The Union and Separation of Russia and Georgia, What the Dates Tell Us

Jaba Devdariani | Academic Essay | 2021

23rd of July 1783;  26th of May 1918;  9th of April 1991.


The dates, which we remember from history books, often acquire historical content as a result of subsequent context and interpretation. The first year of our calendar was not significant for anyone in that year ... Nor was the date of the founding of Rome marked down in a book by contemporaries; therefore we can say that dates do not form history as we often think, but history creates dates - as a boundary around which it tells a story.


When historical epochs, dynasties, and formations change, sometimes historians and, moreover, propagandists attach different meanings to the same date. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the truth and lie. Historiography is replaced by falsified memory.


The state relations between Georgia and Russia begin with the Treaty of Georgievsk signed on July 23, 1783, and in the 20th century, it revolves around the key date of - the declaration of independence of Georgia on May 26, 1918, and the Act of Restoration of Independence on April 9, 1991.


For those of us who grew up in the era of the awakening and activation of the national movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, from April 9, 1991, we saw both 1783 and 1918. According to such a view, since the Georgievski treaty, Georgia has suffered from betrayal and humiliation by Russia. Even today, this view prevails in official discourse or history textbooks, perhaps even more strongly, because in the meantime there were conflicts in Abkhazia and Samachablo, the 2008 war with Russia, and the occupation of these two areas. The year 1918 seen through the eyes of 1991 was an insufficiently radical separation from Russia. According to the popular view, the Social-Democratic Party "had unexpected freedom". In one of Zviad Gamsakhurdia's program speeches, the path of the Social Democrats was "The Way of Baraba’s" - an attempt to compromise with the Russian world, which was opposed by the "Way of Christ" - torture, death, and resurrection.


This short essay aims to shift this dialogue from a mythological perspective to a historiographical view and rather than give answers asks questions for future and present scholars. What were these three dates like for contemporaries?! And what do these dates look like from Russia?


Book of Oath


The year 1783 is more a Georgia's Literary-folklore tradition than a historical date. "It has been a long time since Irakli's heart determined the fate of Kartli" - Nikoloz Baratashvili's "Fate of Kartli" was written in 1839, decades after the treaty was signed, but the debate presented here among Georgian nobles is almost a historical document for us.


A quote from Solomon Leonidze: "But you, King, who allowed you / to tell others to live a life of a slave, / to follow your heart and suppress freedom?" clearly bears the mark of the 19th-century national state-building rather than 18th-century monarchy politics. Indeed, it is clear from historical sources that King Erekle did not hesitate to enter into similar agreements with other neighbors - not so far-reaching but politically and tactically comparable. Through signing alliances and then disintegrating them, the rulers pursued a "policy of balance" at that time, and national - in the 19th-20th century sense of the word - politics had nothing to do with it.


What was the view of the treaty from the Russian side? We need a satisfactory and historically substantiated answer to this question. It is obvious that Russia at that time was on the path of territorial expansion and it was geopolitically interested in Georgia on its way to the Caspian Sea to get to Persia. Erekle's behavior after the treaty - that is, after the demand for subordination, protectorate - was probably perceived by Russia as a betrayal or an unreliable partnership.


Let us also remember that the treaty was not of equal importance for Russia and Georgia in terms of its significance - and especially its consequences. From the point of view of the 19th century, Russian subjugation physically saved Georgia, but it died as a state. In Moscow's view, the gradual acquisition of the Georgian kingdoms was a tactical move, and in the sense of military-strategic, it was of secondary importance. This secondary quality can be seen in Lermontov's words “How depressed by his crown,/the Same king, in the same year,/ To Russia have handed his people ("удручен своим венцом,/Такой-то царь, в такой-то год,/ Вручал России свой народ"),  - in his poem "Mtsiri", which was written in the same year as "The fate of Kartli."


However, the "transfer" of the Georgian royal crown to Russia had another, more important, as we would now say "PR" component. First, the annexation of the ancient Christian royal crown once again underlines the imperial essence of the Russian Tsars. Second, like other European nations, Russia has acquired its "Orient" - and the mission of an educated European monarchy - to shed light on the "Caucasian savages." The Georgian aristocracy played the role of a "cultural mediator" in this matter - one step above the North Caucasus "savages'' and "false believers", according to Christian tradition - but still an insufficiently civilized, getting its European qualities from St. Petersburg. It was on these Orientalist motives that the whole "Caucasian Romanticism" of the 19th century with its Pushkin-Lermontov-Griboedov was based.


19th century Russia views Georgia's unification with Russia in terms of imperial messianism. Let's take another look at "Mtsiri":


“And God's grace comes in

At Georgia! It is blossomed

Since then, in the shadow of their gardens,

Not fearing of enemies

Behind the face of the friendly bayonets.”


(„И божья благодать сошла

На Грузию! Она цвела

С тех пор в тени своих садов,

Не опасаяся врагов,

За гранью дружеских штыков.")


In 1859, Ilia Chavchavadze translated the couplet in the following way:


Since God's grace come in

At suffering Georgian nation,

Whatever good the Russian bayonet did —

God give it to those Russians a hundredfold more”


It clearly illustrates the gap that formed between the visions of the two sides in 1783. In a conflict between feudal fathers and liberal children, children win and children are followed by grandchildren. The most politically successful of them are the Social Democrats. It is on their heart and neck that the second key date will pass over - 1918.


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What needs to be done:


- Finding and comparing Russian and Georgian historiographical materials, which show the ongoing discussion at the door of The royal courts of the Georgian principalities and kingdoms as well as in Russia by the year 1783, and put it in the context of the geopolitics of that time.


- Finding the roots of Russian "Orientalism", the role of Georgia, and in parallel - "Georgian subalternism" ("oppressed nation", "orphan nation", "you cannot defeat Russia") and "Georgian orientalism" ("civilizing" role in the Caucasus).

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Birth of the Republic of Georgia


History created the date May 26, 1918, several times. For the first time - on this day itself, when a celebration was held in the streets of the city. The second time, probably in 1921 after the Soviet Occupation, when May 26 was celebrated by the authorities of Soviet Georgia. The third time – from 1922, with it being banned and forgotten. Fourth - with the date gaining relevance again within the National movement.  Context: admiration, ridicule, anathema - have always been associated with Russia.


As we have already said, this date - the formation of the first modern national state on the territory of Georgia – was based on the work of the second half of the 19th century, literature, art, Georgian language press, Society for Spreading Literacy, charity evenings or "balls", rural schools and through the efforts of rural school teachers, lawyers and "children of deacons".[1] From the perspective of the 1990s, the rulers of the First Republic were largely reprimanded - and still are reprimanded - for not demanding independence from Russia and for „independence falling upon them". This is partly true. But the reasons for the cautious attitude towards Russia deserve deeper scrutiny.


At that time the demand for state independence in Georgia was not on the agenda for several reasons. Most importantly, the collapse of the Russian Empire came quite suddenly, as a result of the development of the worst-case scenario of a crisis. The Social Democrats participated in the rule of the empire and hoped for a democratic transformation that would bring autonomy to Georgia. It is also true that the Georgian Social-Democrats played a more important and influential role in the social-democratic movement of the Russian Empire than the Georgian representatives of the Bolshevik wing. They also had serious public support in Georgia. Accordingly, in "New Russia" they also hoped to influence the events after the election in the State Duma.


However, not only left-wing but also right-wing patriots were inclined to maintain the Russian Empire, for geopolitical reasons. The disintegration of Russia as a result of World War I seemed almost unimaginable, but the partition of the Ottoman Empire was almost decided. The Georgian patriots believed that their interests coincided with the ones of the empire in this matter - a good basis for the consolidation of the historic Georgian provinces around the Tbilisi province.


The hopes of both of these influential social factions were dashed by the October Revolution of 1917 and the consolidation of power by the Bolsheviks. From the point of view of post-Soviet Georgia, it seems strange that on May 26, 1918, the issue of "annexation by the Russian Empire" was not raised, nor was revisited the 1783 treaty. On the contrary, to justify the legal right to independence, the disappearance of one of the parties to the treaty was cited. There were probably pragmatic reasons for this - in this way, it would be easier to justify the still-newborn right to self-determination in Europe rather than calling for liberation from colonial tyranny (as the US Declaration of Independence points out), which would have been much more painful in to comprehend in London and Paris (We will return to this interesting topic).


Let's take a look at the Act of Independence:


At the time of Georgia's declaration of independence, the Russian state was no longer in Georgia and therefore this declaration was not made against Russia.


There was a state regime in Georgia before it declared independence, and it was not a Russian state.


According to the election law drafted for the Constituent Assembly of Russia, the elected Georgian National Body - the National Council of Georgia - transformed into the Assembly of Representatives of Georgia, declared the independence of Georgia, and formed the Government of the Republic of Georgia.


Based on such a solid foundation, the Government of Georgia should be recognized as a national government, whose authority and right are without any doubt, just as the National Council of Georgia is a flawless and genuine representation.


May 26, 1918, Act of Independence of Georgia


In other words, the act of independence is based on such a triad: The Russian state is no longer in Georgia (it disappeared de jure and de facto after the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd). Nevertheless, there is a state government (which is not the state of Russia); And third and foremost - there is a democratically elected body that is a bearer of national sovereign rights.


If Georgia's earlier relations with Russia are not mentioned here, we find an interesting argument at the Paris Conference, in the article published in the French press by the Georgian Emissary, Varlam Cherkezishvili, which was published in the "Republic of Georgia" on November 19, 1919.[2]:


"Georgian delegates want to remind the European public opinion that the Republic of Georgia is both legally and de facto the legal successor of the Kingdom of Georgia. Under the Protectorate Agreement, Catherine of Russia [Queen] undertook, on behalf of herself and her heirs, to strictly defend Georgian autonomy.


However, during the collapse of the empire, when the king was replaced by the Republican government, they did not even think about informing Georgia whether Republican Russia was going to fulfill the treaty. "


"When, in turn, this government was overthrown, and when the Bolshevik movement tore the empire into dozens of republics, Georgia faced the disappearance of the other Contracting Party, thus regaining its freedom of action and declaring independence in full accordance with international law.


From Varlam Cherkezishvili's article in the newspaper La Review de Paris September 1919


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What needs to be done:


- A study of the attitude of the Provisional Government of Russia towards the issues of territorial autonomy and national independence, the differences of possible opinions on this topic, to compare the arguments to those of Georgia.


To what extent did the Bolsheviks themselves consider the establishment of the Bolshevik government to be "the legal end (or new beginning) of the Russian Empire / Russian state"? What about Western countries? Other neighbors of Russia?


Comparison of Georgian acts with those of other countries liberated from the Russian Empire

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To sum up, May 26, 1918, was legally portrayed by the then Georgian leadership not as "Georgia's escape from the prison of nations" but as Russia's escape/disappearance as a unit of state sovereignty on this territory. It was for this "insufficient patriotism" that the then rulers were criticized by the representatives of the national movement in the late 1980s / early 1990s. An uncompromising confrontation with all that the Russian state has brought is the approach of the 1990s, largely due to the occupation of the First Republic and then the experience of living in the Soviet Union.


However, the critics of the "Zhordania government" in the '90s were supposedly surprised that this rhetoric was founded by Zhordania, but with two important nuances.


If the argument for independence itself was quite cautious, it could also be explained by the fact that on May 26, 1918, Georgia was facing a real threat of Ottoman occupation. When this problem was resolved diplomatically and the Tbilisi government became relatively stronger, it is clear and obvious that the construction of the Georgian national state was on the agenda (this "bourgeois statehood" later became the subject of jokes of the rulers of the Soviet Georgia). Here, the relationship with Russia becomes sharply confrontational - but not because it is Russia, but because it is Bolshevik Russia. This is where the topic of "political/civilizational choice" arises, which is still rhetorically relevant in Georgia's domestic or foreign policy.


In the 1990s, Russian and Soviet were identical concepts for the national movement. the Bolshevik-Mensheviks are also considered identical, and are "boiled in the same pot": it is difficult to convince the Soviet nation and elite which have gone through hell, that social democracy did not quite mean the Gulag. However, if the Gulag does not exist in 1918-1921, then Lenin-Trotsky's "Red Terror" is noticed and is a sharp line for the Georgian then government between Social Democracy on the one hand and Bolshevism on the other.


Here is a key quote from Noe Zhordania from his keynote address to the Constituent Assembly:[3]


"West and East - this is the question before us and there is no room for hesitation here. We have always chosen and continue to choose the West, and if the Bolsheviks prefer the East, it is because the West has rejected any connection to them and recognition.



As you can see, the roads of Georgia and Russia will be divided here as well. Our path goes to Europe and Russia to Asia. I know our enemies will start shouting - that we are supporting the imperialists. That is why I have to say this with certainty: I prefer Western imperialists to Eastern fanatics. "


Noe Zhordania's speech at the celebratory sitting of the Constituent Assembly dedicated to the de facto recognition of Georgia by the Entente states. January 14, 1920


This is where the key rhetorical and political approach emerges and becomes a doctrine - social democracy in Europe, and Bolshevism in Asia. Georgia does not deny everything Russian, but Russia is increasingly moving away from Europe and civilization, while Georgia is trying to remain a part of it.


This line found political development and was already being formed in the context of state-centric values:[4]


"Letting Bolshevism in, its enthronement here means that we will become Azerbaijan, the domination of Bolshevik-Ottoman imperialism in Georgia. Standing on the path to becoming Azerbaijan, accepting its political beliefs - it is a permanent burial of a free and democratic Georgia, it is a permanent separation from Europe and a fall into the clutches of Asian fanatics. Letting Bolshevism in means the invasion of a backward country into an advanced country, to let tyranny take over in the place of democracy and the rule of the people. In short, Bolshevism takes away the soul of the Georgian people, uproots everything it has created, in which it expresses its creative political talent, hence, it will take possession of a lifeless corpse, and finally throw it over to the Moscow reaction or the Ottoman Pasha to finish off.”


From the speech of Noe Zhordania at the meeting of the Constituent Assembly, April 30, 1920, Newspaper Republic of Georgia, May 1, 1920, N96


The opposite of European democracy is Asian tyranny, Bolshevism is an Asian, anti-progressive, politically backward organization with which Georgia can have nothing in common. It is clear that by 1920 the rhetoric of the Georgian government was already sharply nationalist, and at the same time Zhordania was able to reverse the "orientalist model" proposed by imperial Russia - Georgia remained on the side of progress and Europe, while Russia in Bolshevik clutches was on its way to Asia. Through the same rhetorical path, Ottoman and Bolshevik Russia are equated. The 1920 approach "defeats" the one from 1783. Russia is no longer either a path to the West or a savior from historical enemies. To free oneself from this type of Russia - is vital, and to get into its clutches - is a deadly threat.


The presentation of Bolshevism as an Asian tyranny was neither foreign to Russian political thought nor European propaganda. The theme of Russia's "civilizational duality" is generally a red line in political thought and is sometimes viewed negatively as an obstacle for European integration (which, for example, was followed by Peter the Great's forced Europeanization project), and sometimes positively (Eurasian ideologies; the theme of ,,Hartland"), as advantageous in the fight against Europe. Similar rhetoric probably existed in other countries created by the collapse of the Russian Empire - but if for Poland and the Baltic states the claim that they are "more European than Russia" seems natural, both geographically and historically, this ambitious statement from Georgia is a political construct that needs to be substantiated.


In a speech on January 14, Noe Zhordania offers this justification. Georgia is primarily Europe because it has proven its ability to govern itself democratically.


"The new Georgia [...] appeared before Europe to be judged. Let us stand not for mercy, but our rights.


And they asked us: - What do you bring with you? We answered: We bring a culture of two thousand years, a country rich in nature and beauty; We bring the highest democratic set-up, democratic creativity and demand a suitable place in the Gulf of Asia. We are not people who need to be mandated and appointed a guardian; We are our own mandator, our own guardians, our own master (long applause and ovations). And we have proved this not by words, not by good wishes, but by deeds, by the unceasing construction of the state.


Noe Zhordania's speech at the celebratory sitting of the Constituent Assembly dedicated to the de facto recognition of Georgia by the Entente states. January 14, 1920.”


We must emphasize that ”We are not people who need to be mandated and appointed a guardian”- during this period the remnants of the Ottoman Empire are distributed in the form of mandated territories to European states, so the head of the Georgian government emphasizes that Georgia is a European country and not a "decolonized nation", which needs external assistance in self-management.


So, what is May 26, 1918? Actual annulment of the treaty with the Russian Empire? Georgia's state-political choice in favor of European democracy? The final, civilizational and political separation from Russia while it is ruled by the Bolsheviks?


The second birth of the Republic - 1991


April 9, 1991, is a date that deserves a separate article. It was constantly in the shadow of the tragic predecessor of April 9, 1989, and then, overshadowed by the 1991-92 military coup, and even seemed to fade. Nevertheless, the "Act of Restoration of Independence'' announced in 1991 is directly related to two interesting dates - 1783 and 1918, as well as the painful separation between Georgia and Russia.


If the national liberation movement of the 20th century did not like its predecessor, this was partially due to the failure of the First Republic. Additionally, the history of the Democratic Republic of Georgia was lined with changing Soviet propaganda and forgetfulness, of which the door recently and in a very interesting manner was opened by Davit Khvadagiani.[5] Also, the archives and publications of the First Republic were not yet available or researched.


The basis of the political rhetoric of that time was that in 1918 the republic was ruled by forces that were not radical towards Russia and thus, the country was not ready for foreign intervention. The basis of such an approach was the rhetoric of the Social Democrats' political rivals, the National Democrats, which - partly backed through Soviet censorship - was spread in Soviet Georgia. At the same time, the many waves of repression carried out by the Soviet Union from the point of view of the 1990s showed the optimism of 1918 regarding the possibility of a democratic future for Russia as unimaginable.


For these reasons, political parties competed with each other in irreconcilability with Russia. Especially since April 9, 1989, this type of approach had widespread public support.


However, the Democratic Republic of Georgia was still pragmatically considered the legal basis for independence. Just as the First Republic stated the "disappearance" of one of the signatories to the treaty as a legal argument, the Second Republic pragmatically approached the memory of its ancestor and once again established its new life on the already recognized (including de jure) independence. The “Independence Restoration Act” reflects the attitude towards both Russia and the First Republic.


Act of Restoration of State Independence of Georgia, April 9, 1991


The statehood of Georgia that dates back to ancient times was lost by the Georgian nation in the 19th century following the annexation of Georgia by the Russian Empire, which suppressed Georgian statehood. The Georgian people have never accepted the loss of freedom. The suppressed statehood was restored on 26 May 1918 by the proclamation of the Act of Independence. The Democratic Republic of Georgia was established, with the bodies necessary to represent state authority, elected on a multi-party basis and with the Constitution.


In February-March 1921, Soviet Russia violated the peace agreement of 7 May 1920 between Georgia and Russia, and in an act of aggression, occupied the state of Georgia, previously recognized by Russia. This was subsequently followed by the de facto annexation of Georgia.


Georgia did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily, and its independent statehood has persisted to this day, and the Act of Independence and the Constitution still have legal force, because the Government of the Democratic Republic never signed an agreement relinquishing its independence, and continued to work in exile.


This act is very different from the 1918 document in nuances and tone. The argument of historical oppression on the part of Russia is clearly heard, which was even more clearly expressed beyond this official document in the political discussion of that time.


Perhaps this is where we should look for the fundamental difference in the attitude of the First Republic and the Second Republic towards Russia.


The leadership of the First Republic began with a neutral attitude towards the Russian people, and by 1920 was firmly committed to building rhetoric that corresponded to the "nationalism which looked from above" (with the sense of arrogance). According to such discourse, Russia was moving towards Asian backwardness, while Georgia was moving towards progressive Europeanism - through democracy, a multi-party system, respect for workers, and human rights. It was a "separation" of historical trajectories in which the terminology of "historical trauma" was less widely read. Moreover, as we have mentioned, the First Republic deliberately avoided cultivating "colonial hatred" towards the former metropolis and did not address the colonial theme at all.


Both the 1991 Declaration and the rhetoric of the time set out to sculpt the "victim mentality." Added to the 1989 trauma were further tragedies in which Russia always played the role of an evil genius - and its real involvement was always maximally exaggerated in public and political consciousness. Consequently, a more or less hidden basis of "irreconcilability" towards Russia was "nationalism which looked up from below" - Russia was portrayed as an evil and almost omnipotent, and power which was "set out to get" Georgia.


Where to now?


The Russian-Georgian attitude around these three key dates is a very interesting and deadly tango, of which "decoding" and translation in the context of historiographical facts tells us to destroy many myths and shatter many political spears. Nevertheless, it should be very useful in clarifying the interdependence.


It is obvious that Georgia occupies a far greater place in the conscious and subconscious of 19th and partly 20th century Russia than its geographical and political size and weight deserves. The reasons for this are multifaceted but insufficiently studied. Beginning with the "Russian Orientalism" brought about by the conquest of the Caucasus, through the romanticization and folklorization of Soviet Georgia, ending with the phantom fears of "colorful revolutions," the elements of Russian discourse require study, evaluation, and generalization.


It was said about the Soviet Union that this country had a hard to predict history, and this sad tradition continues in Russia today. Nevertheless, a more in-depth study of Russian historiographical, ethnographic, and other sources about Georgia would provide additional insights into ways of shaping the country's policy.


In turn, the generation of more information about the transformation of Russia as an icon of a neighbor and a political partner might make our neighbors "look in the mirror."


The questions posed in this article are for encouraging young historians and scholars, from amateur historian and international politics practitioner.


[1] They were called „Khalkhosnebi” or “The Narodniks” (from “people or folk”) by aristocracy with irony.

[2] "French press publishes Varlam Cherkezishvili's letter", available at this link: https://civil.ge/ka/archives/327395

[3]„Noe Zhordania: Long live free Georgia and its Alliance with Europe!”, the article is available at this link: https://civil.ge/ka/archives/350035

[4] „Zhordania: Invasion of Bolshevism in the place of democracy means the reign of tyranny“, the article is available at this link: https://civil.ge/ka/archives/349360

[5] Davit Khvadagiani, “Soviet propaganda, as – Tradition”, Available at: http://archive.ge/ka/blog