambassador—by a xenophobic mob.footnote2 The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun was in Tbilisi in 1899, and his compatriot, the minor writer and bohemian femme fatale Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, lover of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, was killed here in 1901 by another lover. The mixing of Georgian culture with that of Tsarist Russia, along with the influence of a considerable ethnic variety—Armenians, Azeris, Assyrians, Jews, Pontic Greeks—produced a cosmopolitan city, a kind of pseudo-Moorish St Petersburg of the east. There had been ancient settlements on both sides of the river, but the medieval Georgian city, with its walled compounds and dark-brick churches, lay on the right bank; here too were the main bazaar, the sulphur baths, the Jewish quarter and the city’s largest mosque. During the Tsarist period, however, new building took place mainly further west along the Mtkvari.

Tbilisi’s centre is still largely that of a Tsarist city. Its imposing main square, the location of the governor’s palace and the seminary, was named after Paskevich of Yerevan, the formidable Russian general who conquered the strategic Armenian city in 1827 and later suppressed the Polish Uprising of 1830. Since then, like many of the major streets and public spaces of Eastern Europe, the square has undergone successive changes of name, reflecting the upheavals of the twentieth century. During Georgia’s brief independence from Russia, from 1918–21, it became Freedom Square; between 1921 and 1936, when Tbilisi was the capital of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, it was Federation Square; from 1936 until his fall in 1953 it was labelled Beria Square. It then reverted to Lenin Square until the demise of the ussr, when it once again became Freedom Square.