In shadow of war, Russian billionaire declares Tbilisi a ‘territory of culture’ with no authorized policy

TBILISI — Speaking to journalists, architects and art lovers last week in a mix of Georgian and English, Shalva Breus painted a melancholy portrait.

Georgian-born Russian billionaire businessman Breus, 64, played down potential loopholes stemming from Moscow’s wartime isolation as he announced plans for an arts center in the historic city of Tbilisi which, according to him, would be a refuge for a transcendent international culture.

He drew comparisons with one of Europe’s best-known art spaces, the Center Pompidou in Paris.

But the paper and pulp magnate, longtime art collector and former deputy governor of Siberia was immediately confronted with questions about the intersection of art and politics in the Caucasus.

“I have a request,” Breus said in the courtyard of his future site, the aging Saint-Michel hospital. “We are in the territory of culture. In this territory, from today, nationality, citizenship, education, gender, political interests, etc. do not matter. We officially declare it territory of culture, and on this territory we will speak only of culture.”

A view of the aging St. Mikheil Hospital, which will house Breus’ “territory of culture”.

It’s unclear whether he can convince nearly 4 million Georgians and a growing minority of Russian expats here to do the same.

Russian troops are still occupying two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, since a bitter and bloody war in 2008, and Tbilisi recently joined Kyiv and Chisinau in accelerating its bid for the EU to send a signal pro-Western to an aggressive Moscow. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of disgruntled Russians have moved here since the start of the war in Ukraine, perhaps to escape persecution at home for their anti-war views or to avoid international sanctions.

But Breus’s ability to separate art from politics could largely determine the fate of his $26 million vision in this former city of about 1 million.

“Not a temple”

In March, one of Breus’ companies won a multimillion-dollar auction for the hospital, which is nestled among 19th-century buildings on Tbilisi’s posh Agmashenebeli Avenue on the left bank of the river Kura.

The sale followed the confiscation of St. Mikheil by the Georgian state real estate agency when a previous investor missed deadlines on a plan to convert it into a 200-room five-star hotel.

The agency unsuccessfully tried to sell the hospital four times before the sale to Breus’s Hansi Ltd., which is wholly owned by the businessman and one of at least three companies he set up in Georgia in 2021.

The sale price of 16 million lari ($5.5 million) was around 40% of the agency’s 2021 valuation of almost 40 million lari.

The terms included an additional investment of 30 million laris to turn the site into a museum of modern art.

Breus pledged to turn the site into “not a temple” but a place for young people who “can enter our museum with a skateboard, place it against the wall, sit down, open their laptop, work and go. “.

He compared his vision to the Pompidou Center in Paris rather than Tbilisi’s only other major art exhibition center, the august Georgian Museum of Fine Arts frequently referred to by the names of its founders, Gia Jokhtaberidze and Manana Shevardnadze , the daughter of former Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister and former Georgian President.

It should open in 2028.

Breus said he hopes his acquisitions as an art collector over the past two decades will help build a strong core collection in Tbilisi that can also be loaned to other institutions.

No stranger to politics

Breus is one of the greatest patrons and influencers of art, with an extensive collection Underline by German Expressionism, but including great Georgian artists ranging from pre-war primitivist Niko Pirosmani to contemporary fantasy painter Rusudan Khizanishvili. His collection is said to number at least 700 pieces.

The merchants' feast of Tbilisi accompanied by Niko Pirosmani's gramophone exhibited in Moscow in 2017.

The merchants’ feast of Tbilisi accompanied by Niko Pirosmani’s gramophone exhibited in Moscow in 2017.

His association, the Breus Foundation, formerly ArtChronika, is a major player in the Russian art scene which has awarded the prestigious Kandinsky Prize for contemporary art every year since 2007.

Breus said he chose Tbilisi over Venice or Brussels because he was born and raised in Georgia. But before that, the billionaire had more than meddled in an equally daring and high-profile project under the iron-domed roof of Moscow’s historic Udarnik cinema before Russian authorities pulled the plug.

His advanced plans for a museum of contemporary art in this constructivist landmark near the Kremlin that eventually collapsed after Moscow city officials reconsidered their 49-year lease to its foundation.

Russia’s soft power?

The selection process for the sale of St. Mikheil also stipulated that the space was to house a museum and Georgians have long complained about the lack of gallery space in their capital, although many are also adamant that the he State should establish its own great center for contemporary art rather than entrusting it to the hands of just any wealthy man.

And privately, some members of Tbilisi’s artistic community have expressed concerns about whether Breus’ or any other Russian project might lend itself to bolstering Moscow’s “soft power.”

Breus had embarked on an equally daring and high-profile project under the iron-domed roof of Moscow's historic Udarnik cinema before Russian authorities pulled the plug.

Breus had embarked on an equally daring and high-profile project under the iron-domed roof of Moscow’s historic Udarnik cinema before Russian authorities pulled the plug.

Last week, Breus said simply that his love for his Georgian roots and his art offered the opportunity to “cross two vectors”. But Breus, whose own industrial rise coincided with the lawless expansion of the Russian oligarchy in the 1990s, has had his feet planted squarely in Russian politics and promotion in the past.

His career includes a tenure as deputy governor in Krasnodar Krai in Siberia within the power vertical tightly controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also served under controversial Governor Aleksandr Lebed.

Russian media have alleged that billionaire founder of Georgia’s ruling party for the past decade, Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose fortune was also made in Russia, financed Lebed’s campaign. But these claims have never been proven.

The Kandinsky Prize of the Breus Foundation aims to promote contemporary Russian artists. His selection of ultranationalist Aleksei Belyayev-Guintovt for the award in 2008 aroused outrage many critics, including an art-world editor who questioned whether the painter could donate the prize money to “some kind of fascist party.” Another suggested he get the “Leni Riefenstahl Prize”, a reference to the Nazi propagandist and official filmmaker of Adolf Hitler.

Home of Russians on the run

About a fifth of Georgia is still occupied by Russian troops who moved into Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a blitzkrieg in 2008. Many Georgians are still eager to integrate further into Europe and wary of their treatment by their former Soviet masters.

Several hundred kilometers south of Tbilisi, around 2,000 Russian troops have been positioned between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to maintain a fragile ceasefire since an intense war in 2020.

Hundreds of miles to the northwest, some 1,500 Russian troops guard a Soviet-era depot in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, despite repeated requests from Chisinau to leave.

And, of course, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops continue to lead or provide operational support to the brutal invasion of another Black Sea neighbor, Ukraine.

As a result, in addition to Ukrainian refugees, Georgia became host to dozens of thousands of Russians fleeing violence, sanctions or repression of dissent at home.

Also in recent weeks, tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to express their pro-Western sentiments and criticize Ivanishvili and his ruling Georgian Dream party for their failure to deliver reforms that could bring them in. in the EU tent.

Breus’ ability to adhere closely to the “territory of culture” in Saint-Micheil could prove critical to the fate of his Tbilisi art center and his own Georgian dreams.

Asked at last week’s event whether the new center would exhibit Russian artists, Breus simply replied, “We will exhibit all artists.”

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Georgian RFE/RL service correspondent Nastasia Arabuli in Tbilisi

Helen D. Jessen