“Their mistake is our opportunity to show people what they did”. William Dunbar uncovers the grim history of 22 Ingorokva Street, Tbilisi’s former Bolshevik secret police prison. The only tangible link with the Red Terror in Tbilisi today, Number 22 might soon be replaced by a modern apartment block. One former resident can save it: Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia’s president.
Like many historical buildings in Tbilisi, Number 22 Ingorokva Street may be about to vanish forever. Its chipping paint and faded grandeur are the signatures of the nineteenth century city, but Number 22 has a past that is an especially heavy burden.
The building is part of Old Tbilisi, a district set up in 2007 with the aim of helping to conserve the historic fabric of the city. Judging by the new neighbours, it was a plan that did not succeed. Across the street, an eight-floor apartment block looms, having swept away a two-story courtyard. The design is lacklustre, the finish is poor, and the flats are almost all unsold. In the yard behind, a Georgian thinktank inhabits a ten-year-old development already looking almost as weather-beaten as Number 22, but with none of the charm. But the 43 families that live here hope that a similar fate awaits their building: an investor will come in, give them a lump sum to move out and then provide them with new flats in the behemoth erected on site.
A house for liberal reformers
There are some complications: this is a conservation zone, all the families have to agree, and the half forgotten history of the building itself makes it more difficult to tear down. Number 22 was erected in the 1880s, but it occupies an address that has only existed since 1991. It has had several different street signs attached to it: Laboratory Street, Peter the Great Street, Trotsky Street and Dzerzhinsky Street. In Number 22’s case though, these street names are unnervingly fitting: Number 22 is an unwitting monument to Georgia’s modern history.
The building was once part of the New Town, the ‘European’ city of straight boulevards and Art Nouveau apartments that led away from the crooked maze of Asiatic Tbilisi. Put up during the boomtimes of the fin de siècle Russian Empire, it was built to house the growing population of German entrepreneurs, Russian officials, petty Georgian nobles and Armenian merchants that had turned Tiflis, as it was then, into the Paris of the South (admittedly—one of several cities claiming that title).
Any upstart ‘Paris of the…’ challenger needs an educated citizenry. As such, in 1890, Number 22 became a School for the Georgian Nobility. This nobility was mostly rustic and poor, but it had been electrified by a national revival pioneered by moustachioed men of letters in the late 19th Century, a national revival served with a large portion of radical left wing politics on the side. The school educated a generation of liberal reformers who longed for Georgian home rule in the Russian Empire (or some sort of utopian socialist state). When that empire collapsed, they got more than they bargained for.
In May 1918 Georgia, reeling from the tumult of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, declared its independence. The new state, staffed by several alumni of the School for the Georgian Nobility, embarked on the herculean task of reorganizing a peripheral colony into a modern democracy. Number 22 became the Ministry of Agriculture. The minister, Noe Khomeriki, was a Menshevik who had briefly led a peasant revolt in western Georgia in his twenties. From his offices in Number 22 he organized land reform, redistributing state lands and breaking up large estates. The building also acted as a kind of guesthouse for the government, a place where MPs with no property in Tbilisi could be accommodated. One was Grigol Lortkipanidze, who served as minister of education and minister of war. Both he and Khomeriki would later return to Number 22 as a very different sort of tenant.
The bloodiest house in Tbilisi
In 1921 the Bolsheviks defeated independent Georgia. Tbilisi was occupied on February 25, and Number 22 was expropriated and handed to the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. For the next thirteen years it would serve as the base from which the Red Terror was conducted across Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“This was the bloodiest house in Tbilisi in the 1920s,” says Irakli Khvadagiani, a historian and founder of SovLab, an organization that researches Soviet oppression, who is now trying to preserve Number 22 as a museum. The building was adapted easily by its new owners. Offices occupied the upper floors, while the ground floor was taken up with a commandant unit and spaces for processing prisoners. In windowless rooms away from the street side were the interrogation cells and “several levels of underground space that was used for prison cells and for torture cells.” Several of these can still be seen.
Unlike the Lubyanka in Moscow, Number 22 never became an abattoir. It was more of an interrogation complex, where prisoners would be kept in subterranean cells, sometimes for months (according to memoirs, the totally lightless Cell 8 was especially notorious). During this time, the Cheka would decide a prisoner’s case. To exile, to a local prison, to be freed or to be shot. The condemned would also be sent to Number 22 from other facilities, and night after night trucks would drive to mass graves at the edge of the city, where the prisoners would be shot over pits.
Khvadagiani, who has dedicated himself to tracking down the exact locations of the mass graves, has a copy of a memoir written by a former inmate of Number 22. “He speaks about how people were trying to resist being transported to their deaths, how they were attacking the military guard and how some were shot on the spot here, some were tortured. Those that were killed were just thrown in the trucks with the prisoners on their way to be killed…”
Number 22 was especially busy in the first years after the Bolshevik annexation. In the immediate aftermath of the takeover the main part of the government fled to establish themselves in exile in France, but many would plot a way to seize power back from the Bolsheviks. Lortkipanidze, the former resident of Number 22, stayed in Georgia and was arrested. His new landlords, the Cheka, decided to send him into exile—he would be murdered in the Great Purge of 1937, his grave is still unidentified.
In 1922 Khomeriki, who had his ministry in Number 22, secretly returned to Georgia from France to fight the Bolshevik invaders. One of the other leaders of the resistance, noble-turned-guerrilla Kakutsa Cholokashvili, had studied in the school at Number 22. Khomeriki spent a year in the underground movement, trying to organize an armed uprising, but was arrested at the end of 1923. He was brought to Number 22, to be interrogated, and was held in a cell in the basement of his former ministry before being exiled to Russia. When Cholokashvili’s rebellion finally began in 1924 Khomeriki was shot.
From war refuge to another historical apartment block
The Cheka, by then renamed the NKVD, moved into a grandiose modern building in 1934, from which still greater atrocities would be committed. Number 22 became an anonymous office block until the war. In 1941 Tbilisi was full of refugees, and Number 22 was among several government properties given over to house them, though the ground floor interrogation rooms and the cells remained off limits. As the war ended and life got better, the building became just another historical apartment block in Old Tbilisi. “The families that moved in here after the 40s had no links with the state security system. Even more, they had no idea what kind of house this is—even today,” says Khvadagiani. The only reminders of the past were the occasional old man arriving to see his place of incarceration (and to tell Number 22’s new residents some uncomfortable truths); and the subterranean cells, which by the 60s had become basement storage units.
These remain today. Brick vaulted basement cells, complete with the original cell doors and prisoners’ inscriptions on the walls. Now filled with preserves, wine and general basement arcana, the cells, says Khvadagiani, are what makes Number 22 unique.
Everywhere else the Cheka were sure to clear up after themselves. As Tbilisi grew to encompass the old bases where the mass executions took place, the security services dug up the tens of thousands of bodies and reburied them in secret. Only in Number 22 is there a tangible, physical link with the Red Terror. “They made such a big mistake to leave this evidence of their activities because even now you can see the traces of the victims here. Even now they left the torture chambers, the prison cells. But their mistake is our opportunity to show people what they did,” says Khvadagiani. “It is very difficult to make people understand how it was without such kind of evidence, such kind of places.”
A bleak future
The future of Number 22 looks bleak. Most of Ingorokva Street is succumbing to the developers (the street’s name was changed from Dzerzhinsky after the restoration of Georgia’s independence in 1991. Appropriately, Pavle Ingorokva was a signatory of Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1918 and then went on to reconcile with the Communist authorities, becoming a noted historian with a profound ethnic-nationalist bent). To destroy a building in the conservation zone, an investor needs a letter of consent form the Ministry of Culture and the agreement of all the homeowners. Khvadagiani hopes that the history of the building will be enough to save it, but the residents can’t wait for the bulldozers to move in: “The people who live here understand that there is a bad history to this house…they just want better living conditions and nicer houses,” he says.
But there is one former resident who might see things differently. In 1969 a boy was born in one of the families living on the second floor. Giorgi Margvelashvili is now the President of Georgia, and when he visits his parents (at least once a week, say the neighbours), his bodyguards park in the same spot the Cheka used to load vans full of condemned prisoners. It’s not clear whether Margvelashvili, a former philosophy professor with a reputation as a free thinker, has any idea about the extraordinary history of his childhood home.