Author Eric Lee on his thirty year quest to publish a book about Georgia’s forgotten revolution.
I was born in America at the height of the Cold War, during the McCarthy era, when the word “socialist” was a term of derision. But I somehow managed to find myself on the Left (the Vietnam war may have had something to do with this) and quickly learned that we had a real problem. If we rejected the Soviet model (as we did), and if we considered the Nordic countries to be nice, but not exactly our ideal societies, where exactly could we find examples of what we called “democratic socialism”?
My latest book, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-21, is the result of a more than thirty-year quest to answer that question.
In the beginning, Georgia was just a footnote to most histories of the Russian Revolution. What most people knew was that Stalin came from there. Some may have heard that for a time, the Bolsheviks’ arch-enemies, known as the Mensheviks, ruled the country. And that was about it.
In the 1980s I was living on a kibbutz in Israel. The kibbutz was a fully worked out model of a democratic socialist society. We all had the same income, there was virtually no private property, all decisions were taken democratically, and so on. But we were a tiny minority in a small country. Though the kibbutz model had worked for several decades with some success, it would have been nice to discover an entire country run according to democratic socialist values. I remembered those Mensheviks in Georgia and wondered what they had done.
I learned that Georgia, a remote province on the margins of the Russian empire, had a thriving Social Democratic movement more than a decade before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Georgians were far ahead of the rest of the empire in organising support among the peasants, which was a precondition for a successful revolution in a backward country. From around 1904, they managed to wrest control of a region in western Georgia known as Guria and it took an entire tsarist army to eventually, and bloodily, suppress what became known as the “Gurian republic.”
Many Georgians played very prominent roles in the Russian Revolution – though only Stalin’s name is remembered today. Nikolay Chkheidze, the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet for most of 1917, was a Georgian. So was Irakli Tsereteli, who served as a socialist minister in the Provisional Government. The Georgians punched above their weight in the Russian Social Democratic Party – at least in the Menshevik part of it. There were very few Georgian Bolsheviks.
When Lenin and Trotsky organised the seizure of power in Petrograd in November 1917, the Georgians realised that the time had come to part ways with Russia. Under the charismatic leadership of Noe Zhordania, they first formed a federation with neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it was short-lived. On 26 May 1918, they proclaimed independence.
The state they created, known as the Georgian Democratic Republic, was everything Bolshevik Russia was not. They had free elections and a multi-party system. There was a free press, and no system of forced labour camps. The peasants were given land in one of the most successful agrarian reform programmes in history, and as a result were supportive of the government. Trade unions were independent and democratic, with the right to strike. The cooperative movement grew rapidly, and increasingly played a dominant role in the economy.
Their experiment in democratic socialism attracted a lot of attention from overseas, leading to a delegation representing the leading European socialist parties, which visited Georgia in 1920. Among them were future British prime minister James Ramsay MacDonald and Karl Kautsky, the prolific writer and ideological leader of the German Social Democrats. Kautsky wrote a short book about Georgia following his visit.
In early 1921, behind the back of Red Army commander Trotsky, Stalin and his cronies ordered an invasion of Georgia by Russian troops. It was a tougher fight than the Soviets had had with the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who had very quickly been “Sovietised”. The Georgians fought bitterly for several weeks, and rose up in bloody rebellion again in 1924. But by then Soviet rule was firmly established, with a young Lavrenty Beria proving his mettle as a secret policeman (Stalin would eventually put him in charge of the NKVD).
Within a few years, the Georgian experiment in democratic socialism was largely forgotten. I thought it was high time we changed that.
For several years I collected materials, trawled the libraries, interviewed academics who knew a lot more than I did, and nearly had enough material for a book. But then I was diverted by a story that should have been a footnote to the Georgia book, but which became a topic on its own. I’ll come back to this.
In the intervening decades, I’ve never given up on the dream of completing the work on Georgia, and what finally pushed me to do it was my involvement last year in Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination. (Americans living overseas can vote in a global primary and elect delegates, so we were able in places like London to do a lot of work on the campaign.) Bernie Sanders has always called himself a “democratic socialist” and a lot of his supporters, many of them quite young, had no problem with that label. I guess a lot had changed since the America of the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe the word “socialist” was no longer so toxic. But also people were not necessarily sure what they meant, or what Sanders meant, by “democratic socialism”.
With the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Georgian republic in May 1918 coming up, it was time to complete the work and to find a publisher.
I have a ton of material, stored in red plastic boxes, and started there. I re-read everything I had. I realised at one point – strangely, not at first – that the British army had occupied Georgia in 1918-20, meaning that there would be material in the National Archives in Kew. I had worked in those archives for my previous book, Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order (The History Press, 2016), and looked forward to working there again.
The archives did not disappoint. One of the great pleasures is to read a memo circulated among British diplomats in 1919 discussing whether HMG should recognise Georgia and finding handwritten comments signed by “AJT” – discovering later that this was the great historian Arnold J. Toynbee, then a young official working on the Paris Peace Conference. Another historian destined for greatness, E.H. Carr, also added his handwritten comments to the memos.
As any writer of history knows, there is no such thing as a single author for a work of history. We work in teams, and I relied on the help of many people to locate documents and to find the wonderful archival photos that illustrate my book. Being able to work in London, and using the resources of the British Library and the London Library, has been a real bonus.
The Georgians themselves have been very keen to help, as the history of their country is in many ways as foreign to them as it is to us. During the Soviet era, the period 1918-21 was hardly mentioned, and the Mensheviks were dismissed as “tools of British imperialism”. When Georgia regained its independence, seven decades after the Red Army invasion, they adopted the flag and the constitution of the earlier Menshevik republic. They made 26 May their national holiday. But they showed little interest in learning what really happened in their country during that brief period.
I was invited to give a talk in Tbilisi in late 2016, in the National Parliamentary Library as the guest of the Georgian trade unions. At the end of the talk, as I mingled with the guests, a couple of young men came up to thank me. They were students, they said, and they were keenly interested in the first Georgian republic as they considered themselves to be social democrats. I asked if there were many others like them, and they told me there were. I hope they will all have a chance to read the Georgian edition of the book which is coming out in 2018.
I mentioned earlier that my original research on Georgia was interrupted by a diversion. I should now say what that was. It turns out that Stalin, one of the very few Bolsheviks from Georgia, may well have been a double agent, serving the tsarist secret police known as the Okhrana. My next book, The Eremin Letter, looks at the evidence and aims to solve the mystery.
Eric Lee is a journalist and historian who has spent over thirty years researching independent Georgia, and has himself been active in trade union and political struggles in both the US and UK. His previous works include Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with Israel’s Vietnam Veterans (1993) and Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order (2016).
- Delegation members of the Second International in Georgia in the small town of Dusheti, 1920. In the photo: Valiko Jugeli, head of the People’s Guard, B. Chkhikvishvili, Tom Shaw, Camille Huysmans and others. Note the banners in French welcoming the leaders of the world’s proletariat. The Georgian National Archives.
- Delegation members of the Second International at the Tiflis Railway Station. Georgian leader Noe Zhordania in standing in the centre, wearing the white hat. The Georgian National Archives.
- Chairman of the Constituent Assembly of Georgia, Karlo Chkheidze. The Georgian National Archives.
- Members of the People’s Guard on motorcycles, 1920. Photo by: V. Grinevich. The Georgian National Archives.