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Georgian History - Besiki Sisauri's Web Site
(by Fairy Von Lilienfeld)

A close relationship exists between nationality and Contessionality in eastern and southeastern Europe, as well as in the Caucasus. This close relationship, or identity, is one of the facts that distinguishes these regions most from western Europe and even more so from the United States, where "nation" means "a community of citizens of a stare." Such a nation can include people from many different Christian confessions, or even from religious faiths outside Christianity. Yet, these people consider themselves to be of one nation. Any question regarding their nationality on passport forms, for example, refers to their citizenship within a state. The same forms, however, in the former Soviet Union or in what was formerly Yugoslavia would have asked two questions: one regarding "citizenship" and the other “nationality." Nationality, then, in the east European context, means the feeling of national identity based on language, religion, consciousness of a unique historical fate, and a special cultural behavior. When we talk here of nation and nationality, it is this east European notion we have in mind. Moderm east European nationalism has modified the feeling of national identity described above, in which one nation could live together with other nations in a nonnational state or empire, |1 | into the desire to have one's own sovereign state with a nationally identical population on its own national soil. |2 | However, France, Great Britain, and Germany, unified during the nineteenth century, had a different-Western-notion of the character of their nationality.

The Georgian people nowadays define their identity more or less explicitly by four factors: by their language, by their history, and by two features arising from this history-the imprint of belonging for sixteen hundred years to the Georgian Orthodox church, and the reality of occupying for that long their own historic, and even prehistoric, soil. |3 | Thus, they also contribute to modern nationalistic development. Insofar as this feeling is more or less typical of the nations in eastern Europe and the Caucasus (varying only by the specific religion in each case), it is not easy to explain what makes the present-day Georgian feeling of identity unique.

It is even more difficult when we- as Western-educated historians observing this from outside - note that the Georgian struggle for national sovereignty and identity has so much in common with that of the other nations seeking national sovereignty in the former Soviet Union or in the Balkans. |4 | This is not only because these people are in the same situation, but also because in these territories there is communication between these nations. In the Georgian case, this communication took place particularly with the Ukrainians, with whom they shared a long-standing relationship of exile and national persecution by the "Muscovites," and also with the people of the Baltic states, with whom they sensed a common fate: that they were part of the Soviet Union not by their own will but by conquest. The Georgians, however, were conquered by the Red Army in 1921 and have suffered from the Soviet Russification violently forced upon them for much longer than have the Balts. |5 |

Georgians today share with these nations the fact that they feel ever more suppressed by the Russians. Their feeling of national identity is deeply influenced by this fact. As in the case of other nations of the former Soviet Union, there is also the fact that for them, "Soviet" and "Russian" are identical.|6 |

Bolsheviks were a minority in the independent Georgia of 1917-1921; it was the Russian Red Army that forced the Georgians to the bolshevism of the Soviet Union. In addition, their fellow countryman, Joseph Stalin - a totally Russified person, as described by his daughter Svetlana (Alillueva), |7 | and a Great Russian chauvinist, as Lenin eventually came to realize |8 | - did everything possible to devastate the Georgian nation and its church together with his Russian and Georgian "traitor and renegade" friends, Grigorii Ordzhonikidze and Lavrentii Beria. Ordzhonikidze, along with other commanders of the Red Army and leaders of socialist Georgia, murdered a large number of Georgian intellectuals, churchmen, and peasants, and drove many others, especially from the intelligentsia, into exile. Beria then managed to reduce the number of Georgian politicians, writers, artists, and scholars; only 5 percent of them survived the slaughter of the 1930s. Georgians are very aware that proportionately far more Georgians than Russians died in these terrible years.

Perestroika finally made it possible to talk of the purges. Not by chance was the first cinematic treatment of this terrible period a Georgian film - "Pokaianie" (Repentance), by Tengiz Abuladze.

Perestroika also made it possible to speak publicly about other facts of Soviet-Russian domination and imperialism. Georgia, for example, had been able to retain only 30 percent of its GNP; 70 percent belonged to Moscow, that is, to Moscow's all-Soviet ministries - “the center,” "center," as it was called.

It is especially in this sphere that national autonomy and self-determination are now urged.|9 | There has been, the Georgians feel, terrible exploitation of their natural resources and production by the center, with the Georgian Communist party executing commands from Moscow. In addition, there have been unbelievable material privileges of higher-ranking members of the party, the nomenclature. Above all has loomed the devastating exploitation of Georgian resources without any investment in their maintenance to prevent the terrible pollution of Georgian air and soil.

Until recently, no doctor's or candidate's thesis could be defended at a Georgian university or institute; every piece of scholarly research had to be translated into Russian and submitted to Moscow, the theme of the research having been accepted by the center in advance. This has now changed; an academic degree can be given by Tbilisi State University or Georgian Academy of Sciences, although until 1991 the thesis still had to go to Moscow in Russian translation. Confirmation by the notorious VAK (the Supreme Academic Committee) is now only a formality, no longer a political and national issue. Georgian research institutes, however, still cannot independently use their own scientific or economic innovations, and are hindered in making use of them in joint ventures with Western scholars or firms. The Russians have not been willing even to consider Georgian innovations for Soviet use-on the grounds, Georgians are convinced, of national prejudice and envy.

Georgian anger about Soviet-Russian imperialism and enforced Russification is especially deep for two reasons.
First, Georgians see this phenomenon as the continuation of Russian tsarist imperialism from the times of Catherine the Great and Alexander I.
Second, Russification profoundly affected the Georgian Orthodox church. The church being such an overriding factor in Georgian national consciousness and identity, Russification tried to destroy not only the language but also the very "soul" of the Georgian nation. Thus, the Communist effort to annihilate the church was, in this light, only a prolongation of tsarist politics.

I must mention this phenomenon, especially, because the very thoroughly researched and documented book of Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation, almost entirely omits this vital factor in present-day Georgian self-consciousness. Furthermore, it is in this field that there lies a big difference between the Georgian condition and that of the other nations of the Russian empire.

The misfortune of the Georgians was that they were Orthodox, in contradistinction to most of the other non-Slavic nations incorporated into this empire. After breaking the treaty of protection for the east Georgian kingdom of King Heraclius II (Treaty of Georgievsk, 1783), young Tsar Alexander I took over Georgia in 1800. The same Alexander I, who dreamed of a temple in which all existing Christian confessions could be united under one roof, did not hesitate to abolish the office of the autocephalous Georgian Catholicos, whose origins lay in ancient times when Russia did not exist, some where in the sixth century or even earlier. The last Catholicos patriarch of Georgia, Antoni II (a son of King Heraclius), was "invited" in 1811 to go to St. Petersburg to appear before the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox church; he was detained in the capital and eventually was sent into exile at Iaroslavl, in northern Russia, where he died. The Georgian church became merely an exarchate of the Russian church, and the first head of the exarchate, a Georgian metropolitan named Varlam Eristavi, was replaced after six years by a Russian. Russians held the exarchal see until the very end of the tsarist empire, and operated according to the tsar's order.

Even more embittering was the order given by the tsar to replace the Old Georgian language used in worship with the Old Church Slavonic of the Russian church, first in the patriarchal cathedral of Sioni, then in the majority of town churches, and later even in the villages. Nicholas I also issued an edict that all Georgian church paintings were to be covered over by whitewashing them; thus, invaluable Byzantine frescoes by outstanding medieval masters were either destroyed or severely damaged. Old Georgian icons were replaced by icons painted in the Russian Italianate style of the nineteenth century. The singular and, in the view of musicologists, matchless Georgian "heterophonic" church chant was forbidden and had to be replaced with Russian church music composed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a Western style for a mixed choir of four or more voices. A parallel process of Russification in the administration of domestic politics is described by Suny.

In an age when most European nations identified themselves mainly by their history and culture, this assault upon the Georgian church and the rich heritage of Old Georgian literature and thought was especially cruel. This was done, furthermore, by a nation that had accepted the Christian faith six hundred years later than the Georgians and, in the eyes of the Georgians, had nothing to compare with Georgian cultural riches.

There was no university nor theological academy in Georgia. The lyceum for young noblemen in Tiflis, and later the gymnasiums, taught in the Russian language, and anybody who wanted an academic degree had to go to a Russian university or theological academy. Contact with western Europe, possibly elsewhere in the Russian empire, had become a strong tradition among Georgia's upper classes, even the high-ranking clergy. European romanticism, and with it national pride and the exaltation of the Middle Ages, spread throughout Georgia, together with the glorification of "Caucasian freedom" by Russian poets.

This Georgian national movement brought forth an ever-growing opposition to Russia and Russification. A modern Georgian literature and journalism emerged as part of a broad movement to restore Georgian self-consciousness and national identity. There was, in particular, a struggle to create Georgian popular education and Georgian cultural life,especially in journals and in the theater, and to preserve the country's rich folklore. This struggle included the effort to restore the autocephaly of the Georgian church and the office of the Catholicos patriarch.
Parallel with this romantic (let us call it so conditionally) and neoromantic movement seeking to restore a traditional Georgian society and using a medieval model for the role of the estates within it (including the Georgian Orthodox church), there also existed among the Georgian intelligentsia liberal and even socialist and Marxist patterns of thought and action. In enlightened and critical circles there developed the same deep ignorance of their church as that which pervaded the Russian intelligentsia, and the same prejudice toward the clergy: that they were all ignorant, uneducated, and rather primitive. Suny has described this leftist, socially critical movement very well, and also the Georgian secular nationalism within it. This nationalism, absolutely alien to the Georgian Orthodox church, held it in contempt for its being Russified and an instrument of Russian imperialism. The left did not perceive the strong national movement within the church. Such a view of Georgian Orthodoxy was later adopted by Georgian Mensheviks and the government of independent Georgia (1918-1921), although it allowed preparations to restore the Georgian patriarchate and the church's resumption of worship in the Georgian language. In the relatively liberal cultural atmosphere of those days there also flourished a search for new religious ideas, including all sorts of theosophy and, especially, Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, along with local ideas of a more esoteric nature. These latter ideas persist today among the Georgian intelligentsia.

The Mensheviks and the other leftist nationalists fell victim to Bolshevik persecution, and so even though contemporary Georgian consciousness of national identity can be linked to a revival of the Christian faith in its Georgian Orthodox form, it must be recognized that the current nation also has its secular martyrs and a nonreligious national identity. This deep rift in the Georgian nation, of which Suny speaks, dates from before World War I and continues today.

Anti-Russian feeling is the dominant note in all forms of Georgian nationalism. There now exists an idea of Georgian identity that says: "The Russians-if not the Soviets-are gloomy religious mystics; we Georgians are bright, rational thinkers with traditions from the Middle Ages. We are of another religiosity than that of the Russians” - or even "Georgians are by nature not religious at all." Still, perhaps the most widespread attitude toward the church today among the more fanatic nationalists is to claim a better knowledge of the true sense of Georgian Orthodoxy than even the leaders of the church. The once popular national leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, is a good example of this sort of formerly dissident intellectual.

On the other hand, there was a religious revival among the Georgian intelligentsia during the Brezhnev era, as had occurred in Russia itself It continues today, and it is now lost upon the Georgians that the church and its Catholicos Ilia II were the first in the Soviet period to allow for national sentiment among its people. For example, soon after Ilia became patriarch (1978), there was introduced a special paraklis (the equivalent of the Russian akafist, or series of doxological prayers) for the Georgian nation, with text and music by contemporary Georgian authors. The patriarch and his entourage have worked constantly to spread the Gospel both by intensive preaching and by providing a linguistically updated, modern Georgian version of the Bible, which was finally printed in the days of Gorbachov; though it had been ready for publication a few years before his rise to power In this respect, the situation is not quite comparable with that of the Russian Orthodox church. In addition, Russified icons have been replaced by contemporary Georgian painters' icons and frescoes, if the medieval ones could not be found or had been removed to state museums.

The most significant step taken by the Georgian church occurred in 1987, when it canonized a new saint, Ilia Chavchavadze "Ilia martali" - an outstanding poet, writer, and politician who was murdered/martyred in 1907. The murder, all Georgia is convinced (though it was never proved), was due to machinations of the Bolsheviks and especially Philipp Makharadze. It is important to note that this canonization was the first to take place in the Soviet Union, one year before the Russian Orthodox church canonized its first saints under Communist rule.

Like Georgian society in general, the Georgian Orthodox church has deep rifts and splits. They are to a large extent explained by the fact that for the first time in seventy years-or even longer-Georgians can try to conceive their own future, and naturally there are as many opinions and parties as there are thinking individuals. There were more than 135 parties in Georgia in the autumn of 1990, trying to register for the elections. Not all of them could meet the criteria for registration, such as a sufficient membership or membership throughout Georgia. In the end, more than 40 were left, and they were forced by the relative strength of the Communist parts to unite into blocs.

There is only one major item that divides Georgian Christians, along with their patriarch, from some of the leading nationalistic movements in Georgia: the question of violence versus nonviolence. Amid the surge of armed and rivalrous nationalistic paramilitary groups that have not hesitated to attack one another, and have even tried to murder the leaders of rival groups, the patriarch published, at the climax of the preelection campaign, an edict that excommunicated anyone who used armed force against his compatriots.

The extent to which minds are divided on this edict was shown in a most impressive way on the night during which Georgians of all political tendencies found their national identity most strongly expressed-the night of April 9, 1989. It was then that the idea of nonviolent protest was predominant. Several hundred thousand Georgians came not only from the city of Tbilisi but also from the countryside to express through peaceful demonstration their wish to be rid of the Communist government. They filled the square in front of the government building and the whole of the adjoining Rustaveli Boulevard. In the side street stood the troops of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs, their tanks ready to attack. The crowd sang Georgian national songs, some of them very old religious hymns. They even danced to show that they meant no violence against the government building.

Then Patriarch Ilia II came to join the people, whom he regards as his flock-an expression of the identity of being Orthodox with being Georgian. He addressed the people, telling them that he foresaw a terrible scene of violence due to the surrounding troops, and proposed that the crowd withdraw to the church for sanctuary. The national leaders-outwardly behaving very reverently-denied this request. Many in the crowd whistled at the patriarch (in Europe you whistle in theaters and concerts, and also in political gatherings, if you disagree). Then the patriarch proposed that they kneel down and recite the Lord's Prayer, which the crowd did. After this there was a joint proposal by the patriarch and the national opposition leaders to stand in silence-and there was deep silence as hundreds of thousands awaited, with candles in hand, the attack by the tanks. When the tanks were heard moving, the crowd resumed singing and dancing and sitting on the ground. At last the crackdown with sharpened spades and poison gas began, leaving twenty-two Georgian citizens dead, mostly women and young people in their teens. Hundreds of others were left sick for weeks and months, in hospitals and at home, from the poison gas.

The conclusion that continues to be drawn from this landmark 1989 event in Georgian society is two-sided; the church, and the patriarch personally, were advocating nonviolence in the struggle to come, while at the same time leaders of the right-wing nationalists were continuing to set up their paramilitary partisan fighting groups. Among the latter were Zviad Gamsakhurdia; his former friend, the dissident Georgi Chanturia; and Djaba losseliani with his especially aggressive "Mhedrioni" (knights). The patriarch, nevertheless, declared solemnly that whoever shed the blood of his Georgian brothers would be excommunicated. I noticed, when I was in Georgia in 1990, that the voice of the church had no great weight in Georgian society as a whole. A few liberals criticized the patriarch for threatening excommunication only for the killing of Georgians, instead of condemning all bloodshed; the majority, however, supported one or another of the militant groups. A year later I found it necessary to rewrite the end of this essay. In the original, my conclusion read as follows: "I left Georgia a week before the elections for the Georgian parliament, and I thanked God that I could leave before the beginning of civil war." The war, however, did not break out in the autumn of 1990, but one year later.

As a regular reader of the weekly newspaper "Literaturuli Sakartvrelo" (Literary Georgia) and several Russian papers that report political events arid relationships in the states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, I find that, on the whole, only national and nationalistic claims seem to be raised by the various parties. Personal, regional, and family aspirations among peoples of similar convictions continue to be voiced, but religion and Orthodox confession appear to play only a minimal part in such claims. Nevertheless, the recent baptism of Eduard Shevardnadze into the Georgian Orthodox church reflects how critically linked are Georgian confessional and national identities.

It is quite obvious that the Catholicos patriarch continues to try to reconcile the nationalists and to suggest common sense and sympathy for democratic decisions. As far as I know, however, even this venerable and peace-minded hierarch is addicted to the idea of recovering former areas of Georgia, although some of these lands have been for centuries in the hands of other nations. He is heard, in any case, only by some parts of Georgian society.

The position of the Catholicos patriarch in interreligious relations and conflicts is not quite clear to me. He has always had very good contacts with Georgian Jews,’ many of whom emigrated to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, the Jews tried to help him with certain historical claims of the Georgian church in the Holy Land. Not clear to me, how-ever, is the position of the patriarch on the question of greater Abkhaz autonomy. Also unclear is his position on the Adzhars, who in 1989-1990 were devastated by a combination of heavy snows and floods. The Catholicos patriarch visited them the next summer and admonished them to return to Christianity, which their ancestors had given up for Islam under Turkish rule. He told them that the catastrophe that had befallen them was obviously the punishment of God for their unfaithfulness to the Savior

Another question is what role the patriarch plays in the conflict between the Georgians and the South Ossetians. I have not found any Georgian-no matter his or her political persuasion-who does not express the conviction that the South Ossetians possess no right either to have autonomy or to leave the Georgian Republic in order to join the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic and, through it, the Russian Federation. Here the idea of historical Georgian soil shows its most ugly imperialistic aspect. Religion, however, does not play a role in the feeling of national identity for the South Ossetians, who are Orthodox like the Georgians and yet desire the status of an autonomous republic like their.

North Ossetian brethren on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains. They wish to belong to the Russian Federation as the North Ossetians do, or even, perhaps, to be joined independently with them. The North Ossetians, however, are 49 percent Islamic, so religion cannot help in the self-identification and definition of either the Georgians or the Ossetians. The main role here is played by language and cultural behavior, not religious convictions or rituals. We can only conclude that the outcome of this process of Georgian national consciousness, and the part that religion, confession, and the Georgian Orthodox church as social body play in it, is uncertain, now more than even.



  1. For example, the Persian, Roman, Ottoman, and Habshurg empires. These were not "national" states in the sense that Spain, France, and Great Britain became during the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. For literature see, e.g., Hans Kohri, The Idea of Nationalism: A Study of Its Origin and Background (New York, 1948); Eugen Lemberg, Geschichte de Nationalismus in Europa (Stuttgart, 1950); Eugen Lemberg, Nationalismus, 2 vols., Rowohits Deutsche Enzyklopadie, vols. 197 and 198 (Hamburg, 1964; 2d ed., 1967/1968); Heinrich Finke, "Weltimperialismus und nationale Regungen im spaten Mittelalter," Rede Gehalten bei der Jahrfeier der Freiburger wissensehaftliche Gesselhchaft, October 28, 1916 (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1916); Karl W. Deutsch and Richard L. Merrit, eds., Nationalism and National Development: An fnterdisctplinary Bibliography (Cambridge and London, 1970); Heinrich August Winkler and Thomas Schnabel, "Bibliographie des Nationalismus ," Arbeirsbucher zur modernen Geschichte, vol.7 (Gottingen, 1979)
  2. The most enlightening study on this process in southeast central Europe, arid also on the expulsions of other national minorities from this "national" soil, is Gotthold Rhode, "Volker auf dem Wege... Verschiebungen der Bevolkerung in Ostdeutschland und Osteuropa seit 1917," Schnften des Schleswig - Holsteinischen Geschichtslehrer - Verbandes (Kiel), n.s., no.1, (1952); Gotthold Rhode, "Zwangsumsiedlungen in Osteuropa vor der Oktoberrevolution," in Festgabe fiir Hermann Aubin zum 23. Dezember 1950 (Hamburg, 1951). On the theme of gesamteuropaischer Nationalismus, see Rex Rexheuser, Die Deutschen im Osten, von der Ostbewegung im Mittelalter bis zu den Westverschiebungen des 20. Jahrhunderts, Luneburger Vortrage zur Geschichte Ostdeutschlands und der Deutschen in Osteuropa, no.2 (Luneburg, 1986), pp. 6ff Rexheuser's work is especially important for its method of investigation and critical questioning of the facts. Much information is also found in Alfred Bohmann, Mensehen und Crenzen, 4 vols. (Cologne, 1969-1975).
  3. This essay is based on my own experiences, frequent travel to Georgia from 1975 to 1990, and regular reading of Georgian newspapers and other literature.
  4. For this development see G. Simon, Nationalismus und Nationalitatenpolitik in der Sowjetunion (Baden-Baden, 1986), esp. pp. 453-473; also Kleine Volker in der Geschichte Osteuropas: Festschrift fur Gunter Stokl zum 75. Geburtstag, ed. M. Alexander, F. Kampfer, and A. Kappeler (Stuttgart, 1991).
  5. For the history of Georgia and the Georgians, see Ronald Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation (Bloomington: Indian a University Press/Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1988). Older standard surveys of the Georgian history in a Western language are David Marshall Lang, The Georgians (London, 1966) and A Modern History of Soviet Georgia (New York, 1962). See also N. A. Berdzenishvili, V. D. Dondua, M. K. Dumbadze, G. A. Melikhishvili, and S. A. Meskhia, Istoriia Gruzii: S drevneishikh vremen do 60-kh godev XIX veka, vol. I (Tbilisi, 1962). The classic Georgian historian is Ivane Javakhishvili, Kartveli eris istoria [The History of the Georgian People], 4 vols. (Tbilisi, 1928-1948).
  6. This essay was written when the Soviet Union still existed. After the August 1991 coup, "Russia," or the Russian Federated Republic, tried to erase the idea of "Soviet imperialism," but other former republics that wanted to make real their declared autonomy did not see-or want to see - any changes in Russian political behavior in comparison with former times.
  7. Svetlana Alleluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (New York, 1967).
  8. See V.1. Lenin, Polnoe sabranie sochinenii, 5th ed. (Gospolizdat, Moscow), vol. 45, pp. 346, 356-362. Lenin does not literally say "chauvinist" but uses the untranslatable Russian expression derzhimorda (a person who silences his opponents by using the police billy club or even cruder violence). Lenin calls Stalin, also in this context, "not only a real and true 'social nationalist’ but a crude Great Russian derzhimorda."
  9. Since 1991, Georgia has attained autonomy and self-determination, and now has to cope with the devastating consequences of the Soviet centralized and monopolistic economic dictatorship.

    This material is from the book "Seeking God - The Recovery of Religious identity in Orthodox Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia", - edited by Stephen K. Batalden (p.g. 220-232), Electronical material is presented by Besiki Sisauri (MDiv).
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