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Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia

By Beryl Williams | Posted 4th February 2013, 16:00
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Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia
Donald Rayfield
Reaktion Books   480pp   £35

From 1800, when Russia annexed Georgia, Russian writers reacted to the country much as British ones did to India: it was exotic, eastern and deeply romantic. Pushkin and Lermontov were inspired by its dramatic beauty. Western visitors praised its scenery and hospitality. Many were surprised when it collapsed into anarchy and civil war after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Professor Rayfield’s impressive book will lessen that surprise.  He has made good use of recently available Russian and Georgian sources and, while previous histories have concentrated on Russian Georgia, two thirds of this long book is before 1800 and three quarters before 1917. It is dense, very much a political history, and the attached maps, chronology and dynastic trees are essential aids. But it is well worth the effort.

It covers everything from Jason and the Golden Fleece to Saakashvili’s ill-judged attempt to regain control of South Ossetia from Russia in 2008. It is a history of almost constant conflict. Situated at the pivot of Europe and Asia, on the old silk route to China, Georgia has indeed been on the edge of too many empires. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman and finally Russian empires have struggled for dominance. Religious conflict has played its part. Georgia adopted Byzantine Christianity about ad 325, but some kings converted to Islam to secure recognition from Persian overlords and others appealed to the pope. Tbilisi was for many years an Arab caliphate. Like Poland, Georgia has suffered from warring neighbours but, as Rayfield makes very clear, many of its problems were self-inflicted.

Georgia was united under the Bagratid dynasty in the ninth century and they remained as rulers, however divided, until 1800. For much of the period the country was split three ways: between the west; Kartli in the centre, with its capital in the old ecclesiastical city of Mtskheta and later Tbilisi; and Kakhetia in the east. The Georgians fought each other as much as they did the Persians or the Turks. It was, and still is, a violent society. Laws were enacted on blood price and gouging out the eyes of rivals was common. Unity was rare and rarely lasted. The golden age of Davit the Builder and Queen Tamara from the end of the 11th century to the early 13th produced expansion, peace, prosperity and a cultural renaissance. The national epic, Rustaveli’s The Man in the Panther’s Skin, was written at this time. But within seven years of Tamara’s death in 1213 the Mongols arrived, bringing death and devastation on a vast scale, and the 14th century saw the Black Death and the coming of Tamerlane.

There were periods of relative peace, especially in the east during the 17th and 18th centuries, but by 1783 it was clear that Georgian independence could not be sustained and by 1800 Georgia was a Russian province. Any hope that an Orthodox tsar would be a better ruler than a Muslim overlord was short-lived. Again there were periods of peace and modernisation, especially under a series of liberal viceroys in the 19th century, but by 1905 Georgia saw some of the worst rebellions in the whole of the empire. Readers of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin will recall the havoc caused by Bolshevik terrorists; the viceroy was forced to arm the local Mensheviks to protect Armenians in Tbilisi and a peasant rebellion in Guria led to ‘the world’s first Marxist state’.

After October 1917 an independent Menshevik government under Noe Zhordania saw real achievements, but could not prevent a Soviet take over in 1921. Despite Stalin’s Georgian roots the country suffered badly under Beria, with more than its fair share of purges. Repression revived under Khrushchev as Beria’s cronies were arrested and Georgians, perhaps surprisingly, demonstrated to defend Stalin’s statues in 1956. By 1980 a dissident movement was well established and, after demonstrations were suppressed with shovels and gas in April 1989, independence was inevitable. True to Georgia’s history it has not been peaceful. Minorities rebelled immediately and Abkhazia and South Ossetia have both claimed independence under Russian protection. Shevardnadze, for all his diplomatic skills and western contacts, admitted that Georgia was a ‘failed state’ by the time he was ousted in 2003. Saakashvili promised to be a new Davit the Builder, but he has just lost parliamentary elections and the future again looks uncertain. Georgia may be romantic and beautiful but it seems incapable of being either united or at peace for very long.

Beryl Williams is Emeritus Reader in History, University of Sussex and author of Lenin: Profiles in Power (Longman, 2000).


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