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Ascending order: Georgia's coin-operated lifts

Broken Soviet lifts are emblematic of Georgia’s transition from socialism to market economics

When Nino finds that she doesn’t have a 10 tetri coin for the prepayment lift to get to the ninth floor of her dilapidated Soviet apartment block on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the first thing that she does is to curse. ‘Before installing the [coin-operated] box, I was often stuck in the elevators because they are so old’, she recalls. But after adopting the prepayment technology to ensure funds for lift maintenance and repair, she has been constantly short-changed. 

In Georgia, many of the lifts in Soviet residential buildings exceeded their recommended lifespan long ago, and so are in constant need of maintenance. One stop-gap innovation has been the introduction of coin-operated lifts. Users don’t need to purchase or load up credit cards or tokens in advance, but must have small change, in the form of 5 or 10 tetri coins. (One lari, the Georgian unit of currency, comprises 100 tetri.) Over the past decade, these prepayment boxes have become emblematic of the transition from socialism to the brave new world of market economics. They constitute the material domain through which notions of space, community and the state are being retooled and reimagined.

‘Maintenance came to be managed by individuals, replacing the moral obligation of the state to take care of common areas’

The link between Soviet past and present is contingent on infrastructural debris. It is not debris that is memorialised and revered, but rather what simply remains in the aftershock of political dismantling. Yet failed infrastructures often generate fixes, lash-ups and other repair necessities. As failure becomes a condition for the emergence of new ideas, broken Soviet lifts create circumstances for creativity. They elicit strategies of repair and maintenance to enable access and mobility. But the lifts continue to break down. 

Soviet modernity was articulated through the political use of infrastructure to promote a socialist order. Providing material structures was a constant preoccupation of the regime, unlike the post-Soviet Georgian state, which made citizens responsible for their own urban facilities and spaces. In the Soviet era, the maintenance of multi-family buildings, including the cleaning and repair of common areas, was carried out by state housing maintenance organisations. Residents paid for these services but the costs were hugely subsidised. 

When the state unplugged people from centralised systems of urban provision, existing structures of coordination disappeared. Being trapped in a lift was symbolic of the climate of uncertainty in 1990s post-Soviet Georgia. As Nino points out, lift breakdowns were not only due to the age of the equipment or lack of maintenance. Frequent power cuts and the theft of mechanical parts to sell for scrap also contributed to the regular incarceration of passengers. 

Film still

Film still

The Soviet Georgian film Blue Mountain, Or Unbelievable Story, directed by Eldar Shengelaia, 1984, features a publishing house where a lift is regularly out of order with employees trapped inside, waiting endlessly for the state lift technician. Film still courtesy of Eldar Shengelaia

Against this background emerged the money collector, a resident of the building, usually living on the upper floors, who came to act voluntarily as a housekeeper. Their role involved engaging a lift technician or private company to provide regular maintenance services, and visiting residents to secure payments, usually around 5 to 8 lari per month. In this way, maintenance came to be managed by individuals, replacing the moral obligation of the state to take care of common areas. However, paying for lifts became an especially contentious aspect of communal maintenance schemes. Predictably, the most active advocates of lift payments were those living on upper floors. Nino, an upper-floor resident and money collector, herself complained that getting funds out of her neighbours was ‘one of the hardest and most stressful jobs’ she had ever done. Lift maintenance engendered a reluctance to pay and generated tensions between residents, exacerbated by social inequality brought about by post-socialist transformation.

The non-paying neighbours were not only the poor ones, however. Some residents who could pay, chose not to. This challenged what Georgians call mezobloba, or the neighbourly relations between residents. While mezobloba is a historically cherished form of sociality, the need to pay for lifts threatened those relations with a new moral economy. 

‘The new urban order in Georgia is predicated on a reciprocal exchange between humans and machines’

To avoid free rides, the technicians helped Nino to fix the lift so that it could only stop at the fifth floor. This was a common technique, especially in the 1990s. Another solution to limit free rides was to remove the lift buttons for lower floors, as those living closer to the ground were considered the least reliable payers. However, these technical solutions to address non-payment led to further subterfuge. The most common, as Nino explains, was to take the lift to an upper floor and then walk down.

These narratives and practices reveal how people devise new strategies to maintain common areas, and how such strategies can be subverted in the context of escalating socioeconomic inequality. They call into question collective forms of action or coordination, and reveal how provisional and individual solutions were devised to respond to failed infrastructures. 

To address the struggle of collecting payments, Bacho Sharashenidze – a money collector and skilled electrician who lived on the 16th floor of a Soviet apartment block in the ’90s – devised the coin-operated box. By the late 2000s, in the face of widespread non-payment, the boxes went into commercial production. The goal was partly to raise funds for electricity bills and lift maintenance, but their immediate effect has been to discourage lift use for those who can walk, or for those (like most Georgians) who have to watch their budget. Inserting coins in the boxes contrives to mediate access, dividing rich from poor, healthy from weak, or simply those who remember or forget to carry the coins. 

Img 3059 manon mollard

Img 3059 manon mollard

Photograph by Manon Mollard

Operated by private companies, prepayment technologies act as moral devices to address unreliable payers. Most residents of Soviet-era buildings are now connected to their lifts through such devices. Hence, the new urban order in Georgia is predicated on a reciprocal exchange between humans and machines. As Bruno Latour writes, ‘We have been able to delegate to nonhumans not only force as we have known it for centuries, but also values, duties, and ethics’. When human money collectors failed, they were replaced by coin-operated boxes. Although there are attempts to ensure communal participation and coordination of urban facilities regardless of the state or payment technologies, such attempts are fragile and subject to failure. 

Though not directly admitted, such a major infrastructural change was motivated by political forces, part of larger efforts to decentralise housing provision in Georgia. The Rose Revolution reformers, who came to power in 2003 with the ambition to end the post-socialist transition and modernise the country, included housing repair in their own neoliberal critique of state regulation. The reform implied moving away from a system of heavily subsidised, government-financed utility services to one in which housing is maintained and managed by occupants. 

‘Temporary repair can be seen as an alternative to the neoliberal reform narratives that have dominated the post-socialist transition’

A major aim was to transfer common areas to home owners’ associations for housing management and supply. Despite this change, the market was still not seen as an absolute alternative mechanism for efficiently allocating infrastructures. Local municipalities continue to provide funds for the renovation of common areas, precisely because of the lack of public resources to maintain decaying residential buildings. Such state resources often prove insufficient, while many of the common areas continue to lie outside any specific management or property structures. This causes disrupted property regimes, responsibilities and moralities. Broken roofs, cracked walls and stairs and peeling halls all exemplify the disruption.    

It is empirically fascinating to see how coin-operated boxes continue to perpetuate non-payment strategies and uncertain urban environments. Lacking the resources to take the lift, residents short-change coin boxes by employing various tactics. The most common trick is the use of a coin with a hole drilled in it, which serves as a hanger for a thread. The user slides the coin into the box, which registers its insertion, and then, with the help of the thread, slides it back up. In this manner, residents always have the necessary coin for the ride. Nino could not resist getting one. One of her neighbours even uses a Danish 1 krone coin, which is already perforated, to save making a hole in a Georgian tetri. Physically fit residents devised other ways to avoid payment. Because lifts without any standing weight in them can make unlimited rides, residents would hang from the ceiling or rack of the lift, until it reached the designated floor. Filled with coins, the payment boxes also attracted thieves. Taking a ride on a prepaid lift, with all its uncertainty about coins and breakdowns, has thus become a constant reminder to Georgians of their place in and relationship to changing urban environments. Broken lifts engender shifting experiential realities, often marked by affective relations to space, state and community. This forms the basis for techniques through which people attempt to navigate uncertain environments. Skills and strategies of cheating or bypassing become infrastructures in their own right, as residents strive to ensure access to their apartments.

Post-socialist transition continues to be particularly troubled in Georgia precisely because obsolete infrastructures constantly break down, entrenching them in a provisional state of upkeep. As Lauren Berlant argues in her study of infrastructure during transitional times, ‘to attend to the terms of transition is to forge an imaginary for managing the meanwhile within damaged life’s perdurance’. In this respect, the temporary repair can be seen as an alternative to the neoliberal reform narratives that have dominated the post-socialist transition. There have been attempts to establish transition as a temporary process, leading to ‘new states’ and citizens based on a market economy. As a result, ambiguities and breakdowns have become embedded in everyday society, challenging the urban order. They are not merely the temporary legacies of state socialism but part of the ordinary in their own right. 

Lead image: soviet cabins for freight and passenger lifts, from Electrical Elevators: Device and Instalment, 1952, which describes the significance of lift machinery for the Soviet construction boom 

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today