Why the Georgian Experiment matters to Russia today

This is the speech I gave in Moscow on 16 January 2020 to mark the publication of The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 in Russian.

First of all, I would like to thank the Global Labour Institute – Moscow, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, and the Confederation of Labour in Russia for taking the initiative to translate and publish my book “The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution” into Russian. And I want to thank you all for coming today to this book launch.

Back in 2017, the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution was marked with exhibitions and events across the world. In London, where I live, there was a massive exhibition of Russian revolutionary art at the Royal Academy. There was a historical exhibition at the British Library. Even the Tate Modern, Britain’s most important collection of modern art, had a huge exhibition to mark the events of 1917 in Russia.

But in Russia, as I understand it, the celebrations were rather more muted.

A few months after that anniversary, in 2018, Georgia marked the 100th anniversary of its independence, which had been declared on 26 May 1918. This featured huge celebrations and the publication of a number of new books about the history of that period. Among these was a new trilingual edition of Karl Kautsky’s 1921 book about Georgia, which he wrote following his visit to the country. We can thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for taking the initiative to publish that book as well.

The story of the first Georgian republic is one that is not well known in the English speaking world, which is why I wrote my book in the first place. But it also turns out that it is not well known in Georgia or Russia as well. Or to be more precise, the true story of the Georgian republic is not well known.

There are a number of works of fiction which claim to be histories of that period – most notably, in the West – Trotsky’s little book about Georgia. But books telling the real story of the Georgian Social Democrats and the republic they created are few and far between.

So let me outline the main points of this history as addressed by my book – and then, let me explain why this matters to us today.

Georgia was the one part of the vast Russian empire in which the Social Democrats had overwhelming popular support long before 1917. The Georgian Bolsheviks were a tiny and ineffective group. As I explain in my book, they did attempt on several occasions to overthrow the Georgian government, trying to create a “Georgian October” but with no success and often, with comical results. Stalin was, of course, the most famous Georgian Bolshevik – but the fact is that in his own country and among the Social Democrats, he was isolated, mistrusted and largely despised.

As for the Georgian Social Democrats, they were able to build a mass party with a huge number of peasant members as well as workers and intellectuals. This was very different from the experience of the Russian Mensheviks, who though winning some support, for a time, from urban workers, never had a base in the countryside. The Georgian Social Democrats were an enormously popular party, and their opponents, Bolshevik and nationalist alike, were weak and divided. When the tsarist regime fell in 1917, the viceroy fled from Tbilisi handing over the keys to power to the leaders of the Georgian Social Democratic Party, first among them Noe Zhordania.

Up until 1918, those Georgian Social Democrats had little interest in national independence. Their dream was for Georgia to be an autonomous province in a democratic and federal Russian republic. They accepted the authority of the Provisional Government in Petrograd, and indeed one of the Georgian Social Democrats served as a minister in that government, while another was chairman of the Central Executive Council of the Soviets. So why did Georgia break away from Russia the following year?

The short answer is that the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 followed by the dispersal of the elected Constituent Assembly early in the following year forced the Georgian Social Democrats to re-think the future of their country.

They opted for independence, which gave them the opportunity to create the kind of society that they always dreamed of.

Despite the terrible poverty and the lack of national security, they were able to create a robust political democracy, with a multiparty system and free elections (in which women voted).

They carried out an ambitious and successful agrarian reform leading not to collectivisation as eventually happened in the Soviet Union, but instead to the creation of a middle class in the countryside.

In the cities, they created a kind of welfare state based on a social partnership that prefigured what would happen in Western Europe after the second world war.

Trade unions which had suffered severe repression under the Tsar – and in Russia, under the Bolsheviks – thrived in independend Georgia.

The Georgian experiment showed that socialism could be created not only with a “human face” but with a human heart as well.

And socialists all over Europe took an interest in what they were doing.

A delegation of the most famous of these, including Karl Kautsky from Germany and the future British Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, visited Georgia in late 1920.

Of course the society the Georgian Social Democrats created was not a perfect one, as I explained in the book. Among other things, they failed in their promise of equality and autonomy for ethnic minorities in the country.

But the Georgian Social Democrats, unlike the Russian Bolsheviks, were not aiming to create a perfect society. They wanted to create a better one. And in that, they succeeded.

Their story is not well known today, not in Russia and not even in Georgia. A battle is taking place over historical memory and it is important that myths be challenged and that the truth prevail. The Georgian experiment in 1918-21 showed that another revolution was possible, one without a Cheka or a Gulag, without man-made famines and show trials.

Why should the story of the Georgian republic matter today to Russians?

The answer is that the values that the Georgian Social Democrats upheld are universal values that are, or should be, important to everyone, everywhere. These include human rights, democracy and social justice. The story of the Georgian republic is a story of hope, of another kind of revolution that was always possible, and another kind of socialism.

In re-telling the story of the Georgian Social Democrats and the republic which they created, we are not only speaking of the past, but of a possible future — for Georgia, for Russia, and for the world.