John Steinbeck traveled to Soviet Georgia in 1947 and marveled afterward that Georgian poetry was read there “by everyone,” that Georgian poets “were buried on an equal footing with their kings.”1 Steinbeck, however, was likely unaware of Paolo Iashvili, a leader of Georgia’s Blue Horns, a group of Symbolist poets that was part of a doomed starburst of modernism in Eastern Europe. Iashvili had shot himself dead ten years before Steinbeck’s visit, as Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936–1938 killed writers and attempted to wipe them from memory. The Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who had stayed with Iashvili in Tiflis (as the capital, Tbilisi, was known before 1936) and had translated his poems for rapt readers in Moscow, wrote to Iashvili’s widow, Tamar, that the forty-four-year-old’s suicide “gripped me by the throat.”2
In Old Tbilisi, a small museum has taken shape on the site of Iashvili’s desperate act eighty-five years ago. It tells the story of a literary purge that tried to tame an intelligentsia and brings light to bear not only on the Soviet past but also on modern Russia’s memory wars, Georgia’s European dreams, and fights for artistic freedom that have intensified with the invasion of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Georgians marched under blue-and-yellow banners in solidarity with Ukraine after the invasion this February, which brought back memories of Russia’s 2008 invasion of their own country. One fifth of Georgian territory—in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—is now occupied by Russian forces. South Ossetia’s creeping borders, less than an hour from Tbilisi, are known as the “moving Berlin Walls.” Many Georgians fear that, unless Ukraine wins, their own independence is under threat.
In May 1937 Lavrentiy Beria, the leader of Soviet Georgia who would soon become Stalin’s chief of the Cheka secret police, named Iashvili an ally of “newly unmasked enemies of the people.” These included the French writer André Gide, whom Iashvili and his fellow Blue Horn poet Titsian Tabidze had hosted in Tiflis. Iashvili killed himself upstairs at the Tiflis Writers’ Union on July 22, 1937, with a hunting gun to the head, while downstairs members debated his expulsion and arrest. His suicide was a rare stand against the dual pressures on writers to betray colleagues to the Cheka and to eulogize Stalin (born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori and, in his youth, an aspiring Georgian poet).
Tabidze was tortured and shot later the same year after refusing to name Iashvili as a foreign agent. (Tabidze’s granddaughter, Nino Andriadze, told me his family believed he had been deported and learned of his execution almost twenty years later.) One in four of Georgia’s writers died in the purges between 1921 and 1938. Many who escaped torture and bullets were broken in the Gulag, along with the families of the purged.
In her foreword to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Anne Applebaum writes of an “era whose lessons and warnings we are still trying to absorb.” The Museum of Repressed Writers, occupying two rooms in the Writers’ House of Georgia, is due to open next month. Natasha Lomouri, the director of Writers’ House, told me that she senses “so many similarities in trying to tame artists” in Georgia today. “They’re not sent to gulags or shot, but the instinct to control is as strong.”
Within days of Iashvili’s suicide, the writers’ union condemned him along with “all the lying traitors and double-crossers of our homeland.” Beria, who lived two doors down in a neoclassical mansion set back from the street (now the Olympic Committee), warned mourners to stay away from his hastily arranged funeral. Iashvili’s poems became deadly contraband. In a group photograph of 1923 taken on the union’s tiled terrace, his figure is scored out in blue ink. (A surviving print reveals his confident stance in cap and cravat, cigarette poised in his hand.)
Most of the Blue Horns—a group of roughly a dozen poets formed in 1915 in the city of Kutaisi, their name alluding to sky-blue drinking horns—perished in the purges. Since the victims of repression began to be officially rehabilitated in the mid-1950s, following Stalin’s death, students have learned their poems by heart and streets have been named after them. Yet the system that destroyed them is not taught in schools. The Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SovLab), a small organization of dynamic historians whose research informs the new museum, steps into this breach. Its leader, Irakli Khvadagiani, told me that nostalgia for a common Soviet past was a weapon of Russian propaganda, aimed partly at a struggling new generation who imagine that the “late-Soviet period was like a welfare state.” SovLab topped a list of Georgian NGOs denounced by the Russian foreign ministry in October 2021 for “faking history” and “making propaganda.” It compiles interviews and “Red Terror Topography” maps, partly to counter the nostalgia embodied in souvenir busts of Stalin on sale on Tbilisi’s main street. Its aim is to expose how totalitarian rule is constructed, so that, in Khvadagiani’s words, “you’re equipped to see the same traps today.”
Georgia, a parliamentary republic, has been among the freest post-Soviet countries, not least for artistic expression. Yet democratic backsliding was cited in the European Union’s refusal this June 23 to grant Georgia the unconditional candidate status given to Ukraine and Moldova. The oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanish- vili—whose glass compound on the slopes above the city resembles a giant eye—announced his exit from politics in January 2021. However, according to Transparency International Georgia, he “keeps a firm grip on…executive government…free of democratic checks and balances.” The defining policy of the Georgian Dream party he founded, which has been in power since 2012, is a “pragmatic” rapprochement with Moscow—a policy increasingly under scrutiny since the Ukraine invasion. Three quarters of Georgia’s population of less than four million favors EU membership, and many are bitterly skeptical of the ruling party’s ostensible commitment to join the EU and NATO. Huge rallies in June and July blaming the government for the EU rebuff were held under the banner “Home to Europe,” in tune with popular graffiti: “Never Back to the USSR.”
The white mansion housing the new museum, built in 1905 by Davit Sarajishvili, a cognac entrepreneur, sits in a grid of European-style streets overlooked by mountain crags in Sololaki, a central Tbilisi district near Freedom Square. A patriotic philanthropist, Sarajishvili hosted lavish supras (feasts), his Limoges dinner set monogrammed gold in forbidden Georgian script—a gesture of resistance to the tsarist empire, which annexed Georgia in 1801 (following centuries when the country was split between Ottomans and Persians). His home’s elegant hybrid of art nouveau and Oriental design conveyed Tiflis’s importance as a crossroads on the Silk Road, where Orthodox and Armenian churches stood beside mosques and synagogues, and automobiles vied with camels.
Upstairs, brandy labels on a billiard table map Sarajishvili’s business expansion throughout the empire. He died in 1911, and the new owner hosted refugee artists fleeing Russia’s civil wars after the October Revolution. Georgia declared independence on May 26, 1918. But when the Red Army invaded and annexed the country in February 1921, beginning seventy years of what Georgians now call Soviet occupation, the Bolsheviks expropriated the mansion, making it a palace for writers, who were to serve the revolution. Georgia’s independence was reclaimed in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The house fell to ruin in the early 1990s’ civil war in Tbilisi and economic crisis, but was renovated with state support and opened as Writers’ House in 2011, under the culture ministry. Today, it hosts poetry recitals and chamber music.
Upstairs, in a darkened room of the Museum of Repressed Writers, visitors circle four quadrants of a display whose crisp text charts successive waves of purges between 1921 and 1960, when 140 Georgian writers were executed or deported. During the Great Terror alone, seventy writers were shot, along with at least 12,000 other Georgians—and as many sent to the Gulag. No female writers were executed, the novelist Tamta Melashvili told me, because they were “so marginalized they didn’t even count,” but the publisher Lida Gasviani was arrested and shot. The display’s opening words are by Titsian Tabidze’s cousin, Galaktion Tabidze: “What made our earth red?/And what makes our sky black?” Galaktion survived the purges that killed his wife, Olga, in the camps, and leaped to his death from the window of a mental hospital in 1959.
The exhibition was designed by Mariam Natroshvili and Detu Jincharadze, the artists behind this year’s Georgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In a sunny café in Mziuri Park, Natroshvili told me that it struck her, reading the documents that recorded each writer’s execution (ticked and signed by the executioner), that “it’s all in Russian—the cold bureaucracy of repression.” The museum’s texts, pointedly, are in Georgian and English only, amid rising resentment of the former imperial tongue. This hostility extends to the influx of Russians who persist in regarding the country as a colonial resort, and to those fleeing the partial mobilization of military reservists announced by Vladimir Putin in September. (“No Russian is welcome—good or bad” is among the milder graffiti I saw on the streets of the capital.) The novelist Dato Turashvili, a veteran protest leader, was blunt. “For our kids’ generation,” he told me, “Russian doesn’t exist.”
Iashvili, born with the first name Pavle, renamed himself Paolo in homage to the Italian Futurists. His art studies at the Sorbonne in Paris were curtailed by World War I. In 1918 he moved with fellow Blue Horns from Kutaisi to Georgia’s newly independent capital, Tiflis. In a city open both eastward and westward, the poets became central to a cosmopolitan artists’ milieu that brought Georgian, Persian, Ottoman, and Arab influences to European modernism. Its traces survive on Rustaveli Avenue, where café walls were a blank canvas for artists fired up by new ideas in Paris and St. Petersburg. In a vaulted basement beneath Rustaveli Theater several years ago, I persuaded a theater manager to show me restored murals by Georgian, Polish, and Silver Age Russian avant-gardists in what had been the Blue Horns’ favorite bohemian café, the Kimerioni.
From Cubo-Futurists to Dadaists, these modernists thrived in the Western-oriented democratic republic of 1918–1921: Mensheviks (who differed from Bolsheviks in favoring gradual reform) built a democratic-socialist state with free multiparty elections, in which women had the vote and there were five women MPs—a political history recounted in Eric Lee’s book The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918–1921 (2017). On Independence Day this May 26, its landmarks were traced in an open-air exhibit on Rustaveli Avenue to show why Georgia indeed belongs in Europe. The first republic’s decolonizing mission after a century of cultural suppression was also apparent: the first university in the Caucasus and Georgia’s first museum were founded in this period; its own extensive literature began to be taught in schools.
When the Red Army marched in, some artists fled. Others survived the 1920s as theater and cinema designers. But a 1932 fiat prescribing socialist realism augured the death of Georgian modernism. Besides poets and novelists—such as the satirist Mikheil Javakhishvili, executed as “a spy and a saboteur”—the artists shot in 1937 included the National Gallery founder Dimitri Shevardnadze (whose ambition was to build a Louvre for Georgia), the orchestra conductor Evgeni Mikeladze (whom Beria personally deafened during forty-eight days of torture), the theater impresario Sandro Akhmeteli, and the stage and film designer Petre Otskheli, who was thirty.
The manipulation of memory began immediately after the invasion, when the café murals were whitewashed. “We had huge Soviet propaganda against the [first] Republic of Georgia, and even now people don’t know about it,” Turashvili said, showing me its insignia—a maroon shield with a black-and-white corner—which he wears next to his heart. The three years between tsarist and Soviet rule are a “new space for us because we lost everything; it was taboo. After seventy years, we started from zero.” The mass shootings of political prisoners, begun in response to a 1924 uprising, were intended to crush not just resistance to Moscow’s rule but all memory of freedom and nationhood. The Bolsheviks “destroyed whole social classes—peasants, officers, nobles, monks, the intelligentsia,” the artist Levan Chogoshvili told me in his studio. Collage paintings from his Destroyed Aristocracy series hang in the private Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, opposite Parliament. Mostly made in the 1970s (but not shown until 1985), they incorporate banned family photographs of the purged in national dress, “like icons of early Christians.” Memories are “so important for colonized countries because [the authorities] forbid history.”
In the chandeliered National Library of Parliament, Beka Kobakhidze, a leading historian of the first republic and a force behind its 2018 centennial, said that by 1938 the “elite who created a modern nation” had been “cleansed.” Kobakhidze, who established the first international MA program in modern Georgian history at Ilia State University, said the Soviet state then “started a massive urbanization project to bring in illiterate people who were like blank paper. Soviet power could write into their memories what they liked, to create so-called Homo sovieticus.” In A History of Georgia (1943), a volume personally edited by Stalin, Kobakhidze said, Georgia is a “martyr with [invading] Muslim armies all around, and in the nineteenth century, Russia came and rescued us from this bloodshed. In textbooks today, the narrative is the same.”
A reckoning with history has been further complicated by Stalin’s Georgianness. “We have a complex,” Melashvili told me in a Sololaki café. “We’re a subjugated nation, but we had a ‘great man’ who ruled the world.” The Stalin State Museum in Gori, opened in 1957, is a chilling museum of propaganda—complete with death mask and “grateful telegrammes to J. Stalin from the Soviet people”—whose main exhibit has not changed since 1979, when a vitrine introduced photographs of Iashvili and other purged cultural figures. In a side room, added after 2008, on the “unlawful repressions” of the 1930s, Stalin scarcely seems implicated (despite having personally authorized torture in 1937). Nor is the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, opened upstairs at the National Museum in 2006, an adequate remembrance. The 2003 Rose Revolution promised a lustration law, but many official documents remain classified.
There are other reasons why this past has not been processed. “Like every nation, Georgia likes to see itself as a victim,” I was told by the Berlin-based writer Nino Haratischvili during Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern, an online festival that I directed last year on the centenary of the Soviet invasion. Her epic novel The Eighth Life: For Brilka (2014) explores a country trapped in the repetitions of history.3 “I was always wondering,” she said, “who were the executioners? They were also Georgians.” Iashvili rode out on a white horse in Tiflis to greet the Russian invaders. He negotiated the handover of its grandest mansion to writers and enjoyed privileges. As union secretary in 1936, he purged “Trotskyist” proletarian writers. “All those guys weren’t in the resistance,” the novelist and screenwriter Archil Kikodze said. “We had too, too many collaborators—we still have.”
“Can we call it an occupation?” the playwright Davit Gabunia asked me.
There were fights against it. But so many Georgian Bolsheviks and sympathizers were willing to embrace the Red Army—including the writers who fell victim to the red terror. They were tortured to death, sent to Siberia—tragic stories. But we need to face that none were completely clean; all collaborated.
We were backstage at the Royal District Theatre, in a former Soviet culture palace named for Beria (until he was shot in 1953). Researching the “love-hate relationship of Georgian writers and the party” for his play Tiger and Lion (2018), Gabunia read “disgusting denunciations…. All famous writers wrote terrible things about each other.” Yet, he asked,
can you blame a man for saving his wife? These people betrayed friends and sent them to their deaths…without exception. But when we see what the system made them do, we realize even more, how corrupt it was, because what is a single person against the system?
On the play’s opening night in Tbilisi, he recalled, “Paolo’s grandchildren cried and gave the actors flowers.”
Stalin understood the importance of writers, telling Maxim Gorky and others that they were the “engineers of human souls.” At the State Museum of Literature, the director, Lasha Bakradze, told me that when Stalin took power, the task of writers was to build his cult of personality. As pressure intensified, “wives of enemies of the people” were sent to a special camp in Kazakhstan. “Children, too.” But the terror followed unwritten rules: “From a cleaning woman to the politburo chief…they sat in jail waiting for execution, asking, What did I do wrong?” Among those inexplicably spared was the Blue Horn Kolau Nadiradze, who survived to write a poem on the Red Army invasion (“Snow fell, shrouding Tbilisi in black”). He was Iashvili’s only friend to attend his funeral, in defiance of Beria.
On his balcony draped with twin Georgian and Ukrainian flags, Bakradze recalled The Taming of Literature (1990), a book by his late father, Akaki, that first exposed the carrot-and-stick methods by which writers were made to serve the regime. Now, “we’re trying to decolonize our history,” he said. “It’s not just Putin: Russia is an old-fashioned imperialist country till today.” In a back room, he showed me four shotgun pellets retrieved from Iashvili’s corpse, unwrapping them from an authenticating note in Nadiradze’s handwriting. These potent relics have been preserved, perhaps so that future generations might draw courage and meaning from the poet’s refusal to serve the system any longer by denouncing others. Georgians need to free themselves from “Soviet thinking,” Bakradze said softly. “We have a problem understanding what law is, because Soviet times killed it. If we don’t speak about this terrible time that changed people, democracy will not come.”
In Georgia today, echoes of the taming of the intelligentsia are growing louder. Beside Writers’ House (where I spent a month this summer as a writer in residence), there is a mural depicting the cognac baron, Sarajishvili, wheeling a suitcase. It was made three years ago by a street artist named Giorgi Gagoshvili (who goes by Gagosh) in protest, he told me, against moves to abolish Writers’ House in 2019, when its director, Natasha Lomouri, was fired.
Writers protested, the public petitioned, Lomouri was reinstated, and the publicly funded institution won a reprieve. But the Georgian National Book Center, whose functions it took over (along with some staff), was abolished that year, and the center’s director and press chief were dismissed. Curiously, this followed a 2017 EU report on Georgia subtitled Transition to a European-Style Public Funding System and the Creation of a Georgian National Culture Fund, which specifically commended the National Book Center as a model of arm’s-length funding (the delegation of government support to an intermediary body, so as to insulate arts funding from political influence). Since 2014, it had enabled more than three hundred literary translations to be published abroad after decades of isolation.
When Georgia was the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor for 2018, some of its leading writers had been openly critical of Russian aggression, among other aspects of political life. The National Book Center had defended their right to speak freely on an international stage regardless of government priorities. “No organization can control writers,” Lomouri said. “It’s an absurd expectation, but when someone stands up for artistic freedom, they’re punished.” Those demanding obedience fail to understand, she added, that “modern literature can’t be tamed.”
In March 2021 Thea Tsulukiani was appointed culture minister. A former justice minister and a protegée of Ivanishvili, she was also made a powerful deputy prime minister later that year. She soon decreed that every award with public funding must have a representative appointed by the culture ministry on the jury. Last year’s Litera book prize, one of the two top book awards in Georgia, had to be canceled after Tsulukiani made her own adviser a judge: most authors and publishers withdrew and the other four jurors all quit. In response, PEN Georgia put up an alternative “Free Litera” prize. This year, the Litera prize, the Litera award for translators, and the Tbilisi International Festival of Literature—all run by Writers’ House—have been denied public funding.
Such government interventions are sweeping the state-dominated arts and heritage sector, with layoffs and demotions affecting public employees from archaeologists and curators to theater directors and film-funding juries. Seventy people have been fired in the past year from the National Museum network alone. These are not austerity cuts. Some dismissals followed interviews with new management appointed by the culture minister, in which employees were confronted about their social media records. The Union of Science, Education, and Culture Workers, formed in May, appealed to the prime minister in a letter to halt layoffs—based on employees’ political views and “civic positions”—that were “causing irreparable harm.” In August a former employee of the National Museum network won a court case for unlawful dismissal—one of the first rulings in a raft of pending lawsuits. Nino Dolidze, the executive director of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, an NGO representing some litigants, has described the layoffs as a “cleansing of cadres…deemed not loyal to [the culture minister] or her political views.”
One senior figure suing the ministry is Gaga Chkheidze, who was fired as director of the Georgian National Film Center on March 14. At the offices of the independent Tbilisi International Film Festival, which he founded, and of which he remains the director, Chkheidze told me that his dismissal and investigation for alleged misuse of funds—launched on the basis of an audit from the previous year—were politically motivated. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, he had asked the culture minister to freeze a film-heritage project sending funds to Russia’s state archive, Gosfilmofond, and posted his proposal on Facebook. Soon after he was fired, a seven-member jury he had appointed was replaced midway through a feature competition. They, too, are suing.
The 2017 EU report considered the National Film Center the best of three exemplary arm’s-length funding bodies. Its disbursement of public funds over two decades has been crucial to a revival in Georgian cinema and its growing international recognition. An open letter signed by four hundred film professionals expressed alarm at Chkheidze’s removal and a fear that the culture ministry was “making steps to subjugate, control and dismantle the established system to impose censorship over our projects.” Chkheidze perceived a move backward to the “centralized film studio—each republic had that—when culture was a weapon in the hands of the Communist Party: every big cultural organization had an ideologue who watched for the party line.” If the minister “dictates what we’re going to watch, shoot, think, paint,” he warned, “we’ll be back to the USSR in a totalitarian regime.”
One of the National Film Center’s offenses was to have helped fund—before Chkheidze’s tenure—Taming the Garden, which came out in 2021. The film, directed by Salomé Jashi, is a feature-length documentary about a controversial dendrological park that Ivanishvili created on the Black Sea coast by uprooting and transporting ancient trees. An allegory of power and hubris, it premiered at Sundance and won international awards. Screenings were scheduled in Tbilisi this past spring at the independent Film Academy’s Cinema House. But the academy’s president cut short the run on the peculiar grounds, according to Jashi, that the film “creates political divisions in the public.” In a Sololaki café, Jashi told me she understood his decision as “self-censorship because he doesn’t want to…damage his relationship to the authorities, or his access to higher branches.” Screenings in clubs and courtyard cafés in Tbilisi have since been packed.
The Great Terror ended abruptly, according to Conquest, because it was so successful. Those who dared to use their minds independently were murdered or intimidated. As Vakhushti Kotetishvili, whose sculptor father, Vakhtang, was shot in 1938, wrote in My Earthly Life (2005), “Their main guilt was the ability to think.” Self-censorship did the rest. Purging—whether by the bullet or loss of livelihood and status—favors those whose greatest talent is pandering to power, resulting in mediocre art. But it also obliterates institutional memory, stymieing the country’s development. Among the Red Terror’s urgent lessons (and an argument for solidarity in a system reverting to fear and patronage) is that capitulation is no guarantee of survival. In a plaintive letter from a prison cell, a “poet who never believed in politics” begged to be freed or shot: “I denounced innocent people…. I lost my mind,” Ivane Babuadze wrote in 1925. “Despite my ‘confession’ I was not released.”
A funicular ride up the cliff behind Parliament leads to the Mtatsminda Pantheon, which inspired Steinbeck’s observation about Georgia’s venerating its poets. At the back of the graveyard I found Nikoloz Maisuradze’s jagged sculptural memorial to the poet Tabidze, the novelist Javakhishvili, the artist Shevardnadze, and others shot in 1937 and 1938 whose places of burial are unknown. Georgia’s new museum goes one step further in remembrance. It offers clues as to how a fledgling modern state, recaptured by a tenacious empire in new clothes, could, if history is forgotten, be led once again to destroy itself.
John Steinbeck, with photographs by Robert Capa, A Russian Journal (Viking, 1948), p. 162. ↩
Boris Pasternak, Letters to Georgian Friends, translated and with an introduction and notes by David Magarshack (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 70. ↩
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe, 2019). ↩