Issue 1, 2018. February-March



The first democratically elected leader of Georgia, Noe Jordania, was the voice of a generation of Georgians who grappled with great challenges and, against all odds, created an internationally recognized democracy.

It is said that history belongs to the victors, so perhaps it is not so surprising that the Soviets were keen to erase the memory and legacy of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG).

But today, thanks to a determined group of historians in Georgia and abroad -- and the tireless efforts of the descedents of Noe Jordania and other leaders of the First Republic --- the accomplishments of Georgia's first modern state are finally coming to light.

A little-known miracle

The DRG, also known as the First Republic, was the first modern Georgian state.

Its founders -- including great Georgian statesmen like Noe Jordania and Noe Ramishvili, among many others - managed to create a democracy that received wide international recognition.

That was no easy task. The Georgia that emerged from the ruins of the Russian Empire was not a state: it had been ruled by the tsar's viceroy for over a hundred years.

Jordania and the rest of the political elite had to create the country, stressed Jordania's granddaughter, author Christine Pagava-Boulez, who runs a blog documenting the First Republic and its achievements as well as her grandfather's life and political career.

"Their first job is to erect a state...what is fantastic is that they managed to do it," she said, underlining that the state they created was very "progressive as the laws and the Constitution show."

Among the many institutions that the country lacked was a military force, a vital element to maintaining the country in the face of myriad threats.

In the face of debilitating economic crisis and a lack of foreign assistance, what Jordania and the rest of the Georgian political elite managed to do was nothing short of a miracle, noted French historian, professor emeritous at INALCO (Paris), Charles Urjewicz, Chairman of the Noe Jordania Institute.

Parade in honor of de jure recognition of Georgia. Tbilisi, January 1921

"For the Georgians of that time, it was so important to build a national state, a social state and a democratic state. Of course it is very difficult for people today to understand it, just because we do not know about it," he said.

"The Georgians were not Bolsheviks; they wanted a real democratic system in their country. That has been forgotten."

The path they chose was difficult especially in the context that existed following WWI.

While Georgian intellectuals, including Jordania and his contemporaries, had strong ties to European countries, Europe was in the middle of its own crisis and was unable to take into account the emergence of these new states.

Georgia also faced threats from the declining Ottoman Empire to its west, the Bolsheviks and the White Russians from the north and, by 1920, from the Soviet army in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But it managed to survive -- a feat that few of the nations that struggled for existence after the fall of the Russian Empire managed to achieve, noted Giorgi Kandelaki, an opposition MP from European Georgia in the Georgian Parliament who has done extensive research on the First Republic.

With the notable exception of more established nations, like the Baltic States, Poland and Finland, "Georgia, it appears, was the only country which emerged from the ruins of the Russian Empire, which managed to obtain full-fledged international recognition," he said.

There were many attempts at state building when the tsarist empire collapsed and as the civil war in Russia progressed. But many of them were very unsuccessful and faded very quickly... In a nutshell, only Georgia managed to obtain full-fledged international de jure recognition from Britain and France and so forth."

That distinction is important, Kandelaki stressed, because it means Georgia, like the Baltic States, has a legacy as a modern democracy before it was occupied by the Soviet Union.

"At the heart of ... political discourse in the Baltic states, is a very simple and straightforward narrative: 'We had our own country and that country was doing pretty well by the standards of that time. And then these bad guys came with guns and destroyed it and killed lots of people and now we can rightfully reclaim what was taken away from us'," he said.

"This narrative is completely absent in Georgia but is no less true... we had a good country and it was destroyed against the will of its people - there is no political propaganda element to that fact - it is just true. But this fact is not present in our national narrative. Even educated people - or more or less educated people in Georgia - do not have this knowledge inside them, that we had this successful, normal country and it was destroyed."

A functioning democracy

"To put it very succinctly, the Democratic Republic of Georgia worked. It had institutions that worked in those tumultuous years after the First World War, when there was a huge economic crisis everywhere, where there was no International Monetary Fund or World Bank to aid countries in crisis - Georgia overcame the problems of the day quicker than many other countries, like Poland, like hyper inflation was overcome towards the end of 1920," Kandelaki said, noting that successful, multiparty elections were held, both parliamentary and local elections.

Parliament and Cabinet of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (around 1920)

The Democratic Republic of Georgia also had functioning institutions: Parliament, local government, jury trials and, indeed, free press.

Not only was it a success, but DRG had a distinct foreign policy: Georgia wanted to be part of Europe. Jordania and his government, which worked closely with the main political opposition in the country - the National Democrats - built a progressive country that espoused European values.

"Jordania was a real European intellectual, able to deal with theory, able to deal with daily politics and able to compare Europe and Georgia," Urjewicz said.

"But the question was, how to reach Europe? If you wanted to build something, the only way was to radicalize yourself ... and society was very radical in Georgia, but not radical in a Bolshevik way, and that is a very important point," he said.

Jordania's vision was profoundly different than that of the Bolsheviks: he dismissed Lenin's ideas of Marxism as "utopian" and completely out of sync with the reality in Georgia.

A scholar and talented writer, Jordania had a strong appreciation of the power of peasants to create change. He was born in Guria, in western Georgia -- a small province that played an oversized role in revolts against the tsar during the Russian Empire.

In his book, My Past, Jordania explains how Georgian socialists sought a different path.

"We had managed to extricate ourselves from Russian socialism...The slogan and practice of the Russians was: 'The liberation of the workers is the business of the devoted intelligentsia'...In Europe and Russia, only factory workers were considered as belonging to the working class. They constituted the industrial proletariat, that which would lead to the other toiling masses (peasants, artisans) to the Promised Land. We, on the contrary, have bound the workman to the peasant..." he wrote.

What Jordania and his government created was a country based on a progressive constitution that gave both men and women the right to vote, abolished the death penalty and made clear the separation of church and state. People were given the right to strike and minors -- people under the age of 16-- were prohibited from working. Primary education was free and compulsory.

Three myths

Contrary to popular myth, neither the Bolsheviks nor Stalin were popular in Georgia at that time, Kandelaki said, adding that Stalin insisted on launching a military invasion as quickly as possible, rather than postponing it as Lenin was suggesting.

The invasion was launched on February 11, 1921 citing the need to assist the "oppressed proletariat," Kandelaki said.

The First Republic held for one month, fighting down two Russian armies on five fronts in battles that used all the modern military equipment at Russia's disposal -- tanks, armoured trains, aircraft.

In an effort to preserve the government and sovereignty, the National Assembly voted to evacuate to France so they could continue efforts to convince Europe and other allies to defend Georgia and its independence.

Jordania and others continued the fight from France - they prepared for the ultimately unsuccessful armed insurrection against the Soviets in 1924 and they fought on the diplomatic front: signing treaties and documents, forcing Europe to continue to recognize Georgia's de jure independence.

The work of Jordania and his government was successful in several areas: they maintained international dejure recognition of Georgian independence until 1934, when the League of Nations officially recognized the Soviet Union in its official boundaries; their diplomatic efforts made it much easier for Georgia in 1991, when it re-established its independence, as well; they were able to help Georgian émigrés, including saving Georgian Jews living in France during WWII.

But their legacy was not powerful enough to stop three myths that emerged during the decades that followed, which, according to Kandelaki, continue to "haunt us."

"There are three myths about the Democratic Republic of Georgia that are incredibly omnipresent, and these myths haunt us. These myths are not just historical -- I am not looking at this as a historically curious fact - it is something that is relevant for our state building and democracy effort today," he said.

One myth is that the Soviet occupation of Georgia was not really an occupation at all; rather one group of Georgians (the First Republic) fought against another group of Georgians (the Bolsheviks) and lost.

But that was not the case. Kandelaki noted that the Bolsheviks, in general, were very unpopular in the country. Pagava-Boulez underscored that Georgians did not fight in the Bolsheviks' Red army.

"The way to measure the people's will is through elections and Georgia held two elections, parliamentary and local. In 1919, there were parliamentary elections in which local Bolsheviks took part and they could only get 700 votes. No one knew them -- they had no base, nothing. Stalin's personality was very much resented, very much resented, especially after the occupation," he said.

The second myth is the question of whether Georgia did really resist the Bolsheviks. Historical documents make it clear that the government did really resist, and its allies helped -- the French navy attacked the Red Army in Abkhazia: in fact, Jordania and his government never even surrendered, Pagava-Boulez stressed.

She noted there is a misconception in Georgia that once Jordania and others arrived in France, they "saw that nothing could be done, and then Noe Jordania just wrote articles and books. That is absolutely false."

The third myth is that the First Republic was a failed state anyway, so the fact that it was occupied by Soviet Russia should not matter, Kandelaki said.

The myth is that "we are just a bunch of crazy people and somehow we are not capable of constructing a successful, modern, democratic state," he said, which research has shown was not true.

"I would argue that if you apply the standards of social science, one could say that the Democratic Republic of Georgia was a consolidated democracy... obviously there was no time to test whether governments could alternate, but they were not clinging to power, one could say," Kandelaki said.

Learning from the past

The fact that many people, including people in Georgia, believe these three myths shows there is a danger of history repeating itself, he noted.

"We lost independence because of Stalin, and now this fake Georgia, anti-Western nationalism, which is at the heart of this Russian informational warfare is again wrapped around Stalin," Kandelaki said, adding that five new statues of Stalin have been erected in Georgia since 2012. Also, the project to transform the Museum of Stalin in Gori, launched in early 2012, was suspended by the current government, and the museum still eulogizes this mass murderer. This ambivalence towards the Soviet past is, at best, irresponsible and dangerous," he said.

"There is a complete lack of context of where this country is coming from and if you lose this sense, then you will screw up again... We should learn about the Democratic Republic of Georgia because, first of all, it deserves to be known by the people of this country and, by understanding how successful this undertaking was, we will have a better understanding of the context of where we are coming from and where we want to go.

"This idea, that Georgia should be Western, it was not invented recently...Whenever the people of this country have had the free opportunity to express their opinion, this was a fundamental consensus in this society and this understanding of this context will perhaps help our society to avoid these mistakes and make correct decisions."

A Year to Celebrate

2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Democratic Republic, the first modern, independent Georgian state. In honor of the anniversary, is launching a year of features that spotlight great Georgians -- some from the past, some from today --and the contributions they have made to their country and the world.

From sports to archeology, astronomy to military strategy, Georgians have made their mark in nearly every field imaginable at home and across the globe.

But in the sea of news that floods our lives today, it is easy to overlook --or simply forget -- what they have achieved.

We will look at everyone from Olympians to inventors, physicians to military commanders, and we welcome your suggestions as we plan our coverage. There are two caveats: the features will focus on Georgia's modern history; they will not, however, include political leaders from the 21st century.