History of Other Heroes

What values can the representation of minority cultures in the teaching of history promote among young people? What can be the importance of studying the history of Georgia as a place of meeting and fusion of different cultures? The article suggests that expanding the cultural and even geographic scope of history teaching to "other towns" and "other heroes" makes knowledge more diverse, deeper, and more valuable.


 ეკლესია ქუთაისში და ის ტერიტორია, სადაც კათოლიკური სკოლა იყო

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will find the name of kings.

(…)The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Bertolt Brecht[1]

The right to the past

On October 4, 2022, Georgian Catholics[2] performed the ritual of pilgrimage to the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in Kutaisi. During the procession, the pilgrims also arrived at the Orthodox Church named after the Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God. The church was built in the 19th century by Catholic Georgians, and was consecrated in 1862 in the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.[3] Metropolitan Ioane of the Georgian Orthodox Church  refused in advance the Catholics' request to enter the church. The congregation decided to walk down the street where this church was located, without entering the territory of the temple. Arriving at the place, they found the area surrounded by warning tape "just in case". As Gabriel Bragantini, head of the Catholic Diocese of Kutaisi,  noted, such a "welcome" was an insult to them.[4] This story shows many aspects of today's religious and societal situation. In this case, we will focus on only one aspect in the article.

Would a more in-depth, diverse knowledge of history change people's attitudes towards people of different faith? Would studying the history of Georgia as a place of meeting and intersection of different cultures contribute to the understanding of different cultures? Would it make people more resistant to imaginary threats? I only assume that more people would feel uncomfortable about the incident in Kutaisi if they read about Ioseb Otskheli (1865-1919) in the textbooks. From his most schematic biography, one would learn that he founded the first private "Georgian Kindergarten with Preparatory Class" in Kutaisi in 1892 in Western Georgia; would learn of his efforts to have the Kutaisi Georgian School for the Nobility be given the status of a gymnasium;[5] In addition, one would learn how he helped poor students individually or by setting up scholarships, what role he played in the creation and publication of Georgian textbooks. Along with all this, one would learn that Otskheli received his primary education in a Catholic school. This school was operated by the above-mentioned Kutaisi Catholic Church. And the Otskhelis living in Kutaisi were the donors of this temple.

In 2021, the organization WeResearch prepared a study "Georgia's Youth and History – study of experiences, attitudes and values". One of the main questions was what values the current approach to teaching history fosters in young people.[6] Understanding the results of the study and the issue of minority culture representation in this context became the inspiration for the topics discussed in the article.

Memory and history

A few years ago, at a public lecture, a young person from the Azerbaijani community of Georgia told me with heartbreak: “I thought you would tell me who we are, where we come from.” It was clear that the knowledge, history and oral memory of being an Azerbaijani were not suitable for their current social reality. By oral memory, they knew that their ancestors lived in Georgia already when there was no state of modern Azerbaijan, they considered Georgia as their homeland, and in the history of Georgia told today, there was no trace of their culture. This silencing of history is as much a shortcoming of historiography as it is a peculiarity of Georgian collective memory.

According to Pierre Nora, history is an intellectual and secular creation that requires critical analysis. Memory, on the other hand, has an affective, magical aura that remembers only selective facts and thus establishes a link between the past and the "eternal present".[7] Memory is variable and reflexive, and it belongs as much to the present as to the past.[8] Let us recall here Halbwachs, who believes that memory is not a result, but a process. It exists in different social frameworks (Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire) of a particular time, such as family, religion, social groups, etc. This context creates and "corrects" the past. Therefore, one story will be stored in the memory in different ways. It will be "remembered" with different interpretations and meanings. One of the obvious examples of this is the different memories of people on different sides of the conflict and war (for example, the Battle of Verdun (1916) during the First World War in the collective memory of the French and Germans), the distinct  remembrance of historical heroes in different eras (in the early Soviet period, Kakutsa Cholokashvili’s[9] image as an enemy produced by the regime, then his disappearance from memory, and after the strengthening of the national movement and independence, his re-“remembering” as a national hero).

If memory is numerous, as Halbwachs believes, how can the memory of different ethnic, religious or social groups (co)exist in harmony? Can a single historical narrative unite them and restore the "missing history"? In the historical narrative, the invisibility of each group, be it women, farmers, ethnic, religious groups or indigenous population, was determined by the respective power structure. Remembering, as a social act, must address these structures. Both forgetting and remembering belong to memory, which shows how the mind works collectively in society and how it structurally interacts with social change.[10] A few years ago, the general public knew almost nothing about Maro Makashvili, earlier - about the period of the First Republic. Today, Maro Makashvili and Noe Jordania are named in the mentioned survey and] more than half of the students consider them as their praiseworthy ancestors.[11] The change in the political and social framework made the formation of new knowledge possible. Part of this process is to recover (not invent) the stories associated with ethnic and religious minorities, which are important for their cultural identity and, at the same time, for filling the gaps in the common Georgian history and memory.

The process of searching and representing the history of various social groups, who were forgotten or "lost" in history for centuries, is ongoing today. One medium for creating this visibility and transformative knowledge is history textbooks. In the teaching of history in Georgia, the discourse of ethnic nationalism still prevails. The dominant nationalist narrative influences the historical, scientific approach to the study of the past. According to the study, the textbooks underrepresent ethnic and religious diversity.[12] It seems that students also have a feeling that something is missing. In the study, one of the students notes that "it is said that the Georgian nation is distinguished by tolerance and this was evidenced in our culture, even when minorities were oppressed in Europe, but this is superficial and I want this topic to be developed, what exactly was this tolerance manifested in?"[13] Although ethnic and religious diversity is intended to be adequately presented in the national curriculum, this topic is still not clearly visible in textbooks. It is true that the language of textbooks today is less discriminatory, but there is a lack of specific stories of specific people that would make a general note on "cultural diversity" real and tangible.

"Hiding Islam"

In the WeResearch study, historians and education experts point out that current teaching methods, in particular ethnocentric views, are a continuation of the Soviet historiographical tradition.[14] During the Soviet period, the development of the scientific field was definitely influenced by the political regime, the different motives for encouraging nationalism in different periods of its existence, and the scientific taste of those in power. It should also be noted here that during the Soviet period, “the process of Georgian nationalism was ethnicized”.[15]  Pierre Nora rightly points out that memory often narrows history.[16] If we recall the example of Islam and Muslims, the Georgian collective memory is still trying to hide Islam from its history, from public spaces, just as the Soviet government did in Adjara. This was partly due to Soviet radical secular and anti-religious ideology, partly to overcome the real or imagined connection with Turkey and the Ottoman past. In the Soviet and post-Soviet period, considering Islam as a compromising material, omitted certain figures from the history of Georgia. "Hiding Islam" continues to this day and prevents Muslims from being perceived as equals.

Marking of the forgotten events of Adjara on the map of history and memory is underway today. For example, while the date of the incorporation of Adjara (1878) was not lost in Georgian historiography (its centenary was also celebrated in 1978), due to the Soviet policy, knowledge about the "Liberation Committee of Muslim Georgia" was forgotten for a long time. In 1917, a congress of people representatives was held in the Aziziye Mosque in Batumi, and Memed Abashidze was elected as the chairman. In some sources, the mosque is not indicated, while holding a public meeting in the mosque and the formation of the Georgian Muslim Committee itself is an important page of political history.[17] For instance, along with other members, this committee included Kadir Shervashidze, who was later elected as a member of the founding assembly of the Republic of Georgia on March 12, 1919, and was actively involved in the politics during the First Democratic Republic of Georgia. Knowledge of the "Liberation Committee of Muslim Georgia" and, in general, the political movement of Muslim Adjarians, in the textbook directs these historical figures into a flow of common history. When teaching history, knowledge of religion and cultural affiliation is not the main criterion for evaluating the actions of these persons, on the contrary, knowledge of the context helps to understand more clearly what is stipulated in democratic constitutions, that people are worthy and equal, "... regardless of race, ethnicity and religious belonging". Such knowledge, in addition to its value, has another social value – not to easily fall victim to the manipulation of history. Collective memory, due to its dialectical nature of forgetting-remembering, is vulnerable to manipulation along with adaptation.[18] History shares the danger of instrumentalization in today's post-truth era too. History is one of the main tools for radical right-wing populist groups to create their own discourse. It is typical for such groups to revise history and interpret it for the legitimization of their own ideology, and especially to create an image of the threat and enemy in the form of minorities.[19] Getting to know in the school the forgotten heroes of history, if we can call them that, and transforming it into public knowledge, makes a person less vulnerable to the manipulation with  the minority issues and history in general.

Hazira and Akaki

Ioseb Grishashvili writes that Hazira[20] was the first one who widely introduced  Georgian song "Suliko"[21] to the towns and villages of Georgia." [22] Hazira, an Ashugh from Tbilisi,[23] loved eminently two poets: Sayatnova and Akaki, because, in his opinion, "both of them loved people in the same way."[24] The fact is that in the 18th and in the 19th century, in addition to creating music and poetry, the Ashughs were a kind of medium who kept the oral memory of the past, epics, and brought the ideas of the new age to the people. "Which other writer, which other teacher, which other lecture, which other preacher, could have evoked for the people what we evoked with our sweet playing and singing," writes Hazira.[25] The Ashugh tradition belongs to several cultural spaces.[26] Until the 20th century, songs, epics and everyday folklore created in Georgian, Armenian, Turkish, Persian languages were organically fused with the urban sounds of Tbilisi.[27] Along with the social change, the tradition has changed its scope and place as well. From public squares and coffeehouses, it first moved to the stage (in the 19th century concerts, one section was almost always dedicated to Ashughs and Sazandar[28]), after competing with other urban folklore and music genres, the tradition diminished, and in the end, it became an unfamiliar and strange sound to the Georgian scene of the Soviet period. From this period, Ashugh who played the saz were narrowed down to a specific region (Kvemo Kartli) and to the cultural affiliation of Azerbaijanis.[29]

Sayatnova reminded me of Hazira. Sayatnova and Sergo Parajanov have a low rating in the poll on the praiseworthy ancestor of the Georgian nation (35% each). As mentioned in the study, more than half of the respondents found it difficult to take a position on these two persons and answered: "I don't know". It can be assumed that the students had no knowledge of them, rather than that they did not consider them a praiseworthy ancestor.[30] King Tamar and Davit Agmashenebeli have the highest rating (95%) among the students surveyed on the same question. This is not unexpected. On the one hand, they know the most about them, on the other hand, both kings are part of collective memory, Georgian national narrative and national-political myth. They belong to both history and memory. For the interviewed students, King Tamar and Davit Agmashenebeli are heroes, not only because of their deeds, but also because they are constantly in memory, embodied and preserved in monuments, holidays, and name days.[31] 

When naming the outstanding heroes, which the students had to name themselves, only 15% mentioned a non-Georgian person (including a representative of an ethnic minority living in Georgia). According to the authors of the study, the assessment of the importance of ethnic minorities in the history of Georgia may be limited due to insufficient knowledge. The results also point to another trend, namely, who they consider to be a hero - mostly these are kings, warriors and outstanding personalities, who are already some kind of sacred figures (e.g. Ilia Chavachavadze). Where are the other heroes? As Brecht asks, “Who built Thebes with seven gates? Only the names of the kings are in the books." It can be seen from the study that the students have realized their deficit in knowledge. One of the students mentions about his knowledge of history that "we don't know what actually happened because the chroniclers at that time wrote what the king told them."[32]

Other cities and other Heroes

What would have changed, for example, in the "long 19th century" in Georgia,[33] which was at that time transformed into Kutaisi and Tbilisi governorates, from many prisms; we would get to know what kind of public and political life they lived not only in Tbilisi, but also in Tskhinvali, Akhaltsikhe, Kutaisi, Batumi and Sukhumi, where the same intense social and political changes were taking place as in Tbilisi.[34] Expanding the cultural and even geographic area to "other cities" and "other heroes" would make the list of people involved in the public life at that time more diverse. In such a case, the names of Georgian Catholics, Muslims, Abkhazians, Jews, Poles, Armenians and others would have been added to it. This will help to assess, for example, nationalism, enlightenment, social movements and their scale. In such a case, Giorgi Zdanevich of Polish origin will appear in Kutaisi or Chiatura.[35] Because of whom, during the exile in Siberia, Georgians and Poles used to fight about who Zdanevich belongs to. The Poles claim that he is Polish, while the Georgians argue that he is Georgian and belongs to them.[36] The writer Davit Kldiashvili writes with admiration about Giorgi Zdanevich, how he dreamed and worked to "turn Chiathura into an exemplary point of reference. As an industrial site and as a future city. With his support, schools, a beautiful hospital, and crossing points were built from the profits that the council had; Twenty-five thousand manats were annually set aside for student scholarships; A lot of money was spent on building roads, water pipes and electricity for the town. Workers' insurance fund was introduced here; A separate booklet was printed for distribution among the workers to familiarize them with terms of their pay.[37]

The 19th century is unique in terms of cultural and social transformation: we know the ethnic origin, religion, cultural and social environment of a person, which is important in itself, at the same time we see how the idea of citizenship is formed, how people with different social and cultural background are united in one association. As I mentioned above, the religious-ethnic affiliation in these stories need not to be presented as the main characteristic, but the idea is that they should not to be omitted from the biography. Sometimes this belonging is more important, sometimes less, but it shows that society has never been homogeneous. Such heroes, who differ in some way, have a transformative potential both in history and in history textbooks. They can question the status quo, give impetus to development and expand the horizons of worldview. A few years ago, when a student was introduced to the life of Ivane Gvaramadze[38] in a lecture, it was clear that he was filled with sympathy for him. He was no longer in agreement with his "old", dubious views on the non-Orthodox Georgians. He stood on a new land and asked: Has he finally become Orthodox? Was he a Catholic until the end?


The Content of the article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to express the views of the Heinrich Boelll Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region.


[1] Bertolt Brecht: "Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters" - translated by M. Hamburger, from Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, Methuen, N.Y., London, 1976.

[2]Catholic Georgians were called "Frenchmen". It is true that the missionaries in Georgia were usually Italians, but "Frenchness" firstly referred to the religious affiliation of the European missionaries in general, and later of the Georgians of the Catholic faith. In Georgia, the streets where Catholic Georgians lived were called "Frenchmen's Street", "Frenchmen's District", and Catholic churches were referred to as "Frenchmen's Church" (e.g. in Gori, Kutaisi, Akhaltsikhe). These names existed in people's memory and language even in the 20th century.

[3] In Kutaisi, in the so-called French neighborhood, where Catholic Georgians lived, in 1826 the Catholics from Kutaisi started the construction of a stone temple, which was completed in 1862 and blessed in the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. During the Soviet period, by the decision of the Kutaisi Executive Committee, the cathedral was confiscated from the Catholic congregation and used for secular purposes (for example, concerts were held here). In the 90s, the temple was handed over to the Georgian Orthodox Church and it was consecrated in the name of the Annunciation of the Holy Mother of God.

[4] "Catholic pilgrims were not allowed in the former Catholic church in Kutaisi, the area was cordoned off", Netgazeti, 6.10.2022, https://netgazeti.ge/life/634218/

[5] It was the first Georgian-language gymnasium in Western Georgia, the language and method of teaching differed from the (Russian-speaking) classical gymnasium.

[6] WeResearch: "Georgian Youth and History: Survey of Experiences, Attitudes and Values" (carried out with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region) Tbilisi, December 2021, https://ge.boell.org/ka/2022/04/28/sakartvelos-akhalgazrdebi-da-istoria /

[7] WeResearch, 2021, 54.

[8] Maurice Halbwachs: On collective memory, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1925/1992.

[9] Kakutsa Cholokhashvili (1888-1930) – regarded as a national hero in Georgia; Georgian military officer and a commander of an anti-Soviet guerrilla movement in Georgia. He was the Deputy Minister of Defense of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921). After Red Army invasion of Georgia, he led the partisan struggle against the Soviet occupation (1922-1924).

[10] Halbwachs, 1992, 38.

[11] WeResearch, 2021, 48

[12] WeResearch, 2021, 48.

[13] ibid, 52.

[14] ibid.

[15] Giorgi Maisuradze: Georgia declared war on itself, Indigo, 4.01.2020, https://indigo.com.ge/articles/giorgi-maisuraze-saqartvelom-sakutar-tavs/ (Last accessed: 15.09.2022)

[16] Pierre Nora: Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations, Spring, 1989, No.26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), 7-24.

[17] The aim of the committee was the consolidation of Muslim Georgians and the struggle to be part of Georgia.

[18] Pierre Nora: ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, Spring, 1989, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), 7-24, 8.

[19] Michael Minkenberg: The renewal of the radical right: Between Modernity and Anti-modernity. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[20] Hazira (real name and surname Abram Abramov, 1845-1922) – Ashugh from Tbilisi, a master of playing the dir, is considered the successor of Sayatnova.

[21] Suliko - One of the most popular and widely known Georgian song. The poem was written in 1895 by prominent Gergian poet Akaki Tsereteli.

[22] Ioseb Grishashvili: Literary Bohemia of Old Tbilisi, Tbilisi, 1928, 177.

[23] Ashugh or ashik - traditionally a singer-poet, bard who composes the song lyrics (epic, love songs) and who accompanies his song with saz (a long-necked lute). Ashugh tradition was widespread in Georgia in the 18th-19th centuries. Ashugh was those times a folk singer. Ashugh songs are one of the important streams of Eastern musical culture. Poetic and vocal-instrumental genres of Ashugh art include: Dastani, Bayati, Mukhambazi.

[24]Hazira: "Akaki and Sayatnova", Theater and Life, 1916, N46.

[25] ibid.

[26] Ashugh of Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani origin lived in Georgia, particularly in Tbilisi, composed poems and sang in several languages.

[27] Even outside of Tbilisi, in different areas, Ashugh attended public holidays (including Christian holidays) and were popular among the people.

[28] Sazanda or sazanadar - the ensembles of three musicians playing the tar, the kamancheh and the balaban or other taritional varieties of tambourine e.g, daf.  The folk-instrument ensemble is widespread in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, and other countries of the East. It was very popular in the 19th century in Tbilisi.

[29] Several representatives of the Georgian Ashughs lived also outside Tbilisi, e.g. in Aspindza district, in the South Georgia

[30] It should be noted here that both individuals do not belong to only one (Georgian) cultural space.

[31] WeResearch, 2021, 52.

[32] ibid, 36.

[33] In textbooks, the 19th century is titled as such. The opinion expressed in the article refers to trends and not to any specific textbook.

[34] According to the research, the most interesting for students was the history of Georgia (88%), their village or city (81%) and the region (81%), WeResearch, 2021, 46.

[35] Giorgi Zdanevich (pseudonym: Maiashvili) – (1855-1917) publicist, critic, public figure, chairman of the advisory board of "Black Stone Society".

[36] Davit Kldiashvili: On the way of my life, Georgian prose, vol. XVI, 1988, 628.

[37] ibid.

[38] Ivane Gvaramadze (1831-1912) - Catholic priest, writer, publicist, poet, teacher, collector of Georgian folklore, historical and archaeological materials. In the 19th century, he made a great contribution to educational activities in Meskheti-Javakheti (South Georgia) and strengthening the Georgian national spirit.