A Georgia for the Georgians Is Suddenly Not So Soviet

<i> Ronald Grigor Suny is a professor of modern Armenian and Soviet history at the University of Michigan and author of "The Making of the Georgian Nation" (Indiana University Press and Hoover Institution Press, 1988)</i>

Foreigners have most often seen the people of Soviet Georgia as carefree and proud, extraordinarily generous, lavish in their sharing their piquant cuisine and rich wines. Their spas and beaches have become a favorite vacation retreat for Soviet citizens less favored by sun and mountains. And whatever prejudices linger about Georgian entrepreneurs overcharging for fruits and flowers in Moscow markets, Russians have usually viewed their southern neighbors as an exotic people of passion and daring.

But in the last week these unexamined biases and romantic images evaporated when a bloody clash between Soviet troops and Georgian nationalist demonstrators in the capital, Tbilisi, left at least 19 dead and hundreds wounded.

The killings have created a major new crisis for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, a native Georgian and former Communist Party chief in the republic. More than a local flare-up of nationalism, the Georgian protests are a test of the limits of Gorbachev’s democratization, a trial for peaceful reform and a warning that the aspirations of non-Russians could very well bring down the program of perestroika.


After 68 years under Soviet control, Georgians have evolved into a compact, self-conscious nation prepared to defend their language, territorial integrity and cultural dominance in their republic. With the coming of glasnost, subterranean nationalists emerged from the ranks of dissent into the legal and semi-legal political arena. Cultural and political groups such as the Ilya Chavchavadze societies (named after the leading nationalist poet of the last century) and the National Democratic Party (modeled for a pre-Soviet nationalist party) appeared with their own newspapers and platforms. All shared the common program of cultural resistance to Russian inroads and greater political control in local hands, but some went further than others in calling for secession from the Soviet Union.

Georgians are a nation profoundly aware of their ancient history, beginning in the 3rd Century BC. Early in the 4th Century AD, Georgia adopted Christianity and, with its neighbors, Armenia and Caucasian Albania, found itself in time on the exposed frontier facing militant Islam. For more than a thousand years Georgians lived in uneasy coexistence with the Muslims of Iran and Turkey, often retaining a degree of political autonomy, always maintaining their unique ethnic culture and language. Dominance by shahs and sultans and division among empires did not prevent medieval Georgia from developing a rich literature or providing a haven for non-Georgians escaping the ravages of nomadic invaders.

Unity, however, generally eluded the Georgians until the coming of the Russians at the beginning of the 19th Century. Russian rule--like Soviet power after 1921--brought Georgians together under a single political authority and began a long social transformation that ended the village isolation of most of its population. With czarist administration came relative peace and security, commerce and the growth of towns. European learning, through a Russian filter, stimulated Georgians to develop their own sense of modern nationhood.

Under Soviet rule, Georgia lost is political sovereignty and the possibility of expressing its nationalist aspirations. But at the same time Soviet nationality policy encouraged the “nativization” of the Soviet republics. Armenians, who before the revolution had controlled the towns of Georgia economically and politically, now drifted to their own Soviet republic. Georgians were favored in hiring, and membership in the local Communist Party overrepresented the percentage of Georgians in the population. So rather than being Russified like the Ukrainian, Belorussian and Baltic republics, Georgia became ever more Georgian. Its people developed a coherent national consciousness that stressed the need to preserve their language and cultural heritage. They took pride in their native son, Josef Stalin, who though he presided over the worst years of national repression, forced collectivization and the purging of the Georgian intelligentsia, nevertheless was admired as the man who had transformed the whole Soviet Union from a largely agricultural to a primarily industrial Great Power and successfully resisted the Nazi invasion.

In the last quarter century, however, Georgia suffered from a notorious corruption, a flagrant wheeling and dealing in a widespread underground economy. Shevardnadze governed the republic from 1972 to 1985 and tried to cleanse the country of the worst abuses. Nationalist sentiment steadily grew, and in 1978 protests forced Shevardnadze to concede that Georgian would remain the officially designated language of the republic. But that same year the Abkhazians, a Muslim minority with their own autonomous republic within the republic of Georgia, condemned Georgian misrule and petitioned to join the Russian republic. Their demands were rejected by Moscow, even as their complaints were recognized as legitimate.

This March, the Abkhazians once again raised their demand to join the Russian republic, fueling anxieties about Georgia’s future. Thousands heeded the cries of nationalist intellectuals that Georgia was in danger. A month earlier about 15,000 had marched to mark the anniversary of the loss of Georgian independence. (When the Communists came to power in Russia, the Georgian Social Democrats led the country to a short-lived independence that ended with a Red Army invasion in 1921.) Now in early April, more than 100,000 were filling the streets and squares of central Tbilisi to call for autonomy or independence.

The great irony, of course, of this new nationalism is that it was fostered by consolidation under the Soviets and later unleashed by Gorbachev’s initiatives. It now presents the greatest potential threat to his embryonic democracy.