Caucasus Journey IV: Batumi by Day, Batumi by Archive

April 7, 2009
So far, I’ve been having a really super time in Georgia. Frankly, I feel rather coarse saying this, because so many people here are obviously hurting. All the same,  I’m really glad I came here.
After crossing the border on Saturday afternoon I had the taxi driver take me to a hotel I’d found in Lonely Planet. The rooms looked pretty good and I took one quickly, since I was jonesing pretty bad to get out and see the sites.

I headed straight to the seaside, the rocky beach which runs up and down the entire western side of the city. In the summer, apparently, the beach is crowded with swimmers, although obviously it was too cold to think of any of that now. Walking around in my blue windbreaker I felt a little chilly, but I was still pretty glad I hadn’t packed more stuff.
A bad habit that I have whenever I visit a city for the first time is comparing it with other places I’ve been. Batumi is filled with palm trees—even on the crummy backstreet that my hotel is located is lined on both sides with them. The older buildings are all two-storeys tall, with large balconies extending out on the second floor. In the background are snow-capped mountains. Despite myself, I was reminded of other semi-tropical colonial towns I’ve been to, namely Vientiane, Pondicherry, and New Orleans. 


But at the same time, it’s obviously so very different. A large mosque, built in 1866—just twelve years before the Ottomans would lose Batumi to Russia—dominates an area of town near the port which today is again filled with Turks. Operating hotels, kebab and pide shops, travel agencies, and night clubs, these places cater to Turks from nearby Hopa and Artvin, who can cross visa-free into Batumi for 24-hour periods. As far as I can tell, the Turkish tourist population in Batumi is overwhelmingly male and is primarily interested in buying petrol and frequenting prostitutes. This is where they eat and drink.
Just up the street from the Turkish district is a cheap little bar that could be in any Russian provincial town. All of the furniture is “letnaia” (i.e., plastic), and the place is packed at night with people drunkenly screaming in Russian and listening to Russian love songs. The bar takes up a little square of its own and can be heard from a couple streets away, as well as from the mosque. 

I found Batumi a little disorienting at first because there doesn’t seem to be a single main drag. While some streets are doubtless more happening than others, no one street or neighborhood stands out as the center of activity. The towns street are laid out on a grid, and just about all of the streets have patches of darkness and oases of light and activity. All of the restaurants I’ve tried to find from Lonely Planet (published four years ago) have closed, while new ones have sprung up. I’m eating well, eating the delicious Georgian food that I first got to know in Russia, where Georgian restaurants are everywhere. 

On Sunday I stumbled across the city art museum, and while I was there I asked the woman who’d taken my ticket if she could direct me to the library. She didn’t know where it was, but her assistant took me, and once I was in the library I asked a guy I met there if he knew where the state archive was, or if there was one.
Indeed, I’d been hoping to find the archive in Batumi, a city that was Ottoman for two-hundred and fifty years before being ceded to Russia after the 1877-78 war. In Istanbul this year I’ve been looking at a number of border issues, with Hopa, Artvin, and Batumi (Batum in Turkish) featuring prominently in a lot of this research. I really hoped I could find the archive, but had never seen a scholarly citation referring to an archive in Batumi, nor was I able to find anything online. The query I sent to H-Russia a couple of weeks ago on archival resources in town has thus far gone unpublished, so I felt like I was pretty much on my own.
But at the city library I met a guy named Tengiz who knew someone who’d once researched at the archive, and within five minutes of meeting me was asking me to come by in the morning the next day so that he could take me there.
As someone who spent a couple of years researching in Russia, I was already familiar with how friendly become from the Caucasus can be. Indeed, whenever I’ve met a taxi driver in Russia who actually seems interested in chatting with me, almost always that person ends up being Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Chechen, or from somewhere else in this part of the world. When I stop people on the streets here to ask direction, older men put their arms around my back as they point out the route. Obviously, not everyone is so friendly, but when you’re alone and on the road it’s still nice to see people smile sometimes.  

Anyway, on Monday morning I set my alarm and went off to see Tengiz at 10 o’clock. I was a little late because I’d gotten turned around en route, but he was there waiting anyway, and we set off right away. We took a minibus to the archive, and he did the talking for me when we got inside. Once the director came down to see us, he let me do the talking (in Russian).
The director is a friendly woman, but serious, and she wanted to see the standard forms that I always have to show at the archives, including a letter from my university and my passport. After a few minutes of sitting around and watching girls make photocopies of my documents, the director called down the reading room director, a woman named Madonna. At this point I bade farewell to Tingiz, agreeing to meet up with him for tea later in the evening, and followed Madonna up to the second floor to the reading room.

As I followed Madonna up the stairs, I noted with grim satisfaction and a pleasant sense of familiarity that the building I was in was laid out exactly like every other provincial archive I’ve ever worked in, including those in Kazan, Ufa, Simferopol, and Baku. Not only do all the archives have the same displays and the same little pieces of colored clay smeared on either side of the window and door openings (for what I assume has something to do with security), but the buildings themselves are in fact the same, too. It’s the very same layout, the same size, the same all the way. If you got me drunk, like the male lead in Ironiia Sud’by, and put me on a plane to any provincial city in the former USSR, I could get into a taxi, head to the archive, and work all day before realizing I was in the wrong place.
The people in the archive were very friendly, and everyone went out of their way to make me feel at home. They were a little embarrassed to tell me that two of the fonds that I wanted—pertaining to events taking place in the late nineteenth century—were considered “secret” and therefore unavailable for viewing.     
In any case, I’m really glad that I’ve managed to gain admission to the Archive of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara (AARA). They don’t have the crucial information I was looking for—most of the material relating to the incorporation of the region into Russia after 1878 has been sent elsewhere—but I did find plenty of interesting material on border-crossers from the last decade of the nineteenth century until the First World War. They also gave me a nice cup of Turkish coffee. On Tuesday, I’m going back for one more day.

I’m still not entirely sure what I’ll do next. I had been thinking of going to Tbilisi on Tuesday, but that’s out. Maybe I’ll go on the eighth, but I’m also thinking of visiting another provincial archive, this time in Kutaisi, before I go there. At any rate, Kutaisi is on the road to Tbilisi, and also seems like an interesting place to visit. Also, there are big protests planned in Tbilisi on the 9th, so my sense is that it might be a good idea to wait them out in a more quiet locale. No matter what, I’m sure it will be interesting.

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