On February 25 Georgians marked the Day of Soviet Occupation, when invading Red Army units of Soviet Russia entered Tbilisi and, in the weeks to come, brought an abrupt and violent end to the young Georgian Democratic Republic.
The seven decades of Soviet rule have reversed the course of a thriving democracy, which walked in step – and at times, ahead – of the European trends of the day.
The legacy of the First Georgian Republic has been long been forgotten and put aside, trashed as an insignificant three-year episode in Georgia’s long history. Yet, thirty years after regaining independence, present-day Georgia reaches out to its short-lived ancestor for lessons. This is proving difficult. Young historians that look deeper into the life and politics of the Georgian Democratic Republic say, that modern school textbooks often parrot the lines from Soviet propaganda, putting a break on informed debate.
Arguably, history in school textbooks is history that matters the most. Deemed “official” sources for studying the past, these textbooks often remain the sole points of reference for the majority. Textbook narratives find their way far beyond the four walls of the classroom, forging a collective understanding of national history.
The Soviet historiography understood the power of forging the history to accord with the deterministic ideology. The facts were twisted to match the political narrative, which was oscillating with the general line of the party. Soviet textbooks promoted a single, authorized version of history at a time. In Georgia’s case, the memory of Georgian Democratic Republic, a brief but effervescent experiment of independent statehood, has been particularly targeted.
Naturally, the Red Army was glorified as a liberator, rather than an invader. The bloody aftermath that cost numerous lives, and that decimated Georgia’s elites, peasantry and workers went largely without mention. But the Soviet leaders had a particular animus against the Georgian leadership at the time, if nothing else, because they once belonged to the same political family of socialists. Unlike Russia’s Bolsheviks with dictatorial proclivities, the Georgian Social-Democrats chose another, pro-European, democratic path and succeeded in garnering massive support of the Georgian population that could only be quashed by brute military force.
The communist orthodoxies should have long been upended. Georgia’s archives have opened (albeit partially) and a new generation of historians has tried to unearth the legacy of the short-lived Republic.
But regrettably, Georgian school history textbooks still draw on a hodgepodge of Soviet and anti-Republican narrative. Civil Georgia examined two twelfth-grade history textbooks to track down the wandering misconceptions about the annexation of the First Republic by Soviet Russia.
The first textbook gives a terse account, discussing events in very broad brushstrokes. Nevertheless, one could easily discern a plethora of historical fallacies and dubious assertions. “One dominant tendency is to portray Georgia’s government as war-averse, failing to stand up against the overwhelming incursion,” notes Dimitri Silakadze, a historian and an avid myth-buster. The textbook clearly succumbs to this faulty view, lambasting the ruling Social Democratic party members for unwillingness “to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the homeland.” The authors wrongly assume that the Government stayed idle when the Red Army was tightening the noose around Tbilisi and that it did nothing to wage popular resistance. In fact, the Defense Council did announce mobilization of citizens under forty on February 21. Unfortunately, shortages in military equipment and munitions meant that the Government could not put all mobilized citizens under arms.
The authors lionize a handful of Junkers (or cadets), who heroically died defending the capital, in a manner that highlights individual heroism leaving the reader to assume institutional disorganization. While 166 Junkers indeed took part in combat, these junior officers were hardly alone in opposing the invaders. A total of 12 000 soldiers (both from the National Army and the People’s Guard) fought against the Red Army on the outskirts of Tbilisi. The textbook also fails to grasp the scope of defense operations carried out by Georgian armed forces. While singling out the clashes in Kojori-Tabakhmela sector, to the southwest of Tbilisi, the authors remain silent about other battlefronts in almost all directions, belittling Georgia’s efforts to fend off Soviet aggression.
The government did not desert Tbilisi on a whim, as the textbook claims. It did not have much say in that matter, in the first place. The decision to evacuate assailed Tbilisi was made by General Giorgi Kvinitadze, the Commander-in-Chief of the Republic. He had his own reasoning for a brisk withdrawal, though. Short of reserves and facing the renewed attack by the Red Army, General feared that the enemy cavalry might have encircled his troops in a pincer movement, and that entire Government and military top brass might have been captured.
While shaming Republic’s leadership for fleeing to France, the textbook does not mention that the Constituent Assembly, a democratically elected body, greenlighted senior officials’ departure to assure the continuity of the executive in exile. Subsequently, several high-level figures (including Valiko Jugheli, commander of the National Guard), returned to mainland Georgia to spearhead the 1924 uprising – a fruitless, yet valiant venture to liberate the country. By slamming the Government without providing pertinent context, the authors take a page from Soviet playbook, which insisted on the impotence of the First Republic.
Another major shortcoming is evident when the authors pit Mensheviks (Social-Democrats, the ruling party in Georgia) against Bolsheviks (ruling party of Soviet Russia), treating them as two factions of the same party. Indeed, Georgian Social Democrats and Soviet Bolsheviks (Communists) have represented the two factions of the Russian Social Democratic (Labor) Party until they split in 1903. However, over the course of the invasion, Georgian Social Democrats, elected by the Georgian people, fought for the independence and sovereignty of their country. Their cause was national, not partisan.
The second textbook provides more factual account, but its authors could not completely discard clichéd approach espoused by their colleagues. Prior to invasion, Noe Zhordania (head of the Government) struck a deal with Soviet Russia (in 1920), releasing Bolshevik inmates from prison and allowing to establish the Communist Party of Georgia. Contrary to what the textbook claims, this did not result in Georgian Bolsheviks and Soviet diplomatic corps carrying out subversive activities unhindered. Doubling down on its efforts, Georgian security services have successfully neutralized Bolshevik spy network and clandestine cells by the end of 1920.
Irakli Iremadze, also a historian and contributor to Republic 100, underscores that persisting myths in Georgian textbooks are not an innocent misreading of the historical fact for the lack of information. If the Soviets feared and banished the memory of independence, die-hard conservatives and fuming ultra-nationalists of the 90s were similarly hostile to the First Republic, above all, since it was too socialist, too secular and thus unpatriotic, lacking in ‘Georgianness’. Despite all efforts to turn the tide, deeply distorted narratives from both of these sides continue to plague Georgians’ collective memory.
History of the Georgian Democratic Republic is a forgotten history, argued Stephen Jones, who pioneered the scholarship on that period. As young Georgians take more interest in ignored chapter of their past, First Republic deserves a far better, more sober assessment, if it is to serve Georgians for charting our path, aiming to return to the erstwhile European trajectory.
For that, it seems, history textbooks should be rewritten.
“Second” textbook refers to Abdaladze Gvantsa, Akhmeteli Nato, Kupatadze Bondo, Murghulaia Nikoloz. History, 12th Grade. Diogene Publishing. First printed in 2012.
Both textbooks have been prescribed by the Ministry of Education of Georgia.
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