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Professor Oliver Reisner on Activities to Preserve Cultural Heritage

Professor Oliver Reisner has 25 years of research on Russian and Caucasian history in theory and practice. He’s currently an Associated professor in European and Caucasian studies at Ilia State University, School of Arts & Sciences.

Mr. Reisner shares about current and upcoming projects of Association for the Preservation of German Cultural Property in the South Caucasus with CBW:

Tell us the story, how you got interested in Caucasian history?

First I got interested in the Caucasus after a three months trip to the Near East in 1987 and after reading the Russian romantic Mikhael Lermontov’s novel “A Hero of Our Time”. In 1988 I was invited by the Shota Rustaveli Institute for Georgian Literature from 1 October until 4 January 1989. This scholarship changed my life and I started to pick up the history of the national movement in Georgia as my research topic. I wrote a collective biography of the members of the “Society for the Spread of Literacy Among the Georgian Population”, the generation of the Tergdaleulebi, Georgian students socialized at higher education institutions abroad, mainly in Russia that intended to modernise the Georgian nation.

What were the first steps of Association for the Preservation of German Cultural Property in the South Caucasus, when did you found it?

The establishment of our association was initiated by Heike Gabriel, a very committed and active cultural attache of the German Embassy in Tbilisi back in 2013. She picked and brought the right people together that started to work on the issue, Georgians and Germans living in Georgia alike. In 2015 and 2016 we conducted an inventorisation of German cultural heritage in Georgia for the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Protection of Georgia. We identified 23 former German colonies and more than 1.200 buildings that still exist. For the most important buildings we prepared detailed passports. Most of them have been assigned the status of cultural heritage monuments by today. With funding from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs we conducted our first restauration work of the roof of the former Lutheran Church in Trialeti (former colony Alexanderhilf).

Selected results are presented in the following publication by the Council of Europe “Cultural Route of the German minority in Georgia” Download: that was published in 2017. Based on them Manana Akhalkatsi from the Geothe Institute created German language worksheets for schools: link , so that they can find their way into the classroom. You can follow our ongoing activities on Facebook.

You hold cultural events in the South regions, are local inhabitants informed about the history and cultural heritage?

In close cooperation with the local authorities from Bolnisi and the German Embassy in Tbilisi we contributed to the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first Swabian settlers from the kingdom of Wurttemberg in the Caucasus invited by the Tsarist authorities to assist in colonizing its newly acquired peripheries. We provided guided tours in Bolnisi on 7th October and presented the results of a summer school with German and Georgian students – five wonderful projects on how to inject new life to the German cultural heritage that was left without function for years. The projects range from an entertaining learning pathway for kids and adults, the establishment of a German language kindergarten and a youth center for different kinds of cultural activities, a new and inclusive concept for annual cultural festivals and finally a virtual space to bring all the interesting stories, pictures, information and archival documents together for visitors from all over the world.

We are convinced that without the active involvement of the local population and the younger generation this heritage is doomed to disappear. Therefore we elaborated a project for an interactive inventorisation of cultural resources for 15 out of the 23 former settlements that are located in the region of Kvemo Kartli as a contribution for the establishment of a German cultural route in Georgia. Together with the NGO “Community Development Center” (CDC) and the Georgian Association of History Educators (GAHE) we would like to involve the local population in plans on how to develop their communities building on the German heritage as well as other cultural resources that would foster a clearly home grown development of those communities. So far, we were not able to get the funding for this project, but we are confident, we will do so in 2018.

What are the upcoming events/projects in the framework of the Association?

In December 2018 we will present the findings of our inventorisation work at an international conference organised by the Georgian National Museum. The coming year 2018 we will continue our inventorisation with a detailed inventorisation of the very first settlement in Marienfeld. It was established late in 1817 and forms today a part of Sartichala on the road from Tbilisi to Kakheti. Also we will inventaris New Botanika, the very last settlement that was established by rehabilitated Germans returning from Kazakhstan in 1956, where they were deported in October 1941 after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. Also we will prepare a special tri-lingual edition of the results of our work over the last years for the Agency of Cultural Heritage Protection of Georgia for the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018, where Georgia will be host country. This forms a huge opportunity to spread the news about this unique cultural heritage in Germany.

Certainly we will support the German and Georgian students in implementing their project ideas beginning with the learning pathway in Bolnisi that will be supported by the Agency Creative Georgia of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage Protection.

Finally we will launch a new project linking the region of emigration and their destination in the virtual space through “Wandering objects, migrating people”, which we will implement together with the University Tuebingen, Ilia State University, the City Museum of Tuebingen and the new Regional Museum in Bolnisi by the Georgian National Museum Department. Here we want to experiment with new ways of presenting objects and telling stories about the German colonists, their fates and their families from the departure 200 years ago until today relying on modern media and ways of knowledge transmission. We will be busy in the coming year as well.

Who are the supporters and the members of the organization?

We have only about 40 members, but a very active cooperation with the Association of German descendants in Georgia EINUNG, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Georgia, the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection, the Sakrebulo of Tbilisi, the German Embassy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and private donors and sponsors. We expect in 2018 to do more for preservation and rehabilitation as well as community outreach to strengthen the awareness among the current population about the resources at their disposal.

Briefly about the missions, which one’s progress would you emphasize until now?

We have now a clear picture on how rich the heritage is that survived in Georgia unlike many parts of the Volga basin in Russia. It is a unique heritage that will attract interested tourists, but the programme must be diversified beyond the German heritage linking it with natural landscapes like the Dashbashi Canyon near Trialeti, hiking and velo tracks, traditional cuisine and other special offers. The next step is to get the local population more actively involved since they still live in that heritage and are the foremost people to be involved and supported in securing the heritage for the future. We hope by bridging the communities with German expertise we can help them to improve their own living conditions.

As we know, you are a professor in European and Caucasian Studies at Ilia State University. How would you evaluate education system in Georgia nowadays, what are the tips you would give?

This is a very broad topic. Over the last 14 years took huge efforts to reform its education system according to European standards, introduced modern school curricula, erased systemic corruption at university entrance exams through the introduction of a nationwide anonymous testing system, joined ERASMUS and thus opened European universities to Georgian students and finally started to tackle the problem of professional education. Reforms in education need time to take effects. Most important seems to me to prioritize support to quality education on all levels, acknowledge and accordingly remunerate educators according to the importance of education for a country with only few natural resources fully relying on its citizens capacities to develop Georgia in a creative and interesting way. More emphasis therefore needs to be put on skills and capacities, self-reflection and empathy instead of reproducing knowledge. This also requires the retraining of teachers and educators at higher education institutions. Lifelong learning opportunities on all levels as well as support measures to convince the employers to actively participate in the professional education sector. The latter one seems to me to be the biggest challenge for the moment. However, Georgia came a long way compared to the “dark nineties” when I came here for my PhD. Georgia has chosen its European way and I have chosen my Georgian way to accompany Georgia in the future.

Thank you very much for the interview!

By Nina Gomarteli

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