Georgia as part of the Russian Empire.
The Russian Empire’s control of the Georgia country changed the geopolitical scenario within the Caucasus region. Now, it had a solid grip on one of the most critical crossroads towards Europe and the surrounding empires.
Naturally, this meant Georgia became Russia’s frontlines in its wars against the Persian and Ottoman empires, the territory was occupied mostly by armed forces, and were subjected to a strict military rule that enhanced the popular discontent.
Similarly, Russia was determined to ensure the political and territorial annexation also had a cultural branch. To suppress Georgian identity, the empire neglected to acknowledge cultural customs and traditions, and sometimes even discouraged them.
After deposing the monarchy, downgrading the Georgian church was the following step for a complete merging of the cultures, as was the Russian goal.
Despite their Orthodox background, religion was not a point in common. To accelerate Georgian integration within the empire, Russia revoked the Georgian Orthodox Church’s autonomy, making it subservient to Russia’s to promote unity within the realm. This measure carried immense consequences in the Georgian population, not only religiously, but also culturally, politically, and financially.
The population, as expected, did not take kindly these radical changes to their lifestyle. Both nobles and peasants manifested their disagreement and desire for independence through revolts, plots, and conspiracies. However, none of them were fruitful and only strengthened Russia’s grip on Georgia.
Following the political and religious transformations, Russian authorities restructured the way the Georgian economy functioned. Russia, and by extension, Georgia, had an economy based on serfdom—a practice that was already outdated according to European trends. Subsequently, to fit in with European trends, Russia abolished serfdom within its territory.
Banning serfdom in Georgia wouldn’t be so easy, though. With complots and conspiracies by Georgian nobility still fresh in recent memory, modernizing Georgia would be a difficult task without earning the ire of the nobles. Subsequently, Russia threaded the issue carefully and executed a strategy through negotiations.
In 1865, the Tsar abolished serfdom in Georgia. According to the stipulation, the nobles would get to keep half of the land. In contrast, the other half would be provided to the newly-independent peasants to continue living. However, the ex-serfs would have to pay compensation to the previous landlords, in an arrangement that kept them financially dependent. As a consequence, none of the parts were satisfied with the action.
Finally, Georgia also suffered demographical changes. To strengthen their hold on the territories, Russia encouraged the mass migration of religious minorities towards Georgia and other far-away regions within the empire. Likewise, some ethnic minorities also settled within the lands, producing slow but steady changes in the societal structure.
The aforementioned political, religious, and financial transformations would create a climate of instability and discontent that would feed numerous political movements and strengthen Georgian’s national pride altogether.
General discontent boiled after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. His successor Alexander III assumed an autocratic style of ruling to suffocate the revolts rising within the empire, and Georgia was naturally affected.
To be specific, Alexander III reduced even more Georgia’s autonomy within the empire, banned the use of the Georgian language, suppressed cultural manifestations and traditions of Georgian folks, and even banned the name “Georgia” itself from newspapers and other printable publications. Naturally, these actions created tensions between pro-Russia and anti-Russia Georgians, a conflict that escalates with the mysterious deaths of many outspoken activists for Georgia’s independence.
The arrival of the 20th century took a turn for the dramatic.
Political tensions within Russia reached a boiling point, with the Social Democratic party in Russia dividing itself between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. While they could not agree on how to face the Tsarism, the latter grew more authoritarian and lacked the means to control the revolts. In 1905, the army shot at protestors in San Petersburg, killing nearly 100 people.
The event, later known as “Bloody Sunday”, was only the start of a Russian-wide event that would be later named the Revolution of 1905.
Georgia, as a part of the empire, was deeply affected by these issues. Politically, most activists overwhelmingly supported the Social Democratic Party, particularly the Menshevik faction. From then on, the Mensheviks would encourage revolts across Georgian territory, many of which were violently suppressed up until 1906.
By contrast, the Bolshevik faction saw little support within Georgia. Subsequently, the overwhelming Menshevik victories would cause most Georgian activists of the opposing faction to leave the region, including Ioseb Jughashvili, later known as Joseph Stalin.
A tense peace followed for the next decade until World War I broke out in 1914. Georgia, as the bordering territory with Turkey, became Russia’s frontline against the decaying empire.
The war turned out to be a breaking point within the Russian empire. The February and October Revolutions of 1917 ended the Russian monarchy and started an era of abrupt transformations and reforms. The Bolsheviks took power, and the majorly Menshevik Georgia saw in this radical change an opportunity for emancipation.
After a failed attempt at establishing a Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic with Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia finally proclaimed its independence in 1918, as the Democratic Republic of Georgia.
The republic only existed from 1918 to 1921. Its short existence was plagued by territorial conflicts, wars, and the looming threat of the Soviet Red Army enclosing the territory little by little.
In February of 1921, the Soviet-Georgian war broke out. Without foreign support and surrounded by all flanks, Georgia eventually lost its independence. On February 25, it was proclaimed the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Despite losing their independence, the Georgian people did not go down without a fight.
From 1921 and until 1924, the population resorted to guerrilla resistance techniques to resist the Russian invasion, the most prominent ones led by national hero Kakutsa Cholokashvili. While large and moved by a deep sense of national pride, none of these uprisings were successful, and the Soviet Union solidified its grip on Georgia.
An important fact is that, despite losing their independence, Georgians were still being ruled by a Georgian. From 1922, Joseph Stalin took control of the Soviet Union, but that did not reflect into a kinder policy towards the lands. According to statistics, during the guerrilla period, over 50,000 Georgians were executed, and the communist mindset of patriotic unity under the Soviet rule eclipsed Georgian nationalism.
Under communist rule, regional and cultural expressions native to Georgia were suppressed and discouraged. Things intrinsically Georgian, such as Orthodox Christian beliefs, the language, and the poetry were discouraged, in an attempt to guarantee cohesiveness within the Soviet Union.
Georgia became an essential part of one of the most powerful countries during the 20th century—under the rule of a Georgian, no less. Subsequently, many people continue to conceive the Georgian SSR era under Stalin as one of splendor.
However, many others focus on different statistics. The Great Purge carried by Stalin’s government ended with the life of many Georgians, including politicians, activists, students, and intellectuals. Prominent figures such as Dimitri Shevardnadze and Titsian Tabidze were executed, and dissident voices forcefully silenced.
Post-Stalin Georgia, however, took a turn for the worse.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, his successor sought to erase his legacy altogether through extensive reforms and transformations, in a process later named De-Stalinization. Georgians, enraged by these measures and Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin speech, rioted on Tbilisi’s streets in 1956, protests that soon turned violent when the Soviets killed hundreds of students.
From then on, the Georgian-Soviet relationship turned sour, with Georgian pride reaching a new high. At the same time, Moscow constantly tried to guarantee unity and cultural integration through a strict, yet deeply corrupt local government.
In 1970, the Soviet government radicalized its attempts at cultural unity through its territory, focusing mostly on the language. By the latter half of the decade, an effort to eliminate Georgian as the official language of the Georgian SSR was met with mass protests that forced authorities to revert the decision. This nationwide display of pride and courage is the reason why April 14 is celebrated as the Day of the Georgian Language.
Georgian pride did not diminish in the following years, and the popular clamor for independence matched the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, by 1991, Georgia was once again an independent nation.
Georgia as an independent country.
Georgia organized a referendum to discuss its independence on March 31, 1991. The result was overwhelming—99.5% of the voting population wanted to break free. Subsequently, independence was proclaimed in April of the same year.
The newly independent country of Georgia faced several shortcomings from the get-go. The recently-elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia took measures that were considered authoritarian by many, creating a political crisis that finished with a coup d’état in December of 1991.
From then on, the country of Georgia struggled with three particular topics and ongoing issues: the tense relations with Russia, and the conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. All three of these areas are deeply related to one another and remain a controversial topic for the affected parties.
The dissolution of the USSR left behind highly tense politics in the South Caucasus area. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the home of ethnic minorities within Georgia—Abkhazians and South Ossetians, respectively.
During the Soviet era, these territories enjoyed an autonomous status that granted them a certain degree of independence within the Georgian SSR. They had close ties with Moscow, in opposition to the increasingly more nationalist Georgian government.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia sought to unify its territory, and that included South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These regions refused to take part in the new country, and ethnic tensions between the three groups escalated until two wars erupted—the South Ossetia war in 1991-1992, and the 1992-1993 Abkhazia war. In both cases, Russia supported the nationalist movements against Georgia.
After South Ossetia’s proclamation of independence, the affected parties agreed on a ceasefire in June of 1992. The next year, Abkhazia followed through. Known as the Sochi Agreements, it encouraged the establishment of peacekeeping troops in the territory.
The conflicts had terrible consequences for Georgia and the South Caucasus area. Casualties were numerous, with abundant reports of war crimes and human rights violations in the conflicted areas.
To make things worse, the Sochi Agreements were more of a tense stalemate than a real solution, and the territories became de facto independent from Georgia, but not de jure. This means that Georgia effectively lost control of some areas of the regions, but legally and internationally, they were still recognized as part of the country.
Tensions with Abkhazia and South Ossetia kept escalating progressively through the uncomfortable stalemate until Abkhazia proclaimed its independence in 1999.
The conflict spiked again in 2004. Mikheil Saakashvili, the recently elected president of Georgia, started a policy pushing towards territorial integrity within Georgia. The measures caused friction with both regions and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
From then on, multiple incidents escalated the conflict between both countries, until the inevitable happened. The Russian-Georgian war broke out in August 2008 between Georgia and the Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories, backed by Russia.
The conflict lasted five days and ended with a ceasefire agreement signed on August 12, alongside numerous casualties in uncertain circumstances. Following the war, Russia and five other countries recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, such actions are universally condemned by the rest of the international community as an attack on Georgia’s sovereignty.
In such circumstances, the Georgian government discourages traveling to the affected areas, and it’s punishable by law to enter them through Russia.