Sister Monica, a native of Poland who staffs the Harmony Day Center, checks Ms. Kuchaidze’s blood pressure. (photo: Molly Corso)
At the center, many have come to think of Ivlita Kuchaidze as a second mother. (photo: Molly Corso)
Ivlita Kuchaidze survived famine, World War II, the Cold War, the Georgian civil war and the country’s turbulent early years of independence. But, at 93, she may be facing her hardest challenge yet: Along with an estimated 400,000 other Georgian citizens, Ms. Kuchaidze endures a life of abject poverty.
After decades spent caring for others, Ms. Kuchaidze has become one of the thousands of pensioners who must depend on charity to survive.
“How do I live right now? In the cold. Hungry. Everything has gotten so expensive,” she says.
“I am used to it,” Ms. Kuchaidze adds. “I grew up half hungry. It is harder for people who used to live well.”
A tiny, neatly dressed woman with snow-white hair, Ms. Kuchaidze is a quiet soul, quick with a smile. Known as a keen and attentive listener, she inspires others to confide and seek advice, and has come to be regarded by many as a “second mother” at the Caritas Georgia Harmony Day Center, where she is the eldest beneficiary. There, she spends her weekday afternoons with 35 other senior citizens who also live below the poverty line in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
At the center, Ms. Kuchaidze receives a free daily meal, which she saves to eat at home with her daughter. She also enjoys tea and a snack, as well as the chance to pass the day in a heated room, visiting with friends.
Ms. Kuchaidze spends her time reading, soaking up the warmth.
These pleasures, however simple, are a luxury for her. At home, she and her daughter, Meriko, struggle to buy groceries. On her pension, a pittance of $83 monthly, they cannot afford to turn on their electric heater.
Squirreling away the provisions from the Harmony Center, Ms. Kuchaidze even saves her second cookie at teatime to share with Meriko later.
They survive the cold weather, she says, by “bundling up like cabbage” — putting on as many layers of clothing as possible and then jumping into bed, under the covers.
But even layers of clothing do not help when the time comes to wash clothes and bedding — by hand in water they cannot afford to heat — or when they bathe, a thrice-monthly chore that requires a trip to a local bathhouse, where the water is warm but the rooms are cold.
“I live in the 17th century. I just don’t have a kerosene lamp,” she says, laughing.
“I have a bedroom and bathroom and the living room — all in one room. We don’t live; we just survive. So I don’t have such an interest in life.” Her friends, she adds, do not come around very much anymore.
As with most of the Harmony Day Center’s regulars, Ms. Kuchaidze worked hard to create a good life. She overcame a difficult childhood and practical abandonment and put herself through technical school. As an adult, she mended wounds and bolstered spirits on the front, raised a family and built a career.
“I will be 94 and so far, thank God, my sight is good,” she says, chuckling, “and my brain still works.”
“Sometimes I think about everything I have lived through and I wonder how I have survived until this year,” she says. “To live until one’s 90’s is not a short life.”
Hers is the story of so many Georgians of her generation — defined, in large part, by jagged contours of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. It is the story of perseverance in the face of oppression, of holding on to hope in spite of every imaginable hardship. It is a story of longing and loss.
Ms. Kuchaidze has had plenty of practice surviving.
Ivlita Kuchaidze was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in 1922, a year after Red Army forces invaded. During this chaotic period, factions led by Georgian-born Joseph Stalin and other party officials lent force to Georgian Bolsheviks’ efforts to seize power from the dominant Mensheviks, and political repression was a fact of life.
Her parents withstood the turmoil but divorced soon after. The one-story house they shared near the city center — built by Ivlita’s great-grandfather — was divided into rooms, one for her and her mother, another for her father and his new wife.
“I was just 4 when my parents divorced,” she says. “After that my mother started to study, at the evening schools that existed at that time. After that she went to the agriculture university.”
Among her earliest memories, she says, are the times her parents would argue over who would pick her up from the kindergarten down the street.
Ms. Kuchaidze would often spend hours alone. “Mama would lay out food on the table, so I could eat when I wanted to. And when I wanted to go to bed, I got ready by myself and went to bed by myself.”
A few years later, when her mother completed her education, her job required her to move to another town, Kutaisi, about 120 miles from Tbilisi.
“She left me here, in that room. I was in the fifth grade,” Ms. Kuchaidze remembers.
At the time, the Soviet Union was in the middle of the devastating famine of 1932-1933. While Georgia was not as hard hit as some of the other Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Ms. Kuchaidze remembers it as a time of loneliness and hunger.
“I am in the fifth grade and I start thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I am alone. My mother was far away and my father…” She leaves the thought unfinished.
“I was half hungry,” she concludes.
With the resolve and foresight that would characterize the rest of her life, Ms. Kuchaidze came up with a plan. “I wrote to the medical vocational school,” she says, proud of the moment she decided how to save herself. “I studied with honors.”
That resourcefulness proved a crucial trait when, afterward, she served as a nurse on the front lines of World War II.
Ms. Kuchaidze remembers the exact day she was sent to war: 23 September 1943. She was 21, a newly trained nurse and a passionate komsomolka, a member of the Communist Youth League.
She was also just one of the estimated 3.4 million civilians mobilized for the war effort. Some estimates say as many as 300,000 Georgians died during the war. Ms. Kuchaidze survived.
When she was drafted, the Soviet Union had been fighting Germany for two years, and the war had devastated large swaths of the union. But by 1943, the tide was turning. Each time the Red Army pushed the Nazi forces back, Ms. Kuchaidze moved west.
“The front moved forward and we went with it. First through Ukraine and then on to Poland,” she says. “I have seen death with my own eyes so many times, how did I survive to sit here now with you?”
Despite the horrors of war, Ms. Kuchaidze cherishes photos of herself as a young nurse in her uniform. “I was so young and so little. A komsomolka.”
She recounts her first days in a field hospital in Ukraine. “I still remember the first injured soldier who arrived at my tent,” she says.
“When the medics did not have enough time to get to the soldiers as they arrived and take them to the hospital, we girls would lift them: if he was big, it would take four — if he was skinny, just two,” she recalls with a smirk.
Ms. Kuchaidze’s first brush with death came even before she arrived in Ukraine. Two fellow nurses, she says, died when bombs fell at a train station outside of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. That experience — and the image of their bodies, hugging each other in death — would haunt her through the war, pushing her to give her all.
She went on to survive a German bombing and typhoid fever, making a name for herself among the doctors as the “pride of Georgia.” Eventually, she reached the Polish front.
Ms. Kuchaidze laughs as she remembers entertaining the Polish soldiers, fashioning together a costume that resembled the Georgian chokha — a black cloak traditionally worn by Georgian men — and dancing.
A Polish soldier even asked her to marry him once, she recalls wistfully. “But I could not imagine life without my Georgia,” she says. She had to refuse.
Ms. Kuchaidze did not return home until well after the end of the war, in 1946.
Little of her former life remained in Tbilisi. Relatives had cleared out her room, and she had to fight to reclaim it. She had also lost her position at the hospital where she had worked.
But she persevered. She quickly found another position, and studied and advanced until she could nurse in any hospital department. She married, and had two daughters. For years, it seemed, she had finally carved out a happy, stable life.
Misfortune eventually struck again, powerfully: Her husband died when he was just 62. And, in an odd twist of fate, her eldest daughter died of cancer also at 62.
Today, five years later, Ms. Kuchaidze is still mourning.
“I will tell you the truth: For me, now, no holiday has any meaning. I will tell you why: I buried my eldest daughter,” she says.
The day center — sponsored by Caritas Georgia, the social service arm of Georgia’s Armenian, Chaldean and Latin Catholic churches — has been a source of support, she says. In the years since her daughter’s death, it has become a sanctuary, an island of warmth where she can spend her days — a crucial part of her survival.
“If I didn’t come here, I don’t know what would have become of me. I cannot imagine it,” she says.
For those reared in the atheistic Soviet era, public expressions of religious faith are rare. Religious faith is very personal, says Nana Medzmariashvili, who manages the Harmony Center. But until a very recent fall, which has now grounded her, Ms. Kuchaidze would visit churches to light a candle in memory of her deceased daughter.
After everything, her eyes still glimmer with humor.
“Thank God for what I have,” Ms. Kuchaidze says. “Whatever I have, it is enough.”
The writing of Tbilisi-based photojournalist Molly Corso has appeared in EurasiaNet.org.