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The Dilemmas of Enlightenment in the Eastern Borderlands: The Theater and Library in Tbilisi, by Austin Jersild and Neli Melkadze

Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3(1): 27–49, Winter 2002.

[The theater] cultivates taste, acquaints us with the works of great artists, with the ideas of geniuses, and presents to the crowd the beginnings of the fine arts, that is, the most noble aspirations of humanity.

[Russian] G. S., Kavkaz, 1854

The awakening of the people is of no significance without theater and folk poetry.

[Georgian] A. K., Droeba, 1876

The Russian field is quickly accumulating a wide variety of works on Russian imperialism. These works now rival the field of colonial studies on the Western empires, and include explorations of imperial ideology, the multiethnic service elite, educational policy, missionary activities, cultural borrowing and interaction among the diverse peoples of the empire, and native responses and challenges to Russian rule. 1 The new studies often venture out to the eastern borderlands of the empire, such as the Volga-Urals and Turkestan, and complement and complicate a more developed historiography on the western borderlands and its peoples, such as Poles, Balts, Ukrainians, and Jews. Studies of the western frontier often highlight the problem of "Russification," which generally meant the series of late-19th-century repressive policies designed to limit the economic and cultural activities of the non-Russian peoples. 2

As this article will illustrate, imperialism in the East (the southern borderlands of Crimea and the Caucasus were part of the East or Orient [vostok] of the imperial imagination) included an impulse to promote and foster rather than curtail cultural expression. This made perfect sense for a Russia that was itself an eastern borderland of a Europe understood by many Russians since the 18th century to be the primary source of their own unfolding "enlightenment" and cultural progress. Russians (and many non-Russians) presented Russia's connection to enlightened Europe as a justification for imperial rule over the peoples and regions of the distant eastern borderlands. Especially from the 1840s, there emerged a well-developed Russian ideology of empire preoccupied with matters of culture and enlightenment, which posed an important contrast to traditional Russian militarism and imperial conquest of the frontier.

There were limitations to the promotion of culture on the distant fringes of the empire, however. Many of the imperial promoters of enlightenment had trouble imagining a world in which enlightenment might be spread in the small and exotic languages and cultures of the borderlands. Georgians might participate in imperial obshchestvo (educated society), present the plays of Shakespeare, and collect and read French books, but would they develop their own educated society (sazogadoeba), and publish their own newspapers and books? Was there a place for non-Russian cultural traditions that did not take their cue from the worlds of Russia and Europe, or for expressions of local culture that questioned this equation of enlightened benevolence with Russia? Early empire-builders and promoters of enlightenment, such as Mikhail Semenovich Vorontsov, the special viceroy (namestnik) appointed in 1845, could not even imagine that there ever would be such a dilemma in the eastern borderlands, while later officials reacted with suspicion and hostility to this developing world of cultural politics in a place such as Georgia. They foolishly attempted to limit the meaning and spread of enlightenment, which had, since the 1840s, been one of the basic justifications for Russian rule in the borderlands.

Georgia offers an ideal location for the exploration of the problem of high culture and the idea of (European) enlightenment within the context of the multiethnic (and Eurasian) empire. Georgia was a great source of hope for imperial officials hoping to establish an administrative foothold in the complex and turbulent Caucasus. Georgians of course share with Russians a common heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy and Byzantine influence. The modern historical consciousness of both peoples was strongly influenced by the memory of struggle with Islamic empires and cultures. Georgia's enemies included the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persians, who competed for control of the Georgian kingdoms, until Christian Russia's arrival in the 18th century further complicated the contest of empires. Georgians especially remembered the sack of Tbilisi by Shah Aga Mohammed in 1795, which encouraged many educated Georgians to view Russia as a source of protection and a haven for cultural development. 3

Russia's annexation of Georgia in 1783 and direct incorporation in 1801 meant the extension of imperial traditions of service and education to this corner of the empire. The purpose of imperial education policy was to create a "native administrative intelligentsia," and, to do so, the state sponsored and educated young Georgians from among the "respectable" and the noble. 4 Many Georgians were eager to take advantage of the privileges associated with imperial service, associate themselves with Europe's notion of progress, and also distinguish themselves from nearby rival and Islamic peoples such as the North Caucasus mountaineers. 5 Service records from the imperial era left in what has recently been renamed the Georgian National Archive illustrate the important role played by Georgians in various wars against both mountaineers and the Ottoman Turks. 6 Colonel Giorgi Tsereteli from Kutaisi, for example, not to be confused with the writer and sometime theater critic referred to later in this article, managed to survive fighting in Chechnia and Dagestan from 1855-59, service on the Lezgin Line after the conquest, and combat in the war of 1877-78 against the Turks. In 1876 he helped put down a rebellion in Svanetia. 7 After the conquest, a Georgian was considered sufficiently reliable to administer troublesome Dagestan oblast¢ in the 1880s. 8 Tbilisi served not only as the base of imperial administration and a growing imperial educated society, but also as an anchor for the Russian military in their prosecution of the long Caucasus War. 9

Tbilisi was host to important innovations in Russian imperial policy. The well-known geographic, ethnic, and religious complexities of the region perhaps contributed to a general willingness on the part of Russian officialdom to innovate in its administration of this frontier. Tsar Nicholas I himself lost patience with the seemingly interminable war and granted extensive authority to Prince Vorontsov, an unusually powerful and independent figure in the imperial administration. As Anthony Rhinelander has explained, Vorontsov was experienced in the borderlands and well-acquainted with the Caucasus, where he began his military career as an adjutant to Georgian Prince P. D. Tsitsianov (Paata Tsitsishvili) in the early 19th century. He was also the Governor-General of the basically non-Russian region of New Russia (Novorossiisk), and the tsar's plenipotentiary in Bessarabia. 10 Vorontsov neither ended the war nor resolved the dilemmas of imperial integration in the region, but his vision of enlightenment profoundly transformed the city of Tbilisi and contributed to the dilemmas of Georgian culture in the later age of nationalism. He presided over the opening of numerous educational institutions and scholarly societies, among them the Society of Agriculture, an Ethnographic Museum, a local branch of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society, as well as new publications in Russian such as Kavkaz and Kavkazskii Kalendar¢. The regime sponsored the first journal in the Georgian language, Tsiskari, which eventually served to encourage the emergence and development of Georgian culture and literature and the publication of Georgian manuscripts. In time, more independent Georgian newspapers such as Droeba and Iveria (founded 1866 and 1876) further extended and developed such concerns. 11

The full article in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (117 KB)


Austin Jersild
is Associate Professor of History at Old Dominion University and the author of Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917 (forthcoming in 2002).

Neli Melkadze is Chief Librarian at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia in Tbilisi, and Lecturer at Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani State.

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