In March 1956, while the USSR went through a period of de-Stalinisation and adjustment to the change of leadership – with its associated campaign of strategic and partial openness that would become the Khrushchev Thaw – there was a gathering at the statue of Stalin in Tbilisi, marking the third anniversary of leader’s death. Tbilisi was the capital of the Georgian Socialist Soviet Republic (GSSR) and Stalin was Georgian, which (along with the prominence of Georgians within the leadership in Moscow) contributed to Georgians having a somewhat privileged status among the peoples of the USSR. Many Georgians felt loyal towards Stalin, a proud affinity political, national and ethnic in character. The protestors were defending the honour of Stalin, which was an act of defiance against the post-Stalin regime. Over the next five days, crowds swelled to 70,000; the city virtually ground to a halt as workers stayed away from work, public transport was disrupted and clashes between protestors and police turned violent. Soldiers were summoned on 9 March to disperse the demonstrators and restore order, which was done by firing on protestors, killing 21.
Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood & the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus is a new book on Georgian nationalism within the lifespan of the USSR (1917-1991), which Georgia joined in 1921 following a rapid military defeat to the Red Army. Author Claire P. Kaiser, an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, has examined Soviet and Georgian sources to construct this overview of Georgian political and social culture in relation to the Soviet Union.
Georgia under Stalinism
In the Soviet Union, politics would be “national in form, socialist in character”, which allowed a degree of latitude in how socialist doctrine would be implemented, permitting the shaping of policy to reflect the existing conditions of individual nations in the USSR. Georgia, an ancient nation, with a long-established ethnos, religion and language, which was of a relatively fixed ethnic make-up, without a history of significant outward migration, was a culture and nation that was both distinct and stable. However, Georgians identifying as a solely Georgian (and not a member of a sub-group or resident foreign ethnicity/nationality) was only 60%, with the capital being mainly non-Georgian. (By 2014, the census returned data that the population of Georgia was 86.8% Georgian. This was in part due to the exclusion of regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and emigration of non-Georgians.) As Kaiser points out, by 1921 Georgian national identity was already established and a thriving high culture and intelligentsia had developed over the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, which complemented a vibrant folk culture. When Soviet administrators of Marxist political science looked at Georgia, they saw a developed and cohesive nation within relatively stable borders, rather than the primitive, unfixed and liminal nations found elsewhere within the boundaries of the USSR.
Stalin’s cult of personality, in part curated by head of the security services and fellow Georgian (Megelian) Lavrenti Beria, downplayed the leader’s national identity. Stalin was the leader who had transcended the internecine conflicts of the Caucasus to become the guide for the socialist peoples of Russia and central Asia. Although Stalin’s mother lived on in Georgia until her death in 1937, Stalin rarely visited Tbilisi. He spent summers in Georgia near the Black Sea and took a keen interest in the region, without making his Georgian origins prominent in his public biography.
As Stalin himself noted in an early text, the patchwork of micro-nations in the Caucasus presented challenges that made “national in form” a challenge, as these groups lacked certain characteristics that made nations viable as discrete unions within the overall brotherhood of Soviet republics. “What is to be done with the Megrelians, Abhazians, the Adjarians, the Svanetians, the Lezgins, and so on, who speak different languages but do not possess a literature of their own? To what nations are they to be attached? Can they be “organized” into national unions? Around what “cultural affairs” are they to be “organized”? […] To what national union should one attach the Adjarians, who speak the Georgian language, but whose culture is Turkish and who profess the religion of Islam? Shall they be “organized” separately from the Georgians with regard to religious affairs and together with the Georgians with regard to other cultural affairs?”
These divisions played havoc with the 1926 census, which had to use (and, conversely, exclude) particular categories of data, such as ethnicity, nationality and language. The overlapping and unclear nature of some categories allowed for a ambiguity that could be (as demographers at the time noted) could be dangerous or valuable, depending on how they were framed. For example, should Adjarians (Muslim Georgians) be classed as Georgian or not? When offered the choice between categories, self-definition fell to personal affinity and the persuasiveness of the census-taker. The 1937 census, which was intended to demonstrate the progress of sovietisation of the population, turned out to be troublesome as it showed a decrease in population due to the Holodomor and dekulakisation, making the data “politically incorrect” and requiring a corrective census in 1939. This 1939 census reduced the 191 categories of nationality (native and foreign) of the 1926 census to 92, peremptorily reducing the profusion of identities to a managed consolidation.
Repatriation policies were applied to the GSSR, as to all republics. Stateless individuals or resident non-Georgians were moved to Siberia or Central Asia. In their place, Georgian families were given their properties to live and their farms to manage. Ethnic minorities suffered disproportionately in Operation Volna, when 31,606 people on 14-5 June 1949. With an additional round of deportations, 36,705 people in total were removed. Also targeted were alleged Dashnaks (Armenian nationalists) and those with family ties to Turkey – both being viewed as politically unreliable. “In Georgia, purported ties with (geopolitically) Western-leaning Turkey, Greece, and Iran or the Armenian nationalist diaspora overrode Soviet citizenship, military service, party membership, or other key markers of belonging in the Soviet collective.” The actions have widely been interpreted as nation-building, not solely politically motivated.
The period of de-Stalinisation was used and interpreted in different ways. For GSSR leaders, transferring blame for the excesses of the 1930s and 1940s to Beria allowed a degree of exculpation for Stalin; it allowed for nationalist pride in Stalin whilst admitting systemic errors. However, the Abkhaz interpreted the purges and Georgification of schooling as a definite Georgian-led Stalin-endorsed nationalist programme, targeting minorities, including themselves. Kaiser concludes that it was the 1954-85 period, when no major position of power in the USSR was held by a Georgian, was precisely the period when Georgian nationalism flourished. Having no significant influence – indeed, actually reduced influence – led Georgians look inward and make their republic more definitely nationalist in character. It was during this period that Tbilisi went from being a majority-minority capital city to being a majority-majority capital city, i.e., Georgians went from being a minority in their own capital to being a majority.
Increasing ethnic homogeneity in the capital
Kaiser describes the celebrations in 1958, when Tbilisi marked 1,500 years of its existence. Tbilisi was lauded as a uniquely Georgian achievement, with speeches being made, books published and new public sculptures erected. This came at a time when the capital was still had a majority-minority populace at the time. A large part of the change came about due to an expansion of the city’s population, with a disproportionate increase in native Georgians and minorities increasing less so. Historically, Tbilisi had been dominated by three groups. “Russians in politics and administration, Armenians in business and trade, and Georgians in the nobility and intelligentsia.”
The 1876 census records the following distribution of nationalities/ethnicities: Georgians 24.2%, Armenians 41%, Russians 22%). By 1926 Georgians were largest group (38.2/34/15.6%). This trend continued in 1939 (44/26.4/18%) and 1959 (48.4/21.5/18.1%) and in 1970 Georgians finally comprised a super-majority (57.5/17/14%). Over this period, Tbilisi doubled in population. By 2014, the figures are 89.9/4.8/1.2%. (Kaiser’s figure depart a little from others, perhaps due to the inclusion of sub-groups.) What factors contributed to this? There was an organised campaign of house and apartment building and renovation, improving old domestic buildings and creating whole suburbs. Many of the new dwellings were low-rise apartment blocks, which allowed a greater population density. This was in addition to extensive unpermitted construction and conversion of dwellings, some facilitated by corruption. New buildings would house domestic migrants, with the influx of rural people being predominantly Georgian in nationality. There were sporadic efforts to restore historical structures in the 1970s and 1980s, but Kaiser points out that the majority of decision-makers and the most influential residents lived in the new suburbs, so had little personal, daily stake in the subject.
While old buildings did not impinge of socialist living – or could not be remedied quickly, cheaply and universally – the persistence of Georgian customs, religious observance and tribal loyalties vexed Soviet planners more. The Church was a concern because it played a role in baptisms, weddings and funerals, gaining income and status from maintaining its customary roles in those social events, aside from the religious aspects of its teachings. The stubborn survival of old practices fed primitive attitudes that were incompatible with a modern GSSR. This book establishes how conflicted and variable the approach that Soviet authorities followed. On one hand, they appealed to patriotism and exploited nationalism and (on the other hand) they roundly attacked the obstacles of feudal observances and bourgeois attitudes.
The relatively privileged position of Georgians in the USSR quelled agitation for independence. On balance, the advantages Georgians enjoyed as part of the USSR outweighed the benefits of national independence – even if it was to be had. As long as the GSSR was compliant and quiescent, it could exercise relative internal autonomy for the benefit of its leaders and population. Kaiser explains the 1978 protests about placing Russian on an equal footing with the Georgian language – which led to the Communist Party backing down – and the Abkhazian conflict. Following another massacre of nationalist protestors, most of them young women, in 1989, Georgian independence was de facto granted, with even Georgian communists acknowledging that rule from Moscow was no longer defensible or viable. The following year, an overwhelming majority of the population voted for independence, which was eventually granted by the break-up of the USSR in December 1991.
Georgian and Soviet is an excellent primer on the Georgian experience of relative (and fluctuating) political and social autonomy within the USSR. Clearly written, modestly illustrated and with copious sources and annotation, this title can be recommended to anyone interested in Georgian, Caucasus and Soviet history.
Claire P. Kaiser, Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood & the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus, Cornell University Press, Ithaca/London, 2022, hardback, 275pp + xv, mono illus., £39, ISBN 978 1 5017 6679 4
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