EVENT TRANSCRIPT: [The First Georgian Republic (1918-1921)]
DATE: [6pm-7pm] [01.05.18]
VENUE: [Henry Jackson Society]
SPEAKER: [Eric Lee is a London-based journalist and author]
EVENT CHAIR: [Dr Andrew Foxall]
FULL NAME OF FIRST SPEAKER: Eric Lee
AF: Well good afternoon, or perhaps I should say good late afternoon, early evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Henry Jackson Society, my name is Dr Andrew Foxall and I oversee the work that we do on Russia and the broader post-Soviet space. I am delighted that we have with us today Eric Lee. Eric as many of you may know is a London based journalist and author, his most recent book is ‘The Experiment: Georgia’s Most Recent Revolution 1918-1921’ and it is about that book that Eric will be speaking today. There are copies available so I’m sure that any of you should wish to buy one, Eric would gladly take your money. Eric is by way of background, by way of biography, as well as being an author, he is also the founding editor of Labour Start a news and campaigning website for the international Trade Union movement. He has been active on the democratic left in three countries having been born in the US spent a lot of time in a kibbutz in Israel and more recently now being based in London. As many of you will now know of course, as the Georgian embassies banner attests, this is this year marks the centenary of Georgia’s independence – or brief independence, for three years between 1918 and 1921. Indeed, the anniversary itself is on the 26th of May, 26 days from today which marks the, I think I’m right in saying the adoption of the first constitution. The constitution of the first…
EL: No, the declaration of independence.
AF: The declaration of independence, forgive me. As that brief exchange has demonstrated, Eric knows a hell of a lot more about this topic than I do, so I certainly wouldn’t want to hold him up any longer. So please, without any further ado, Eric. Please.
EL: Thank you Andrew, and it’s a great honour to be here at The Henry Jackson Society, and I’ve sat where you are sitting many times and enjoyed lots of talks, and I hope I don’t disappoint now. As you said, on the 26th, 25 days from now, Georgia will mark 100 years since its declaration of independence in 1918. Unlike in Russia, where President Putin was reluctant to hold any official commemoration of the 1917 revolutions, the Georgian government has announced over 200 events to mark the occasion. And as you can see, they are quite proud of this 100 anniversary. Bus shelters in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, are covered in black and white photographs from the period of the first republic. I had the pleasure last week of participating in several of these commemorative events as we launched my book in the Georgian language which we have a few copies of here. The countries first republic, known as the Georgian Democratic Republic lasted less than 3 years. It was crushed by the red army in February 1921. It was founded in the spring of 1918 as a direct consequence of the Bolshevik seizure of power the previous year and the forced dispersal in January 1918 of the elected constituent assembly in Russia. The Georgian politicians who led the country to independence were neither nationalists nor separatists. Until Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power, it never crossed their minds, the minds of the Georgian politicians to declare independence. Several of the key leaders of the Georgian Social Democratic Party actually spent 1917 in Petrograd, not in Georgia, where they served the provisional Government. All that came to an end when Lenin staged his coup d’état. All before declaring independence in 1918, the Georgians did attempt to work together with their Armenian and Azerbaijani neighbours, and created a transcaucasian federation, but this lasted barely a month. I should say that I’m not going to speak for very long so if questions pop up in your mind start thinking about what you want to talk about, we’ll have more of a conversation.
Now in the 3 short years of Georgian independence, the country was widely seen around the world, including by leaders of the British labour party who visited it in 1920, as a model of an alternative kind of socialism, radically different from what the Bolsheviks were putting into practice in Russia. Ramsay McDonald, who would soon become Britain’s 1st Labour Prime Minister visited Georgia in the autumn of 1920 as part of an international delegation of Europe’s socialist and social democratic parties. You all know who Ramsay McDonald was? Nodding… yes. Ok. I tell Georgians he was the Tony Blair of his time [audience laughs]. McDonald was joined by Tom Shaw and Ethel Snowdon from Britain, and prominent socialist leaders from France and Belgium. All the delegation leaders were well known, but none more so than Carl Cautski. I don’t know again if any of you know who Carl Cautski was. No. thank you for shaking your head. Carl Cautski was something of a superstar at the time for the international left. He became known as the pope of Marxism. He authored the program of the German social democratic party. He edited its weekly theoretical journal – weekly theoretical journal – which was read all over the world, and he served as the literary executor for Karl Marx. Cautski took it upon himself the task of completing Das Kapita, which had a mere 3 volumes, adding another 4 volumes to it known as the theories of surplus value so it’s actually 7 volumes he edited. To socialists like Lenin and Trotsky, Carl Cautski was a mentor turned into a formidable opponent. Cautski condemnation of the Bolshevik regime was a massive blow to the Russian Bolshevik leaders, and they answered every book and article that he wrote. After Cautski visit to Georgia, as part of the international socialist delegation in 1920, he wrote a short book about what he learned. Trotsky, who was then commanding the workers and peasants Red Army, took time off from commanding troops in the field to rebut Cautskis book. Trotsky took time off from the Russian civil war to write a book to answer Cautski – and Trotsky’s book by the way, it remains in print thanks to the various Trotskyist organisations around the world and Cautskis has been out of print for 95 years. That’s how important Cautski and the other socialist visitors to Georgia in 1920, just how important they were not just in the eyes of the Georgians themselves who invited them and hosted them, and of their Bolshevik rivals who also understood their importance. What attracted these European politicians, including the British labour party leaders was above all the democratic character. The Georgian Social Democrats who were Marxists were uncompromising in their commitment to democracy. I know that sounds strange to us today, but at that time to be a Marxist meant to be committed to democracy. They had learned their ideas about socialism from Cautski, among others, back in the 1890s. When the split took place in 1903 of the Russian social democratic party, of which they were members and they supported the Mensheviks rather than the Bolsheviks. Stalin who turned out to be – sadly – the most famous Georgian of the 20th century was almost alone in Georgia in supporting Lenin. People sometimes ask Stalin, there was Stalin right? Stalin was almost sort of the only Bolshevik in the village. British people forget that right? [audience giggle]. Ok now the rest of Stalin’s comrades, the Mensheviks, the majority there, had a distinctly Western orientation, a European orientation. And they saw it as their main job, if they ever came to power to have a liberal democratic state which would evolve over time into a more egalitarian society. Socialism for them was something to be postponed until Georgia was ripe for it. It was an important concept to them, the ripeness of a society for socialism. They believed, the Georgian social democrats, as did all the Mensheviks in Russia that one could simply skip over historical stages, and there were no shortcuts to socialism, and if attempting one the results would be disastrous. While Georgia held free elections for each of their constituents after declaring independence, they had a multi-party system, a free press, an independent judiciary and strong institutions of local government. They were one of the first countries in the world where women could vote. 5 women were elected to the constituent assembly, all of them social democrats. The constitution they were drafting, which they began drafting in 1918, was incomplete in 1921 when the red army invaded, but was finally adopted and published in the black sea port city of Batumi where the Georgian government was preparing to escape to exile. I find this by the way very poignant. It was the last days of the Georgian republic. The red army was knocking at the door, the Georgian independence, had been reduced a part of the city of Batumi. They were about to board their boats and they found a printer in town who would print the constitution so they left this legacy, this monument to what they were doing. It was probably the most progressive constitution in the world, but it would take another 7 decades before Georgian actually got to adopt it and use it in 1991. Now the new governments highest priority, top priority, when they came to power in 1918 was land reform. Georgians had land, peasants had land poverty, nobody owned any land, it was a disastrous system, as everywhere in Russia. But unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, they carried out a humane redistribution of the land that was welcomed both by the poor peasants and the land owning nobles. The question of what to do with the land had been debated among the Russian social democrats including the Georgians for many, many years. It was the central question facing the left in Russia long before the regime fell. Lenin supported the nationalisation of the land, and his policy was eventually carried out by Stalin in the forced [unclear] that began in the 1920s which led as you know to the deaths of millions of innocent people. The Mensheviks, including the Georgians, always opposed the nationalisation of the land on principle. They were concerned that if a countries land was owned by the state, it would give that state much more power, too much power. They considered state ownership of the land to be the basis of an autocratic Tsarist regime and they wanted to put an end to it. Their goal was to create – to use modern terminology – a middle class of the countryside. They would create a bulwark against authoritarianism. The [not clear] reform, which they began as soon as they got into power was by all accounts a great success and met little resistance from the land owning class of Georgia. Let me qualify that – it met no resistance from the existing land owning class. It was nothing – there was no resistance at all apparently. The result was that none of the famines and strife’s between city and countryside that had plagued Russia in the same period happened in Georgia. Instead of the same disastrous Bolshevik policies – I don’t know how much you know about Bolshevik Russia at that time which went from raw communism to the new economic policy which [unclear] then Stalin’s [unclear]. Instead of all that, the Georgians had pursued a steady course of giving land to the peasants. In the cities, the Mensheviks pursued an entirely different approach from the Russian Bolsheviks. They encouraged a strong growth of independent trade unions, and as Andrew pointed out, I have been a trade unionist my whole life, and the cooperative movement. They created tripartite institutions that anticipated the social welfare state that would emerge in Western Europe decades later. They were literally 25 years ahead of their time on most of these things. The Russian Bolsheviks at the same time at Trotsky’s initiative were crushing independent trade unions and pursuing a military labour. It’s an interesting point because Trotsky’s reputation today of being this great dissident who opposed Stalin’s terrible authoritarian rule, but actually in 1920, Trotsky was the advocate of the militarisation of labour and the most brutal authoritarian in the Bolshevik party. The cooperative movement existed in Russia too, but it quickly became like everything else – an arm of the state – unlike Georgia. The contrast between the two societies could not be clearer. But the Georgian republic was not a utopia, nor did it promise to be one, this is the big difference between the two. The Georgians were trying to make a better place, not a perfect place. The Georgian government grappled with ethnic minorities whose hostility to the central government was encouraged by the Russians. This should be ringing some bells [AF laughs]. One of the most legitimate criticisms of the Georgian government, and I have to tread carefully here [unclear], was its handling of minorities. In some cases such as the treatment of the Jews, the Georgian government was light and tolerant, an excellent record. But in supressing armed rebellions by the South Asthenias for example there was considerable evidence of brutality with the Georgian commanders even boasting of their brutality. The main concern of the Georgians remained Russia, again somethings never changed, both the reds and the whites – the communists and the monarchists, both committed to restoring Russian control [unclear]. No one in Russian accepted Georgia being an independent country. Georgian forces repeatedly clashed with the forces under the white general Denekin who was supported by the British government. And during this period because of that, relations between Georgia and Britain became strained. Strained is a British way of saying terrible [laughs]. With British commanders, and I found this in the national archives here, British commanders requesting naval bombardment of Georgian forces that were confronting Denekins men. British forces were on the cusp of bombarding Georgian forces. If you read Trotsky’s account, this could never have happened – he lived in an alternative universe. Britain and Georgia almost went to war. Fortunately, the government of London eventually dispatched by chance the diplomat and Georgiaphile Oliver Wardrop, some of you may know his name, who smoothed things over while British troops occupied the country. Now that they stumbled on the exact right person to do this is remarkable as Waldrop was the only person who could have solved this problem. The Georgian government also had to deal with the presence of a small, tiny, group of Bolshevik armed insurrectionists although to little avail until the Russian armies actually arrived. My book has accounts of several of these fairly comical, ridiculous attempts by tiny groups to seize power in Georgia. They all failed. Bolshevik submersion increased dramatically following the May 1920 peace agreement between Georgia and Russia. This b the way is a template for Soviet foreign policy to this day. Lenin promised to recognise Georgian sovereignty, and in exchange the Georgians gave free reign to the Bolsheviks who promptly set about once again preparing for the violent seizure of power. Many of the challenges faced by the young Georgian state between 1918 and 1921 are the same as those faced by the current Georgian republic which became independent with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s repeated attempts to oppose its will on Georgia, culminating in the August 2008 war between the two countries is a continuation of a long standing Russian policy dating back to Tsarist times. Georgia’s attempts today to become a full-fledged member of, and the EU, echo attempts by Georgian diplomats in 1918-1921 to win recognition from each of the great powers individually and from the league of nations. And they had some success with this. At the time, Georgian diplomats were hoping for a league of nations mandate being given to Italy so that Italian troops could come help preserve Georgian sovereignty in the face of the Russian threat. I think it’s not only in the area of security Georgians today can learn from the first republic, they’ve clearly learned that lesson judging from the commitment to getting into NATO. Georgia is in many ways one of the most successful post-Soviet republics, but it still suffers from high levels of social inequality and poverty. In recent years, a socially aware new left has emerged in the country based among students but closely linked to the countries trade unions. Those unions have faced 2 decades of neo liberal attacks and are struggling to survive. They complain that words like trade union are tainted by the experience of decades of Soviet rule. I should point out that today is May day and I was actually watching live on Facebook as one does the Georgian unions holding the annual May day event and there is a sea, small sea, more like a lake, of blue flags. They are all blue. No red flags. You can’t display a red flag in Georgia. The Georgians themselves know very little of the history of their first republic, and until the publication of my book this year, there was no published history of this and all Georgians I spoke to agreed I had cornered the market with accounts of the Georgia first republic. There are now some hopeful signs that this is beginning to change, especially in the run up to the anniversary and all the important things that are happening. I’ll conclude by saying as Georgia rediscovers its own history, particularly in this anniversary year, its centenary year, this could lead to a re-evaluation of the first republic and hopefully to the values of social democracy. Thank you.
AF: Thank you
AF: Thank you very much indeed Eric. We have about 35 minutes for questions. I’d ask if you do have a question to raise your hand and introduce yourself, and state if you are representing a particular organisation. If you are thinking of questions, if I may take the chairs prerogative and ask the first one if I may and it concerns the last point you raised and the subtitle of the book, the forgotten revolution. I wonder slightly how it was the revolution came to be forgotten in Georgia. Its one thing thinking about the other post-Soviet states the Baltic states for example would not argue their independence was forgotten. In fact, they would argue they were very proud that the UK, US and other allies recognised them as independent states, and when 1991 came round they had this history that they didn’t rehabilitate, there was a degree of consistency. Why is it Georgia forgot about their independence and needed to be reminded of it in 1991?
EL: I’m not sure so much it was the Georgians who forgot, it was more around the world. I mentioned the role of the international left at recognising at the time the importance of this, and that was completely forgotten. In 1920, the British Labour party knew all about Georgia. In 1991, they thought it was the state just above Florida [audience laughter] so that is certainly the forgotten bit. The Georgians have a kind of memory. This flag draped over the table is the flag of the republic. They remembered the flag. They remembered the anthem and the constitution. May 26th is the national holiday. So they remembered that. [unclear] one of your colleagues at the embassy and I asked him, how do you remember this? And he said it’s like a folklore memory. He told me that he was born on May Day. His parents registered his birth some time later. You may have heard this story. When the parents registered the birth, they gave his date of birth as May the 26th which is the anniversary of the day of independence as a gesture of defiance. He did this kind of stuff for decades. I don’t think they forgot. They knew they were independent, remember their independence was lost twenty years before the Baltics lost theirs and the US and other states did not recognise the government in the same way as the Baltics – the Baltics had that captive state thing going on. What they forgot about was the social democratic aspect, and interestingly that when the country was reborn, and I’ve heard it compared to Armenia and Azerbaijan where parties were born that adopted the names from the ruling parties of 1920. And in Georgia, there is no real social democratic remnant. There are small groups but no large parties that say we are carrying on that social democratic aspect. So I think that is what they forgot.
AF: Across the political spectrum, who in Georgia would you say is the closest to being the heir? Is there anybody?
EL: I’m not an expert on politics today. From my experience, and my visits, I’d say it is the trade union movement, the trade union confederation which really is struggling hard to keep alive the idea of a labour movement – not a labour party. So that’s who upholds that tradition.
AF: Ok, thank you. Now, the gentleman here please.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the treatment of ethnic minorities? I’m particularly interested in the Armenians, there is also the [unclear] a large minority there, particularly because the bourgeoisie of Tbilisi business was mostly controlled by Armenians, they were very prominent in business given the economic policies of the government what impact did that have on the government and how did they approach the government?
EL: I can’t speak about the [unclear] I don’t really know, but I can speak about the Armenians a bit. The Armenians played the role the Jewish communities tend to in other countries, they were the middle class. They ran the business, they were wealthy and well educated. So of course there was resentment issues and all that. The problem was Georgia and Armenia had a war in 1918 and in researching my book it became very clear that the war was launched by the Armenians deliberately and intentionally. They may deny it. They believed the whole world was on their side now. The 1st World War had ended. The Turks had massacred the Armenians who were Christians, they had reason to believe the US and UK would rally behind them, the whole world loved Armenia so why not just grab some land from Turkey and Georgia. It didn’t really work as they had no army. The Georgians didn’t really tackle Armenia after that, there was no further fighting. The Armenian government was also a social democratic party. The Armenians in Tbilisi were mistreated during and after the war. There were stories of them being treated as prisoners of war and being paraded round the streets and that kind of stuff. I don’t know how long that mistreatment continued. I don’t think there was a loss of life or anything like that.
Q: Was businesses seized or anything like that?
EL: I don’t know.
AF: Did you come across any anecdotal instances of this?
EL: Only of the parading round the streets. However, the Georgian constitution made it clear that all ethnic minorities were citizens of Georgia with full rights and my sense is this settled down. Once Armenians stopped invading Georgian territory, Armenians in Georgia would be treated better.
AF: Forgive me for interrupting, you hear this notion of Georgia being a rainbow nation, I realise that phrase is politically charged, but the idea of Georgia as an inclusive homogenous nation as you say emerges in 1991
EL: They had no choice. If you look at Georgia in 1900, its hardly a country. The number of languages spoken was staggering and the decision was made was everyone within the province was Georgian.
AF: So onto the Agrarians, the 3rd conflict.
EL: An interesting case.
AF: Very interesting
EL: They were tools of the Turks, and everyone understood this. There is a certain element of truth to this.
AF: In this post Soviet era, so much as we can still use that term, we don’t talk about post-Soviet Estonia yet we do of Georgia. Perhaps that says more about how we in the west view these countries rather than how they view themselves, and the history of Georgia is perhaps characterised by the differing idea of what constitutes a nation. Now, question
Q: My first question is, how did the republic deal with the Germans and the Turks. And secondly, given that what you’ve said about Menshevik inspired mob, you mentioned the democratic left, how are the undemocratic left reacting to what you are saying here?
EL: That’s a good question, that’s fun. The Germans and Turks, and I’m glad you mentioned this as most writers tend to forget that at the time of the Russian revolution, there was actually a world war taking place. It was the context and background – it wasn’t the elephant; it was the herd of elephants in the room! I mentioned the transcaucasian congress lasting one month that’s because of the first world war. Each country had their own view so they weren’t going to succeed in their federation. The declarations of independence were entirely due to negotiations with the Turks at the time. Turkey was the main threat by far and could have easily overrun Georgia so they needed protection. Georgian diplomats were not stupid; masters of diplomacy would be impressed by how they handled these things. While negotiating with Turkey, Georgian diplomats secretly negotiated with the Germans who were the Turkeys senior partners, and this was at a time in 1918 when it looked like the Germans were winning, they had just thrown Russia out of the war. So the Georgians went being the backs of the Turks and struck a deal with the Germans. The Germans would send in an occupying force while respecting Georgian sovereignty, the Georgians would give them all kinds of trade advantages, access to the oil, manganese, all these kinds of things. The Germans would keep the Turks at bay. It was a masterstroke, and it was done in a ship off the coast. And the Turks capitulated, they accepted the Germans diktat and the Turkish invasion of Georgia was stopped by diplomacy, and they were the ones who suggested declare independence. The German occupation was quite interesting; it was quite a benevolent occupation. We don’t think of German occupation of being benevolent – the words never go together in history. Kautsky even wrote this: ‘I’m proud of the behaviour of the Germans’ – now compare that to the Brits, I’ come to your last question, the Germans had been very respectful and disciplined. They occasionally demanded the Georgians stop all this nonsense of strikes but the Georgians didn’t listen to them, they complained about the red flags. When the war ended and the Germans had to pack up and leave, the British came in and they occupied Georgia. And they were the opposite of the Germans. There is a story I tell in the book of a British general walking into the president’s office and announcing ‘We’re here, we’re in charge now’ and so in so and the president said we are a sovereign country and I am the president, you will treat us with respect. The guy came back an hour later and apologised. Hard to believe the British were the hard, rude occupiers and the Germans the nice polite ones, but that was the reality. The Georgians held the Turks at bay first with the Germans then with the British occupied forces. The Turks didn’t re-enter Georgia until the Bolshevik invasion – then the Turks seized what they could. About the undemocratic left: I actually had a debate about this last year. Most of the Stalinist and Trotskyist left won’t talk to me at all. There’s one small Trotskyist group here in Britain that was willing to debate me about this and we had a debate about this last year. It was a lovely debate and at the end my opponent in the debate said ‘That was an example of 100% chemically pure Menchovism’ which I took as a complement. When I mentioned Georgia in passing and he whipped out his copy of Trotsky’s book which is all they know to read. Trotsky’s book is the most dishonest thing Trotsky ever wrote – and that’s saying something.
Audience member interrupting: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ – is that basically it?
EL: I don’t know. It was a ridiculous thing to have written. Trotsky was the commander of a workers and peasant’s army. He was not there when Georgia was invaded, he was somewhere in the Urals and he didn’t know it was invaded. There are telegrams of his saying ‘Who ordered this?’ – he was the commander of that army, Lenin’s saying the same, Stalin is saying ‘I don’t know but as soon as I find out, I’ll let you know’ – Stalin had ordered it personally [inaudible]. Basically, the undemocratic left doesn’t care about this and when they do care, they dust off copies of Trotsky’s book and announce Georgia were pawns of British and German imperialists and were spending their time massacring communists. All these communists were being massacred in the hundreds of thousands. None of this was true. Silly things being said. Basically they don’t talk about it, and when they do, they tell lies. Am I being fair to my opponents? I don’t know.
AF: Well, they aren’t here to answer, so you can get away with it for the moment. There is the lady in the back row, then you sir.
Q: I’m a student and I’m going to be writing about Georgian modernism. I think you mentioned this one in your book [inaudible] key artists of the time, and I’m interested in what impact the political impact would have had on the artists, and these artists would have been representing their culture, and there was a large café culture as well, so do you have any other inputs?
EL: I don’t know a lot about the art and culture history. What I do know which is striking, obviously Georgian culture itself thrived during those 3 years. They opened their first university ever, and it’s still there which is quite impressive. They had a massive inflow of Russians due to the freedoms they had. There was an avant-garde community of Russian artists and writers and thinkers during those few years and quite a few famous Russian writers showed up there. And artists. I don’t know much of a legacy that period left, how much is remembered, but it was definitely a period of artistic freedom in contrast with what was beginning to happen in Russia that was stifling artistic freedom.
Q: I’m interested to know whether, as I’ve always been told the one thing communists were good at was keeping records. Is there good information about both of those periods, is it all well documented, are there good archives and newspapers from that period, did it all get kept or did it get destroyed.
EL: I can give you a partial answer. When the government were fleeing they took with them tonnes of stuff. There are these wonderful pictures in my book from the national archives of Georgia which had been in France for decades and turned over to the Georgians. I presume paper documents as well. The Bolsheviks did everything they could to suppress this.
Q: But they would have kept things the Soviets?
EL: I wouldn’t know much about the archives. I was told some of them were destroyed, but of course they would have kept some things.
Q; And newspapers? Were there any newspapers from that period?
EL: I don’t read Georgian papers. The Georgian government did publish a weekly English language paper here in London which I stumbled across in New York and I photocopied all of them. I don’t think most people knew this existed. It was a weekly bulletin.
Q: What was the journal called?
EL: I think information bulletin. It’s a footnote in my book.
Q: So that would have started way back?
EL: No it started independence. It was apparently an English language publication available in Tbilisi but I couldn’t find any trace of it.
AF: Just on the archive question, the largest archives of the Soviet Union are in the US. [unclear] was a high level Soviet defector who took an awful lot of material with him. In terms of the, you are quite right, the Soviets were fantastic bureaucrats and did keep an awful lot of records some of the best records we have. There was a brief period in the 1990s where as academics, researchers, interested members of the public, we could access these archives in Moscow, but most of the best access to these archives is outside of Russia as most of the correspondence was two way so some of these things we only know about the Soviet period is from the archives in Kiev which have been opened up since 2014 [unclear] and the revolution of dignity [unclear], the Baltic states have fantastic archives as well, many of which are digitised or available digitally so that may well include an awful lot of material that might relate to Georgia as an awful lot of this information went from capital to capital; Moscow to Tallinn, Tbilisi to Moscow, rather than going across.
EL: And for the period before the revolution, you have the Hoover institutions archives, secretly held for decades, revealed in the 1950s – they had cases and cases from the tsars secret police.
AF: There is a wealth of information, unfortunately in a lot of these cases but its geographically difficult to access because it’s in post-Soviet capitals or because of language capabilities, and the script is often handwritten and often unintelligible as well in some instances. Any other questions?
Q: In these transition periods, how were, I mean people needed to get paid, how did that happen when you have got these changes in regime. How did you know railways and all these things function?
EL: When the Bolsheviks marched in, they did so to government ministries, often with weapons and announced ‘We are now in charge, how much money is in the vault?’ and they took over the state bank, almost like bank robbers, and the money would continue to flow. Yes, they would seize things when they needed them, and force people to do things at gunpoint. That’s how they controlled things. It was a quick and efficient way to run things.
AF: You mentioned earlier the transcaucasian republic which existed for an extraordinarily short period of time. My interest in the coaxes was in the North coaxes, I wrote by PhD on the North coaxes looking back at very early maps of the early Soviet period and late Tsarist period, and there are some maps that include the transcaucasian republic, and what’s interesting is those maps show territory north of the mountains, north of coaxes mountain range so [unclear] Russian federation were included in the transcaucasian republic. So my question is to what extent did or was the social democratic experiment in Georgia in any way expansionist. Was there any recognition that in order to survive that it had to spread its base, ideals and values elsewhere, or was it just that it existed for such a short period of time simply trying to consolidate within Georgia. Was there a recognition that perhaps those ideas had to be shared more broadly?
EL: You are raising two points. First about the north. There was a mountaineer’s republic and they were the 4th republic, and I had a bit of fun doing the book. I have a friend of mine who is a cartographer and when we were sitting down doing the maps, one of my first questions was hat is this mountaineers republic? Where do we put it on the map? It was quite difficult to figure out what its boundaries were. And after everything went belly up and the Russians made things very simple by making it all Russian, all 4 of these republics, the exiles, [unclear] agreed that losing the federation was a bad thing, it would have been better had they stuck together, they maybe could have defeated the Russians so there was a recognition even among the mountaineers that they should have been a part of it. However, the simple answer is no, they weren’t aware of it. There is one book about it [unclear] and my publisher was looking for books about Georgia and this was the only book she could find. He refers to Georgian imperialism; however, I find it the weakest part of his book. There was nothing imperialist about Georgia and they certainly never made a bid for the north cos they were too busy defending themselves against the Russians and the Turks to worry about expansionism.
AF: The gentleman here please
Q: Do you think the fall of the Menshevik regime was inevitable by 1921?
EL: It’s a good question. I did a tv interview last week and this was one of the questions. My advice was: get nuclear weapons. By 1921 there was literally nothing they could ever have done. They tried the diplomatic route which was never going to work – the British and the French were exhausted by the 1st world war and didn’t have the forces, the Italian mandate was never going to happen – and Mussolini was going to get into power anyway. The answer is yes; it was inevitable once the Russian civil war had ended if the Russians developed an appetite for Georgia that they would take it. And they did. And it’s a threat Georgia faces even today, not being part of NATO. If Mr Putin ever decided he wanted it, not that he ever does this to neighbouring countries [audience laughter] if he decides to satisfy his appetite and he decides to take a bit more of Georgia, there is very little they can do to actually stop him, and we saw that in the 2008 war where the Russian army just walked in and the Georgians couldn’t do anything to stop them. And it adds an air of tragedy to the 1st Georgian republic of knowing this is not going to end well when the Russians come in, and they will come in. The clue is how they seized Armenia and Azerbaijan first, encircling Georgia saying when we want to come in, we will come in and take you too. Lenin announces he recognised Georgian independence and they understood that this is not real. The Bolsheviks then, like Putin now, didn’t care about those kinds of plays and they were going to go in and take Georgia when they wanted. The Georgian army in spite of all that, there is a mythology that the government ran away. And they were right to run away, but they Georgian army and the people’s militia fought, and it took weeks and weeks and weeks, cadets fought and so on. Now there is a small monument in Tbilisi with the known names of those, including women, who fought and died which is quite you know. They fought very well, unlike other nations, but yes, it was inevitable that they were going to lose.
AF: Perhaps, forgive me, you could say something about the Georgian government in exile. I believe one was assassinated in exile.
EL: Yes, it’s a tragic story. The one on the cover of the book committed suicide, the first prime minister of Georgia was assassinated by Bolshevik agents, Jordania, the great leader, survived. He lived 30 years in exile. He died just before Stalin’s death. If he lived just a little bit longer, he would have seen Stalin die. Too bad. They lived in this tiny community outside Paris, I’ve seen pictures it looks very cute, I’d like to visit one day. It’s a very sad story. When they arrived, they were immediately greeted as this legitimate government of Georgia. All exiled governments have the same experience. They were embraced. Jordania came to Britain within weeks and was guest of honour at the British Labour party conference. That was never going to last – within weeks, the British Labour party were sending delegations to Russia, saying these guys were great. This love of Georgia never lasted, particularly on the left. This is part of the forgotten revolution. The left loved Georgia for only a few years. Then they learned the Soviet thing was not transitory and would be there for a while, maybe forever so they gave up on the Georgians. They became an immigrant community not recognised by anyone with no hope of ever getting back.
Q: If you were a time traveller and could go back, what would you like historians to be talking about Georgia today?
EL: If I were in the future? I’d like to say that my best-selling book… [audience laughter]. I’d like to say that Georgians know about Queen Tabar, they know the ancient history. They don’t know they pioneered modern democracy. One of the things I raised when I presented this book in parliament. In 1920, some of the top leaders in social democracy visited Georgia. What if in 2020 the top leaders of social democracy visited Georgia and retraced their steps. I’d like Bernie Sanders and the leader of the British Labour party visit Georgia, and for Georgia to rediscover social democracy It reminds me of when students rally up to demonstrate. It’s so inspiring to see this.
AF: Any other questions
Q: I’m from Georgia. Thank you for a nice record, it’s a history we can’t forget. As a historian, what lessons can be learned for rebuilding a young democracy and from western society draws some lessons as well in the relationship with Georgia. If you take the period, you say the occupation was inevitable, taking all the events into consideration, what are the lessons for the west and for Georgians as well.
EL: I’ll talk about one lesson. The Georgians learned that without external security, they are defenceless against big, aggressive neighbours, and they learned the lesson very well which is why they have applied for membership of NATO, and have gone above and beyond sending troops to Afghanistan alongside NATO forces, and I think the west is failing them by delaying membership. And they are awfully close to Russia so they’d be forced to defend them if invaded, but that’s no different to the Baltics. I think Georgia should be admitted to NATO with the greatest of speeds. They are more modern and democratic than Turkey which has been a member for decades. Yes, they are vulnerable to Russian invasion but so is Poland, so are the Baltic states, and it’s their only defence to be a member of NATO. The west has to understand the way you stand up to aggressors like Putin is to draw a line and say: if you invade this country, the full force of NATO will be against you. You don’t appease. Appeasement has been tried and it really doesn’t work, and with the Russians we saw that when the west stood by in 2008 and did nothing, the result was the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The west doesn’t respond to that, the result is a Russian invasion of the Baltics and so on. The only way to stop that is admitting these states to NATO and – Donald Trump doesn’t understand this – being bound by the NATO treaty. That is the main lesson. Collective security is the only security Georgia has.
AF: I think that’s actually quite a good point to finish this. The book itself, I’m halfway through it, I’d encourage you to buy it here – rather than on Amazon – and Eric has very kindly said he will sign copies here. The 100 years of the Georgian Republic, the book does draw out as the last question pointed out, the lessons we can learn. So Eric, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.