Youth Culture and Post-Soviet Transformations in Khashuri
Description of problem
In Soviet times, Khashuri was known under the name Stalinisi, and as an industrial town producing glass and woven products. Khashuri Railway Station and the city’s central location in Georgia made Khashuri a major transportation node. However, after Soviet collapse, these economic and infrastructural relationships disintegrated. This affected the micro economy in Khashuri, and a process of abandonment begun. When people couldn’t find jobs in the city, they started migrating both within Georgia and to abroad. The landscape in Khashuri is now characterized by abandoned factories, and the Soviet legacy is still visible.
Being presented as one of the most forgettable cities in Georgia by lecturers, we wanted to look behind the “dull” and “uninspiring” surface of the city and investigate how the inhabitants themselves perceive their hometown. In particular, we wanted to learn more about the everyday life of the young inhabitants, their living conditions and plans for the future.
How, if at all, do the remnants of the past influence the young population’s ideas of the future? What factors are keeping them stay, when everyone else are apparently moving away? Is there any signs of remigration? Thus, our main research question was “what factors contribute to the young generation’s feeling of attachment to homeland?”
To get a sense of the youth culture in Khashuri, we planned to use the snowball method, gaining access to the young people of the city through our local contact person. By going to local hang out spots with him, we hoped to get into situations where we could conduct semi-structured interviews with our Khashurian peers. Unfortunately, he turned out to be out of town and we had to find other connections through our social network. Looking back at our fieldwork experience, there turned out to be two different perspectives among our interlocutors: 1) Those who are locals, working and living in Khashuri, and 2) Those who grew up in Khashuri, but no longer lives there. Among the last ones, some come back to town periodically for vacation, while others express no wish to ever return.
Upon our arrival in Khashuri, we chose to walk around town to get a sense of our surroundings and continue our search for possible interlocutors. The contours of Khashuri’s geopolitical landscape as we entered a construction site, where a new football stadium with the capacity of 3000 people was being built. In the words of an man dressed in a local football outfit we met there, it was “big enough for a small town such as Khashuri’’, but “given the local football team’s long history, it deserves more financial support from the government”. The feeling of governmental neglect turned out to be prevalent among many of our interlocutors, but perhaps most clearly expressed by our hotel owner, a woman in her 60s named Irina:
‘’Brezhnev’s times were stable and peaceful, in contrary to today, when people have no jobs. In Soviet times, youngsters could go to summer camps all around the Soviet Union, but nowadays kids can’t even visit the dolphinarium in Batumi because of its price.’’
Feelings of stagnation and being overseen were closely connected to the State for both interlocutors. Furthermore, they made connections between these feelings and the current situation in Khashuri, where many young people are emigrating, here underlined by Irina:
“Young people had a bigger sense of function in my adolescence, there was not as many slackers as nowadays. It is a problem related to local infrastructure and government, who does not help young people find jobs”.
This sentiment was further supported by the two bank accountants in their 30s we interviewed, who, when questioned about their choice of job, answered, “there’s no other place to work here than in the bank”. Like Irina highlights, young people might want to stay in Khashuri, but lack of possibilities makes them leaving after finishing a school, or when they want to find suitable job.
However, many of our interlocutors also made sure to mention of what they saw as more positive initiatives. For example, Irina emphasised how the construction of a new road that will bypass Khashuri would direct traffic out of the city, and have a positive effect on local ecology. In the same vein, the two bank accountants we interviewed spoke positively about the ongoing building process of a monastery complex, financed by the Georgian orthodox church. In their opinion, the monastery would “probably make the city more attractive with its educational programs for local people”. Both the bank accountants and our hotel owner looked optimistically on the future despite feelings of being overseen by government. Zhuzhuna’s (a woman helping Irina run the hotel) recital of an old local proverb summed up the optimism shared by the majority of our interlocutors, while also making connections between the past and the future: “Mikhail (Khashuri’s name from 1871-1917) will survive”.
These people’s concerns, then, were linked to the city of Khashuri, while the younger people we interviewed expressed their attachment to homeland in terms of family roots. This is especially evident in the case of Elena and her cousins, who normally live in Tbilisi, but always come back to their grandparents house in Khashuri for vecations.This contradict stereotypes of Khashuri as a “dead end” and rather as a place for self-identification. Although, Elena “only have fond memories of her birthplace”, she could not picture herself living there in the future. In her opinion, Khashuri did not have much to offer young people like herself, and lacked the possibilities for work and entertainment that can be found in Tbilisi.
Still, Elena was keen on presenting Khashuri in positive terms and even brought up an example of remigration to the city during our conversation, telling us about how the ex-mayor of Rustavi supposedly left his job to improve agriculture in his hometown. In essence, this is the same process of attaching oneself to homeland Elena and her cousins go through when they visit their birthplace during vacations, even though they have no plans of settling in Khashuri.
In fact, we ourselves met a woman who had moved back to Khashuri to work at the Museum of Local Lore after finishing a degree in Tbilisi. As she said: “I love my job! I do everything with pleasure, because I am in my hometown”. This engagement with the local community was shared with the actors who worked at the local puppet theatre, who contrasted the activities in Khashuri with that in Gori, a much bigger town, but “with only one theatre, and not even with puppets”. To them, stereotypes about Khashuri simply did not reflect reality.
Still, the perception of Khashuri being unattractive to young people, seemed to be correct. One of our first interviews was in fact done via video call, underlining the absence of youth in the city’s streets. Another interlocutors, Nini mentioned that the lack of institutions for higher education made her move abroad. This reflected both Elena’s account of life in versus outside of Khashuri and conversations we had with some local schoolgirls about their plans to move to “the big city” in the future.
To me, personally, Fieldwork held in Khashuri was important for several reasons. If we don’t take into account several problems at the beginning of the research, when our main “target” interlocutor (from whom we were planning to start our “snow ball” method) didn’t managed to meet us, my own experience gained from field, can be classified in two main problems – first can be described as an Anthropology and decision making process and second one in connected with Being an “Objective” observer position in your familiar socio-cultural environment.
Initially, should be noted, that in societies, that feel lack of attention from government, it’s always difficult to speak about only on these type of topics that are directly connected with your research question. At these times, people perceive researchers as ones, who can solve their common problems and on the other hand, this situations make researchers feel uncomfortable, when they realize that for example, they can’t spread local hotel owner’s problems in the relevant institutions.
During fieldwork, as i expected, environment looked very familiar for me: children played local folk games, that i uset to play when i was their peer, people, who speaks on with my own Georgian dielect and etc. Therefore, i had feeling, that i was a part of this society and everything looked familiar. This circumstance could became a real obstacle especially in the case, when researcher can’t find a important distance between himself and his interlocutors. It should be noted here, that emic approach definitly needs to show not only how local people think, but also how reasercher can separete his individual perception from the collected data.
The infrastructural challenges, as well as the ongoing projects intended to solve them, influence how inhabitants relate to and interact with their homeland. Roadwork and building projects are reshaping Khashuri’s identity, and in turn the inhabitants’ perception of themselves. For analytical purposes, we have established a distinction between the perspectives of the inhabitants living in Khashuri permanently, and the ones who are visiting their hometown only on special occasions. The latter are often young people, individualistic and focused on their personal future; while the other group are often older and tend to conceptualise their city as a community and in terms of shared history. In conclusion, Khashuri lacks the educational institutions and providers of entertainment young people demand, which causes them to value it differently than their older counterparts. There are several ongoing rebuilding projects and local initiatives aimed to engage younger people, yet the future of youth culture in Khashuri remains unclear.