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Luigi Villari

FIRE AND SWORD IN THE CAUCASUS


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CHAPTER V

THE GURIAN “REPUBLIC”

A NATURAL complement to a stay at Kutais is a visit to Ozurgety. Kutais is the centre of the Georgian movement, where ideas are discussed and plans matured. But there the Government, in spite of its weakness, still exercised a semblance of authority. At Ozurgety the ideas and plans were being put into execution and a practical experiment in peasant autonomy of a very interesting nature was made. Guria, of which Ozurgety is the capital, is a district of the government of Kutais, where all the peculiarities of the Georgian character are seen in their most intense expression. The Gurians are the bravest and most warlike, most chivalrous, most handsome, most hospitable, most educated, although not the most unpractical of the Georgians. Every village has its own library, and even those furthest from the Government post stations provide their own mail service so as to receive the daily papers from Tiflis, Batum, and Russia. For the past two years they have been putting the theories of Social Democracy into practice, defying the Russian Government and refusing to recognize any authority but their own.

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The experiment is to a large extent in accordance with Tolstoy's theories of government, and last spring the great novelist wrote to a friend on the subject as follows:—

“ What is happening in Guria is an event of immense importance. Although I am aware that the Gurians have not even heard of my existence, I have nevertheless a great desire to express to them the ideas and sentiments which they have awakened in me by their admirable movement. Tell them, ' There is an old man who for twenty years has been ceaselessly repeating that all the evils of humanity are due to the fact that men are always expecting to find some external aid with which to organize their lives; and when they see that the authorities do not aid them and do not create order, they begin to accuse them, to condemn them, to revolt against them.' What should be done is exactly what the Gurians are doing, viz., to organize life in such a manner that there should be no need for any authority. ...

“If it is possible, tell them how great was this old man's joy when he learned that what he had been thinking and writing for so many years, what the wise and those who think themselves wise did not understand and would not admit, is just what is understood, and not understood only but realized, by thousands of men on their own initiative, on their own reasoning, and according to their own consciences, and that they are carrying out this task so well and with such firmness that their neighbours are joining them. Tell them that not I alone, but many others rejoice in their

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work and are ready to help them if it is necessary and possible, and that we are all convinced that, having undertaken this great task for which they have done so much, they will not abandon it, but will continue in the same road giving an example to the world."

The Gurians themselves, however, reject Tolstoy's theory of non-resistance, and declare that they are ready to fight for their rights if necessary, as indeed they have done recently when the authorities attempted to stamp out the movement by force.

I was naturally very anxious to see this district, the first part of the Tzar's dominions to enjoy freedom even if only for a short time, and I applied to some friends at Kutais. From them I learned that a large meeting was to be held at Ozurgety the following Sunday, at which delegates of all parties and all districts were to be present to discuss a course of action in connection with the zemstva which were being introduced into the Caucasus for the first time, and also with a view to further resistance against the Government. The three Kutais delegates asked me to travel with them, and I naturally accepted the invitation most gladly. The visit to Ozurgety caused me to miss the Baku fighting, at which I was much annoyed, but the experience was so interesting as to be some compensation for the disappointment.

It was arranged that I should meet the delegates at the Kutais station, and they would then take charge of me. The train was to start at 2 p.m. on a very hot September day. The station was crowded, for being Saturday numbers of people, in spite of the

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unsettled state of the country, were going out of town for the Sunday to enjoy themselves. Only two of the delegates turned up, the third, M. Z. before alluded to, had been obliged to follow a more circuitous route as he was “wanted” by the police. Of the other two, one was a pale-faced, bearded Gurian, a professional man living in Kutais, the other a short, keen-eyed, dark-haired youth attired in a black tcherkesska and black fur cap—hardly the costume for this burning weather. Both had travelled in Europe (the former spoke excellent French), both belonged to the extreme revolutionary wing of the Federalist party. I had taken a first-class ticket, but I found that my companions were travelling in a third-class car, as they wished to avoid observation. At Rion junction again an enormous crowd of passengers and idlers, for at this hour the trains from Batum, Tiflis, and Kutais meet. At Samtredy more crowds, and during the stop my companions keep very much in the background, for the authorities have heard of the Ozurgety meeting and there are gendarmes and soldiers on the platform. In the meanwhile Z. has joined us. He is a peculiarly interesting character, and although under thirty has led a very stormy existence. He is a Georgian, and has been exiled from the Russian Empire on account of his political ideas. He had gone to Europe and studied science in Geneva, Paris, and London. But even there he got into trouble with the authorities, for he always consorted with Anarchists, Socialists, and other persons of extreme views. On many a platform in many a European city he had been heard denouncing

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the iniquities of governments, the wickedness of capitalists and the bourgeoisie, and advocating the social revolution. He speaks French, English, German, Italian, besides Georgian and Russian, and he is in close touch with the revolutionary leaders of every European country. Now that his own land was in a state of rebellion, he had returned under an assumed name to take his share in the rising. He was said to be a very eloquent speaker and in great demand at revolutionary gatherings. Young, handsome, attractive, enthusiastic to the verge of fanaticism, cultured and intellectual if somewhat unpractical and visionary, he should play a prominent part in the destinies of Georgia. He had been staying at Kutais for some time without being disturbed by the police ; but the very day before his departure for Ozurgety he had been denounced. He was aware of being shadowed, and knew that if he went to the station with the others they would probably all be arrested. So he let them know that he would join them later, and walked out of Kutais alone to a neighbouring village. There he obtained a vehicle, and drove to a wayside station some distance down the line, where our train picked him up.

At Notaneby we got out, hired a carriage, and set off for Ozurgety. Once we had left the railway behind us all anxiety as to the danger of arrest was at an end, for we were now in free Guria where the Russian writ no longer runs, and gendarmes, politzmeisters, pristavs, and suchlike gentry are but vain things. It is already night, and we have a long drive before us. The road is a Russian road, therefore bad; on each

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side are fields of grain and tall grasses, with groups of trees and small woods every now and again looming out in the darkness. We meet a few native carts, and some peasants on foot or on horseback at rare intervals, but we frequently stop at wayside inns or cottages to rest the horses and enable our Jehu to refresh himself with spirits. “Have you got something on you ? ” one of my fellow-travellers asks me. The “ something ” was a revolver, and the fact that I had not got one caused some surprise. However, I managed to travel all through the Caucasus with no weapons except a walking-stick and an umbrella, and I lost the walking-stick. But I was never in need of arms the whole time. When people are so busy cutting each other's throats, they have little time to devote to strangers, and what they have they expend in trying to convert him to their own particular views, so that he may “ tell Europe the truth about the situation.”

It is past eleven by the time we reach Ozurgety. Mysterious figures in tckerkesskas, or in Russian students' blouses, emerge from the darkness, and enter into whispered conversations with my companions. We are distributed among several houses, I myself finding hospitality in that of a Georgian merchant, whose sons are ardent revolutionists. Although my visit was unannounced the welcome I received was of the heartiest, and I shall always have a most pleasant recollection of the kindly unaffected hospitality of these Georgians. The houses at Ozurgety are small and very simple. Few of them are more than one storey high, built of wood and plaster, and

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raised on piles above the ground. Each house stands in its own garden or orchard, and has several wide verandas. The one in which I was lodged contained a fairly large drawing-room, a dining-room, and two or three bedrooms. The furniture, if not aesthetic, was good of its kind and everything was spotlessly clean—a detail which one appreciates after staying in Caucasian inns. There were the usual takhtas with their handsome Eastern carpets, a German piano, and large collections of photographs and postcards on the walls. There being no spare room, beds were rigged up for me and Z. in the drawing-room. Making the bed is a simple operation : you remove the rug from the takhta put one sheet and a quilt in its place, and there you are. In the morning my host's son brought in a basin and ewer, and poured water over my hands while I washed them, the whole operation being conducted on the veranda. Five minutes after our getting up the apartment was rearranged as a salon without a trace of bedroom about it. Life under such conditions is indeed simple. Meals in a Georgian house also differ considerably from those in Western Europe. In the morning, as soon as the samovar is alight, the family gathers round the breakfast-table for a light refection of steaming tea, à la Russe (with jam in it instead of milk), eggs, and bread. At eleven we had a sort of second breakfast of coffee and bread. At 3 p.m. dinner, which begins with a glass of vodka and a zakuska, consisting of bits of egg, tomatoes, corn, anchovies, salt fish, &c., followed by soup, trout, roast meat, and fruit, the whole washed down with unlimited quantities of light

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red wine. After that there is no more food—and you certainly do not want any—save some grapes, until about 10 p.m. or even later, when a supper of tea, bread and cheese, fish or cold meat, and wine is served. At intervals during the dinner my host's two sons, both of whom had excellent voices, sang snatches of Georgian drinking songs. The conversation was carried on almost entirely in Georgian, but one of the young men who had studied in France and travelled extensively, translated for my benefit.

Ozurgety is a pleasant little town of some 8,000 inhabitants, by the Notaneby river, built on wooded hills a few hundred feet above the sea-level. It has broad, unpaved streets, flanked by small houses mostly of wood, each in its own enclosure where there are trees and grass, but no flower-beds, for flowers are rarely grown systematically in Transcaucasia. There is a bazar with the usual open booths of the East, and a boulevard, or public garden, where the band sometimes plays and meetings are held. Peasants in a variety of costumes are grouped about, a few of them on horseback, others with carts. The whole place has a most peaceful and rural appearance, and one would never suspect what fierce passions are burning beneath these idyllic exteriors nor what bitter hatred of Tzardom a hundred years of misgovernment have instilled into the people.

But to return to the serious business of my visit. The Gurian movement arose about two years ago as a result of the steady propaganda of the Social Democrats combined with the Nationalist feelings of

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the people fostered by the Georgian press. It began with a series of demands for reduction of rent, and with protests against the usurpation of peasant land by the State. The Gurians who went to Batum to work in the case oil industry came in contact with the revolutionary agitators, and they themselves soon carried the propaganda to the villages when they returned home. Then came the refusal to pay taxes to the Government, because they had not been imposed with the consent of the people. “ Why should Guria,” one of my friends said to me, “with its 100,000 inhabitants, continue to pay 250,000 to 300,000 roubles a year to the Russians who barely spend 20,000 on the district, most of which sum is devoted to the police and officials whom we do not want?”

The Russian officials were practically boycotted, and no Gurian would think of applying to a Government official for anything. The Uyezdny Nachalnik (district governor), the chief of police, the magistrates, and all the paraphernalia of Muscovite bureaucracy are there, but they have no more work to do. There are some soldiers in the barracks, but in the early days of the movement the peasants avoided collisions with them, so as to give no excuse for violent measures of repression; more recently, however, there have been bloody encounters. The administration was carried on by the inhabitants themselves in the most communistic manner, each man contributing his share of money or labour for the common good. They worked in shifts to maintain the roads and bridges, and one sometimes saw nobles, priests, peasants, and shopkeepers all

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Ozurgety. Gurian Types at the Popular Tribunal.

[caption] Ozurgety. Gurian Types at the Popular Tribunal.

 

Ozurgety. The Popular Tribunal.

[caption] Ozurgety. The Popular Tribunal.

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manfully doing their turn of work. Native schools have taken the place of Russian ones, and the children are taught the three R's combined with Socialist principles in the Georgian tongue.

But perhaps the most curious and interesting manifestation of the Gurian experiment is the administration of justice as conducted by the peasants. It is in some ways a return to the most primitive forms of human institutions, and is probably unique in modern times. The corruption and inefficiency of the Russian courts of justice in Georgia was a byword among the people, and constituted one of the chief grievances of the inhabitants, who constantly but fruitlessly demanded that they should be reformed. When the Gurians initiated their autonomy, they immediately boycotted the Russian tribunals and set up courts of justice of their own. These quickly acquired so much prestige and respect that soon not a single Gurian applied to the official courts for redress. The criminal courts were likewise abandoned, because the police no longer dared to arrest any one, and State prosecutions could not be conducted. Both civil and criminal actions were brought before the Narodny Sud (popular tribunal), which also exercised an important function in composing quarrels. When a crime is committed the whole community feel it their duty to co-operate in helping to apprehend the criminal, and brigandage and robbery have greatly decreased in consequence; under Russian regime these offences were very common, and their authors rarely discovered or punished. But the Narodny Sud goes further, and inquires into the private morals

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of the inhabitants. Any man committing adultery or living with a mistress is liable to prosecution and punishment. This is a sort of protest against the loose morals of the Russian officials. The old forms of punishment have been abolished ; no one can be legally put to death, nor even imprisoned. The usual penalty is boycotting for a longer or shorter period, and as the community is practically unanimous it can be carried out very effectively. Other curious forms of punishment have also been introduced, such as the following: a peasant of the district of Sharopany having committed adultery with a woman of the place, he and his paramour were summoned before the Narodny Sud. They pleaded guilty, and were condemned to ride through the village stark-naked on the back of a donkey; during their progress they proclaimed their sin before all the assembled villagers, declared their contrition, and vowed to lead a pure life in future.

The method of procedure before the Narodny Sud is best described by an account of an actual trial. We started out at 11 a.m., a party of about twenty, including my companions of the journey. The court was being held at some distance from Ozurgety, and we had a hot walk across the valley and up a steep hill to the little church of Ekhadia. Here was a wide greensward under the shade of a group of tall oaks, opposite a grey stone chapel. From this spot I enjoyed an extensive and beautiful view of the purple mountains of Guria and of Adjaria. extending to the Turkish border, and of the pleasant green valley of the meandering Notaneby. An assembly

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of some two hundred people were gathered here to administer justice, mostly peasants of all ages and both sexes in native attire, but also a few “ intelligents” in kharki-coloured cotton suits or students' ungainly uniforms, always conspicuous at revolutionary gatherings. The court is composed in a very simple way. There are no judges, no jury, no public prosecutor, no counsel; but every person present, whether man, woman or child, native or foreign, has the right to act in any or all of these capacities, and verdict and sentence are decided by the vote of the majority. One man is elected chairman, but merely for the sake of convenience, and he has no official authority beyond what is derived from the fact that he is old and has studied in a university. Every one, according to this communistic theory, who has an opinion on the matter under discussion has the right to express it, and each vote affects the ultimate decision.

The case to be heard on this particular occasion was an appeal: a certain merchant of Ozurgety had committed adultery, and in consequence of his offence two homes had been broken up. He had been summoned before the Narodny Sud some time ago and condemned to perpetual boycott—the highest penalty it could inflict; now, after undergoing the boycott for several weeks, he was appealing to his judges to have it withdrawn. He was a tall man about forty years of age, his expression very sad and melancholy, his hair and beard just tinged with grey. “ I admit my sin,” he declared, “ and the justice of your punishment ; but I am deeply penitent, and swear in future

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to lead a reformed and virtuous life. The sufferings I have undergone since you boycotted me have been so great, so unbearable, that it would have been better if you had killed me outright. I am lost, ruined beyond hope, unless you relent, and I have come to ask you to forgive me and withdraw the boycott.” His words had a genuine ring of emotion and. contrition which created a deep impression on the audience. Then followed an animated discussion on the merits of the case. One after another a number of speakers rose and expressed their opinions for or against the appeal for clemency. Those who were in favour of it dwelt on the apparent sincerity of the man's repentance, on the failure of punishment to effect reform if pushed too far ; some with that characteristic love of abstract reasoning, even alluded to “ the latest results of science,” and quoted obscure German philosophers and Socialist writers. The opponents stated that the man was an old offender in this respect, that at his age his reformation was not likely to be lasting, and that as he had caused the break-up of two homes an example should be made of him. For over an hour the speeches followed each other, illustrated by more or less appropriate arguments, until finally the chairman moved a resolution that the boycott should be withdrawn. On a show of hands those in favour of it were obviously in a majority; but the opposition demanded a formal counting of votes. After some discussion as to ways and means, it was decided to use the church as a “polling station.” One of the peasants sat down before a table near the altar to record the votes,

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Ozurgety. The Popular Tribunal.

[caption] Ozurgety. The Popular Tribunal.

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while a priest stood by to give a religious sanction to the proceedings. Then each person present at the assembly entered the church by the south door singly, declared for or against the resolution, and made his exit by the west door. The counting of the votes confirmed the result of the show of hands, the boycott was withdrawn, and the penitent was forgiven and admitted once more into the community.

“ Is not this,” one of my acquaintances exclaimed, who had acted as interpreter, "a far more humane and expeditious method of administering justice than that of the ‘properly constituted tribunals’? Is it not better to be tried in this way than by three scoundrels in black robes ? ”

The meeting then broke up, and I returned home with my hosts. On the way back a small building, shut up and deserted, was pointed out to me; it was the official court-house which had been closed for some time as business was no longer transacted there. The district governor tried to make himself popular by calling himself a Social Democrat; it had indeed begun to be the fashion among the Russian officials in revolution-ridden districts—so long as there are not enough soldiers and gendarmes—to declare that they held democratic views. A little further on I was shown the other Government offices, where the Russian officials were whiling away their idle days drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. At the end of the village are the barracks in which a company of infantry were then quartered. Here of course the real danger to the “ republic” lay, but the troops were almost powerless, for every Gurian was armed. My

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Ozurgety friends expressed the utmost confidence in the final outcome. I was told of frequent gatherings of thousands of armed Gurians who practised military manoeuvres, shooting, and other warlike exercises, including ambulance service. Gun-running is carried on extensively both over the Turkish frontier and by sea, and the Gurians have even sometimes got hold of Government stores of arms.

What is peculiarly remarkable about the movement is the unanimity with which it has been carried out, all classes agreeing in the necessity for getting rid of the Russian authorities. The various parties were quarrelling among themselves as to the future form of government to be established, and in fact the grand assembly to which I had been invited never came off, as the Socialists and Federalists would not listen to each other ; but that the Gurians must administer their own country was unanimously recognized. Even most of the landlords, who have lost income by the new arrangement, acquiesce in it fully. “ If they (the Russians) wish to restore the old form of government,” a Gurian declared, “ they must kill us to the last man ; till then we shall go on resisting.” A high Russian official at Tiflis admitted to me that the movement was most difficult to deal with, “ for it is not,” he said, “merely the work of outside agitators ; it is backed up by the whole population.” Count Vorontzoff-Dashkoff himself told me that the only way of pacifying Guria was by wide and liberal concessions, and that he meant to regularize and legalize the Narodny Sud, “which administers justice far

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Ozurgety. The Deserted Court House.

[caption] Ozurgety. The Deserted Court House.

 

Monastery of Motzamety, near Kutais.

[caption] Monastery of Motzamety, near Kutais.

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more honestly and efficiently than do the State tribunals.”

Since my departure from Ozurgety the situation has become even more acute. The policy of the Russian Government has alternated between concessions and coercion. While it sent a liberal university professor from St. Petersburg to study the Narodny Sud, and the method of communistic administration, it inaugurated a series of exekutzii, i.e., it quartered troops in villages at the expense of the villagers, and sent detachments of Cossacks and infantry to reduce the people to order. Desperate fighting has taken place in and around Ozurgety. The railway has been cut again and again, and several military trains have been derailed with heavy loss of life, and every day troops along the line have been attacked. When the troops have been successful they have shot down the Gurians without mercy, and the whole province is drenched in blood. What has become of my kind hosts at Ozurgety I have not heard, for hardly any letters get through to or from that disturbed land. I shall never forget their warm hospitality, and I can only hope that a happier fate is in store for that gallant and independent little community.


Table of contents
Cover and pp. 1-4 | Prefatory note | Table of contents (as in the book) | List of illustrations
“Chronological table of recent events in the Caucasus”
1. The Caucasus, its peoples, and its history | 2. Eastward ho! | 3. Batum
4. Kutais and the Georgian movement | 5. The Gurian “republic” | 6. Tiflis
7. Persons and politics in the Caucasian capital
8. Armenians, Tartars, and the Russian government
9. Baku and the Armeno-Tartar feud | 10. Bloodshed and fire in the oil city
11. The land of Ararat | 12. The heart of Armenia | 13. Russia's new route to Persia
14. Nakhitchevan and the May massacres | 15. Alexandropol and Ani
16. Over the frosty Caucasus | 17. Recent events in the Caucasus | Index

 

Acknowledgements:

Source: Villari, Luigi. Fire and Sword in the Caucasus by Luigi Villari author of “Russia under the Great Shadow”, “Giovanni Segantini,” etc. London, T. F. Unwin, 1906
Provided by: Aram Arkun, Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center
Scanned by: Karen Vrtanesyan
OCR: Karen Vrtanesyan

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The Flame of Old Fires by Pavel Shekhtman (in Russian)
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