- Introducing Georgian Modernism
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Situated south of the Caucasus mountain range on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, Georgia boasts a written literary tradition that goes back to the 5th century C.E. Written in the indigenous Georgian language which bears no evident relation to any known linguistic family including the Indo-European, ancient Georgian literature cultivated the hagiographical and liturgical models it received from Orthodox Byzantium, while subsequently developing a flourishing secular tradition of epic poetry and historiography that coincided with the consolidation of the medieval Georgian state in the 12th and 13th centuries. Straddling the crossroads of the Islamic empires of Iran and Ottoman Turkey and the now vanishing world of Near Eastern Christianity, absorbed in the early nineteenth century into the Russian empire and once again in 1921 into its successor state the [End Page 283] Soviet Union, Georgia’s inhabitants have proven flexible yet resilient in their response to the military incursions and cultural flows that marked its history. European modernity reached Georgia under the aegis of the Russian imperial state, propagated both by the tsars’ agents and by their intellectual critics. Georgia’s assimilation of European culture passed through several historical stages that would echo, but also question, the political and cultural evolution of the Russian intelligentsia. By 1917, after a century or more under Russian suzerainty, Georgia had had its literary romantics, its social realists and revolutionary democrats, its liberal nationalists and its socialists, and was now witnessing the flowering of its own national variant of literary modernism.
Georgian modernism emerged at a moment of acute political upheaval and cultural optimism. The brittleness of the Russian ancien régime, already evident in the wake of the abortive Revolution of 1905, coincided in Georgia with the emergence of an exceptionally sophisticated mass politics undergirded by a restive peasantry and led principally by the Georgian Mensheviks, a rival socialist party to Lenin’s Bolsheviks which produced numerous political figures of pan-Russian stature while dominating the local scene until 1921. Radical change appeared imminent and inevitable, but opinions varied as to the desirable outcome, whether in the form of Georgian political and cultural autonomy within a reconstituted Russian federation or in the guise of full national sovereignty. As often in the history of Transcaucasia, the choice of independence in 1918 was essentially precipitated by events outside the region. The October Revolution of 1917, which severed Moscow’s control over Transcaucasia and other far-flung corners of the empire, along with the geopolitical reverberations of World War I, propelled the Georgian Mensheviks into elected government, presiding over an independent nation that existed from 1918 until 1921, when Georgia was incorporated by military intervention into the Soviet Union.
Georgian modernism thus corresponded to a moment of anxious optimism within the Georgian national intelligentsia. Its politics were at once militantly nationalist and markedly cosmopolitan. It sought to reimagine the community of the Georgian nation, vindicating its literary heritage in a way that suggested the compatibility of the national tradition with the aesthetic priorities of modernism. It questioned the long hegemonic but briefly weakened authority of the Russian state, while at the same time seeking an unmediated dialogue with Western Europe. While championing the quintessentially decadent or aestheticist view that art must be freed of all utilitarian ideologies, Georgian modernism nonetheless generated a literary and visual idiom that claimed to express the mythic aspirations and profound anxieties of the independent Georgian nation, without actually sharing the politics of Menshevism.
To those of us who are accustomed to regarding the postcolonial moment in world history as arising in the wake of World War II and the concomitant decolonization of Asia and Africa, it is worth recalling that the cultural politics of revolution and national self-determination arose several decades earlier in Eastern Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East, with the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires in the tumult of World War I. In this sense, Georgian modernism was [End Page 284] politically precocious, anticipating the cultural effects of decolonization elsewhere...