Georgia within the Russian Empire

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German engraving of Tbilisi, 19th century
Russian Caucasus, 1882

Georgia was part of the Russian Empire between 1801 and 1918. For centuries, the Muslim Ottoman and Persian empires had fought over various fragmented Georgian kingdoms and principalities but by the 18th century, a third imperial power, Russia, had emerged in the region. Since Russia was a Orthodox Christian state like Georgia, the Georgians increasingly sought Russian help. In 1783, the leading Georgian kingdom became a Russian protectorate while abjuring any dependance on its former suzerain, Persia, but in 1801, following a turn of events, the country was annexed by Russia outright, receiving a status of guberniya (Georgia Governorate or the Government of Georgia).

For the next 117 years, Georgia would be part of the Russian Empire. Russian rule offered the Georgians peace and security from attack, but it was also often heavy-handed and insensitive to local customs. By the late 19th century, discontent with the Russian authorities led to a growing national movement. The Russian era brought unprecedented social and economic change to Georgia as well as new intellectual currents from Europe. New social classes emerged: the emancipation of the serfs freed many peasants but did little to alleviate their poverty; the growth of capitalism created an urban working class in Georgia. Both peasants and workers found expression for their discontent through revolts and strikes, culminating in the revolution of 1905. Their cause was championed by the socialist Mensheviks, who became the dominant political force in Georgia in the final years of Russian rule. Georgia finally won its independence, less as a result of the nationalists' and socialists' efforts, than from the collapse of the Russian Empire in World War I.


Russo-Georgian relations before 1801[edit]

By the 16th century, the Christian Kingdom of Georgia had become fractured into a series of smaller states which were fought over by the two great Muslim empires in the region, Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia. But during the second half of the century a third imperial power emerged to the north, namely the Russian state of Muscovy, which shared Georgia's Orthodox religion. Diplomatic contacts between the Georgian Kingdom of Kakheti and Moscow began in 1558 and in 1589, Tsar Fyodor II offered to put the kingdom under his protection.[citation needed] Yet little help was forthcoming and the Russians were still too remote from the south Caucasus region to challenge Ottoman or Persian control and hegemony successfully. Only in the early 18th century did Russia start to make serious military inroads south of the Caucasus. In 1722, when Peter the Great exploited the chaos and turmoil in the Safavid Persian Empire to lead an expedition into the latter it's territories in Transcaucasia, the North Caucasus, as well as mainland Iran, while he struck an alliance with Vakhtang VI, the Georgian ruler of Kartli and the Safavid appointed governor of the region. However, the two armies failed to link up and the Russians retreated northward again, leaving the Georgians to the mercy of the Persians. Vakhtang ended his days in exile in Russia.[1]

Vakhtang's successor, Erekle II, king of a united Kartli-Kakheti from 1762 to 1798 and the first Georgian king to maintain suzerainty for more than two decades amidst Persian intermittent domination over Georgia for centuries, turned toward Russia for protection against Persian attacks as well as new attempts, most importantly, by the latter to reestablish Persian suzerainty over Georgia. Following the death of Nader Shah, Erekle had found himself able to unite the kingdoms he was appointed governor and king of, namely Kartli and Kakheti, into an energetic union. The Russian empress Catherine the Great was keen to have the Georgians as allies in her wars against the Turks and Persians, but sent only meagre forces to help them.[2] In 1769-1772, a handful of Russian troops of General Totleben battled against Turkish invaders in Imereti and Kartl-Kakheti.[citation needed] In 1783, Erekle signed the Treaty of Georgievsk with Russia, according to which Kartli-Kakheti was to receive Russian protection against new Iranian encroachment, or by any other aggressor, as well as the official abjuring of Iranian suzerainty, laying his kingdom fully in the hands of Russia. But when another Russo-Turkish War broke out in 1787, the Russians withdrew their troops from the region for use elsewhere, leaving Erekle's kingdom unprotected. In 1795, the Persian shah, Agha Mohammed Khan, having by now secured mainland Iran following a civil war that had emerged in the late Zand period, was turning his eyes on Iran's recently broken away provinces in the Caucasus region. The first thing he subsequently did was now demanding Erekle's denouncement of the alliance with Russia, as by now he turned his objections in reincorporating the Caucasus region (Dagestan and Transcaucasia) into Iran. These territories in the region, especially Georgia, had made part of the concept of Iran for three centuries,[3] and were as integral for centuries for the shah's as their mainland provinces were, such as Gilan, or Khorasan.[4] This action by their former "wali" (governor) Erekle therefore, where he went on to sign an alliance with Russia amidst the chaos in mainland Iran, was seen as treason in Iranian eyes.[4] When Agha Mohammad Khan demanded the voluntary re-submitting to Persia, which Erekle denied, he invaded the country, captured, and burnt the capital, Tbilisi, to the ground.[5]

The Russian annexations[edit]

Entrance of the Russian troops in Tiflis, 26 November 1799, by Franz Roubaud, 1886

In spite of Russia's failure to honour the terms of the Treaty of Georgievsk, Georgian rulers felt they had nowhere else to turn. Tbilisi was captured and burnt to the ground. Agha Mohammad Khan however, was assassinated in 1797 in Shusha, after which the Persian grip on Georgia softened once again. Erekle however, still dreaming of an united Georgia, died a year afterwards. After Erekle's death, a civil war broke out over the succession to the throne of Kartli-Kakheti and one of the rival candidates called on Russia to intervene and decide matters. On 8 January 1801, Tsar Paul I of Russia signed a decree on the incorporation of Georgia (Kartli-Kakheti) within the Russian Empire[6][7] which was confirmed by Tsar Alexander I on 12 September 1801.[8][9] The Georgian envoy in Saint Petersburg, Garsevan Chavchavadze, reacted with a note of protest that was presented to the Russian vice-chancellor Alexander Kurakin.[10] In May 1801, Russian General Carl Heinrich von Knorring removed the Georgian heir to the throne, David Batonishvili, from power and deployed a provisional government headed by General Ivan Petrovich Lazarev.[11]

Some of the Georgian nobility did not accept the decree until April 1802, when General Knorring held the nobility in Tbilisi's Sioni Cathedral and forced them to take an oath on the imperial crown of Russia. Those who disagreed were arrested.[12] Wanting to secure the northernmost reaches of his empire, as well as knowing that the grip on Georgia was drastically loosening with Russia's formal entrance into Tbilisi, Agha Mohammad Khan's successor, Fath Ali Shah Qajar got involved into the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813). In the summer of 1805, Russian troops on the Askerani River and near Zagam defeated the Persian army, saving Tbilisi from its attack and re-subjugation. In 1810, the kingdom of Imereti (Western Georgia) was annexed by the Russian Empire after the suppression of King Solomon II's resistance.[13] In 1813, Qajar Iran was officially forced to cede Georgia to Russia per the Treaty of Gulistan.[14] This marked the official start of the Russian period in Georgia.

Early years of Russian rule[edit]

Integration into the empire[edit]

During the first decades of Russian rule, Georgia was placed under military governorship. The land was at the frontline of Russia's war against Turkey and Persia and the commander-in-chief of the Russian army of the region was also the governor. Russia gradually expanded its territory in Transcaucasia at the expense of its rivals, taking large areas of land in neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan from Qajar Persia through the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828) and the resulting Treaty of Turkmenchay.[15] At the same time the Russian authorities aimed to integrate Georgia into the rest of their empire. Russian and Georgian society had much in common: the main religion was Orthodox Christianity and in both countries a land-owning aristocracy ruled over a population of serfs. Initially, Russian rule proved high-handed, arbitrary and insensitive to local law and customs. In 1811, the autocephaly (i.e. independent status) of the Georgian Orthodox Church was abolished, the catholicos Anton II was deported to Russia and Georgia became an exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.[16]

The Russian government also managed to alienate many Georgian nobles, prompting a group of young aristocrats to plot to overthrow Russian rule. They were inspired by events elsewhere in the Russian Empire: the Decembrist revolt in St. Petersburg in 1825 and the Polish uprising against the Russians in 1830. The Georgian nobles' plan was simple: they would invite all the Russian officials in the region to a ball then murder them. However, the conspiracy was discovered by the authorities on December 10, 1832 and its members were arrested and internally exiled elsewhere in the Russian Empire.[17] There was a revolt by peasants and nobles in Guria in 1841.[18] Things changed with the appointment of Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov as Viceroy of the Caucasus in 1845. Count Vorontsov's new policies successfully won over the Georgian nobility, who became increasingly Europeanised. [19]

Georgian society[edit]

Georgian women in 1905, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

When Russian rule began in the early 19th century, Georgia was still a feudal society. At the top had been the royal families of the various Georgian states, but these had been deposed by the Russians and sent into internal exile elsewhere in the empire. Beneath them were the nobles, who constituted about 5 percent of the population and jealously guarded their power and privileges. They owned most of the land, which was worked by their serfs, unfree peasants who made up the bulk of Georgian society. The rural economy had become seriously depressed during the period of Ottoman and Persian domination and most Georgian serfs lived in dire poverty, subject to the frequent threat of starvation. Famine would often prompt them to rebellion, such as the major revolt in Kakheti in 1812. Few of them lived in the towns, where what little trade and industry there was in the hands of Armenians, whose ancestors had migrated to Georgia in the Middle Ages. As the century progressed and capitalism came to Georgia, the Armenians would be the first to seize the new opportunities it offered and become a prosperous middle class. Armenian economic dominance in Georgia would mean there was an ethnic element to class tensions in the country.[20]

Emancipation of the serfs[edit]

The emancipation manifesto promulgated in Sighnaghi, 1864

Serfdom was a problem not just in Georgia but throughout most of the Russian Empire. By the mid-19th century the issue of freeing the serfs had become impossible to ignore any longer if Russia was to be reformed and modernised. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia proper. The tsar also wanted to emancipate the serfs of Georgia, but without losing the recently earned loyalty of the nobility whose power and income depended on serf labour. This called for delicate negotiations and the task of finding a solution that would be acceptable to the land-owners was entrusted to the liberal noble Dimitri Kipiani. On 13 October 1865, the tsar decreed the emancipation of the first serfs in Georgia. The process of abolition throughout all the traditional Georgian lands would last into the 1870s. The serfs became free peasants who could move where they liked, marry whom they chose and take part in political activity without asking their lords' permission. The nobles retained the title to all their land but it was to be divided into two parts. The nobles owned one of these parts (at least half of the land) outright, but the other was to be rented by the peasants who had lived and worked on it for centuries.

Over the years, after they had made sufficient payments to compensate the landlords, this land would become their own private property. In the event, the reforms pleased neither nobles nor the ex-serfs. Though they were now free peasants, the ex-serfs were still subject to the heavy financial burden of paying rent and it usually took decades before they were able to buy the land for themselves. In other words, they were still dependent on the nobles, not legally, but economically. The nobles had accepted the emancipation only with extreme reluctance and, though they had been more favourably treated than landowners in much of the rest of the empire, they had still lost some of their power and income. In the following years, both peasant and noble discontent would come to be expressed in new political movements in Georgia.[21]


During the reign of Nicholas II, Russian authorities encouraged the migration of various religious minorities, such as Molokans and Doukhobors, from Russia's heartland provinces into Transcaucasia, including Georgia. The intent was both to isolate the troublesome dissenters away from the Orthodox Russians (who could be "corrupted" by their ideas), and to strengthen Russian presence in the region.[22] Because Georgia served as more-or-less a Russian march principality as a base for further expansion against the Ottoman Empire, other Christian communities from the Transcaucasus region were settled there in the 19th century, particularly Armenians and Caucasus Greeks. These subsequently often fought alongside Russians and Georgians in the Russian Caucasus Army in its wars against the Ottomans, helping capture territories in the South Caucasus bordering Georgia that became the Russian militarily administered provinces of Batumi Oblast and Kars Oblast, where tens of thousands of Armenians, Caucasus Greeks, Russians, and other ethnic minority communities living in Georgia were re-settled.[23]

Cultural and political movements[edit]

Incorporation into the Russian Empire changed Georgia's orientation away from the Middle East and towards Europe as members of the intelligentsia began to read about new ideas from the West. At the same time, Georgia shared many social problems with the rest of Russia, and the Russian political movements that emerged in the 19th century looked to also extend their following in Georgia.[24]


A painting of Tbilisi by Mikhail Lermontov

In the 1830s, Romanticism began to influence Georgian literature, which enjoyed a revival thanks to famous poets such as Alexander Chavchavadze, Grigol Orbeliani and, above all, Nikoloz Baratashvili. They began to explore Georgia's past, seeking a lost golden age which they used as an inspiration for their works. One of Baratashvili's best-known poems, Bedi Kartlisa ("Georgia's Fate"), expresses his deep ambivalence about the union with Russia in the phrase "what pleasure does the nightingale receive from honour if it is in a cage?"[25]

Georgia became a theme in Russian literature as well. In 1829, Russia's greatest poet Alexander Pushkin visited the country and his experience is reflected in several of his lyrics. His younger contemporary, Mikhail Lermontov, was exiled to the Caucasus in 1840. The region appears as a land of exotic adventure in Lermontov's famous novel A Hero of Our Time and he also celebrated Georgia's wild, mountainous landscape in the long poem Mtsyri, about a novice monk who escapes from the strictness of religious discipline to find freedom in nature.[26]


In the mid-19th century, Romantic patriotism gave way to a more overtly political national movement in Georgia. This began with a young generation of Georgian students educated at Saint Petersburg University, who were nicknamed the tergdaleulnis (after the Terek River which flows through Georgia and Russia). The most outstanding figure by far was the writer Ilia Chavchavadze, who was the most influential Georgian nationalist before 1905. He sought to improve the position of Georgians within a system that favoured Russian-speakers and turned his attention to cultural matters, especially linguistic reform and the study of folklore. Chavchavadze became more and more conservative, seeing it as his task to preserve Georgian traditions and ensure Georgia remained a rural society. The so-called second generation (meore dasi) of Georgian nationalists was less conservative than Chavchavadze. They focused more on the growing cities in Georgia, trying to ensure that urban Georgians could compete with the economically dominant Armenians and Russians. The leading figure in this movement was Niko Nikoladze, who was attracted to Western liberal ideas. Nikoladze saw Georgia's future as belonging to a Caucasian federation that would also include Armenia and Azerbaijan.[27]


By the 1870s, alongside these conservative and liberal nationalist trends, a third, more radical political force had emerged in Georgia. Its members focused on social problems and tended to ally themselves with movements in the rest of Russia. The first stirrings were seen in the attempt to spread Russian populism to the region, though the populists had little practical effect. Socialism, particularly Marxism, proved far more influential in the long run.[28]

Industrialisation had come to Georgia in the late 19th century, particularly to the towns of Tbilisi, Batumi and Kutaisi. With it had come factories, railways and a new, urban working class. In the 1890s, they became the focus of a "third generation" (Mesame Dasi) of Georgian intellectuals who called themselves Social Democrats, and they included Noe Zhordania and Filipp Makharadze, who had learned about Marxism elsewhere in the Russian Empire. They would become the leading force in Georgian politics from 1905 onwards. They believed that the tsarist autocracy should be overthrown and replaced by democracy, which would eventually create a socialist society.[29]

Later Russian rule[edit]

Increasing tensions[edit]

Tsar's entrance at the Assembly of Gentry in Tiflis (29 September 1888)

In 1881, the reforming Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by Russian populists in Saint Petersburg. His successor Alexander III was much more autocratic and frowned on any expression of national independence as a threat to his empire. In an effort to introduce more central control, he abolished the Caucasus Viceroyalty, reducing Georgia's status to that of any other Russian province. Study of the Georgian language was discouraged and the very name "Georgia" (Russian: Грузия, Georgian: საქართველო) was banned from newspapers. In 1886, a Georgian student killed the rector of the Tbilisi seminary in protest. When the ageing Dimitri Kipiani criticised the head of the Church in Georgia for attacking the seminary students, he was exiled to Stavropol, where he was mysteriously murdered. Many Georgians believed his death was the work of tsarist agents and mounted a huge anti-Russian demonstration at his funeral.[30]

At the same time, ethnic tension was growing between Georgians and Armenians. Since the emancipation of the serfs, much of the Georgian nobility had gone into decline. Unable to compete in the new economic circumstances, many had abandoned their estates to join the Russian state service or live the lives of playboys in the cities. The chief beneficiaries had been prosperous Armenians who had bought up their lands. In the cities, especially Tbilisi, though they no longer formed the majority of the population as they had at the turn of the 19th century, Armenians held most civic posts and owned much of the business. Georgians felt unrepresented in the city they regarded as their capital.[31]

The revolution of 1905[edit]

Street protests in Tiflis in 1905
"Pacification" of western Georgia. Soldiers burning peasant houses.

The 1890s and early 1900s were marked by frequent strikes throughout Georgia. The peasants, too, were still discontented, and the Social Democrats were highly successful at winning both peasants and urban workers over to their cause. At this stage, the Georgian Social Democrats still saw themselves as part of an all-Russian political movement. However, at the Second Congress of the all-Russian Social Democratic Party held in Belgium in 1903, the party split into two irreconcilable groups: the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. By 1905, the Social Democratic movement in Georgia had overwhelmingly decided in favour of the Mensheviks and their leader Noe Zhordania. One of the few Georgians to opt for the Bolshevik faction was the young Ioseb Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.[32]

In January 1905, the troubles within the Russian Empire came to a head when the army fired on a crowd of demonstrators in Saint Petersburg, killing at least 96 people. The news provoked a wave of protests and strikes throughout the country in what became known as the 1905 Revolution. The unrest quickly spread to Georgia, where the Mensheviks had recently co-ordinated a large peasant revolt in the Guria region. The Mensheviks were again at the forefront during a year which saw a series of uprisings and strikes, met by the tsarist authorities with a combination of violent repression (carried out by Cossacks) and concessions. In December, the Mensheviks ordered a general strike and encouraged their supporters to bomb the Cossacks, who responded with more bloodshed. The Mensheviks' resort to violence alienated many people, including their Armenian political allies, and the general strike collapsed. All resistance to the tsarist authorities was finally quelled by force in January 1906 with the arrival of an army led by General Alikhanov.[33]

The years between 1906 and the outbreak of World War I were more peaceful in Georgia, which was now under the rule of a relatively liberal Governor of the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov. The Mensheviks, too, realised they had gone too far with the violence of late 1905. Unlike the Bolsheviks, they now rejected the idea of armed insurrection. In 1906, the first elections for a national parliament (the Duma) were held in the Russian Empire and the Mensheviks won the seats representing Georgia by a landslide. The Bolsheviks had little support except in the Manganese mine of Chiatura, though they gained publicity with an armed robbery to gain funds in Tbilisi in 1907. After this incident, Stalin and his colleagues moved to Baku, the only real Bolshevik stronghold in Transcaucasia.[34]

World War I and independence[edit]

Declaration of independence by the Georgian parliament, 1918

Russia entered World War I against Germany in August 1914. The war aroused little enthusiasm from the people in Georgia, who did not see much to be gained from the conflict, although 200,000 Georgians were mobilised to fight in the army. When Turkey joined the war on Germany's side in November, Georgia found itself on the frontline. Most Georgian politicians remained neutral, though pro-German feeling and the sense that independence was within reach began to grow among the population.[35]

In 1917, as the Russian war effort collapsed, the February Revolution broke out in Saint Petersburg. The new Provisional Government established a branch to rule Transcaucasia called Ozakom (Extraordinary Committee for Transcaucasia). There was tension in Tbilisi since the mainly Russian soldiers in the city favoured the Bolsheviks, but as 1917 went on, the soldiers began to desert and head northwards, leaving Georgia virtually free from the Russian army and in the hands of the Mensheviks, who rejected the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in the Russian capital. Transcaucasia was left to fend for itself and, as the Turkish army began to encroach across the border in February 1918, the question of separation from Russia was brought to the fore.

On 22 April 1918, the parliament of Transcaucasia finally voted for independence, declaring itself to be the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. It was to last for only a month. The new republic was made up of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, each with their different histories, cultures and aspirations. The Armenians were well aware of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, so for them defence against the invading army was paramount, while the Muslim Azeris were sympathetic to the Turks. The Georgians felt that their interests could best be guaranteed by coming to a deal with the Germans rather than the Turks. On 26 May 1918, Georgia declared its independence and a new state was born, the Democratic Republic of Georgia, which would enjoy a brief period of freedom before the Bolsheviks invaded in 1921.[36]


  1. ^ Suny pp.47-54
  2. ^ Suny pp.57-58
  3. ^ Fisher et al. 1991, p. 329.
  4. ^ a b Fisher et al. 1991, p. 328.
  5. ^ Suny pp.58-59
  6. ^ Gvosdev (2000), p. 85
  7. ^ Avalov (1906), p. 186
  8. ^ Gvosdev (2000), p. 86
  9. ^ Lang (1957), p. 249
  10. ^ Lang (1957), p. 251
  11. ^ Lang (1957), p. 247
  12. ^ Lang (1957), p. 252
  13. ^ Anchabadze (2005), p. 29
  14. ^ Timothy C. Dowling Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Beyond pp 728 ABC-CLIO, 2 dec. 2014 ISBN 1598849484
  15. ^ Timothy C. Dowling Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Beyond pp 728 ABC-CLIO, 2 dec. 2014 ISBN 1598849484
  16. ^ Suny pp.84-5
  17. ^ Suny pp.70-73
  18. ^ Suny pp. 70-73
  19. ^ Suny p.73 ff.
  20. ^ This section: Suny, Chapter 4
  21. ^ This whole section: Suny, Chapter 5: "Emancipation and the End of Seigneurial Georgia"
  22. ^ Daniel H. Shubin, "A History of Russian Christianity". Volume III, pages 141-148. Algora Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-87586-425-2 On Google Books
  23. ^ Coene, Frederik, 'The Caucasus - An Introduction', (2011).
  24. ^ Sunny p.122
  25. ^ Suny p.124 ff.
  26. ^ Suny p.125 ff.
  27. ^ Suny pp.125-31
  28. ^ Suny p.131 ff.
  29. ^ Entire section on cultural and political movements: Suny Chapters 6 and 7
  30. ^ Suny pp.140-41
  31. ^ Suny p.141 ff.
  32. ^ Suny pp.155-64
  33. ^ Suny pp.167-170
  34. ^ Suny pp.171-78
  35. ^ Suny pp.178-80
  36. ^ Entire "Later Russian rule" section: Suny Chapters 7 and 8


Coordinates: 41°43′00″N 44°47′00″E / 41.7167°N 44.7833°E / 41.7167; 44.7833