Perspectives | Eric Lee’s The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution

The new book stresses that the short-lived republic flourished as a successful example of democratic socialism.

The founding council of Georgia, 1919. (Museum.ge)

The Georgian Democratic Republic was short lived – lasting only from 1918 until the Red Army took over Georgia in 1921 – but its legacy remains immensely important in Georgia today. The proclamation of its constitution is a national holiday, and the modern Georgian state plans to mark its forerunner’s centenary with multiple high-profile events this year.

Eric Lee’s new book, The Experiment, is therefore a very welcome (and very readable) introduction to a fascinating if understudied period in the history of the South Caucasus. Lee stresses that the Georgian Democratic Republic not only survived, but – in contrast to the bureaucratic dictatorship which emerged in the Soviet Union – flourished as a successful example of democratic socialism.

The timing is impeccable. Last year, on the centennial of the Russian Revolution, a number of new books were published by authors from the Anglophone left taking stock of 1917. Some were critical, if sympathetic, accounts of what went wrong; others were more celebratory, arguing for a positive reappraisal of the October Revolution in response to a rising thirst for alternative political possibilities of any flavor. It is no surprise that Lee, a longtime activist in American leftist and trade union movements, chose the moment to pen what is essentially a spirited defense of Menshevism: Another, different sort of revolution, he declares, was possible.

The split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks both members of the Russian Social Democratic Party began in 1903, with the former favoring a larger, more loosely organized party and more incremental political change in cooperation with the liberal bourgeoisie. They also were skeptical of the view of Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, of the party as a small vanguard organization and his justifications for political violence.

By 1917, Georgia was a Menshevik stronghold, and after the collapse of the Russian Empire, they governed the Georgian Democratic Republic for its entire existence. The largely middle-class intellectuals who found themselves in charge of the new Georgian state had bold plans many of them largely unrealizable given the circumstances.

But Lee is right to describe what they did achieve as impressive. The state respected the influence and independence of trade unions, encouraged the creation of cooperatives and carved up nearly 5,000 estates to be distributed to peasants in an ambitious land reform program.

While key sectors of the economy were collectively owned, some private industry existed and Georgia largely avoided the brutal “war communism” which took place in Soviet Russia to the north. Multi-party elections were held and political pluralism largely respected with the exception of the Bolsheviks, legalized only in 1920 in exchange for Moscow’s recognition.

Lee is rightly fascinated by the events of the summer of 1920, when delegates from the Second International – an organization of socialist and labor parities – paid a visit to the young republic. Among them were Tom and Ethel Snowden, a future British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and the “Pope of Marxism” Karl Kautsky.

They had come to Georgia to see the future, and to their minds, they had found it (Kautsky noted in his glowing book about the journey that he saw only “satisfaction and hope” in Georgia.) And there was something to write home about; before suffrage was won in the USA, five female deputies were elected to Georgia’s parliament in 1919, among them the first democratically-elected Muslim woman. Their rights were enshrined in the young republic’s constitution, one of the most progressive in the world for its time.

That document met a poignant end: it was hurriedly passed into law in the port city of Batumi shortly before its signatories boarded ships to flee the advancing Bolshevik armies. The leaders would live out their lives as emigres in France, where president Noe Ramishvili was assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1930 and prime minister Noe Zhordania died in 1953, just two months before Stalin.

It’s a tragic story, and well told. But one needn’t be an apologist for the Bolsheviks’ invasion of Georgia to realize that Lee’s eagerness to vindicate the Mensheviks occasionally undermines his analysis. In his reading, much of Moscow’s hatred for Menshevik Georgia was motivated by its presenting a genuinely viable socialist alternative.

Yet Lee also tells the story of the British and German military missions present in the Georgian Democratic Republic while the Allies were intervening in the Russian Civil War. He also admits that by 1921, the Georgians had “developed an over-reliance on diplomacy” for their security, rather than an adequate defense. While this may not justify the Bolsheviks’ invasion of a sovereign state, it does suggest that their motivations lay more with geopolitical realism than fearing Tbilisi’s charisma.

Lee’s discussion of the treatment of the republic’s ethnic minorities its “Achilles Heel” – is more critical. But here too, Lee seems quick to dismiss accusations of nationalism against Georgia’s Menshevik leaders. Had he discussed them in more detail, we could then wonder why the sad history of Georgia’s relationship with Abkhaz and Ossetians repeated itself with conflicts after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For Caucasus watchers today, the lack of detail on how the state is remembered in modern Georgia is the missing postscript to Lee’s book, possibly the result of his mostly relying on English-language sources.

And that is a crucially important dynamic to how Lee’s work will be received in Georgia. Any visitor to Tbilisi’s Soviet Occupation Museum will note the two large maps hanging at its entrance, depicting post-Soviet Georgia and the Democratic Republic. Arrows ominously threaten both from the north, alongside the words “the occupation continues.”

Yet the Soviet Occupation Museum doesn’t really tell the story of the country which the Soviets occupied in 1921. Because in Georgia today, the “First Republic” is defined by its downfall as a westward-facing, democratic state whose potential was snuffed out by Moscow.

One recent example of the Republic's legacy on political thinking today is an editorial on the state’s centenary by the news site Civil.ge, mourning the bright minds executed in the crushing of that republic. They became the standard bearers of a great What If, one to challenge the later Soviet justification that modernization would have been impossible without Moscow’s guidance.

These days, international visitors who want to see socialism in Georgia have few choices other than visiting the Stalin Museum in Gori. But there have been some attempts by Georgian activists to use the Democratic Republic’s legacy to “naturalize” left-wing politics in the country, arguing that they have not always been an imposition from the north.

Thus in Georgia today, the appeal of the first Georgian state is largely its Georgian statehood, not its socialist content – unsurprising, given how socialism has become taboo in today's Georgia.

The flag and constitution of the Democratic Republic were indeed recycled upon the “restoration” of Georgia’s independence in 1991. But when the “red flag of the Mensheviks” was raised over Tbilisi that year, it wasn’t a democratic socialist who raised it, but an ethno-nationalist demagogue, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Lee calls 1918-21 a “forgotten revolution.” The story of that revolution is worth remembering, and has never before been told so well. But the story of how it came to be forgotten is also integral if it has lessons to teach not least in the country of its birth.

Perspectives | Eric Lee’s The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution

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