Figures of the National in the Soviet Empire: Perception of Georgia in Russian Literature, 1920-1930

At the first convention of Soviet writers in 1934, Titsian Tabidze and Paolo Iashvili were strongly criticized. However, during this period their essays were also translated, events were organized in their honor, and their poems were widely read. This admiration continued throughout the massive terror in the Soviet Union and only ended when these poets were killed. The 1934 writer’s convention was important as Malakia Toroshelidze, member of the Georgian delegation and key presenter, introduced a model for writing the history of literature of different nations, which was subsequently widely used.

Franziska Thun-Hochenstein
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Dr. Franziska Thun-Hochenstein

“Figures of the National in the Soviet Empire: Perception of Georgia in Russian literature 1920-1930” was the main topic of the presentation of Francisca Thun-Hohenstein, senior researcher of Berlin Literature and Culture Research Center. Giorgi Maisuradze, also a representative from the same Center and moderator of the meeting, introduced the guest as follows: “She has worked on publications of writers like Pasternak, Plaronov, Mandelstemm, Khlebnikov, but she is considered to be the special expert on Varlam Shalamov. Now the first edition of Shalamov’s essays is being published, with Thun-Hohenstein’s comments and edits. One of her monographs, ‘Broken Lines’, deals with Soviet literature created in camps. For several years now she has been in charge of Eastern European projects at the Berlin Literature and Cultural Research Center.”

“National Contours in Soviet Empire” is one of the sections of a book that Thun-Hohenstein and Maisuradze are preparing for publication. The book is fully dedicated to the period of 1921-1953 in Georgia. Specifically, it uses the Georgian example to look at how the nationalist configuration was formulated in Soviet literature, in other words, how Russian Soviet literature presents the image of Georgia. In Georgia today, people hardly ever talk about how Georgia and Georgian prose is depicted in Soviet writing. Our society has somewhat tabooed talking about the experience of those years, as Varlam Shalamov wrote, an experience which you cannot learn anything from, or if you change it a little, you cannot learn anything good.

And still, how did Sovietization of Georgia occur based on examples of Russian literature, and how was the image of Georgia created in Soviet literature? The first figure the researcher talked about is Irakli Abashidze. According to Thun-Hohenstein, he has one phrase: “Georgia has stepped over the Caucasus mountain range.” This was how he described the situation of the 1930s, presenting an example of the view that Russia did not dictate a new direction to Georgia, but Georgian culture itself managed to take steps north. “In fact, this is how the expansion of Georgian culture begins to move towards self-representation, under the conditions of terror and violence on the one hand, and staged and officially declared friendship and brotherhood of nations on the other,” said Thun-Hohenstein.

Irakli Abashidze was not the only one who had this opinion during Soviet governance, and thus he showed new perspectives for the development of Georgia. However, diverging from Abashidze’s view, which indicated the northward expansion of Georgian culture, another perspective discussed how those coming from outside were to give form and direction to local culture. In this context, the researcher recalled a famous Russian symbolist, Andrey Bell, who reflected his impressions of travel to the Caucasus in his novel, Wind from the Caucasus, in 1928. In his writing, he called the 11-meter figure of Lenin, built by the hydroelectric station of Avchala, a continuation of the local landscape. According to Bell, this statue of Lenin with his stretched hand towards the new hydroelectric station, is an indication that the statue is grounded in Georgian land and is symbolically associated with a political direction that was later referred to as “rooting”.

“Iuri Sliozkin, a historian and Sovietologist working in the US, has compared the Soviet Union to a communal apartment, where different nations lived together against their will, forced to share the same territory and space. This type of development has led us to the results severely shown in 1991, when this imposed lifestyle erupted into heavy conflicts,” says Thun-Hohenstein. How did events evolve? The dominant rhetoric referred to a friendly family of nations, headed by the father of all nations – Stalin, who sought to blend national reform and socialist content.

“Two contradicting directions arise – on the one hand, it is about presenting Georgia in a exotic or decorative way, and on the other hand, we see the creation of a certain strategy for using language, directing national discourse to allow representation of the national form in socialist content,” says Thun-Hohenstein. From this period onwards, Georgia is talked about both as archaic and as a paradise, the “country of sun.” The researcher recalls Sergey Tretyakov, a Soviet writer who traveled to Georgia during 1927-1929. He was especially charmed by Svaneti and co-wrote the screenplay for Mikheil Kalatozov’s (Kalatozishvili) famous movie “Salt for Svaneti”.

According to Thun-Hohenstein, “we can imagine that the Soviet government itself is talking through the mouth of Tretyakov…The romantic topic of the Caucasus that Russian literature created is complemented by this view of Svaneti, isolated from the rest of the world, turning it into a place where people are locked up as in prison…The culmination of the movie occurs in its final scene, when mountains are destroyed and blown up, the Soviet government comes in, breaking cliffs and mountain walls, making roads and saving people from isolation as well as cyclical mythic times. As a result of Soviet construction activities, Svaneti gains the rhythm of modernity with new buildings. This scene represents the primary view of a new beginning, as Svaneti is swallowed by the Soviet government and becomes part of Soviet civilization.”

“Colchis”, the essay by Konstantine Pastuchov, is also dedicated to Sovietization of Georgia, or the “civilizing” of the region. According to Thun-Hohenstein, drying marshes and construction of channels is connected with the myth about the Argonauts and the antique past: “Soviet Georgian culture appears as an heir to universal antique culture. Universal antique culture lives in modern Georgia, which is a continuation and new reproduction of the old in Soviet modernity, representing its transformed and changed version.”

What are the differences in political expression through use of the arts before the first convention of Soviet writers in 1934 and afterwards? How did representing views of Georgia become an opportunity for Russian writers to express what they could not say by using Russian examples? What are the roles of Georgians in formulating the “sunny Georgia” image, and what is the function of the role that Russians played by creating this image, which Georgian writers received and adopted? How did Russian writers reflect jubilee of “The Knight in Panther’s Skin”, and did the image of Georgia in Russian literature change after its perfection? How did the translation of “The Knight in Panther’s Skin” into different languages begin, along with the requirement that it be read in Georgia’s different republics? At the end of the discussion, Thun-Hohenstein answered these questions from the audience.