Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia, by Donald Rayfield, Reaktion Books, RRP£35, 512 pages
This month’s parliamentary elections in Georgia fell short of the standards expected of a mature democracy. They nevertheless produced an outcome barely conceivable in most of the states that, like Georgia, emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The opposition won, and the government accepted the result.
No less striking were the visions of Georgia’s place in the world spelled out by President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose party lost, and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the victorious billionaire businessman and prime minister-designate. The two men dislike and distrust each other. But each reaffirmed that he saw Georgia as a nation anchored in the Euro-Atlantic community of prosperous, law-based democracies. The chief difference between the pair concerned not the destination but whether, in getting there, Saakashvili might antagonise Russia too much and Ivanishvili might compromise Georgia’s independence.
Donald Rayfield’s panoramic Edge of Empires is an impressive work that helps us understand why this south Caucasus nation of 4.6m people, lodged in a hostile and unstable neighbourhood, looks so longingly to the west. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, foreign intervention and internal factionalism have repeatedly foiled Georgia’s dreams of shaking off the oppressive rule of larger, non-western powers and constructing a viable polity. Georgia’s independence is today officially recognised across the world, but violent domestic upheavals and partial dismemberment at Russia’s hands in a brief yet brutal 2008 conflict have scarred the experience of freedom over the past 20 years.
Since the second world war, comprehensive surveys of Georgian history in western languages have been few and far between. David Marshall Lang, a British scholar, published A Modern History of Georgia in 1962 but its coverage of the late tsarist era and early communist decades now looks dated. In 1994 there appeared Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Making of the Georgian Nation, a work by an acclaimed American historian that is still in print. Rayfield, emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London, is the author of a history of Georgian literature and editor of a Georgian-English dictionary. Edge of Empires, which stretches from prehistoric times to the present day, is the most wide-ranging and reliable history of Georgia one is likely to find for many years to come.
The book devotes several fascinating chapters to Georgia’s glorious medieval era, which began with the 1089-1125 reign of Davit the Builder. The nation’s greatest monarch, Davit “reunited the kingdom and expelled all invaders, created a flourishing civil administration, army, legal system, church, feudal hierarchy and secular culture, and made Georgia for the next century the regional power”.
Yet Georgia, which converted to Christianity in the early fourth century, could do little to overcome its geopolitical weakness. From its origins, Georgia has existed in a peculiarly dangerous and much-contested part of the world. One after another, the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Persians and Russians – latterly, fitted in Soviet clothes – have occupied or sought to control the country. This often involved setting Georgia’s rival ethnic groups and political clans against each other, a practice visible in the post-communist era, too, when Russia has backed Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatists against the central government in Tbilisi.
Georgia’s historical experience differs from that of other small nations such as the Baltic states and Finland, which fell under Russian or Soviet rule but eventually made a more complete escape. Georgia was absorbed into the tsarist empire in 1801, its royal family deported to Russia and its language replaced with Russian in public life. An opportunity for freedom arose after the February 1917 revolution, which overthrew the tsar, but after declaring independence in May 1918, the Georgians proved unable to sustain their state for more than three years.
Rayfield points out that whereas Vladimir Lenin let the Balts and Finns go their own way, similar forbearance was unlikely in Georgia. The impulse to conquest was strong among Moscow-based Bolsheviks and thuggish Georgian comrades such as Josef Stalin and Sergo Orjonikidze. The Kremlin wanted Azerbaijan under its control because of the Baku oilfields. Armenia and Georgia would have to go the same way. It barely crossed the minds of western governments, disillusioned with their ineffective intervention in Russia’s civil war, to uphold Georgia’s independence.
As might be expected of the author of Stalin and his Hangmen (2004), which painted devastating portraits of the dictator’s secret police chiefs, Rayfield is excellent on Georgia’s experiences under the ghoulish Lavrenti Beria. Descended from western Georgia’s Mingrelian minority, Beria was a psychopath and rapist who killed his victims’ husbands and lovers and ordered the arrests and deaths of tens of thousands of Georgians. In 1936 he invited Armenia’s communist party leader to his office and shot him. He poisoned Abkhazia’s leader and personally blinded and deafened Evgeni Mikeladze, Georgia’s leading conductor, before having him executed.
Beria was executed on the post-Stalin leadership’s orders in 1953. But when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes at a party congress in 1956, Georgians took his speech as an act of colonial Russian oppression and rioted in the streets. Some 150 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Rayfield observes that this was the moment when Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected Georgia’s post-communist president in 1991, and other young malcontents broke with the Soviet system. “The Georgian dissident movement was baptised in fire,” he writes.
Similar violence turned the Georgian nation decisively against communism in 1989. Soviet interior ministry troops attacked pro-independence demonstrators with sharpened shovels and gas pistols, killing 21. Independence was regained in 1991 but Georgia lapsed into an extended period of lawlessness, rampant official corruption and ethnic minority tensions. Rayfield quotes Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister turned Georgian president, as saying before his overthrow at Saakashvili’s hands in the 2003 Rose revolution: “What can we do? We’re a failed state.”
This was perhaps too pessimistic: real social and economic progress has occurred in the past nine years. Yet the outcome of the 2008 war was little short of catastrophic: Russia took control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and western governments, exasperated with Saakashvili, froze all consideration of bringing Georgia into Nato. Rayfield’s history is an excellent starting point for readers asking themselves what twists of fate await Georgia in the future.
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor
In FT Weekend Magazine, Neil Buckley meets the winners and losers in Georgia’s election