Soviet Georgia

(Material is from A. Mikaberidze, Historical Dictionary of Georgia (2007) and is copyrighted so please do not use it without explicit written permission)

Bolshevik Invasion

By 1920, Soviet Russia actively sought to extend its hegemony to south Caucasia. Sergo Ordzhonikidze coordinated the Bolshevik policies in the region and was a fervent exponent of sovietization of Georgia. In April 1920, the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan and established Soviet authority in Baku. In May, the Bolsheviks crossed the Georgian state border but were halted in their advance while the diplomatic negotiations soon led to Russia’s recognition of Georgia’s independence in May 1920. Nevertheless, in November of the same year, the Red Army occupied Armenia, where another Soviet government was proclaimed. The Bolshevik authorities in Moscow then successfully negotiated with Turkey and other powers promising concessions in return for their approval for an eventual attack on Georgia. 

On 11 February 1921, the Bolsheviks incited an uprising in the Lori district of Georgia and, portraying it as the workers’ insurrection against the Menshevik government, the 11th Red Army quickly came to its aid, invading Georgia on 12 February. In late February, the 9th Red Army invaded Georgia through Abkhazia and additional Red Army brigades marched through strategic passes across the Caucasus. On 24 February, after failing to halt the Bolshevik advance, the Menshevik forces under General Giorgi Kvinitadze left Tbilisi for a last stand in Batumi; the Bolsheviks occupied the Georgian capital the following day. The situation was further complicated by Turkey’s involvement in the war as Turkish troops attempted to capture the strategic port of Batumi. Although General Kvinitadze routed the Turks in Adjara, the Menshevik government was unable to turn the tide of the war against the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Europe. By March 1921, Georgia was effectively under control of the Bolsheviks.

The government in exile continued its struggle for decades to come, but it was an uphill battle. Some Georgian statesmen succumbed to the pressure and committed suicide while others were assassinated by the Soviet secret service. In 1932, the Soviet Union and France signed an agreement that banned anti-Soviet émigré groups in France and led to the closure of the remaining Georgian embassy in Paris. The émigré community, however, continued its resistance. In 1934, émigré politicians from Georgia, Azerbaijan and North Caucasus organized the Council of Transcaucasian Confederation that was to coordinate national-liberation movements in their respective countries. In late 1930s and early 1940s, several Georgian émigré organizations blossomed in Germany and the Baltic states, including the Tetri Giorgi paramilitary unit.

After the coup against the Menshevik government, the Bolsheviks established the Revolutionary Committee under Philipe Makharadze as the supreme authority in Georgia. In February 1922, first congress of Soviets of Georgia was summoned in Tbilisi and adopted the Constitution of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The new authorities struggled to establish themselves as a guerilla war began in various regions. In the summer of 1921, a rebellion in Svaneti was harshly suppressed but instigated further anti-Bolshevik outbreaks. In 1922, guerrilla units, led by Kakutsa Cholokashvili and his shepitsulebi (men of the oath), operated in Kartli, Guria, Khevsureti, Kakheti and Mingrelia. The same year, Georgian political parties united their efforts forming an Independence Committtee and a host of regional organizations. However, the underground organization had been penetrated by the secret police and, in February 1923, police arrested committeee members and shut down the underground press. In the subsequent repriasals, hundreds Georgians, including Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ambrosi, were arrested and exiled, numerous churches and monasteries closed. In August 1924, a major uprising began in Georgia but lack of organization and ineffective cooperation between the rebels precipitated their defeat in bloody clashes with the Soviet authorities. The uprising was ruthlessly crushed and the Bolsheviks seized an opportunity to exterminate any potential threats, exiling or executing hundreds.

The sovietization of Georgia under Joseph Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze was so brutal that even Lenin opposed its radicalism in the so-called Georgian Affair, but the process continued after his death unabated. Collectivization was carried out ruthlessly throughout the 1920s and, in the 1930s, widespread purges of Georgian society were perpetrated by Stalin’s local lieutenant Lavrentii Beria, head of the Soviet state security apparatus in Georgia. The impact of sovietization on the Georgian culture and social environment was severe and it inculcated a conformist tendency with the Soviet Communist Party among the survivors. Between 1922 and 1936, Georgia was part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (ZKFSR), which also included the neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1936, the new Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) made Georgia one of the constituent republics of the USSR. 

Despite its oppressive nature, the new Soviet regime also brought rapid development of Georgian science, culture and economy. Georgia’s agricultural output greatly increased and new industrial facilities were built in Rustavi, Chiatura, Zestaponi, Batumi, Tkibuli and others towns. Several hydro-electric stations, notably Zemo-Avchala and Rioni, were constructed and provided much-needed electricity. The railroad network was repaired and expanded throughout the country. After Tbilisi State University was established by the Menshevik government in 1918, the Soviet authorities founded the Georgian Polytechnic Institute, Georgian Agricultural Institute, Tbilisi Medical Institute, pedagogical institutes in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi, Institute of Mathematics, Institute of Physics, Tbilisi Academy of Arts, etc. In 1946, the Georgian Academy of Sciences was established as the premier center of scientific research in Georgia. In 1930-1934, universal mandatory education was introduced and three stage education system established. 

Georgians in World War II

During the World War II, Georgia mobilized almost 700,000 Georgian residents (out of total population of 3.5 million), who served with the Red Army on all fronts of the war; some 350,000 of them perished in the war, exceeding the war losses of such major powers as the United States and Britain. Over 240,000 Georgians received various medals and orders for their actions during the war and 137 of them were conferred the highest award of the Hero of the USSR. The home front concentrated on the production of mineral resources and increased the output of manganese at the Chiatura mining plants, coal at Tkibuli and Tkvarcheli plants and metals at the Zestaponi factory. In 1941, Tbilisi Aviation Factory was established and began producing fighter planes for the Red Army. Georgia also served as an evacuation center for thousands of refugees from German-occupied areas in Byelorussia and Ukraine. In 1943, three Georgian divisions participated in vicious battles in the Crimea and the Caucasus and several Georgian officers rose to prominence, among them Konstantine Leselidze, Vladimir Naneishvili, Ermaloz Koberidze, Porpirius Chanchibadze, etc. Georgians also took active part in the guerilla warfare and commanded units throughout western USSR and Eastern Europe, notably David Bakradze, Ivane Shubitidze and Vladimir Talakvadze’s units in Ukraine and Byelorussia, those of Vladimir Dzneladze and Shalva Kobiashvili in Poland, of Stefane Khatiashvili, Nikoloz Tabagua and Otar Chkhenkeli in France, and of Pore Mosulishvili and Noe Kublashvili in Italy.

At the same time, the Georgians also fought in the ranks of the German Wehrmacht. The Georgian social-democrats, who escaped the rigors of sovietization in Georgia, rallied in Germany and, ignoring the dangers of German national socialism, they sought to use the German war machine to liberate Georgia. Members of the intelligentsia in Georgia also considered cooperating with the Nazi authorities in order to overthrow the Soviet regime. However, the Soviet secret service effectively suppressed them and, between 1941-1942, widespread arrests were made leading to the execution of ringleaders. In 1942-1943, as the number of captured Georgian troops increased, the German command established the so-called Georgian Legion under the leadership of Major General Shalva Maghlakelidze as part of the Eastern Legions (Ostlegionen). The Legion eventually consisted of 8 Georgian battalions participating in campaigns in the Caucasus, Ukraine and Byelorussia; one of them was later deployed on the strategic island of Texel in the German “Atlantic Wall,” where it fought what is often described as Europe's last battle in late May 1945.

After the war, the Soviet authorities intensified political repression on the Georgian intelligentsia, especially the dissident groups that demonstrated nationalistic tendencies. In 1948, several students of Tbilisi State University were arrested for conspiring against the Soviet government and nine of them were sentenced to 25 years in Siberia. On 25 December 1951, some 20,000 Georgians, who allegedly had acted against the Soviet regime, were loaded on railway wagons and resettled to desolate regions of northern Central Asia, where many of them died; the survivors managed to return to Georgia in 1954. In late 1951, at Stalin’s orders, the so-called Mingrelian Case was instigated against Lavrentii Beria and claimed many innocent Georgians who were accused of Mingrelian nationalism and anti-government activities. 

Georgia in 1950s through 1970s

The death of Joseph Stalin led to a power struggle in the Kremlin. In the new triumvirate, the Georgian Beria enjoyed enormous power controlling the Ministries of Internal Affairs and of State Security. However, in June 1953, Beria was arrested on charges of foreign espionage and treason and executed. The new Soviet Premier Nikita Khurschev made key changes in the Communist leadership of Georgia, appointing his protégé Vasili Mzhavanadze as the secretary of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party, dismissing the first secretaries in Batumi and Sukhumi and some 2,000 party officials in other positions. Stalin’s death also ushered in the so-called “Thaw” period in the USSR and Khruschev began de-Stalinization process. In February 1956, he made the famous speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party and denounced Stalin’s policies and the “cult of personality.” The speech was supposed to be secret but rumors about its content leaked. 

To the majority of Soviet citizens such revelations came as a great surprise and it was particularly true in Georgia, where attacks on Stalin often stressed his ethnicity and gradually evolved into charges against the entire Georgian nation. The Georgian youth, raised under the Stalinist regime, came to idolize the late Soviet leader and Khruschev’s sudden criticism of Stalin was met with deep resentment. Following Khruschev’s speech, on 5 March 1956, a demonstration was organized near the Stalin monument on the bank of the Kura River to mark the third anniversary of Stalin’s death. The situation gradually spiraled out of control and the protesters rapidly grew in numbers, with their slogans becoming more and more radical. Students played an important role in mobilizing demonstrators and pushing a more nationalistic program of demands. As demonstrations paralyzed the entire Tbilisi, the Georgian Communist leadership was unable to cope with situation and turned to the Soviet military for help. On 9 March 1956, the Soviet armed forces opened fire and launched a bloody crackdown on protesters. The exact number of casualties remains unclear but estimates indicate some 150 killed and hundreds more wounded and arrested. 

The event was quickly covered up without the rest of the Soviet Union learning about it for years. Following the events of 1956, the issues of the language and culture assumed unprecedented importance in Georgia, where Georgian sense of identity merged with the determination to preserve the Georgian language and culture from foreign domination. Immediately after the massacre, several national-patriotic groups were established. Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia organized the underground Gorgasliani, which began publishing anti-Soviet pamphlets and newspapers. Sighnaghi Youth Guard was set up in Kakheti and published several issues of Simebi, its antiestablishment journal. In 1960s, the Union for the Freedom and Independence of Georgia was established in Tbilisi with the main goal of proclaiming an independent democratic republic. 

By the 1970s, the Georgian Communist Party had the highest percentage of members per capita of all the republican Communist Parties. Favoritism and political control facilitated the growth of black marketeering, speculation and corruption. According to the World Bank study, Georgia ranked twelfth poorest of the fifteen Soviet republics in terms of official per capita income, yet savings deposits per capita were sixth highest amongst the republics. Furthermore, bribe taking was rampant in the education system and, based on official statistics, Georgia had one of the highest numbers of advanced degrees awarded per thousand persons, especially in prestigious fields like medicine and law. Many Georgians joined the Party for no other reasons than careerism or opportunism. Party connections not only helped with promotion but also protected those involved in the shadow economy. In fact, the Georgian Communist Party had become so notoriously corrupt that even Leonid Brezhnev’ stagnant regime felt obliged to intervene and promote a new first secretary, Eduard Shevardnadze, to clean up its activities. 

Shevardnadze's tenure as the first secretary (1972-1985) was marked by a vigorous, at times even ruthless, campaign against both corruption and political opposition. Shevardnadze succeeded in rising industrial and agricultural output and labor productivity in Georgia and, by 1980, Georgia was one of the few republics fulfilling its Five Year Plan targets. However, the emphasis on completion of state plans also resulted in rapid deterioration in the quality of Georgia products, especially tea and wine. Shevardnadze's efficient and heavy-handed methods were particularly effectively in disrupting the Georgian dissident movement, which posed no threat to Soviet power until Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. 

Rise of National Liberation Movement

The 1970s also saw a gradual development of the national-liberation movement led by Georgian dissidents, notably Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Merab Kostava. In 1974, the Action Group for Defense of Human Rights was established and, three years later, the Georgian Helsinki Group was founded. The power of Georgian nationalism was revealed in 1978, when the Soviet authorities decided to make an amendment to the Georgian constitution and remove an article affirming Georgian as the sole official state language of the republic. On 14 April 1978, thousands of Georgians rallied in the streets of Tbilisi and their numbers grew by the hour. As the situation escalated, First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze personally met with demonstrators and negotiated a peaceful resolution of situation. The Soviet authorities decided against removing the disputed clause. The events clearly demonstrated the potency of Georgian nationalism and contributed to the increasing popularity of the national-liberation movement.

After Shevardnadze departed to Moscow to take up his post as Soviet foreign minister, his protégé, Jumber Patiashvili, took charge of the Georgian Communist Party. The all-Union policy of glasnost (openness) after 1985 meant that previously dormant nationalist aspirations among the Georgian people began to make themselves heard. By 1987, several groups which presented themselves as cultural but which had a strongly nationalist program had appeared. In fact, such was the popular support for unofficial groups demanding better protection for the environment or Georgian cultural monuments that the Communist Party authorities tried to establish their own parallel organizations to draw off support from the anti-establishment groups. Georgian intellectuals, especially members of the republican Writer’s Union, launched a campaign to assert national prerogatives in the face of perceived threats. They declared that as a result of the imposition of Russian as the medium of interethnic communication throughout the USSR, the Georgian language was denied its natural preeminence within home republic. Furthermore, they stressed that Georgians were forced to disregard their culture and adapt themselves constantly to the Russian language and Russian culture, which became a growing challenge for the minorities within the Republic. 

The late 1980s saw dramatic events leading to the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe. Communist authorities fell in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria and the process culminated in the unification of Germany in 1989. At the same time, national movements were on the rise within the Soviet Union, particularly in the Baltic States and the Transcaucasia. In November 1988, a massive demonstration gathered in front of government buildings on the Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi protesting proposed amendments to the USSR constitution changing the status of the Georgian language and elevating Russian to the only state language of the republic. Although the amendments were soon dropped, the situation quickly escalated. Tensions between Georgians and Abkhazs spiraled out of control when the Abkhaz nationalists called for Abkhazian independence from Georgia in the early 1989. On 18 March 1989, the Popular Forum of Abkhazia (Aydgilara) organized a demonstration in Lykhny for the restoration of Abkhazia's status as an independent soviet socialist republic (SSR). In response, a series of rallies began on 25 March 1989 in Tbilisi and demands were made to contain the Abkhazian separatists; gradually the calls became more radical and eventually they also included the national independence of Georgia. 

The 9th of April Tragedy

On 4 April 1989, some 150 Georgian nationalist activists began a hunger strike in front of the Supreme Soviet at Rustaveli Avenue. They demanded full independence for Georgia and complete integration of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia within Georgia. Two days later, tens of thousands went to the streets of the capital and demonstrated their solidarity. As the rallies increased in size, the Georgian authorities turned to the Soviet military for help. On 9 April 1989, demonstrators were attacked by Soviet troops and, in bloody fighting, 21 demonstrators, mostly women and teens, were killed while hundreds were left sick for weeks and months from toxic gases. The brutality of the Soviet forces against the peaceful demonstrators was recorded on tape and, when broadcasted later that year, it shocked the whole Soviet Union. The tragic events of April only intensified Georgian nationalism and gave greater credibility to the national-liberation movements. The nation united around the cause of independence and, in the months after the tragedy, hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Tbilisi, wearing black as a sign of grief and carrying national banners. 

In response to the tragedy of 9 April, the Communist leadership of Georgia was replaced. The new First Secretary Givi Gumbaridze, who replaced Jumber Patiashvili, initially endeavored to calm down the situation but his attempts to delay the first free elections for the Georgian Supreme Soviet scheduled for October 1990 actually played into the hands of the opposition. The opposition parties organized the Committee of National Liberation, which united the Helsinki Union led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia (Kostava died in automobile accident in late 1989), National Democratic Party led by Giorgi Chanturia, Irakli Shengelaia’s Union of National Justice and Irakli Tsereteli’s National Independence Party. In March 1990, a special conference of opposition groups was summoned in Tbilisi and the National Forum was established. However, the opposition parties soon disagreed on a number of issues. More radical groups established Round Table-Free Georgia, uniting the Helsinki Union, Society of St. Ilia the Righteous, the Merab Kostava Society, Traditionalist Union, National-Liberal Union, etc. Other national groups formed a National Congress and began a new campaign for the national independence of Georgia.

In the elections of October 1990, the Round Table-Free Georgia bloc, led by Gamsakhurdia, won a majority of votes and formed the first non-Communist government of Georgia. Gamsakhurdia's supporters now held the majority in the Supreme Soviet and in practice the Communist and other deputies deferred to their proposals for constitutional change. On 14 November 1990, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected chairman of the new Georgian Supreme Soviet. The new Soviet began abolishing the vestiges of the Soviet authorities, adopted the first series of national laws and organized a special commission to draft the new constitution. In March 1991, Georgia boycotted the All-Soviet Union referendum on the preservation of the USSR and held its own referendum on the issue of secession from the Soviet Union, resulting in almost 90 percent voting in favor of independence. At 12:30 p.m. on 9 April 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Georgia adopted the Declaration of Independence of Georgia. Two months later, on 26 May 1991, Gamsakhurdia won the first contested direct elections for the presidency of Georgia, obtaining over 85 percent of the votes cast. It seemed that the goal of independent Georgian republic was finally achieved.


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