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 Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi in May 1973. Unable to solve the case, the authorities nonetheless eventually made some arrests. But only in November 1976 did the trial at last begin. Charged with arson, all seven defendants withdrew their pre-trial confessions, stated that these had been extracted under torture, and pleaded not guilty. Some of them reportedly bared their arms in court to show the marks of the torture.
According to prosecution evidence, the accused had burned down the opera house in return for a payment of 500,000 rubles from its ex-director, Mr. Vakhtang Chebukiani, who wished to avenge in this way his earlier dismissal. Although Chebukiani was thus the apparent instigator of the plot in official eyes, the judge reportedly refused the defendants’ request to summon him to court, even as a witness. Amid official confusion the trial was then suspended.
On its resumption, the judge found all the accused guilty, but three of them were promptly released—under circumstances that smacked of corruption. Given five- to eight-year sentences, these three were given amnesty on the grounds that they had had good records in World War II—grounds for which observers could see no legal basis. The three were Mr. Tenghiz Rukhadze, ballet-master and nephew of Mr. Chebukiani; Mr. Tatishvili, deputy director of the opera house; and the opera house’s storekeeper.
The other defendants, who apparently lacked friends in high places, did not receive amnesty. A former member of the chorus received eight years, two stage hands seven years each, and an electrician six years. Their names are not yet known in the West.
Although the trial ended on January 24, no word about it has yet appeared in the Moscow press, which has evidently been ordered to keep silent. All reports reaching the West originate from the Georgian dissenters.
Last year Gamsakhurdia was officially invited by Queen Mary’s College, London, to come and give some lectures about Georgian translations of English literature. The Writers’ Union, to which he belongs, gave a positive response. But soon a secretary of the party central committee summoned him and said: “First stop all your activity, and then we’ll see about England.”
Gamsakhurdia believes that the invitation and publicity about him in Britain have so far prevented his arrest. But he feels highly vulnerable to murder attempts for which the culprits—agents of the KGB—will never be called to account.
At the same time, he refuses to be pressured into silence. In a recent document he attacked the official campaign against the church, charging that it only encouraged “the moral degradation of society, the growth of crime, and the rise of philistine tendencies among the people.” He also stated his view that “in Georgia Russification has become the leitmotif of state policy.”
Gamsakhurdia currently fears not only for himself but also for one of his colleagues in the Georgian “Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights,” the historian Victor Rtskhiladze. Rtskhiladze has angered the authorities by documenting with Gamsakhurdia the government’s deliberate destruction of national monuments. Ancient churches in remote parts of southern Georgia have been blown up by bombs, and the famous David Garedzha complex of monasteries dating from the sixth century has been severely damaged by the army using it as an artillery range.
As the ministry of culture’s chief inspector for the preservation of monuments, Rtskhiladze has been in a good position to collect documents to prove that government policy is consciously aimed at destroying part of the national heritage. In recent weeks his superiors have begun maneuvering with the aim of having him sacked and, perhaps, arrested. They know that he recently dispatched his dossier to UNESCO, asking the world body to prevent its member, the Soviet Union, from practicing cultural vandalism. They also know that he and others have been supplying material to the Moscow group of Dr. Orlov which is monitoring Soviet violations of the Helsinki agreements of 1975. In addition, the KGB is angry that he organized a dinner for Meskhetian leaders who came to Tbilisi to lobby the authorities, and that he then published an essay on the Meskhetians’ history in The Georgian Herald. Rtskhiladze believes that only publicity in the West, and support from UNESCO, can save him, Gamsakhurdia, and other Georgian dissenters from the unpleasant fate which the KGB is now clearly preparing for them.
March 31, 1977