The Dispatch

Dispatch – June 5: Grass Walk

This year’s Independence Day celebrations came at the height of political turmoil. Opponents of the foreign agents’ law marked the day by retracing the path of the first-ever Independence Day celebrations in 1919, a year after the country officially split from the Russian Empire. The march began near the Tbilisi Concert Hall and ended in Vake Park. As the old national anthem was played and the flags of the First Republic were waved, the mystery remained. In 1918-1921, Georgia was able to create an exemplary (social-) democratic experiment in just three years, and it took a Soviet invasion to end it. And now, in a second attempt, we have had 33 years and are about to lose everything to the whims of a billionaire simply because he failed to withdraw money from a troubled Swiss bank and panicked. How could things go THIS wrong?

Here is Nini and the Dispatch newsletter, on our way to take a walk on the grass and try to reconnect with what was lost.

Independence Day celebration on May 26, 1919. Photo shared on social media by historian Dimitri Silakadze
Independence Day celebration on May 26, 1919. Photo shared on social media by historian Dimitri Silakadze

We can leave it to historians and academics to draw detailed conclusions and simply look at the pictures above. Rare photos from that 1919 celebration show a large festive gathering where today’s Vake Park is in Tbilisi. The images couldn’t feel more different from today. What makes that key difference is the vast space of naked slopes and wide fields. Somehow, these black-and-white photos look greener than any color pictures of the same area now: you don’t find such open landscapes in Tbilisi anymore.

Over the past century, Georgia appears to have developed a strange phobia of open and free spaces and a peculiar fear of wild green grass. Such places have been disappearing in the cities one by one, and unsurprisingly so: with every field comes a businessman, or a government official, or (most often) both incarnated in the same person, who feels an irresistible urge “to do something with it” – which, in most cases involves turning the place into a concrete jungle. Where the communities were quick and strong enough, the best they could do was to compromise with the authorities, who agreed to build a park there – the only way to save it from another claustrophobic project. Often, it’s the locals themselves who propose the idea of a park, knowing full well that the place won’t survive the greed of the mighty for too long.

These parks then come with fountains, exercise equipment, chairs, playgrounds, lights, bike lanes, stadiums, cafes, decorations, this, that, and – as a tribute to good old free times – a few small patches of grass. Work is underway to do the same for the largest such grassy place – the former hippodrome grounds in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district. The areas around Tbilisi’s lakes were either gentrified or, if it’s not central enough for the government or property developers to care, turned into abandoned, dangerous places. The only time the government cares about creating more green spaces is when it wants to make it harder for crowds to gather at traditional political rallying points.

Walking Barefoot

If, barefoot, I can’t walk on the grassy knoll… what is motherland?” reads a famous, melancholic line by the revered Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze. But walking on the grass – with or without shoes – has long felt as illegal as simply walking freely in the motherland increasingly does. The fields have been transformed and shaped in such a way as to turn the grass into mere decorations at the expense of that intimate connection the poet was writing about. And it’s not just the businessmen and officials who are to blame – over the past decades, society as a whole has done its best to shrink public spaces and mark territories – in all possible senses.

If the First Republic was born out of decades of vibrant and spacious intellectual life – even under the Tsarist rule – this did not seem to be the case in its successor. In the current republic, we’ve looked at free intellectual spaces as we’ve looked at untouched fields: it could ideally mean beauty and freedom, but more tangibly, it meant uncertainty and imminent fear of someone stealing and exploiting it. So before someone else comes in with a novel idea, why not fence ourselves in and lay down some ideologically armored concrete? Or if we are forced to give it away, let’s do it on our own terms to satisfy that tiny illusion of agency!

This “someone” was mostly Russia: faced with a constant existential threat from the North, political and intellectual elites felt the urge to shut down discussion in case anyone fell prey to “Russian narratives.” Georgians became overprotective and patronizing of each other, clear lines were drawn, and everyone was forced to choose their echo chambers. No wonder we ran away too easily with the concept of “disinformation,” passionately embarked on a great mission of “myth-busting,” and thought we’d figured it all out.

Overprotected Kid Syndrome

But perhaps, sometimes, the fear of propaganda can be as harmful as propaganda itself. Facts only matter if there is a space to communicate them, a space that includes everyone and exposes them to a larger diversity of sensitive and possibly even dangerous ideas. But at least a space that makes room for discussion and makes society more resilient, more comfortable with, and more discerning about ambiguities. Yet few of such spaces faded without even properly emerging. And since the Georgians keep waking up in narrowly defined and barely overlapping parallel ideological and political realities.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, things got worse as both uncertainty and fear grew. Instead of acknowledging each other’s fears and finding ways to confront them, many Georgians chose outright denial. Hostage to self-imposed limitations, Georgian opposition elites failed to develop a discourse to talk to citizens and address their fears, ending up effectively alienating them and leaving them in a state of anxiety and distress. This left room for the ruling party a free hand to manipulate and then completely subvert the truth, feeding Georgians conspiracies that violate every law of logic and gaslight anyone with common sense.

The government knows how much it benefited from the lack of such open spaces for argumentation. Now, with the foreign agents’ law targeting independent media and watchdogs, the ruling party is seeking to eliminate the last sources of trust and truth in Georgia. Is there a way out?

Reclaiming Wet Grass

Will the emerging, more decentralized Georgian civil society reclaim these lost spaces? Or tear down the concrete and (re)create them?

It remains to be seen, but at least they are reclaiming and redefining some physical spaces. Through their spontaneous rallies and marches in recent weeks, Georgian protesters have occupied places from which citizens have long been exiled. The most obvious example is Heroes’ Square: a dizzying concrete intersection and traffic artery dedicated to vehicles. Seeing a pedestrian there, let alone someone sitting on the grass, was hardly imaginable just months ago. But large crowds have repeatedly marched through such uncharted pedestrian jungles, filled spaces carved out for cars, and distended them back for human use – an occurrence so unnatural that ruling party officials responded with desperate attempts to downplay the numbers and even questioned the authenticity of photos taken there. 

Business, power politics, restrictive past, and collective traumas have all teamed up to limit the spaces where Georgians can connect and face the uncertainties of this world together. But now that more young people are breaking those boundaries and walking on the grass without asking anyone’s permission, will they rekindle that physical bond with their motherland and find the space to reconnect with each other? Time will tell. But time is also running out.

Protesters sitting on a grass previously uninhabited by a human race, Heroes Square, Tbilisi, May 15, 2024. Photo: Nini Gabritchidze/


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