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„Society for the Spread of Literacy among the Georgians”

A School for the Modern Georgian Nation and its Elite


Almost 120 years ago, on the 15th of May 1879, the “Society for the Promotion of Literacy among the Georgians” was officially founded in Tbilisi. It represented the late product of a small but very active group of intellectuals, the tergdaleulebi, who played a pivotal role in the building of the modern Georgian nation. On this website we will document and analyse the development of this “Society” between 1879 and 1926, focusing on the number, geographic origin, estate and social background of its members, as well as their educational backgrounds, professions and political activities. Although the activists found themselves marginalized between the nobility and the peasantry, they managed to develop a sense of Georgian ethnic affiliation as a cultural community freed from estate or locality, accessible to all of its potential members.

The aim of the prosopographical database is to gain insight into the social and mental transformation of a premodern elite into a national intelligentsia and its roots in Georgian agrarian society. The national movement, a typical element of the "modern age" adopted from Western and Central European patterns, serves as an indicator of an independent developmental path of the traditional agrarian society of Georgia from the end of the 19th to the first quarter of the 20th century. The modernization of Georgia is understood as a process of adaptation to traditional realities and not their dissolution. In this way, a region-specific investigation can contribute to sharpening the analytical sensitivity for different development paths, breaks and syncretism in modern social history and to explore the influence of cultural factors.

Methodical Approach: In a first step, we attempt to an empirical reconstruction of the bearers of the national movement by means of a collective biography of the "patriots" (Miroslav Hroch) engaged in it. Based on common characteristics such as geographical and social origin, education and occupation, their function can be determined in the transformation process of Georgian society. This happens by comparison with statistical data on social change in the Caucasus. Through the reconstruction of their lives and career paths we can trace group formations and the places of interaction (Tbilisi Spiritual Seminary, Georgian student unions in Russia, etc.) and thus contribute to the developing field of Historical Network Research. To date, approx. 2,500 people have been identified using the membership lists of the "Society for the Propagation of Literacy among the Georgians" since its foundation in 1879 and have been continuously supplemented with biographical data as far as possible.

Since the national movement is seen as a social movement in its own rights and conditionality of its historical context, the quantitative analysis will be followed in a second step focusing on the role of organizational institutions (especially the above-mentioned society, other associations and newspaper or journal offices) of the national movement in relation to professional associations, state organs and various social and ethnic groups. In the end, strategies, tactics and practices of national organizations can be compared with the journalistic assessments of social change by its members, and the process of nation-building as well as the action-guiding interests can be better identified.

Source material: Membership lists, annual reports, and minutes of the "Society for the Spread of Literacy among the Georgians" (Georgian National Archives, Historical Archive, collection no. 481), school reports, administrative documents found in archives, Georgian and Tsarist periodicals, memoirs of members and contemporaries.

Historical overview

After the Tsarist annexation of Eastern Georgia 1801 and the peasants' liberation of the 1860s the erosion of traditional social forms and structures accelerated. The gap among princes and peasants grew larger and larger as former serfs no longer accepted their economic subordination as lessees or migrant workers. In social history this is described as a cleavage in society. During this time, a Georgian national movement was launched by those noble "educational migrants" who had to leave Georgia for receiving a university education in Moscow, St. Petersburg or even Europe. All of them experienced their homeland as backward in contact and comparison with the Russian or other European cultures. However, the majority of migrants responded by assimilating to the dominant Russian culture and pursued military or civilian careers. Only a small circle around Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli wanted to bring progress and greater justice to their "own" homeland. They called this attempt at modernization "rebirth of the Georgian nation", but the nation was only "invented" (Benedict Anderson) by according to the perception of the “European model”.

In the following decades of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th they propagated in their magazines, theatre performances and the like the cultural autonomy of the Georgian nation towards all other nations, also the Russian one. But they did not demand political independence. They sought to establish a national inclusive culture that bridged cleavages of class, regional origin or other differences. Everyone should most of all feel himself (to a lesser degree herself) culturally as being Georgian.

However, they were mainly addressing urban, educated and mostly aristocratic circles in the "multicultural" metropolis of Tbilisi (Tiflis), although the "Society for the Spread of Literacy Among the Georgians" established by Ilia Chavchavadze (starting with 126 members in 1879 to 2,883 members by 1913) attempted to establish privately funded rural schools.

A major drawback to achieving their national goals was the generally low standard of education, even among nobles, and thus the constant lack of a large number of mobilized supporters. There was also a lack of money and influence as well, which is one of the reasons, why they did not seek a confrontation with the Tsarist state power.

Although in the wake of Alexander III's conservative counter-reforms, more centralization and linguistic unification took place, revolutionary populists and less nationalists were the main enemies of the state and the target of its repressive measures. In addition, the Georgian national movement lacked alliance partners. The rising Armenian city bourgeoisie with its own national movement was perceived as a rival to the descending Georgian nobility. This led for the first time to the politicization of “ethnos” in the elections for urban self-government in Tbilisi. In the countryside, the Georgian version of peasant Social Democracy captivated the peasants with their political demands for land reform and the final abolition of privileges for the noble estates. At the social level, it provided the egalitarian and developmental ideology for the peasant masses, which formulated the intelligence of predominantly aristocratic origin in Tbilisi only on a cultural level. As this cultural foundation was based on elements of the ancient, aristocratic culture of domination, the peasants feared the restoration of the old feudal system.

Thus, the Georgian national movement was the product of an ambiguous, not only negative correlation and cultural contact with the autocratic Tsarist Empire in the course of a broader modernization process. Their rhetoric of national unity stood in stark contrast to cleavages of class, social and ethnic inequalities typical of the early industrializing development in the whole Tsarist Empire. For this reason, it is more a projection of a future community consciousness than to be understood as a description of reality that has already been experienced on a small scale in national organizations like the “Society for the Spread of Literacy Among the Georgians”.

Paradoxically, the modern national high culture established by the Tergdaleulebi became a common basis for all Georgians only during the period of Socialist Soviet Republic of Georgia, the nationalist policy of the USSR, which was used by an increasingly politicized independence movement in the crisis of last years of Soviet rule (perestroika). In this way, the tergdaleulebi, the founders of the Georgian national movement and the “Society”, found its late effect, even if the concrete conditions of its development have been forgotten.

Dr. Oliver Reisner

Jean Monnet Professor in European & Caucasian Studies, historian, Ilia State University


24.04.2018