Chiatura is a small mining town in western Georgia where large deposits of manganese were discovered in 1879 (*). One of the primary reasons to come here as a visitor is to see the network of ageing cable cars and associated stations which were constructed in the mid-1950s to transport the miners up and down the steep ravines to their place of work.

(*) At their pre-World War I height (circa 1913), the mines at Chiatura were producing half the world’s output of manganese ore. These days, the mines are still operational, although the level of production is less significant.

Taking a ride in one of these Soviet relics, which have been dubbed, among other names, flying coffins, was certainly an experiencebut, as we mention in this more detailed post about things to do in Chiatura, the cable car system is currently suspended and its difficult to ascertain when it might be up and running again.

Cable Car Station Chiatura Georgia-11One of Chiatura’s Soviet-era cable cars suspended but going nowhere

The good news, however, is that even if it isnt possible to get your adrenaline pumping by taking a journey in one of these precarious-looking iron boxes, there are a number of other reasons to justify visiting Chiatura.

One of these reasons is the towns now-abandoned palace for young pioneers. As I explained in this post about the Pioneer Palace in Dnipro, Ukraine, the pioneer movement was an organisation set up for children in the Soviet Union that was a modelled on the Scouts. Similar to the Scouts, the primary focus of the Young Pioneers was physical and mental well-being but, unlike its counterpart in the West, the Pioneer movement also put emphasis on political education.

Pioneer Palaces, the Soviet equivalent of summer camps, were established in conjunction with the organisation and a number of them were housed in opulent buildings that once belonged to the Russian Empires upper class. In this instance, the building and its grounds werent attached to an aristocratic family before being turned over to budding communists. Rather, it was built for purpose in 1960 and, even though the style officially only lasted until 1955, whats left of the property displays strong elements of Stalinist Empire style architecture, such as the colonnades, both inside and out, and the sweeping staircases.

Former Pioneer Palace Chiatura Georgia-24-2Former Pioneer Palace in Chiatura

For nigh on three decades, the palace in Chiatura, which sits on a plateau 200 metres above the town, was an integral part of the local community. Many cultural activities, such as dance, chess and photography, were taught there to the young pioneers and the park in which the building was located was frequented by the towns residents for recreational purposes, regardless of age.

The demise of the Pioneer Palace in Chiatura is linked with an earthquake that struck Georgia in April 1991 (Chiatura was one of the worse-hit areas) and the dissolution of the USSR, which began in earnest just a few months after the tremor struck (*). During the political and socio-economic transformation that followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union, activities at the palace initially dwindled and then ceased altogether and the building and its grounds eventually fell into a state of ruin. No doubt, the place was also looted and vandalised around the same time.

(*) The collapse of the USSR, in general, had a significant (negative) impact on the Young Pioneer movement throughout the Union.

The building and the land belong to the Municipality of Chiatura and the property is protected as an architectural monument by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation.

Former Pioneer Palace Chiatura Georgia-12Former Pioneer Palace in Chiatura

I know all the above information because I found this long and detailed feasibility study published by an organisation called COMUS. Standing for Community-led Urban Strategies in Historic Towns, COMUS is a joint European Union and Council of Europe initiative that was set up in 2015 to establish community-led projects in five countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The time frame for the scheme was two years (until 2017) and during that period the €650,000 budget was used to support nine culturally-significant towns across the five countries.

One of the locations chosen as part of the project was Chiatura and more specifically, the rehabilitation of the former Pioneer Palace and its surrounding grounds. In brief, the objective of the project was to revive the palace and turn it into a cultural/educational centre aimed at children through to young adults aged between 6 and 23 years old.

We visited Chiatura in July 2018 and although we did notice signs of construction/development work taking place nearby we didnt know about the above enterprise at the time and so didnt pay special attention to what was going on. What I will say, however, and this is clear from the enclosed photos, is that there was absolutely no indication that any kind of work had been carried out on the Pioneer Palace itself.

Im assuming, therefore, that in this instance the COMUS plans for the building did not materialise. The report was, after all, labelled as a feasibility study and when you take into account the enormity of the restoration work required on such a structurally unsound building, the (rather short) two-year timeframe and the fact that the €650,000 budget is for nine such schemes, not just this one, it would not have been too surprising an outcome.

On the other hand, and taking a positive approach, perhaps reconstruction work on the palace did take place post our visit and the building is back to its former glory, or least getting there? But, I cannot find any online evidence (articles, photos etc.) to suggest this is the cases and so I suspect this is a highly unlikely scenario and that the Pioneer Palace remains in a terribly-neglected state and looking like it is going to collapse at any moment.

Former Pioneer Palace Chiatura Georgia-2

Former Pioneer Palace in Chiatura

Edit: As I was about to finish this post, I found this November 2019 Georgian news article that talks about three projects in Chiatura that the youth of the town are participating in. One of the ideas involves the Pioneer Palace and creating a space of the future”. Partly, rather than fully restoring the palace, the idea is to make the place multifunctional, to include an open-air stage, sports fields, a museum about the history of mining, and a conference hall. The article even mentions relocating the towns wedding palace (registry office) to the same spot. The other two parts of the project involve the development of art/literature space in one of the now-defunct cable car stations and the creation of a tourist development centre/Tourist Information Centre.

Although it sounds ambitious, according to the feature, the project is supported by the United Nations Development Program and I, for one, have my fingers crossed that the plan comes to fruition in some shape or form. Many of Chiaturas residents struggle financially and, whats more, the town has seen a drastic decline in its population over the years, with the younger generation, in particular, leaving to find work and better/more exciting opportunities elsewhere. Chiatura is one of the most unique destinations we have visited in Georgia and if some of the locals are on board with getting these initiatives off the ground, this, along with hopefully getting the cable cars running once more, could potentially lead to a significant increase in tourism which, in turn, will mean more wealth, an increase in local employment and, ultimately, less migration.

Former Pioneer Palace Chiatura Georgia-17Former Pioneer Palace in Chiatura

Finding the Pioneer Palace in Chiatura

The Pioneer Palace is now marked on Google Maps but when we were trying to locate the place back in the summer of 2018, it wasnt listed on any map and we had trouble pinpointing its exact location. We asked the two guys who picked us up at the Zestafoni junction and gave us a lift to Chiatura if they knew of its whereabouts but they didnt. We also went into the town hall and asked around and even showed a photo we had to the guy in the kebab shop where we shamefully had our lunch (there arent a lot of food options in Chiatura!) but there was nothing doing.

On the verge of giving up, for the time being, we were having another scour of Google Maps in the reception area of the hotel we had just checked into. Via her daughter, who spoke English, a sweet babushka (granny) seated in the corner of the room asked us what we were looking for. We showed her our photo (which was a bit of a struggle given her eyesight wasnt great!) and, 15 minutes later, we were in the back of a taxi and on our way. It transpired that the, also elderly, taxi driver who took us there was well aware of the place and had been there many times himself as a budding young pioneer. He came with us on our exploration and, via Google Translate, told us that the palace was once a glorious building and that he had many happy memories of his time there.

The moral of the story: if you want to find somewhere abandoned and connected to Soviet times in the former USSR, ask a babushka or a dedushka, the male equivalent.

The exact coordinates of the former Pioneer Palace in Chiatura are 42.281488, 43.283983.



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