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1918-1921

Georgian history has never been easy. Land of Colchis and Argonauts, it has been one of the oldest civilizations in the World, cradle of winemaking. Thanks to its strategic location Georgia has through the history been attacked by its powerful neighbors. Georgians have nevertheless survived all foreign rulers, kept their identity, language and culture. At the beginning of XIX century Georgia was absorbed to Russian Empire, but it kept its national identity, which was developed in the times of XIX century during the national awaking. At the same time social-democratic ideas emerged in Georgia, but there Bolsheviks were defeated by more national minded Mensheviks.

After the February Revolution of 1917 and collapse of the Tsarist administration in the Caucasus, power moved to the Special Transcaucasian Committee of the Provisional Government. When the Bolsheviks raised to power in Petrograd, the Caucasian soviets, which were under the control on Mensheviks refused to recognize Lenin's regime. Threats from the increasingly Bolshevistic deserting soldiers of the former Caucasus army, ethnic clashes and anarchy in the region forced the Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani politicians to create the Transcaucasus independent democratic federation. Georgians at the same time insisted on national independence. At the beginning the Georgian Mensheviks regarded the independence from Russia as a temporary step against the Bolshevik revolution and considered the calls for Georgia's independence chauvinistic and separatist. The union of Transcaucasus was nevertheless short-lived. Undermined by increasing internal tensions and the pressure from the German and Ottoman empires, the Federation collapsed on May 26, 1918 when Georgia declared independence followed by Armenia and Azerbaijan within the next two days. Georgia was immediately recognized by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The young state had to place itself under German protection and to cede its largely Muslim-inhabited regions to the Ottoman government. However, German support enabled the Georgians to repel the Bolshevik threats from Abkhazia. The British-held Batum remained, however, out of Georgia's control and after the defeat of Germany in the I World War the British forces were deployed also in Tbilisi. Georgia's situation was not easy. Territorial disputes with Armenia and Denikin's White Russian government led to armed conflicts. A British military mission attempted to mediate these conflicts in order to consolidate all anti-Bolshevik forces in the region. To prevent White Russian army from crossing into the newly-established states, the British commander in the region drew a line across the Caucasus that Denikin would not be permitted to cross, giving both Georgia and Azerbaijan a temporary relief. On February 14 1919, Georgia held parliamentary elections won by the Social Democrats with 81.5% of the votes. The government passed the land reform and other democratic reforms, establishing in Georgia system in sharp contrast with the "dictatorship of the proletariat” build up by the Bolsheviks in Russia. In 1919, the reforms in judicial system and local self-governance were carried out. Abkhazia was granted autonomy. The ethnic problems nevertheless continued, especially in Ossetia. At the same time Moscow increased its pressure on Georgia. In January 1920 Soviet leadership offered Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to form an alliance against the White armies in South Russia and the Caucasus. The Government of Georgia refused to enter any military alliance, referring to its policy of neutrality and noninterference, but suggested to start negotiations on political settlement of the relations between two countries in the hope that this would lead to the recognition of Georgia's independence by Moscow. Georgia’s independence was de jure recognized by main Western powers.

The Soviets at the same time were not ready to accept Georgia’s independence. Since early 1920, the local Bolsheviks were actively fomenting political unrest in Georgia, capitalizing on agrarian disturbances in rural areas and inter-ethnic tensions within the country. While the Allied powers were preoccupied with the Turkey, the Sovietization of the Caucasus appeared to the Bolshevik leaders an easier task. Furthermore, the Ankara-based Turkish national government led by Kemal Pasha expressed its full commitment to a close co-operation with Moscow, promising to compel "Georgia… and Azerbaijan… to enter into union with Soviet Russia… and… to undertake military operations against the expansionist Armenia." The Soviet leaders used the situation and conquered Baku, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Then the Bolshevik coup was prepared in Tbilisi, but it failed, and the Soviet troops rushing to support the uprising were also crushed. Facing a war with Poland Lenin, ordered to start peace negotiations with Georgia. In the Treaty of Moscow on May 7, 1920, Soviet Russia recognized Georgia’s independence and concluded a non-aggression pact. The peace treaty did not mean, that the plans to destroy Georgia’s independence were cancelled. After the end of war with Poland. the defeat of the White Russian leader Wrangel and the fall of the Democratic Republic of Armenia the moment has arrived to take also Georgia. By that time, the British expeditionary corps had completely evacuated the Caucasus and the West was reluctant to intervene in support of Georgia. However, the military intervention was not universally agreed upon in Moscow. The People's Commissar of Nationalities Affairs, Joseph Stalin, took a particularly hard line with his native Georgia, supporting a military overthrow of the Georgian government. The People's Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, disagreeing to this time soon with everything that Stalin said, opposed this “premature intervention”. At the end the decision was made to move forward, but not demonstrate the Soviet participation too much. The tactics used by the Soviets to gain control of Georgia were similar to those applied in Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1920, i.e., first to organize the “uprising” of local proletariat and then send in the Red Army, to “help” the raised proletariat. 

On the night of 11 to 12 February 1921, the Bolsheviks attacked Georgian military posts in the ethnic Armenian districts near the Armenian and Azerbaijani borders. The Armenia-based Red Army units quickly came to an aid of the insurrection. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks had already set up a Georgian Revolutionary Committee. in Shulaveri, which formally applied to Moscow for help. Disturbances erupted also among Ossetians in northeast Georgia who resented the Georgian government's refusal to grant them autonomy. Georgian forces managed to contain the disorders, but then the Red Army marsched in on pretext of aiding a staged uprising and liberating opressed minorities. As Moscow hoped the West did not react, giving Moscow free hands. At dawn on February 16, the 11th Red Army troops under Anatoli Gekkerm supported by the Abhkaz and Ossetian forces crossed into Georgia, starting the war against it. At the battle on the Khrami River, the Georgian border forces were defeated. Retreating westward, the Georgian forces blew up railway bridges and demolished roads in an effort to delay the enemy’s advance. Simultaneously, Red Army units marched to Georgia from the north through the Daryal and Mamisoni passes and along the Black Sea coast towards Sukhumi. The massive propaganda war was launched against Georgia, discrabing the Soviet attack not as agression but as “Armenian-Georgias’s military conflict”. The Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs issued a series of statements disclaiming all knowledge of military actions between Georgia and the Red Army, and expressing willingness to mediate in any disputes which have arisen between Georgia and its neighbours. The World just looked and did nothing. By February 17, the Soviet infantry and cavalry divisions supported by aviation had significantly advanced to the Georgian capital, less than 15 kilometers southwest. The Georgian army put up a stubborn fight in defense of the approaches to Tbilisi, but there was not too much hope that improvised troops could really stand the Soviet super firepower. The Georgia’s government has believed the promises of Soviet Russia’s leaders and did not prepare for the war. This was a costly mistake. Now the main fighting force on the Tabakhmela heights were the cadets from the military school. It was very cold, the ground was icy, covered by snow and it was really a very difficult task to adopt it to the entrenchments and hard approaching positions.  Most of cadets were 20-23 years old young men, not prepared for the war. They even didn’t have proper clothes for winter, wearing thin, wormless coats made from Italian artificial material. But they kept their spirit high. During temporary breaks in battles, they were dancing and singing. (Nikoloz Matikashvili,  Mikheil Kvaliashvili) The strategic heights of Kojori and Tabakhmela passed from hands to hands from February 18 to February 20, when the Georgian forces under General Giorgi Mazniashvili rolled back the Red Army units which suffered heavy losses and started regrouping in an attempt to squeeze the circle around Tbilisi. By February 23, the railway bridges had been restored and Soviet tanks and armored trains joined the main Red Army troops into a renewed assault on the capital. While the armored trains laid down suppressing fire, the tanks and infantry penetrated the Georgian positions on the Kojori heights. The Georgian commander-in-chief, Giorgi Kvinitadze had now to bowe to the inevitable and ordered a withdrawal to save his army form complete encirclement. On February 25, the Red Army entered Tbilisi. That was actually end of Georgia’s independence.

This  nevertheless did not mean the end of fights in Georgia. The Georgia’s government and parliament was evacuated to Kutaisi and the Georgia’s military commanders gathered their forces at the town of Mtskheta, northwest to Tbilisi. The fall of the capital, however, heavily demoralized the Georgian troops who had finally to abandon their positions at Mtskheta. The army was gradually disintegrating as it continued its retreat westward, offering largely unorganized, but sometimes fierce resistance to the advancing Russian troops. It took another two weeks to the Soviets to take hold of major cities and towns of eastern Georgia. The Georgians hoped aid from a French naval squadron cruising in the Black Sea off the Georgian coast. On February 28, the French really helped Georgians, opening fire on the Red Army units, operating at the coast, helping Georgians to regain control of the coastal town of Gagra. This success was temporary and in some days the Soviet forces with the help of the Abkhaz militias, took Gagra back, conquered Sukhumi and advanced eastward to occupy Zugdidi and Poti. The Georgians’ could not defend also Kuthaisi and the government forces withdrew to main coastal city Batumi. Part of the Georgian forces left into the mountains and continued there the guerilla war. The situation became even more complicated when Turkey decided to use favourable situationa and moved in to Georgia, occupying the frontier areas near Batumi. Despite military successes, the situation in the Caucasus had become messy for Moscow. Armenians, aided by the Red Army involvement in Georgia, had revolted, retaking Yerevan on February 18, 1921. The Turkish occupation of Georgia’s territories implied the near certainty of a Soviet-Turkish confrontation and the Georgians repeatedly refused to capitulate. Lenin understood that he must to end the war in Georgia as quickly as possible. As a result the nice proposals were made for Georgian legal government by Soviets, to form “ a coalition” government and fight together against the Turkish invaders. The Georgian’s now had only bad choices left. They could not accept Turkish takeover of Batumi and they knew also, that they would not get help from Western Allies. On March 16, the British and Soviet governments signed a trade agreement, in which Prime Minister Lloyd George effectively promised to refrain from anti-Soviet activities in all territories of the former Russian Empire. In this moment Georgian armed forces decided to make peace with Soviets and fight back the Turks. Heavy street fightning emerged in Batumi, the city was taken by the Georgian forces and next day surrended to the Red Army. While the battle raged, the Georgia’s government boarded an Italian vessel and sailed into exile escorted by French warships. The promises given to the Georgian’s were not kept and the Soviet occupation started in Georgia.