Premodern Georgia [Seth Lacy]

The territory of modern Georgia was first united sometime in the eleventh century. This has allowed the modern Georgian state to claim its origin as a nation back into bygone years in the quest for legitimization. While this is a slightly more contiguous history than is seen in most modern states within the Caucasus, as historian Charles King notes “the idea of a Georgian nation stretching back into the mists of time is as ephemeral as all ideologies of the nation” (King, 178). Nonetheless, the current history of Georgia is represented as a single line stretching back to at least the eleventh century.

The first inklings of a Georgian state were the two territories of Colchis and Iberia, in the west and east of the country respectively, which are first seen in antiquity. These two halves were briefly united into a whole in 1008 when Bagrat III became the king of the first unified Georgia. At this time the term Sakartvelo emerged, meaning “the place of the Kartveli,” or the place of the Georgians (Suny, 32). These terms are still used by Georgians today as evidence of the linguistic continuity of their history. Despite being subject to larger empires, the Georgian state consolidated during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, reaching its zenith with Queen Tamar in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. During Queen Tamar’s reign, Georgian culture flourished, and Shota Rustaveli wrote the epic poem Knight in the Panther’s Skin.  In 1220 the Mongols arrived in Georgia and routed the armies of Tamar’s son, Giorgi IV Lasha. In 1243, after the death of her brother, Queen Rusudan was officially subjugated to the Great Khan. It was under Mongol rule that the Georgian state broke apart into separate principalities. The fourteenth century essentially saw the death throes of the Georgian kingdom and upon the death of Aleksandre I in 1442, the country was torn apart by struggles for power. At the end of this period, Georgia was separated into three states which would remain distinct until Russian incursions in the nineteenth century.

Along with the struggles for power, the fifteenth century also saw economic changes and the end of feudalism. As the state declined, nobles had no reason to continue paying their feudal dues, and the system fell apart. In part because of this, a more tribal-dynastic system emerged similar to the previous Georgian noble system (Suny, 47). After this point, the Georgian nobles became less of a force and were subjugated alternately by the Iranians and the Ottoman Turks throughout the remainder of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In the late sixteenth century, the Russian state began to show an acute interest in the region of the Caucasus and Georgia in particular. This period saw the first claims of fealty to the Russian tsar by regional princes, the first being King Aleksandre II. This was also the beginning of false promises of protection by the Russian state to the Georgian people, at this point unfulfilled because Russia lacked the powerbase to effectively intervene. At this point and well into the seventeenth century, despite the fact that Georgian rulers courted both the Russians and the Iranians, the Ottoman Turks were still the most powerful force in the region. Throughout the seventeenth century, efforts to recreate some semblance of a unified Georgian state were largely unsuccessful, due in part to Iranian efforts to divide and rule, but more importantly due to the historical divisions that had always plagued the Georgian nobles.

In the eighteenth century some hint of independence movements can be seen in Georgia. Many small fragmented kingdoms tried to maintain a modicum of independence vis-à-vis their imperial sovereigns and movements arose seeking outside support in their quest for independence. In 1722 Peter I went so far as to lead a small force into the region in an attempt to aid a small group of Christian rebels led by Vakhtang VI, but pulled back when it appeared this move would endanger relations with the Ottomans (Suny, 54). This was yet another example of Russian aid disappearing nearly as soon as it was promised, predominantly due to the threat of the Ottoman’s superior force. The remainder of the 1700’s saw continued economic growth accompanied by the decline of feudalism. This, coupled with the increasing prominence of independence movements, helped lead to the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk which placed some of Georgia under Russian protection, as well as the opening of the Georgian military highway in 1784. The opening of this road was especially important, as it would come to play a major role in the relationship between Georgia, Russia, and the rest of the Caucasus even to this day. The promises of protection, however, again rang hollow. With the beginning of the Russo-Turkish war of 1787, the Russian forces withdrew from the region and left Tbilisi to burn. However, with the cessation of hostilities the Georgians once again sought Russian protection, despite its lack of substance in the past. In 1800 the predominant Georgian kingdom, Karta-Kakheti, was annexed by Russia and by 1801 Tsar Alexander I abolished the Bagrati monarchy, solidifying the Russian claim to sovereignty in this area.

The early periods of Russian rule were primarily a time of transformation for the area of Georgia. Any resistance to Russian administration was thwarted by the cooptation of the Georgian elite into the Russian bureaucracy. The superior military power of the Russian state allowed them to gather the remainder of the Georgian lands into a cohesive administrative unit, something previously unthinkable due to the many divisions in the Georgian elite (Suny, 64). This push for administration was accompanied by some land reform and wealth redistribution, though this was tempered in order to avoid growing resentment among Georgia’s elite. The nobles’ reaction to Russian rule was mixed, with most being co-opted into the Russian state, while others attempted to foster the beginnings of a national consciousness. Since these dual reactions made it impossible for the Georgian ruling elite to present a unified front to Russian power, the growth of any national movement was immediately stifled and by the mid 19th century the elites had almost all pledged their allegiance to the Tsar.

In 1861, the serfs were emancipated in Georgia as well as in Russia proper. This had a major effect on the nobles, as this magnified further the decline of their traditional power. This also led to the development of self-governing peasant communes, in order to replace the roles previously filled by the elites, a structure King suggests would later serve as a fertile bed for socialism. The imposition of serf emancipation by the Russian state was a contributing factor to the emergence of a national movement in Georgia, although it is perhaps more important to recall the traditional chafing of the Georgian elites under any type of foreign rule as a large component of the explanation for this phenomenon. By the late 19th century, nationalism was the chosen medium for expressing this type of discontent, though this nationalism was of a different character than that seen in the rest of the Russian periphery during this time period.

The national movement in Georgia was predominantly socialist in form and focused on the pursuit of a communist state, not conforming to the typical pattern of national development seen elsewhere. The emergence of this movement can be traced to the emancipation of the serfs. At this point the nobles, traditionally rather fragmented, were not able to rally around a new source of legitimacy and therefore were no longer able to lead the state (Suny, 114). This fragmentation was indicative of the absence of a feeling of national identity, a void which would soon be filled by Marxism, by providing an outlet for sentiments that otherwise would have been expressed through nationalism. One of the explanations for this phenomenon, as proposed by King, is that Georgia was especially fertile ground for socialism with a history of peasant activism, an urban intelligentsia, and a growing proletariat (King, 149). The Marxists were extremely effective at co-opting these traditions, which had previously been seen as specifically Georgian. Due in part to this fact, socialism had far more resonance in this area of the Caucasus than did calls to national unity. The end result of these circumstances was that after the Mensheviks were forced by the Bolsheviks to flee Petrograd, they were able to quickly establish a new powerbase within Georgia due to the convivial environment that was awaiting them.

Georgia in the Twentieth Century [Kris Mcclellan]

Menshevik refugees from the Provisional Government in Petrograd retreated to the Caucasus and declared Georgian independence on May 26, 1918. Georgians had played a prominent role in critiquing the tsarist order in the first Duma after 1905, and many of those same activists became Menshevik leaders during the February Revolution (King, 162). Socialism and popular nationalism were natural allies in late 19th century Georgia; the Georgian branch of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party held its first conference in 1901, drawing on discontented and displaced rural workers, general strikes in the emerging industrial sector, and May Day riots and celebrations in the late 1890s (King, 149). Like those first organizers, the Mensheviks who declared independence in 1918 were not seeking to establish an ethnic nation-state, but were motivated by self-preservation and a focus on social justice and class relations. As the Russian Civil War flared in the waning days of the First World War, the Georgian Mensheviks turned to Germany for support, but after German capitulation they sought British assistance (King, 163). The Mensheviks established a constitutional, parliamentary democracy and instituted wide-ranging land reforms to quell peasant unrest. The first elections with universal suffrage in January 1919 gave 109 out of 130 seats in parliament to the Mensheviks (King, 164).

White General Anton Denikin enforced an economic blockade of Georgia and Azerbaijan because he suspected they were aiding the Bolsheviks, although Marxist observer Karl Kautsky argued that the republic still had democratic institutions and a workable economy in the winter of 1920-21 (King, 165). Tensions and even conflict with Armenia, combined with constant pressure from Denikin, endangered the Georgian republic, and their British supporters remained aloof. The Paris Peace Conference granted de facto recognition to Georgia and Azerbaijan in January 1920 to act as buffer states against Bolshevik Russia, and de jure independence in 1921, but recognition came without tangible commitments or assistance (King, 165-171).

Recognizing their precarious position, Georgia and Azerbaijan attempted to negotiate a settlement of their northern borders with Moscow in 1920. Despite a “treaty of friendship” in which the Bolsheviks accepted Georgian independence, Bolshevik troops invaded Georgia in 1921, adding even more refugees to those streaming down the Georgian Military Highway toward the Black Sea in hopes of escaping Bolshevik reprisals (King, 172). Bolshevik forces defeated the Georgian last stand at Tatumi in March and proceeded to arrest or summarily execute former government officials, soldiers, peasants who resisted requisitions, and people generally suspected of being unsympathetic to the Reds (King, 172). The members of the Georgian government who escaped to exile in Istanbul issued a plea to “all socialist parties and workers’ organizations” on March 27, 1921 to protest the invasion and the ouster of the Menshevik government, but they received no help from abroad (King, 173). The Mensheviks and other émigré activists attempted one last time to end Bolshevik rule in Georgia, but their 1924 spring rebellion was a failure that resulted in the arrest and execution of hundreds of alleged Menshevik sympathizers (King, 186).

By 1921, Moscow once again controlled almost all of the territory formerly known as the imperial Viceroyalty of the Caucasus (King, 186). Stalin began to apply Soviet nationality policies to his home region, but he saw the Caucasus as a land of “many peoples” and “few nations”; he even doubted his native Georgia’s national status, believing that even if it was a nation, it was only a half-century old (King, 185). In an effort to promote large territorial units that would let individual peoples maintain their identity while restraining social discord, the Soviets created the United Soviet Socialist Republic of the Transcaucasus in March 1922 as an independent ally of Soviet Russia (the USSR did not yet exist) (King, 187). In December 1922, the re-named Transcaucasus Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, composed of the three South Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, became parts of the Soviet Union. This arrangement lasted until 1936, when the three South Caucasus republics became separate Union Republics, the highest level constituents of the Soviet Union (King, 187). At the same time, three regions in Georgia were given special administrative status that would shape their experience with Georgia after the fall of the USSR. Abkhazia was a separate Soviet socialist republic united by treaty with Georgia, while Achara became an autonomous republic (due to negotiations between Turkey and the USSR about that area’s Muslim population) and South Ossetia was declared an autonomous province (King, 188).

As elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the Soviets pursued policies of korenizatsiia (indigenization) and collectivization, reversing the gains made by peasants at the beginning of the 1920s (King, 190). Lavrenti Beria, later head of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) served as First Secretary of the Communist Party in his native Georgia from 1931 to 1938, overseeing show trials, disappearances, and summary executions, and building a network of control over the Caucasus which was dependent on his personal patronage and which he maintained throughout his police career (King, 192-94). He elevated the role of Stalin in the Bolshevik Revolution and rewrote the history of Communism in the Caucasus as he purged an entire generation of Caucasian leaders, ushering in his successor, Kandid Charkviani, to preside over a new array of elites after the purges (King, 194).

The Second World War never reached into Georgia directly, but it did have profound consequences. Georgian Sergeant Meliton Kantaria became a “Hero of the Soviet Union” for planting the hammer and sickle above the Reichstag when the Soviets invaded Berlin in spring 1945. His image is still invoked by Georgian politicians as a symbol of resistance to oppression (King, 195). The Germans pushed as far east as Ordzhonikidze (Vladikavkaz), inspiring massive Soviet relocations to prevent collaboration in the Caucasus. In autumn 1951, the “Mingrelian Affair” was uncovered among leading Georgian officials (who shared Mingrelian descent) who tried to shield and favor corrupt cadres in the party and state elite (King, 197). Charkviani was dismissed as First Secretary in 1952, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 sparked deadly riots in Georgia among citizens who cherished the memory of their native sons, Beria and Stalin, despite the damage each had caused to his homeland (King, 198). While neither leader fought for a “Georgian” national identity, and such an identity was rarely, if ever, articulated forcefully, ordinary citizens felt a special connection to these great figures in Soviet history because of their shared origins.

After WWII, the last decades of Soviet rule in the South Caucasus Republics were marked by long terms of service for their respective First Secretaries of the Communist Party. Eduard Shevardnadze served as Georgia’s First Party Secretary from 1972 to 1985; he and his counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan led a period of modernization and industrialization in the 1970s and 1980s, but their anti-corruption campaigns and purges of state and party personnel accused of graft failed to change social behaviors which were ultimately produced by systemic incentives. These failed efforts both encouraged further (if less obvious) corruption and weakened public faith in the system to protect their interests (King, 201-2). In contrast to the transnational or post-national ideology espoused by the Communists, their policies and the resultant dependence on corruption for survival actually reinforced “clan” identities in the Caucasus as individuals sought sustenance and influence through whatever means available (King, 202-3). Soviet rule also saw an expansion of urban populations, from 695,000 in Tbilisi in 1959 to 1 million in 1979 and 1.3 million in 1989. Urbanization coincided with ethnic homogenization towards the “titular nationalities” in the South Caucasus as well; 70% of the population of Georgia was “Georgian” in 1989, and national histories emphasized the Georgian connection to the territory allocated to Georgian Union Republic in 1936 (King, 205).

While the South Caucasus generally followed other trends that prevailed throughout the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and 1980s, they differed significantly in their lack of domestic dissidence movements which espoused liberal values, tolerance, and public engagement and helped manage the transition to independence in 1990-91 in other Soviet societies (King, 209). There were a few isolated incidents of note, particularly the rallies in Tbilisi and Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) in 1978 which successfully blocked Soviet plans to elevate Russian to the status of Georgian and Armenian in the education and administrative systems of their respective Republics. Georgia and Armenia were the only Republics in the USSR to have official languages, and they were local languages instead of Russian. These republics literally had the language to articulate a national resistance movement, but they failed to mobilize any sustained dissent. The city of Tbilisi hosted official celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk, which were only marred by a few arrests of individuals who protested the Treaty as “a milestone in Georgian subjugation” (King, 209). One of the most popular expressions of dissatisfaction with the Soviet regime was the 1986 film Repentance by Georgian film maker Tengiz Abuladze. The film presented an obvious message about the Soviet inability to address its past (represented by the skeleton of a village mayor that continually resurfaces from its grave). Surprisingly, Shevardnadze encouraged the film’s distribution and protected Abuladze (King, 211).

In the first multiparty parliamentary elections in 1990, the Round Table/Free Georgia bloc won a two-thirds majority. The Round Table/Free Georgia bloc was led by literary critic and dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and represented a variety of interests ranging from nationalists focused on independence to human rights activists (King, 212). At a time when most republics (particularly the Baltics) were mobilizing along national lines, the success of this broad and diverse coalition demonstrates that nationalists alone would not control Georgia’s future; they would need help from others who tempered their position. Georgia declared independence in April 1991, and Gamsakhurdia became the Chairman of the Parliament before he was elected President (King, 211).

Georgian independence created a dilemma for Abkhazia and Ossetia. In Abkhazia, ethnic Abkhaz constituted only 18% of the population in 1989, and Abkhaz leaders feared they would lose influence in their own homeland if they lost their special administrative status under the Soviets. While there had been violence between Abkhazia and Georgia in WWI and the Russian Civil War, it was never along ethnic lines, and there were few distinctions drawn between the two sides on religious or other grounds. President Gamsakhurdia was able to control local clashes between the Georgians and Abkhaz until he was ousted by a coup in 1992. Shevardnadze returned to lead Georgia, but he was unable to restrain calls for armed response to Abkhazia. Georgian troops were mobilized and quickly captured the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi. By 1993, however, the Georgians were pushed out by Abkhaz militias aided by Russians, and in 1994 the Russians brokered an agreement to place troops under the authority of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to reinforce the security zone in the Inguri River (King, 215-16).

Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia was historically tied to regions outside Georgia, and it contained a two-thirds Ossetian majority. Georgians resented Ossetian claims to independence, arguing that, because they had migrated into Georgia from the north and were privileged partners of the Russian empire, they should act as “grateful guests” in Georgia. The Georgian government rejected South Ossetia’s requests for autonomous status and instead passed laws to increase the use of the Georgian language in 1988-89. Georgia’s policies toward Ossetia contributed to the district administrator’s decision to declare a separate South Ossetian Republic within the USSR, unite with the Russian republic of North Ossetia, and hold elections for a separate parliament in 1990. The Georgian parliament responded by revoking South Ossetia’s autonomous status, and Gamsakhurdia ordered troops into the region, but they were met by fierce resistance that led to a ceasefire in July 1992 (King, 216-218).

These conflicts placed additional strains on Georgia, already suffering from shortages of electricity, decrepit roads and infrastructure, and severe corruption. 270,000 refugees fled from Abkhazia and its environs, and another 50,000 came from South Ossetia; many were placed in refugee camps in former Soviet resorts. The “independent” areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia took advantage of the ceasefire to start acting like states, establishing governments and small military forces that blocked the final settlement of their status in the early 1990s. These wars were not fought for history or national identity, but for control of territory. That is not how they are remembered and interpreted today, however. In Abkhazia and South Ossettia, the conflicts were re-imagined and taught to school children as “victorious struggles for national liberation” or “tragic struggles for the fatherland” (King, 218-220). These regions generally remained quiet for the next decade, occupying themselves with the construction of statehood rather than risking an upset in the Russian-enforced ceasefire (King, 228).

In the 1990s, the United States contributed $1 billion in “democracy assistance” to Georgia, but dire poverty continued in the countryside despite an overall per capita increase in income. Shevardnadze restored order after the coup and eliminated the pro-Gamsakhurdia militias by 1993. He used the pro-president Citizens’ Union of Georgia party to consolidate his power. The Citizens’ Union focused on loyalty to Shervardnadze and was driven by the desire of local elites to bolster their position against the threatening chaos of collapse. Shevardnadze and his supporters (many of whom had been administrators, factory bosses, and security officials under the Soviets) were not driven by a concept of Georgian national destiny; they were simply reviving old Communist networks to rule the country and protect their interests. This power structure contributed to Georgia’s infamy for corruption both domestically and internationally. Georgians’ confidence in their leaders was clearly waning during the 1990s: 42% had high or moderate confidence in government in 1996, but only 25% felt the same way in 1998, and in 2000, 67% said they had no faith in the president or parliament. President Shevardnadze tried to preserve his power by intervening in the 2003 parliamentary elections, but general dissatisfaction with the legitimacy of the elections provoked widespread protests. Shevardnadze initially threatened to use force, but yielded power without any violence in what became known as the “Rose Revolution.”. Mikhail Saakashvili succeeded him as President in 2004 (King 228-231).

Soviet rule continued to influence the direction of Georgian political and economic development well after the collapse of the USSR. Georgia’s Menshevik period of independence came from a home-grown socialist movement rooted in late 19th century political and economic trends and a desire to build their own power base to preserve their movement against Bolshevism. Nationalism had been subsumed by Marxism in popular rhetoric; independence was about social justice and land reform, not the articulation of a liberated Georgian nation, and it was a Menshevik, not a “Georgian,” government that declared independence in 1918. There was no “national” resistance to the Bolshevik takeover when it occurred, and no “national” dissidence movement developed under Soviet rule. Instead, as in previous generations, potential leaders and elite classes remained fragmented, unwilling or unable to assume responsibility for the future of their state. Those who did come to power, like Shevardnadze, ruled through Soviet institutions and methodologies even after independence. Personal power and wealth, not nationalism, continued to be the main drivers of the ruling class. Leaders may employ nationalist rhetoric in their arguments against South Ossetian or Abkhazian independence or autonomy, but these struggles revolve around claims to geography, not ideology or nationalism. Without much of a history of cohesive national identity either before or during the Soviet era, modern Georgian leaders struggle to assert their independence from the legacy of Soviet politics and to legitimize their rule.


Works cited

  •  Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Ronald Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).