The town refused to die: Georgia’s struggling coal mines

Photographer: Natela Grigalashvili

Topic: Employment

Tkibuli (population 14,000) is a small industrial town in western Georgia. Ever since coal mines opened in the area in the 19th century, life in Tkibuli has been tied to coal. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the coal plants–and the Tkibuli economy. Many residents abandoned the city, seeking jobs in other cities and other countries.  The town’s abandoned houses and buildings slowly began to disintegrate. In 2006, 24 years after its collapse, coal mining returned to Tkibuli. Slowly, people begin coming back as well.

In this photo project, Natela Grigalashvili documents the once rich and prosperous mountain city. Although the center of Tkibuli, nestled among beautiful mountains, was recently renovated, the streets are empty by dusk. The silence that fills the town is palpable. Many young people in Tkibuli dream of moving to the capital, Tbilisi, to study. But few can say if they will return. Like other small towns in Georgia, people’s biggest concern is how to earn a living. For many residents of Tkibuli, the answer is nearly always coal. “You can’t do anything here except work in the mine” was the most common phrase Natela heard.

View of Tkibuli from Tskhrajvari.
Tskhrajvari is a mountain near Tkibuli, near Nakerala Pass, 1570 meters above sea level. It used to be connected to the city by a ropeway. There was a sanatorium for the miners and their families; it is being rebuilt as a resort for tourists. Locals support developing tourism in the area because they believe it will create jobs.

Tkibuli, view from the Nikneuli district.

Svetlana Gorgidze, 81, retired. For 40 years she worked as an accountant at the Lenin Mining Committee in Tkibuli. She has two children, three grandchildren and five great grandchildren. When her husband died, she had to raise her young children alone. It was hard to be a single mother. 

“There used to be a lot of snow here. I used to walk for kilometers. Sometimes I left my children at school, sometimes at kindergarten, I was always in a rush to get to work. I could not be late. I love Tkibuli, I grew up here. The city used to be completely different though, more crowded. People came from different republics to work and live in Tkibuli. In my memories, the city was cleaner and tidier. 

Young people in Tkibuli like to hang out at and around the theater, especially in the summer. They sit on stairs and windowsills. This is the only place in Tkibuli where they can have fun and spend time together. They love the spot but it is the only place for them in the city. Tkibuli does not have any cafes or youth centers.

“There are so many abandoned buildings in Tkibuli, why is it impossible to turn one into a place where we could hang out? It could be a place where we would hold concerts and have discussions. What a cool New Year we had this year, did you hear about it? There was a very nice Christmas tree and a concert. I do not remember anything like it before. The city has a new mayor, maybe something will change in the near future,” they told me.

A residential building at the entrance of Tkibuli.

Over the last couple of years, a lot has changed in the town. In the center, the facades of the old buildings have been renovated, however everything remains the same in the suburbs. 

Koba Ambroladze, 40, and his family. His Manana, 34, and their children: Mariam, 16, and Elizabeth, 2.

Koba is a chef, like his father. He has tried many jobs in the past. Together with his parents, he managed the event hall where the locals celebrated weddings and held funerals. 

Shortly after the pandemic, he was forced to close the venue. Koba lost his job, but he found a solution. He set up a small studio in his yard and is breaking down plastics using a machine he created. He sells them to a local factory.

Koba’s wife works as a nanny. Their older daughter, Mariam, is in the 11th grade. Mariam is eager to work and help her parents. After school she dreams of going to university. 

Vova Akhvlediani, 61, hairdresser. He was 16 when he started cutting hair.  Vova says that he has a lot of clients, even today. They line up and wait for him. Everyone knows Vova in the city.

“Tkibuli is a city of miners and my clients are also miners. I love when I can bring beauty to my people. That’s my job. Life moves at a slow pace here. If there weren’t mines, the city would probably be empty already. It seems that Tkibuli is becoming more beautiful now. Let's see, I only want to think good thoughts.”

Georgian traditional dance is very popular in Tkibuli. There are several studios in the city that offer classes. A lot of the miners also dance in local ensembles. They practice after their shifts in the mines.

Firani Gubeladze, 23, is a miner and dances in the “Tkhrajvari” ensemble. He grew up in a family of miners. He graduated from Tkibuli Mining and Technological Institute and has been working for Sakhnakhshiri Ltd for four years. He is a deputy mechanic in the road protection monitoring service in the mine.
Luiza Laperadze is an artist and activist. She was born and grew up in Tkibuli. Later she moved to Tbilisi. During the pandemic she and her mother decided to return. She wants to change a lot of things in the town and is committed to doing it. She says that there are many unique buildings in the city that should be saved. Luiza believes Tkibuli should maintain its historical appearance.

Iuza Ambroladze, 70, chef.
He has worked as a cook for fifty years. Iuza has two sons and two grandchildren. The family has struggled during the pandemic, but managed to find a solution. They rent a small space and sell roast pork.

New Year’s at the Ambroladze family.
The family has a tradition: They celebrate the Old New Year with one side of the family and celebrate December 31 in Kutaisi with the other side of the family. “We’ve been doing this for years. The main thing is that relatives should maintain relations and connections. We should not lose touch with the land from which our ancestors came.“

Natia Chapidze, 34.
Natia’s father is a miner. When the mine closed, her father left Tkibuli and looked for work in other big cities of Georgia. Her mother moved to Turkey 13 years ago. She works as a cook in a restaurant. The [rest of the] family moved back to Tkibuli. Natia has two young children and a husband who also works in the mine. She works as a cleaner at the Tkibuli Sports School.

Lenin District 

In Tkibuli, there are districts named for Lenin and Stalin. Despite the fact that officially the names have been changed, people still call them by their old names. Both are in the outskirts of the town. The buildings here are in bad shape: some are completely empty while others are falling down, many do not even have doors and windows. There are some multi-story buildings that house just one or two families. Administrative buildings are also abandoned. 

Buses run between both districts to the town center.  

Maia Shaoshadze is a mining engineer. She has been working in the mine for 40 years and is the only female miner who travels down 359 meters in the mine.

She has two children and three grandchildren. 

Miner Murad Chapidze and his wife Irina Didbaridze.

Murad started working in the mine 40 years ago. Their children were raised in Tkibuli. When the mine closed, they left the city like many other families and looked for work in Tbilisi. Murad used to buy and sell goods.  Irina worked in Turkey for thirteen years. After the mine reopened, the family returned  to Tkibuli. Irina has not worked since she returned to Tkibuli.

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