Opinion | January 27: A celebration that wasn’t
Georgia’s 20th-century amnesia enables Russian information warfare
Giorgi Kandelaki was a member of the Georgian Parliament from 2008 to 2020. He is now managing Countering Russian Disinformation Through Rebranding of Stalin project at the Soviet Past Research Laboratory (Sovlab)
If there could be one date that best encapsulates the huge promise and terrible losses Georgia experienced as a result of Joseph Stalin’s fanatical drive to crush his native land’s democratic experiment, it would have to be January 27.
On this day in 1921, France, the U.K., and Italy, acting as the Supreme Allied Council of victorious nations following WWI, recognized the Democratic Republic of Georgia de jure. The future for Georgia—which had emerged as a functioning democracy with democratic institutions, elections, a stable political system, pluralism, and a broad pro-Western consensus—seemed bright.
But yesterday, a century later, there were no celebrations, events, or speeches by Georgian officials. A monumental political, historical and international legal event, it has been largely erased from the collective memory of Georgian society. So has Joseph Stalin’s role in destroying the Georgian state which was given full-fledged international legitimacy by Europe.
In 1921, Aristide Briand, a colossus of the Fourth French Republic, was pursuing his policy of cordon sanitaire to fence off the Bolshevik plague. Backing Georgia’s western aspirations was one of Briand’s first foreign policy moves. Immediately after the recognition, France moved to conclude a series of security and military agreements with Georgia aimed at bolstering its defenses and ensuring its democracy would endure.
Joseph Stalin was also busy that January 27, 1921. The recognition of Georgia was a pretext for him to push through the invasion plans he had been discussing and debating for months with Lenin and Trotsky. An order to invade was issued, and two Red Armies invaded from five directions on February 11. Briand made good on his promise: the French navy warship Valdac Russeau had pounded the 9th Bolshevik army near Gagra, allowing for a successful counter-offensive even as Tbilisi fell to the invaders.
Europe’s support, the treachery of Stalin, and the role of Bolshevik Russia in dashing Georgia’s European future – these historic repairs are largely ignored by Georgia’s political rulers.
Last July, speaking of the history of the two states’ diplomatic relations, the then-French Ambassador to Georgia Diego Colas remembered that recognition of 1921, while the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili ignored it.
Finland, Poland, and the Baltic States, who also gained de jure recognition from the Allies in 1921, view that act as a sort of international birth certificate of their modern statehood. In Georgia, the officials bypassed the day with silence.
Why is such amnesia dangerous?
There were some, who thought Vladimir Putin’s obsession with history, particularly Soviet history, was mere populism. The streets of Bucha and the ruins of Mariupol have proven them fatally wrong.
For years, Putin has made it clear that “protecting” the Soviet Union’s memory is sacrosanct and now he is “defending” it on the battlefield. His distorted worldview sees the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into the Soviet Union as voluntary acts of historical justice. Crucially, it negates the Western aspirations of these states as something imposed by the “Western imperialists.” They wanted to separate Ukraine and Georgia from “mother Russia”, Soviet historiography argues, but the workers and peasants, with some help from the Red Army, made sure that their dirty plans failed.
Restoring the historical memory must be a crucial element in demolishing this crooked system of coordinates, which serves as a bedrock of Russian propaganda and helps negate the colonial nature of the USSR.
Speaking the truth about the role of Stalin in Georgia’s occupation and the bloodbath that accompanied it —something that is extensively documented—can counter the resurgence of Stalinism in Georgia’s public discourse and public opinion. Alongside the restoration of Stalin’s statues to their prominence – 11 have been built in recent years, the politicians do their part in damage: just a few years prior, PM Garibashvili implied on May 9, a day when the USSR celebrated the end of WW II, that the war was “won by a Georgian.”
In the anti-western, illiberal strain of post-Soviet Georgian nationalism, Stalin remains an outsized symbol. It reinforces the version of Georgian “folksy” nationalism where the western-style, civic Georgian patriotism of the Georgian Democratic Republic has been substituted for an ethnographic, ethnocentric mishmash.
Setting the historical narrative straight is likely to have a more profound impact than fact-checking the delirium of Russian propaganda, or expert products without much potential to impact public opinion. It can also base Georgian patriotism on the image of the modern, and European origins of the Georgian state.
The erasing of the Georgian Democratic Republic from history has been an important enabler for Russian information warfare and it still fuels the flirt of some Georgian politicians with the Soviet past.
Restoring January 27 to its historical place is part of the effort to escape this poisonous paradigm.
The time to deal with the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin on a wholesale basis is now.
The views and opinions expressed on Civil.ge opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Civil.ge editorial staff.
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