The Bolsheviks who came to power in Petrograd in the 1917 October Revolution were multi-national, anti-imperial revolutionaries and themselves products of empire. Only one in four “came from the historic Russian core; the rest came from the empire’s geopolitically sensitive or multiethnic frontiers, highlighting the borderland factor in Bolshevism’s revolutionary politics.”6 This included Georgians and others from the South Caucasus. Once in power, decades of Marxist debates on the national question became strategic matters of policy. How should local nationalisms be dealt with? How can Soviet power be maintained and expanded while directly combating revanchist great Russian chauvinism? Should the Soviet state centralize? Regionalize? Federalize? Disagreements persisted, and the situation was fluid. Throughout the collapsing Russian empire, Soviet power was struggling to consolidate. Everything was experimental and contingent.
During the chaos of the Russian Civil War in 1918, years after Stalin had left Georgia, Menshevik-aligned social democrats took power in Tiflis. They ruled the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia from 1918-1921. This state was led by Noe Zhordania and other veterans of the revolutionary decades in Georgia. Some socialists in Europe celebrated the Menshevik regime, its rhetoric of democracy and nominal, albeit highly unstable, independence. Karl Kautsky even wrote a book on the Democratic Republic of Georgia after his 1920 visit with a delegation of European socialists from the Second International.
In 1921 the Bolshevik controlled Red Army invaded. After some fighting, the Menshevik government fled and Georgia was Sovietized. The Red Army had been gaining a foothold around Georgia and local Georgian Bolsheviks, despite political persecution by the Menshevik state, were waiting anxiously for an opportunity to act. Two Georgian Bolsheviks oversaw the operation, Sergo Orjonikidze and Josef Stalin. This decision went against the initial wishes of Lenin, who had argued for a more conciliatory approach to the nationally minded Georgian Mensheviks. But by 1922, Leon Trotsky was regarding the Georgian Mensheviks not as a legitimate regime but as a “petty bourgeois party” that depended upon the “material assistance of European and American imperialism.” The situation in Georgia led to a political crisis as well as the final split between Lenin and Stalin before Lenin’s death. The so-called “Georgian Affair” had important implications at the highest rungs of the Soviet state, informing how other territories should be politically designated and incorporated. Some Georgian Bolsheviks – though not all – with leading roles (such as Philip Makharadze and Budu Mdviani) would be castigated as “national deviationists”. Despite a tendency by some for more regional autonomy and control, these views were categorically different than what ended up separating Menshevism and Bolshevism in Georgia by 1918. Ultimately, the fledging Bolshevik regime took a radical anti-imperial approach.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) became, what historian Terry Martin calls, the world’s first affirmative action empire.7 In the 1920s, nationalities were formalized and Sovietized through the policy of korenizatsiya. This “rooted” Soviet power through sympathetic cadres from local populations in institutions that were national in form and socialist in content. From European Russia through the Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia, new national-territorial designations were built: Union Republics, Autonomous Republics, oblasts, and even smaller, village-sized okrugs. These functioned as regional centers of Soviet power but also as mechanisms for nation-building. Art and culture were funded, local languages were taught – even regional film studios were opened. Although korenizatsiya was rolled back as policy in the 1930s, this ethno-federal structure made up of national institutions maintained. The Soviet Union ensured nationhood where it had either previously not existed or was tenuous in the modern period. Georgia was no exception.
The Sovietization of Georgia continued and deepened the deconstruction of the Russian imperial apparatus in the South Caucasus. As historian Stephen Jones explains, many in Georgia “no doubt welcomed the civil and economic order eventually established by the Bolsheviks in Georgia, after the chaos and strife of revolution and civil war between 1917 and 1921.” Sovietization also played a crucial role in Georgianizing the local political administration, continuing and expanding many of the social and national policies the Menshevik state started. Therefore, “it would be inaccurate to talk of ‘Russification’ in the 1920s.” Although Georgia “lost its quasi-autonomy during this period…‘affirmative action’ ensured that Georgians dominated the local political, educational, cultural and administrative apparatus.” The controversy surrounding Georgia’s 1921 Sovietization, in particular questions of independence and sovereignty, tend to overshadow the socialist content of Georgian social democracy and the shared experiences of Georgian Bolshevism and Menshevism.
In Passage to Revolution, Georgian Marxism is traced as both a constitutive part of an empire-wide Russian Social Democratic movement and a self-contained political world. Stalin’s political development in his youth depended on the overlap of these multinational Marxisms and a unique understanding of internationalism from the perspective of Russia’s imperial periphery. Stalin’s own understandings of nationhood, nationality and empire, and how they will grow to differ from other Georgian Marxists is illuminating in this regard.
Stalin the Marxist and the National Question
Most scholars, Marxist and otherwise, reject Stalin as a theorist worthy of serious consideration. However, in Passage to Revolution, Suny examines the development of Stalin’s ideas within empire-wide debates, showing how his experience in the imperial periphery shaped his conception of militancy, the role of the Party, and most importantly, nationhood and nationality. He closely follows work done by Dutch historian Erik Van Ree on the subject. However for Suny, Stalin’s conception of nationalism and nationhood is key.
In 19th century Russia, social democrats generally believed that “nations were a product of a certain stage of historic evolution” (p. 511). They might be a delusionary distraction from the real interests of the proletariat, but nations were real, and inevitable products of history. But such an understanding relied heavily on the experiences in Western Europe. There, a strong propertied class fought for nationhood. But in Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire, “nationalism was more the expression of patriotic intellectuals, scholarly clerics, journalists, village teachers, lawyers, and artists” (p. 517) – the propertyless intelligentsia.
The Russian Social Democrats had long debated in congresses and in newspapers questions of territorial versus extraterritorial concepts of nationhood. In 1903, the RSDLP Constitution proclaimed the “right of self-determination for all nations included within the bounds of the state.” Yet this did not resolve the issue in the long run.
Some national groups who were not territorially concentrated proposed the formation of extraterritorial national organizations. Most famously the Jewish Bund claimed to represent all Jewish workers throughout the Russian empire. But the eventual leader of Menshevik controlled Georgia Noe Zhordania had early on adamantly opposed the inclusion of the Jewish Bund within Russian Social Democracy. From the perspective of the Caucasus, extraterritorial national rights could compromise the allegiances social democrats needed in multiethnic regions. But as time went on and the Georgian movement became more national in character, Zhordania’s position changed. He had begun to incorporate the ideas of Austro-Hungarian Marxists who argued for extraterritorial cultural and national rights. By 1912, Zhordania observed how in Georgia, workers “were fusing socialism and national culture into a single liberation movement” (p. 520). He opposed “territorial national cultural autonomy and favored instead extraterritorial national cultural autonomy with members of each nationality voting for their own national cultural institutions no matter where they lived” (p. 521). Despite basic agreements in how nationhood was formed, Stalin and Zhordania disagreed on political strategy.
In a 1904 article in the Georgian social democratic newspaper proletariatis brdzola (Struggle of the Proletariat), Stalin was already heavily critiquing narrow national interests of some social democratic organizations. He believed in guaranteeing “broad” self-government for nationalities but that the interests of the multinational proletariat must be prioritized.
Nine years later, Stalin’s 1913 essay on nationality was his “most significant foray into Marxist theory before the revolution” (p. 525). His goals were to “defend the principle of national self-determination; demolish the policy of national cultural autonomy of the Austro-Marxists, Mensheviks, and Bundists; and demonstrate the superiority, from a Marxist point of view, of noncultural regional autonomy” (p. 525).
Stalin argued that national cultural autonomy could not be territorialized because, especially in the Russian setting, nationalities were not contiguously settled. Capitalism was dispersing them. Extraterritorial national rights made little sense because, despite being nationally connected, where one lived determined culture in ways that a more ephemeral national belonging did not. Capitalism was making concrete nationhood difficult to locate. Stalin therefore argued for regional autonomy.
Suny insightfully observes how Stalin’s experience as someone from the imperial periphery with a multinational upbringing informed his understandings: “Stalin was keenly sensitive to the ethnic diversity of the huge country in which he lived and of the hierarchies of cultures, peoples, and power” (p. 527).
Stalin believed that Zhordania and the Georgian Menshevik support for “national cultural autonomy” would privilege larger nationalities like Georgians and Armenians “but efface the rights of Mingrelians, Abkhazians, Ajars, Svans, Osetins, Lezgins” (p. 527), and other smaller groups in the region. Yet at the same time he believed that these smaller nationalities were “backwards” and would inevitably be subject to the homogenizing forces of capitalist cultural consolidation. Stalin would eventually move to support a type of “national autonomy” that suggested he viewed nationality as something more “durable” and even “real” than Lenin.
The ethnocultural dynamics of Georgia and the Caucasus, and the politics derived from them, influenced Stalin’s for the rest of his life. Similar, his political struggle against the rise of Menshevism (and the ideas of Zhordania) in Georgia crucially shaped Stalin’s approach to nationhood. This is important to remember when considering the political tension between budding nationalisms and internationalism in revolutionary Russia. It is one reason why Stalin will support regionalisms on the condition of their centralization – as a mechanism to undermine the power of local nationalisms, a power he knew very well.
Legacies of Stalin and Marxist Memory in Georgia Today
After Stalin left Tiflis for Baku in 1907, he never returned to live in his place of birth. Although the rest of his political career would center in Petrograd and Moscow, the Caucasus in various ways would stay close to him for the rest of his life.8 Bolsheviks from the region were part of his inner circle, many Georgians rose high up through the Soviet ranks during his rule, Georgian wines were poured at dinners in the Kremlin, and Stalin loved vacationing in Abkhazia. In the Georgian SSR it was mutual: Georgians would continue to, in both subtle and more obvious ways, hold Stalin in high regard.