Tkvarcheli Ghost Town

Disintegrating sights of Abkhazia's Tkvarcheli district by Nikolai Vassiliev.

At the invitation of the Abkhazian Culture Ministry, architecture historian and photographer Nikolay Vassiliev spends a day in the town of Tkvarcheli, a famous “ghost town” situated a couple hours’ drive from the Black Sea coast.

When the active development of coal mines began in the local mountains in the 1930s, a special railway line was constructed to serve the industry, and a town was built for the miners. After World War II the city of Tkvarcheli was completed – a showcase of Soviet architecture.

I visited two towns that had been constructed using different town-planning principles. Akarmara, one of the bigger residential settlements built close to the mine shafts higher up in the mountains. The lower part of the city, known as Tkvarcheli, was built according to different principles: the peak of a mountain was flattened into a smooth plateau on which apartment buildings were built in uniform blocks. Several squares were carved out in front of the palace of culture and the huge mining administration building.

Thirty years ago, during perestroika, the mines stopped being profitable and the speedy collapse of the Soviet Union proved catastrophic for the city. The main problem wasn’t even that the miners’ salaries – significant by Soviet standards – dropped to nothing. During the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, Tkvarcheli – which, apart from mountain paths, is only accessible by one land-based road and one railway line – took in thousands of refugees from Sukhumi and other cities in the republic. The city was besieged by Georgian troops for 413 days and hundreds of inhabitants and refugees died from bombings, shootings, and hunger. To this day, the siege remains the biggest trauma of that war for many Abkhazians.

By the second half of the 1980s, the population was around 40,000. Today, there are around 5,000 residents, and almost all the mines have been closed. Most of Akarmara’s four- or five-story apartment blocks are inhabited by no more than one or two families. Some buildings are even being systematically dismantled by inhabitants for the brick and other materials. For Abkhazians of the older generation, the town reminds them, not only of the war and the siege, but of a place once hailed across the USSR for its rich and generous miners, with lights and avenues “like those in Paris.”

The town's unique Soviet architecture is gradually disintegrating, and it’s little known, even by professional researchers. Akarmara now looks like an illustration for post-apocalyptic books and video games: rusted junk, car frames, running water eroding steps, weeds taking root in the walls of buildings. From time to time there are talks about turning the city into a resort, but the general poverty and disorder in the unrecognized republic means that this probably won’t happen any time soon.