Stalin's Role in Defining Georgia
by Jacqueline McKeon, February 2001
The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is historically reputed for its cultural diversity and nationalist chauvinism; as a republic of the USSR and as an independent state, Georgia's past has often been disrupted by ethnic strife and civil war. Prideful traits and stubborn spirit made Georgia a rebellious subject of the Soviet Union, especially during the fearsome reign of Joseph Stalin. Stalin's notorious "purges," which killed up to 30 million Soviets, wreaked the most damage in Georgia: ironically, Stalin's birthplace.
Stalin was educated at the Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary in Tiflis where Russian prejudice and racism thrived against Georgians. "The Georgians, who number between two and three million, are a proud people and have always resented Russian domination. Patriotism made them revolutionists" (Louis Fischer).
Joseph Stalin was no exception, and was eventually expelled from the Seminary; he summarily immersed himself in Russian revolution movements, later joining the Bolsheviks. Later in life, Stalin worked his way up the ranks of the Russian Communist party until he became an underling of Lenin and rival of Trotsky. A power struggle ensued between Stalin and Trotsky over Lenin's succession, which culminated in a dispute concerning the handling of the Georgian territory.
While the USSR wished to maintain Georgia as a dependent republic, the Soviet government had to take Georgia's extreme nationalism into account before taking action. Following the fall of Imperial Russia, Georgia enjoyed three years of independence; it was Lenin and Trotsky's hope to gradually cede the small nation into the USSR. Lenin approached the acquisition peacefully, while Stalin favored invasion (Jeremy Smith). The original plan to subsume Georgia consisted of uniting the Caucasus nations into a Transcaucasian Soviet Federation. However, due to some pressure from Caucasus Communists, permission was granted in 1921 to invade Georgia.
Communist factions under Stalin felt that force was needed to bring the Georgians to heel, since they had not been receptive to the federation idea and mobilized against the invasion. Lenin condemned Georgian nationalism, but sympathized with her complaints; he regretted the way the invasion had been handled and began a policy of leniency towards Georgia which frustrated Stalin (Smith). "Throughout 1922 he [Stalin] had been publicly addressing more and more invective against nationalism in general, where before he had stressed the dangers of Great Russian chauvinism . . . his current obsession with the formal centralization of the Soviet Republics may have been based on sound principles, but was now overriding his previously supportive attitude to the non-Russian . . . and he was now threatened by the Georgians" (Smith).
Stalin's desire to create a Soviet Empire was much more fanatic that Lenin's, but Georgia would continue to be a thorn in his side; Georgia's involuntariness to join the Soviet Union and reluctance to adhere to socialist policies was a constant check on Stalin's potency as a Soviet leader. Stalin pushed for Georgia to become a soviet state, against Lenin's wishes, until the Georgians agreed to a compromise and joined the Transcaucasian Federation. Lenin had become ill, however, and Stalin used the appropriation of Georgia to swing party favor his way; this eventually led to the succession of Stalin over Trotsky as head of the Communist party. Stalin's abuse and exploitation of Georgia did not end with its violent inclusion in the Soviet Union.
During the 1930s and the implementation of "Stalinism", Georgia suffered under communist repression, forced collectivization, and rapid industrialization (which led to the urbanization of Georgia's agrarian society). Stalin's paranoia and pointed fear of the unpredictable Georgians caused thousands of citizens to die in camps and at the hand of soviet mercenaries. The Stalin revolution was not welcome in traditional Georgia; Georgia's economy was based on peasant farms and the grain market, which was suddenly being regulated by a distant Russian government. Losing incentive to even sell grain due to artificially lowered prices, farmers rebelled and refused to produce their allotment. Peasants hoarded grain and rioted for lack of adequate food and against collectivization, as well as in protestation against Georgia's coerced acclimation to "state serfdom" (Ronald Suny).
Georgia's typical country life was torn apart by Stalinist economic policies that instigated tension between "old world" standards and modernization. Women played a pivotal role in Stalin's Revolution, which served to plant a centrifugal seed in Georgian traditional society. "In the quarter-century between 1928 and 1953 Georgia was transformed more fundamentally than in any comparable period in its three thousand year history" (Suny).
In the 1950s, Georgia was divided by Stalin into two new provinces for political reasons. Russian culture was emphasized, while Georgian nationality and self-determination were aggressively curbed. "The Stalin years eliminated once and for all Georgia's basically peasant economy and in one desperate push accelerated the creation of a primarily urban and industrial society" (Suny). Stalin's focused aggression against Georgia affects the republic to this day. Soviet oppression ignited nationalistic fervor in the Georgian people, causing years of ethnic hate and conflict with Armenians settled in Georgia. Also, "In 1989 South Ossetians began fighting to reunite with the Russian region of North Ossetia from which they had been divided by Stalin. The conflict ebbed when Russian peacekeeping force arrived in 1992 (http://www.webcom.com/hrin/parker/country/georgia.html).
Stalin pursued his home country ruthlessly in an effort to expand and strengthen his socialist empire. He found himself, however, embattled with the Georgians every step of the way. The now sovereign state of Georgia is left divided and hostile as a result of years of struggle, but they also have Stalin to thank for their modernization of industry. Provided the Georgians can maintain a peaceful interior, they should be able to rediscover a solid, cultural national identity which will hopefully be more accepting of diversity than their past, intemperate, "Georgian chauvinism."