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Georgia’s new generation of historians: seeking democracy’s past

Out and away from the shadow of dogmatic Soviet historiography, a new generation of historians is arising in Georgia. And with a very specific focus on Georgia’s first democratic experience.

by Régis Genté

An informed and critical look at its history, based on in-depth research of the archival documents and facts is important for any state, but especially crucial for a new one. Yet, this approach is very new in Georgia, practiced by a group of young researchers for less than five years.

So far, Soviet and post-Soviet approach to the past, sharply split between the communist and nationalist ideologies cast a long shadow on Georgia’s historical school. Yet, some of the older generation historians propelled their students forward.

“We have to recognize that some of our professors had the cleverness to accompany us in our research, to encourage us to go back to archives and to thus do a genuine work as a historian”, says Beka Kobakhidze, 33, specialist of the relations of the Georgian Democratic Republic and the West, who defended his PhD degree at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University in 2015 and who is currently a Visiting Fellow at Russian and East European Studies of the University of Oxford.

Interestingly, most of those young historians – about a dozen – who aim to break with dogmatic past have chosen Georgia’s First Democratic Republic (1918-1921) as the topic of their research. These young people are on a mission to re-establish the truth about their country’s history and they believe it should start with the First Democratic Republic of Georgia.

“We can say that we are a kind of a community. About two years ago, while I was studying at the European University Institute in Florence, in Italy, I created a Facebook group uniting the few young historians who were working on the First Republic. Some of the members knew each other well back then, others less so. I called our private chat group PirvelRespublikelebi, the First Republicans, where [there were] seven or eight of us at the beginning […] soon we spoke about issues going beyond history. A real friendship emerged, showing that our common interest was not only about our professional specialty”, explains Grigol Gegelia, 27, who is a historian of political thought, concluding a doctorate on early modern political theory and also working on the political and constitutional ideas of the First Republic.

On 25-30 June, some members of this group organized the International Scientific Forum and summer school “Remembering the Georgian Democratic Republic 100 Years On: A Model for Europe?” which brought together several internationally recognized authorities of this historical period.

“This Forum was a great opportunity to bring together these young colleagues with their Georgian professors and the foreign specialists, as Ronald Suny or Stephen Jones. They could present their research, which prove to be very seriously done and based on a hard work in the archives. Look for example how useful and convincing are the ones of Dimitri Silakadze on the hindering factors for the creation of the armed forces of the first Republic. With his patient work, where he describes how those armed forces were lacking of finances and ammunition, he shows that the Socio-Democrats didn’t desert the battle field and abandon the country to the Bolsheviks – as it is often generally assumed in Georgia – but that they didn’t have the means to fight”, underlines Charles Urjewicz, a professor of history from France and specialist of the South Caucasus.

But what fuels such interest precisely in the First Republic? Researchers say, a critical look at another political model and experience tried at the turn of the 20th century, teaches Georgia many lessons.

“For me, what appeared to be interesting and important…was to understand, how can Georgia build a State in its geopolitical environment? And [to realize] how important it was already [then] to get the protection from the West in order to do so”, stresses Beka Kobakhidze, who concentrates in his research on the attitude of the great powers in the South Caucasus in the 1910-20’s.

There are also important lessons to be learned for internal politics. “Since 1991, most of our so-called political parties in Georgia are not real political parties. This is why the First Republic is often seen [by them] only through the prism of patriotism and of independence, but without asking – for what purpose do we want to be independent? The First Republic shows us that our country has a history of genuine political life, with different, real political parties which were defending socialist, socio-democratic or nationalist ideas”, says Irakli Iremadze, 26, who heads the newly founded (2015) Center-Library for the Study of Democratic Republic of Georgia, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, by the way largely established by the Georgian Democratic Government in 1918.

This new interest for the internal political life of the First Georgian Democratic Republic of Georgia is also rooted in a desire to look for the new political models for addressing the challenges that the country faces now at the beginning of the 21st century. Most of the researchers are active members of the social networks both on- and offline, and actively take part in public debate. While their political stripes differ, they all are staunchly “republican”, espousing the sympathy for sound and vibrant democratic institutions.

Grigol Gegelia presenting on „The Language of Political Liberty in the Democratic Republic of Georgia” at a conference dedicated to Centennial of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Photo: Grigol Gegelia/Facebook

Grigol Gegelia, who considers himself as a centrist social-democrat and is engaging willingly in the public debates that animate Georgia nowadays, underlines that “if this is now that this new generation of historians emerges, it is probably partly because after the failure of Saakashvili, we are looking for the new ideas to rule our country. Saakashvili did a lot of positive things, there is no question about that, but he also discredited many notions connected with justice, liberalism, Europe, democracy, and social solidarity. Now we need to refresh those ideas and our First Republic can serve as a real source of inspiration, especially because it was a politically and economically inclusive democracy”.

Some, as Irakli Iremadze, who is a founding member of the Tbilisi Fabian Society (a Socialist-reformist organization), praises “the very elaborate legislation on social and labor issues which were discussed and adopted during the First Republic. In this regard, it was a truly democratic experience, because those laws were not the result of an ideology imposed by a party but the emerging out of a democratic process”, he says.

Irakli Khvadagiani, 30, a member of Sovlab (Soviet Past Research Laboratory), an NGO that was founded in 2010 to initiate research with the aim of creating documentary and educational routes of Soviet terror and repression in Georgia, doesn’t consider himself as a leftist. “I try to have a purely historian approach, beyond ideologies as much as I can. But I see that the First Republic had a vigorous democratic life, that’s why I studied the self-government practices during its almost three years of existence”, explains Khvadagiani.

The challenges ahead for this small group of historians are large. The research material is abundant, preserved in the archives of the government-in-exile, but also inside Georgia. Very often, say the historians, the government does not fully grasp their task.

“Our various governments never paid attention to history as such. During Saakashvili’s mandates, history was used as a political tool and that’s why the historians were not associated to the “official history” that was then elaborated. Finally, the history that was presented to the public, despite it was usually based on true facts, was not going deep. Today, the new government simply does not understand anything about the importance of knowing our own history”, regrets Khvadagiani.

This group of young historians feels little support on its so important work consisting at dismantling the many myths that Georgia inherited about its first modern experience of independence – some created during the Soviet era, others originating within partisan squabbles of the First Republic itself.  Access to archives is, in this sense, crucial. “We face more and more obstacles for the access to the archives, whether financial or simply administrative, certainly for political reasons. That is sad, as there is no democracy without a true effort to look at its own past”, asserts Irakli Khvadagiani.

One way or another, with archives being increasingly put online, and the historians’ enthusiasm burning strong, one hopes for emergence of the new and interesting pages from the First Democratic Republic: policy papers, laws, diplomatic correspondence and political debates waiting to be discovered, and – hopefully – to instruct the contemporary life of the Georgian democracy.

Régis Genté

Régis Genté

is a French journalist, working for Le Figaro and Radio France Internationale, based in Tbilisi and covering the post-soviet region since 2002.
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