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Book Review - About a fascinating history of Russo-Georgian relations by Dieter Boden

By Philipp Ammon
Wednesday, May 27
This is the fascinating history of Russo-Georgian relations between 1801, the year of the annexation of Georgia by Tsarist Russia, until after the First World War. It is a subject that may have been of interest to historical scholars until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the Caucasus, as a regional source of tension in our immediate neighborhood, has received new topicality. In this respect, this book by Philipp Ammon is also a contribution to contemporary political history.

Ammon deals with a crucial section in the relationships between the two peoples and neighbors, which differ fundamentally in their culture, their mentality and their lifestyle. It is a story that is shaped by violence, betrayal and deception, but also by peaceful, often even harmonious coexistence - in one word: a prime example from the field of political relations between states, which can still teach us a lot today. This certainly applies in particular to our current relationship with Russia.

Ammon describes the period of bilateral relations with a great deal of expertise in the 115-year period in which Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. The volume contains a wealth of notes as well as detailed information on further literature on the subject; the cumbersome transcription of the personal names into German is a little disruptive, which often affects reading. Ammon also briefly deals with the period from 1918 to 1921, in which Georgia first gained its independence before it was annihilated by the invasion of the Red Army in February 1921 - largely unnoticed by the rest of Europe, which dealt with the consequences of the previous world war. The following period, in which Georgia was part of the Soviet Union as a federal state for over 70 years, is only touched upon by Ammon. He pays a lot of attention to the relationship between the two Orthodox Churches.

The annexation by Russia in 1801 initially brought the usual fate of a conquered country to Georgia: plundering, forced assimilation and suppression of revolts that flared up again and again. Ammon correctly notes that the Georgians considered the subordination of their Orthodox Church to that of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1811 as the worst humiliation. However, Ammon opposes those who want to see Russian rule solely as a history of suffering and ongoing oppression taking a differentiated view. The balance is ambivalent: in the period up to 1914 Georgia experienced a period of peace without the devastation that it had suffered in the centuries before from an endless succession of invasions by foreign conquerors. The country gradually recovered under ‘friendly bayonets,’ as the poet Lermontov called it. It found a connection to the modern age through the construction of infrastructures, through the beginning conversion of an archaic agricultural economy to an industrial exploitation of its resources, through the development of telecommunications in which the German company Siemens played a decisive role.

The connections to Europe, which had been interrupted for centuries, were now revived, and Russia played a decisive role in the mediation. It was Russian universities that trained the new Georgian elites. The Georgian students came back from there as ‘Westerners,’ had read Kant and Hegel and soon also advocated national self-determination for their country.

Even after 115 years of common statehood, the differences in culture, attitude towards life and mentality between the two countries remained. The fact that the Russian epoch is predominantly perceived today as a traumatic experience is a consequence of the subsequent 70 years under Soviet communist rule, which ended on April 9, 1989 with a particularly brutal act: a massacre of Soviet troops against the Georgian civilian population.

It would be desirable if this past history of Russian-Georgian relations were supplemented by a chapter on the Soviet era and the present since the new Georgian independence in 1991. In any case, the Book of Ammon is a worthwhile impetus. Today, Russian-Georgian relations are determined by the conflict over the separate states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have fallen away from Georgia and have been supported by Russia. An amicable settlement of this conflict is not in sight. Bilateral relations between the two countries have broken down since 2008. The effects of this conflict radiate to us in various ways in Western Europe. This also makes Ammon's book clear: without a normalization of Georgian-Russian relations, the region of the South Caucasus will not find stability.

Philipp Ammon, Georgien zwischen Eigenstaatlichkeit und russischer Okkupation. Die Wurzeln des Konflikts vom 18. Jh. bis 1924, Frankfurt/M 2020.

Dr. Dieter Boden, retired ambassador; studied Slavic studies and political sciences in Munster and Hamburg; joined the Federal Foreign Office in 1968. He held various posts, including the German Embassies in Moscow and Rome. He was appointed ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna, Special Envoy to the UN Secretary General in Georgia, Head of the OSCE Mission to Tbilisi.