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Portrait of Anastasia Zubalashvili by Geladze Nino

From the history of Georgian philanthropy


“...We must be generous because God has given us wealth in order to bestow it on the people. Otherwise, if we try to keep this gift all to ourselves and sit as tightly on it as hens sit on their eggs, nothing significant will be hatched from that endeavor. The wealth will be lost for us as well as for everyone else."

Stephane Zubalashvili


"...We think it our duty to inform you that the Zubalashvili brothers have been the supporters of all good deeds in Georgia... Filled with unparalleled virtue, they have acted as patrons of all godly endeavors, in order to bestow hope and consolation on all the miserable in their homeland."

Michael Tamarashvili


 “...They have donated an enormous amount of charity, but without any publicity, quietly, so that the right hand was unaware of what the left hand was up to!”

Zachari Chichinadze


If one overviews the activities of the Zubalashvilis for the last 400 years, it will become obvious that the representatives of this family were capable and energetic people, devoted to work and engaged in continuous action. Their natural talent and vigor mostly manifested itself in the field, which has proved to be of first priority for the state as well as for the people of Georgia during the last centuries - the commercial field. As it is well known, in modern times, the economic strength of all advanced countries is based on the successful enterprising activities of businessmen and women and people engaged in commerce - and it will always be so.


The Zubalashvilis come from Meskheti, the southern part of Georgia. Historical annals contain information about this family dating from 12“’ century, yet their family tree begins with Zurab Zubalashvili, born in 1840. It appears, that Giorgi Zubalashvili, a priest and a scholar at the court of King Vakhtang VI (1675-1737), worked at the first Georgian printing shop, established by King Vakhtang and, later on, followed the King's attendants into exile. At the end of the same century, in recognition of his successful activities at the printing shop of King Erekle II, Romanoz Zubalashvili was granted the title of a count. Afterwards, Romanoz moved to live in a province of Georgia Kartli, where his sons continued his ways.

The representatives of this family appeared to be more successful in trade. They exported local goods to Iran, Persia and India and, consequently, imported foreign products into Georgia. 


Brothers Zubalashvili
Brothers Zubalashvili

One of the family members - Stephane, converted to Catholicism and went to trade in Iran and India, particularly in Calcutta and Madras. In the first decade of the 19’" century, he moved to live first in Iran and then, later on - in India. He was married in Calcutta and a daughter and a son were born of this marriage. His business was facilitated through the support of the colony of Georgian and Armenian Catholic merchants.


The reason Georgian and Armenian merchants and artisans living in the southern Caucasus (on territories occupied by Persian invaders) converted to catholic faith, or “French" belief, was due to the agreement reached between France and the Osmans in 1536. Under this agreement, only French and Venetian ships were authorized to sail across the Sea of Levant. In the year 1581, under the renewed agreement, France was recognized as the official patron of all Christian traders living in the Turkish Empire. Even the Genovese, the English, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Sicilians were not allowed to sail and trade across the waters of Turkish seas without the French flag. In 1610, France already had five consulates throughout the Levant countries and the Turkish seas were swamped with French ships. Because a priority for the French was patronage of the catholics, the tendency of the Christians living in the Turkish domain to adopt the catholic faith (this inclination was especially widely manifested among the city dwellers) becomes easy to understand. This was the reason, why the ancestors of the Zubalashilis adopted the catholic faith together with the native Georgians living in Meskheti (auth.: Georgian region), who rejected Islam.


In the 19th century, the Zubalashvili family moved from the Meskheti Region to Gori and Tbilisi. Mrs. Anastasia Zubalashvili is recalling her life to say the following: “In Gori we had a number of real estates, gardens, a mill, fields for agriculture and a very good house in the Seminary Street, now renamed after Stalin. Stalin was born in the house opposite and father had known him very well since his childhood years; my father, offspring of a rich family, came out of the house to meet the son of a poor shoemaker, who lived in the house in front of them. I remember very well my father saying that when children were engaged in war-games, Koba (one of Stalin's nicknames in his young years) would not play with them unless they declared him the king of one of the “combating" parties."


The huge amounts of money, which the Zubalashvilis, who had moved to Kartli, earned through trade and other commercial activities, were invested in leasing businesses providing the Russian Army with food products and vodka, constructing buildings and tbridges; and by way of these activities they continuously multiplied their property. The great grandfather of Anastasia Zubalashvili, Jacob Zubalashvili, opened a vodka distillery plant in Kutaisi in 1837 and in 1838 a sugar plant in Tbilisi, which was situated in Vera region, at the corner of modern-day Petriashvili and Melikishvili Streets, on the territory of the present-day wine plant. Anastasia told us that she still remembers a dark-blue paper package in her father's hands bearing the inscription: "Georgian Sugar".


In 1827, Jacob purchased a plot of land, where the following decade, under the project of architect Bernardazi, he built a house, designed in the style of late classicism. It was in this newly built palace that the Tbilisi nobility arranged a party in honor of Emperor Nikolai I of Russia. In 1840, a Religious Seminary was opened in this building, which is now occupied by the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. In 1858, Alexander Dumas (father), who was touring the Caucasus, recalled in his book, the “Caucasus", with great pleasure and warm gratitude the month and a half spent in the house of Jacob Zubalov in an atmosphere of friendship and warm hospitality.


At the end of the 19th century, Jacob's sons purchased oil deposits very cheaply from Rothschild, the British entrepreneur. The deposits were situated on the Bibi-Eibat isle in Baku and by that time seemed to be almost exhausted of oil. “Good-willed” acquaintances ridiculed the brothers behind their backs for such a reckless decision. At that time, the elder brother Constantine, together with his spouse, Elisabeth Tumanishvili, went to France to restore their health by the southern spas in Lourdes. There they saw a lot of people, who enjoyed miraculous cures from their ailments by means of the local mineral waters. The water had a favorable effect on the couple as well and it was for this effect that Elisabeth, who was a devoted believer, decided to take with her several gallons of this wonderful water to distribute it among her relatives in Tbilisi, as well as in Baku. 


One evening, she asked her nephew, working at the family oil deposits, to accompany her to the deposits the following morning and revealed to him the reason of her aspiration: she wanted to pour a glassful of Lourdes water into every rig. The young man was astonished and somewhat angry as well, but he did not dare contradict his aunt and agreed to follow her. The next day, very early in the morning, the Zubalashvilis, as well as many others, were woken up by a horrible noise resembling the sound of exploding bombs. What had actually happened was that the rigs had “blasted” to give the way to torrents of oil. 


Iakob Zubalashvili
Iakob Zubalashvili

Research associates of the chemical labs belonging to the Zubalashvili Company put this phenomenon down to a chemical reaction of the healing water and the layers of gas deposited and stuck in the rigs. Yet, Elisabeth had no doubt as to the divine character of this miraculous phenomenon and regarded it as God's grace. That was the start of the Zubalashvilis' enormous wealth and charitable activities.


It is really wonderful to contemplate the scale of charity and sponsorship that the Zubalashvilis had been engaged in for a number of decades. The incomplete list of their charity actions runs as follows: two catholic churches, built in Batumi and Gori; 100.000 rubles bestowed on the construction of the building of Tbilisi State University; 10.000 rubles allocated for the building of a musical school (now the building of the Tbilisi Conservatory); 20.000 rubles given to the Educational Society for facilitating the skills of reading and writing among Georgia's population; 26.000 rubles for establishing various stipends; 10.000 rubles given to the city authorities for the social needs of the capital city; 350.000 rubles, allocated for the construction and furnishing of the Public House (the present-day Marjanishvili drama theatre)...


The Public House represented the true cultural center of Tbilisi before the revolution. Several theatre companies used to perform simultaneously on this stage in different languages; the house contained a wonderful library and a reading room where readers could enjoy free meals in a cafe specially designed for them.


The Zubalashvilis donated 150.000 rubles for the construction of the pediatric block on the territory of the First Tbilisi Hospital, which was equipped with medical appliances imported from Europe. Alexander Janelidze, Sargis Kakabadze, Alexander Pagava, Shalva Amiredjibi, Geronti Kikodze, Christephore Rachvelishvili, Pavle Ingorokva, Leo Khiacheli, Ana Khakhutasvili and many other capable students acquired their education through the stipends established by the Zubalashvili brothers. It was through the funding of the charitable brothers that Michael Tamarashvili was able to travel to the Vatican and later wrote a number of fundamental works, among which “The History of Catholicism Among Georgians" and “The History of the Georgian Church” were the most distinguished.

Ilia Chavchavadze called these books the "New Kartlis Tskhovreba” (Ancient Georgian Chronicle). The Zubalasvili brothers financed the publishing of various books, financially assisted the journals "Iveria” and “The Travelers”; they continuously took care of the children’s magazine - the “Nakaduli”.


At the beginning of the 20th century, in the Mtatsminda region of Tbilisi, at the bottom of the street which today bears the name of the Zubalashvili brothers, a shelter for homeless children was built (the building in which the children's hospital is situated today); Nikoloz Zubalashvili bestowed 220.000 rubles for the construction of this shelter. A medical center, a barber's shop, some bathrooms, a chemist, a laundry and a kitchen were situated on the first floor of this three store house, while on the upper floors the bedrooms and some rooms for recreation were located. The clothes and the bedclothes for the homeless lodgers were imported from Netherlands. It is the very house, where Alexander Tsagareli, a famous scholar and teacher of Niko Mari and Ivane Djavakhishvili, spent the last period of his life.


In the hall of the Shelter for the Homeless, the city authorities erected a bust of green marble in honor of Nikoloz Zubalashvili, who died in 1898. Levan, Jacob and Petre Zubalashvili were awarded the title of Honorary Citizens of Tbilisi in 1913. In the Sololaki (auth: now Tbilisi district) region, at the beginning of the Kodjori (auth.: Kojori small town in Kvemo Kartli (region) with it's about 1300 citizens is a city in Georgia - about 7 mi (or 11 km) South-West of Tbilisi, the country's capital city.) road, at the bottom of today's Amagleba Street, the charitable brothers opened a canteen named “Samadlo” - for the poor and homeless citizens of Tbilisi; here, everyone who was in need, could help themselves to a free lunch. It is reported that in February 1921, hungry soldiers of the Red Army came to the “Samadlo" canteen. On that day, because the cooks were out of wheat flower, only yellow corn bread, stuffed with red beans ("lobiani") was served. The Bolsheviks were indignant to think that in Georgia people enjoyed cakes stuffed with chocolate (they identified the red beans with chocolate), while they were dying of hunger. “I was a child of six, when one evening David, the caretaker of the Shelter for the Homeless, burst into the house and cried that Red Army soldiers were devastating and plundering everything around. Father rushed out into the yard and returned to the house carrying three pieces of green marble. The Bolsheviks, who had intruded into the house, on seeing the bust had cried: “Down with this bourgeois! He made this bust to glorify himself!" and crushed the bust of my father's uncle to pieces; father kept these bits of marble in his writing-table to the end of his life” - as Anastasia Zubalashvili recalls. 


Leo Zubalashvili
Leo Zubalashvili

In 1921, Anastasia's brother, Anton, who was an adjutant to General Odishelidze, emigrated to France and as member of the French Resistance movement, died during the Second World War.


As a victim of the purges of 1937, David's brother Alexander died in exile in Kazakhstan.

David's cousin, Jacob Zubalashvili, who lived in Paris, was granted French citizenship in 1922, shortly after Georgia had been made a Soviet structure; yet in his will, he left his entire estate to Georgia. He had unique pieces of art in his possession. You could see the works of Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, Mayo, Matisse, Monet, Montichelli, Rodin and many others in his private collection, but as Anastasia Zubalashvili told us, one dramatic accident deprived him of all enthusiasm. When the French police caught the burglars of Jacob's apartment in Paris, they turned out to be Georgians and, therefore, in a fit of rage for his countrymen, Jacob changed his will for the benefit of France. Eqvtime Takaishvili himself told this story to Anastasia, when he returned to live in Georgia. “Father was very sad about it and I feel still sorry about this matter,” Anastasia said to us.

The catholic cemetery, located in the neighborhood of Chonkadze and Gergeti Streets, where the Zubalashvilis were buried, is now closed.


In the 1920s, the Catholic Church built by the Zubalashvilis in Tbilisi, was robbed and plundered. The unique organ, imported from Germany, was dismantled into separate pipes and it so happened, that mostly fishermen purchased these pipes. The precious wooden altar of the church was transformed into a counter in some restaurant in Tbilisi...

In order to imagine clearly the scope of charity extended by the Zubalashvili family, we need to bear in mind, that before the revolution one ruble equaled one gram of 980 carat gold, or in other words, if we put one more zero to the sums of money mentioned above, and convert into hard currency, the desired amount will be revealed. We entrust the final solution of this arithmetic to our readers who are interested in discerning the final figure.

P.S. A few years ago, the Azeri government delivered into Georgia's possession a house formerly owned by the Zubalashvili family; this house, built at the end of the 19'" century, is situated in the center of Baku and this is where Georgia's embassy is going to be accommodated.