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Human Devils: Affects and Specters of Alterity in Eerie Cities of Georgia (Book Chapter) | Tamta Khalvashi

Text: Tamta Khalvashi, Paul Manning

(Forthcoming in 2022) Human Devils: Affects and Specters of Alterity in Eerie Cities of Georgia. In: Martin Demant Frederiksen and Ida Harboe (ed.): Modern Folk Devils: Contemporary Constructions of Evil. Helsinki University Press. (Adapted version).


With the emergence of electrical power, and the advent of Modernity, devils and ghosts were given a premature burial, only to resurface after Roger Luckhurst, inspired by Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994), announced “the resurgence of ghosts” (2002), followed by works from theoretist, especially in urban studies. Unlike traditional phantoms, they are, as a rule, considered metaphorical spirits, something closer to the Hegelian spirit (akin to capitalism), an invisible force, rather than to the creatures surviving in folklore, those personifying the life-giving forces of nature. Consequently, haunting or their other typical behaviors are quite abstract, generalized in character, and capable of messing up any kind of dwelling, existence, or large-scale urban planning. The ghost, coming across as an apparition of some uncertain kind in the first place, is reduced to the eerie figure of “ghostly modernity” (Luckhurst 2022, 528). And ghostly modernity refers to a period when “something went wrong in time” to allow the disturbing return of the exiled—they come back and keep us in a disturbed state with both their existence and nonexistence. You may find them in every city corner and see a connection of sorts between the gruesome effects of their behaviors and particular locations. In cities, devils and ghosts appear in their traditional and folklore forms, among others. They emerge in times of changing social or physical structures to instill anxiety and doubts about the present.

That’s why the dead devils of Georgian cities, similar to these cities, literally petrify is, because they are both concrete and metaphorical at the same time. However, ethnographic studies don’t tell us much about the devils from folklore who have moved to the city and emerged as figures embodying human unfamiliarity. As human devils, they generate affects similar to Georgian cities, some of which are desolate, others built halfway, and some in ruin altogether (Khalvashi 2019). As a rule, ghosts were once human beings but then turned into apparitions. Georgian devils, however, never were human, being devils since inception, though, in the process of urbanization and modernization, the words denoting them turned into jargon to mean strange people produced by unexpected urban transformation. In this context, Georgian devils differ drastically from their Western counterparts in that, one day, they may appear in human form.

Ghostly modernity builds on the eerie sensations aroused by urban spaces. According to Mark Fisher, if the uncanny is something the thing found in the wrong place, the eerie is the place itself (Fisher 2016). This sensation is always linked to particular places and landscapes: “Desolate landscapes, abandoned buildings, ruins are eerie. Something is moving visibly in deserted places, something existing independently from man—something hidden and ambiguous” (Luckhurst 2017). Thus, demons—moving from rural refuge into desolate, half-built, or ruined urban spaces and turning human—and cities where they end up are perceived as eerie and covered in darkness. They show us that which is disturbing, something that links to the moral conditions of urban spaces transforming into distorted, ruined, alien, weird places. Thus, the spirits from traditional fables far from being over the hill in the era of modernity. On the contrary, they embody a bran-new—of course, modernist—urban anxiety over ruination or just merciless social or political changes.

Georgian devils in cities are the contemporary ghosts of unfamiliarity. They become permanent residents of urban settlements, relocate from forest trails to city streets, and evoke anxiety with their unfamiliarity, explaining why Georgian evil spirits—unlike their Californian counterparts, such as the invisible hitchhiking woman—are not nomadic. They are permanent residents of urban or semi-urban settlements. Human devils prefer contemporary, albeit often ruined, infrastructure, though their presence is especially strong during political and economic crises.

In this article, we will discuss three types of evil spirits. The first are kadji, horned demons that once lived in desolate places and ruins near villages, but now how turned into metaphors for the unfamiliar, disturbing aspects of cities that changed drastically immediately after the end of socialism. There are also deddjali and uzhmuri, fiends found mostly in west Georgia, pertaining to Russian colonialist and soviet modernity projects, and emerging in the era of urban modernity to petrify us.

Kadji fiends in an unbuilt city

Last year, we visited Anaklia in west Georgia, a small village on the Black Sea coast, near the Abkhazian border. Anaklia used to be a small but well reinforced port and trade zone, though its importance obviously diminished in soviet and post-soviet times. Fairly recently, the village became part of the state’s ambitious plan—a world-level deep sea port was supposed to be built here as a connector between Asia and Europe. In 2011, then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced that a new large settlement and a vitally important economic hub called Laziko would emerge here. This effort to draw closer to Europe would result in Anaklia turning into a postmodernist urban utopia of sorts near the border with Russia-controlled Abkhazia. After the defeat of Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 elections, new prime minister/oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili suspended the project, followed by his cabinet proposing a similar initiative titled Anaklia. An entire rural settlement was demolished on the Black Sea coast for a future deep sea port, though the project is once again on hold, this time because of new political clashes and geopolitical conflicts of interests. As a result, Anaklia today is an eerie place with buildings and port infrastructure still desolate and unbuilt. Anaklia, sandwiched between rural and urban order (disorder), past and future, is truly an exceptional place to study ghosts.

A Megrelian woman over 60 told us in a café that kadji fiends with human faces often come from Adjara, a region with a large portion of the country’s Muslim population. Unable to hold back her apprehension, she described them as creatures with small horns and long beards holding memorial services, together with local Muslims of Laz descent, in Anaklia’s Turkish Neighborhood. Obviously, the kadji in this case stood not for the spirits or apparitions from western Georgian folklore, but for real creations, human devils who were Muslim, or rather Muslims who were themselves kadji fiends. The image of Muslims credited with the characteristics of demons is indicative of the lack of humanity in Anaklia, as humanity has transmuted into a moral condition that leaves no room for Muslims, consequently allowing them to appear only in the form of ghosts or apparitions, embodiments of the devil, something that is never fully human. The woman seemed quite concerned in her description of the kadji, reminding us that something previously only imagined but suddenly seen physically by human beings often seems really eerie to them. For that woman, the mythical kadji were part of an imaginary village, but now they have appeared to her in human form. She was petrified, unable to explain what their appearance in the unbuilt city could signify. Similar to the kadji, Muslims—caught between modernity and tradition, urban and rural spaces—evoke anxiety, as they are not fully modern.

The fabled kadji are anthropomorphic creatures, mostly horned devils living near Georgian villages alongside other fantastic things like the tiny chinka and nymph-like ali. These legendary creatures are antimodels of sex and age in human society, or rather their reversals, with ali being young virgins, chinka being children, and kadji coming in any age or sex. While chinka and ali are mostly homeless spirits—and they can be domesticated, too—the eerie humanity of kadji reveals itself in their having homes and villages, living in caves or ruins, abandoned dwellings and roads. And since kadji steer away from human habitat, they cannot be tamed, even if captured.

Thus, kadji, unlike ali and chinka, remain totally alienated. They are totally different. Still, they are the most social among evil spirits, because kadji, like men, are capable of sexual reproduction and change. Paradoxically, kadji—farthest removed from human beings and potentially the most cruel and aggressive—resemble men more than any other creature, the reason why the fabled kadji appear in narratives placing them on the road or in the forest. Unlike them, the jargon kadji are real human beings. No longer fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, they evoke more associations with humanity than their mythological doubles. They are found only in cities—nothing left to look for near villages. Such kadji are missing from the list of folklore characters too. Instead, they’ve found abode in dictionaries of jargon (Bregadze 2005), where absolutely different figures appear next to the kadji: jerks, gawks, oafs… there’s even a term in Georgian, horned kadji jackass. It follows that kadji are defined by their unawareness or defiance of norms of civilized urban behavior. Needless to say, disrespect for of accepted social norms, or even a certain degree of aggression toward them, is characteristic of both real and metaphorical kadji. They are always out of place as violators of the most important social boundary.

There are two types of kadji in the city. The first are those who cross the dividing line between the village and the city without changing their ways. For a long time, socialism banned the rural population’s relocation into the city, and the eventual removal of this ban resulted the city flooded by villagers in alarming numbers in that they altered the city’s cultural environment, turning it into “a big village.” The other type of kadji represent the new elite, nouveau riche, whose appearance in social space was also made possible thanks to the end of socialism. Nowadays, kadji is also a term applicable to foreigners flocking into Tbilisi and buying real estate. Similar to the Anakli kadji, foreigners from Turkey, Iran, and the Arab world are spurned as total strangers. These creatures, previously unseen in the city, resemble the rural folklore kadji in that they cannot be domesticated by just cutting their hair or clipping their nails, or teaching them how to wash properly…. Thus, kadji, paradoxically, are very much in line with modernity. With every new crisis triggered by sudden political or economic changes, a new kind of kadji is born in the city.

Although the kadji, being marginalized, appear mostly in everyday speech and narratives of urban Georgia, but they “don’t stay there,” instead finding themselves in the spotlight of media or political circles. Georgia’s incumbent president Salome Zurabishvili, at an opposition meeting years ago, addressed her supporters: “Kadji are not coming, they are leaving,” referring to the National Movement, whose members she christened as the kadji of Georgian politics. The media embraced her words that are used mostly during political clashes or urban protests ever since. Thus, kadji are not just coming, but coming in large numbers. At such moments, the important point to ponder is that they are not only aggressive, but also brazen, and that it is because of their presence across town that the city appears weird, unfamiliar, desolate, and eerie.

Ghosts of (post)coloniality

Tropes related to spirits have a long history in Georgia. It is essential to identify links between old and new ghosts to discern perceptions related to the ghosts of those human beings whom Muslims regard as kadji. If kadji arrive in Anaklia from Adjara, the latter itself is in the hands of a host of human devils speaking to the materiality of colonial configurations in the region, exposing the continuity of the past and its consequences. Of course, unfamiliarity in Adjara is closely tied to ghosts hiding in the colonial stories of Russia and the Ottoman Empire. In this regard, labeling Christians as demonic apparitions or Turks as devils potentially reevaluates the colonial stories of the given place, even if the present is “postcolonial.” Apparently, ghosts in Adjara are characterized not only by morality, but also by political aspirations constantly reminding of ghostly history and its traces in the present (Stoller 2006).

In western Georgia, a former Russian and Ottoman colony, changing border lines have considerably affected the lives of local Muslims. To strengthen colonial settlements and urban infrastructure, the Russian Empire confiscated agricultural lands from them and prevented the local population from controlling the environment. Muslim peasants and aristocrats resisted the Russian imperial idea of spatial transformation and unfair social segregation that further cemented longing for autonomy (Turmanize 2009). These stories made their mark on the worldviews and perceptions of the 19th-20th centuries in the form of myths and legends about deddjali. If kadji turn into figures illustrating the unfamiliarity of Muslims, the latter, for their part, label Christians as deddjali, a demon threatening their lives. The deddjali is a gargantuan dragon with red curly hair and a wide forehead who is chained to the bottom of the sea (Shioshvili 2010, Mgeladze 2010/2011). Unchained, it would destroy the world. Legend has it that deddjali is a Christian capable of converting to his faith, through persuasion or deception, decapitating with a sword those tricked (Shioshvili 2010, 53). As a Christian demon, the deddjali is strong enough to alter the usual course of life and pervert the souls of men by converting them. Thus, the Russian Empire’s attempts to spread a new civilization were perceived not only as a material, but also spiritual loss.

Deddjali mythology features spirits only in their “traditional” forms, meaning placing ghosts in the realm of spirits. The ghostly representations of the deddjali have assumed more “modern” forms because of being identified with the notions of empire, infrastructure, Christianity, and war. Understood in this manner, the deddjali comes across as an embodiment of the demonic potential of the empire’s subjects, one applicable to all imperial subjects, the reason why the threat is coming not only from Russians, but also from Georgian Christians, the latter being taken by Muslims as personifications of the colonial Russian regime. The deddjali is a creature illustrating imperial appropriation, and the fear caused by it, and the detachment of Muslims from the Russian Empire’s civilizational efforts in their territory. A combination of the discourses of colonial civilization and the materiality of colonial infrastructure defined these types of views and divisions by human and inhuman features.

Batumi’s contemporary devils blend in with the ghostly forms of appropriation and unfamiliarity characteristic of the old, colonial era, and adopt their modes of operation. If the deddjali is a dragon demonstrating the fear caused by Russian colonialism, now the devil illustrates the anxiety triggered by the comprehension of Turkish economic dominance in the city. Naturally, colonialism in modern-day Adjara still comes in the form of appropriation and unfamiliarity. Appropriation in the era of post-socialist neoliberal changes has turned into a kind of “political logic,” in which colonial and postcolonial methods of appropriation are interwoven and bring about a whole array of anxieties. Indeed, in light of mass unemployment, the growth of financial institutions has resulted in the eviction of many Batumi residents. Losing one’s property has naturally encouraged the emergence of negative narratives that link to the loss of spirituality among human beings themselves. For those who have borrowed money from Turkish lenders or microfinancing organization, Turks have turned into devils or outright inhuman creatures. But, besides Turks, Georgian partners have also proved to be evil spirits. In this case, the classical division into the conqueror and the conquered, oppressor and oppressed, as the foundation of colonial experience, no longer works. Demons are present on either side, inside and outside, because there’s nothing human left in them. In other words, human devils show no signs of humanity.

Phantoms of crankiness

Thus, some demons and ghosts in Georgia have found themselves in the middle of both colonial and postcolonial modernity projects, explaining why they, as part of various modernity projects, often become objects of rejection, lest they stand in the way of historical switchover from religious to secular, from irrational to rational, or from traditionality to modernity. Soviet and post-soviet projects in Georgia stand for these very attempts as they focus mostly on diminishing the importance of or perverting the ghost of old. Nonetheless, the once vanished spirits successfully reemerge in the form of eerie apparitions or real men, or of negative sentiments, atmospheres, or affects (Gordon 2008).

And it was in the name of soviet modernity that the most restrictive policies were employed to edge out ghosts. Indeed, portraying locals as naïve and superstitious country bumpkins—those that believe in the existence of uzhmuri fiends, for example—shows that dispelling and alienating ghosts was essential for soviet modernity projects, because they stood in the way of the rigid soviet way of life. According to some traditions, uzhmuri fiends live in swamps, under bridges, or in industrial ruins, being in essence evil spirits, and haunting mostly children and pregnant women. Similar to jinn, they belong to the realm of the invisible, because they are hidden to human eyes. Those possessed by uzhmuri are subjected to spells against evil spirits. Uzhmuri, though of rural origin, live in urban spaces as well. They may cause illness and complications, explaining why cranky people are called uzhmuri in Georgia. Thus, uzhmuri may come in the form of real, corporeal beings.

Possession by uzhmuri and healing from them, as described by soviet Georgian ethnographers, clearly demonstrates the confrontation between the secular and religious worldviews of that time (Noghaideli 1935). These spirits were believed to be remnants of the past, with their roots hoped to be found in outdated traditions and superstitions that undermined the soviet way of life. These views effectively drove away belief in spirits and occult traditions, even turning into a constant source of shame grounded in the realization of one’s unfamiliarity. Not surprisingly, then, we see drastically differing attitudes toward said traditions, despite the fact that people still believe in the eeriness of spirits.

Uzhmuri, a 1934 film by Georgian director Nutsa Ghoghoberidze, was an attempt to set forth ghostly narrative about uzhmuri and to link it to the superstitions of the retrogrades. The plot describes Great Uzhmuri Valley in Samegrelo as the domain of Green Toad-Queen. The soviet government, in the name of industrialization, decided to build a canal through the valley, an idea opposed by local villagers, with their belief in the devil living there cited as one of the reasons. In the film, Megrelian peasants stand up to communists and embody the resistance triggered by state annexation of lands. The peasants are portrayed as irrational figures and class enemies opposing the Marxist-Leninist project of modernization, explaining why the communists—in defiance of the local residents’ concerns over the valley as a habitat of uzmuri fiends—enter the area and nearly drown in the marshes, eventually saved in the nick of time by their comrades. The film changed numerous censorship hands. The director later ended up in a concentration camp, in Far North, while production designer Petre Otskheli fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge. Thus, the soviet government turned the film’s creators into invisible mysterious beings like the uzhmuri populating Samegrelo’s valleys.

With the unexpected collapse of socialism in the 1990s, uzhmuri, as a sign of crankiness, became part of everyday life. People haunted by uzmuri suddenly went uzhmuri themselves. In contemporary jargon, this word describes not the object of superstition, but someone who is like uzhmuri, who, with his toxic temper, can poison the environment and relations. Thus, uzhmuri, similar to kadji, define people whose behavior defied order in social and urban life. The mysterious origins of uzhmuri can be easily explained by social and economic decline and consequent universal irritation. In western Georgia, however, uzhmuri are not associated with growing social and economic inequality, unemployment or poverty. Their origin is the work of the hands of the unnamed force that is frequently characteristic of the post-socialist political world, and that is probably why most uzhmuri people in Georgia are treated primarily with humor—because the moodiness of one person is not taken as something they own. On the contrary, uzhmuri people are believed to illustrate what is outside their control and exists independently from them as an external, affective force.

Orcs or kadji?

“Of course, I like [the festival] in Anaklia. I’m not some kadji,” one local woman told a journalist in the unbuilt port city of Anaklia. This journalist, in 2014, was studying the local population’s perceptions of the Kazantip festival of alternative music, one of the largest of its kind in the world, with its rhythms spreading throughout the Black Sea shore. The festival encountered fierce opposition from the Georgian Orthodox Christian Church and conservative activists, who organized a march from Tbilisi to Anaklia and held rallies decrying the festival’s amorality. But the locals, who make a living mostly through agriculture, were looking forward to a powerful inflow of tourists. Merab, one such local, said that the festival’s opponents lived exclusively in the city, outside the village. Paradoxically, kasdji , who usually traveled from the village to the capital or were perceived as Muslim evil spirits, had relocated from the marginalized space into mainstream. For Tbilisi-based liberals, they became equal to the orcs from The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. The identity of orcs is demonic, but they, in the eyes of the Georgian liberal elite, also represent an epithet for anti-Western conservatives missing the soviet era, upholding pro-Russian sentiments, and professing ultraconservatism. Thus, orcs, similar to kadji, embody innermost darkness and ignorance. Both orcs and kadji are negative projections that must be dispelled from the body of the nation. The savagery of kadji transforms into the main strength of orcs, insomuch as they create make up a politically motivated neoconservative group and behave as though they were the only true residents of the city.

In June of 2019, a new wave of protest, known as Sirtskhvilia [Shame] picked up. Since inception, both kadji and orcs made their presence felt, even clashing at some point. These protest rallies started after Sergei Gavrilov, a member of the Communist Party and Russia’s State Duma, while visiting Tbilisi to attend the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, took the chair of the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament. During the protests, the opposition called the Georgian Government a traitor and accused the system of being run by orcs. Ties between orcs and the Georgian government revealed themselves in defying the West, turning ultraconservative groups into weapons against the West. On the other hand, government supporters and conservative residents of the city used the name kadji in reference to the opposition and its supporters, who blocked Tbilisi’s main streets, and demanded their expulsion. What concerned them was not just threats hurled against the government, but also contemporary urban order disrupted by the opposition’s tents and bonfires in the streets. Fierce arguments spread through Tbilisi’s streets and took over the internet as well. The internet turned into a new domain of both real and demonic spirits. Better still, both orcs and kadji acquired their own trolls who worked hard either for the government or the opposition. While human devils roamed the streets, virtual evil spirits traversed the online space.

The changing forms of traditional spirits tell us that evil spirits can assume new faces. The inform us of something about emotional and affective conditions triggered by social changes. Scores of inhuman beings appearing in human form engage in the everyday lives of Georgian cities and keep growing stronger. They appear to us in times of social, political, or urban crises, making anthropological study into the dispersion patterns of ghosts. As Anthony Vidler relates in The Architectural Uncanny, cities and buildings, like a body, “may fall ill,” and even die. Vidler’s sentiments can be felt clearly in Georgian cities where infrastructure, buildings, and streets are constantly destroyed. These cities resemble ailing human beings. At the same time, they also resemble demons with their unfinished structures, ruins of unbuilt neighborhoods. However, unfinished urban forms, like demons, are not something that was once perceived as familiar but gradually became alienated. They, like the unfamiliar kadji fiends, storm in, and their unfamiliarity becomes a feature of the space itself. Thus, the ruins of the unfinished city of Anaklia differ from postwar cities or archeological remains in that they have never seemed dear or familiar to the local population to begin with.

Georgia’s urban reforms are eerie, because the idea of modernity itself is materially half-baked, and the ruins of the Anaklia city of the future consequently evoke uncanny feelings, as this place never really turned into a city or a space populated by familiar characters, human beings. And then, as the Georgian proverb goes, an abandoned monastery is the devil’s workshop. That’s exactly why unfinished cities like Anaklia—similar to human devils who have flesh and blood but not a shred of humanity—become parts of ghostly modernity to house nothing even remotely resembling of modern urbanism. Desolate and unfinished buildings and infrastructures themselves start to resemble evil spirits, because they both evoke feelings of radical unfamiliarity and alienation. Consequently, Georgian cities and demons are not just unfamiliar in terms of modernity, but are also indicative of the dark, eerie, and therefore totally unfamiliar areas of things internal and external, contemporary and non-contemporary, human and inhuman.


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