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'Uncle Gocha' Protects Crumbling Soviet Relic in Georgia


It's been more than 14 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. While some areas have prospered since then, other communities there are still devastated by the fall of the Soviet system.

After traveling through a remote part of the former Republic of Georgia, NPR's Ivan Watson sent this postcard about a building that seems to symbolize the post-Soviet decline.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Valle is the last town in southern Georgia before the Turkish border. Stand in the empty main square of this former mining town, and it feels like you've reached the end of the world.

Amid the crumbling apartment blocks here, a pink and white three-story building with arches stands out. It looms on a hilltop over the square's broken streetlamps and gaping potholes. This is the House of Culture, the combination movie theater, gym, and concert hall that in Soviet times was the heart of the community. Now it looks abandoned. Half of the windows are missing glass, the box office in front is boarded up. The only sign of life, the sound of children's voices coming from somewhere deep inside.

(Soundbite of children's voice)

No one stopped a couple of visitors from walking in through the half-open front door. The halls of this once grand building look like they were looted years ago. The floors are ripped up. The ceilings are stained and rotting from the leaking roof, while a few torn socialist paintings still hang on shabby walls.

Suddenly, a stocky Georgian man with glasses and gray hair bursts out of a room and begins yelling at the uninvited visitors.

Mr. GOCHA MAKHATADZE (Self-appointed protector, House of Culture, Vale, Republic of Georgia): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: This is Gocha Makhatadze, the self-appointed protector of what's left of the House of Culture in Vale.

Mr. MAKHATADZE: (Through translator) This building will fall apart soon. You can't do anything here. You can't have any concerts here. Nothing. This building will fall down.

WATSON: This angry, flamboyant, 44-year-old is known by locals as Uncle Gocha. He used to run the cinema here until 1990, when he says the government abandoned the House of Culture and stopped paying Makhatadze's salary.

He leads visitors up flights of crumbling stairs, past the empty, rotting gymnasium. The projection booth of the movie theater is still decorated with old film posters. Uncle Gocha has protected two hulking Soviet film projectors from looters and the leaking roof.

Mr. MAKHATADZE: (Through translator) Georgia ends at the borders of the capital city. As far as the leaders are concerned, the rest of the country can go to hell.

WATSON: On a stage in the building's shabby theater, about a dozen children rehearse for a free concert to be held in the early evening. Parents raised the money themselves, to rent the amplifiers and microphones for the concert.

Ms. MARICHE DASCHVELE(ph) (Age 11, female, Vale, Georgia): (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: One of the performers, 11-year-old Mariche Daschvele, says she dreams of becoming a famous singer, and going one day to France, to see the Eiffel Tower.

Getting out of Vale seems to be the only hope for residents here. In the all but deserted town square, 18-year old Laznik Goschan(ph) says he and his cousin are planning to move to Russia to find work.

Mr. LAZNIK GOSCHAN (male resident of Vale, Georgia): (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: If there's anything left standing here, he says, pointing at the House of Culture, it's thanks to Uncle Gocha. In five years, he adds, this will all be gone. But Uncle Gocha Makhatadze is also planning to leave the town of his birth to go work in Russia. Before the children's concert, he turned on the House of Culture's outdoor speaker system, and radio music echoed out through the slowly dying town.

(Soundbite of music)

Ivan Watson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.