Georgia’s 1028 Days of Independence

Story by: Tornike Khomeriki

Special thanks to the National Archives of Georgia for their cooperation in the project.

On May 26, 2018 Georgia is celebrating the centennial of its First Democratic Republic, which, even throughout its brief existence between 1918-1921, became recognised for its remarkably democratic constitution, provision of citizen rights and socially oriented policies.

Using archive materials, this story is intended to provide a brief glimpse of various aspects of social and economic life, political processes and foreign relations of the state over its short-lived independence.

This footage was filmed in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi in 1918, with the country having had declared its independence the same year. It shows worker unions marching towards the Vice-regent Palace, now known as the National Youth and Children’s Palace, on Rustaveli Avenue.

Even though Georgia’s long history spanned over eras since ancient times, the country was first established as a modern republic following the proclamation of its sovereignty on May 26, 2918.

Georgia had spent over 115 years under the Russian Imperial rule by the time the political turmoil of the 1917 Revolution erupted in Russia, diverting its attention away from the Caucasus and creating grounds for the successful drive for its independence.

The main hall of the Vice-regent Palace. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The historic occasion of May 26, 1918 took place in the main hall of the Vice-regent Palace. Members of the National Council of Georgia — the maiden legislative body involving political parties and public organisations in the country — gathered to proclaim the birth of the new republic in this hall.

The Act of Independence of Georgia. Preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The attending members added their signatures to the Act of Independence of Georgia, a seven-point paper declaring a sovereign state, outlining it as a democratic republic, defining its neutrality in international conflicts, guaranteeing civil and political rights of its citizens irrespective of their ethnicity, faith, social conditions and gender, and more.

The national anthem for the newly established state was a creation by composer Konstantine Potskhverashvili, later awarded the title of the People’s Artist of Georgia and other state distinctions.

Titled Dideba (‘Glory’), this score for the musical piece was printed in the western Georgian city of Kutaisi in 1918 and featured music and lyrics by the composer and conductor.

The national flag - with official measurements - and coat of arms of the republic. Preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Along with the anthem, the republic’s creation was marked with adoption of the national flag and coat of arms. The latter featured an image of St. George, a saint enjoying special reverence among the believers of the country.

The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly of Georgia on March 12, 1919. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The National Council of Georgia worked as the supreme legislative body between the proclamation of independence and the election of the new Constituent Assembly of Georgia on February 14-17, 1919.

Taking over from the former, the Constituent Assembly held its first meeting shortly after, on March 12, at the Vice-regent Palace.

The venue, taking its name from its former designation as the residence for the Imperial Russian vice-regent in the Caucasus, became the residence for the assembly throughout the First Democratic Republic’s existence.

Members of the Presidium of the Constituent Assembly of Georgia. From left: Konstantine Japharidze, Grigol Natadze, Ekvtime Takaishvili, Alexandre Lomtatidze, Svimon Mdivani, secretary Kristine Sharashidze. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The first Government of Georgia, in office starting May 1918, was chaired by Noe Ramishvili (left), who also served as the interior minister. He was succeeded in June by Noe Zhordania. Both were members of the Social-Democratic Party of Georgia.

This footage shows members of the first Georgian government, which, beside Ramishvili and Zhordania, involved the following ministers on its roster:

  • Akaki Chkhenkeli served as the foreign minister;
  • Grigol Giorgadze was war minister;
  • Giorgi Zhuruli worked as finance, trade and industry minister;
  • Shalva Aleksi-Meskhishvili took the duties of justice minister;
  • Noe Khomeriki served as agriculture and labour minister;
  • Giorgi Laskhishvili headed the public education ministry;
  • Ivane Lortkipanidze was minister of roads.

The first page of the constitution of the Georgian republic. The historic document is now a property of the Parliament of Georgia and is preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Three years following the proclamation of independence, in a milestone event for the sovereign nation, the Constituent Assembly approved the first constitution of Georgia on 21 February 1921, just four days before Soviet armies entered capital Tbilisi and ended the country’s 1028 days independence.

The pages outlining the 11 opening articles of the constitution. Preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The historic document, a result of the Constitutional Commission’s work since June 1918, confirmed progressive aspirations of the state by guaranteeing rights for women as well as religious and ethnic minorities, outlawing death penalty and defining a separation of the church and the secular state, alongside other democratic moves.

The frontal side of the Georgian bond of 5,000 roubles. Preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Used throughout the years of independence, the Georgian bond (rouble) was issued in the amount of nearly 17 million between 1919-1921. The photograph shows a bond of 500 roubles that bore facsimiles of the government chairman on the left and the finance minister on the right.

The 5,000 rouble bond with notes in French and Russian languages in addition to Georgian. Preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

During years 1919-1921, the exchange value of the local rouble was as follows:
In September 1919: In July 1920:
1 British Pound equalled 400 roubles; 1 British Pound equalled 2,224 roubles;
1 Ottoman Lira equalled 110 roubles; 1 Ottoman Lira equalled 516 roubles;
  1 French Francs equalled 50 roubles.

A celebration of the new republic on today's Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Salaries for various positions in the republic, as of late 1919, are listed below:

  • Chairman of the Government: 10,000 roubles;
  • Chairman of the Senate: 9,000 roubles;
  • Minister: 8,000 roubles;
  • Deputy minister: 7,000 roubles;
  • District court chair: 5,500 roubles;
  • Prosecutor: 5,000 roubles;
  • Military brigade commander: 4.500 roubles;
  • Police officer: 2,900 roubles;
  • Military company commander: 2,700 roubles.

Members of the board of the State Bank of Georgia at its launch event. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

While private banking existed in Georgia in the 19th century, the foundation of the national bank only became possible within the independent country, and the institution was opened in an occasion in Tbilisi in July 1920.

Contemporary archives house various select documents related to citizenship, mail and geography in the First Democratic Republic. You can note a birth certificate, filled out by hand and dated May 22, 1920, above on the background. Post stamps and a map printed for a globe complete the picture. Exhibits preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The building of the Tbilisi State University, now located on Chavchavadze Avenue. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

In a pioneering move for the Caucasus region, the Tbilisi State University was established in February 1918, predating even the proclamation of independence of the Georgian state. The first university in Georgia and South Caucasus, its foundation was led by historian Ivane Javakhishvili.

For the fall semester of 1920, academic work at the university involved nearly 40 professors, 17 lecturers and over 2,700 students.

Prominent theatre director Zakaria Paliashvili (seated fourth from left) among actors involved in the premiere of his opera Abesalom and Eteri at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre on February 21, 1919. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Artistic and cultural activity sprang up during the independence years in Georgia, with avant-garde movements and pioneering artists leading an emergence of genres and new productions.

Representatives from foreign missions are seen in the footage being hosted at a reception alongside Constituent Assembly members in Tbilisi. Diplomatic missions in Georgia at this period included British, French, Italian and Greek representations.

The Ottoman Empire was the first to recognise Georgia’s independence de jure on June 3, 1918 and was followed by Argentina, Russia and Germany in September 1919, May 1920 and September 1920 respectively.

Photograph of the first international agreement of the Georgian republic, signed with Germany. Preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Before the de jure recognition by states around the world, Georgia’s statehood was a subject of de facto recognition through its first international agreement, signed with Germany in the seaside port city Poti on May 28, 1918.

Georgian armed forces were involved in six different conflicts for defending borders of the newly proclaimed republic between 1918-1921. These conflicts included:

  • Armed clashes with the Bolshevik forces in the north-western Abkhazia province and the Sochi district in 1918;
  • War between Armenia and Georgia in 1918;
  • Military clashes against forces of the former Tsarist General Anton Denikin in Abkhazia and Sochi in 1919;
  • War against the South-west Caucasus Republic (Kars Republic) in 1919;
  • Armed conflict with the Soviet Russia in 1920;
  • War between the Soviet Russia and Georgia in 1921.

A formation of the People’s Guard is seen above marching in front of the Vice-regent Palace on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue.

A formation of a platoon of motorcycle machine-gunners of the People's Guard Armored Vehicles Unit. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The campaigns and short clashes involved the Georgian regular army and People’s Guards units. The following personnel served under their formations during the three years:

  • Years 1918-1919: 41,260 officers and soldiers;
  • Years 1919-1920: 16,950 officers and soldiers;
  • Years 1920-1921: 19,630 officers and soldiers;

People’s Guards service members photographed in front of an armoured train that saw service in the armed forces. The train played a crucial role in Georgian troops’ winning operations during the three-year independence. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

The Soviet 11th army photographed after entering Georgia's capital Tbilisi on February 25, 1921. Photograph preserved at the National Archives of Georgia.

Following victories against the counter-revolutionary forces led by generals Wrangel and Denikin in the final years of the Russian Civil War, Soviet armed forces were directed against the independent republics of South Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia in early 1920.

Following its successful invasion, annexation and Sovietisation of Azerbaijan and Armenia in April and December 1920 respectively, four Soviet armies attacked Georgia’s borders from different directions in February 1921.

After intense armed clashes near borders and around Tbilisi, the Soviet 11th Army entered the capital city on February 25, ending the short independence of the country.