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WHY I WROTE THE MAKING OF THE GEORGIAN NATION
30/06/2018


By Ronald Grigor Suny

Tbilisi, June 30, 2018

Yesterday I wandered into Prospero’s Bookstore just off Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi and asked a lovely young woman whether they had copies of a book by Ronald Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation. “Oh,” she said, “that book was very disappointing to Georgians,” but she offered to order a copy for me. I told her not to bother, that I was the author, and was simply interested to know if the bookstore carried it.
A phone rang behind her desk, and she answered. I slipped out of the shop but did not get far. The young woman – who turned out to be Tamara Megrelishvili, the managing director of Prospero’s – called to me and invited me back inside. She was pleased to meet me, told me she had sold many copies of my book, and asked what I was doing now. I explained that I was thinking of a third edition of The Making and was in the process of completing a book on the young Stalin, From Koba to Commissar, which should appear next year from Princeton University Press. Tamara asked if I would write for her blog and explain why I had written The Making of the Georgian Nation. Here is my story.
I have a close connection to Georgia and the city of Tbilisi, which in my family was always called Tiflis. My father, George (Gurken) Suny, grew up in Sololaki on Bebutovskaya Ulitsa (now Asatiani Kucha, and in Soviet times, Ulitsa Engelsa). Over many evening meals he would tell me and my sister, Linda, the tales from his youth: selling water and cigarettes on the streets, how being small he crawled into a window to help thieves and was caught by the police (they tried to frighten him, a small Armenian, but he understood their Georgian and knew they would not harm him). The most compelling story was about the coming of the Red Army and the Sovietization of Georgia. He remembered speeches by the Menshevik leaders, and their hasty departure. Their soldiers dropped their arms and fled, so Gurken and his brother Ruben gathered up rifles and buried them. The family hid their beautiful sister, Siran, because they had heard rumors that the Bolsheviks raped women, but they did not bother concealing Seda, a gifted dancer who was considered more homely.
As a boy I was intrigued by the stories, by the exotic far away place called Georgia, by that sentence impossible to pronounce that my father taught me – baqaqi tsqalshi qiqinebs – “the frog croaks in the water.” Years later after writing my first book, The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution – my mentor Leopold H. Haimson suggested that I write a book about the Georgian Mensheviks. I agreed and set out to learn Georgian and do the research in the archives.
In those days the only way an American could do research in the Soviet Union was on the official government-to-government cultural exchange program. I was accepted by the program, and in the fall of 1971 my new wife, Armena Marderosian, and I arrived in Tbilisi. We lived in the Hotel Tbilisi, which had been built by an Armenian millionaire just before the revolution. I worked in the Karl Marx Library; Armena spent her days in the Conservatory studying Georgian polyphony. Every morning I had a lesson in the Georgian language with Jondo Metrveli, then went off to the library to work. My requests to work in the archives were denied repeatedly.
I returned to Georgia in 1975-1976 with Armena, this time we lived in the Iveria Hotel, and I continued to read Bor’ba and ertoba and now studied Georgian with the linguist Nia Abesadze. My nauchyi rukovoditel’ (scientific advisor) was Akaki Nestorovich Surguladze, a gentle teacher and a guide to the difficulties of doing research in the context of Soviet restrictions.
But I never wrote that book on the Georgian Mensheviks. When I went to Harvard University in the fall of 1980 to work in the Menshevik Archive, then in the Houghton Library, Armena and I suffered a horrific tragedy. Our two-year-old son Grikor suddenly became ill, and in the course of thirty-six hours, even though we had taken him to the doctor who sent us away with reassurance that all was well, he died in my arms as we entered Massachusetts General Hospital. Devastated, I was unable to work further on this project.
A few years later when I was passing through Stanford University, Professor Wayne Vucinich suggested that I write a history of Georgia for the Hoover Institution’s series on Soviet nationalities. After some hesitation, I agreed, since I had accumulated much knowledge of Georgia’s fascinating past over many years. The book appeared first in 1988, and a second edition came out in 1994.
The reception in Georgia was not good. Why was an American, in fact an Armenian, writing a history of Georgia? This was “bourgeois falsification” of Georgian history, written by an incompetent foreigner, even worse, by a somekhi. And why was it called The Making of the Georgian Nation, when it was largely about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not about ancient or medieval Georgia?
The book and its argument were, in my opinion, clearly misunderstood by Soviet and Georgian critics, among whom was Mikhael Saakashvili’s mother, the historian Giuli Alasania, However, it was praised, at least privately to me, by political scientist Alex Rondeli and linguist and diplomat Gela Charkviani.
The argument of the book is that Georgians, a people that has existed since ancient times and enjoyed various forms of political existence, sovereignty, and statehood throughout their history, became a modern nation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, patriotic intellectuals, among them Baratashvili, Eristavi, Qipiani, Ilia Chavchavadze, and Akaki Tseretli, articulated a sense of nationhood to Georgians, an idea that their shared culture gave them claims to political rights and recognition. They were followed by the Georgian Social Democrats, led by Noe Zhordania, who not only developed further the view of Georgia as a nation but led Georgians to independence in the Georgian Democratic Republic (1918-1921). Despite (or perhaps because of) the limits and repression imposed by the USSR, Georgians became even more coherent and conscious as a nation in the seventy years of Soviet Power and were prepared by the late twentieth century to embark on a second attempt at independent existence.
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. Georgian nobles and peasants lived in complex association with middle-class Armenians and Russian officials. The empire gave them security, even as it restricted their sovereignty. Repression went along with economic and intellectual progress. Different peoples lived together relatively peacefully both in the tsarist and Soviet empires, though once the imperial overlordship of Russia disappeared, nationalist antagonisms divided them.
I came to Tbilisi this year to participate in an international conference on the first Georgian republic and a summer school dedicated to investigating that history. I was both surprised and gratified to find that much of the hostility to my work had dissipated, that a younger generation of historians were attempting to rescue Georgian history from the narrow chauvinism that had infected it in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet years. As an older (and hopefully wiser) scholar, I believe that Georgia today is entering a new and vital period in its history, one in which the isolation of the Soviet years and the ultra-nationalism of the post-Soviet years will be overcome. Georgia’s glorious past, like the history of its capital Tbilisi, is a history of multiculturalism, of accepting other peoples into the country and developing together. Diversity of cultures gives a people and a country a wealth of experiences, opens it up to the best that the world has to offer. Georgia can be a pioneer in the post-Soviet space if it is able to accept the cosmopolitan past out of which the first and second republics emerged.