A review of “The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921” by Eric Lee

So many events in history are said to be unknown or forgotten, or at least under-researched and/or under-appreciated, and for me at least this Georgian revolution was one of them. But no more, thanks to this well-researched and lucidly written book by Lee, an American now living in Britain who has wanted to write this work for some 30 years. The publication in 2017 is timely, since we are marking the centenary of the Russian revolution and it was the civil war following that revolution that allowed the Georgians to conduct their experiment but the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia that sealed the fate of the Mensheviks in Georgia.

Lee starts his history by reminding the reader that Georgia was a province of Tsarist Russia from 1801 until almost the end of the First World War and the seeds of the Georgian revolution were sown in the peasant rebellion in the country’s western district of Guria from 1904-1906. The Georgian revolution was led by the Social Democrats, headed by Noe Zhordania, with overwhelming support from the peasants as well as intellectuals and a genuine commitment to the sort of land reform that had been initiated by the ‘Gurian Republic’.

What did the Georgian revolution look like? Above all, even though the Social Democrats were Marxists, it was a functioning democracy, with free elections and a multi-party system. Women had the vote many years before most other countries. Elections to the Georgian Constituent Assembly in February 1919 involved 15 political parties, although the Social Democrats won 109 of the 130 seats. There was a free media and freedom of assembly and, as Lee explains in two dedicated chapters, a thriving trade union movement and a strong role for co-operatives. Civil society was vibrant.

What did the Georgian revolution achieve? Lee argues that “Nothing the Georgian Social Democrats did could compare in importance to their agarian reform”. Land was not nationalised or collectivised but given to the peasants. Unlike in Russia, there was no war between city and countryside, no famine, no starvation.

Yet, from the very beginning and throughout these three years, Georgia was faced by severe challenges. First the Germans and then the British had military forces in the country. There was the threat of a Turkish invasion, a short war with Armenia in December 1918, and incursions from the White Army in the Russian civil war. The local Bolsheviks – although small in number – constantly challenged the government with overt support from the party in Russia and even attempted coups in November 1919 and May 1920.

Then – as now – Georgia was seriously troubled by ethnic divisions, most notably in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adjara, and Lee concedes that “For all its achievements, the Social Democratic government was tarnished by its crude and brutal attempts to suppress some of Georgia’s ethnic minorities”. Meanwhile the country was in economic crisis.

In all the circumstances, it is remarkable that the Georgian experiment lasted as long as it did, achieved as much as it did, and overall was relatively peaceful. But the experiment was a work in progress and the Constituent Assembly only completed work on the 1921 Constitution as the Red Army was entering the capital of Tblisi (then known as Tiflis) and, following a review of this remarkably progressive document, Lee notes poignantly that the Georgians “imagined a society unlike any which existed in the world at that time or since”. He does not disguise his support for the type of democratic socialism represented by the Georgian revolution but equally he is not uncritical of the weaknesses and failures of the experiment.

This important historical work has contemporary relevance as it explains why Georgia today looks to the European Union and not to ‘mother’ Russia.


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