Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora in the Multiethnic Soviet Empire

March 14, 2011 // 12:00pm1:00pm

"The Georgians were perhaps the most visible ethnic minority in the Soviet Union," argued Erik R. Scott, Mellon/ACLS Fellow and Ph.D. candidate, University of California, Berkeley. At a 14 March 2011 Kennan Institute event, Scott expounded on his doctoral research on the presence and influence of Georgians throughout the history of the Soviet empire.

The Soviet empire was "an empire, but an empire of diasporas," according to Scott. Although the USSR's external borders were closed, the state's internal borders were notably relaxed, allowing groups to migrate throughout the empire. Scott explained that Soviet passports not only indicated one's citizenship, but also one's ethnicity, allowing Soviet citizens to identify with a "homeland and a host society within one state."

"At the forefront of every aspect of Soviet history," Scott explained, "you find Georgians." Georgian Bolsheviks manipulated the diversity of the empire's populace to their political advantage, and Stalin was a prime example of this trend. Stalin appointed Georgians to high-ranking positions within the Soviet government. Additionally, Scott noted that Stalin employed strategies found traditionally in Georgian culture to advance the Soviet agenda—specifically, the use of informal networks. Indeed, informal networks, predominantly run by non-Russians, were present from the outset of the Soviet empire. According to Scott, "Stalin understood that these networks were necessary to accomplish state goals," although he ultimately sought to construct a subordinate, bureaucratic state apparatus.

Georgians were also dominant in the informal Soviet economy. Thanks to informal networks among Georgians, while the "official" Soviet economy stagnated, an "unofficial" economy flourished. Because Georgian products—including tea, flowers, chocolate, and tobacco—were consistently in high demand, Georgians had an advantage. However, "economic activity was just as much about performance as it was about profit," Scott noted. By providing needed goods, Georgian illicit entrepreneurs existed in an "uneasy but symbiotic relationship" with the Soviet state.

In conclusion, Scott discussed the status of Georgians since the collapse of the USSR. Although Georgians and Georgian culture were influential in the success of the Soviet Union during its existence, Scott found it ironic that Georgians have disassociated from the Soviet Union's legacy since its collapse, with some Georgians even claiming that the Soviet Union occupied Georgia. The contemporary Georgian experience, Scott concluded, is in part the "story of an imperial diaspora faced with the challenges of a collapsed empire."

By Amy Shannon Liedy
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

Event Speakers List: 
  • Erik R. Scott // Kennan Institute Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar
    Independent scholar
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