A three-Year Glimpse of Freedom
Text and Photo by Tamar Esakia
In 2018 Georgia celebrated its 100th anniversary of independence. A century has passed since Georgia elected its first government as an independent state after breaking free from the Russian Empire in 1918. Our tour seeks to canvass Tbilisi to uncover the traces, however small, of this brief and yet momentous period.
The first Republic of Georgia lasted 1,028 days. Its three-year history was meticulously erased for 70 years during sovietization. Paskevich-Yerevanski, Freedom, Zakfederatsia, Beria, Lenin and back again to Freedom Square - All these are the former and current names of the central square of the capital of Georgia - given and taken back and given back again. This unstopped name-changing shows indeed the historical shifts that Georgia has gone through in just the last 200 years.
When Georgia gained its independence 100 years ago, the chiefs of the First Republic of Georgia named it “Freedom Square”. On the 27th of May, the day following the declaration of independence, Kirion II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of the country, congratulated the whole nation from this very square. It is noteworthy to say that just before the country gained independence, the Georgian Orthodox Church regained its autocephaly in 1917 and Kirion II was the first Patriarch who started to lead the newly independent Georgian faithful - finally freed from the Russian domination of 100 years.
6 Shota Rustaveli Avenue
After the establishment of Russian rule in 1801, a Viceroy was appointed as the Caucasus region’s administrative and military authority. This building was conceived as the Viceroy’s Residence. The building owes its current form to the reconstruction carried out under the guidance of Georgia-based Swedish architect Otto Simonson in 1869. The courtyard with alleys and fountains was also remodeled and open only to high society.
It was here that in 1918 the National Council of Georgia unanimously voted in favor of the Act of Georgia’s Independence and raised the flag of independent Georgia on top of the building. Two days after the declaration of Georgia’s independence, Armenia and Azerbaijan followed suit in the same building by declaring their own independence. This building also saw the meeting of the Constituent Assembly of the first Democratic Republic of Georgia. On February 21, 1921, a few days before the Bolsheviks invaded, the Constitution of Georgia was ratified here.
After occupation began, 93 of the Constituent Assembly’s 145 members fell victim to political repression. The building itself was handed over to the government of Soviet Georgia. Later, by Lavrentiy Beria’s personal order, it was reserved for children, which is how it became known as the Palace of Young Pioneers and Schoolchildren. Today, it houses the Youth Palace, an educational facility famed for its chess club where World Champions Nona Gaprindashvili and Tigran Petrosian once studied the ABCs of chess.
8 Shota Rustaveli Avenue
At the end of the 19th century in 1897, the construction of Alexander Nevsky Military Church was completed on this spot to celebrate the victorious Russian army and the ultimate subjugation of the Caucasus by Russia.
On February 23, 1921, young fighters killed in the struggle against Soviet occupant forces were buried in the churchyard, including 19-year-old Maro Makashvili, a natural science student at the Tbilisi State University. By order of the President of Georgia, she was declared a National Hero in 2015. Just a few years into Soviet rule, the church was demolished, and the construction of the Government House was launched in its place. Consequently, for 70 years the Palace of the Soviet Government operated on top of the site where youth killed in the fight against the occupation were buried. On April 9, 1991 and in the same building, the newly elected National Government restored Georgia’s independence based on the Constitution of the first Republic of Georgia.
Love for one’s homeland is supreme, above all else; fighting the enemy to the last drop of blood; fight to the death, victory or death...
6 Ivane Machabeli Street
First Chairman of the Government of Georgia’s Democratic Republic Noe Ramishvili lived in this building. He resigned a month later to take over the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Military, and Education. Later forced into emigration, Ramishvili was one of the organizers of a revolt against the Soviet regime. In 1930, Soviet secret services organized his assassination in Paris.
1 Pavle Ingorokva Street
In 1918-1921, this building was occupied by the Security Service, a special squad of the Interior Ministry of Georgia.
This service gave a good account of itself in that it postponed the downfall of the First Republic by identifying illegal organizations, preventing anti-state riots, and arresting more than 1,000 Bolsheviks, including Lavrentiy Beria, the future People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union and one of the masterminds of Soviet repressions.
The special squad was led by Melchisedek (Meki) Kedia, grandfather of current Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili.
8 Pavle Ingorokva Street
Built in 1914, this structure accommodated the Chancellery of the Russian Viceroy in the Caucasus. During the period of independence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Education moved here under the leadership of Noe Ramishvili. Although the independent country’s authorities were struggling to contain anti-state acts, the system of education was reformed successfully. With Ramishvili in charge, roads were paved and schools were built in the regions, while a large discipline-specific library was established in Tbilisi.
This building, where the future of education in independent Georgia was once discussed, currently houses the Institute of Linguistics.
14 Pavle Ingorokva Street
In 1919-1921, the first Diplomatic Mission of Great Britain in the South Caucasus operated in this building under the leadership of Sir Oliver Wardrop, one of Georgia’s staunchest champions in Europe.
Oliver Wardrop first visited Georgia in 1887, after which he wrote the book The Kingdom of Georgia. Oliver and his sister Marjory, who were close friends with Georgian public figures, translated and published Georgian literature in English. Marjory authored a prose English rendering of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, a brilliant 12th century Georgian epic poem.
After the country’s sovietization, Wardrop organized the Georgian Committee in England and the Georgian Historical Society, which published its own magazine Georgica. The Wardrop siblings’ correspondence and personal archive of books preserved in Oxford’s library remain unique material for Georgian history researchers.
1 Ilia Chavchavadze Avenue
February 8, 1918, saw the opening ceremony of Tbilisi State University. The building proper was constructed in 1900-1906 through the efforts of the Georgian public and donations from individual philanthropists. Formally, it was documented as the future building for the Gymnasium for the Nobility, a diversion strategy to prevent the Russian Empire from thwarting the idea of a Georgian university. In a way, the opening of the university was a step toward Georgia’s independence. A few months after its inception on February 8, 1921, the country officially reclaimed its independence.
In 1918, church treasures collected as early as 1888 were transferred to the university’s Museum for Protecting Antiquities, which also preserved numerous items donated by churches during the First Republic. The museum was closed after the establishment of Soviet rule, and its collection of ecclesiastical manuscripts is presently stored in the Institute of Manuscripts.
In February 1921, Ivane Javakhishvili, the university’s founder and rector at the time, straightforwardly urged the students to take up arms to defend the country.
17 Shota Rustaveli Avenue
On November 1, 1919, the first Georgian lottery drawing took place in the building of the Tbilisi National Theater, currently Shota Rustaveli National Theater. The idea of organizing a lottery was conceived two years earlier as a fundraiser for Tbilisi State University. Tickets were issued at a nominal price of 25 rubles, amounting to 5 million rubles in all. Prominent Georgian authors, actors, and public figures promoted the lottery in different regions of Georgia. The proceeds were split between the Georgian Theater and Tbilisi State University, the latter receiving 1,077,677 rubles.
This house, built in the 1890s, accommodated the Consulate of the Republic of Estonia.
14 Geronti Kikodze Street
From 1918-1921, the Consulate of Germany operated in this building.
7 Paolo Iashvili Street
From 1920-1921, the Embassy of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic in Georgia occupied this building. This is where Sergo Orjonikidze lived, the Georgian Bolshevik who personally participated in the invasion and sovietization of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and in the toppling of their respective independent governments. His neighbors included Georgian avant-garde poet Paolo Iashvili, one of the members of the latest literary movement of that time. For a while, Iashvili and his friends considered entering politics. The Aesthetic League of Patriots, the union of the new generation of poets and artists, participated in the election of the Constituent Assembly of the new Democratic Republic of Georgia. Years later, amid the cruel repressions of 1937, Paolo Iashvili, severely oppressed and intimidated by the Soviet authorities, took his own life in the House of Writers.
171 Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue
During Georgia’s independence, the Consulate of the Republic of Latvia in Georgia was quartered in this house, with the Latvian Diaspora operating nearby, at 180 Aghmashenebeli Avenue. By the time of sovietization, Latvia’s Ambassador was Karl Oskar Straume, a public figure, ethnographer, artist, and pedagogue who spent 16 years of his life in Georgia.
45 Kote Marjanishvili Street
Lithuania opened its Mission and Consulate in Georgia in 1918. It was headed by Pranas Dailidė, a mathematics teacher at the 4th Gymnasium for Young Men. He also led the National Council of Lithuanians in the Caucasus.
11 Giorgi Mazniashvili Street
In an absolutely unremarkable building lived Giorgi Mazniashvili ‒ Georgian general and Tbilisi’s Governor General since 1918. In 1921, in the fight against the occupation forces near Tbilisi, Mazniashvili was in charge of the central line of the front. In the early hours of February 19, he defeated the enemy and captured 1,500 Red Army soldiers. After the occupation began, he refused to leave the country. During the repressions of 1937, his son and, later, Mazniashvili himself, were arrested and executed. In 2006, the Georgian Armed Forces established Giorgi Mazniashvili Medal.
“I’m neither a Menshevik nor a Bolshevik general. I am a Georgian general,” Giorgi Mazniashvili once said.
148 Davit Agmashenebeli avenue
From 1919 until Georgia’s sovietization, this building housed the Cadet School established on the initiative of General Giorgi Kvinitadze. This two-year school was led by the general himself. After his appointment as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, he was replaced by Colonel Alexandre Chkheidze, who led the school’s cadets in the fight against the occupation forces at the gate of Tbilisi.