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1956-1978

Even as in many ways the goal of the Soviet system was to fight down the nationalism, it lived strongly on in Georgia. It was demonstrated by anti-government demonstrations and violent clashes in March 1956 demonstrations. These were triggered at the beginning by the Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policy, which many Georgians took as a attack against their national pride. In spite of Stalin's heavy-handed suppression of Georgia, Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinization was, paradoxically, a blow to the Georgian national pride. Many Georgians even not supporting communism, were proud that their countryman is ruling over great Russia. As a result of this Stalin's denigration was seen as a symbol for the mistreatment of Georgian national consciousness at the hands of the Russian/Soviet rulers. Patriotic sentiment mixed with political protest was further inflamed by the sarcastic and bitter manner in which Khrushchev put all blame for horrors on Stalin, whom, as he ironically put it, the Georgians so much enjoyed calling "the great son of the Georgian nation", which made Georgians specially furious. Sergei Arutiunov has remembered, that “for people with a Transcaucasian background, Khrushchev’s speech was by no means a revelation. But many Georgians reacted in a rather peculiar way. Consider the peasants in Kardenakhi, the native village of my grandfather, and in many other villages from whom I had learnt the truth about the GULAGs already in the early 1940s. These people never referred to Stalin in other terms than as the "moustached one", or more explicitly, "that moustached beast" (es ulvashiani mkhetsi) even in a circle of trusted people. Now, they promptly displayed portraits of Stalin on the windshields of their tractors and lorries… This was a surprising diametrical shift. However, while among Russians, it was a shift from one sort of conformity to another conformity, in Georgia the shift was from one non-conformist behavior to another kind of non-conformist behavior.”  The unrest began on March 4, 1956, when groups of students gathered to mark the third anniversary of Stalin's death at the Stalin monument at the Kura embankment in downtown Tbilisi. Indignant at Khrushchev's speech, they were aggressive towards the policemen who had thrown a cordon around the area. The demonstration gradually grew large, attracting more and more people, who were bringing memorial wreaths to the Stalin monument. The confused local authorities did not actively oppose these activities. The demonstrations in the capital triggered similar protests in other parts of the republic such as Gori, Kutaisi, Rustavi, Sukhumi, and Batumi. By March 6, the demonstrations in Tbilisi had become more organized and more numerous. Early on March 7, the students of Tbilisi State University went out onto the streets instead of attending classes, where they were joined by students from other institutes and schoolchildren. The demonstrators moved through the city center chanting the slogans "Long Live Great Stalin! Long Live the Party of Lenin and Stalin! Long Live Soviet Georgia!", accompanied by the cacophony of car sirens. Having overcome the police resistance, the protesters gathered anew at the Stalin monument. By the end of day, the number of demonstrators reached 70,000. By that time, the city had become paralyzed. The meetings were simultaneously held in several places, barricades were raised, buses and cars overturned. The crowd directed traffic and in several cases even stopped it. When some activists were arrested, the demonstrations grew even massive and the crowd became more aggressive. As the demonstrations continued, the local government began to lose control over the situation. Paralyzed by the scale of the protests and the demonstrator's appeal to Georgian patriotism, the police reacted more and more sluggishly. The demands of people at the same time became more and more political. A rally at Kolkhoz Square on 9 March grew increasingly anti-Soviet. People were singing the long-suppressed anthem "Dideba" and waving flags of independent Georgian republic. When some persons in civilian dress interfered, fighting broke out. Leaflets appeared, calling for the secession of Georgia from the Soviet Union. Later that day, Moscow ordered the troops of the Transcaucasian Military District to intervene and surpress the riots. The predominantly Georgian units stationed in the area were not deployed because of suspected unreliability. The same evening, the authorities broadcasted though radio an appeal calling the rallies to be ceased and announced that the commander of Tbilisi garrison was introducing a curfew beginning at midnight on March 10. Many protesters sensed an approaching threat and began to leave the city center. Close to midnight, however, people learned that the delegation sent to the government had been detained. The crowd rushed to rescue the delegates and a clash with the soldiers guarding the building ensued. The troops started firing into the crowd to prevent the protesters from storming the building. Simultaneously, tanks moved to oust the demonstrators from Lenin Square and at the Stalin monument. The protesters tried to resume rallies on March 10, but they were again dispersed by the troops. Several dozens, if not hundreds, died in this crackdown. As no official report exists, various estimates put the number of casualties from 106 to 800. Hundreds were wounded and injured. Over 200 were arrested and many were subsequently deported to labor camps in Siberia. 

In spite of prompt pacification, the 1956 events marked a turning point after which Georgian loyalty to the Soviet Union was gravely compromised and the nation's consolidation intensified. It was in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 event that the first Georgian underground groups calling for an outright secession from the Soviet Union appeared. They were typically small and weak and the Soviet authorities were able to quickly neutralize them. However, they gave origin to a new generation of dissidents, such as Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, both teenage participants of the March 1956 rally. There were signs of unrest in Georgia also during the 1956 uprising in Hungary, when leaflets were distributed supporting Hungarian claim for independence. Georgian unrest was taken seriously in Moscow and in some way more freedoms were granted to this “rebellious” republic. This was exploited by local communists to build their own regional power base. A thriving pseudo-capitalist shadow economy emerged alongside the official state-owned economy. While the official growth rate of the economy of the Georgia was among the lowest in the USSR, such indicators as savings level, rates of car and house ownership were the highest in the Union, making Georgia one of the most economically successful Soviet republics. Such developments supported the widerspread corruption which infiltrated all parts of Georgian life, becoming serious moral desease for the nation. This and strengthening signs of russification in the Soviet Union paved the way for growing dissident movement. One of its leaders Zviad Gamsakhurdia was born in 1939 as a son of one of he most famous Georgian writers of the 20th century Konstantine Gamsakhurdia. Zviad studied also philology and began a professional career as a translator and literary scientist, raising in this area to the prominent position in Georgia. In 1955 Zviad Gamsakhurdia established a youth underground group Gorgasliani which sought to circulate reports of human rights abuses. In 1956, he was arrested during demonstrations in Tbilisi against and again in 1958 for distributing anti-communist literature and proclamations. As a punishment he was confined for six months to a mental hospital in Tbilisi. Gamsahurdia achieved wider prominence in 1972 during a campaign against the corruption associated with the appointment of a new Catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In 1973 the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights was founded and in 1976 Georgian Helsinki Group. Several underground political periodicals including Okros Satsmisi ("The Golden Fleece"), Sakartvelos Moambe ("The Georgian Herald"), Sakartvelo ("Georgia"), Matiane ("Annals") and Vestnik Gruzii were also created. Georgian dissidents worked closely together with the Russian dissidents, participating in the work of Moscow underground periodical "Chronicle of Current Events". In 1977 a nationwide crackdown on human rights activists was instigated across the Soviet Union. In Georgia, the government of Eduard Shevardnadze arrested Gamsakhurdia and his fellow dissident Merab Kostava. The two men were sentenced to three years' hard labour plus three years' exile for "anti-Soviet activities".

Such of repressions nevertheless could not stop the growing unrest among the population. New influential young dissidents such as Avtandil Imnadze, later Giorgi Chanturia and Irakli Tsereteli, emerged in support of the jailed leaders. Soviet power and Georgian nationalism clashed in 1978 when Moscow ordered revision of the constitutional status of the Georgian language as Georgia's official state language. After a new Soviet Constitution was adopted in October 1977, the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR proposed a draft constitution in which Georgian was no longer declared to be the State language. Demonstrations broke out throughout Georgia, reaching their climax in Tbilisi on April 14, 1978, the day when the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR convened to ratify the new legislation. An estimated 20,000, mainly university students, took to the streets. Several intellectuals also campaigned for the status of Georgian language and leaflets calling for nationwide resistance were distributed. The demonstrators marched to the House of the Government in downtown Tbilisi. The Soviet police managed to partially block the march, but around 5,000 people still broke through to the government building, which was quickly surrounded by the Soviet army. As it looked that the bloodshed is near, Eduard Shevardnadze, the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party Central Committee, contacted Moscow and asked for permission to leave Article 75 unchanged, which at the end was achieved. The demonstrators began gradually to withdraw only after Shevardnadze announced the final decision and read out the article affirming the status of Georgian as the state language of the Georgian SSR. Alarmed by the mass actions in Georgia, Moscow abandoned similar amendments in the constitutions of Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the same time the upsurge of national movement in Georgia, led to tensions in Abkhazia, where the concessions were seen as a retreat in the face of Georgian nationalism. The demands were send to Moscow to transfer the Abkhaz ASSR from Georgia to the Russian SFSR. Even as Kremlin refused, the ethnic quotas were established for certain bureaucratic posts, giving the Abkhaz more political power. Both the Georgian language and Abkhaz questions were on high agenda throughout the following years. Georgians living in Abkhazia protested about discrimination against them at the hands of the Abkhaz Communist Party élite and demanded the equal access to the autonomous structures. Several Georgian intellectuals petitioned Shevardnadze and Brezhnev to address the situation. During 1981, at least five mass demonstrations took place in Georgia at which Abkhaz question was raised once again alongside broader issues connected with the defense of the Georgian language, history, and culture. The protesters also demanded the release of Avtandil Imnadze, who was arrested in connection with April 14, 1978 events for having filmed the student demonstrations in Tbilisi.

Under increasing pressure from the authorities, the national movement suffered a setback in April 1979, when Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was pardoned after having repented his views, admitting his "errors of judgment" on nationwide television. Merab Kostava refused to surrender, but did not condemn Gamsahurdia’s decision. The Gamsajhurdia’s petition was a tactical move, he returned to dissident activities soon after his release, continuing to contribute to samizdat periodicals and campaigning for the release of Kostava. In 1991 a popular professor of literature Akaki Bakradze was dismissed from Tbilisi University for his “anti-Soviet” feelings. In March 1981, over 1,000 students protested and achieved the restoration of Bakradze to his position. Later that month, large groups of students and intellectuals demonstrated in defence of Georgian national rights and submitted to the Georgian party leadership a document entitled "The Demands of the Georgian People". The petition included proposals to protect the status of the Georgian language, improve the teaching of Georgian history and preservation of Georgian historical monuments, and protect the Georgians in Abkhazia. Other Georgian protests took place in the town of Mtskheta in October 1981, when 2,000 people demonstrated in defence of their native language. Unrest continued and in 1982, intellectuals protested against the arrest of dissidents. The Soviet’s attempts to crush the Georgia’s freedom movement had failed.


Restoration of Georgia’s independence.

When the perestroika started in the Soviet Union and the positions of Moscow started to weaken, Georgia was one of the first Soviet republics to take use from the new situation. Gamsakhurdia played a key role in organizing mass pro-independence rallies held in Georgia between 1987-1990, in which he was joined by Merab Kostava on the latter's release in 1987. In 1988 the Society of Saint Ilia the Righteous (SSIR), a combination of a religious society and a political party was founded. Several strikes and meetings were organized by anti-Soviet political organizations in Tbilisi. In several meetings it was claimed that the Soviet government was using Abkhaz separatism in order to oppose the pro-independence movement in Georgia. The protests reached their peak on April 4, 1989, when tens of thousands of Georgians gathered before the House of Government on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. The protesters, led by the Independence Committee organized a peaceful demonstration and hunger strikes, demanding the restoration of Georgian independence. Local authorities lost control over the situation. First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party Jumber Patiashvili asked Moscow to send troops to restore order. On the evening of April 8, 1989, Colonel General Igor Rodionov, Commander of the Transcaucasus Military District, ordered his troops to action. The local Georgian police units were disarmed just before the operation. On April 9, at 3:45 a.m., Soviet troops surrounded the demonstration area and attacked demonstrators with spades, a favorite weapon of Soviet special forces. As a result many people were killed, even more injured. One of the victims of the attack was a 16-year-old girl who tried to get away from the advancing soldiers, but was chased down and beaten to death near the steps of the government building, receiving blows to the head and chest. Altogether 19 people were killed, among them 17 women. The soldiers did not allow doctors and emergency workers to help injured people, ambulances were actually attacked by the advancing soldiers. Captured on film, the image of a young man beating a tank with a stick became a symbol of the Georgian anti-Soviet movement.  On April 10, in protest against the crackdown, Tbilisi and the rest of Georgia went out on strike and a 40-day period of mourning was declared. A state of emergency was declared, but demonstrations continued. The government of the Georgian SSR resigned as a result of the event. Moscow at the same disclaimed all responsibility, declaring that the demonstrators attacked first and the soldiers had to repel them. The April massacre radicalised Georgian opposition to Soviet power and strengthened the position of pro-independence forces. A few months later, a session of the Supreme Council of Georgian SSR, held on November 17-18, 1989, officially condemned the occupation and annexation of Democratic Republic of Georgia by Soviet Russia in 1921.

Opposition pressure on the communist government was manifested in popular demonstrations and strikes, which ultimately resulted in an open, multiparty and democratic parliamentary election being held on October 28, 1990. They were won by the "Round Table" coalition headed by the Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who became the head of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Georgia. On March 31, 1991 Gamsakhurdia organized a referendum on independence, which was approved by 98.9% of the votes. The Georgian parliament passed a declaration of independence on April 9, 1991, in effect restoring the 1918-21 Georgian state. However, it was not recognized by the Soviet Union and although a number of foreign powers granted early recognition, universal recognition did not come until the following year. Gamsakhurdia was elected President in the first democratic election of May 26 with 86.5% per cent of the vote on a turnout of over 83%. On taking office, Gamsakhurdia was faced with major economic and political difficulties, especially regarding Georgia's relations with the Soviet Union. To cut Georgia’s road to independence, Moscow decided to play on national card, using national feelings in Abkhazia and South Ossetia against the Georgia’s. In this attempts they were helped by the mistakes made by the Georgian leadership, relaying more and more on slogans as “Georgia for Georgians!”.  The ethnic conflicts escalated, creating more and more problems for Gamsakhurdia. Hisopponents were highly critical of what they regarded as "unacceptably dictatorial behaviour" and opposition against him increased. On August 19, 1991 after the start of military coup in Moscow Gamsakhurdia issued an appeal to the Georgian population to remain calm, stay at their workplaces, and perform their jobs without yielding to provocations or taking unauthorized actions. The following day, Gamsakhurdia appealed to international leaders to recognize the republics (including Georgia) that had declared themselves independent of the Soviet Union and to recognise all legal authorities, including the Soviet authorities deposed by the coup. He claimed publicly on August 21 that Gorbachev himself had masterminded the coup in an attempt to boost his popularity before the Soviet presidential elections. Georgia survived the coup without any violence, but Gamsakhurdia's opponents accused him of not being resolute in opposing it. Gamsakhurdia reacted angrily, accusing shadowy forces in Moscow of conspiring with his internal enemies against Georgia's independence movement. As a result Gamsahurdia turned against the opposition, arresting its leaders and closing opposition newspapers. The government's activities aroused controversy at home and criticism abroad. The political dispute turned violent on September 2, when an anti-government demonstration in Tbilisi was dispersed by police. The most ominous development was the splintering of the Georgian National Guard into pro- and anti-government factions, with the latter setting up an armed camp outside the capital. Skirmishes between the two sides occurred across Tbilisi during October and November with occasional fatalities resulting from gunfights. Paramilitary groups — one of the largest of which was the anti-Gamsakhurdia "Mkhedrioni" set up barricades around the city. n December 22, 1991, armed opposition supporters launched a violent coup d'etat and attacked a number of official buildings including the Georgian parliament building, where Gamsakhurdia himself was sheltering. Heavy fighting continued in Tbilisi until January 6, 1992, leaving at least 113 people dead. On January 6, Gamsakhurdia and members of his government escaped through opposition lines and found at the end asylum in the reakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.  It was later claimed that Soviet forces had been involved in the coup against Gamsakhurdia. After the escape of Gamsahurdia his opponents reconstituted itself as a State Council and appointed Gamsakhurdia's old rival Eduard Shevardnadze as chairman in March 1992. The change in power was effected as a fait accompli, without any formal referendum or elections. He ruled as de facto president until the formal restoration of the presidency in November 1995. Gamsahurdia nevertheless continued to promote himself as the legitimate president of Georgia. During 1992-1993 skirmishes between the new government and Gamsakhurdia supporters continued, turning to full war in September 1993.   Gamsakhurdia returned to Georgia in September 1993 establishing his government in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi. Government forces fell back in disarray, leaving few obstacles between Gamsakhurdia's forces and Tbilisi. However, Gamsakhurdia's capture of Black Sea port of Poti threatened the interests of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result all three countries expressed their support for Shevardnadze's government, which in turn agreed to join the Commonwealth of Independent States. While the Armenian and Azerbaijan support was political, Russia send troops to Georgia to aid the government. Around 2,000 Russian troops moved to protect Georgian railroads and provided logistical support and weapons to the government forces. The uprising was defeated and on the last day of the year Gamsakhurdia died in circumstances that are still unclear, probably he killed himself. With this Shevarnadze was now firmly on power and Georgia moved back to the Russia’s sphere of influence. Return of former nomenklatura to power lead Georgia to harder and harder crises. As necessary reforms were not done, economy collapsed – infrastructure was in ruins, there was not even electricity and heat in many parts of Georgia. By the level of corruption Georgia raised to one of most corrupted countries in the World. Georgia could not make choice between West and Russia, staying economically and militarily absolutely depending from Russia. In 2003 was Georgia among biggest failures among post-communist transition countries. Only after 2003 and so called “Rose Revolution” situation started to change and real reforms were launched in Georgia.