Bryan Gigantino is also involved in a podcast project called Reimagining Soviet Georgia, which our readers can find here. For updates on podcast episodes, follow them on Twitter @ReimaginingG.
Between 1989 and 1992, socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came to an end. A “transition” to a better life was promised. But such a life never came. Democracy, capitalism, and freedom were not just hollow phrases, but harbingers of devastation: for the vast majority, not only did life not improve, it worsened.
Millions faced stark declines in life expectancy, living standards, and incomes, while many others lived through ethnic cleansings and hellish wars. Western governments, international financial institutions, and other soothsayers of globalization peddled myths of progress to people watching their entire world collapse. Although ideals of liberalism and westernization were always an elite phenomenon, any idyllic dreams in the population of market-driven prosperity or democratic empowerment were eventually outpaced by a longing for the lost stability of the socialist period. This was not nostalgia but common sense.
This dynamic paralleled a long simmering political shift in the West: since the 2008 financial crisis, the post-Cold War liberal consensus has collapsed. In the US and Europe, politicians and bureaucrats with careers and institutions on the line have fought against the reascendence of the dual “illiberalisms” of right and left: nationalism and communism. Attempts to undermine the return of so-called “totalitarian” politics have been executed in part through legislation regulating historical memory. The 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, for example, as well as other methods of criminalizing Europe’s communist past1The Criminalisation of Communism in the European Political Space after the Cold War by Laure Neumayer (2018), have turned the equivocation of Nazism and Soviet Communism into a binding agent of modern European politics. Vanquishing the historical memory of socialism is one key strategy being used to save a dying liberal order.
But now the tide is turning in the opposite direction. Over the past thirty years, Soviet and other archives from the Communist world have opened. Many historians believed undeniable truths about the evils of socialism were waiting in the archives, that it was just a matter of exposing them to give Marxism one final, historical indictment. But this reckoning never happened. On the contrary, historical writing on state socialism and the Soviet experience is more nuanced today than ever. Every year, more and more studies of the Soviet Union appear with more clarity, depth and archival support. These studies reassessing socialism have also been animated by the existential and political decay of the West.
But during the Cold War (1950–1991) such nuanced studies were harder to come by. The study of the Soviet Union, Sovietology, developed within the context of an ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism. Sovietologists celebrated the virtues of liberal democracy and economic markets, while academically undermining the Soviet system’s legitimacy.2Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts by David Engerman (2009) The use of the “totalitarian model,” a concept popularized by Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, was common. Nazism and Soviet Communism were equated as indistinguishable, meanwhile American realities of racial segregation, poverty, and mass incarceration were ignored. This reductive anti-Communist view was dominant among US Soviet scholars, but cultural and political shifts in the 1960s would help change that. In particular, the rise of the New Left played a role in shifting US political culture. Although this new generation of Marxists were less concerned with the Soviet Union than those who came before them, they were crucial in popularizing Left wing politics within society at large, especially in universities. Even the fortress of anti-communism – Sovietology – was touched by this socio-political renewal. As the shadow of McCarthyism started to shrink ever so slowly, some academics found the space to approach Marxism and socialism in ways that for decades had been taboo.
Revisionism, Ron Suny, and the Nation
In the 1970s a tendency called “revisionism” began pushing back on the then mainstream Sovietology in US and European universities. Lewis Seiglebaum, Moshe Lewin, and other revisionists, even if not Marxists themselves, embraced Marxism as a legitimate subject worthy of serious engagement on its own terms. Socialist states were no different: instead of using their study to further US foreign policy goals, they should be investigated in more honest ways. These approaches pushed revisionists to oppose using the totalitarian model and to support US détente with the USSR. They added social texture and detail to a Soviet story told too often in broad strokes. Leading revisionist of Soviet history Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a book in 1974 entitled Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921-1934 that explored the upward social mobility of workers in the early Stalin years. In the book she argued that for the beneficiaries of the Soviet system under Stalin “this seemed a real-life fulfillment – however distorted, from the standpoint of Marxist theory – of the promise that the Revolution would bring workers to power.”
Another important historian in the revisionist school was Ronald Suny. Unique among Soviet scholars in the late Cold War years, he was deeply, and self-admittedly, influenced by Marxism. Suny explains in his own words how the revisionists
moved quickly from political to social history, and by focusing on popular forces in the revolution, dismantled the view of the October Revolution as a conspiracy or coup d’état and recognized that Stalinism, as brutal and wasteful as it was, had significant popular support.
Suny’s major contribution to the revisionist turn was his writing on nationality. Over the course of decades, he traced the trajectory of the national question in Russian and Soviet history, mostly from the view of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Suny brought the non-Russian periphery to the center of the Soviet story, combating Russo-centrism and the erasure of Soviet multiethnic life.
His 1972 book The Baku Commune: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution 1917-1918 was an exceptional revisionist intervention. Baku, the present-day capital of Azerbaijan, was both a stronghold of Bolshevism and the Russian Empire’s invaluable epicenter of oil production. An influx of capital in the late 19th and early 20th centuries underwrote chaotic oil-led industrialization and the rise of an ethnically stratified class society. Baku’s multiethnic proletariat was dominated by skilled Russians and Armenians, with most less skilled workers coming from elsewhere. The majority of capitalists were Europeans or Armenians. Meanwhile, destitute and unskilled Turkish-speaking Muslims (today called Azeris) lived in miserable poverty. This tenuous social makeup exploded into ethnic conflict between Armenians and Muslims on more than one occasion. But socialist politics made deep inroads with the working class of Baku. In 1918, as waves of revolutionary activity were sweeping through the Russian Empire, the Baku Soviet was founded. It was led by the Tiflis-born “Caucasian Lenin” Stepan Shahumian and lasted from April to July of 1918. It came to a close when Ottoman forces advanced on Baku, forcing the soviet’s leaders to flee. The Baku Commune reconceptualized the very meaning of the Russian Revolution: Bolshevism was not just a politics of European Russia but resonated deeply in the imperial periphery.
Suny’s approach to history followed in the footsteps of Benedict Anderson’s 1983 study of nationalism Imagined Communities. Nationhood is constructed. It is something rooted in material life and rendered real by conscious political imagination. Suny used this constructivist approach to reconceptualize “national histories” in the South Caucasus. While doing so he emphasized the role of the region’s long-standing diversity and cosmopolitanism. It is no surprise then that his major works on the modern histories of Georgia and Armenia received backlash in the respective countries for not being “nationalist enough.” In a 2018 personal reflection on his Making of the Georgian Nation (1988), Suny explains how the book “emphasized how Georgians had existed and even benefitted from the multiplicity of peoples who came through and settled in Georgia, including Russians, Jews, Muslims, and Armenians.”3Thanks to Ron Suny for personally sending his unpublished 2018 note Why I Wrote Making of the Georgian Nation
This focus on centuries of multiethnic interaction as a lens to understand national development did not sit well with Georgian nationalists.
Similarly, in his 1993 Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History, Armenian nationhood is explored through the tensions and fractures of class, politics, territory, and religion that complicate the Armenian national imaginary. In both the Georgian and Armenian cases, the end of the USSR incentivized reductive nationalisms precisely because they helped legitimate territorial claims in a moment when borders were being negotiated by force. The nuance of Suny’s writings is far more helpful in complicating the historical legitimacy of borders than it is for reinforcing strict territorial boundaries of centuries-old ethnic demarcation.
He also faced controversy with his more recent They Can Live in The Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide (2015). Although the book is foremost a response to those who deny the 1915 Armenian Genocide, it also critiques intentionalist arguments – that the Ottoman state planned the genocide in advance, similar to the Third Reich’s Final Solution of the European Jewry. Suny explains that the Armenian Genocide was contingent, and “the fate of the Armenians was directly tied to the social disintegration and political radicalization of the Ottoman leaders that accelerated with the coming of war.” While in retrospect the Armenian Genocide appears overdetermined, “there was nothing inevitable about the decisions and the consequences of the decisions that the Young Turks took in the late Winter of 1915.” Even with his own intimate connection to the horrifying events – Suny’s great-grandparents were two of its victims – he contests the view that an anti-Armenianism of the Ottoman leaders alone can explain the social, political and historical causes of the Armenian Genocide.
While Suny spent decades publishing a voluminous oeuvre on Soviet and Russian history, post-Soviet politics, nationalism, and the South Caucasus, he had also been working intermittently on a book that connects the central themes of his career, through the early life of one infamous Georgian Bolshevik: Josef Stalin.
Suny on Stalin
Suny’s newest book Stalin: Passage to Revolution is his magnum opus. In roughly seven hundred pages, it tells the story of how between 1890 and 1917 the young son of a shoemaker from the provincial Georgian town of Gori on the periphery of the Russian Empire developed from a well performing seminarian, to a romantic, poetry-writing Georgian nationalist, into a committed Marxist, traversing the terrains of intellectual debate, practical organizing, and the revolutionary underground. Stalin was a worker-intellectual, the fusion of grit and intellect that defined the quintessential Bolshevik militant.
The complex world of Russian Social Democracy eludes most biographers and historians on Stalin’s younger years. Instead, this period of his life is often used to foreshadow the terror of the 1930s with his demeanor or some other psychological reductionism. Suny critiques this approach and frames his own work as a fundamental corrective. This is mostly true, yet he still intermittently justifies the subject of his work with awkward reassurances to the reader that he, the author, knows that Stalin would go on to become a dictator. Suny justifies this as his desire to explain the “erosion of empathy” that developed in Stalin’s life. This is arguably the biggest shortcoming of the book. Instead of letting his impressive research and analysis speak for itself, Suny communicates a tangible fear about his own conclusions. It’s as if Suny is scared to fully accept the Stalin he researched, historically situated, and humanized.
Even so, to his credit, Suny does what other biographers don’t: he analyzes Marxism and Russian Social Democracy on their own terms instead of framing them as ideas instrumentalized for power. Further, he avoids exoticizing or orientalizing Georgia and the Caucasus. Instead, he focuses on “the ethnocultural setting of Georgia, the revolutionary intelligentsia, the Marxist movement, the underground, prison and exile, on to the upper circles of Russian Social Democracy” (p. 4) as environments that shaped Stalin’s political journey prior to 1917.
Stalin is a figure interacting with historical forces, not the individual lens through which his world is seen. Far from a budding “great man” in Suny’s story, Stalin is an imperfect, yet effective, activist moving coherently within the tumultuous world of Russian Social Democracy. Stalin is less messianic dreamer than hardened and practical strategist. He is as much the product of ideas he discovers, as the struggles he participates in. He navigates capitalism, empire, and nation, like countless, nameless others, between a learned understanding of those larger forces and the minutiae of their day-to-day manifestations. Suny situates Stalin within the dynamic that has guided generations of revolutionaries around the world: the dialectical interplay of theory and practice, ideas and activity, pushing against the historical limits in which they find themselves. Suny gives us a map to do what other historians refuse to do: humanize and demystify Stalin by making his life and world legible. Suny’s story starts in a place he knows intimately: Georgia.
In Passage to Revolution, the “constitutive effects of imperial rule on the making of nations within the empire” (p.12) explain Georgian nationhood. The Russian Empire consolidated territories, undermined nobilities, and facilitated economic development in this part of the South Caucasus. This produced a Russophilia: those who believed Russia was Georgia’s rightful, Orthodox patron and natural connector to Christian Europe in a predominantly Muslim corner of the world. But as ideas of nationhood developed, others “told the story of their country’s fate as a fundamental clash of cultures, Russian and Georgian” (p. 12). The unique position between the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and European Russia (albeit separated by the Muslim North Caucasus) had over centuries created a region with unmatched ethnocultural and linguistic diversity. This longstanding cosmopolitanism and intimacy with the “East” existed in tension with a national self-understanding that developed to imagine itself as rightfully part of the “West.” This played out both at the abstract level of the national imaginary and in the politics of everyday life. It is within this “contested imperial setting, in a colonialized borderland experiencing the contradictions of subordination and progress” (p. 12) that Soso Jughashvili – the future Josef Stalin – was born and within which he would grow.
In the late 19th century, Georgia was predominantly populated by peasants, even more so than the rest of the Russian Empire. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but in Georgia this happened three years later on terms favorable to the local nobility. Until 1912, “Georgian peasants remained ‘temporarily obligated,’ more than two decades after their Russian counterparts had been freed from this status.”4Book Chapter: “Social Democrats in Power: Menshevik Georgia and the Russian Civil War” by Ronald Grigor Suny in Party State and Society in the Russian Civil War EDITED BY DIANE P. KOENKER, WILLIAM G. ROSENBERG, and RONALD GRIGOR SUNY (1989) This severely impeded “the creation of a significant pool of free workers.”5Ibid. A complex system of status and landholdings with vestiges of serfdom persisted. Most Georgians lived in villages. The towns and cities in Georgia, like the regional center Tiflis (today called Tbilisi) were more developed and cosmopolitan. In 19th century Tiflis, Armenian capitalists and Russian imperial administrators held near total economic and political power. Armenians comprised the majority of the population. The working class was small but nationally diverse and growing. Georgians – a group fractured by language, region, and religion – were the minority in the city, urbanizing slowly but maintaining deep connections to the villages from which they came. Most lived a half proletarian existence. Beso Jughashvili, Soso’s father, was a casualty of this changing world.
Once a successful cobbler in Gori, his workshop closed and he was proletarianized. He moved to Tiflis and found waged employment, hoping that young Soso would apprentice in his trade. Over time, Beso’s alcoholism fueled violent episodes. Keke, Soso’s mother, had always dreamed of sending her son to the seminary to become a priest, but Beso forbade this. Ultimately, Keke left Beso and with the help of a local priest, enrolled Soso in the seminary. In the end, because of Georgian culture’s “strict ideas of honor and shame, Beso was seen as a failure” (p. 22). His proletarianization paralleled his own personal fall from grace.
The Russian Empire, like all empires, sowed the seeds of its own undoing. In the 1880s, Tsar Alexander III enacted a campaign of “cultural Russification directed toward expanding the use of Russian in educational and administrative institutions” (p. 44). This put Georgian students in direct, daily confrontation with the Empire. At the Gori seminary, “chauvinistic Russian administrators and instructors, most of Soso’s teachers and priests, looked down on the Georgians as an inferior people” (p.46). This turned the religious schools into factories producing anti-Tsarist revolutionaries. Georgian Marxism’s earliest and most influential figures were former seminarians.
Soso moved from the Gori to the Tiflis seminary in 1894 when he was only fifteen years old. He quickly embraced a romantic Georgian nationalism, devoured banned books and wrote poetry. He took the nickname “Koba” from a character in the story Patricide (mamis mkvleli) by Georgian writer Aleksandre Qazbegi (1848–1893). Koba is an honorable rebel who fights alongside Chechens in the majestic Caucasus mountains against the Russian Empire. As Suny puts it, Soso’s identification with this character was his reconciliation with Georgia in an anti-imperial way:
Turning away from the comforts of society and embracing the freedom of the outlaw as Koba did attracted Soso. Through his rebellion Koba (and Soso) became authentically Georgian. (p. 70)
Suny then explains Koba’s dive into the world of Marxism and social democracy. Secret reading circles and hard to find Marxist texts found their way to Koba and his fellow seminarians. He quickly embraced Marxist ideas that were beginning to question the “gentry-nationalism” of Georgia’s intelligentsia. Study groups and writing articles made way for underground Party work and organizing. This transformation happened in the heart of the Caucasus.
Georgian Social Democracy
During the beginning of the Russian Empire’s revolutionary decades between 1895-1917, divisions in Georgian social democracy were not always so clear. Marxism emerged as a legible anti-nationalist sociology to explain Georgia’s condition. At the same time, social democracy developed into Georgia’s national liberation movement. Marxism in Georgia opposed the “gentry nationalism” popular among the late 19th century intelligentsia, associated with Ilia Chavchavadze (1837–1907) and his newspaper Iveria. A group leading this Marxist opposition in the 1890s were called the mesame dasi (third group), including former seminarians Noe Zhordania, Philipe Makharadze, and Mikha Tskhakaia. Zhordania and Makharadze studied in Poland and had “imbibed the dual intoxications of Marxism and anti-tsarist nationalism” (p. 77). Upon returning to Georgia, they began working with the liberal newspaper kvali. Zhordania eventually took over as lead editor, turning it into a mouthpiece for social democratic ideas.
Zhordania’s writings gave him intellectual prestige and influence in Georgia. His Marxism articulated Georgia’s position in the world by demystifying the nation and rendering it a “product of social forces.” Such ideas gave Georgians an “analysis that offered a means of overcoming the dual oppression of Russian autocracy and Armenian capital but at the same time tied Georgia’s future to a liberated Russia” (p. 79). Instead of rhetoric against Armenians and Russians, Zhordania focused on social and political forces like capital and autocracy. The liberation of Georgia was intimately tied to the rest of the Russian Empire and Zhordania “proposed that Georgia’s emancipation required alliance with the progressive intellectuals and workers of Russia” (p. 80).
Between 1894 and 1898, workers’ circles and social democratic groups were sprouting up throughout Georgia. These were accompanied by a growing, illegal labor militancy. In “April 1898 several activist workers organized the first celebration of May Day in the Caucasus” (p.107) in Tiflis. At the end of that year social democrats supported a victorious railroad strike in Tiflis with Georgian, Armenian, and Russian workers. It was at this time in 1898 that Soso Jughashvili was leaving the seminary and beginning a life entirely dedicated to revolution.
Passage to Revolution traces early moments of divergence that led Soso to follow the ideas of Lenin and eventually the Bolshevik wing of Russian social democracy. Far from a clear and coherent ideology, “Bolshevism was a response to severe problems that socialist intellectuals in a heavily policed state faced in their daily activity among workers” (p. 114). Despite his admiration for Lenin, Soso was not initially drawn to a Leninist orthodoxy. He came to identify with Lenin in a more factional sense only later. Suny points out that it was later Soviet writings about Stalin’s youth during the Stalinist period that framed him as a disciple of Lenin earlier than would have been possible.
The labor movement in Georgia in the late 19th century was “growing restless and ever bolder.” (p. 113). Yet, the social democratic leaders of mesame dasi were still focused on the “cautious politics of legalism or, at best, confined to the secret educational circles” (p. 111). This led Soso and others to view the mesame dasi as “excessively refined, unwilling to dirty their hands among the workers” (p. 101).
Only three years his senior, Soso’s political mentor was militant social democrat Lado Ketskhoveli. Like Soso, he was a former seminarian from Gori and a worker-intellectual. Ketskhoveli translated the pamphlet Who Lives on What? by Polish Marxist Szymon Diksztajn. This was “the first illegal Marxist pamphlet to be published in Georgian and explained in simple language and colloquial style the fundamentals of Marx’s labor theory of value” (p. 112). He had split with the mesame dasi and Zhordania’s journal kvali after failing to convince the editors “of the need to move to more active tactics, strikes and protests”(p. 113). In 1901, Ketskhoveli ran an illegal printing press in Baku, printing and editing the radical social-democratic newspaper in Georgian brdzola (struggle) with Abel Enukidze. After his 1902 arrest, Ketskhoveli was imprisoned at the Metekhi Fortress in Tiflis where in 1903 he was killed by Tsarist guards.
Menshevism and Bolshevism in Georgia
Decisions made at Party congresses and texts written by social democrats in Europe took time to trickle into Tiflis or Baku. While Lenin’s 1902 text What Is to Be Done? made it into the Russian Empire that year, when it actually made it into the hands of Stalin for the first time isn’t clear. Whenever he read it, he must have identified with its emphasis on the central role of social-democratic militants in pushing revolutionary struggle. By 1901 Stalin was already wholly immersed in Party work.
In that year, Stalin went to the Black Sea port city of Batumi to help organize underground. He managed to put together eleven Marxist workers’ circles, but these were only attended at the time by Russian and Georgian workers. Armenian workers in Batumi were not initially involved because “the local members of the Armenian revolutionary party, the Dashnaktsutyun, warned Armenians against joining the Social Democrats” (p. 151). But over time, workers across nationalities joined. Stalin made connections in Batumi but refused to coordinate with the older social democrats who held de facto authority within the movement.
His time in Batumi culminated in the March Days of 1902. Strikes and demonstrations by factory workers led to arrests and fifteen deaths. Thousands poured into the streets for their funerals. Social Democrats were directly involved in the organizing efforts. Suny explains how Stalin pushed workers to act more militantly and to demonstrate in front of the prison to help liberate their imprisoned comrades. After gendarmes killed demonstrators, Georgian social democracy was clearly split. To the legalist faction, “Nikoloz Chkheidze and Isidore Ramishvili, the ‘Batumi slaughterhouse’ proved the recklessness of open demonstrations in the face of the police and soldiers” (p. 161). But “the militancy of the editorials in brdzola,” the Lenin-aligned newspaper for which Ketskhoveli and Jughashvili worked, “seemed to echo the mood of the workers” (p. 161). While Mensheviks and Bolsheviks would not officially split the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) until 1903, by 1902 “embryonic tactical differences” were coalescing “into a coherent alternative analysis and strategy” (p. 114).
Despite these early differences, Georgian social democracy was unique within the empire. Menshevism took hold in Georgia, but it was distinct from Russian Menshevism and the ideas of its father, Plekhanov. Georgian Mensheviks were far more militant, rightfully earning the description “the most Bolshevik of the Mensheviks.”
As in Russia proper, Georgian social democratic institutions and committees became sites of factional struggles. In the years leading up to the revolution of 1905, strategic differences did separate activists, but the factionalism underway in Russia was only starting to reverberate locally. Positions taken at the empire-wide conferences in Europe did not always reflect the positions of local party organs in the Caucasus. In 1904 the Conference of Caucasian Social Democrats was chaired by Lev Kamenev and dominated by those allied with Lenin, the Bolsheviks. But this was not for long. Georgia’s various social democratic institutions were going both ways. Suny explains how fights between the Caucasian Union Committee and local committees in Georgia broke out in the first months of 1905:
In Kutaisi the Bolsheviks held out….but the Mensheviks won in Georgia’s western-most regions, Batumi, Imereti-Samegrelo, and Guria. While one Batumi committee and committees in Chiatura, Racha-Lechkhumi, and Baku adhered to the Bolsheviks, most other committees in Georgia went over to the Mensheviks. (p. 242)
By 1905, Noe Zhordania was considered “the patriarch of Caucasian Social Democracy” and Soso Jughashvili a younger but well-known Bolshevik throughout the Caucasus. Both were deeply involved in the Party. In January 1905, Zhordania returned to the Caucasus from Europe “and traveled from city to city on a campaign against the Bolsheviks” (p. 235) after splitting with Lenin at the Second Party Congress. Zhordania argued that the Menshevik position had affinities with “the traditional practices of Georgian workers and played on their suspicion of intelligentsia dominance” (p. 235). In theory, Zhordania argued that Menshevism was more democratic and was hostile to the role of an intelligentsia that was central to Lenin’s conception of the party. A war between social democratic activists for control and influence in party institutions took hold in Georgia. Put another way, it was the Menshevik-allied intelligentsia agitating workers against the Bolshevik-allied intelligentsia. In the end, Zhordania and the Mensheviks gained control of the Georgian party.
Suny recounts an illuminating exchange between Davrishev, a Socialist-Federalist and friend of Stalin, and a Menshevik print worker during a meeting in Tiflis. The worker claimed that Davrishev “was bourgeois and an intellectual” who workers couldn’t trust because “too many intellectuals have deceived the workers and used the workers’ cause as a trampoline to advance their own personal ends.” Davrishev responded by asking “what about Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Zhordania, what are they?”
The worker’s response is telling: “but they have been with us a long time. They have proven their fidelity to our cause; they have been in prison … While you, you have just come; we don’t know you. And then you sing us a new song … to divide us,”
Revolution of 1905
In the revolutionary year of 1905 struggles exploded throughout the Caucasus. In the Western Georgian region of Guria, an independent, socialist-peasant republic was declared. This movement was heavily influenced by social democrats. Peasants were in full control and were seen marching in towns with portraits of Marx. The central figures of Georgian Menshevism, including Noe Zhordania, were originally from the now rebel Guria.
Suny notes that “the Mensheviks were leading the peasant movement in Guria and driving Bolsheviks from their meetings”(p. 244). The influence and legitimacy given to the Menshevik wing by both the presence of Noe Zhordania and the 1905 movement in Guria helped turn social democracy into Georgia’s national liberation movement. The Menshevik (and later Deputy to the Fourth State Duma) Akaki Chkhenkeli noted that 1905 was “the greatest moment for the development of Georgian people’s consciousness of their nationhood”(p. 508). The movement was becoming more dominated by ethnic Georgians as the local workers movement and Menhsevik controlled party institutions were fusing into a united force. As time went on, any social democrats who were allied with the Bolsheviks were strategically excluded as Georgia had become a “fortress of Caucasian Menshevism.”
Despite this, the Georgian Mensheviks, like their local Bolshevik counterparts, supported radicalism and militancy in ways that Russian Mensheviks did not. Georgian Mensheviks had their own terrorist units and battle detachments like other political factions in the empire. The militancy of Georgian workers forced the Menshevik leadership to support acts of terror and expropriations, albeit reluctantly. As the revolutionary upsurge of 1905 started to wane, tsarist repression in the Caucasus intensified. In January 1906, almost four hundred people were executed and thousands arrested. In response, revolutionary acts of terror and expropriations increased with 950 such incidents counted in 1907 in Georgia alone. Social democrats assassinated imperial figures and political opponents – Ilia Chavchavadze, the aristocratic father of Georgian nationalism met such a fate.
In 1907, Stalin and his long-time comrade Simon Ter-Petrosian, known as “Kamo,” planned and executed the infamous “Tiflis ex” – an attack on a banknote delivery in the center of Tiflis which netted the Bolsheviks 250,000 rubles. This spectacular expropriation nearly led to Stalin’s expulsion from the Party as the local Mensheviks were incensed “by the Bolsheviks’ brazen disregard for the decision of the Fifth Congress against expropriations” (p. 367). While Mensheviks would also engage in expropriations, the timing, factionalism and size of the infamous “Tiflis Ex” made it a major cleavage in the Georgian movement, further marginalizing Georgian Bolshevism.
In 1907, Stalin left Georgia. At the suggestion of Lenin, he moved to Baku to continue underground work. Suny explains that Stalin leaving Georgia “was more than a physical move; it was another psychological break with the milieu that had shaped him in his first quarter century”(p. 357). A multinational Bolshevism that emphasized internationalism and workers was becoming incompatible with the increasingly national peasant socialism of Georgian Menshevism. Stalin no longer had a political home in Georgia. Many years later Stalin explained his decision to leave because Georgian workers were more “petty bourgeois” than proletarian:
Stalin told the actor Vasadze that he had not only attacked the Mensheviks but the workers as well, since those that had land outside town did not appreciate the plight of those without land. “In a word, those with full bellies,” he said, “do not understand those who are hungry” (p. 357).
The Politics of History: Sovietization of Georgia
Pre-1917 social democracy in Georgia, and the political tensions within, are explored deeply in Passage to Revolution. Even though this is the milieu and movement that shaped Stalin’s early political development, the details still remain only marginally known in Georgia. This is almost entirely due to their current political implications. In Georgia today, the official national narrative rests on the idea that the Sovietization of Georgia in 1921 was a continuation of Russian imperial aggression, the beginning of seventy years of Soviet “occupation” and the end of national sovereignty. Bolshevism is framed in museums and on national holidays as something external and Russian, whereas Georgian Menshevism is imagined in national terms, with its Marxism consciously removed or obscured. It is therefore impossible to fully appreciate the intricacies and nuance afforded to Georgian Marxism in Passage to Revolution without, however incompletely, addressing the Sovietization of Georgia in 1921: the historical event which makes serious engagement with Georgian Marxism by activists, academics, and the public in Georgia (and beyond) today nearly impossible.
The Bolsheviks who came to power in Petrograd in the 1917 October Revolution were multi-national, anti-imperial revolutionaries and themselves products of empire. Only one in four “came from the historic Russian core; the rest came from the empire’s geopolitically sensitive or multiethnic frontiers, highlighting the borderland factor in Bolshevism’s revolutionary politics.”6The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire by Liliana Riga (2012), p. 16 This included Georgians and others from the South Caucasus. Once in power, decades of Marxist debates on the national question became strategic matters of policy. How should local nationalisms be dealt with? How can Soviet power be maintained and expanded while directly combating revanchist great Russian chauvinism? Should the Soviet state centralize? Regionalize? Federalize? Disagreements persisted, and the situation was fluid. Throughout the collapsing Russian empire, Soviet power was struggling to consolidate. Everything was experimental and contingent.
During the chaos of the Russian Civil War in 1918, years after Stalin had left Georgia, Menshevik-aligned social democrats took power in Tiflis. They ruled the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia from 1918-1921. This state was led by Noe Zhordania and other veterans of the revolutionary decades in Georgia. Some socialists in Europe celebrated the Menshevik regime, its rhetoric of democracy and nominal, albeit highly unstable, independence. Karl Kautsky even wrote a book on the Democratic Republic of Georgia after his 1920 visit with a delegation of European socialists from the Second International.
In 1921 the Bolshevik controlled Red Army invaded. After some fighting, the Menshevik government fled and Georgia was Sovietized. The Red Army had been gaining a foothold around Georgia and local Georgian Bolsheviks, despite political persecution by the Menshevik state, were waiting anxiously for an opportunity to act. Two Georgian Bolsheviks oversaw the operation, Sergo Orjonikidze and Josef Stalin. This decision went against the initial wishes of Lenin, who had argued for a more conciliatory approach to the nationally minded Georgian Mensheviks. But by 1922, Leon Trotsky was regarding the Georgian Mensheviks not as a legitimate regime but as a “petty bourgeois party” that depended upon the “material assistance of European and American imperialism.” The situation in Georgia led to a political crisis as well as the final split between Lenin and Stalin before Lenin’s death. The so-called “Georgian Affair” had important implications at the highest rungs of the Soviet state, informing how other territories should be politically designated and incorporated. Some Georgian Bolsheviks – though not all – with leading roles (such as Philip Makharadze and Budu Mdviani) would be castigated as “national deviationists”. Despite a tendency by some for more regional autonomy and control, these views were categorically different than what ended up separating Menshevism and Bolshevism in Georgia by 1918. Ultimately, the fledging Bolshevik regime took a radical anti-imperial approach.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) became, what historian Terry Martin calls, the world’s first affirmative action empire.7Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923-1939, by Terry Martin (2001) In the 1920s, nationalities were formalized and Sovietized through the policy of korenizatsiya. This “rooted” Soviet power through sympathetic cadres from local populations in institutions that were national in form and socialist in content. From European Russia through the Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia, new national-territorial designations were built: Union Republics, Autonomous Republics, oblasts, and even smaller, village-sized okrugs. These functioned as regional centers of Soviet power but also as mechanisms for nation-building. Art and culture were funded, local languages were taught – even regional film studios were opened. Although korenizatsiya was rolled back as policy in the 1930s, this ethno-federal structure made up of national institutions maintained. The Soviet Union ensured nationhood where it had either previously not existed or was tenuous in the modern period. Georgia was no exception.
The Sovietization of Georgia continued and deepened the deconstruction of the Russian imperial apparatus in the South Caucasus. As historian Stephen Jones explains, many in Georgia “no doubt welcomed the civil and economic order eventually established by the Bolsheviks in Georgia, after the chaos and strife of revolution and civil war between 1917 and 1921.” Sovietization also played a crucial role in Georgianizing the local political administration, continuing and expanding many of the social and national policies the Menshevik state started. Therefore, “it would be inaccurate to talk of ‘Russification’ in the 1920s.” Although Georgia “lost its quasi-autonomy during this period…‘affirmative action’ ensured that Georgians dominated the local political, educational, cultural and administrative apparatus.” The controversy surrounding Georgia’s 1921 Sovietization, in particular questions of independence and sovereignty, tend to overshadow the socialist content of Georgian social democracy and the shared experiences of Georgian Bolshevism and Menshevism.
In Passage to Revolution, Georgian Marxism is traced as both a constitutive part of an empire-wide Russian Social Democratic movement and a self-contained political world. Stalin’s political development in his youth depended on the overlap of these multinational Marxisms and a unique understanding of internationalism from the perspective of Russia’s imperial periphery. Stalin’s own understandings of nationhood, nationality and empire, and how they will grow to differ from other Georgian Marxists is illuminating in this regard.
Stalin the Marxist and the National Question
Most scholars, Marxist and otherwise, reject Stalin as a theorist worthy of serious consideration. However, in Passage to Revolution, Suny examines the development of Stalin’s ideas within empire-wide debates, showing how his experience in the imperial periphery shaped his conception of militancy, the role of the Party, and most importantly, nationhood and nationality. He closely follows work done by Dutch historian Erik Van Ree on the subject. However for Suny, Stalin’s conception of nationalism and nationhood is key.
In 19th century Russia, social democrats generally believed that “nations were a product of a certain stage of historic evolution” (p. 511). They might be a delusionary distraction from the real interests of the proletariat, but nations were real, and inevitable products of history. But such an understanding relied heavily on the experiences in Western Europe. There, a strong propertied class fought for nationhood. But in Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire, “nationalism was more the expression of patriotic intellectuals, scholarly clerics, journalists, village teachers, lawyers, and artists” (p. 517) – the propertyless intelligentsia.
The Russian Social Democrats had long debated in congresses and in newspapers questions of territorial versus extraterritorial concepts of nationhood. In 1903, the RSDLP Constitution proclaimed the “right of self-determination for all nations included within the bounds of the state.” Yet this did not resolve the issue in the long run.
Some national groups who were not territorially concentrated proposed the formation of extraterritorial national organizations. Most famously the Jewish Bund claimed to represent all Jewish workers throughout the Russian empire. But the eventual leader of Menshevik controlled Georgia Noe Zhordania had early on adamantly opposed the inclusion of the Jewish Bund within Russian Social Democracy. From the perspective of the Caucasus, extraterritorial national rights could compromise the allegiances social democrats needed in multiethnic regions. But as time went on and the Georgian movement became more national in character, Zhordania’s position changed. He had begun to incorporate the ideas of Austro-Hungarian Marxists who argued for extraterritorial cultural and national rights. By 1912, Zhordania observed how in Georgia, workers “were fusing socialism and national culture into a single liberation movement” (p. 520). He opposed “territorial national cultural autonomy and favored instead extraterritorial national cultural autonomy with members of each nationality voting for their own national cultural institutions no matter where they lived” (p. 521). Despite basic agreements in how nationhood was formed, Stalin and Zhordania disagreed on political strategy.
In a 1904 article in the Georgian social democratic newspaper proletariatis brdzola (Struggle of the Proletariat), Stalin was already heavily critiquing narrow national interests of some social democratic organizations. He believed in guaranteeing “broad” self-government for nationalities but that the interests of the multinational proletariat must be prioritized.
Nine years later, Stalin’s 1913 essay on nationality was his “most significant foray into Marxist theory before the revolution” (p. 525). His goals were to “defend the principle of national self-determination; demolish the policy of national cultural autonomy of the Austro-Marxists, Mensheviks, and Bundists; and demonstrate the superiority, from a Marxist point of view, of noncultural regional autonomy” (p. 525).
Stalin argued that national cultural autonomy could not be territorialized because, especially in the Russian setting, nationalities were not contiguously settled. Capitalism was dispersing them. Extraterritorial national rights made little sense because, despite being nationally connected, where one lived determined culture in ways that a more ephemeral national belonging did not. Capitalism was making concrete nationhood difficult to locate. Stalin therefore argued for regional autonomy.
Suny insightfully observes how Stalin’s experience as someone from the imperial periphery with a multinational upbringing informed his understandings: “Stalin was keenly sensitive to the ethnic diversity of the huge country in which he lived and of the hierarchies of cultures, peoples, and power” (p. 527).
Stalin believed that Zhordania and the Georgian Menshevik support for “national cultural autonomy” would privilege larger nationalities like Georgians and Armenians “but efface the rights of Mingrelians, Abkhazians, Ajars, Svans, Osetins, Lezgins” (p. 527), and other smaller groups in the region. Yet at the same time he believed that these smaller nationalities were “backwards” and would inevitably be subject to the homogenizing forces of capitalist cultural consolidation. Stalin would eventually move to support a type of “national autonomy” that suggested he viewed nationality as something more “durable” and even “real” than Lenin.
The ethnocultural dynamics of Georgia and the Caucasus, and the politics derived from them, influenced Stalin’s for the rest of his life. Similar, his political struggle against the rise of Menshevism (and the ideas of Zhordania) in Georgia crucially shaped Stalin’s approach to nationhood. This is important to remember when considering the political tension between budding nationalisms and internationalism in revolutionary Russia. It is one reason why Stalin will support regionalisms on the condition of their centralization – as a mechanism to undermine the power of local nationalisms, a power he knew very well.
Legacies of Stalin and Marxist Memory in Georgia Today
After Stalin left Tiflis for Baku in 1907, he never returned to live in his place of birth. Although the rest of his political career would center in Petrograd and Moscow, the Caucasus in various ways would stay close to him for the rest of his life.8Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire by Erik Scott (2016) Bolsheviks from the region were part of his inner circle, many Georgians rose high up through the Soviet ranks during his rule, Georgian wines were poured at dinners in the Kremlin, and Stalin loved vacationing in Abkhazia. In the Georgian SSR it was mutual: Georgians would continue to, in both subtle and more obvious ways, hold Stalin in high regard.
Three years after Stalin’s death, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev unleashed the process of de-Stalinization, after denouncing Stalin in the infamous “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956. This led to riots in Tbilisi in March of that year. The riots had a national character, radicalizing those who would decades later participate in and lead Georgia’s national movement.9Georgia after Stalin: Nationalism and Soviet Power, edited by Timothy K. Blauvelt and Jeremy Smith (2016) But in essence the riots were not anti-Soviet – they were testament to the unique and privileged position of the Georgian SSR and its achievements within Soviet ethno-federalism. Georgians did well for themselves and were incensed at the prospect that their position might change under Khrushchev’s rule. While some high-ranking Georgians did lose their positions due to de-Stalinization, overall Georgia’s well-off position was maintained. The Georgian SSR by almost all metrics was one of, if not the wealthiest republic in the Soviet Union during the second half of the 20th century. Personal savings accounts were high. Desirable goods and produce were more accessible than elsewhere for most of the year. A stable and growing formal economy worked in tandem with a robust informal economy. Moreover, roughly 73 per thousand in the Georgian SSR had a higher education compared to 42 in the rest of the Soviet Union.10Georgia: A Political History Since Independence by Stephen Jones (2013) This meant that there was a disproportionately high rate of Georgians in white collar professions in the late Soviet period. This material and professional stability, combined with Soviet-wide admiration for Georgian culture and cuisine that developed through and after the Stalin period, turned this relatively small region of a few million into the most envied republic in the Union. Stalin would come to at least in part represent these accomplishments, and many more, that the Soviet system afforded Georgia since 1921 and especially since the end of World War II.
Soso Jughashvili, the Gori boy who became Josef Stalin and leader of the entire USSR, is the nation’s most famous son. Many in Georgia today openly or secretly revere him. If one looks hard enough, his statues and busts stand in villages, and his picture still adorns people’s walls. Gori residents take pride in being from Stalin’s hometown, and rely on visitors to the local Stalin museum for vital income. When the Georgian government took down a Stalin statue there in 2010 there was an outpour of indignation from locals.
Politicians, journalists, NGOs, and academics, both in Georgia and beyond, use this reverence for Stalin politically: with it, they demarcate a socio-cultural fault line in the Georgian population. They claim that one side is old, regressive, traditional and maintains a “backward” nostalgia for Stalin and/or the USSR, while the other is youthful, progressive, Western, and promotes “European values.” Those who find something positive in the Soviet past are characterized as not only impediments to progress but afflicted with a naïve nostalgia. Such a reductive, bifurcated view of the population is reproduced both inside and outside the country for a reason: Georgia’s wholesale decline in living conditions and political stability has been supplemented for the past thirty years by a political and ideological war against the memory of the Soviet Union. This has been fundamental to Georgian nation building and justifying radical free market reforms. Europeanization and Westernization in the country are predicated on an enforced amnesia of anything Soviet.
When the Cold War ended, the historical defeat of socialism became a tool of governance globally. As global hegemon, the United States began investing heavily in post-Soviet countries through think tanks, NGOs, and other “democratization” efforts to, in part, undermine “nostalgia” for the Soviet past and to celebrate American Cold War triumphalism. The US and other Western powers were making a political calculation: if too many who had lived under socialism began questioning whether it was a system worth saving, then capitalist reforms and American benevolence would lose their political appeal. History was crucial to this strategy.
In post-Soviet Georgia, politicians threw their lot in with this US-dominated order. Although it began under the leadership of Georgia’s second president Eduard Shevardnadze (1992–2003), the 2003 Rose Revolution was a more extreme step: it radicalized an idea of Georgian nationhood in opposition to its socialist past. Under the presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili (2004–2012), among other nationally symbolic acts, the flag of the socialist controlled Democratic Republic of Georgia (which was re-adopted in December 1991) was replaced with a medieval and overtly Christian one, the museum of “Soviet Occupation” was opened, and a statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled in central Tbilisi. More pernicious, however, was the passing of the Liberty Act and Liberty Charter. In 2010, the Economic Liberty Act enshrined free markets as a matter constitutional law. In 2011, the similarly named Liberty Charter was adopted parroting the language of the EU’s 2008 Prague Declaration. Symbols of “totalitarianism” were made illegal, and the equivalence of Nazism and Communism was now law in Georgia. Georgia worked to identify itself as more European not by coming to terms with the nuance of the Soviet past, but by erasing it. This was exacerbated by the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Narratives of the 1921 “Soviet occupation” of Georgia were used to emotionally connect the population’s outrage over the “Russian occupation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – territories that while administered by the Georgian SSR each had a unique autonomous status during the Soviet period. Erasing Georgia’s Soviet history became ever more wrapped up in the insecurities of maintaining Georgian nationhood.
In 2012, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvilli’s pet project the “Georgian Dream” came to power. After almost ten years in control of the government, the political opposition today unironically uses the slogan “never back to the USSR” to paint Georgian Dream as regressive backsliders, authoritarian and in collusion with Russia. This is in spite of the fact that their rule has expanded upon, and even deepened, the mix of anti-Soviet memory politics, ruthless marketization, and submissive Westernization that defined the Saakashvili years. Demonization of the Soviet past has been so politically comprehensive in Georgia, that even a force wholly committed to anti-Soviet memory politics can still be legitimately castigated as Soviet.
But what does this memory war and erasure of Georgia’s Soviet story have to do with Passage to Revolution by Ron Suny, a book that doesn’t cover anything after 1917?
It is far from just a book of history – it is a piece of Marxist remembrance. Passage to Revolution tells the story of the revolutionary world of pre-1917 Georgian Marxism – a world that is in dire need of not just remembrance, but resuscitation.
As nationalism, capitalism, and a pathological desire for Western integration have afforded normal, working people in Georgia mostly ruin, there is an urgent need for a different kind of politics. This requires unearthing and learning from the past, from the visions of revolutionaries who believed in, fought for and built a different society before. This is no easy task. The war against Georgia’s socialist past overwhelms political discourse, presented to the population as a means to honor national sovereignty and martyrs, or “victims” of socialism. But this concern for victims past or an ideal sovereignty are at best cynical and at worst malicious. In Georgia today, poverty, debt, suicide, homelessness, drug abuse, a lack of quality medical care (or medical care at all), domestic violence, abysmal or unpaid wages, ecological devastation, emigration, unemployment, borders, ethnic tensions, and anxieties of instability claim new victims every single day. These are victims not of society, but of thirty years of politics that de-emphasize everything social. As this list of victims increases without so much as a pause, local politicians, civil society, NGOs, and Western governments continue to perpetuate surface level reforms and politics in opposition to anything socialist. This is because neither victims of the past nor love of the Georgian nation are actually driving this ideological history war. What is driving it is the desire to silence and erode the ideas, the memories and experiences of those aging workers and other everyday people who have seen nothing improve for the past thirty years, who have not been able to enjoy their “freedom,” in any true sense of the word, since the end of the Soviet Union. Those who have seen their world, and the world of their children not expand, but shrink. Demonizing the Soviet past impedes the generational, social transmission of these sentiments and stories in a political way, so that young Georgians never learn about the days before they were born beyond shallow slogans, before the wars, before the 90s. Or that they might learn how such a world came to be, that Marxists, despite their splits and disagreements, both big and small, from Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Guria, and beyond, who Suny so brilliantly describes in Passage to Revolution, not only saw a world of compounding crises and injustice before them that actually shares quite a bit with the present, but these revolutionaries did something about it: they organized, struggled, and despite everything, built something different.
Without the insightful nuance, political depth, and invaluable perspective of Sopo Japaridze, writing this review would not have been possible. Her ideas are crucially interwoven throughout the entire text.
This essay is dedicated to you, Sopo.