As the Bolsheviks consolidated power in the final days of the Russian Civil War, attention shifted to how the new leadership would deal with the former lands of the Russian Empire now controlled by the Bolsheviks. These lands included the three republics of the modern Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Since the Revolution, the Caucasus had experienced a variety of different governments and leaders. There was a Transcaucasian Commissariat that pledged support for the Provisional Government, a Bolshevik Commune that controlled Baku, and, most famously, a Menshevik government in Georgia (de Waal, 61-2). After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which appeared as Russian treachery to many in the Caucasus, there was a push to create a united state in the south Caucasus, known as the Transcaucasian Federation. However, it was quickly understood that this arrangement would not hold and the Federation fell apart after just one month (de Waal, 62).
The failure of the Transcaucasian Federation allowed the three countries some autonomy and resulted in the creation of independent Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These independent states differed extensively from one another. Noe Zhordania led the Menshevik Georgian Soviet Republic, the Dashnak led the Democratic Republic of Amrenia, and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was both secular and democratic (Wikipedia). These short-lived states represented new possibilities for the peoples of the Caucasus. The Bolshevik victory in the civil war marked the end of autonomy in the Caucasus.
Once it was evident that the Bolsheviks would win the civil war, Stalin, commissar of nationalities, was sent to Georgia to decide the role the Caucasus would play in the future Soviet Union. Lenin wanted Stalin to show restraint in dealing with issues of nationalism. Stalin and fellow Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Orjonikidze, however, pushed for greater centralization in the region (de Waal, 72). Their compromise was the creation of a new Transcaucasian Federation which created a unified economic system for the region but allowed for the three distinct republics to remain independent of one another (de Waal, 72). The Georgian government was incensed over the change and felt it was an attempt to destroy their sovereignty. Georgian Bolsheviks resigned en masse in protest in October 1922 (de Waal, 72-3). Armenians and Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, were generally supportive of the Federation for economic purposes (de Waal, 73).
This Federation, like its predecessor, only lasted a short while. When the Soviet Union came into existence on March 12, 1922, the Transcaucasian Federation became the Transcaucasian SFSR, one of the four original republics of the Soviet Union (Coene, 133). The structure of the Transcaucasian SFSR allowed for the individual republics to maintain their parliaments and individual party structures. This permitted local elites to stay in power and paid lip service to the notion of national self-determination.
Policy concerning the Caucasus was not settled with the creation of the Transcaucasian SFSR and the republic became a laboratory of Soviet nationalities policy. Groups such as the Abkhaz were granted their own Soviet Republic and then were subsequently demoted to the status of an “autonomous republic” (de Waal, 74). These policies maintained and often exacerbated ethnic tensions, helping to explain their prominence in the present day. The existence of governments within the constituent republics of the Transcaucasian SFSR made it quite difficult for any decisions to be made at the highest levels of the republic and on December 5, 1936 the adoption of the new Soviet constitution saw the dismantling of the Transcaucasian SFSR. In its stead Soviet authorities established the Georgian SSR, Armenian SSR, Azerbaijan SSR, which would last until the fall of the Soviet Union and become the present-day independent states of the Caucasus.
Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Fredrik Coene, The Caucasus: An Introduction, Oxford: Routledge, 2010.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, “Transcaucasian SFSR, wikipedia.org.