The exuberant life and tragic death of the Blue Horns

by Dr. Lasha Bakradze:

Grigol Robakidze, one of the respected Georgian authors of the time, had this to say about Georgia’s second largest city in 1918: “the philistinism of Kutaisi is truly tragic (and that it is perhaps a gruesome symbol of all present-day Georgia)”. He was writing in the Tbilisi-based journal ARS about Georgian Modernism. Despite his harsh words, Kutaisi merited his attention precisely because this petty-bourgeois city became, from 1915 on, the home to a group of young poets that came to be known as the “Blue Horns” (tsisferi qantsebi – more precisely translated as the “sky-blue drinking horns”).

Controversial bohemians

The young poets appeared and, Robakidze reminisced, “the pubs of Kutaisi suddenly turned into Parisian literary cafes, where alongside the hoarse tunes of the barrel organs and the indispensable Mravalzhamier [a Georgian polyphonic table song] exquisite names such as Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, José María Heredia and Emile Verhaeren, Konstantin Balmont and Valery Bryusov … were invoked.”

The heart of the group, Paolo Iashvili, had returned from Paris in 1915. By 1913, at the age of 19, he had already published the journal Golden Fleece, which brought many young writers into the limelight. In 1916 he founded the journal Blue Horns.

In his youthful exuberance, Paolo proclaimed a manifesto: “Listen to our sermon. […] We have appeared to the ghostly figure of Georgia, shrouded in new brilliance, to show those who have lost their dreams a clear path to the blue temple of the future. ”

The self-proclaimed teachers and trailblazers did not always encounter an enthusiastic reception in Georgia.

One Philipe Makharadze lambasted the young poets in a 1916 newspaper article titled “The Worst Literary Crime”: “They are a spawn of those dark forces whom they serve, but their feasts and their debauchery will not last. The sun will rise again and the light shall prevail. They will be forced to crawl back into the black holes from which they emerged.” Rather than merely a nasty turn of a publicist’s phrase, this was a chilling premonition: by 1921 Makharadze would become the Chairman of the Georgian Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee, the main administrative body of the Soviet occupation in 1921.

In the meantime, though, the “Blue Horns” stayed true to their bohemian aspirations, well reflected in their name: the “horns” referred to the traditional wine-drinking vessel made from animal horns (the rython) that is still widely used in Georgia today. Blue was considered the color of poetry and romanticism.

Twelve men and their hidden sister

Many members of the group came from the Kutaisi Classical Gymnasium. Many famous poets, artists, scientists and politicians, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was one year older than Paolo, studied in this provincial school.  The Blue Horns professed allegiance to the influential Russian literary trend called “symbolism.” Yet they were also interested in new avant-garde movements and lectured in Kutaisi on Marinetti and futurism. In the early 1920s, Titsian Tabidze, one of the group’s most notable poets, even wrote Dadaist manifestos.

Ten to fifteen authors belonged to the Blue Horns at various times, though Titsian Tabidze always spoke of 13 members, for symbolic reasons: after the 13 Christian-Assyrian fathers who founded the monastic life in Georgia in the 6th century.

The Blue Horns were a circle of men, and yet from the beginning there was also a young woman who wrote under the pseudonym  Elene Dariani:

“I will surrender to my beloved hands, like to a gentle bed,
and you’ll kiss me as if I were a queen, as if I were a slave and a wife.”


Her poems were very fresh and sensual, though she seems never to have recited them in public, which has shrouded her identity – and even her very existence – in mystery.

A married woman, she was the lover of Paolo Iashvili, who served as her editor. Some literary critics view the series of poems known as the Darianuli as a joint work of both Elene and Paolo. The Blue Horners referred to Dariani as their “hidden sister”.

When Paolo first recited her poetry in 1915 the audience was shocked by its free erotic motives. One indignant woman reportedly walked out. After Paolo’s death, Dariani’s poems would be re-published only in 1950s after Paolo’s political rehabilitation. They were published as having been authored by Iashvili, together with his other texts.

The historian Giorgi Javakhishvili was the first to publish a series of articles about Elene Dariani (her real name was Elene Bakradze) at the end of the last century. Critics immediately responded, arguing that Dariani’s role was anecdotal and negligible. Part of the current Georgian literary establishment still vehemently denies her authorship.

In 2013, the Georgian Literary Museum held an exhibition titled “The Woman behind Paolo”. Several critical articles were again published, and a television program aired on the topic suggesting that  the story should not be taken seriously. But the hidden member of the Blue Horns was nonetheless resurrected. The Literature Museum is now working publishing Elene Bakradze’s personal archive.

Moving to the capital

During the period of the February Revolution in Russia, the turmoil of the First World War, the October Revolution and the beginning of the Russian Civil War, Georgia was comparatively calm and stable.

Many artists from different regions of the former Russian Empire thought safe haven in Tbilisi. The mixture of cultures of the traditionally tolerant city became even more colorful. Sergo Kldiashvili, one of the Blue Horns, described this period in his memoirs as the “Great Resettlement”. There was hunger and epidemics, but there was also total artistic freedom. The Tbilisi avant-garde resulted from the coexistence and cooperation of both foreign and local artists.

On May 26, 1918, the free and Democratic Republic of Georgia was proclaimed. The German Reich took the role of protector of the young republic, which was governed by Social Democrats. Georgia’s brief independence was an intense period of testing new cultural paths, and artists attempted to express and interpret the story of modernity that confronted them. Various avant-garde directions enriched one another in peaceful co-existence and collaboration. Thus the republic’s capital, Tbilisi became an artistic metropolis.

The leading figures of the Blue Horns moved from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. Here they appeared more as traditionalists, with their efforts at sonnets and their avant-garde interests, in contrast to the radical futurists such as the poets surrounding Ilia Zdanevich and Alexei Kruchenykh, who engaged in Dadaist-like experiments.

The jewel of the artistic avant-garde in Tbilisi, the leaflet Fantasticheski kabachok (the “Fantastic Pub”), edited by Ilia Zdanevich with participation by the Blue Horns, is a good example of the cooperation between the different elements of the Tbilisi avant-garde.

The Blue Horns participated in all of the important events of Tbilisi’s cultural life. Hardly a literary evening or art exhibition took place without them. The “Chimerioni” cafe, founded by the Blue Horns and designed by the leading lights of the Georgian painting scene, David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Sergei Sudeikin and Mose Toidze, was an important venue for literature and art lovers and for the starving artists who hung out at the many artists’ taverns that mushroomed in Tbilisi. The Blue Horns also published in Tbilisi the new journal Meotsnebe Niamorebi (“The Dreaming Wild Goats”) and the newspaper Barrikadi (“The Barricade”).

“Sovietisation” and an attempt at accommodation

In 1921 the country was occupied by the Russian Red Army.

“With Red flag flying, head held high,
On white steed walking stolid gait,
Death entered scene with shining scythe!
The mourning snow on Tiflis fell,      
Mute was the crowd, and mute was Church.”

So wrote one of the last surviving members of the Blue Horn movement, Kolau Nadiradze, many years later. The publication of this poem, overlooked by the censors, provoked a scandal in 1985, the last one that the Blue Horns caused.

As the Georgian Democratic Republic fell, the Blue Horns – who considered themselves largely apolitical – attempted a conciliatory stance towards the country’s new rulers. Nonetheless, their “decadent” literary style made them an obvious target of attacks by “the proletarian writers” who treaded the general line of the Communist Party.

The relatively liberal attitude of the Communist rulers in Tbilisi attitude towards artists came to an abrupt end following the failed anti-Soviet uprising in Georgia in 1924. The party now demanded that writers make a firm commitment to Communist ideas and to Party policies. So-called “fellow travelers” were no longer needed. The Blue Horns attempted to put themselves at the service of socialist construction and to adapt to the growing political pressure.

By the end of the 1920s, the final alignment of literature and art with Party doctrine had begun, and by 1931 the Blue Horns were dissolved as a literary group.

Nevertheless, in the beginning of 1930s the Blue Horns were popular not only in Georgia, but were also becoming known in Russia, thanks to the translations of their work by Osip Mandelshtam and Boris Pasternak.

Although Mandelshtam had been freed from quarantine in Batumi in 1920 after fleeing Crimea with the assistance of Tabidze and Mitsishvili and was hosted in Tbilisi in 1921 by Tabidze and Iashvili, he was openly antithetic to the Blue Horns: “These days [Georgian literature] is represented by the “Blue Horns” group residing in Tbilisi and headed by Paolo Iashvili and Titsian Tabidze. The Blue Horns are considered the highest judges of arts in Georgia, but may God himself be their judge. Raised in kneeling adulation towards French modernism… they entertain themselves and their readers with a cheap mix of Baudelairean poetry, the desperation of Arthur Rimbaud, and vulgarized-stylized demonism. All of this is seasoned to the taste with superficial exoticism. The colossal burgeoning of Russian poetry over the last twenty years has passed them by without a trace. In our eyes, they are akin to the scene in provincial towns like Penza or Tambov.”

Boris Pasternak, on the contrary, had excellent relations with the Blue Horns, especially with Tabidze later on in his life. Pasternak’ letters to Tabidze’s widow and a typewritten copy of “Doctor Zhivago” with a personal inscription to Tabidze testify to their close relationships.

Due to their notoriety, four former Blue Horns attended the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, where Socialist Realism was proclaimed as the central doctrine of Soviet literature. Paolo Iashvili, Titsian Tabidze and Nikolo Mitsishvili delivered speeches there. In the first days of the Congress a reading of the Georgian writers’ works was held at which Pasternak and Nikolai Tikhonov presented their translations, which were received with euphoric enthusiasm.

Death of an illusion

But they also faced increasingly vicious hostility. Their efforts to integrate themselves with Soviet literature did not seem sufficiently sincere to Soviet critics. They were not forgiven for being a “bourgeois-decadent school” characterized by “extreme individualism”, “mysticism”, “cult of bohemianism” and an “escape from reality” – all deadly sins in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. Trying to blend in, Iashvili and Mitsishvili wrote odes to Stalin that were made accessible in Russian through Pasternak’s translations, and these even gave rise to an all-Soviet “Staliniana,” the praising of Stalin through poetry.

This adjustment took a significant emotional and psychological toll. The poetry of the Blue Horns, long subjected to poetic disparagement, grew increasingly apocalyptic and morbid

 “One poor poet cannot,
In all sincerity ask for more,
Put thirteen bullets in my heart;”
(Titsian Tabidze, Ria-Ria, 1929)

In 1926, on the occasion of the death of Sergei Yesenin, Titsian Tabidze wrote in a poem: “But we all have different times coming, / we will probably be shot somewhere like dogs.”

In 1922, Nikolo Mitsishvili precisely foretold the time of his death in his book Epopeia: “I am 26 years old, and it seems that I’m beginning to live again. If my calculations are right, I will hold out for 15 more years, so is it worth worrying about?”

In 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, both Nikolo Mitsishvili and Titsian Tabidze, like many other writers and artists, were sentenced to death and executed. Paolo Iashvili could not withstand the constant pressure of the secret police interrogations and the demands to denounce his friends and colleagues.

He killed himself with a shotgun in the building of the Georgian Writers’ Union while an official session was underway on a lower floor. His suicide was considered an act of hooliganism. The death of the “unmasked spy and enemy of the people” was classified by the Communist Party of Georgia in an official resolution as “a lashing out (vypad) against the Party and the Soviet authorities.”

The leader of the Georgian Communist Party leader, and thus country’s governor at the time, Lavrenti Beria, who a year later would become the dreaded chief of the Soviet secret police, forbade a public funeral.  Kolau Nadiradze of the Blue Horns group was the only one to defy the ban. He was denounced to Beria, who was supposedly impressed by his courage and said “Bravo. Do not touch him!”

Grigol Robakidze, a friend and a mentor of the Blue Horns who went into German exile in the 1930s, wrote this in his obituary of Paolo Iashvili:

“In 1924, during the great uprising in Georgia, his young brother was executed. Paolo kept this devastating revelation from his mother. He took it upon himself to lead his mother to believe that his brother was alive. For years, he wrote letters on behalf of his dead brother, pretending that he had escaped and was living in Iran. You could see him miserable, forging his dead brother’s handwriting. If the poor old woman is still alive, she has now lost not one, but two sons… ”

Dr. Lasha Bakradze

Dr. Lasha Bakradze is a Georgian publicist, researcher and opinion leader. He is the director of Giorgi Leonidze State Museum of Literature since 2010 and also teaches Soviet history at the Ilia State University of Tbilisi since 2010. He has also co-established and is a board member of the Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB).