2023 August-September Analysis

Paolo Iashvili and the Writer’s House of Georgia – Museum of Repressed Writers opens in Sololaki

The Museum of Repressed Writers is a new exhibition in the Writer’s House of Georgia, open Tuesday to Saturday, 11:00 – 18:00, and Saturday 12:00 – 19:00, on 13 Ivane Machabeli in Sololaki, Tbilisi.

We mostly comprehend the Soviet era through its perpetrators, and less through victims too numerous and diverse to hold steady in our minds. At the same time, the story of the period can be told through the trial of Paolo Iashvili in 1937 who, as a complicated martyr, stands for many others.

The story of Paolo Iashvili is the focus of a newexhibit in the Writer’s House of Georgia, which showcases him and the country’s other repressed writers. The building on Machabeli Street, known to many in Tbilisi as the location of the grand Café Littera, is one of the city’s premier mansions, built for entrepreneur and philanthropist David Sarajishvili in 1903-1905.

Despite upheavals, the early decades of the 20th century seemed a promising time for culture. Georgia was teeming with talent. Amidst all these writers, Paolo Iashvili had a pivotal role. Iashvili was born in Kutaisi in 1894 and became one of the leading figures of the Blue Horns group of symbolist poets. Influenced by French avant-garde poetry, this group included writers such as Galaktion and Titsian Tabidze and Giorgi Leonidze, several of which today are recalled by city street names. Russian writers came for visits. Boris Pasternak, acclaimed for Doctor Zhivago, described Paolo Iashvili as brilliant and engaging.

The heyday of these writers was the short bloom of the First Republic. After the Soviet forces occupied Georgia in 1921, the situation across Georgia turned grim. The Sarajishvili mansion on Machabeli Street was handed over to the Union of Writers. For the writers, the transaction was more devil than bargain, as the exhibit shows. The Bolshevik authorities declared that writers had to subordinate artistic impulse to revolutionary mission. Attempts at sabotage would be answered with “the language of the bullet.” Many of the talented writers went quiet or were sidelined. Some, indeed, were spoken to in lead.

During the purges of 1937, Sololaki became the focus of a terrible drama, and the Writer’s House became its main stage. As detailed by Donald Rayfield, one of the leading historians of Georgia, the writers denounced each other over a series of meetings that started in May 1937.

The charges? More explicit than in Franz Kafka’s Trial but no less absurd. Writers needed to defend themselves against the claims that they had been friends with people who had fatally fallen from Bolshevik grace, such as Gogi Eliava of phage fame, or Vladimir Jikia who had built the Rioni dam. The trial in the Union of Writers unfolded in consecutive sittings over several weeks. In contrast to Kafka’s novel, written more than twenty years earlier, it was at first not clear who the accused would be. The people who were present, in other words, had to wonder whether they might turn out to be “Joseph K.”

The meetings in the Writer’s House pitted Georgia’s most articulate people against each other. To speak up for anyone’s defense was to risk your life. Because agents of the NKVD, the deadly repressive machine, were present, there is a detailed stenographer’s account of the meeting. On July 22, 1937, after a series of attacks and denunciations, Paolo Iashvili came to the meeting, and as the presidium met, shot himself next door with a hunting rifle.

The booklet for the exhibition, written by Archil Kikodze, describes the pandemonium that ensued. Six days after the suicide, the Union of Writers met again, and condemned Paolo Iashvili as a “pariah, traitor, and mercenary.”

This story of Paolo Iashvili is now on display in the two rooms of the newly opened Museum of Repressed Writers at the Writer’s House. The exhibit has been designed by Mariam Natroshvili and Detu Jincharadze, a duo of visual artists who have also developed Georgia’s contribution to the 2022 La Biennale Di Venezia, based on documents collected by the Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SovLab) and with financial support from the U.S. Embassy.

It is a visually powerful exhibition, with key quotes in large letters, period photographs, and selected objects from the time, beautifully lit. Not all texts are translated into English, but Google Lens makes their meaning accessible.

Natasha Lomouri, the director of the Writer’s House of Georgia, says that a major reason for setting up the exhibit was that they discovered, to their astonishment, that visiting tours of school kids had no idea that some of their beloved poets had been murdered by the Bolshevik regime. According to Lomouri, “it felt right to fill up that huge gap in our educational system – to tell these stories through an interactive museum in the very same place that has witnessed some of the most tragic processes in our history.”

When you remarry – always tell the truth

Iashvili was a martyr, but not a saint. He had been implicated in Bolshevism in various ways. In his trial, he apparently tried to better his situation by incriminating those that he probably thought were already doomed. In this way, Paolo Iashvili comes across as deeply human.

That impression deepens when you read his own words. The centerpiece of the exhibition are letters in the second room, arranged as in a shrine. After hearing the news of Paolo Iashvili’s death, Boris Pasternak writes to Titsian Tabidze “what can I say? For what is it to me, such unthinkable suffering, the equal of which I have never known.” Pasternak adds that “we’ll all be judged.” Tabidze would be arrested ten weeks later and murdered before the year was up.

In his goodbye letter that references their daughter, Paolo Iashvili writes to his wife that “I am dying with a feeling of clarity, and for that reason I feel sure you and Medea will overcome this misfortune.” Acknowledging that it will be difficult, he points her to a possible future: “When you remarry, try to make sure that Medea does not lose touch with our relatives and loved ones.”

The most heartbreaking letter is to Medea. He begs his daughter for forgiveness. “When you grow up and consider my fate, you’ll be convinced that it was better for me to die, you would have been unhappier if I had not killed myself today. […] I can’t write any more, goodbye, my darling! Medea, Medea, goodbye! Study well, work hard, always tell the truth, try to become a woman of renown, love your motherland, never forget your family and your father.”

The trial of Iashvili, the judgement against the Soviet Union

What brought that terrible scythe to so many writers? Whatever the immediate trigger, the purges were primarily the consequence of deeply insecure people in total control, acting out their twisted anxieties on others. Not giving these wretched pharaohs of destruction too much attention is, too, a reason why the story of that time should be told through those who managed to recover dignity against fatal odds.

The exhibition presents this counterpoint with a quote from Iashvili. “I have faith that the sun will yet rise to fall upon our exalted heads.” On a most existential level, Iashvili shows that you can do the right thing after you have done the wrong thing, too. It was the deadly trial of Paolo Iashvili, but the summary judgement was against the Soviet Union itself.

At the price of his life, Iashvili left a legacy of symbolic capital that can increase if spent wisely. If one centers the story on Iashvili, a few measures suggest themselves. More emphasis could be given to July 22 every year to commemorate Iashvili. Involving the President in this effort would invest the date with ceremonial significance. Also, perhaps rather than whack-a-moling the Stalin statues that are sprouting across the country, a more compelling impact could be had by putting up a statue of Paolo Iashvili right across from them. In the most extreme version, the empty plinth in Gori, from which the Murderer-in-Chief’s statue was removed at night on June 25, 2010, could be filled, on some future July 22, with a large statue of Paolo Iashvili, as a presence to counter the violent ghost of that town.

Some writers have written on what happened in the Writer’s House more than 80 years ago. Davit Gabunia’s play Tiger and Lion (2018) tells the tale of Titsian Tabidze, Paolo Iashvili, and Mikheil Javakhishvili (another victim) via the two stuffed animals that witnessed the events in the wood-paneled rooms. The play has been staged in Germany also, to favorable reviews. Tamta Melashvili has traced other manifestations of Iashvili as an author. The critic Maya Jaggi has written about “Resurrecting the Poets of Tbilisi” in the New York Review of Books in 2022. These evangelists capture different aspects of a sacrifice that continues to resonate.

That this epoch should be seen in apostolic terms had already been suggested by Mikhail Bulgakov in Master and Margarita. Through the trial of Jesus as Yeshua Ha-Notsri at the hands of Pontius Pilate, the book, mostly written in the late 1930s, connects the Soviet Union to the skulls of Golgotha. Is Master and Margarita, sometimes described as one the 20th century’s most remarkable novels, allegorical about the events in Tbilisi at the time? It contains various hints, including being set at a literary society in a beautiful mansion, named after Alexander Griboyedov, a diplomat and poet buried in Tbilisi’s Mtatsminda Pantheon. At least, the novel captures that what was going on was a rupture so apocalyptic that it required a biblical register.

Donald Rayfield, the British historian, has been the main chronicler of the trial in English, having published a longer piece based on the original NKVD transcript in 1990. Rayfield ends his remarkable article harshly, pointing to Paolo Iashvili’s complicity in Bolshevism: “Perhaps, in the final analysis, Paolo Iashvili was morally as well as physically responsible for his own death.” A more compassionate reading would focus on Paolo Iashvili’s ultimate distancing, rather than his previous enmeshment.

Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s main poets of the 20th century, has suggested, with reference to the composer Alexander Scriabin, that how an artist dies is a last creative act, shining a light on his entire life. Paolo Iashvili confronted the inevitability of his fate to make a statement beyond anything that words could say. Taking his own life publicly at such a central location marked a final moral stance. It implied the bankruptcy of Soviet rule. Paolo Iashvili also clarified that truly authentic stories, especially stories of sacrifice, remain irrepressible.

Great museums change the way we see

Good museums offer engaging things to look at. Great museums change how we see the world. The Writer’s House of Georgia is an enchanting space – and after visiting we can recognize more clearly that its significance reaches into the present day, up to the recent attack on Salman Rushdie.

Earlier, Paolo Iashvili’s goodbye letters were described as arranged as if they were a shrine. If you care about writers, about their memory – Georgia, Tbilisi, the Writer’s House of Georgia, and the Museum of Repressed Writers are worthy of a pilgrimage.

Hans Gutbrod teaches at Ilia State University. He is on Twitter at @HansGutbrod.