Remembering Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Zugdidi: stories of dissidents, oppression, and proud Megrelians


About the author:Wietse Zwart is a Dutch student at Leiden University, the Netherlands, of the Russian and Eurasian Studies master programme. Part of this programme is an internship abroad, which he is doing at MCERC. Within this programme, he has opted to specialise in Georgian cultural memory, researching such things as the Georgian memory of Stalin, the Georgian memory of the Democratic Republic of Georgia and the Georgian memory of Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.


For this article, I travelled (twice) to Zugdidi, the capital of Mingrelia. Georgia’s first post-independence president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was Mingrelian, and in this relaxed, regional city in the shade of the Caucasus his memory is still very much alive. Not only is it alive, the Mingrelians are proud of their president, defending him from the many accusations he faced in the early nineties. I spoke to them, curious about how they perceived him. And when I say I spoke to them, this means that I spoke to Tsitsino Shengelia, who in turn translated to and from Georgian. My thanks go out to her, for this article would not have been possible without her.


The Gamsakhurdia Museum


When you imagine a museum, you think of a grand, regal building, a building befitting the treasures it houses. Or at the very least a building with the name of the museum on the front. This was neither. Instead, when I asked the Zugdidi tourist information where I might find the museum to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, we went up several floors within the same building, down a corridor, and into what seemed like an apartment. Yet instead of the regular furniture you’d expect in an apartment, there were only lots of pictures of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his friends and family, several old flags of the Georgian Republic, and various other artefacts. And, in the corner, a compact desk at which the owner of the museum was seated.


The owner was an elderly lady, my guess would be she was in her late 60’s. Her dress and hat matched the colours of the first Georgian flag, and in her hand, she was holding a ruler, which caused me some distress: not out of fear for being hit on the hand, but rather because I have had Soviet style museum tours before, where an elderly lady monotonously rattles on about all the important facts. Luckily, this was not at all the case here: enthusiastically, if a bit chaotically, she told me about Zviad Gamsakhurdia.


Dali Lataria and myself

Dali Lataria, as she is called, first told me about Gamsakhurdia’s flight: after being ousted in late 1991, Gamsakhurdia fled to Armenia, then to Chechnya on the invitation of Chechen leader Dudayev. Gamsakhurdia and Dudayev would become good friends, despite their religious differences: both national leaders witnessed firsthand the wrath of the Soviet, later Russian forces. After some pictures of Gamsakhurdia and Dudayev, she showed some pictures of those who had not been able to escape: first, a woman who had been Gamsakhurdia’s spokesperson – Lali Maisuradze. She had refused to tell where Gamsakhurdia was hiding and was killed. Then, a picture with about a dozen of young men, who had apparently been avid supporters of Gamsakhurdia, and had all died under mysterious circumstances.


The statue to Merab Kostava in Zugdidi, featuring flowers on the day of his death

Finally, the most famous death: the death of Merab Kostava, a dissident, close friend of Gamsakhurdia, and pivotal figure to Georgian independence. Kostava died in a car crash, yet the lady of the museum and those who aiding in translating to English were certain this car crash was not an accident but planned murder. As it turned out, I had arrived exactly on the day of his death: the mysterious accident had happened on October 13, 1989. They (some friends of Dali had joined her) asked me if I would join them as they walked to Kostava’s bust to lay flowers. I agreed, and before I knew it, I was the exotic Dutch guy showing an interest in Gamsakhurdia and Kostava, to be present in each and every picture. I didn’t mind: it presented me with an excellent opportunity to ask some more questions. I moved on to the final months of Gamsakhurdia’s life. In September 1993, Gamsakhurdia returned to Georgia. He stated Shevardnadze was not the rightful president, since he had not been elected. Gamsakhurdia himself had been elected president, and therefore, he and his supporters intended to demand Gamsakhurdia would again be installed as president. Gamsakhurdia based himself in Zugdidi, right between Abkhazia, which was engulfed in war at that time, and the rest of Georgia. Proudly, Dali had shown me a picture of her and her son from 1993, when she was a soldier. Briefly, it had looked like Gamsakhurdia might have had a chance, yet when Shevardnadze yielded and joined the CSTO Russian troops quickly dealt with Gamsakhurdia and his Zviadists. On the 31st of December 1993 Gamsakhurdia died, though even the exact time and date of death are still uncertain. The official cause of death was suicide, though not many believe this, especially not in Zugdidi. Dali and her retinue knew it was impossible, for Gamsakhurdia was a christian, and he was therefore forbidden to commit suicide.


Their stories and explanations made sense to me. Still, doing research into Kostava & Gamsakhurdia, I have not read much more than that these deaths were under mysterious circumstances. So, I asked them, if these deaths are so mysterious, who is behind them? They pointed the finger at Shevardnadze and Russia. They argued Gamsakhurdia and Kostava were too big of a threat to their power: how else could a president be overthrown hardly half a year after he was elected with such an overwhelming majority of the votes? And why else would Shevardnadze make sure his body was initially not buried in Georgia, but in Chechnya? Lastly, I mentioned to them that I found it interesting that Gamsakhurdia appeared more popular in Zugdidi: not only did my taxi driver love him, the central, beautiful boulevard of Zugdidi also carries his name, which is also where his bust is located. Their response was that Gamsakhurdia was not just a Georgian, but also a Megrelian (Megrelia being the region where Zugdidi is also located). According to them, Megrelians are determined, who are willing to fight for what they believe is true. I didn’t dare oppose them.


Meeting those who worked with Gamsakhurdia


A few weeks later, I returned to Zugdidi. I was to meet with Tsitsino, a Zugdidi local who could help me get in touch with people who worked with Gamsakhurdia and translate to English as well. Foolishly, I asked where we should meet - of course it had to be the monument to Gamsakhurdia on the central boulevard named after him. We met, she asked me which people I would like to talk to, and she made some phone calls. She quickly had some meetings arranged for the next day, but in the meantime, we set out for a stroll through Zugdidi. Zugdidi is not particularly big, with around 42.000 inhabitants. As a result, when the locals walk down the central avenue, they are bound to run into people they know: almost immediately, we bumped into a woman who was the wife of someone who had been part of the Round Table party, the party with which Gamsakhurdia won the 1990 elections. She confirmed what I had been told at the museum: Megrelians are determined, and proud one of theirs had united a movement which led to independence. She added that this movement, the Round Table movement, was a movement of different political figures and parties that had united solely for the goal of achieving independence.

The monument to Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Zugdidi

According to her, this is one of the reasons Gamsakhurdia’s rule was so short lived: after this common goal had been achieved, politicians went their separate ways and some moved to oppose Gamsakhurdia. Why this turned so violent, she did not know, yet she did add that it was this opposition that fired the first shots. Tsitsino added to this by paraphrasing Gamsakhurdia, who had said “if they come to us with weapons, we will answer them with flowers.” A romantic answer, but sadly the situation had already escalated after those first shots in the fall of 1991.


Only a few metres further, we ran into some other people: the person who had been Gamsakhurdia’s press secretary and his friend. They suggested we go to a place where we could sit, which turned out to be his hairdressing salon. Almost as if we had been expected, a book by Merab Kostava and a collection of poems by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia lay on the desk. The press secretary turned hairdresser, Zurab, began with a history lesson: he started explaining how ancient Georgia was. I worried this would turn into a history lesson propagating a particularly nationalist narrative, yet it took a turn I had not at all expected: Zurab moved to explain how the combination of ancient history and the roughness of the Caucasian landscape had made sure the Caucasian people were deeply tied to their lands, knew its borders, and thus also knew were the lands of other people began. Based on this, Zviad Gamsakhurdia had reasoned there would be no need for conflict between the Caucasian peoples: he even wished for all Caucasian peoples to found their own republics and join in a union similar to the European Union - well before the EU as it exists today was formed. Frankly, it paints Gamsakhurdia as an idealist, a dreamer, or simply naive - take your pick. Or, more cynically, as a nationalist who wanted to cement national borders without appearing as a xenophobe. For Zurab it was clear: Gamsakhurdia was an idealist visionary.


The next day, Tsitsino and I had a busy day ahead of us, meeting several people throughout the day. Firstly, we met with Robert Absandze. Robert had known Zugdidi during the seventies and eighties, when they were both dissidents in Zugdidi. In this period, after Gamsakhurdia had returned from imprisonment, he had immediately set out to form new dissident groups: in Zugdidi, but in other cities as well. Robert described to us how the KGB infiltrated and undermined their dissident activities. His first example was when the government planned to construct several large factories in Zugdidi; factories that demanded much more labourers than Zugdidi could support. Gamsakhurdia recognised this and expected the demand for labourers would be used as a reason to bring in other ethnicities from outside of the Georgian SSR, predominantly Russians, most likely. Gamsakhurdia and his dissidents were perhaps not able to prevent the construction of these factories, however they were in contact with Georgians living abroad in Turkey, the Phereidanian Georgians. Some of these Georgians had indicated they would be willing to return to Georgia, and Gamsakhurdia figured that if he could direct them to Zugdidi, this would reduce the number of Russians that would have to be brought to Zugdidi. However, the KGB interfered, and only a small number of Phereidanians were allowed to enter the USSR. Another time, the dissidents had planned on making a large chichilaki (the Georgian take on a Christmas tree), and place it prominently at a statue of a Georgian who had contributed to the national cause. The KGB caught wind of this, so the statue was conveniently closed off when they wanted to place the chichilaki. The dissidents were now aware that it was extremely likely that they had been infiltrated, yet even when Gamsakhurdia had given Robert a letter that he was to deliver the same day to Sokhumi, the contents of the letter were already known to the authorities: the letter had contained a speech on nationalism, to be given by a friendly professor at the university in Sokhumi, yet the students were conveniently given a day off on the day of the lecture. Jokingly, Robert mentioned he almost thought he was the infiltrator himself. Nevertheless, the movement, originally composed of artists, philosophers, writers, et cetera, gradually became a more popular movement, attracting more and more people of different strokes of life. This, however, did have one significant drawback: for the KGB, it became increasingly easy to infiltrate the movement and lure Gamsakhurdia into making mistakes. Robert emphasised that now, it became even more important to see the bigger picture: as a dissident, Gamsakhurdia had been surrounded by but a handful of people, and though perhaps some might have been KGB informants, most of these people were intelligent and on the same page as him. Therefore, the advice he was given, the debates he had with them, it was all quite genuine and trustworthy. Yet as Gamsakhurdia and the independence movement gained popularity, the ratio of people giving advice to Gamsakhurdia who he could really trust dropped: in part because there were simply more people around him who he could not all trust completely, yet in part also because some of the people around him met an untimely death - the culmination of this was, of course, the death of Merab Kostava. These issues persisted into Gamsakhurdia’s presidency, where Robert noted he was a better idealist than he was a politician: Robert criticises Gamsakhurdia for not having a good eye for who he worked with, essentially saying he was naive. To illustrate this, he noted that Gamsakhurdia, according to him, underestimated how difficult it would be for his officials to cast aside their Soviet thinking - not everyone had been a dissident since their adolescence. For example, one of Gamsakhurdia’s decisions as president was to grant control of factories to workers, thinking that these workers would be capable of running these factories themselves. What happened in reality, however, was that the workers were not used to not getting told what to do, so they simply resorted to scrapping the factories for parts and selling them. Another major mistake, according to Robert, was Gamsakhurdia’s decision to refuse Western aid, adhering instead to his proud views of a truly independent Georgia. Bringing the conversation to a close, Robert mentioned he found it difficult to discuss his criticisms of Gamsakhurdia with others who had worked with Gamsakhurdia: most people rather cherished a purely positive memory of him.


Robert Absandze and myself

Perhaps it was because of the polarisation and violence of the time: as we left Robert’s house, he pointed at the large emergency services building, explaining that back in the 90’s the previous building on that site had been confiscated by the Mkhedrioni. The Mkhedrioni, consisting of boys who barely reached adulthood, rather than trained soldiers, were jumpy, “almost shooting at their own shadows”. Robert laughed about it, making all kinds of gestures portraying how he waved his arms as he walked to his workshops, making it clear to the Mkhedrioni they were not to shoot him. Still, it became apparent it was not to be taken for granted he was still alive today. Tsitsino recalled how the kids would play with the empty hulls of bullets, competing to see who could collect the most. We laughed at the absurdity of this time: Tsitsino and Robert had decided humour would be the best way to handle this difficult part of their lives. Yet for other supporters of Gamsakhurdia, there seems to be a certain hope that if Gamsakhurdia had not been betrayed, these difficult times would not have happened in the first place. Thus, cherishing the memory of Gamsakhurdia is cherishing a memory that never became a memory - an image of what could have been.


Our meeting with Maia Kalandia, who had been swayed by a speech by Merab Kostava and went into Zugdidi local politics, and Gia Mamporia, who had worked with Gamsakhurdia and been one of the signers of the declaration of independence, added to what Robert had told us. In the late eighties, Maia was a student, studying in Tbilisi. She told us she was quite content with the Soviet system, until she attended a lecture by Merab Kostava. She had been nervous to attend this lecture out of fear for the Soviet authorities, yet she did ultimately attend - together with thousands of others, despite the assigned lecture hall at Javakhishvili University not being able to fit that many people in it. She described the lecture about Georgian nationality as if it awakened something in her that had always been there, yet had been suppressed. Even when the police came to stop the lecture, they simply stood and listened. According to her, this was the method the independence movement inspired students. Another boost to the independence movement was the decision by the government to make Russian the official language of the Georgian SSR, antagonising Georgians. Realising they had shot themselves in the foot, the government moved to set up co-opted national parties, like the Rustaveli society. Back in Zugdidi, Maia attended a gathering by the local Rustaveli society, which included the society’s leadership election. The government had planned to make this gathering a method to co-opt Zugdidi national sentiment, yet Maia asked questions based on what she had learned from Kostava. The audience sided more and more with her and as the apparatchiks began to realise they were going to lose the election, they began calling her a madwoman - Maia seems to have taken this as a compliment, as her smile grows bigger and bigger, filled with pride. Unfortunately, she had a tight schedule, so she had to hurry. As she grabbed her coat and rushed out, she made some remarks about Gamsakhurdia having been betrayed by the Tbilisi based elite, “just like they later did with Misha”. She points at the image of Mikheil Saakashvili at the wall. As Maia left, I asked Gia what she had meant with “betrayal by the Tbilisi elite”. His explanation began with reiterating some of the things others had told me as well: Gamsakhurdia had been a relatively independent politician, focussing on bringing different independence movements together. He did so in the Round Table movement, with which he won the elections for the Georgian SSR. Gia, like Robert, suggested that by this time, these movements had been infiltrated,influenced and corrupted by the KGB. Gia suggested that the death of Merab Kostava had not only removed a person close to Gamsakhurdia that was able to identify this infiltration, but the grief might also have had a more profound impact on Gamsakhurdia as a person. Moreover, Gia - and not only Gia, other Mingrelians had mentioned this as well - claimed the Tbilisi-based intelligentsia became increasingly hostile towards Gamsakhurdia, since Gamsakhurdia was not only a Mingrelian himself, he also brought in bureaucrats from all over Georgia to serve in his administration. As a result, the intelligentsia in Tbilisi that had enjoyed close relations with the Soviet government - and had enjoyed the benefits of these relations - were afraid to see their power diminish.


Megrelian memories; Megrelian truths?


Having spoken to all these Mingrelians, I was left to make sense of it all: though I never had the slightest impression any of these people was telling me anything they did not wholeheartedly believe to be true, it was still just their side of the story - a story which, amidst all the chaos and violence of the early nineties, has many, often deeply personal sides. Moreover, most academic approaches to Gamsakhurdia/Georgia’s independence tend to avoid these personal sides in favour of the most factual approach - essentially adding yet another, academic side to the story. The most telling example - and the most studied example - would be Gamsakhurdia’s stance towards Abkhazia and South-Ossetia. The people I spoke to were adamant Gamsakhurdia paid great respect to all minority groups in Georgia. In his address to the deputies of the Supreme Council of the Abkhazian SSR, Gamsakhurdia did recognise Abkhazian wishes for autonomy, calling on ancient, historical ties (Gamsakhurdia, 1991). Yet the treatment of Samachablo was treated without any prospect of autonomy; local autonomies were even decreased, for which Gamsakhurdia cited historical reasons (Gamsakhurdia, 1991). This fascination with national history is what damaged Gamsakhurdia’s image in the West, where his nationalist speeches were largely seen as ethnic nationalist rhetoric, despite insistence by Gamsakhurdia that minority groups would not be discriminated against or harmed (Vachridze, 2012). Looking back at the time period, it is difficult to determine what could have been: Gamsakhurdia’s presidency did not last long enough to see how he ultimately would handle the various minorities in Georgia. Moreover, separatist sentiment in Samachablo and Abkhazia forced a reaction from the government, and to blame (or excuse) Gamsakhurdia from all the unrest, chaos and violence of the time period would be unjust and unfounded. Fact of the matter is that before Georgian independence, both Abkhazia and Samachablo had mixed populations of both Georgians and Abkhazians/Ossetians respectively (Matsaberidze, 2013) (Sammut & Cvetkovski, 1996). The hostilities surrounding Georgia’s nascent independence resulted in refugees and casualties on Georgian, Ossetian, and Abkhazian sides, and to find one conclusive truth that all parties can agree on seems impossible. Still, there is one particular narrative that deserves highlighting: the Russian narrative. Whereas the Mingrelians I spoke to might not be presenting Gamsakhurdia in the same manner as an academic would, both at least tell his story as truthfully as they can. The Russian narrative, however, seems intent purely on keeping alive hostility between Georgians and the people in the breakaway republics, depicting Gamsakhurdia as nothing short of a fascist intent on committing genocide against Abkhazians and Ossetians (Goginashvili, 2016).


Unearthing the truth


The Megrelian memory of Gamsakhurdia appears to be quite positive. Naturally, the people I have spoken to are not necessarily representative of the entire region of Megrelia, however the people I did speak were overwhelmingly positive of him, in addition to his museum, central bust, and the fact the central boulevard now is named after him.There were several reasons they gave for his popularity. The most important reason seems to be how he presented the national story: the people I spoke to seem to have been captivated by this, like Zurab explaining the history of Caucasian people, or Maia explaining how Merab’s words “explained something she had always known, but had suppressed.” Another reason would be the dissatisfaction with Soviet rule, as Robert’s stories highlighted. Outside of Tbilisi, Gamsakhurdia was popular for his efforts of granting representation to Georgians outside of Tbilisi, as Gia had explained. Their final reasons for Gamsakhurdia’s popularity in Megrelia was simple: he was a Megrelian, and he showed that if a Megrelian wants something, he is determined to get it. Gamsakhurdia got what he wanted - independence for Georgia -, but he was not to enjoy it for long. The Megrelians showed me a unique and interesting perspective on Gamsakhurdia. Is it the full truth about Gamsakhurdia? I doubt it - in such times of conflict, chaos, and violence, truth often vanishes. For these Megrelians, Gamsakhurdia gave them not only an ideology they believed in, but he also promised them some things much more tangible: an end to Soviet oppression, and representation & influence in national politics. Yet when hearing of his nationalist rhetoric, it is also understandable for ethnic minorities to be distraught - nationalist discourses about which peoples are entitled to which territories tend to be much less clear-cut when reality sets in and it comes down to drawing the borders of a newly independent country, leaving the people inhabiting these regions in uncertainty. Not to mention the extent to which the Russians did or did not influence this process. Finding the truth can be like archeology: before one can excavate the truth and put it back together, they must first carefully dig through layers of lies. I might have only found a piece of the whole truth about Gamsakhurdia, yet I like to think I have at least removed some lies.


Bibliography


Gamsakhurdia, Z. (1991, July). Address to the deputies of the Supreme Council of the Abkhazian Ssr. Address, Sokhumi. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from http://www.nplg.gov.ge/greenstone3/library/collection/preziden/document/HASH01d990fd0b202efe63afc847.


Gamsakhurdia, Z. (1991, July). Appeal to the population of Samachablo. Address. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from http://www.nplg.gov.ge/greenstone3/library/collection/preziden/document/HASH7aaa62c091f6ed37b614c8.


Goginashvili, G. (2016, August 8). August tragedy – criminals will not escape vengeance. EADaily. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://eadaily.com/en/news/2016/08/08/august-tragedy-criminals-will-not-escape-vengeance Note: This source serves as an example of Russian disinformation and should not be taken as an actual source.


Matsaberidze, D. (2013, July 20). The Emergence of the Post-Soviet Conflicts in Georgia.

Sammut, D., & Cvetkovski, N. (1996, March). Confidence-Building Matters. London; Verification Technology Information Centre.


Vachridze, Z. (2012, January 1). Two faces of nationalism and efforts to establish Georgian identity. Identity Studies in the Caucasus and the Black Sea Region. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://ojs.iliauni.edu.ge/index.php/identitystudies/article/view/47