Georgian and Soviet. Entitled Nationhood and the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus

Kaiser, Claire P.
Anzahl Seiten
XI, 275 S.
$ 43.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tamar Qeburia, Carl Friedrich Lehmann-Haupt's International Doctoral Program, Eastern European History Department, Ilia State University / University of Göttingen

Writing a book on the politics of nation-building under Soviet rule, viewed through the lens of national history, presents a considerable challenge. It requires engagement with entrenched national narratives and a detailed exploration of historical events that continue to influence present-day identities. The book under review navigates these complexities adroitly. It explores the relationship between the Georgian and Soviet national frameworks, marked by the peculiar political, social, and cultural relationship between Tbilisi and Moscow. This relationship evolved alongside Georgian nation-building politics, which were facilitated and enabled by the Soviet policy corpus.

Situated at the nexus of national and imperial history, Kaiser's book offers a nuanced critique of Georgia's Soviet-era narrative. It transcends traditional binaries of center and periphery, ruler and ruled, and occupier and occupied, introducing arguments that challenge the established understanding of Georgia's seventy-year period within the Soviet Union. By deconstructing the various historical narratives in play – the symbolic importance of the Mtatsminda Pantheon, a revered burial site for Georgia's distinguished writers, artists, scholars, and national figures (Introduction); the pivotal role of Soviet policies in shaping a "Georgian" Georgia (Chapters 3, 4 and 5) and the ambivalent fusion of Soviet and Georgian national pride (Chapters 1 and 6) – the book provides a novel perspective on Georgia's Soviet past.

Rather than relying on the more established term "titular nation", it introduces the innovative concept of an "entitled nation", which not only references the synergy between the center and Soviet republics, but also encapsulates elements of ethnicity, nationality, and territoriality. As Kaiser argues, this term captures both the statistical and legal dimensions of "living in one's 'own' territory" and enjoying the "special rights and privileges" that entitled nationals could pursue (pp. 9–13). Throughout the book, Kaiser demonstrates that the currents of Soviet power structures were not unidirectional. They flowed not only from the center to the entitled nations, but also in the opposite direction, guided by the agency of republic-level actors. These actors adeptly navigated, negotiated, and harnessed Soviet institutional structures to assert the rights and interests of their respective nations.

Kaiser’s approach aligns with recent scholarship that places the activities and ingenuities of republic-level actors at the forefront of historical inquiry.1 This perspective challenges the view of modern Georgian history as a byproduct of the Soviet regime, instead highlighting local initiatives. Thus, republic-based actors were not only implementers but also initiators of significant political decisions, thereby enriching our understanding of the historical processes at play.

Chapter 1 demonstrates the early efforts of Georgian Bolsheviks to create a unified historical account of Georgia's "national question." Kaiser unveils the complex history of how local actors – historians, census takers, officials like Beria, and even Stalin himself - utilized budding Soviet institutional mechanisms and ethnoterritorial frameworks to lay the foundation for a unanimous conception of Georgian nationality. This was achieved by subsuming the diverse subnational groups within the Georgian territory within a single Kartvelian (Georgian) identity, and constructing what Kaiser terms "Georgian academic nationalism" (p. 59). Building on the premise of cultivating a sense of national unity within Georgia's ethnoterritorial area, Chapter 2 offers an overview of the geopolitical ambitions pursued by the "Georgian nation-builders" during World War II and in its immediate aftermath. The resulting foreign policy maneuvers involved territorial claims or repatriation demands directed towards Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran (p. 86).

As subsequent chapters progress through the postwar period, the divergences and resemblances between late-Stalinist and post-Stalinist nation-building politics, along with the center-periphery dynamics, come into focus. In particular, Chapter 3 explores the "dark side" of nation-building politics orchestrated by local actors within the patronage networks operated by Beria and Stalin. These politics involved the planning and execution of large-scale expulsion and "border cleansing" operations, encompassing not only regions of comparably diverse ethnic composition, such as Adjara, Javakheti, or Abkhazia, but also the capital city of Tbilisi. Kaiser's extensive explorations of Soviet deportation policies provide context for the revelation found here: that a bewildering gap existed between the directives coming from the center and the actions taken at the local level by republic-based actors, who adeptly embodied dual roles, functioning both as agents and subjects of Soviet imperial politics, simultaneously personifying imperial officials and nation-builders (p. 107).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 address the shifts in power constellations and patronage networks between Tbilisi and Moscow, prompted by the process of de-Stalinization. Ironically, even with the momentous shifts occurring within the Kremlin's leadership following Stalin's death, the underlying currents of the nation-building strategies of newly appointed republic-level officials did not deviate from, but instead complemented, earlier endeavors. Most importantly, amid changing cadre politics, the objective to harness the Soviet policy framework for reinforcing nation-building politics persisted. The growing urbanization of the capital city, the thriving second economy, the pursuit of protecting language rights, and other newly emerging cultural practices offered terrains of possibilities where a new form of "Georgian Sovietness" could and did develop its own set of norms and practices (p. 165).

Kaiser thus offers new ways to interpret both the language and the events of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of using the once-commonly accepted (but since deconstructed) term Zastoi (stagnation), she borrows the Soviet term "developed socialism" and illustrates why the developments in the GSSR were in fact in direct contrast to "stagnation." However, the book excels in detailing the fascinating stories involved in planning and building the new urban district of Saburtalo; in inventing the city festival Tbilisoba, that merged Georgia's urban and rural cultures; and in the catalytic movements of petitions and demonstrations that in 1978 took place to protect the Georgian language under entitled language rights. Despite these insights, it falls short in identifying the individual local actors (architects, urban planners, institute employees, scientists, lecturers, students, dissidents, and female and male participants) who shaped these events. This absence is particularly evident when the narrative progresses beyond the leading, well-known Communist political figures such as Vasil Mzhavanadze, Eduard Shevardnadze, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and others. Beyond revising the histories of these prominent political elites, it remains imperative to broaden the focus to incorporate further, lesser-known individuals involved in these processes and encompass other groups as critical historical actors. Such an expansion would serve the interests of "peopling" Soviet studies and diversifying historical narratives.

This criticism aside, the book introduces many ways to rethink how the Soviet project shaped modern Georgia. It highlights the ambivalent experiences of Georgia under Soviet rule, where "Georgia benefited from being master of its own house consistently, throughout the entire Soviet period" (p. 209). Highlighting Georgia's historical position within the Soviet Union serves as a compelling entry point to broader discussions. It pushes the fields of non-Russian Soviet history and Soviet Caucasus history in new directions by questioning widely held conceptions about the Soviet empire, postwar national politics, center-periphery cleavages, and more. Finally, it demonstrates that empires have multiple facets and that their governance cannot be reduced to a single type of power vertical.

1 For a brief overview of recent scholarship on Georgian Soviet history, see: Erik R. Scott, Familiar Strangers. The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire, Oxford 2016; Krista A. Goff, Nested Nationalism. Making and Unmaking Nations in the Soviet Caucasus, New York 2021; Stephen V. Bittner, Whites and Reds. A History of Wine in the Lands of Tsar and Commissar Oxford, New York 2021; Timothy K. Blauvelt, Clientelism and Nationality in an Early Soviet Fiefdom. The Trials of Nestor Lakoba, London 2021.