Issue 4, 2014. August-September

   

TBILISI'S UNDERGROUND CITY: THE TUNNELS THAT BERIA BUILT

Lavrenty Beria, the Community Party's secretary in Georgia from 1931-1938, is famous for his cruelty and his love of architecture. While his mark on Tbilisi's skyline is well known, Beria's legacy also includes a less well known system of tunnels under the city streets.

Emil Avdaliani

Very little is known about the tunnels Lavrenty Beria is credited with building: today there are more legends and crumbling walls than documented facts for historians to study.

Beria is well known for his role in the atrocities perpetrated on Stalin's orders - as well as his heavy hand in city planning for Tbilisi. Under his watch, the city circus and post office were built, as well as the former parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. He is also credited with overseeing major infrastructure projects like the construction of the Right and Left banks along the Mtkvari River, cultivating a veritable forest from Tskneti to Mtatsminda Park, and creating the city's sewage system.

Tunnels crossing the city

It is in the sewage system that faint traces of his lesser known project can still be seen: a system of tunnels that transversed the city underground.

There is virtually no information about Beria's underground projects in the state archives, and no indication of them on large-scale Soviet-era maps of Tbilisi. The evidence of the tunnels that does exist, however, mirrors some of Beria's pet building sites.

For example, under the former Institute of Marxist-Leninism (now being rebuilt as a hotel), there are remnants of what appears to be a tunnel leading from a prison under the building to the Mtkvari River.

A tunnel is also rumored to exist under the former parliament building (which once served as the Communist Party's headquarters) - legend has it that even former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia made use of it during the last pitched days leading to his overthrow - and what is believed to be the collapsed remains of a tunnel, which was locked closed, in the courtyard of Beria's former house (now Georgia's Olympic Committee).

A professional excavator, Roma Khatoevi (known among in the excavator's society by the nickname Fabian), the founder of Tbilisi urban exploration website Fabi.ge, has extensively researched various tunnels built under Beria's rule.

On his site, Khatoevi maps out a tunnel stretching from the Circus building on Heroes' Square in Saburtalo to the left embankment of the Mtkvari river, somewhere in the neighborhood of Aghmashenebeli Avenue.


Another tunnel, in the Tbilisi Botanical garden, indicates Beria was well acquainted with the city's underground architecture and built onto existing tunnels as needed. The tunnel in the garden was first built during Nicholas II's reign and later enlarged. There has been speculation that it once connected to tunnels in the center of the city. Since Beria's time, it has been used alternately as a secret laboratory under the Soviets as well as a short-lived night club. It is now closed.

For safety or repression?


One of the longest tunnels Khatoevi has documented on his site reportedly wraps around behind the Rustaveli underground station for an estimated 2,500-3000 meters. Another tunnel winds under the city for nearly a kilometer and links the former NKVD office on Constitution Street to the Tbilisi Central Railway Station.

With no mention of the tunnels in the archives, historians and scholars can only speculate about why Beria and his comrades built the tunnels and what purpose they served.For instance, it is believed that the tunnel leading to the train station could have been used to secretly transport prisoners out of the city.


Beria's own reputation as the ruthless head of the purges in the South Caucasus adds credence to that theory: there was not enough room in the prisons in Tbilisi to house the hundreds of people jailed, tortured, and killed in years spanning the cycles of repression in the 1930s. So it is natural, reasoning goes, that the government needed a way to quietly move prisoners and corpses.

Another theory, however, is that the tunnels were part of a safety/contingency plan Beria created in case he needed to escape from the city. For instance, Tbilisi's metro system was conceived as part of a wider strategy to shelter people from the NATO attack Moscow feared would take place once Turkey joined the military alliance in 1952.

But the tunnels that have been discovered so far are believed to date back to the 1930s, making them too early to be part of the Soviet government's Cold War strategy.

Regardless of why the tunnels were built or what purpose they served for the Communist elite and the state's secret police, Beria apparently took the experience to heart: in the darkest days of World War II for the Soviet Union, when Stalin feared the government might fall to Hitler's army, he commissioned Beria to build vast bunkers in cities around Russia.

Few still exist. However, in Saratov, one of Beria's tunnels remains intact. Writing for Pravda.ru, Yury Suprunenko noted that the underground bunker Beria built is strong enough to survive a two-ton bomb and uses systems similar to those on submarines to provide electricity and air conditioning.

The Tbilisi tunnels do not appear to be as well fortified. But as long as construction continues to uncover more pieces of the city's past, the chance that someday Tbilisi will resolve the legacy of Beria's tunnels still exists.

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