Georgia within the Russian Empire

Between 1801 and 1918 the country of Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. For centuries, the Muslim Ottoman and Persian empires had fought over the various fragmented Georgian states in the southern Caucasus. By the 18th century, a third imperial power, Russia, had emerged in the region. Since Russia was a Christian state like Georgia, the Georgians increasingly sought Russian help. In 1783, the leading Georgian kingdom became a Russian protectorate, but in 1801 the country was annexed by Russia outright, receiving a status of "guberniya" (Georgian 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 feelings. 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 One.


Russo-Georgian relations before 1801

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 Feodor II offered to put the kingdom under his protection. Yet little help was forthcoming and the Russians were still too remote from the south Caucasus region to challenge Ottoman or Persian control 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 in the Persian Empire to lead an expedition into Transcaucasia, he struck an alliance with Vakhtang VI, the Georgian ruler of Kartli. However the two armies failed to link up and the Russians retreated northwards again, leaving the Georgians to the mercy of the Persians. Vakhtang ended his days in exile in Russia.

Vakhtang's successor, Erekle II, king of Kartli-Kakheti from 1762 to 1798, turned towards Russia for protection against Ottoman and Persian attacks. The Russian empress Catherine the Great was keen to have the Georgians as allies in her wars against the Turks, but sent only meagre forces to help them. [Suny pp.57-58] In 1769-1772, a handful of Russian troops of General Totleben battled against Turkish invaders in Imereti and Kartl-Kakheti. In 1783 Erekle signed the Treaty of Georgievsk with Russia, according to which Kartli-Kakheti was to receive Russian protection. 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, invaded the country and burnt the capital, Tbilisi, to the ground. [Suny pp.58-59]

The Russian annexations

In spite of Russia's failure to honour the terms of the Treaty of Georgievsk, Georgian rulers felt they had nowhere else to turn. 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 January 8, 1801 Tsar Paul I of Russia signed a decree on the incorporation of Georgia (Kartli-Kakheti) within the Russian Empire [ Gvosdev (2000), p. 85 ] [ Avalov (1906), p. 186 ] which was confirmed by Tsar Alexander I on September 12 1801. [ Gvosdev (2000), p. 86 ] [ Lang (1957), p. 249 ] The Georgian envoy in Saint Petersburg, Garsevan Chavchavadze, reacted with a note of protest that was presented to the Russian vice-chancellor Alexander Kurakin. [ Lang (1957), p. 251 ] In May 1801 Russian General Carl Heinrich Knorring removed the Georgian heir to the throne David Batonishvili from power and deployed a provisional government headed by General Ivan Petrovich Lasarev. [ Lang (1957), p. 247 ]

Part 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 temporarily. [ Lang (1957), p. 252 ] In the summer 1805 Russian troops on the river Askerani and near Zagam defeated the Persian army, saving Tbilisi from its attack. In 1810, the kingdom of Imereti (Western Georgia) was annexed by the Russian Empire after the suppression of King Solomon II's resistance. [ Anchabadze (2005), p. 29 ] From 1803 to 1878, as a result of numerous Russian wars against Turkey and Iran, several formerly Georgian territories were annexed to the Russian Empire. These areas (Batumi, Artvin, Akhaltsikhe, Poti, and Abkhazia) now represent the majority of the territory of the present state of Georgia. Georgia was reunified for the first time in centuries but had lost its independence.

Early years of Russian rule

Integration into the empire

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. 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. But at first 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.

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 Russia 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. [Suny pp.70-73] There was a revolt by peasants and nobles in 1841. [Suny pp. 70-73] 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.

Georgian society

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 five per cent 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. [This section: Suny, Chapter 4]

Emancipation of the serfs

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 October 13, 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. [This whole section: Suny, Chapter 5: "Emancipation and the End of Seigneurial Georgia"]


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 from the Orthodox Russians whom they could "corrupt" with their ideas, and to strengthen Russian presence in the region.Daniel H. Shubin, "A History of Russian Christianity". Volume III, pages 141-148. Algora Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0875864252 [ On Google Books] ]

Cultural and political movements

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 which emerged in the 19th century looked to extend their following in Georgia too.


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?".

Georgia became a theme in Russian literature too. 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.


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 River Terek which formed the border between 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 focussed more on the growing cities of 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 which would also include Armenia and Azerbaijan.


By the 1870s, alongside these conservative and liberal nationalist trends, a third, more radical political force had emerged in Georgia. Its members focussed 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.

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. [Entire section on cultural and political movements: Suny Chapters 6 and 7]

Later Russian rule

Increasing tensions

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 Viceroyalty of the Caucasus, reducing Georgia's status to that of any other Russian province. Study of the Georgian language was discouraged and the very name "Georgia" was banned from newspapers. In 1886, a Georgian student killed the rector of the Tbilisi seminary in protest. When the ageing Dmitri 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.

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.

The revolution of 1905

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 irreconciliable 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 Jugashvili, better known as Stalin.

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.

The years between 1906 and the outbreak of World War One 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, 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.

World War One and independence

Russia entered World War One against Germany in August, 1914. The war aroused little enthusiasm in Georgia which 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.

, which would enjoy a brief period of freedom before the Bolsheviks invaded in 1921. [Entire "Later Russian rule" section: Suny Chapters 7 and 8]



*cite book
last =Ronald Grigor
first =Suny
authorlink =Ronald Grigor Suny
coauthors =
title =The Making of the Georgian Nation
publisher =Indiana University Press
date =1994
edition =2nd
isbn =0253209153

*D.M. Lang: "A Modern History of Georgia" (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962)
*Anchabadze, George: "History of Georgia: A Short Sketch", Tbilisi, 2005, ISBN 99928-71-59-8
*Avalov, Zurab: "Prisoedinenie Gruzii k Rossii", Montvid, S.-Peterburg 1906
*Gvosdev, Nikolas K.: "Imperial policies and perspectives towards Georgia: 1760-1819", Macmillan, Basingstoke 2000, ISBN 0-312-22990-9

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