Insight | Soviet Occupation Centennial Reminds of the Unresolved Past

On a melancholic day of February 25, Georgia marked 100 years since the Soviet army took over Tbilisi, ending the independence of the first, ephemeral social-democratic Republic. Georgia recaptured its statehood only in 1991, but even after 30 years, the shadow of the Soviet occupation still haunts the Georgian society, reopening old wounds about the unresolved past and the questioned legacy.

Three decades later, the Georgian people are still far from having a consensus stance on Georgia in the Soviet Union. The centennial anniversary of the Soviet occupation reignited debate in different segments of the Georgian society about the Soviet Union, its legacy, and its relevance today.

Nostalgic ambivalence

Georgians are utterly ambivalent about the Soviet Union. The majority cherish the Georgian independence, but many are sentimental about particular elements of their Soviet childhood or youth.

Irakli Khvadagiani, a research fellow at Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SovLab), tells that even those people who are nostalgic about the Soviet Union realize the severity of the regime’s violence. The historian believes that the people’s attitude toward the Soviet Union is mostly a “hybrid mix,” as many of them are not able to form a coherent opinion due to “fragmented knowledge” about the history.

“For instance, when a sociological survey on Stalin was conducted in Georgia, more than 40 percent of the interviewees expressed positive views about the leader of the Soviet Union, however, the majority of the same people also said that they would not live under Stalin’s rule,” Khvadagiani tells us.

This inconsistency is in part due to the conflicting attitudes, thinks Irakli Iremadze, a historian who studies the First Georgian Republic. One focuses solely on the totalitarian nature of the regime, repressions, and atrocities, portraying the Soviet Union in exclusively negative colors. The other one wrongly idealizes the Soviet Union “as an oasis of social equality.”

In Iremadzes mind, this second viewpoint gained ground especially due to the acute social cleavages that emerged in Georgia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Georgians who lived under USSR feel that they are deprived of even those small social guarantees and livelihoods they possessed before 1991.

With severe social and economic hardship being an actual and pressing concern, explains Giorgi Maisuradze, professor at Ilia State University, the memory of the restrictions on freedom of speech, censorship, the “Iron Curtain”, one-party rule, and persecution of dissidents fades in the background, and “seems less disturbing.” More so, that there are very few of those Georgians that remember the horrors of purges in the 1930s still among us. Those who recall USSR with a certain nostalgia, refer to Khrushchev’s “spring” and Brezhnev’s “stagnation” – certainly the phase in Soviet history that was less traumatizing for the majority.

Yet, irrespective of whether people profess positive or negative attitudes toward the Soviet past, their opinions are often poorly informed and partial, say the historians. The stance on USSR is often formed through narrow personal experience, urban legends, and mythical narratives, devoid of comprehensive historical background.

Either way, the totalitarian and violent essence of the Soviet Union is too difficult to deny. However, even when it comes to the repressions, Georgians tend to remember only prominent victims, many of them writers or intelligentsia that formed the part of the Soviet elite at one point or another. The deaths of thousands of workers, trade union members, and party representatives who “thought differently,” remain forgotten, or recede into the background, Iremadze remarks.

While this selective memory is understandable on a human level, Iremadze worries about political implications. He says “for a historian and a citizen who shares leftist views,” the positive attitude of current Georgian leftists toward the Soviet Union seems “tragic.”

“For me, rather than the Soviet system and its legacy, the experience of democratic socialism, which was destroyed by the establishment of the totalitarian Soviet system in Georgia, is more valuable. In 1918-1921, the experience of building a social state was created in Georgia, the aim of which was to establish a socialist order through democratization,” Iremadze explains. To make these elements of history better known, Iremadze is engaged in’s project Republic-100, which revives the news of 1918-1921 and puts them into the historical context of the time. Many of the project’s Facebook followers report their surprise at learning for the first time how rich the social, civil, and political life has been in those brief years of independence – but also of a social experiment.

In search of a weighted consensus

At first glance, three decades sound more than enough to reach a consensus about an important historical period, but the Georgian society still struggles. While the political elites speak strongly against the oppression of the Soviet Union, some argue these elites haven’t done enough to provide Georgians sufficient social security, creating a fertile ground for Soviet nostalgia.

Giorgi Maisuradze blames the United National Movement, a former ruling party, for making anti-Soviet messages a cornerstone of their “propaganda.” He thinks instrumentalization of this issue has triggered the emotional backlash among some Georgians, which does not help in advancing towards a historically accurate debate, which necessarily admits to complexity.

Still, Maisuradze agrees that revisiting the Soviet Union academically is relevant not only for establishing a more objective view of our past but also for looking more critically at the present. He believes that learning about the Soviet Union may help glean insights into modern Georgian nationalism, characterized by glorifying the country’s history and culture and compounded by intolerance to a different opinion.

But to understand the Soviet past better, academics need to work on archives. Irakli Khvadagiani, tells us that successive post-Soviet Georgian governments prevented this both by restricting access and by refusing to provide any financial or other incentives to the scholars that are interested in the subject.

“The state itself did not take any steps to finance the studies about the subject, to investigate the atrocities of the Soviet Union, did not simplify bureaucratic obstacles for the scholars. Both schools and universities insufficiently cover this period [in their curricula], ignoring plentiful crucial factors,” Khvadagiani worries.

The formation of the generally acknowledged national narrative based on the historic truth asks for the consolidated effort by different segments of the society, including the state institutions, academia, media, and civil sector. But scholars worry that their main interest is to use the Soviet past as a tool to back up their own – often political – agendas.

The superficiality with which the state institutions treat the subject was laid bare by blatant factual mistakes, with which the official government Facebook page noted the anniversary of the Soviet invasion in 1921. Even though the government’s press service apologized for the “technical flaws,” historians argued that even the corrected text was still “inaccurate, superficial, and circumscribed.”

Lasting relevance of the Soviet past

The Free University alumni’s anti-Soviet video – “Why I don’t love the Soviet Union” – which was published on February 25 anniversary, struck the chord in the debate. It was derived from the 2012 blog post of the Free University’s founder, Kakha Bendukidze who is considered by many as the father of Georgia’s new ardently pro-western political stance, mixed with a dollop of economic neo-liberalism. The video proved controversial – some, mainly younger viewers acclaimed it, others, chiefly the elder generation, said it was not depicting the Soviet reality adequately.

The public debate echoes the disagreements that persist in academic circles, too. While who doubt the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union, some think the “Never Back to USSR” campaign, launched by the civil sector and endorsed by some political parties is misplaced. They think this is scaremongering since the Soviet resurrection is now impossible.

Sopo Gelava, a research associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and one of the participants of the Free University video, tells that those who say the Soviet Union is no longer relevant miss an important point: in her eyes, modern Russia inherited the “expansionist and revanchist policy” from its predecessor and considers Georgia its prey. Gelava also asserts that denying the parallel with the Soviet Union and downplaying its crimes is in Russia’s interests, as the Kremlin aims to distract Georgians from countering Moscow’s aggression by portraying other neighbors – be it Azerbaijan or Turkey as “also enemies.” In this context, the video wanted to remind people about the Soviet atrocities and challenge the propaganda of modern Russia, Gelava argues.

Giorgi Maisuradze, who was sarcastic in criticizing the Free University’s video on his Facebook page, believes that berating the Soviet Union that has been dead for three decades misses the point. “Everything created in the USSR, both good and evil, was conditioned by historical circumstances. Its recurrence in other historical reality is impossible,” Maisuradze argues. He also says the esthetics of the Free University’s video reminds him of Soviet propaganda: “we talked about the ills of the U.S. and the rot of the capitalist countries with the same fake pathos, in times of the Soviet Union,” he remarks.

Gelava responded to the criticism of “one of the university lecturers” (supposedly referring to Giorgi Maisuradze), saying it is a “manipulation” to compare, as he rhetorically did, the mention of the Soviet legacy to the ills of the Ottoman Empire and Golden Horde. She says “socialists in Georgia” refuse to admit that Soviet Union’s brutality and totalitarianism “come from the very nature of Marxism.” She thinks that the leftists refrain from criticizing the Soviet Union to avoid discrediting socialism as an idea.

Irakli Khvadagiani believes that while the forms of expression can be debated, the fear of the Soviet Union mostly reflects fear of its heir, Russia, and the manifestations of the totalitarianism and stagnation inside Georgia itself.

“We did not succeed in building a better alternative,” Khvadagiani says, adding that the structurally independent Georgia still remained a country where the minority rules over the majority through the violent system. “Return of the historical Soviet Union as it was in the past is impossible, but the system it left is still considered useful by some people,” Khvadagiani says.

What now?

“It was snowing, Tbilisi was wrapped in mourning garb, Zion Cathedral was silent, so were the people,” Kolau Nadiradze, one of the key members of the Georgian symbolist movement wrote in his monumental poem about the sorrowful day of February 25, 1921.

One century after the Soviet invasion, Georgia, deprived of its historic chance to emerge as a true European, democratic, and social welfare state, is still wrapped in mourning garb of bewilderment and public disunity, without a clear view of its past and its future.

The time has come to find a resolution. Endlessly ignoring the sensitive issue of the Soviet occupation and consequent historical events leaves the country delusional about an important part of its history. Moreover, the misinformed society lacking authentic knowledge about the Soviet past falls prey to simple political and ideological manipulations.

The solution, as often the case, lies in the proper education and objective scientific research. Genuine public debate about our past requires academic scholarship about the subject, reforming the school education, funding the studies, and simplifying access to the archives.

The effort to be made in this direction is vast. But the public controversies accompanying the centennial anniversary of the Soviet occupation clearly showed that while the Soviet Union belongs in the past, its heritage continues to divide.