Tbilisi: When The Night's Over
Stuck on an endless circuit between London and Tbilisi, Nini Barbakadze says that when it comes to freedom, both cities prove it is elusive.
Words and Images Nini Barbakadze
Nini Barbakadze, London, 2020
Only After Dark, a post-rave crowd in Tbilisi, 2018
I landed in Tbilisi last March, leaving locked-down London to go to locked-down Georgia. Yes, Tbilisi, the very same one Lermontov’s nameless narrator is travelling through in Hero of Our Time; the city that has been declared the emerging post-Soviet centre; the city that sleeps a lot and if awake, floats in a depressive haze. It is sunny a lot in Tbilisi, suffocating in summer. Despite that, I always think of it as misty and grey. A concrete jungle of frozen dreams, a sort of panopticon. I stepped out of the airport and felt the gravity shift. There was no one to pick me up and the air got heavier as I waited, doors seem narrower there.
I shed the layers of skin, removing and packing away any sartorial markers of my identity as I moved towards the centre of the city. I slowly tricked myself into the familiar state of peaceful nihilism. Going back and forth between London and Tbilisi, I have come to realise that I have to choose between indifference and total insanity, and over the years I have decided that in Tbilisi, I should let sanity trump fruitless rebellion.
I don't really leave the house when I am in Tbilisi, especially now that the world has gone mad. I used to, but only on Fridays, the club nights. I would go to notorious Bassiani, or climb down the steep hill to Khidi, taking part in the hedonistic masquerade that used to go down every Friday in various spots of Tbilisi’s gritty underground. I think of Tbilisi’s clubs as masked rituals: under the blanket of night, in damp red tunnels the social order and traditional values are reversed, the excess is “allowed.” Just for the night. Dancing is a sort of pacifier, a catharsis, a tool used to maintain compliance, to avoid social upheaval from the youth that’s fed up with constraints and expectations and religion. It is about temporary illusion of freedom.
Freedom is a sensitive subject in Georgia. Where do I even start? I can go on about Georgian youth: sexually repressed, politically apathetic and cynical beyond repair. I can write about how clubs in Tbilisi are a form of social control, how ironic it is that the word ‘freedom’ recurs in the Georgian national anthem. I can talk about the absence of any LGBTQ+ rights. I can tell you that when Prometheus stole fire from gods and gave it to mortals, Zeus chained him to the rocks of Caucasus. The legend goes that when Prometheus breaks the chains, Georgia will be free. There is no need to say that the chains remain intact.
Nini Barbakadze, London (II), 2020
I am from Georgia and 20% of my country is occupied by Russia, 2020
I can describe the place called Liberty Square in Tbilisi, right down from where Georgian police forces have attacked the peaceful protestors on multiple occasions; how 20 percent of my country is occupied by Russia. I can flick through history books and tell you about Red Terror; Georgian artists like Dimitri Shevardnadze, Petre Otskheli, Vakhtang Kotetishvili, arrested on trumped-up charges, forced into exile, or persecuted; How one corrupt government replaces the other. I can write about how people have given up on hope. How I have given up on hope. But what’s the point?
I think that freedom is a flawed concept. It does not have to do with where you live or what you wear, who you are allowed to love, and what you can buy. Growing up, I was always in search of ‘somewhere else.’ I am not anymore. I don’t think freedom has to do with where you are, or who you are, for that matter. I am as unfree in London as anywhere else. I find London too sterile, too constrictive, too predictable and characterless. It’s not the city that can be set as a background for something meaningful to happen. It's too storied for that, it's too gimmicky.
I don’t think that I am free, but I also think that no one is. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an unjust country. Maybe it’s because I have witnessed war. Much like Dostoyevsky’s idea about unoriginal people, I believe freedom should be discussed in terms of consciousness. Then there would be three types of people in this world: blissfully ignorant who think they are free; others who desperately fight for freedom; and moral absolutists who know that freedom is a lie. I often wish I were blissfully ignorant.