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Q and A: Why are Georgians still suspicious of the First Republic?

Despite the growing awareness about the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-1921, its leaders and policies, Georgians still carry many prejudices about the period. Some carry a priori negative feelings.

Regis Gente has asked three best known foreign historians of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, why would that be the case.

Stephen Jones, Ronald Suny and Charles Urjewicz consider themselves politically on the left side, thus close to Georgia’s ruling Social-Democrats in 1918-21, and hold critical views of Georgia’s recent, more right-leaning leaders.

They say the negative image of the First Republic built during the Soviet period, still holds sway over wide swaths of the Georgian population. But they hope that the new generation of Georgian historians who are working on that period will bring back more accurate memory of that Republic in the minds of their compatriots.

Stephen Jones is professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Mount Holyoke College college (Massachusetts, United States). He wrote many books, as Socialism in Georgian Colors: The European Road to Social Democracy, 1883–1917 (Harvard University Press 2005) or The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and its Successors (Routledge 2014).

The history of the first Georgian Democratic Republic is a forgotten history. Most of the Georgians, as well as Europeans, don’t know anything about it. Why? The first reason is that this history was deliberately hidden, during 70 years.

As a result, when independence was declared in 1991, all that Georgians knew about the First Republic was that it was vaguely socialist. And so there was in the Georgians’ minds a very close association with the Soviet Union – something everyone hated.

Very few Georgian historians were working on the first Republic in the 1990’s. At the very end of the Soviet Union, there was some interest for it, because it represented an independent period in Georgia’s history. There was a small window, when censorship weakened and when people were thinking about restoring independence.

But when Zviad Gamskhurdia became President, we saw a total rejection of the philosophy of socialism, in general. Some historians nevertheless, like Vakhtang Guruli, Shota Vadachkoria, Alexander Bendianishvili, continued to write about this period.

Another reason why the first Republic was not more popular in the 1990’s is that the period was chaotic and nobody had the time to study it. Nevertheless, right after Gamsakhurdia, in 1991-92, the first Republic’s Constitution was temporary restored, as they didn’t have the time to write a new one. President Shevardnadze didn’t ignore it, perhaps, but he was too busy with other things.

Later, President Saakashvili directly criticized the first Republic, as a government that was not patriotic enough. He often referred to them as abandoning Tiflis without fighting, in 1921, which is wrong. Saakashvili was influenced by the global tendency of neo-liberalism that squeezed out other philosophies and alternative ideologies.

And it is just now that people are realizing that this global liberalism has not worked very well, that prosperity has not arrived and that there is in the rest of the world some disillusion about this economic system. And those criticisms are beginning to appear in Georgia, among youth in particular, who are paying attention to social-democracy and this idea is floating around. And it opens a new window, since two or three years, to explore the history of the first Republic.

Ronald G. Suny is a professor of History at the University of Michigan, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Georgian Nation (Indiana University Press, 1988, 1994), The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford University Press, 1993), “They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else:” A History of the Armenian Genocide (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Firstly, for all the years of the Soviet Union and Soviet power in Georgia, the first Republic was simply eliminated. It was not remembered. And it is so strange because it was a social-democratic Republic.

The Mensheviks were in fact members of the same party than the Bolsheviks [for a long time]. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we could expect that the First Republic would be revived. It was democratic, it was the predecessor of the second and third republics… But no.

Why? First of all, because they were socialists. So the Jordania’s Socio-Democratic Republic was seen as negative because everything that was smelling socialist was rejected.

Secondly, the Georgian Mensheviks opted for Georgia’s independence reluctantly and eventually, but they were not nationalistic in the way that Gamskhurdia was. Therefore, they were also too international, too cosmopolitan, for where Georgia was heading at the time.

Afterwards, the First Republic was forgotten. Under Shevardnadze, there were many other problems… and they thought it was not necessary to bring those old things to the table.

And for Saakashvili, he was a nationalist, moving towards the West from another direction, [then First Republic’s Social-Democrats].

So today, the level of knowledge about the First Republic in Georgia is very, very low.

Now, 28 years later, Georgia is more democratic, many things have been settled, and scholars are starting since a couple of years to think about this legacy of this Republic that was founded 100 years ago.

They write articles, do wonderful research in the archives… A new generation is studying it.

A lot of myths were created in the past 100 years. So the new generation of Georgian historians are breaking those myths. They go to the archives and as they are good and real historians, they are breaking those myths one after the other, they are breaking the false history and the common sense, those things that everybody think are true but are not so in reality.

You know, today the world is moving in a very bad direction: Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Orban’s Hungary, Trump’s America… Partly those leaders succeed, because we haven’t managed capitalism well enough for years. We need social-democratic control over free capitalism and the new generation in Georgia can get lessons about it from their First Republic.


Charles Urjewicz is professor Emeritus at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), in Paris.

Since its very first days, the Democratic Republic had to face systematic efforts to destroy its image from the Bolsheviks.

The situation was complex for those ones in Georgia, as the Social-democratic Party was then incarnating since decades modernity and social progress. Consequently, that Party was also crystalizing into a genuine national movement.

At the beginning, the Georgian Bolsheviks depicted the conflict in terms of classes: they were saying that the Mensheviks have betrayed the working class and the peasantry and were the accomplices of imperialism.

But the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian path and the sidelining of the so-called deviationists (who wanted to believe in a Bolshevik, but sovereign Georgia), and then the 1924 uprising, led the Soviet government to change its tune.

The country was torn between despair and the desire to safeguard whatever was still possible to keep, especially the national language and culture, but also the symbols of a national identity promoted during the First Republic.

Sergo Ordzhonikidze and Lavrenti Beria tried to bend Moscow’s internationalist line, due to the strong national sentiment that had cemented the Republic. They built bridges with nationalist intellectuals (Pavle Ingorokva and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia in particular).

Two critical narratives of the First Republic have meshed at that time: first, the communist one, which worked to destroy the image of the Democratic Republic for his so-called “betrayal” of the interests of the popular masses, and second, the nationalist one, which denounced the Mensheviks for “treason”, that led to the loss of sovereignty in 1921.

In Georgia, soon abandoned to the Stalinist arbitrariness, the history, or rather its systematic falsification became a major issue. The de-Stalinization did not change anything. Despite the courage of some historians, such as Ushangi Sidamonidze, whose life was shattered for wanting to give a face to the First Republic, these two critical narratives have settled in the mind of the Georgian society in a lasting way.