Georgia and Georgians

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Georgia [Sak'art'velo] is among the "Newly Independent States" to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its territory covers 69,700 square kilometers, bordered by the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation on the north, Azerbaijan to the west, Armenia and Turkey to the south and southwest, and the Black Sea to the east. It includes three autonomous regions: Adjaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. The latter two have maintained a quasi-independent status for most of the post-Soviet period, and have been the scenes of violence and civil war. The capital city of Tiflis, located on the Mtkvari (or Kura) River in the heart of Georgia, has a population of 1.2 million, approximately 22 percent of the republic's 5.4 million. Georgia's head of state is a president. A unicameral parliament is Georgia's legislative body.

The Georgians are historically Orthodox Christians, with some conversions to Islam during times of Muslim rule. Their language, with its own alphabet (thirty-three letters in the modern form), is a member of the Kartvelian family, a group distinct from neighboring Indo-European or Semitic languages. Speakers of Mingrelian and Svanetian, two of the other Kartvelian languages, also consider themselves Georgian. Laz, closely related to Mingrelian, is spoken in Turkey. Georgia has an ethnically diverse population: Georgian 70.1 percent, Armenian 8.1 percent, Russian 6.3 percent, Azeri 5.7 percent, Ossetian 3 percent, Abkhaz 1.8 percent, and other groups comprising 5 percent.

Georgian principalities and kingdoms began to appear in the last few centuries of the first millennium b.c.e, and existed alongside a well-traveled east-west route on the peripheries of both Persian and Greco-Roman civilizations. These influences were mediated through their Armenian neighbors who, with the Georgians, also maintained contacts with Semitic cultures.

Ancient Georgian culture was split into two major areas: east and west, divided by the Likhi mountains. The eastern portion, known as Kartli, or Iberia, had its center at Mtskheta, at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers. When not directly controlled by a Persian state, it still maintained ties with the Iranian political and cultural spheres. This connection lasted well into the Christian period, when the local version of Zoroastrianism vied with Christianity.

Western Georgia was known by different names, depending upon the historical source: Colchis, Egrisi, Lazica. It had more direct ties with Greek civilizations, as several Greek colonies had existed along the Black Sea coast from as early as the sixth century b.c.e. Western Georgia was eventually more directly under the control of the Roman Empire, in its successive incarnations.

The conversion of the Kartli to Christianity occurred in the fourth century as the Roman Empire was beginning its own transition to Christianity. As with other aspects of cultural life, Armenian and Semitic sources were important. Mirian and his royal family, after being converted by St. Nino, a Cappadocian woman, made Christianity the official religion. Dates in the 320s and 330s are argued for this event. The conversion of the west Georgians land owes itself more directly to Greek Christianity.

The conversion of the Georgians was accompanied by the invention of an alphabet in the early fifth century. Scripture, liturgy, and theological works were translated into Georgian. This association of the written language with the sacred is a vital aspect of Georgian culture.

The Georgian capital was transferred from Mtskheta to Tiflis in the fifth century, a process begun during the reign of King Vakhtang, called Gorgasali, and completed under his son Dachi. Vakhtang is portrayed in Georgian sources, in an

exaggerated fashion, as one of the important figures in transferring Kartli from an Iranian orientation to a Byzantine one. This was a complex time of struggle in the South Caucasus, not only between Byzantine and Persian Empires, but also among various Armenian, Caucasian Albanian, and Georgian states vying for power.

These currents of conflict were drastically altered in the seventh century when Islam asserted its military and political power. Tiflis was captured by an Arab army in 645, a mere thirteen years after the death of Muhammad, and would remain under Arab control until the time of David II/IV (the numbering of the Bagratid rulers differs according to one's perspective) in the eleventh century.

While Christianity was tolerated in Eastern Georgia, the political center shifted westward, where the Kingdom of Abkhazia grew to preeminence in the eighth century. This realm was one of mixed ethnic composition, including the Kartvelians of West Georgia (i.e. the ancestors of today's Mingrelians and Svanetians) and, toward the northwest, the ancestors of the Abkhazian people.

Meanwhile, a branch of the Bagratid family, which had ruled parts of Armenia, and who were clients of the Byzantine Empire, became prominent in the Tao-Klarjeti region of southwest Georgia. Because of Bagrat III (d. 1014), they became inheritors of the Kingdom of Abkhazia. From their capital Kutaisi they contemplated the re-conquest of Tiflis and the unification of Georgian lands. This was accomplished in 1122 by David II/IV, called the Builder, who reigned from 1089 to 1125. For nearly two centuries, through the reign of Tamar (11841212), the Georgians enjoyed a golden age,

when they controlled a multiethnic territory from the Black to the Caspian Seas and from the Caucasus Mountains in the north, toward the Armenian plateau in the south. It was also a time of great learning, with theological academies at Gelati, near Kutaisi, and in the east at Iqalto on the Kakhetian plain. The literary output of this time reached it zenith with Shota Rustaveli's epic tale of heroism and chivalry, Knight in the Panther Skin, written in the last quarter of twelfth century.

In the thirteenth century a succession of invasions by Turks and Mongols brought chaos and destruction upon the Georgians. These culminated in the devastating raids of Timur in the early fifteenth century. From these depredations Georgian society was very slow to recover, and for much of the next four centuries it remained under the sway of the Savafid Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Georgians at this time were active at the Safavid court. The Bagratid dynasty continued to reign locally over a collection of smaller states that warred against one another. West European travelers who ventured through Georgia in these centuries give sad reports about the quality of life.

In the eighteenth century the Russian Empire's steady expansion brought it to the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and along the Caspian Sea to the east of Georgia. Russians and Georgians had been in contact through earlier exchanges of embassies. Persian invasions in that century had been especially harsh, and the Georgians looked to their northern Orthodox neighbor for assistance. This assistance culminated first in the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk, by which Irakle II's realm of Kartli-Kakheti became a protectorate of the Russian Empire. Then, in 1801, soon after his accession to the throne, Alexander I signed a manifesto proclaiming Kartli-Kakheti to be fully incorporated into Russia. Other parts of Georgia followed within the next decade, although not always willingly.

Despite Russification efforts during the nineteenth century, the Georgian language and culture underwent a renaissance that would undergird Georgian national aspirations in the twentieth century. The Society for the Spread of Literacy among the Georgians, founded by Iakob Gogebashvili, was important for fostering language acquisition, especially among children. Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tsereteli, and Vazha Pshavela dominated the literary scene into the twentieth century.

Georgians joined with comrades throughout the Russian Empire in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. When the Russian state began to shed its periphery in 1918, the Georgians briefly entered the Transcaucasian Republic. This political entity lasted from February until May 1918, but then split into its constituent parts. Georgia proclaimed its independence on May 26, 1918. The Democratic Republic of Georgia, beset by internal and external enemies, lasted less than three years, and on February 26, 1921, the Bolsheviks established Soviet power in Tiflis. Independent Georgia had been governed mainly by Mensheviks, an offshoot of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party. They were reluctant nationalists, led by Noe Zhordania, who served as president. These Mensheviks became the demonic foil for any number of aspects of Soviet historiography and remained so for the Abkhazians when they would press for greater autonomy.

The Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia entered the USSR through the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1922 and remained a member of it until its dissolution in 1936. Afterward the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic became one of the USSR's constituent republics. Three autonomous regions were created within Georgia, part of what some describe as a manifestation of the "divide and conquer" regime of ethnic pseudosovereignties. The South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was established across the border from North Ossetia, and the Adjar A.S.S.R. was an enclave of historically Muslim Georgians in the southwest. The third, and most troubled, part of Georgia was Abkhazia. This region in the northwest along the Black Sea coast had been in an ambiguous federative, treaty status with Georgia, but was finally, in 1931, incorporated as an A.S.S.R.

Georgia fared generally no better or worse for having its "favorite son," Iosep Jugashvili (a.k.a. Josef Stalin), as the dictator of the Soviet Union. With other parts of the U.S.S.R., it suffered the depredations of party purges and the destruction of its national intelligentsia in the 1930s.

In the latter decades of the Soviet period, Georgia was held up as a sort of paradise within the Soviet system. Agriculture, with tea and citrus in the subtropical zone in the west, prospered, and the Black Sea coast was a favorite spot for vacationers from the cold north. The hospitality of the Georgians, seemingly uncooled by Soviet power, and always warmed by the quality of Georgia's famous wines, wooed Soviet and foreign guests alike.

The Georgians developed a vigorous dissident movement in the 1970s, with Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Merab Kostava playing leading roles. Tens of thousands came out into the streets of Tiflis in 1978 to protest the exclusion of the Georgian language from the new proposed Constitution of the Georgian S.S.R.

As Gorbachev's glasnost worked its effects, the Georgian independence movement gave rise to competing movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In reaction to a communiqué issued by Abkhazian intellectuals in March 1989, the main streets of Tiflis again overflowed with protesters. On the morning of April 9, 1989, troops moved against the demonstration, killing at least twenty and injuring scores of others. This outburst of violence marked the beginning of the rapid devolution of Soviet power in Georgia.

Georgia voted for its independence on April 9, 1991, and elected its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in May. His rule was harsh, and his presidency barely survived the final collapse of the USSR by a few months into 1992. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had held power in Georgia under Communist rule, and who became Gorbachev's foreign minister, returned to Georgia, eventually to be elected twice to the presidency. His presidency was plagued by warfare and continuing conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which claimed independence. The ethnic conflict compounded the economic dislocations, although the proposed Baku-Tiflis-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the beginning of an east-west energy corridor, has brought the promise of some future prosperity.

See also: caucasus; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; shevardnadze, eduard amvrosievich


Allen, W. E. D. (1971). A History of the Georgian People: From the Beginning down to the Russian Conquest in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Aronson, Howard. (1990). Georgian: A Reading Grammar, 2nd ed. Columbus, OH: Slavica..

Braund, David. (1994). Georgia in Antiquity: A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia, 550 bc ad 562. Oxford: Clarendon.

Lang, David Marshall. (1962). A Modern History of Soviet Georgia. New York: Grove.

Rapp, Stephen H., Jr. (1997). "Imagining History at the Crossroads: Persia, Byzantium, and the Architects of the Written Georgian Past." Ph.D. diss, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor.

Suny, Ronald G. (1994). The Making of the Georgian Nation, 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Toumanoff, Cyril. (1982). History of Christian Caucasia. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Paul Crego

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Georgia and Georgians

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Georgia and Georgians