Irma Ratiani                                                                                                                                                                        #5                                                                           

Literary Reflections of “Caucasia” and “a Caucasian” in Georgian Literature

Theoretical Analysis

Modern Georgian literature offers interesting interpretation of “Caucasia” and “Caucasian”. However, thinking around this problem commenced much earlier – back in the 19th century, when the theme of Caucasia clearly acquired topicality in Georgian literature and social thought. This actualization was caused by the historical transition of Georgia into the period of new colonialism, which can be otherwise called “era of Russian colonialism”.

            As is known, the beginning of Russian colonialism in Georgia dates from the early 19th century, though movement towards this process was noted earlier – from the day of the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk, and, to a certain extent, even prior to that. From the early 19th century tsarist Russia comfortably takes over the status of colonizer, proceeding consistently with the implementation of the strategic plan of colonization. The political strategy of Russian colonialism was defined from the outset by the principle of dividing and breaking up of the occupied regions of Georgia and Caucasia as a whole, while the social structure assumed the form of a micro-model of the social system of the Russian empire. What was the attitude of Georgian society to the standard of the new colonialism and in what form was it revealed in Georgian literature?

            Given Georgia’s experience, the status of “being conquered” was not alien to her; at various times Georgia was occupied by Iran, Arabia, Turkey, and by the Mongols.  Hence Georgia’s traditional response to colonialism was marked by anti-colonialist movement under the token of preservation of her religion, which primarily implied protection of religious values. In the period of Russian colonialism the status of the conqueror changed radically: the Russian conqueror acted under the policy of “co-religionist” enemy and friend. On the one hand, she enjoyed the privilege of an orthodox country, and on the other, she set Georgia against the non-Christian peoples of Caucasia, depriving her of the needed political distinctiveness. The initial reaction of Georgian society to Russian colonialism assumed the form of double standard. This was clearly reflected in the life and literature of Georgian society of the period of romanticism, primarily from the viewpoint of the interpretation of the concepts “Caucasia” and “a Caucasian”.

            In speaking of “double standard” I have in mind the ambivalence or misunderstanding that has existed in Georgian society and literature regarding the co-religionist colonizer: one part of Georgian society, deprived of the necessity of protecting its confession, lost the motivation for anti-colonialist struggle from the beginning and – totally disoriented – moves to the position of ambivalent  expectation; the other part tries to convince itself in the reasonableness of the “new era” and in the need of  protection by a powerful co-religionist country (that is allegedly capable of returning Georgia back into European society); this part considered service of the Russian throne their patriotic duty – even under grave doubts and vacillation. There also is a small group of people that clearly feels the tragedy of the opposition of the idea of welfare, masked behind the idea of religious unity, and national originality, and seeks to awaken the stupefied society at the cost of his own heroism. Son disagrees with father, brother with brother, friend with friend: society is dissimilated, while literature clearly mirrors each detail of this fateful dissimilation: all questions or doubts, wavering or fear, indecision or bravery are deposited in the layers of thought, accumulate and find their way into literature. The idea of “Caucasian” unity is relegated to the historical past; poets dressed in uniforms of Russian generals, on order of the colonialists, fight the leaders of the Caucasian movement and, having done their duty, sadly mourn the historical might of Georgia, now turned into ruins; all who secretly sympathizes with the idea of “Caucasian” unity, e.g. Aleksandre Orbeliani, prior to the plot of 1832, received  a most severe warning because of a supportive letter sent by him to Shamyl, and is shifted to the camp of “undesirables” for the empire (Tsereteli 1989: 101; Ghaghanidze 2010: 87). Caucasian confrontation and dividing the Caucasian peoples, under the mask of Orthodoxy, turns into a major plan of Russia’s policy; accordingly, the notion “a Caucasian” is differentiated into separate designations – Georgian, Armenian, Chechen, Dagestanian and so on, and for each of them any “other” is the carrier of the symbolism of enemy rather than friend. Let us recall the story of the kidnapping and captivity of the women of the Chavchavadze house (Drancey 2002). In this general chaos and discord Nikoloz Baratashvili’s phrase assumes special significance: “The unity of faith will bring no good for the state, if the character of its peoples differs” (Baratashvili 1968: 145). It may be said that Baratashvili was the only Georgian intellectual of the first half of the 19th century in Georgia who not only got down to the bottom of the principal problem of the Georgians, but made his position known. The poet’s phrase just quoted demonstrates his belief in the uselessness of the traditional means of fighting against colonialism and the need to look for new ways: this is the path of national struggle that must salvage Georgian identity and statehood. But Baratashvili’s appeal – notwithstanding quite a few like-mined supporters and of course predecessors – was destined to come true later.

            From the 1860s, the genuine purpose of the political course and strategy of the new colonizers acquired more intensity: Vorontsov’s liberal (though essentially imperialist) rule was replaced with radical imperial policy; Russia’s plan of transforming Georgia into a peripheral zone of political and cultural development took clear shape, conforming to the classical interpretation of “colony”. Due to this the response of Georgian society to Russian colonialism, the ambivalent attitude of the romantic period changed to radical opposition: the historically worked out confessional strategy of anti-colonial movement was replaced with national strategy. It was not fortuitous that Ilia Chavchavadze snatched at the figure of Nokoloz Baratashvili. Ilia – and not only he – followed Baratashvili in relation to the Russian colonial policy: the 19th-century realistic literature is instinct with the sentiment of protecting national identity and this attitude forms the basis of the writings of Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tsereteli, Aleksandre Kazbegi, Vazha Pshavela and other realist writers. The idea of nationality is directly related to the resuscitation of the historical notion of “a Caucasian”: if Georgia dissociates herself from the other regions of the Caucasus, she will find herself in isolation – face to face with the Russian bear. Against this backdrop, Akaki Tsereteli’s poem “Shamyl’s dream” sounds as an appeal and stand: it is not accidental that Akaki threw this poem like a gauntlet at the general and poet Grigol Orbeliani, by which he underscored the differing stance in relation to the Caucasian question of the “children’s” camp from that of the “fathers”. Akaki’s  phrase “and let us not give ourselves up as slaves to the giaour” (Tsereteli 2010: 16) is symptomatic: before long A. Qazbegi altered radically the literary interpretation of the  notions of “a Caucasian” and “Caucasus”, shifting them to an emphatically anti-Russian plane: in his texts a tragic fear  takes shape of a nation that invades Georgia, and generally, the Caucasus, with “strange” language, morality and traditions and customs; characters connected with Russian rule are from the beginning conceptualized in a negative context or the other way round, if a character is negative he is definitely interpreted in a Russian context. On the other hand, the peoples of Georgia’s mountain region are associated with heroism, self sacrifice, nobility of mind, love; nor should the fact be devoid of interest that Qazbegi never expresses his, author’s, social or political stand while describing the relations of Georgians and other peoples of the Caucasus mountain (and we are well aware of the methodological inclination of realist writers to record their position). On the other hand, the writer’s stand is unshakably national when it concerns the relationship of Georgians and Russians or Russophils. The same tendency may be observed in Akaki Tsereteli’s poem Gamzrdeli (“Tutor”), in which we have Abkhaz characters both positive and negative, while their tutor is a Kabardian. The author, who emerges in the text as a rigorous regulator of ethical and moral norms, never accentuates the ethnic differences. Nor should we forget Vazha Pshavela’s Mutsal and Joqola and the attitude to them of Georgian mountaineers. The ethical and social pro et contra underpinning the scale of values of Vazha Pshavela’s characters goes beyond the standard of narrow separatism, reaching the deepest layers of humanism. Interestingly enough, the full paradigm of the accents of the Caucasian theme, discussed above, is given with artistic mastery by Iakob Gogebashvili in his Iavnanam ra hkmna? (“What Did the Lullaby Song Do?”) Against the backdrop of the tragic fate of a Georgian family the aggravated ethnic confrontation between Georgians and Lezghins towards the close of the story transforms into overall harmony and idyll. Thus, the question asked early in the 19th century of why we should stand together in the absence of confessional unity transforms towards the end of the same century into the question of what have we to disagree upon in the presence of a common enemy.

            The more paradoxical it is to note that the “Caucasian question” – so ripe and intellectually prepared – cardinally alters its perspective in 20th century Georgian literature when, owing to the historical and political cataclysms of Soviet totalitarianism, the attitude to the issue changes, even being split into several stages: revolutionary and post-revolutionary, ideological diktat, the Patriotic War, liberalization and post-liberalization.

            The best example of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary conceptualization of the problem is found in the works of the 20th-century Georgian classic Mikheil Javakhishvili, with special emphasis on his novel “Jaqo’s Dispossessed”. The anti-hero Jaqo Jivashvili is a character distinctly bearing the symbolism of the times: wearing an Ossetian cap, Ossetian chokha, Tatar socks, Dabakhana shoes, Georgian sword and Russian rifle: “Jaqo is a Sharikov artificially created by the epoch, serving his creator with dog’s fidelity (Ratiani 2010: 143). Mixed up in him is everything, that had retained the make-up of independent units in the 19th century: whereas the basic question in relation to the Caucasian peoples revolved round their disharmonious or, on the contrary, harmonious existence, in Soviet conditions it transformed into the problem of being-nonbeing: Jaqo – the product of the “new times” – is the result of the so-called “Soviet integration”; he is a typical individual “without kith or kin” in whom it is hard to say where a Georgian begins and where a Daghestanian ends, where an Ossetian begins and where a Russian ends. Who needs such distorted integration that is tantamount to destruction? Of course the colonialist – the Russian empire, now hidden behind the incomprehensible symbiosis of Soviets. Against this backdrop, the position taking shape in the works of Konstantine Gamsakhurdia and Leo Kiacheli acquires somewhat nostalgic significance in relation to the Caucasian problem. Although the texts are often screened with social themes serving as an eye-wash for Soviet ideologists, going deeper, one can feel the attitude of Georgians’ respect and mutual appreciation of the identity of Caucasian peoples. However, this is only an exception. “My address is neither my house, nor street, my address is the Soviet Union”. This is the slogan that obliterates differences. Can anyone be bold enough to speak of the differentiation of the Caucasian ethnos, with an ethnical Georgian at the head of the Soviet dictatorial regime? The political need for integration was especially enhanced in the period of the Patriotic War, when the mental model of the Homo Sovieticus entered the phase of its historical might: the Patriotic War played into the hands of dictatorship, appeals for consolidation in the face of the common social threat, further removes the necessity of defining identities. It should be noted that the situation did not alter in the post-Stalinist period of the so-called “thaw”. The concept “we” had long since taken the place of “I” and this replacement was one of the major achievements of the colonialist policy of Sovietized Russia. However, the “thaw” of the ‘60s was reflected to a certain extent in the period of the so-called “stagnation”: in the late ‘70s the phrase the “image of Caucasian ethnicity” was aired first timidly and then resolutely. I would name Giorgi Danelia’s   “Sparrow-hawk” as the first marker, in which the problem of the issue of ethnic identity may be perceived beyond tragicomic chiaroscuro, while the relationship of a Georgian pilot and an Armenian driver bears the traits of consolidation of two Caucasians lost in a vast, foreign Russian environment  (however,  the stage-manager has to pay tribute to Soviet conjuncture by the method of revealing the negative character of the second Georgian). Although in Danelia’s film a positive rather than negative interpretation of the problem is given, one thing is clear: Baratashvili’s “character of nations” is declared, the foundation of the empire has been shaken and is awaiting new processes. The tense political and economic environment of the ‘90s aggravated the toponymy of ethnos, Soviet dictatorship was coming to the end of its existence, while the ethnic units come close to the phase of recognition anew, though as expected, with a negative interpretation: the policy of “Soviet unity” is buried in the ruins of the empire, but the way is cleared for no less hazardous open ethnic confrontation in the Caucasus region. From the ‘90s, as a result of the break-up of the Soviet system, the concepts of “Caucasia” and  “a Caucasian” gave rise to an absolutely new type of discourse, defining the interpretation standard of Georgian, as well as non-Georgian literature of the end of the 20th-and early 21st century in relation to this issue. However, this is a topic of another essay.



Baratashvili 1968: Nikoloz Baratashvili 150, Works, Sabchota Sakartvelo Publishers, Tbilisi, 1968

Drancey 2002: Anne Drancey, Shamyl’s Captive Women Sabchota Sakartvelo Publishers, Tbilisi, 2002

Ratiani 2010: Irma Ratiani, Text and Chronotope, Tbilisi University Press, Tbilisi 2010

Ghaghanidze 2010: Merab Ghaghanidze, At the Boundary of Old and New Georgia, Memkvidreoba Publishers, Tbilisi 2010

Tsereteli 2010: Akaki Tsereteli, Complete Works in 20 Volumes, V. I Publishing-House of the Institute of Literature, Tbilisi 2010

Tsereteli 1989: Akaki Tsereteli, Selected Works in Five Volumes, v. III, Sabchota Sakartvelo Publishers, Tbilisi 1989.




Volume 5, Issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature