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Revolution that might have been

Georgia spawned Stalin, the monster who forever poisoned the legacy of the Russian Revolution. But it also produced a tantalising alternative vision of what that revolution could have led to. JUSTIN REYNOLDS explores the forgotten history of the fleeting Democratic Republic of Georgia, which offered a flicker of hope before it was extinguished

Post-Revolutionary Russia was by turns fascinating, inspiring and appalling. Above all, it was different.

October 1917 unleashed horrors: a savage civil war, a ruthless police state, economic chaos. But it was also a gateway to the release of utopian energies that produced extraordinary art, architecture and design, ignited drives for mass education, and opened the way for bold efforts to establish a radical egalitarianism between classes, ethnicities and genders.

Soviet Russia hurled itself through the maelstrom towards a modernity still in many respects more advanced than our own. And something of that pioneering spirit survived even the brutalities of Stalin’s reign and the carnage of the Second World War, inspiring the Russian space programme and the development of an epic post-war social housing and welfare programme.

In 1917 the largest nation on Earth stood on the edge of the abyss: devastated by war, its state shattered, its economy in ruins, its people riven by bitter class, ethnic and ideological conflicts. And yet, even as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip, tantalising possibilities for alternative Revolutionary Russias shimmered in and out of view, shining brightly before disappearing into history. Nestor Makhno’s Free Army established an anarchist federation of self-governing communes in the southern Ukraine. Factory committees suggested possible models for cooperative ownership. The world’s first democratic Islamic republic rose and fell in Azerbaijan.

But the most intriguing and substantial of all, and still one of the least known, was the determined attempt to establish social democracy in the small country of Georgia, south of the Caucasian mountains, east of the Black Sea. During its brief life between 1918 and 1921 the Georgian Democratic Republic sought to pursue social and economic radicalism within the context of a liberal constitution that allowed multi-party elections and respected the independence of the press, the trade unions and the judiciary.

Like Soviet Russia, the Republic was governed by Marxist revolutionaries. But Georgia’s revolutionaries were loyal to the ‘Menshevik’ rather than ‘Bolshevik’ tradition of Russian socialism. The Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were once part of the same Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), which split at the turn of the 20th century over different understandings of how revolution works.

The Mensheviks took the orthodox Marxist line that socialism could only be achieved in states that had first passed through a liberal democratic ‘bourgeois’ phase. The Bolsheviks, under the powerful influence of Lenin, argued that even poor rural societies like Russia could move directly to socialism if the workers were guided by a vanguard of dedicated revolutionaries.

The Mensheviks had long enjoyed political dominance in Georgia, enjoying support not just among the core social democratic constituency of urban workers, but also, through the promise of land reform, the country’s huge rural population. When they found themselves thrust into power after the collapse of tsarism, and, after October, leading a country that did not want to become an appendage of Soviet Russia, they were prepared to be patient and like good Marxists let liberal democracy take its natural course.

After a failed attempt to establish a federation with its Transcaucasian neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia declared independence in May 1918. The new state’s achievements, in a country that had been no less convulsed by war, political and economic turmoil than the rest of the former Russian Empire, were impressive.

Fundamental liberal freedoms were established and enforced. The Social Democrats won formal democratic legitimacy through free elections held in February 1919, forming a majority in a parliament elected by universal suffrage, including women. In reaction to the memory of tsarism and the fear of Bolshevism, the Republic’s government had an unusually weak executive branch, headed by a chairman allowed to serve a maximum of two one-year terms. Civil institutions such as the press, trade unions and private businesses were allowed to flourish. A clear separation was drawn between church and state.

Workers enjoyed the right to strike, which was tolerated even when the flow of exports critical to the recovery of the fragile economy was disrupted. The unions won concessions such as the eight-hour workday, double pay for overtime, insurance schemes for periods of illness and unemployment, and the banning of child labour. Women were granted 10 weeks paid maternity leave.

In Soviet Russia even the refined Trotsky could denounce union objection to compulsory ‘chattel’ labour as ‘the most wretched and miserable liberal prejudice’. But in Georgia the pre-Revolutionary socialist dream of workers’ control was partially realised through the development of a cooperative economic model in which mutuals played an ever greater role, signposting an economic future closer to Robert Owen’s ideal of a cooperative commonwealth than the Soviet planned economy.

But the Republic’s most impressive achievement, perhaps, was its negotiation of the incendiary issue of land reform. Like their Soviet counterparts the Georgian government faced the dilemma of redistributing estates concentrated in the hands of a tiny aristocratic elite to land-hungry small farmers. As with the rest of the Russian Empire, Georgia’s peasantry had been set free from serfdom by the liberal Tsar Alexander II as long ago as 1861. But the aristocracy retained ownership of the land, which farmers were forced to lease at often punitive rates.

The Bolsheviks made bitter enemies of both the landowners and those who worked the soil by simply taking the land into state ownership and forcibly requisitioning its produce to feed the cities and the military. But Georgia steered a middle path, allowing the nobility to keep as much land as they needed to support themselves but making the rest available to sale to the peasants. By 1920, 90% of the land had been turned over to poor or landless farmers.

The transition was hardly smooth. Georgian military commander Sergei Jugeli, remembering his role in requisitiong the land, wrote: ‘Ossetian villages are burning all around us … In the interests of the struggling working class, in the interests of the future socialism, we will be cruel … I can look on with imperturbed soul and clear conscience at the fire and smoke of the burning houses … I am quite calm, quite calm indeed.’

But, radical as the change was, relative social harmony was preserved, certainly in contrast with the Bolsheviks’ high-handed policy of wholesale nationalisation, later taken to grotesque extremes by Stalin, whose programme of mass collectivisation claimed at least six million lives across the Ukraine.

The Republic’s constitution, published in 1921, survives as the best guide to the state the Georgians saw themselves as building. The document is notable for its unusually broad understanding of human rights, encompassing not just classic liberal rights such as freedom of speech and judicial independence but social and economic empowerment, including free education, a system of national insurance, and a state guarantee of employment.

British Labour leader – and future Prime Minister – Ramsay MacDonald was one of many international observers to record his admiration: ‘I familiarised myself with [Georgia’s] constitution [and] Its social and economic reconstruction and what I saw there, I wish I could see in my country too.’

MacDonald was one of a party of socialist luminaries that visited Georgia in 1920, which included the German Social Democrat – and venerable ‘Pope of Marxism’ – Karl Kautsky, future Belgian Prime Minister Emile Vandervelde, and the feminist Ethel Snowden, wife of Philip Snowden, MacDonald’s future Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Their diaries offer a fascinating record of the new state, but like those of the ‘revolutionary tourists’ – including Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw – who visited Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, must be treated with caution. Indeed some of their observations sound a comic note to contemporary ears.

As the party made their way through the country Snowden recalled legions of happy children ‘flinging red roses’ and ‘blowing kisses’, and ‘landlords who submitted cheerfully to the new system and noble ladies who rejoiced in their new-found economic liberties’. MacDonald remembered ‘princes who gloried in their new-found civic equality’. But the sceptical Kautsky, who stayed on for several months longer, was moved to write a critical but largely favourable book on Georgia’s progress.

Just a year later, however, Georgia’s adventure was over. The Republic’s respect for democratic and economic liberty was not matched by a similar concern for its own security. While the Soviets built up their powerful Red Army, the Georgians – whose population numbered some four million – made do with a military comprising no more than 27,000 men and 60,000 reservists, a force complemented by a tiny navy of one destroyer, four fighter aircraft, four torpedo boats and 10 steamboats.

Too much trust was placed in lukewarm international allies. During its early days the Republic had briefly come under the protection of both the Germans and, after the Armistice, the British. Both had eyed Georgia’s natural resources with interest. But the Bolsheviks wanted them too. And they feared and resented the Republic’s efforts to form alliances with western powers that had consistently supported the counter-revolutionary White armies.

When the Soviets finally triumphed over the Whites they turned their attention to Transcaucasia. Armenia and Azerbaijan fell to the Bolsheviks in 1920, and that year a strategy took shape to destabilise the Republic by fermenting unrest within Georgian ethnic minorities – such as the Abkhazians and South Ossetians – seeking greater autonomy within or without the Republic.

By cruel irony the strategy was executed on the same day, early in 1921, on which the Republic finally won official recognition from Britain and the Allied powers. The shadowy operation was masterminded by a Georgian Bolshevik with a rare gift for subterfuge: Joseph Stalin. To this day it is not clear exactly what happened.

A seemingly insignificant protest near the Armenian border was soon followed by a full scale incursion by 36,000 Red Army infantrymen. Soviet troops, on the pretext of liberating the rebels from their Georgian overlords, were soon pouring into the country from every direction. The invasion was well under way before even Lenin and Trotsky in distant Moscow learned what was happening.

The Georgians desperately lobbied for Western assistance that never came: exhausted by the First World War, Britain and the Allies had little desire to enter a new conflict against the Red Army. A fortnight after the border incident the Georgian government fled the capital Tbilisi and headed for exile. Three weeks later, the war was over.

The Soviets immediately set up the security apparatus they had established in Russia, transforming Georgia’s political and economic institutions into arms of the Bolshevik state. At first Republic loyalists resisted, jeering Stalin when he addressed a workers assembly shortly after the invasion. That night a number were escorted to a Tbilisi park and shot.

Bolshevik authority was consolidated by none other than Stalin’s fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria, the future head of secret police for the whole of the USSR. Beria proved his credentials for the top job through the conscientiousness with which he crushed the Mensheviks’ final uprising in 1924, during which so many members of the previous Republic’s old guard were assassinated that Stalin himself intervened to end the bloodletting. There were to be no more rebellions. The remants of the old regime lived out their lives in exile, the story of the Georgian Democratic Republic largely forgotten.

That story should not be sentimentalised. While building their ideal Republic the Social Democrats were perfectly capable of fighting brutal wars over small blocs of territory with their neighbours. They had no compunction putting down – to their ultimate cost – Georgia’s minority populations. And their admirable political tolerance was never tested by the presence of a serious opposition. This was a social democracy forged in early 20th century Eurasia, not 21st century Scandinavia.

But the brute fact of the Georgian Democratic Republic remains, testament to a course that a different Revolution might have taken, an alternative future that perhaps could have been. And, as Eric Lee writes in The Experiment, his vivid history of the Republic, there is ‘something terribly poignant in the image of Georgia’s Constituent Assembly holding its final meeting in Batumi on the Black Sea coast. With the Red Army only hours away, and the Georgian government rushing to board ships that would take them into exile, the Georgian Social Democrats were keen to complete their legacy’.

That proud determination received posthumous acknowledgement nearly 70 years later when the 1921 constitution was adopted by a newly independent Georgia after the fall of the USSR. A quarter of a century on it still survives as the basis of the country’s current constitution, testament, perhaps, to the abiding power of the revolutionary dreams that shook the world a century ago.

Justin Reynolds is a designer and writer

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