Suspended over the impossibly steep slopes and down into the valley of Chiatura, countless steel cables twist across the sky like a web of indiscernible dimension. A gruff man, red faced and smoking a cigarette, ushers me into a steel box hanging from the cables, then closes the door and locks it from outside. Within the cable car there are no chairs, just rudimentary holes cut into the steel plate, their edges rusting beneath a thin veneer of blue spray paint. I poke my head out in time to see the man approaching a box on the wall nearby, he presses something within and rings a bell notifying an operator above that a passenger is ready to ascend. Immediately, the cable car lurches into motion and I am lifted, swinging slowly up into the sky.
At the end of my six minute ride I find myself atop one of the numerous cliffs surrounding Chiatura. A crude steel box, small and painted a bright pink, is perched at the very edge of the cliff. A woman waits patiently inside, listening to a small dated radio and boiling water in a ceramic cup on an open stove nestled beneath a table in the corner. She sits here every day looking out across the mountains and valleys of Imereti, a fertile region of Georgia that is rich in manganese ore, the primary export of Chiatura.
A dwindling populace, just shy of twenty thousand, lives among the dilapidated, soviet-style panelák structures left over from nearly a century of Bolshevik occupation. The buildings stand as a constant reminder of Georgia’s subjugation as a vassal state of the Soviet Empire, which began in 1921 under the auspices of a rising Joseph Stalin, who was himself an ethnic Georgian. After consolidating power in the mid-twenties after the death of Vladimir Lenin, Stalin went on to replace his predecessors form of socialism with a highly centralized command economy. Stalin’s collectivism rapidly developed the agrarian economies of the USSR into a significant industrial power, but the developments came at the cost of instigating the catastrophic Soviet Famine of 1932-33. In the following decades, the USSR also began a violent purge of political dissidents, wherein “enemies of the state” were imprisoned in Gulag labor camps and executed by the millions. Members of the bourgeoisie, as well as intellectuals, artists, aristocrats, scientists, and generally anyone suspected of political dissent were hunted out and executed in startling numbers; it is estimated that more than 900,000 Georgians were executed or exiled before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
With an estimated 239 tonnes of mineable ore available in the region, the USSR’s insatiable desire for natural resources quickly transformed the economy of the ancient city. However, a decline in the value of manganese, crossed with a bolshevik seizure of mining property and foreign divestment in operations, ushered the unintended decline of production at the mine, which had only a decade earlier provided more than half the world’s manganese ore. The divestiture of the mine caused officials to renege on plans to build infrastructure that would have modernized the mine and the lives of its workers. Miners continued to spend much of their days winding their way up and down steep, 80 degree cliffs, working excessive hours and in miserable conditions, until in 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death, city planners took to the sky to solve the issue of transportation. Almost miraculously, and without the use of heavy equipment, they constructed the intricate cable car system that would become a unique feature of Chiatura, transporting miners and citizens between the city and the mines above. Sixty-one years later, the system is still in operation and free to ride.
When Georgia declared independence in May of 1991, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union the following December, it immediately became embroiled in a brutal civil war that lasted until 1995. During the war, ethnic violence instigated by Russia decimated the populace in South Ossetia, a breakaway state located some nineteen miles from Chatura. Roughly 275,000 ethnic Georgians were either massacred or forced to flee–many taking refuge fled into the mountains and settled in the mining town.
The wary tension of the aging cable car system seems to parallel the political atmosphere of Chiatura, where the residual effects of civil war can still be felt among the Soviet relics. One feels the region’s tragic past still lingers in infrastructure that continues to dictate the daily life of those living there. The rusting gondolas sway from their steel cables over a city in limbo–an anomaly of a planned economy, tailor-made decades behind its own, foreclosed prospects. At the top of one mountain, where the cable car operator sits in silence, she passes the time with little tasks in her small steel timemachine, which goes neither forward nor back, but lifts its occupants up into a different world, carried out of context, a world swinging gently over the horizon one blue gondola at a time.