The October Revolution in Georgia was late-coming, the Russians bringing Soviet rule arrived in 1921. Stalin, born in Georgia, had something to do with the twists and turns of this process, the revolution marked by manipulation and brute force that presaged what was to happen to the October Revolution in Russia itself. The way this overturning of feudal and capitalist rule occurred also introduced severe political-economic distortions into this small republic south of the Caucasus mountain range, a country smaller than the size of Scotland. Georgia is surrounded, in clockwise panoramic sweep, by Russia to the north, still a prison-house of nations which includes, on the Georgian border, Abkhazia on the Black Sea, North and South Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, then Azerbaijan to the south east, and then, around along the south border, Armenia, Turkey and Ajara, another controversial, barely acknowledged enclave, back on the Black Sea. The Black Sea is west, and the capital Tbilisi is quite far over in the east of the country. The S1 highway from the coast to Tbilisi and beyond has signs to Ankara back west one way and Teheran east to the other, indication, if we needed it, that this place celebrates itself sometimes as the meeting point between Eastern Europe and West Asia, sometimes as the centre of the world.
The end of Soviet times also came late, shadowed again by relations with Russia to the north. Eduard Shevardnadze, First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party had been appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet foreign minister in 1985 to oversee the dismantling of the Cold War, correlate of Glasnost and Perestroika, and had then appointed himself Head of State in Georgia ten years later, in 1995. The kind of fake ‘socialism’ that was established in Georgia lasted way after the collapse of the Soviet Union, until the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003. Five years after that the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 saw bitter defeat, with Russian-occupied Abkhazia, which had already been lost in an earlier bloody border dispute in the 1990s, now joined by South Ossetia, an occupied enclave which can be seen from the S1 highway. Russia moved the border further south a few kilometres recently, closer to Tbilisi, a show of power. That long historical arc of imposed ‘revolution’ and then late ‘counterrevolution’ which brought liberal democratic multiparty rule gives to Georgia a particular cultural-political complexion, and particular contradictions which continue to erupt in protests that have an uncanny continuing mostly covert relationship with Russia under Putin.
Josef Vissarionovich Djugahsvili was born in Gori in the centre of Georgia, in the Russian quarter of the town, in 1878 or 1879, depending on who you believe and when it was convenient for celebrations to mark significant birthdays after he assumed complete power at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy. Djugashvili, later Stalin, studied, with a scholarship, to be a priest in the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church – Orthodox Christianity was then the state religion – at a seminary in Tbilisi, enrolling in 1894, expelled five years later. He then worked for a couple of years as an accountant, record-keeper, bureaucrat at the Tbilisi Meteorological and Geophysical Observatory for a couple of years before going underground. It was then, from 1901 onwards in the Caucasus and Russia, with spells in prison in Siberia, that he honed his skills as organiser, staging bank robberies and mobilising workers on strike in Batumi on the Black Sea coast and in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The Stalin Museum in Gori is one of the few places in Georgia where you will find outright celebration of your man.
Georgians in control of state power in Tbilisi from 1921 through to 2003 were always in close contact with their compatriots in Moscow, whether that was Stalin himself at the beginning or Shevardnadze at the end, and the massive Italianate Museum in Gori was built next to Josef Djugashivili’s birthplace – a little house protected by a mausoleum-style structure round the corner from the Stalin train – in 1957, a year after Krushchev’s speech denouncing his former paymaster. The Museum was officially closed in 1989, year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and effectively the collapse of the Soviet Union, but slowly opened again on Stalin Avenue without fanfare, and so that’s where the tatty memorabilia of Soviet Georgian times is to be found. Elsewhere in Georgia, questions about Stalin get evasive answers or a frosty reception. You won’t find much post-socialist nostalgia in Georgia, and neither has Trotskyism taken root there, for various reasons rooted in the early history of the old regime.
This question of Stalin and the Soviet period in Georgia is resolutely avoided and bypassed in bizarre appeals to a past golden age of Georgian culture when, if we are to believe it, this was Colchis, site of the Golden Fleece, quest of Jason and the Argonauts, with Golden Fleece festivals appearing in the early 21st century to mark this. Georgian wine is relentlessly marketed as being fruit of the oldest wine in the world, evidence dredged up of wines dating back 6,000 years, and this alongside special double-editions of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Food Programme’ celebrating the wine and, we are told there, vegetarian food which is all the more widespread because there are so many Orthodox Church festivals during which meat and fish is prohibited. The Shotis Puri bread is still fresh-baked on the interior wall of kilns in local bakeries, as is the honey-bread around Surami on the S1 highway. The home-made wines cooked up in huge earthenware underground ‘qvevris’; this cottage industry production, together with some of the larger chichi wine estates, now replaces the much-resented and much muttered about standardisation of wine under the Soviets.
There are many different communities, including Christians, of course, and Muslims, especially in the south closer to the borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. There are also local long-standing Kurdish communities, Yazidis. In Batumi on the border with Turkey, now a tourist playground for Arab-state visitors as well as Russians venturing south from Abkhazia just up the coast, there is an Ali and Nino ‘Statue of Love’ to commemorate the fictional characters in the popular novel by Kurban Said, a Romeo and Juliet-style romance between Ali the Azerbaijani Muslim and Princess Nino his Georgian Christian lover. The story of Ali and Nino is supposed to speak of toleration, but actually, first published in Vienna in 1937, speaks more of the poisoning of personal relationships as a function of imperial great-power conflict. Despite the oft-repeated claims that this was one of the few places in Europe to welcome different competing Jewish communities – and there are still two rival synagogues close by each other in Tbilisi – the famous ‘mountain Jew’ communities no longer exist, and the wooden synagogue in Kulashi was empty, as was the nearby Jewish Museum set up by an ex-policeman and, it turned out when the caretaker came to open it up, mainly devoted to links with Israel.
This area around Kutaisi, now the main decaying post-industrial base for the region, had been the site both of the Guria peasant rebellion in 1904, one in which something like a commune had been set up, and site of some of the key protests leading up the Rose Revolution nearly a century later. The caretaker for the Kulashi synagogue who showed us around wore a large wooden crucifix. Stepping back past the legacy of Stalin and Stalinism also enables the question of Stalin’s own antisemitism to be politely overlooked. A ‘New Communist Party’ was founded in 2001 by Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, the grandson of Joseph Stalin, and stood in parliamentary elections, but only in Ajara in the south-west of the country, a provocation linked to Russian attempts to stoke a local secessionist movement in the area around Batumi on the Turkish border, a secessionist movement designed to put further pressure on the Tbilisi regime.
Stalin, unfortunately, is intimately linked with the history of the ‘socialist’ years of the regime, and in a much deeper way than in Russia, where there were at least a few years of freedom, of experimentation with new ways of living that the October Revolution opened up. In Georgia, one route to ‘socialism’, that of the social-democratic Second International was opened up by the bourgeois-democratic ‘February’ revolution in 1917, but then shut down again. There had been Marxist groups in Georgia going back to 1892 with the formation of ‘The Third Group’, and there were peasant rebellions (with the Guria uprising ranking at one time as high as that of the Paris Commune among Russian Marxists as an inspiration) but revolutionary organisation became closely tied to the internal debates and splits in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). That party, the RSDLP, split at its second congress, in London in 1903, into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Then this split, despite or because of Stalin’s activities in the Caucasus, resulted in the formation of a strong Menshevik party, the Georgia Social Democratic Party, and a smaller but more militant communist party, Bolsheviks.
The Russian February 1917 formation of a Provisional Government is marked in Stalinist historiography as a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution because it accords well with a quasi-Marxist ‘stage’ theory of history in which there must first be a bourgeois-democratic stage – which in Russia would be the unfeasibly quick implantation of capitalism – before the socialist stage in October later that year. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, but in Georgia elections for a Constituent Assembly designed to lay the foundations for a bourgeois-democratic republic went ahead, and the local Menshevik ‘Georgia Social Democratic Party’ won by a large majority. The new regime rapidly made diplomatic and trade links with the German occupying forces and then with the British who replaced the Germans at the end of the First World War in 1918. The German and then British forces were keen to work with the Menshevik government as one that would guarantee the protection of large private property, foreign investment and, crucially, support for General Denikin’s Volunteer Army, one of the invasion forces worsening the Civil War inside the new Soviet Union. (Denikin died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1947.) The Bolsheviks in Georgia understandably needed to defeat Denikin and bring the Russian October Revolution south in order to protect it, and launched several coup attempts against the Menshevik regime before the Red Army finally entered the country in 1921. It is this period between 1917 and 1921 that is vaunted by contemporary supporters of the Second International as a bold ‘experiment’ in Georgian democratic socialism.
What is undoubtedly the case, and with grave consequences for the formation of the new Soviet republic in Georgia, was that Stalin was already mobilising his supporters inside Moscow to prevent Lenin and Trotsky from realising what was going on, and inside Georgia to install a regime that would, avant la letter, be Stalinist. The invasion force was led by one of Stalin’s loyal compatriots Sergo Ordzhonikidze, already a bad sign, and despite Lenin’s explicit orders that the Red Army should act with respect to the Georgians and try and win their support, Stalin pressed ahead. The head of the Cheka, Lavrentiy Beria, was moved from Baku to Georgia in 1920, and then appointed by Stalin to oversee counter-insurgency strategy, setting up the local secret police. The Red Army invasion of Georgia led prominent Second International social democrats, such as Karl Kautsky, to leap to the defence of the supposedly ‘democratic socialist’ regime and launch a tirade against Bolshevism in 1921 after his visit to the country, and it led Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, and one-time Menshevik himself, to respond to Kautsky in 1922, thereby implicating him, Trotsky, in Stalin’s manoeuvres in his own homeland.
The legacy of the Soviet era is visible in the bureacratised processes through which you must pass if you are off the usual tourist routes. For example, in the town of Gurjaani in the far-east of the country, there is a health resort with mud baths, the sulphurous wet earth bubbling up from the ground in a public park. The Soviet-style concrete cultural centre in the centre of town is an empty wreck. We have been in mud baths in north Greece near the border with Bulgaria – an informal stroll through the showers and down into the immense thick brown puddles with frogs lounging around the edge – but this was entirely different, entirely medicalised. No one spoke English, and we spoke neither Georgian nor Russian; and so through a complex convoluted sign exchange we mimed that we wanted to visit the mud baths and were directed to the administrative buildings where our passports were demanded of us so we could register for our visit to the ‘clinic’. The options at Resort Akhtala included an apartment for one day at 10 GEL, a good deal, or ‘Electric Mud’ also at 10 GEL or, a little more expensive, a ‘Rectal Swab’ at 12 GEL. We just wanted the plain mud experience. It was there that the typical Soviet system of obstacles and loopholes came into play; we did not have passports with us but, they indicated, we could perhaps remember the numbers, and then, after we had registered, we went to the clinic where our blood pressure was taken – no other medical history was possible in the absence of a shared language – and we were ushered into the waiting corridor. Men and women were taken separately and put in large warm porcelain baths where we lay for 20 minutes before we were taken out to have our showers. We lay in the baths, four baths arranged in the room, and watched the clock.
The metro system in Tbilisi is typical post-Soviet design, with very little advertising, a grim if tidy journey from the centre out to the working-class estates where friendly drunks roam the streets helpfully misdirecting you to your small bed and breakfast which looks, in the booking dot com picture as if it is a palace when it is actually tucked behind a small unpainted wooden gate at the end of a cul de sac. In our case, the gate sign was painted during the day after we arrived; we had appeared, to the extreme surprise of the owner, as his first ever guests; we were distracted by the men with qvevri-wine while the women stripped the room of its inhabitants and bedding and prepared it for us. On our last evening we were invited to dinner and watched the family dance to music videos on the lap-top in which old Georgian melodies were matched, on the screen, with images of partisans fighting in the first war against the Russians in Abkhazia in 1992. Many booking dot com photos of places in the country-side depict gangs of men in wife-beater string vests standing by beat-up cars glaring at the camera. Refurbished cars are a main export product, and many cars have bits missing, matching the state of the roads, including the pot-holed Tbilisi bypass in spitting distance of the South Ossetia border.
The legacy of the Soviet era is also very much present in ongoing hostility to Russians, of which there are still many in the form not only of occupiers of twenty percent of Georgian territory in the north of the country (and threats to lop off another portion, Ajara in the south-west, but also of Russian tourists). If you don’t speak Georgian, then you will be asked if you speak Russian, and when you say you do not, there will often be a palpable sense of relief and, probably as a counter-reaction, extreme friendliness. The spa town of Borjomi, now in a national park, has been a favourite watering-hole (as it were) for Russian visitors since the mid-nineteenth century. There are 150 springs in the area, rediscovered by the Russian army returning home from fighting Turks and developed as a summer residence by the viceroy of the Transcaucasus Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich Romanov, brother of the Tsar between 1862 and 1871, an ambitious colonial project. Smudged photos of Tsars and Tsarinas and various other notables, including Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, adorn the run-down villa adjoining the central spa area which ejects sulphurous water, and through the gates of the Ekaterina Park you can trek a couple of miles to bathe in the waters at an open-air pool, also now still full of Russians. The men laughed, and none of the women tending the kids even smiled. Just north of Batumi on the coast we shared a balcony that stretched the length of our accommodation with three jolly Russian women who laughed a lot, until four in the morning, during which they drank and sang, and replayed recordings of their singing on their mobile phones.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and then the Georgian Rose Revolution, have opened up at least two competing cultural-political tendencies, both of which are riddled with their own contradictions. The first, following from the privatisation of state resources and the capitalisation of cultural assets, is an intensification of neoliberalism. There are offices and scam companies aplenty in Tbilisi adorned with NATO and EU paraphernalia, a promise that the locals can get a piece of the economic action by really being part of the west. One of my new Facebook friends who ran a bed and breakfast in Georgia now sends me messages inviting me to invest in this or that new ‘American’, he says, firm, one which is guaranteed to give a good profit return. Tourists, from Russia, Turkey, Israel (to name those we met and compared notes with) as well as from Western Europe, will pay at some point to drink qvevri wine and eat cheese and walnuts and maybe more depending on how much they are willing to spend at a staged ‘supra’. This sometimes elaborate meal, the supra, which should include speeches by the host and guests, is packaged and sold as an authentic Georgian folk experience, though it is possible, on occasion, to stumble across a small house with an image of a qvevri on a board hanging outside the gate and have some real fun. At one wine-cellar we were given wine, cheese and walnuts in set pomegranate paste, a speciality that you see hanging from stalls at the side of the S1 highway, but we had to hurry because a coach party of Latvians had already booked in for their supra.
Our worst experience was near Sighnaghi, a fortress town near the border with Azerbaijan, where the supra was led by a US-American guy called Paul. He was a retired businessman in a funny black hat (ethnic, but the type of which we saw no one else around wear) who had managed to discover some tendentious connection with his Georgian heritage after the Rose Revolution and had moved out east to make a killing in the concrete-construction business while running supras for the tourists as his hobby. Here was neoliberalism in action; iron-laws of the market protected by the state for new colonial enterprises to buy up local industries and sell them on. Not everyone was out to fleece you, and we were given Shotis Puri bread for free in villages when we peered into the bakery; an old guy in the ethnographic museum in Sighnaghi wanted money, but not Euros because he already had some of those, he was just collected the notes. Here was clear evidence, in reverse, that Trotsky was right when he formulated the law of combined and uneven development that underpins his theory of ‘permanent revolution’. There is no fixed unfolding sequence to the stages of history – as if there must be primitive communism characterised by scarcity and misery, then the rise of class society, with slavery and then feudalism and then capitalism, and only then socialism and a return to full communism characterised by technological success and abundance – but a potentially uninterrupted process by which one form of struggle can ‘grow over’ into the next. It is potentially uninterrupted, but it is often blocked, as it is when the Stalinised Communist Parties that hold the ‘stage’ conception of history to be true ensure that it is, and prevent bourgeois-democratic independence movements fulfilling their task by also turning socialist.
The ‘stage’ conception was ruthlessly implemented as a distortion of Marxist politics by Stalin, but before that, here in this part of the world, the Menshevik Georgia Social Democratic Party tried to put the brakes on historical development. One of the paradoxes of supposedly ‘anti-Stalinist’ Second International praise for the Georgia ‘experiment’ is that advocates of this Menshevik approach themselves also tell us quite clearly that a leap into the task of socialist revolution would have been too fast, too soon. Not for nothing was Georgia one of the sites of debate about the so-called ‘Asiatic mode of development’ as a way-station and exception to Marx’s own discussions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in different parts of the world. Now, as a social-democratic political orientation that keeps itself carefully inside the limits set by bourgeois-democratic neoliberal capitalist society in Georgia, we see historical stages of ‘development’ run as if backwards. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution escaped from that rigid grid, and helps us make sense now of how quickly this supposedly ‘socialist’ society could transform itself into a neoliberal one.
The second cultural-political tendency at work in Georgia now is, in some ways, worse. Here there is a most peculiar alliance between the far-right – a political force intent on wiping out both the legacy of socialism and the liberal reforms that ease the transition to neoliberalism – and the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that every Christian believer in Georgia is allied with the far right, but this is an intensely religious country in which the tolerant and mystical tradition covers some more dangerous fundamentalist movements. This is not to pretend that religion was simply ‘repressed’ when it was a Soviet Republic, and that it then erupted again when the lid was taken off, any more than to it is to say that ancient wine varieties waiting to flourish found a way to do so after the mean times. In both cases we need a clearer, more elaborate, historical-materialist account of the way that countervailing political-economic forces at any particular moment are constructed.
At a supra in Kakheti, a schoolteacher told us, with the aid of a neighbour who spoke some English, that we must visit Mtskheta to the north-west of Tbilisi because, she said, Jesus Christ himself had visited it when he was in Georgia. Our translator, who was a retired academic from the department of sociology in the University of Tbilisi, wasn’t so sure this was true. In the wooded country-side outside the village of Akhasheni just north of Gurjaani, we sought out one of the Orthodox monasteries. People were mystified when we made the sign of a cross and pointed into the distance, indicating that the place we were aiming for was much too far away. Eventually a man we asked took pity on this, turfed his family out of his car, and drove us five miles or more along the bare drought-hit river into the trees, and then into a glade where a little cluster of houses stood around an old church. He dropped us and waved goodbye, and, while we were worrying about how we would get back we ventured into the church. An Orthodox priest with a big beard and big black hat came to meet us, and, grinning the while, gave us a tour, and showed us beautiful gold-edged but unfinished paintings of saints in the small dining room. There were, he said – I said ‘said’, this was in sign language – three of them, three priests living there, the others were out that afternoon. He made us some instant coffee, offered us sweets, and then gave us sweet wine, and finally, thank the lord, made the sign of driving a car, after which he drove us back to the main road. These are the religious fundamentalists who, in the cities, are mobilising their flock to protest against the liberalisation of drug laws – possession and consumption of cannabis was legalised in Georgia in 2018 though it is still illegal to cultivate or sell it – and these are the guys who are behind some of the most vicious Georgian stuff now going on.
Three years before, far-right activists wearing rings of sausages around their necks and wielding skewers stacked with slabs of meat attacked the ‘Kiwi’ vegan café in a quiet side-street of the capital Tbilisi. ‘Georgia for the Georgians’, a rallying cry for a range of religious nationalist groups and hard-core Nazis, had been centre-slogan for demonstrations in Tbilisi over the previous weeks. Fascist meat-eaters would not like this place, true; one large poster on the wall read ‘Seahorses against Gender Roles’. Up the hill nearby there was a sticker on a lamppost that read ‘FCK NZS’. Over the last couple of years vegetarianism has been on the nationalist radar along with gay rights, both seen as ‘Western’ imports, and each functioning as strange signifiers of all that is bad and foreign in a small country that has historically defined itself at as the crossroads of the West and Asia. Most recent protests have been against Russians, joyfully reported by Radio Free Europe, the peculiar paradox here being that while such rhetoric is very easily activated among a population with understandable antipathy to Russia, there is good evidence that Putin has been funding some of the far-right groups involved (as he has been in funding Jobbik in Hungary and Le Pen in France).
So-called ‘tradition’ in Georgia, as in other places is, in reality an ‘invention of tradition’. Authentic buried national forces do not lie buried beneath the surface as mystical anti-Marxist writers ranging from Madame Blavatsky (who visited the Borjomi spa town in her time) to George Gurdjieff (who settled with his followers briefly in Tbilisi in 1919 before relocating to Batumi) would claim. Marxist accounts of the ‘invention of tradition’ are designed to show us how what appears to be so deep within a culture is actually constructed and reconstructed according to present-day needs. Neither is there a naturally-unfolding irreversible process of change running through identifiable stages of political-economic development over the course of history. Instead, as Trotsky argued, there are strange leaps, and now we know that there are also strange reversals of fortune, of progressive movements and of societies that seemed once to have been able to break from capitalism and build something better. Those leaps and reversals are also always structured – they do not happen in a mystical way independent of human collective agency – and our task is to understand how they are structured.
The invention of tradition and our understanding of what ‘revolution’ is in Georgia is riddled with paradoxes, and that uncertain ambiguous character of the country is at stake in the new definitions of politics and identity raging there now in the wake of what was once mistakenly called ‘socialism’, but which was but a caricature of what we hope for in the world.
This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles