Stalin and the invasion of Georgia

Submitted by Matthew on 15 February, 2012 - 10:45

In May 1920, the Bolshevik workers’ government in Russia signed a treaty with Georgia, which had been ruled by a Menshevik government since 1918, under which Russia recognised the independence of Georgia (formerly part of the Tsarist empire), and Georgia undertook not to give a base to anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war then raging in Russia.

In February 1921, Josef Stalin and friends, alleging Georgian breaches of the treaty (possibly real, but minor) and the need to support a (largely fictional) Bolshevik-led workers’ uprising in Georgia, engineered a Red Army invasion of Georgia.

The army secured Moscow rule over Georgia, but not popular assent. In late 1922, severe clashes between Stalin and the Georgian Bolsheviks, who argued urgently for more autonomy and better treatment of Georgian national feeling, prompted the dying Lenin to launch his last major political campaign — against Stalin — and to ask Trotsky to continue that campaign when and where Lenin himself, crippled by ill-health, could not.

Stalin won out there too. Resentment in Georgia grew into a veritable mass uprising in August-September 1924. The Moscow government, by now seriously Stalinised, was able to crush that uprising, but only at the expense of holding Georgia by force for decades to come.

Leon Trotsky, although still Commissar for War, had the 1921 invasion of Georgia organised behind his back. He had been opposed to an invasion.

After the fact, Trotsky wrote a polemic against the social-democratic demand for the Red Army to be withdrawn from Georgia, glossing over his earlier opposition to invasion.

In the civil war, inevitably, there were many villages, railway junctions, and so on, where Red rule came first by military triumph, and could gain popular support only afterwards. Maybe, faced with a fait accompli in Georgia, Trotsky thought he had no alternative but to see it as a large-scale example of that.

In hindsight, though, there is a strong case for seeing the invasion of Georgia as a pivotal step in integrating a segment of the Bolshevik party into a conservative central-government bureaucracy and stifling working-class politics.

Almost 20 years later, in his unfinished biography of Stalin, Trotsky wrote: “Lenin... insisted on an especially resilient, circumspect patient policy towards Georgia... Stalin... felt that since the machinery of state was in our hands, our position was secure... we had recognised the independence of Georgia and had concluded a treaty with her... [but] detachments of the Red Army... invaded Georgia upon Stalin’s orders and... confronted us with a fait accompli...”

The invasion was not just a mistake, like the Red Army’s attempt in 1920 to follow Polish forces against which it had been fighting into Poland itself, in the hope of sparking workers’ rebellion within Poland (a move which Trotsky also opposed). Nor was it a “tragic necessity” forced on the workers’ regime by adversity.

The invasion was a cynical, bureaucratic act, initiated behind the back of the Bolshevik party, with what must have been deliberate mendacity.

It committed the workers’ government to ruling over a whole nation, not just this or that locality, by scarcely-diluted force, and the clash with the Georgian Bolsheviks established Stalin and his circle as arbiters whose default response to dissent or political complications was force.

The Red Army had certainly used force in the civil war — but there it won, essentially, not by superior military equipment, but by superior political agitation and propaganda.

Eric Lee (Solidarity 232) is therefore, I think, right about the invasion of Georgia having been a “historical tragedy”.

Whether the large campaign conducted by social-democrats against revolutionary Russia after the invasion should retrospectively be endorsed is another matter.

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