The KGB in Georgia

On January 9 Zviad Gamsakhurdia avoided death for the third time when he noticed just soon enough that the brake cables on his car had been cut. His house in Tbilisi stands on a hill, and had he driven down it, his chances of survival would have been slim. The best-known dissenter in Soviet Georgia survived two KGB attempts to poison him in 1975, but he had been expecting new trouble since receiving an anonymous New Year greeting by phone a week earlier. The caller had said that his first celebration of 1977 would be to blow up Gamsakhurdia with a concealed bomb placed in his car.

This episode, taken with others, suggests that the Georgian regime is becoming increasingly rattled as it fails to cope adequately with the rise of loosely organized groups of dissent. The number of issues contested by these groups is growing. They oppose Russification of the Georgian language and culture, and the deliberate destruction of Georgian national monuments. They expose KGB penetration and control of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and call for religious freedom. They charge that the four-year official campaign against corruption in commerce and government has—in Gamsakhurdia’s words—left untouched “the crooks and bribe-takers of the privileged ruling class,” and has failed to improve “the serious economic situation.” They document the institutionalization of torture in Georgian remand prisons. And they support the so far fruitless campaign of the exiled Meskhetian nation, which has lobbied for twenty years for the right to return to its homeland in southern Georgia. Stalin deported it wholesale in 1944, without accusing it of any offense, apparently so as to clear potential opposition from the path of a planned Soviet advance into Turkey.

The medium used by the dissenting groups is samizdat, i.e., documents and journals produced in typescript or on duplicators. The appearance in samizdat of the first two issues of The Georgian Herald at the end of last year especially angered the authorities. This is a Georgian counterpart to the Moscow Chronicle of Current Events, a journal which prints uncensored information about political trials and many forms of KGB oppression. Prior to this, the most notable samizdat publication in Georgia had been The Golden Fleece, a literary and historical journal edited for the last two years by Gamsakhurdia. Dr. Gamsakhurdia is a scholar of Georgian and Anglo-American literature who taught at Tbilisi University until sacked for his dissenting activity in 1975.

The KGB made its first attempts to kill Gamsakhurdia by using a poisonous gas. His health, previously that of a strong swimmer and rider, has not recovered since, and one of the doctors who diagnosed the poisoning, after he nearly died, has been threatened with arrest. Dr. Nikolai Samkharadze was recently advised by a KGB officer, in an eight-hour interrogation, to renounce his diagnosis. But he flatly refused.

In the last few months Gamsakhurdia and his friends have been probing the official investigation of a fire which burned down the opera house in …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.