The Event that shook the World

By Irakli Kakabadze

April 9, 1989 was a historic date that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Empire. Ten years ago on this date, a bloody massacre on Rustaveli Avenue in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi occurred when 4,000 unarmed nonviolent protesters were beaten, killed and dispersed by the Soviet Army.  This was the first “crack” that eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union. I was 20 years old during these protests in 1989 actively participating as a member of the students central striking committee. Many of my friends, compatriots and colleagues were seriously wounded by the violent behavior of the Soviet occupation forces.

Leaders of the Georgian National Liberation movement, Zviad K. Gamsakhurdia, Merab Kostava, Gia Chanturia, Zurab Chavchavadze, Irakli Tsereteli, Tamar Chkheidze and others decided to demand independence from Soviet occupation that had begun in 1921. This was a very shocking and highly unusual demand even during the so called PERESTROIKA since no other Soviet Republic had demanded independence prior to these April 9th events. Yes, there were demands for more democracy and human rights, environmental protection and higher salaries – but there was no other precedent of demanding complete and total independence from Soviet leaders. Considering the high popularity of the then Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev among world leaders, it was generally felt that an independence struggle was a fruitless exercise. Most Western leaders were in the process of developing improved almost warm relations with the Soviet leadership; the Georgians were going against the tide. Nevertheless, the leaders of the Georgian Liberation Movement decided to follow the footsteps of Gandhi’s ‘Swaraj’ – total liberty with no spilling of blood. This decision proved to be difficult and tragic at the time, but in the long run, successful, as these steps led to the eventual defeat of one of the biggest empires in the history of human kind. Zviad Gamsakhurdia even had a picture of Mahatma Gandhi in his pocket when he was getting arrested right after the bloody massacre by Soviet Occupation Forces on that fateful April day.

What was amazing and totally unbelievable during the protest on April 9th was the fact that people self organized in a totally nonviolent way and met brute force with singing and dancing. The Georgian protesters were able to defeat one of the strongest armies of the world with creativity, empathy and nonviolence. On that day, 16 women and 4 men sacrificed their lives to the cause of independence, became heroes and paved the way not just for independence of Georgia, but the demolition of the entire Soviet Empire. No weapons had any strength when the will of the people manifested itself so strongly by nonviolent action.

I cannot forget the words of our national hero, perhaps the biggest influence of our struggle, Merab Kostava: “We have two choices to lead our independence struggle. One is an armed insurrection, that is doomed to fail, because violence never liberates from violence. We will always lose once we pick up the weapons of destruction and death. But we will always win, when we have the greatest strength of love and nonviolence the example of which was given by great Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior. There is no alternative to nonviolent struggle and we will destroy and deconstruct Soviet Empire – more then this, no Empire is immune to the power of nonviolent struggle and Georgian Polyphonic song ‘Mravaljhamieri’ (მრავალჟამიერი).

In the end, the words of Merab Kostava proved to be right as well as unforgettable – even more so today, 30 years after the bloody massacre of April 9th.


Interesting features of Georgian American history

     In the Georgian Association’s run up to the 100 year anniversary of Georgia’s Independence, we will spotlight interesting features of Georgian American history. Today’s piece provides a snapshot of the Georgian diaspora in the U.S.

     The first Georgian diaspora organization in the United States was Kartuli Sazogadoeba (the Georgian Society) founded in San Francisco, California in 1924.  In 1930, the Caucasian Society “Alaverdi” was formed to unite different Caucasian groups, and in the 1950s it ran a children’s summer camp.  In 1931, the Kartuli sazogadoeba Amerikis sheertebul shtatebshi (the Georgian Association in the United States, or Georgian Association), which was more exclusively Georgian, was founded by, among others, Prince George Machabeli, Siko Eristavi, Paul Kvaratskhelia and Irakli Orbeliani. The Georgian Association remains fully operational today and is the only nationwide Georgian diaspora group in the US.

   In the 1950s, many of the new Georgian emigrants became enthusiastic supporters of US anti-communist policies.  More politicized than their predecessors, they formed a number of leagues and parties: the Kartuli-Amerikuli liga (Georgian-American League), the Kartuli erovnuli kavshiri (Georgian National Union) and Sakartvelos damoukideblobis Amerikuli sabcho (American Council for Independent Georgia).  The Georgian-American League published a newspaper, the Voice of Free Georgia, from 1953-58. The Voice’s Board of Directors included a number of familiar Georgian names such as Tsomaia, Chatara, Tchenkeli, Dumbadze among others. The Bulletin was widely distributed to members of Congress as part of a broader anti-Soviet information campaign. The American Council for Independent Georgia published Chveni Gza (Our Path).  Many Georgians patriots living in the U.S. Included members of the GA, provided many of the details and significant information that led to the 1954 release by the House Select Committee on Communist Aggression of the document, “Communist Takeover and Occupation of Georgia”. http://georgica.tsu.edu.ge/files/06-History/Soviet%20Era/US%20Congress-1954.pdf

    Between 1955-75, the broader and less politicized community was served by the newspaper Kartuli Azri (Georgian Opinion).  Starting in 1951, Georgians were awarded their own radio section on the Voice of America (recently celebrating its 65th year of operation) which still functions today with a small staff of dedicated Georgian journalists and broadcasters.  A biography of Petre Kvedelidze, a former VOA correspondent, is posted on our website.

    Until the 1980s, the Georgian Association ran a cultural center known as the Georgian House. As noted earlier, the Georgian Association is the oldest diaspora organization In the U.S. representing the interests of the Georgian American community and its friends of which there is a growing number including former U.S. diplomats and development workers who served in Georgia, American businessmen, former Peace Corps volunteers and private citizens. . With over 1500 and growing number of Facebook friends, the organization has renewed its charitable, educational and cultural activities in the United States, focusing also on greater awareness about Georgia among American politicians, members of Congress, expert communities etc.   The Association organizes annual celebrations including for Georgian Independence Day (May 26th — it marks the Declaration of Independence of the first Georgian Republic of 1918-21). The Association also promotes and educates the public about different Congressional resolutions including House Resolutions like H.Res.660 in 2016 “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives to support the territorial integrity of Georgia”. It is also an active member of the Central and East European Coalition of Diasporas. Several other Georgian organizations have been created since 1991 to help Georgian society through a period of extraordinary economic deprivation and chaos.  One example is the American Friends of Georgia created in 1994 and based in Massachusetts. The American Friends of Georgia is a humanitarian organization that funds a number of programs in Georgia that fight tuberculosis, supports orphanages, distributes food packages for the poor and books for libraries.  Other important Georgian-American non-profit and cultural organizations include the America-Georgian Business Council which since 1998 promotes U.S. investment to and trade with Georgia), Tvistomi in New York (humanitarian community organization), the US-Georgian Friendship Association in San-Diego. The highly acclaimed Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia and the New York-based Dancing Crane Company represent efforts to showcase Georgian theatre and dance.  And finally, given the growing number of Americans of Georgian Orthodox ancestry, beginning in 2011, multiple Georgian orthodox parishes began to emerge in different states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, Illinois and California.


Shota Rustaveli and the Knight in the Tiger’s Skin* Part 1 of 2

         Just before the beginning of World War Il, Georgia solemnly celebrated the 750th anniversary of the appearance of the famous poem of the great Georgian poet, Shotha Rustaveli   “The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin.” Today in 2016, this poem, known to all Georgians, celebrates well over 800 years of existence and remains as beloved as ever. Who was Shota Rustaveli and what about this medieval epic poem called a masterpiece of Georgian literature makes it so relevant today?

         Looking back, as the poem was celebrating its 750th birthday, during a meeting of the Association of Georgian Writers held in the capital city of Georgia, Tbilissi, a Mr. Ingorokva, Professor of Literature at the State University of Tbilissi and one of the best qualified commentators on Rustaveli at the time, spoke about the poem and its author. In the prologue to his lecture he said: “Centuries separate us from the time of Rustaveli, but his immortal poem continues to stand as the magnificent work of an accomplished genius, and its influence remains as powerful as ever. The era during which Rustaveli lived and created was the era when Georgia reached the height of her political power and cultural development. It is impossible to understand Rustaveli’s great work without a deep knowledge of the magnificent, original culture of Georgia of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. And, in reality, where did the universal philosophy and the humanism with which the poem is impregnated come from? The answer, of course, is that the great cultural movement known as the Renaissance began in Georgia centuries before it came to Western Europe.”

       Professor Ingorokva was quite right. Rustaveli wrote a poem, which, like a mirror reflected the culture of Georgia of his day. The poem is first of all the expression, unique in form and style, of the great ideas of humanism on which as based the political and intellectual life of medieval Georgia.

         Who was Rustaveli? He was one of many great nobleman who surrounded the resplendent court of Queen Thamar the Great, who reigned in Georgia from 1184 to 1213. The Lord of Rustavi in Southwest Georgia, he took the name of Rustaveli which in Georgian means “one who comes from Rustavi.” There is not the slightest doubt that he was the man who wrote the “Knight in the Tiger Skin.” In the concluding lines of his poem the author says:

“..I sign my name,

A Meskhi from Rustavi.”

“Meskhi” in Georgian means a man from Meskheti, the province of Georgia where Rustavi is situated.

         When did Rustaveli live and when was his poem written? To these questions as well, the poem itself gives the answer. In the prologue, the author dedicates his poem to Queen Thamar and speaks of her as his contemporary. Now, the only Queen Thamar known to Georgian history is precisely the famous Thamar the Great, who became queen in 1184 when her father, George Ill, abdicated in her favor. This and other historical facts prove that Rustaveli lived in the second half of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th, the golden Age of the Kingdom of Georgia. His poem was likely written between the years 1184 and 1207. The exact date is not known and neither are the dates of his birth and death.

       After receiving a good education in Georgia, Rustaveli went to Athens (the Paris of his time) and completed his education there. He spoke several languages, he traveled extensively in Asia and Europe, he knew thoroughly the cultures, the arts, and the literature of all the civilized countries of his age. His poem is full of quotations from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers, poets, and writers of classical Greece and Iran.

      It can be seen that Rustaveli was well prepared to play a part in the service of his country. He received an appointment as Great Chamberlain (some sources say Chief Treasurer) to Queen Thamar the Great. The tragedy of his life begins from this moment. The queen was beautiful and Rustaveli fell desperately in love with her. All his genius is given to the task of singing her beauty, her charm, and her virtue.

“Let us sing to the great Queen Thamar, says the poet.

“1 dedicate to her my chosen odes, Odes written with tears and blood. I sing of the one of whom I have always sung.

She is all my life, even though she has no more mercy for me, than a rock.

I sing her glory in the lines which follow. ‘ ‘

Thus the poet ends the prologue to his poem.

     What was his further fate? We have nothing authentic to go by, but Shota Rustaveli Jvari Monasterylegend says that the poet abandoned public life, became a monk, and spent the rest of his days in one of the Georgian monasteries in Jerusalem (formerly the Georgian Monastery of the Holy Cross, the church now belongs to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem). It was there that his tomb was discovered centuries later, along with a fresco and a simple inscription “Shotha Rustaveli”. His Wikipedia Biography notes that the fresco and accompanying inscription in Georgian were defaced in 2004. But the fresco was subsequently restored.

*the poem is also referred to as “The Knight in the Panthe’s or Leopard’s Skin”.  This articledraws largely from an article written by Simon Kvitashvili and printed in the publication “The Voice of Free Georgia, vol 5, April, 1954.