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Interview | Dr. Claire P. Kaiser: Nuance is Necessary for Understanding Georgia in the Soviet period

Dr. Claire P. Kaiser is an adjunct professor at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She has researched Georgian archives and Georgian-language sources, to uncover the influence of the postwar and post-Stalin in the creation of a “Georgian” Georgia. In her forthcoming book, she speaks about the peculiar role played by the Stalin cult in the construction of modern Georgian nationhood but also to the subsequent changes that de-Stalinization wrought among Georgia’s populace and in the unusual imperial relationship between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood and the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus by Dr. Claire P. Kaiser is forthcoming by Cornell University Press.

Jaba Devdariani, soliciting editor of Civil.ge, spoke with Dr. Kaiser about the insights she could glean from her research specifically when it comes to analyzing the current resurgence of the figure of Stalin in Georgia’s public life.


You have researched Stalin’s impact on Georgian nationhood. In your view, is Moscow’s perception of Georgia today shaped by Stalin’s Georgian identity? Did Georgia inherit a crucial vulnerability to Russia’s imperial revival, stemming from the role that Stalin had in shaping Russian nationhood? 

I’m not sure that Stalin’s Georgian heritage affects how Russians (or, at least, certain Russians) perceive Georgia today. While, of course, it is broadly known that Stalin was born in Georgia, in Russia the revival – and even rehabilitation – of Stalin’s image casts him more in the role that he performed once he ascended to power in Moscow: that of a Russophone internationalist, the face of the Communist movement.

Even if he spoke Russian with a noticeable Georgian accent, even if he continued to enjoy Georgian or Caucasian practices in private, at least publicly, this heritage was generally downplayed (beyond the tropes about “Sunny Georgia, the birthplace of the Great Stalin”) when the all-Union cult of Stalin was constructed.

For Russians under Putin, Stalin is revered and promoted as Russian, not in an ethnic sense, but in a Great Power sense: as a state-builder, a defender of the Motherland against the existential threat of fascism, and a leader who propelled the Soviet state to unforeseen and unprecedented global power. I also think that some Russians’ perception of Georgia and Georgians is changing as we speak, due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, on the one hand, and the massive influx of Russians into Georgia that the war has resulted in, even more so in recent weeks. 

Some argue Russia is using Stalinism as a soft-power weapon against Georgia. Your thoughts?

I don’t think it is that simple, and I have not seen a concerted or clear campaign emanating from Russian sources in that regard, yet the potential certainly exists – especially as polarization becomes even more entrenched in Georgian politics. Rather, some of the societal groups in Georgia that tend to gravitate toward (still) revering Stalin as a national figure frequently overlap with those people who are more attracted to Russian media narratives and in general increasingly question the pro-Western orientation that successive Georgian governments have pursued. 

Georgia did indeed inherit a vulnerability to Russia’s (ongoing, and now resurging) imperial revival: through Georgians’ prominent roles in building and sustaining Soviet power, manifested most clearly – but not exclusively – by Stalin, it blurred the lines (from the Russian point of view) between Moscow and Tbilisi interests and has called into question, in the opinion of certain Russians, Georgia’s right to sovereignty and independence in the longue durée.

Georgians’ prominent roles in building and sustaining Soviet power blurred the lines between Moscow and Tbilisi interests from the Russian point of view, calling into question Georgia’s right to sovereignty and independence.

For Georgia, reducing the Soviet experience to one of a struggle of Russians vs Georgians (or of Georgia “under Russian occupation”) only enables such Russian perspectives to gain traction. A more nuanced and honest reflection within Georgia on its Soviet history (including but not limited to the Stalin era) will be important to overcome such vulnerabilities, even if this is still a long-term process.

Let us go into that nuance. You suggest in your book, that Stalin played an important role in shaping Georgia’s nationhood. Why and how so? Some would argue the Soviet version of “ethnic identity” – “national in style, Soviet in essence”, to borrow the trope – antithetic to what one normally understands by ‘nationhood’.

Nationhood and national identity are not static. Indeed, these concepts are quite fluid and change over time – even, and perhaps especially, with a nation with such deep historical roots as Georgians.

Nationhood is also a very modern concept, and it is in this intellectual context of the mid to late 19th century that the first generations of the Georgian national intelligentsia, the pirveli, meore, mesame dasi, developed and began to promote their ideas of Georgian nationhood, which were further elaborated during the Democratic Republic of Georgia’s brief existence.

Nationhood and national identity are not static. Indeed, these concepts are quite fluid and change over time – perhaps especially, with a nation with such deep historical roots as Georgians.

The Bolsheviks did not discard these earlier generations of Georgian nation-building; they built upon them, albeit with different political ends in mind – to cultivate national development so that this “phase” could, in theory, eventually be overcome or transcended during communism.

I think it’s very clear that in the beginning, in 1921, the Bolsheviks were trying to figure out how to incorporate Georgia into the Bolshevik, and, eventually, Soviet polity and what concessions or exceptions needed to be made because Georgia was so unusual – for a number of reasons.

Georgia was unusual in that it had to be fully conquered by military force to come into the Bolshevik fold. The Red Army had to invade and to actually overthrow the popular, democratically elected government in February 1921.

The Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918 to 1921) government faced almost unimaginable challenges given war on all sides, being thrust into independence unexpectedly and against immense odds, and having no geopolitical “patron” to give it space to be able to grow. They had all the cards stacked against them. Yet, what they were able to accomplish in that short amount of time is truly remarkable. So by 1921, it is a very different picture from what we’re seeing elsewhere, and it had an impact on the evolving Bolshevik state. The Georgian Soviet nation builders were not starting from scratch by any stretch of the imagination. That also had an impact on the architecture of how Georgia would sit within what would become the Soviet Union.

The Bolsheviks appealed to some of the early building blocks of Georgian nationhood, and put a layer of Marxist-Leninist ideology on top: while objectives were very different, the substance looked quite similar.

The Bolsheviks appealed to some of these early building blocks of Georgian nationhood, language in particular, but also veneration of the medieval era, Georgian statehood, and its Golden Age under Tamar, even David Agmashenebeli. They also took into account the work of the DASI in the mid to late 19th century. Even some of the national underpinnings and program of the Mensheviks, things that they were debating, putting forth, was not necessarily discarded. 

The Bolsheviks then used it as a basis to put a layer of Marxist-Leninist ideology on top. The political veneer was different and, of course, the overall objectives were very different. The substance though looks quite similar, and so does the nation-building architecture and its structure, which is ironic, since the goal of the Bolsheviks was to ultimately overcome national distinctions on the “Grand March to communism”. What happened in reality, ended up being quite the contrary.

So what are these building blocks influenced by Stalin’s period?

Number one I think, is the case of legal “standardization” of what and who the “Georgian” is. Between the 1926 and 1937/39 Soviet censuses, debates were underway between Tbilisi- and Moscow-based officials and scholars about how to depict and categorize Kartvelian populations. By 1939 and thereafter, there was only a singular “Georgian” nationality in the census and in Soviet identity documents. The Georgian language is also standardized in the same period; other Kartvelian languages, such as Megrelian, Svan, Laz, etc., are not recognized as separate languages in their own right, at least on the level of Soviet census-takers. And so, you end up having all Kartvelian populations categorized as “Georgians” speaking the Georgian language, and no alternatives.

Standardization of the Georgian language as an identity marker, stabilization of the national territory, and formalization of the cultural canon were the key building blocks of nationhood influenced by Stalin

Secondly, it’s the territory – the lines drawn by the Soviets in those early days, including the internal lines of autonomous republics, and oblasts. That mental map has stuck, more or less, since the late 1940s.  After the failed territorial irredentist campaigns in 1945-1946, after failed attempts of that same period to do some land swaps with Azerbaijan for Saingilo – once it was clear that those weren’t going to work, the leadership in Georgia decided to commit to the map as it was, and doubled down on making that polity more Georgian – on paper and in practice, rather than expanding the actual physical map of Georgia.  Tbilisi’s policies toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be understood in this context, with the late- and post-Stalin eras having particular significance.

Thirdly, there are things in the cultural canon, on which Stalin had – in some cases – a very, very direct role. The cult of Rustaveli for one. Of course, it was not new, and not invented by Stalin. There was a vibrant debate about Rustaveli’s significance among Georgian intellectuals in the 19th century. But in Stalin’s period, as a part of the broader promotion of the cult of Pushkin, Shevchenko, and others, Rustaveli served as the Georgian equivalent. Not only was Stalin familiar with Rustaveli, but he also took special and personal efforts to promote him. Of course, this tendency outlived Stalin, and the cult of Rustaveli is still alive and well. Stalin didn’t invent it, but he institutionalized it.

Something that I also look at in the book is the Soviet Georgian history book, Sakartvelos Istoria, which Nikoloz Berdzenishvili and Simon Janashia put together in the 1940s, and came out in 1943. And Stalin had Charkviani (head of the Georgian Soviet leaders at the time) bring Berdzenishvili and Janashia to him at his Black Sea dacha and actually do a line edit of this textbook, providing his “wise thoughts”. Something which is outstanding considering the time – it was autumn 1945 he probably had a few other pressing matters at the time as World War became Cold War. It shows a remarkable level of interest in creating and cementing the Georgian national narrative for a Georgian audience.

But what about Stalin himself becoming, in a way, part of Georgia’s identity? Was it a matter of national pride for Georgians that Stalin was their compatriot? Did it create the Russian perception of Georgians as a privileged nation? There is also a trauma-linked identification with Stalin, and you speak about 1956 in your book.

In the Stalin era, there was definitely a pride that there were Georgians running the show of this emerging great power. Especially since they were running the show, well, over Russians and other more numerous nationalities. That component of pride ends up being reflected in how the local cult of Stalin was constructed and interpreted.

In the Stalin era, there was definitely a pride that there were Georgians running the show of this emerging great power. That component of pride ends up being reflected in how the local cult of Stalin was constructed and interpreted.

There was also the question of perceived access to compatriots in the center in that period, with Georgian citizens writing petitions or letters appealing to Stalin and Beria as Georgians, very clearly trying to appeal to their national sentiments, so to speak. To appeal for things ranging from a pension or an apartment or more resources for schools to protecting a family member, to get them out of prison or exile, etc.  But really trying to capitalize on those co-ethnic links – to varying degrees of success, I think, but, in highly personalized ways. You also see an emboldened group of Georgian political elites emerging by the 1940s that seem to be pursuing ambitious national agendas that don’t always neatly coincide with what “Moscow” might have envisioned. There are many examples here, but I have in mind the (temporary) shift to Georgian orthography for Abkhaz and Ossetian languages, elite-level concern over Georgian-speaking communities in Azerbaijan/Saingilo, irredentist claims on territories in Northeastern Turkey, attempts to “repatriate” Georgian-speaking communities in Iran, several resettlement schemes within Georgia and deportations from Georgia, to name a few. These were done with Moscow’s blessing given the structure of the Stalinist system, but there is more local initiative, agency – and creativity — here than one might have guessed.

In March 1956, when word reached Georgia that Khrushchev had allegedly denigrated Stalin as a Georgian during the so-called Secret Speech, and ushered in a policy change of “overcoming the cult of personality,” or de-Stalinization, it caused thousands of Georgians to take to the streets across the republic – in Tbilisi, Gori, Sukhumi, and beyond – to defend Stalin’s national honor and call for a policy change vis-a-vis the Khrushchev government.  There was a general understanding that however repressive Stalin and Stalinism had been for Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s – and Georgians certainly did suffer during the Terror, with Beria doing his part and more to ensure it was carried out in the republic- that the patrons of Georgians in Moscow were gone, and there was no clear successor. So, I do think that that was a legitimate concern among many who came out into the streets in 1956. That perception of a shift in privilege or status or access to the “center” was a concern, a concern that compelled people to react in that way in 1956.

The demonstrations and the subsequent violent crackdown by the Soviet army on March 9, with dozens of casualties, led to a few important changes that would have a significant impact on Georgia and Georgians.

The 1956 crackdown by the Soviet army on Georgian protesters, gave Georgia’s soviet leadership more leeway to manage affairs. “Hands-off” approach by Moscow essentially continued till 1980s.

First, and perhaps most importantly, it gave Georgia’s leadership more leeway to manage affairs in the republic, and we see a de facto “hands-off” approach from Moscow after 1956, until a brief moment in the early 1970s, when Shevardnadze was installed to replace Mzhavanadze. But this hands-off approach mostly continued until Shevardnadze was promoted to foreign minister in 1985.

There is a shift between the 1930s and 40s when people would appeal to Georgians in the Kremlin seeking direct access to decision-makers based on ethnic ties, and what I’ve seen from looking at hundreds and hundreds of petitions and letters from Soviet Georgian citizens, and not just ethnic Georgians, in the post-Stalin period. They are appealing instead to the Soviet Constitution and the rights that are enshrined in it for majority nationalities in the republics. They say, for example – on paper, we are entitled to having Georgian as our official language, and in 1978, they say we don’t want to take this out of our Constitution. The sort of personalized sense of privilege in the Stalin era shifts to something that looks a little bit more like civic or citizenship and rights-based claims in the late Soviet period.

Post-1956 there is a kind of a compromise that ends up being hashed out – informally, I would say, between Moscow and Mzhavanadze. This is a compromise that allowed for a much more laissez-faire approach to matters in Georgia, as long as things didn’t get too extreme. For the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, for the most part, Georgian leaders were generally left to their own devices, provided that unrest on the scale of 1956 did not occur.

Georgia and Georgians are allowed to flourish in all sorts of unintended ways, but in ways that they were mostly in control of – which is different from what you could see elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

In my book, I refer to this as a new national-social contract. This allowed a few important trends to develop: Georgia and Georgians are allowed to flourish in all sorts of unintended ways, but in ways that they were mostly in control of – which is different from what you could see elsewhere in the Soviet Union. A bolder official nationalism was tolerated, bolder than what was possible in many other Soviet republics; as well as a flourishing “second economy”. Efforts to rein in the latter were not very successful, whereas the former did have quite a bit of success – and some of these elements continue to be influential (or at least noticeable) today.   

You said that it would be a mistake to reduce the Soviet period of Georgia to simply a struggle between Russians and Georgians, or to the story of Georgia under occupation and that it enables Russia to get traction with its current narratives. Could you expand on that?

I know that’s a loaded statement. I think what we’ve seen increasingly happening in the political discourse in Georgia, and this certainly goes back to the Saakashvili era, but I think it is just as true today is the desire to reduce the 70 years of Soviet Georgian history to one of Russian occupation – and to fold this into a broader story of Russian occupation from 1783 (or 1801) to the present. And, I think, by default, this implies absolving Georgians of any responsibility for what happened in Georgia in those 70 years of Soviet history. It is easy to paint Russians as “the” enemy in Soviet history. But I also think that casting Soviet Georgian history as one reducible to Georgian struggle against Russia is ignoring the unusual and significant role that Georgia and Georgians played in this multiethnic Soviet empire, in ways that proved both productive and detrimental to Georgian nation-building, to Georgia’s populace.

If you look at the occupation museum in the Museum of Georgia, it goes – Bolshevik takeover – 1924 uprising and crackdown – the Great Terror – 1956 – 1989. These are all incredibly violent, tragic moments in the history of Soviet Georgia. No one is disputing that, and these events deserve continued scholarly and public attention.

But I think this narrative also skips over some quite important moments in the history of Soviet Georgia. Whether it is in terms of socio-economic development, urbanization and urban development, architecture, rural life, culture, in terms of Georgian nation-building, etc.

70-year Soviet period was a long one. There was an enormous amount of change that occurred in the world, and we need to be able to put the Georgian story in the context of these broader trends.

Without trying to “redeem” the Soviet Union – I’m not trying to do that – I do think that nuance is necessary for understanding the development of Georgia in the Soviet period, and more broadly across the twentieth century. Because that 70-year period was a long one. There was an enormous amount of change that occurred in the world, in terms of global economies, economic development, world wars and the Cold War, the rise of the nation-state in the international system, etc. We need to be able to put the Georgian story in the context of these broader trends, while also identifying how, why, and at which historical moments the Georgian case is exceptional or unusual.

To just reduce that history to 1937-38 – which tends to be what some groups in Georgia are doing – and to equate the entirety of the Soviet experience with that of high Stalinism, is not historically accurate. It also misses out on the more complex story of what Georgia and Georgians were able to achieve through, rather than in spite of, the Soviet institutional framework.

Moreover, I think that this is an oversimplification that opens the door for some of the negative tendencies that can be exacerbated if not by influence campaigns from Russia, then for instance by pro-Russian or anti-democratic forces in Georgia.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)

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