Looking for a Soviet military uniform? A Russian tea set? A tiger skin? A place to live? “Head to the Dry Bridge” is the invariable answer if you ask anyone in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Equal parts flea market, art bazaar, and real estate agency (the makleri, an index card for each apartment on offer, sit opposite the jewelry-sellers), Tbilisi’s weekend Dry Bridge market is also a de facto social hub: gossip is exchanged with every lari note. Ataki and his wife, Keti – longtime sellers here – fill me in on the market’s history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many members of the established Soviet elite sought to emigrate as quickly as possible, converting the trappings of their success into quick cash. Meanwhile, Georgia’s newly-minted super-rich – those who were able to work the chaotic 1990s to their own advantage – found themselves in search of cultural legitimacy: the antique books and porcelain tea-sets that denoted respectability.
Now, of course, they say, this place is largely for the tourists. Even so, the Dry Bridge offers a glimpse into Georgia’s history: commodified. Handmade jewelry and metal table-tops – each embossed with regionally-specific designs – are brought in from the provinces, along with century-old swords; elegant Russian skatulka (jewelry-boxes) and antiquarian books hint at Tbilisi’s 19th century grandeur, when the city was a necessary stop on any educated Russian’s Grand Tour.
But the biggest sellers are the Soviet things. Paintings and posters of Stalin, military uniforms, fur caps sporting the hammer and sickle, even gas masks – these, I learn, are what tourists like most. One of the sellers shows me a particularly grisly product: a collection of Soviet surgical equipment, newly-washed.
I buy an antique postcard instead.
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