From Revolutionary Struggle to Social Emancipation

From Revolutionary Struggle to Social Emancipation

On 5 March 1917, at 11 o’clock in the morning, many members of the Caucasian workers’ movement and thousands of ordinary citizens gathered in Nadzaladevi’s Theatre Square. The revolutionaries had assembled in order to receive the latest reports of the events then unfolding in St Petersburg. The people were interested in hearing whether the February Revolution had achieved its goal.

On 5 March 1917, at 11 o’clock in the morning, many members of the Caucasian workers’ movement and thousands of ordinary citizens gathered in Nadzaladevi’s Theatre Square. The revolutionaries had assembled in order to receive the latest reports of the events then unfolding in St Petersburg. The people were interested in hearing whether the February Revolution had achieved its goal. Exhausted by conflicting reports, the assembled crowd was concerned with one question: had the Tsarist regime been overthrown? The revolutionary movement’s oldest leader, Silva Jibladze, ten-times exiled by the Tsar, ascendeda hastily thrown-together wooden stage and spoke three simple words: “It is done” [1]. Silva Jibladze’s speech was followed by an outburst of public celebration. Armed forces deployed in Tbilisi declared loyalty to the workers’ soviets and announced their surrender.

It was with such emotion that the central city of the South Caucasus received the news that the Tsar had been deposed; but what were the reasons behind society’s anti-Tsarist mood?

The Socio-Economic and Political Situation in Pre-Revolution Georgia

Georgian society at the beginning of the 20th century faced numerous challenges of vital importance. People living in the outlying regions of the Russian Empire didn’t enjoy basic civil and political rights. Strict censorship operated in the country (for example, the words “class” and “oppression” were often forbidden in the press[2]); the periodic closure of publications, raids on political parties and trade unions and the long-term exile or murder of their leaders had all become common occurrences.  In the Tsarist period, it was practically impossible to organize street demonstrations or large gatherings. A dummy constitutional body, the Imperial Duma, was indirectly elected (deputies were confirmed by elite councils selected according to property and gender qualifications). The population had to fight to defend their socio-economic interests. In cities, workers toiled for much longer than eight hours a day in conditions absent of all sanitary and hygienic norms. Despite the abolition of feudalism, huge numbers of Georgian peasants continued to work the other people’s land in order to be able to feel themselves, owning no property of their own. Illiteracy was one of the country’s most acute problems. There was no universal legal requirement to receive a basic education. Elementary education was only available in fee-paying, private schools or places of religious education, this also often in a foreign language. Naturally, in such socio-political circumstances ad in an age of aggressive conservatism, no one was occupied with guaranteeing women’s rights.

General Aspects of the Empancipatory Movement

The resistance movement in Georgia and the Caucasus began quite some time before the 1917 February Revolution. We can’t even consider the uprisings of 1905 as the date marking the first wave of resistance. The battle had begun about fifty years before the revolution itself. 

From the beginning, patriotic forces were active at the forefront of resistance to the Emperor’s rule. During the 1860s, they founded a number of periodicals. The thinkers that grouped around the writer and publicist, Ilia Chavchavadze, generally placed emphasis on national issues. They protested restrictions on the use of the Georgian language, in schools, churches and the theatre. They opposed the wholesale purchase and expropriation of land by a wealthy plutocracy. The national liberation movement’s main demand, however, was linked to the right of national self-determination. The main goal for Ilia Chavchavadze’s contemporaries was Georgia’s political and cultural autonomy.

Georgian patriotic groups established the precedent of peaceful opposition to empire. They were the first to make use of the press to bring Russia’s repressive policies to account. The national liberation movement established itself as the main alternative to the Tsarist government and nurtured the first signs of political pluralism within Georgian society. Nonetheless, they were characterized by one particular failing. The first translator of Marx into the Georgian language, Giorgi Maiashvili, describes the anti-Tsarist patriots’ political activities in the following terms: “The movement took on a singular character -  overly national, overly cultural (if we can say it like that) and only very slightly popular. These aspects of the movement cannot but worry, concern and sadden true sons of the homeland, as well as those who sincerely yearn for the betterment of people’s lives … our people’s prosperity and well-being is dependent on driving away economic pain and being liberated from economic sickness of which nothing is being written in our journals and newspapers …”[3]

In the 1880s, the opposition movement started to expand in the direction of social justice. Workers and young people, who were already versed in the popular texts of leftist theorists, endeavoured to enrich the experience of the patriots.

In the latter years of the 19th Century, in Tbilisi, Batumi and Baku, several reading room circles founded trade unions and party committees. Several issues important to labourers and intellectuals (who were together known as the ‘Mesame Dasi’) were put on the agenda. The revolutionaries in industrial centres were asking for the legal protection of the 8 hour working day, minimum salaries, and guaranteed workplace safety standards. They protested against the exploitation of women’s and children’s labour. The demands of the ‘Mesame Daselebi’ had a clearly anti-capitalist content.

The first Georgian leftist groups in the 19th century didn’t only fight their battles in the pages of the press. The name of the ‘Mesamedaselebi’ is linked with the first general strike, street demonstrations and the first attempts to picket official structures in Georgia. The Emperor’s secret service, the ‘Okhranka’, mercilessly suppressed the socialist opposition[4]. Exile, years in prison and execution were the traditional punishments for revolutionaries during this time.  

The ‘Bakhvi Manifesto’ is considered one of the most important moments in the history of Georgian democracy. In 1905, peasants held a revolt in Guria, the smallest, poorest and most agrarian region of Georgia, which had been raided many times before by the Imperial Army. They demanded from the Tsarist government the abolition of bondage to the aristocracy, the church and the state, the imposition of progressive taxation, the confiscation of princely and monastery lands and the free transfer of agricultural resources to the peasantry[5]. The Gurian land use manifesto also included provisions for universal and free education and the immediate organization of a popular vote.  

A military confrontation ensued in Guria until 1907. Locals tried, with arms in hand, to defend the values of their democratic manifesto. After the defeat of the armed resistance, peasants living in the regions of Georgia became part of the revolutionary movement. At the Stockholm convention of the Russian Social Democratic Party (1906), peasants were recognized as part of the revolutionary class, precisely on the basis of the Gurian precedent[6].

Apart from elite political groups, workers, young intellectuals and peasants, women took part in the struggle for emancipation from the earliest stages. Their path was the longest, most diverse and full of resistance.

The first stirring of women’s activity in Georgian social life is linked with the name of Barbare Jorjadze. She was the first woman to openly engage in ongoing discussions about the Georgian language. She was not afraid to take part in press polemics with Ilia Chavchavadze and members of his circle. Barbare Jorjadze’s boldness led to many other women taking on social activities.

The second stage in the development of this previously one-woman feminist movement was the appearance of women in the literary arena. Women writers described best the situation of oppressed classes in 19th century Georgia and defined the main goal of their activities as the provision of education for women. At their initiative, in the larger cities of the Caucasus, manufacturing enterprises were established, and part of the money earned by working women went to fund the establishment of free hostels and schools for women. At the dawn of the 20th century, women’s schools stood at the forefront of the revolutionary movement and were involved in the fight for both labour rights and the institution of free elections.[7]

The existence of several distinct aspects to the emancipatory movement, the significant experience of the struggle against Tsarism and the special diversity of methods of social protest once again prove that the 1917 revolution was an unexpected brought about merely as a result of the First World War or the international situation. It’s also worth noting that in movements operating in peripheral regions played a pivotal role in laying the ground for revolution.

 

Attempts to Institutionalize Social Emancipation in the Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG)

The 1917 Revolution was quickly suppressed in Russia. A new regime oriented on parliamentarianism, pluralist democracy and social welfare did not appear ready to suppress opposition. After the October “Revolution”, Georgian Social Democrats began thinking immediately about the creation of an independent republic. On 26 May 1918, the Democratic Republic of Georgia, which was to exist for only 1028 dys, was declared. Despite the short period, the implementation of several emancipatory projects in the DRG was still achieved. Specifically:

  • Censorship was abolished in the Georgian Republic, freedom of speech and expression was enacted at a constitutional level. Political parties and other groups were able to register and operate freely. Free and universal elections were held in February 1919, as a result of which a Constituent Assembly was created[8].
  • The constitution of the DRG guaranteed the functioning of four of the most important labour institutions. Forces that had participated in the revolution were established as a supervisory structure over the safety and legal situation of work, the eight-hour working day became a universal norm, a minimum wage was regulated and a labour exchange was created to assist the unemployed. Workers’ collectives were also allowed to take part in the management of factories.
  • Under the leadership of independent Georgia’s Minister of Agriculture, Noe Khomeriki, land reform was also undertaken. The democratic government temporarily rejected the idea of the municipalization of land (the complete transfer of all land resources to local self-government bodies). However, the wide-scale nationalization of land tracts (forests and extensive tracts of cultivable land etc) did take place, while each peasant received as private property a land plot large enough to provide for his family’s needs for a minimal price or as long-term state concession[9].
  • Women also played an active role in the political life of the DRG. From the moment of independence, women were given the chance to exercise both active and passive electoral rights. Five women took up places in the parliament elected in 1919. Feminist and women’s organizations began operations across the entire country.

Despite this amelioration in the situation of women’s rights, some active parties still admonished the new authorities in relation to equality between the sexes. The editor of the first Georgian feminist newspaper “The Voice of the Georgian Woman”, Kato Mikeladze, wrote the following about the Republic’s founding structures (the National Congress and National Council): “In essence this congress was not national, but masculine, [a congress] at which men were gathered from every corner of the country, and into which five women scarcely managed to enter … the Georgian woman has not only not participated in this congress,  but even the right to express her own joy has not been granted to her … In the National Council, Georgian women do not have anyone to defend their own special interests; this opportunity has been denied to Georgian women by two famous socialists – Noe Jordania and Akaki Chkhenkeli … We know that Noe Jordania has women in his National Council, but we don’t know to what extent they will defend women’s rights at the Constituent meetings, or whether they will dare to step out of the party frame.” [10]

Conclusion

The Democratic Republic of Georgia was the fruit of many years of revolutionary struggle, in addition to the coup of 1917. Its founders endeavoured to establish a free state, despite a siege by their hostile neighbours (Russia and Turkey). Deep economic crisis, food shortages and the lack of experience of living in a democratic system ultimate thwarted the successful implementation of many reforms. However, the Democratic Republic still managed to enact every basic civil and political right, to improve the workers’ rights situation, to grant land to the peasantry and to guarantee the political representation of women for the first time. We are therefore free to refer to the three-year period of independence as the first step in the political and social emancipation of Georgian society. Unfortunately, this process of emancipation was buried for many years thereafter by Bolshevik vengeance.

 

[1] Stephen Jones (2007) Socialism in Georgian Colours, Georgian translation Ilia Uni Publishing House, pp. 310

[2] Bernstein Ed. (1921), Gleitwort für das Buch “Noe Jordania, Marxismus und Demokratie”, Verlag Gesellschaft und Erziehung, Berlin-Fichtenau, s. 5-7

[3] Georgian Leftist Reader (2015) First Volume, Tbilisi pp. 239-243

[4]  Irakli Khvadagiani (2015), The Mayday of Unknown Workers (in Georgian), journal Liberali

[5] Giorgi Makharadze (2013), The Bakhvi Manifesto, (in Georgian) See. http://aboutguria.blogspot.com/2013/10/blog-post_4.html

[6] Isidore Ramishvili (2012), Memoirs, Tbilisi, “Artanuji”, pp. 384-411(in Georgian)

[7] Lela Gaprindashvili’s Public Lecture (in Georgian) – “Georgian Women: Tradition and Emancipation”, Caucasus House People’s University, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZX4D1LmDqSo

[8] Irakli Iremadze (2016), The Elections to the Georgian Constituent Assembly (in Georgian), Journal “Civicus”, issue 5, pp. 10-15, see http://cela.ge/ge/page/civicus-5

[9] Noe Jordania (1918) Report on Agrarian Issues, proceedings of the SDWP’s 8th Regional Congress Session, (in Georgian) see http://wp.me/p4u0oC-hk

[10] Tamta Melashvili, editor (2013), Kato Mikeladze – Unknown Stories of Georgian Feminism, Heinrich Boell Stiftung’s South Caucasus Regional Bureau, pp. 95-99

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