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In Shadow Of War, Russian Billionaire Declares A 'Territory Of Culture' In Tbilisi With No Politics Allowed

Georgian-born billionaire businessman Shalva Breus speaks at the site of his sweeping projected art center at St. Mikheil's Hospital in Tbilisi on July 7.

TBILISI -- Speaking to journalists, architects, and art lovers last week in a mixture of Georgian and English, Shalva Breus painted a wistful portrait.

A Georgian-born billionaire businessman from Russia, the 64-year-old Breus downplayed potential rifts arising from Moscow's wartime isolation as he announced plans for an art center in historic Tbilisi that he said would be a haven for transcendent international culture.

He drew comparisons to one of Europe's best-known art spaces, the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

But the paper-and-pulp magnate, longtime art collector, and onetime deputy governor in Siberia immediately faced questions about the intersection of art and politics in the Caucasus.

"I have one request," Breus said in the courtyard of his future site, the aging St. Mikheil's Hospital. "We are in the territory of culture. In this territory, from today, nationality, citizenship, education, gender, and political interests and so on do not matter. We officially declare this as the territory of culture, and in this territory we will talk only about culture."

A view of the aging St. Mikheil's Hospital, which will house Breus' "territory of culture."
A view of the aging St. Mikheil's 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 expatriates 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 EU bid to send a pro-Western signal to an aggressive Moscow. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of disaffected Russians have moved here since the Ukraine war began, possibly 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 ancient city of around 1 million people.

'Not A Temple'

In March, one of Breus's 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 Kura River.

The sale followed the Georgian state property agency's confiscation of St. Mikheil's when a previous investor failed to meet deadlines in a plan to convert it into a 200-room, five-star hotel.

The agency tried unsuccessfully to sell the hospital on four occasions before the sale to Breus's Hansi Ltd., which is fully owned by the businessman and one of at least three companies he established in Georgia in 2021.

The sale price of 16 million laris ($5.5 million) was around 40 percent of the agency's 2021 valuation of nearly 40 million laris.

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

Breus has vowed to transform the site into "not a temple" but a venue for young people who "can enter our museum with a skateboard, set it against the wall, sit down, open your laptop, work, and leave."

He likened his vision to Paris's Centre Pompidou rather than Tbilisi's only other major, purpose-built center for exhibiting art, 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 Soviet foreign minister and Georgian ex-president, Eduard Shevardnadze.

It should open in 2028.

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

No Stranger To Politics

Breus is among the world's foremost art patrons and influencers, with an expansive collection highlighted by German Expressionism but including major Georgian artists spanning from prewar primitivist Niko Pirosmani to contemporary fantastical painter Rusudan Khizanishvili. His collection is said to number at least 700 pieces.

Niko Pirosmani's The Feast Of Tbilisi Merchants Accompanied By The Gramophone on display in Moscow in 2017.
Niko Pirosmani's The Feast Of Tbilisi Merchants Accompanied By The Gramophone on display in Moscow in 2017.

His nonprofit, the Breus Foundation, formerly ArtChronika, is a major player on Russia's art scene that has awarded the prestigious Kandinsky Prize for contemporary art each year since 2007.

Breus said he chose Tbilisi instead of Venice or Brussels because he was born and raised in Georgia. But previously, the billionaire more than dabbled in an equally audacious, high-profile project under the iron-domed roof of Moscow's historic Udarnik Cinema before Russian officials pulled the plug.

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

Russia's Soft Power?

The selection process for the sale of St. Mikheil's also stipulated that the space should house a museum and Georgians have long complained of a lack of gallery space in their capital, although many are also adamant that the state should be establishing its own major center for contemporary art rather than entrusting it to any wealthy individuals' hands.

And privately, some within Tbilisi's art community expressed concerns about whether Breus's or any other Russian project might lend itself to furthering the "soft power" of Moscow.

Breus had dabbled in an equally audacious, high-profile project under the iron-domed roof of Moscow's historic Udarnik Cinema before Russian officials pulled the plug.
Breus had dabbled in an equally audacious, high-profile project under the iron-domed roof of Moscow's historic Udarnik Cinema before Russian officials pulled the plug.

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

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

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

The Breus Foundation's Kandinsky Prize is meanwhile aimed at promoting Russian contemporary artists. Its selection of ultranationalist Aleksei Belyayev-Guintovt for the prize in 2008 sparked outrage from many critics, including one art-world editor who questioned whether the painter might 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 Adolf Hitler's official filmmaker.

Home To Fleeing Russians

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

Several hundred kilometers to the south of Tbilisi, around 2,000 Russian troops are positioned between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to maintain a shaky cease-fire since an intense war in 2020.

Hundreds of kilometers to the northwest, some 1,500 Russian soldiers are guarding a Soviet-era depot in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester, despite Chisinau's repeated requests that they leave.

And, of course, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are still waging or providing operational support for the brutal invasion of another Black Sea neighbor, Ukraine.

As a result, in addition to Ukrainian refugees, Georgia has become host to tens of thousands of Russians fleeing the violence, sanctions, or the clampdown on dissent at home.

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

Breus's ability to adhere tightly to "the territory of culture" at St. Mikheil's might prove essential 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 said simply, "We will exhibit all artists."

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

    Nastasia Arabuli is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.