Republic 100

Red Haze: Georgia After Bolshevik Occupation

In early July 1921, Joseph Stalin paid a visit to Tbilisi. Some four months had passed since Georgia fell to Soviet occupation, and the Bolshevik leader expected a warm welcome in his native land. But he found resistance, criticism, and curses from local workers and his former fellow revolutionaries. By this time, the Bolsheviks’ rather lenient approach to society in the newly occupied country had effectively ended, and Stalin’s vocal critics were well aware of the potential consequences of their open opposition. They weren’t wrong: within a week, the majority of the workers who attended the meeting with Stalin were arrested and never saw freedom again. They were convicted by Soviet political courts and executed during the repressions of 1924 or 1937-1938.

Irakli Iremadze, Historian

It is hard to say what fed Stalin’s misreading of the situation. There may have been mixed reactions from different parts of Georgian society in the first weeks of the occupation. While the Soviet takeover was a major traumatic experience for large segments of the country’s population, the shock left some in disarray and others in resignation, creating the illusion that life could go on as usual. This illusion was further reinforced by the Bolsheviks’ initial handling of the situation.

The Georgian Democratic Republic lasted only three years, from 1918 to 1921, and spent its short-lived independence in a precarious political and military environment in the wider region. Yet, the brief period was long enough for its most active citizens to develop a firm belief in the idea of a democratic country. By the time the Bolsheviks arrived, this belief was so deeply ingrained in the Georgian political class that attempts to eradicate it by brutal force were initially considered futile.

On May 26, 1921, the Soviet authorities went so far as to celebrate Independence Day in the country freshly stripped of independence. The people of Tbilisi, however, snubbed the event and chose to stay home, while those in the regions responded with protests, triggering a heavy-handed response from the Bolsheviks. Many demonstrators were wounded, some were killed, and mass arrests were made. The events of May 26 marked the end of the soft phase of the occupation and the beginning of harsher times.

But before that was shock and denial.

From Acceptance to Collaboration

The city spent days in fear of imminent violence,” said Deacon Nikida Talakvadze in his Diaries of a Citizen Priest, describing the first days of the Red Army’s arrival in Tbilisi. “But as these fears did not materialize, life soon returned to normal.”

Fear was what might have fueled the initial acceptance. Official propaganda tried to convince Georgian society and the outside world that Georgia had simply experienced a change of government, a coup if you will, but that the country had retained its independence. But everyone knew that power now belonged to the Red Army, the Soviet security organization (“Cheka”), and the Communist Party of Russia.

“What is there for people to do? They go on with their lives and avoid angering [the Communists],” Silibistro (Silva) Jibladze, a veteran lawmaker and one of the key figures in shaping independent Georgia, wrote to his emigrated colleagues.

Slowly, some who had initially opposed the Bolsheviks began collaborating with the new government. Some sought financial gain. Others hoped for political advancement. But it seems that some of these active public figures were simply trying to survive and, in a certain paradoxical sense, preserve the republic’s cherished achievements.

The leadership of the radical left faction of the Social Federalists was the only group from the republic’s political establishment that immediately, as early as February 1921, recognized the Soviet authorities and began cooperating with them – even if many of their party colleagues emigrated and others chose to quit politics. The group’s leaders, Tedo Ghlonti and Shalva Nutsubidze, even claimed that the Soviet government was “more revolutionary, more democratic, and more socialist” than its predecessor. (Ghlonti eventually fell victim to the Soviet purges of the 1930s. Nutsubidze survived by trading a promising career as a philosopher for one as a literary translator. He still has a neighborhood in Tbilisi named after him.)

The situation was somewhat different for Akhali Skhivi (New Ray), another leftist group that broke away from the Social Democratic Party in January 1921. The Bolsheviks were initially lenient with them, but as the group became more critical of Soviet government policies, they couldn’t escape the crackdown either. By the summer, both Akhali Skhivi and Socialist-Federalist newspapers were closed down for good.

Resistance and Struggle

  • Political groups

The sudden loss of independence left the once energetic and passionate political fighters in a state of numbness and resignation. In the first weeks of the Soviet invasion, some of the active figures of the independent republic, all of them revolutionaries and conspirators with a decades-long record of resistance to tsarist rule, failed to make any effective moves. It wasn’t until May 1921 that they began to think about forming a real resistance movement. These groups included Social Democrats, National Democrats, and a large part of the Social Federalists as well, all of whom were strongly opposed to the Soviet government. They were aware, however, that the relative leniency of the conquerors would not last.

“It all starts with not a physical but a moral terror, which they have already begun and which will eventually and inevitably be followed by arrests,” Jibladze, who remained in the country, wrote to his emigrated friends.

The Social Democrats were the ones who took matters into their own hands. The Republic’s largest and most influential political party, and the one with the most experience working underground during the Tsarist Empire, soon managed to set up a resistance network. But their secret letters revealed a lingering desperation. Many were still struggling to prepare for battle. Resignation was deepened by a Cheka-led crackdown in May-July 1921. Most of the remaining pro-independence political leaders were thrown into Soviet prisons. Among them were the former deputy chairman of the government of the First Republic, the former deputy speaker of the Constituent Assembly [the legislative body of the Georgian Republic], officials, legislators, and heads of regional councils. Soon they were joined in prison by leaders of the labor movement.

By the end of 1921, there were hundreds of political prisoners in Georgian jails. Metekhi prison alone held 221 political prisoners, including influential Social Democratic leaders.

  • Labor Movements

Labor movements were among the first groups that the Bolsheviks clashed with after the occupation. The Soviet government, which professed to rule in the name of the proletariat, quickly set its sights on the Social Democrat-dominated trade unions. During the three years of independence, the unions were made up of ideologically driven, revolutionary workers who had filled the ranks of the People’s Guard, a political wing of the military. They soon found themselves at the forefront of the resistance struggle.

Their first response to the occupation was the tested method of sending petitions, public announcements, and demands to the Revolutionary Committee of Soviet Georgia (Revkom). Then they moved to strikes and protests, which eventually led to a series of arrests and repressions of hundreds of workers. Among them was Mariam Berianidze, one of the leaders of the workers’ movement who actively opposed the occupation. Berianidze died in Metekhi prison, along with many of her comrades.

  • Soldiers

The defeat in the battle against the Red Army caused the Georgian soldiers and members of the National Guard the greatest pain. Many of the army generals followed their commander-in-chief [who?] into emigration. Some of the remaining officers and a handful of generals, including Giorgi Mazniashvili, joined the ranks of the Red Army of Soviet Georgia in late March 1921. Somewhat paradoxically, in hindsight, it was the social-democratic National Guard, which was supposed to be ideologically closer to the Bolsheviks, that became the core of the resistance. This happened while the aristocrat Mazniashvili was disarming the Georgian army and creating the Soviet Red Army in its place.

“We, the workers’ guards, made a decision: to fight the invaders with all our might, by any means, until we liberate the motherland, and we disbanded with great unshakable hope for this,” Valiko Chubinidze, a former member of the People’s Guard, recalled in his memories.

In the spring of 1921, the Soviet government arrested the vast majority of the remaining Guard commanders in Georgia. The leader of the People’s Guard, Valiko Dzhugeli, went into exile, but returned to Georgia in 1924 to prepare an insurrection. He was subsequently arrested by the Cheka and executed in 1924.

  • Women’s organizations

Women’s organizations were the group that responded most rationally and quickly to the shock of the occupation. Their involvement in charitable organizations, including the Social Democrat-led Political Red Cross, made a crucial political difference, as their immediate actions were vital to activists and their families persecuted by the Soviet regime. While the Cheka continued to persecute charitable organizations, women activists showed great capacity for covert activities. The political Red Cross was supported by European and American charities, and the physical and moral solidarity expressed by these organizations proved to be of great importance for public morale at the time.

  • Emigres

The First Republic politicians who chose to emigrate may have survived direct Soviet repression, but not the trauma of having to give up their independence and leave their homeland. Forming a government in exile deprived Soviet rule of its legitimacy and was intended to lay the legal groundwork for a later restoration of independence. While in exile, they continued to try to gain European support and assistance in restoring independence, but to no avail. Their colleagues who remained in the country fell to Soviet repression one by one in the months of the fall. First, War Minister Parmen Chichinadze was executed in prison. Later, Silibistro Jibladze, one of the elder leaders of the Social Democratic Party, died after his release from prison. The emigrant press was filled with a sense of trauma, loss, and nostalgia.

Seeking Comfort in Art?

The Bolshevik crackdown spread to other areas and regions. Beginning in March 1921, Soviet authorities carried out punitive operations in Guria, the Menschevik stronghold in western Georgia. In the same year, the authorities also targeted the church, confiscating nearly all of its property and closing down civic associations such as the prominent Society for the Promotion of Literacy among Georgians.

Yet, one group that initially suffered the least, at least according to Soviet newspapers, were Georgian artists. In order to win them over, the Revkom promised the art world many privileges. In March, Revkom handed over the luxuriously furnished house of businessman and socialite Akaki Khoshtaria, an architectural landmark in Tbilisi, to the Union of Artists of Soviet Georgia. However, this handover had a tragic context. One of the prominent literary figures who requested the building was Kote Makashvili, the chairman of the Georgian Writers’ Union. Just ten days before signing the request, Makashvili had mourned the death of his daughter, Maro. Maro Makashvili was a sister of mercy who was killed on the front line, where she went to help Georgian troops in their defensive battle against the Red Army. (A century later, in 2015, Maro Makashvili became the first Georgian woman to be granted the status of a national hero).

Today, Makashvili seeking favors from his daughter’s murderers sounds incomprehensible. Some have defended him, arguing that the transfer of the Khoshtaria house was agreed upon before the Soviet occupation and that Makashvili and the young poets were merely trying to save the building from being looted by the Bolsheviks. However, there are no documents to support these claims. Nor is there any evidence of open resistance to the Soviet government in artistic circles. Many cultural figures chose to submit to the Soviet system, and most of them perished in Stalin’s Great Purges of 1937-1938.

The End of Hope

These mixed reactions contributed to the impression that social life in Georgia continued as usual after the occupation, but in fact, the Soviet government began suppressing dissent and persecuting and arresting political opponents as early as April 1921.

“How are you all? Or when will you return to your godforsaken homeland?” – Jibladze wrote in June 1921. “People are waiting for you impatiently, and I’m afraid they will lose patience while waiting.” Both patience and hope would eventually run out. Jibladze died in February 1922, the emigrants never returned, and the free and democratic republic would cease to exist for a long time.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)


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