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Exuberant life and tragic death of the Blue Horns

From left to right, sitting: first row - Nikolo Mitsishvili, Tamar Iashvili (Paolo's wife), Sandro Shanshiashvili, Maro Shanshiashvili. Second row: Valerian Gaprindashvili, Efemia Leonidze, Geronti Kikodze, Paolo Iashvili, Nino Tabidze and Ali Arsenishvili. Standing: Razhden Gvetadze, Shalva Apkhaidze, Titsian Tabidze, Leli Japaridze, Giorgi Leonidze. Source: National Public Library of Georgia

by Dr. Lasha Bakradze:

Grigol Robakidze, one of the respected Georgian authors of the time, had this to say about Georgia’s second largest city in 1918: “truly tragic is Kutaisi in his philistinism (and that is what it is perhaps a gruesome symbol of all present-day Georgia)”. He was writing for the Tbilisi-based journal “ARS” about the Georgian Modernism. And despite his harsh words, Kutaisi merited his attention precisely because this petty-bourgeois city, from 1915 on, became home for a group of young poets who came to be known as the “Blue Horns” (Tsisferi Qantsebi – more precisely translated as “sky-blue drinking horns”).

Controversial bohemians

The young poets showed up, and, Robakidze reminisces: “the pubs of Kutaisi suddenly turned into Parisian literary cafes, where alongside the hoarse tunes of the barrel organs and the indispensable Mravalzhamier [a Georgian polyphonic table song] exquisite names: Edgar Poe and Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, José María Heredia and Emile Verhaeren, Konstantin Balmont and Valery Bryusov … were invoked.”

In 1915, the heart of the group, Paolo Iashvili, has returned from Paris. In 1913, at the age of 19, he had already published the magazine “Golden Fleece”, which brought many young writers into the limelight. In 1916 he founded the magazine “Blue Horns”.

In his youthful exuberance, Paolo proclaimed a manifesto: “Listen to our sermon. […] We have appeared to the ghostly figure of Georgia, shrouded in new brilliance, to show the people who have lost their dreams the clear way to the blue temple of the future. ”

The self-proclaimed teachers and trailblazers did not always find an enthusiastic reception in Georgia.

One Philipe Makharadze lambasted the young poets in a 1916 newspaper article titled “The Worst Literary Crime”: “They are a spawning of the dark forces and are in their service, but their feast and their debauchery will not last. The sun will rise again and the light shall prevail. They will be forced to seek their dark holes and crawl back into them.” A chilling forewarning, rather than just a nasty turn of a publicist phrase: by 1921 Makharadze would become the chairman of the Georgian Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee – the main administrative body of the Soviet occupation in 1921.

In the meantime though, the “Blue Horns” stayed true to their bohemian aspirations, well reflected in their name: the “horns” refer to the traditional wine-drinking vessel (the rython) still widely used in Georgia today. Blue was considered the color of poetry and romanticism.

Twelve men and their hidden sister

Many members of the group came from Kutaisi High School. Many famous poets, artists, scientists and politicians, such as Vladimir Mayakovski, who was one year older than Paolo, studied in this provincial school.  Blue Horns professed allegiance to the influential Russian literary current – the symbolists. Yet, they were also interested in new avant-garde movements and lectured in Kutaisi on Marinetti and futurism. In the early 1920s Titsian Tabidze, one of the group’s most notable poets, even wrote Dadaist manifestos.

Ten to fifteen authors belonged to the Blue Horns at different times, but Titsian Tabidze always spoke of 13 members – for symbolic reasons: the 13 Christian-Assyrian fathers founded the monastic life in Georgia in the 6th century.

The Blue Horns were a circle of men, and yet from the beginning there was also a young woman who wrote under the pseudonym – Elene Dariani:

“I will surrender to my beloved hands, like to a gentle bed,
and you’ll kiss me as if I were a queen, as if I were a slave and a wife.”

Her poems so fresh and so sensual, she never appeared to recite them in public, which has shrouded her identity – and even her very existence – in mystery.

A married woman, she was the lover of Paolo Iashvili, who edited her poetry. Some literary critics view the series of poems known as the Darianuli as a joint work by Elene and Paolo. The Blue Horners referred to Dariani as their hidden “sister”.

Paolo first recited her poetry in 1915, the audience was shocked by its free eroticism motives. An indignant women has reportedly walked out. After Paolo’s demise, Dariani poems would only be re-published in 1950s, after Paolo’s political rehabilitation. They were published as authored by Iashvili, along with his other texts.

The historian Giorgi Javakhishvili was the first to publish a series of articles on Elene Dariani (her real name was Elene Bakradze) at the end of the last century. She immediately came under critics’ attack who said Dariani’s role was anecdotal and negligible. Part of the Georgian literary establishment is still vehemently denying her authorship.

In 2013, the Georgian Literary Museum realized an exhibition titled “The Woman behind Paolo”. Again a few articles were published and a television program aired on the topic, saying one should rather not take the story seriously. But the hidden member of the Blue Horns was nonetheless resurrected. The Literature Museum is now working on a publication of Elene Bakradze’s archive.


Moving to the capital

Russia’s February Revolution, the turmoil of the First World War, the October Revolution and the beginning of the civil war in the Russian Empire, saw Georgia comparatively calm and stable.

Many artists from different regions of the Russian Empire thought safe haven in Tbilisi. The mixture of cultures of the traditionally tolerant Tbilisi became even more colorful. Sergo Kldiashvili, one of the Blue Horns, described this period in his memoirs as the “Great Resettlement”. There was hunger and epidemics, but there was also total artistic freedom. The Tbilisi avant-garde was created in Tbilisi through the coexistence and cooperation of the foreign and local artists.

On May 26, 1918, the free and Democratic Republic of Georgia was proclaimed. The German Reich had the role as a protector of the young republic, which was governed by Social Democrats. Georgia’s brief independence was an intense period of testing new cultural paths, artists have confronted the stormy modernity, trying to express and interpret it. Various avant-garde directions have enriched each other in a peaceful co-existence and collaboration. Tbilisi became an artistic metropolis.

The leading figures of the Blue Horns have moved from Kutaisi to the capital, Tbilisi. Here they seemed more than traditionalists with their efforts at sonnet and their avant-garde interests, as opposed to the radical futurists such as the bridle poets around Ilia Zdanevich and Alexei Kruchenykh, who made Dadaist-like experiments.

The jewel of the artistic avant-garde in Tbilisi “Fantasticheski kabachok / Fantastic pub” leaflet, edited by Ilia Zdanevich with participation of the Blue Horns, is a good example of the cooperation between different tendencies of the Tbilisi avant-garde.

The Blue Horns participated in all important events of Tbilisi cultural life. Hardly a literary evening or an art exhibition took place without them. The “Chimerioni” pub, founded by the Blue Horns and designed by the leading lights of Georgian painting scene, David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Sergei Sudeikin and Mose Toidze, was an important venue for literary and art lovers and hungry artists hanging about alongside many artists’ taverns that have mushroomed in Tbilisi. The Blue Horns also released in Tiflis the new magazine “Meocnebe Niamorebi” (“The Dreaming Wild Goats”) and the newspaper “Barrikadi” (“Barricade”).

“Sovietisation” and an attempt at accommodation

In 1921 the country was occupied by the Russian Red Army.

“With Red flag flying, head held high,
On white steed walking stolid gait,
Death entered scene with shining scythe!
The mourning snow on Tiflis fell,      
Mute was the crowd, and mute was Church.”

So wrote much later, one of the last surviving member of the Blue Horn movement Kolau Nadiradze. The publication of the poem, overlooked by the censorship, became a scandal in 1985 – the last one that the Blue Horns caused.

As the Republic fell, the Blue Horns – largely apolitical in their mind – remained mostly conciliatory with country’s new rulers. Nonetheless, their “decadent” literary style was the obvious target of attacks by “the proletarian writers” treading the general line of the Communist Party.

The relatively liberal attitude of the Communist rulers in Tbilisi towards the artists ended following the failed anti-Soviet uprising in Georgia in 1924. The party demanded from writers more solid commitment to communist ideas and party politics – the so-called “fellow travelers” were no longer needed. The Blue Horns tried to put themselves at the service of socialist construction, and to adapt to the growing political pressure.

At the end of the 1920s, the final alignment of literature and art with the party doctrine has begun. By 1931, the Blue Horns have been dissolved as a literary group.

Still, in the beginning of 1930s, the members of the Blue Horns were popular not only in Georgia, but thanks to their translations by Osip Mandelshtam and Boris Pasternak also became known in Russia.

Even though – and perhaps because – Mandelstam, while escaping Crimea, was released from the quarantine in Batumi with the assistance of Tabidze and Mitsishvili in 1920, and hosted in Tbilisi in 1921 by Tabidze and Iashvili, he was openly antipathetic to the Blue Horns: “These days it [the Georgian literature] is represented by the “Blue Horns” group, who reside in Tbilisi. The group is headed by Paolo Iashvili and Titsian Tabidze. The Blue Horns are considered the highest judges of arts in Georgia, but may the God himself be the judge to them. Raised in kneeling adulation towards the French modernism… they entertain themselves, and their readers with cheap mix of Baudlerian poetry, desperation of Arthur Rambo and vulgarized-stylized demonism. All of this is seasoned to taste with the superficial exoticism. The colossal burgeoning of the Russian poetry in the last twenty years has passed them by without a trace. In our eyes, they akin to provincial spots, like Penza or Tambov.”

Boris Pasternak, on the contrary, enjoyed excellent relations with Blue Horns, especially with Tabidzes even later on in life. Pasternak’ letters to Tabidze’s widow, as well as a typewritten copy of “Doctor Zhivago” with author’s inscription to Tabidze testify to close relationships between them.

Due to their notoriety, there were four former representatives of the Blue Horns attending All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, where Socialist Realism was proclaimed as the doctrine of the Soviet literature. Paolo Iashvili, Titsian Tabidze and Nikolo Mitsishvili delivered speeches at the Writers’ Congress. In the first days of the congress a reading of the Georgian writers’ works took place, in which Pasternak and Nikolai Tikhonov presented their translations and were received with euphoric enthusiasm.

Death of an illusion

But they were also attacked, increasingly viciously. Their efforts to integrate themselves into Soviet literature did not seem sufficiently sincere to Soviet critics. They were not forgiven for being “a bourgeois-decadent school” characterized by “extreme individualism”, “mysticism”, “cult of bohemianism” and an “escape from reality” – all deadly sins in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. Trying to blend in, Iashvili and Mitsishvili had already written odes to Stalin, which were made accessible in Russian through Pasternak’s translations and even gave rise to an all-Soviet “Staliniana” – a praise of Stalin through poetry.

This adjustment did take a hard emotional and psychological toll. The poetry of the Blue Horns, even originally subject to poetic spleen, grew increasingly apocalyptic and morbid,

 “One poor poet cannot,
In all sincerity ask for more,
Put thirteen bullets in my heart;”
(Titsian Tabidze, Ria-Ria, 1929)

In 1926, on the occasion of the death of Sergei Yesenin, Titsian Tabidze wrote in a poem: “But we all have different times coming, / we will probably be shot somewhere like dogs.”

In 1922, Nikolo Mitsishvili foretold the time of his death exactly in his book “Epopeia”: “I am 26 years old and it looks like I’m starting to live again. If my calculations are right, I will hold out for 15 more years, and is it worth worrying about it? “.

In 1937, at the height of the great purge, both Nikolo Mitsishvili and Titsian Tabidze, like many other writers and artists, were sentenced to death and executed. Paolo Iashvili could not withstand the constant pressure of the interrogations of the secret police and the demands to denounce his friends and colleagues.

He shot himself with a shotgun in the building of the Georgian Writers’ Union  when the official meeting was ongoing on the lower floor. His suicide was considered an act of hooliganism. Death of “outed spy and enemy of the people” was classified by the Communist Party of Georgia in an official resolution as “lashing out (vipad) against the party and the Soviet authorities.”

The Georgian Communist party leader and thus country’s governor at the time, Lavrenti Beria, who in a year would become the dreaded chief of the Soviet secret service, forbade the public funeral.  Kolau Nadiradze of the Blue Horns group, was the only one to brave the ban. He was denounced to Beria, who was said to have been impressed by his courage and said: “Bravo. Do not touch him! ”

Grigol Robakidze, a friend and a mentor of the Blue Horns, who went into German exile in 1930s, wrote in his obituary of Paolo Iashvili:

“In 1924, during the great uprising in Georgia, his young brother was executed. Paolo has hidden this devastating message from his mother. He took it upon himself to lead his mother to believe that his brother was alive. For years, he wrote letters on behalf of his dead brother, pretending he has escaped and lived in Iran. You could see him miserable, forging his dead brother’s handwriting. If the poor old woman is still alive, she has now lost not one, but two sons… ”

Dr. Lasha Bakradze

Dr. Lasha Bakradze is a Georgian publicist, researcher and opinion leader. He is the director of Giorgi Leonidze State Museum of Literature since 2010 and also teaches Soviet history at the Ilia State University of Tbilisi since 2010. He has also co-established and is a board member of the Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB).