A s a Ph.D. candidate, I have often visited the public library and searched for and read materials in various archives. During my research, I came across an interesting letter that really made me think.
In a letter dated 10 July 1921, an editor and Georgian public figure, Giorgi Laskhishvili, was trying to assuage the concerns of and encourage famous Georgian sculptor Iakob Nikoladze:"I remember how deep the impression was that I got from your various gifted creations in your Parisian atelier. You were full of hope back then, but now, in Tbilisi, you seem sad and almost caught by despair. I understand that sadness, but do not yield to despair and do not suppress your heavenly talent that is so necessary for the revival of our unfortunate country."
Upon reading this note, I fully imagined the degree of despair that Iakob Nikoladze must have been in after the Soviet occupation of Georgia. The instant empathy I felt was a natural result of having experienced the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. Leaving aside the direst consequences of the war – the people killed or internally displaced – the sense of helplessness you feel when your country no longer belongs to you was absolutely familiar to me; the realization that your future and any public activities or plans you have initiated will fade away into obscurity.
However, for me what was incomprehensible and really made me think was an absolutely different matter – how come a person like Iakob Nikoladze, who obtained his education in Paris, worked with Auguste Rodin, and had cooperated with the Society for the Spreading of Literacy among Georgians for years, came to be awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration of the Soviet Union? How could a person whose like-minded fellows gradually fell victim to ruthless Soviet repressions, cooperate with the Soviet authorities? I regarded these two circumstances as a logical conflict. It seemed impossible that a person who had once fallen into despair due to the Soviet occupation of his country could thereafter carve a flawless portrait of Lenin.
Once these questions come to mind, one starts to ponder how our society views collaboration with a criminal, totalitarian regime. Is there a moral responsibility to remember the past? Have efforts been undertaken to explain or discuss this phenomenon? And finally, what does collaborationism actually mean?
At a time when the Ukrainian crisis is in full swing, 20 percent of Georgia's territories remain occupied and the idea of Eurasian Union is gaining a momentum, it is interesting to consider what stage of development we are currently in. Have we reached a point where the idea of Georgian statehood is so linked to every aspect of our lives that carving a portrait of Putin has become incompatible with the idea of our national cause?
The issue of adaptation to, or collaboration with, a specific political regime is very complex, tragic and sensitive. In the West it is well known that those artists who collaborated with the Vichy government, Franco's regime or Nazi Germany all carry a clear negative stigma. Discussions regarding such difficult and tragic issues are still actively going on in the West. Furthermore, rather than make such discussions taboo, the West is increasingly using modern technology to ensure publicity and transparency.For example, for several years France has been preparing for the publication (on the Internet) of materials about French collaborationists. In Lithuania, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center has been publishing archived information about KGB agents since 2010.
Critical articles about the cooperation of Richard Strauss, Salvador Dali, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel García Márquez and other famous artists with criminal regimes are frequently published. During such reflections, the tendency often outlined is that although we should remember such people for their talents, at the same time, we should not forget the moral compromises, naïve mistakes and unworthy deeds that they might have made whilst working with criminal regimes.
What is the approach towards Georgian artists in this regard? Unfortunately, in Georgian society such persons are considered in terms of two extremes – good and bad. Any form of complex consideration of the lives of authority figures is actually taboo. Questions are simply not raised about them.
In the context of Iakob Nikoladze's biography
There were people in Georgia who fought against the Bolshevik government, who risked their lives, emigrated or even committed suicide. Iakob Nikoladze is one person among many who made his own choice. This article does not seek to judge that choice. The point of interest is his biography, a work that gives rise to many questions that are topical today and makes us ponder how we imagine being in service of the country and at what cost.
Iakob Nikoladze took an important decision when he refused to accompany Rodin to the United States and work there as his assistant. Imagine the situation of the young artist who was able to withstand the competitive environment of Paris and become a stable assistant to Rodin (which can itself be considered an important criterion of success as it was difficult to get acknowledgment from Rodin), and who subsequently had the chance to become very successful in America. How many young people would turn down such an offer today?
When asked about why he refused to go to the USA, Nikoladze always responded: "I have never been attracted by dollars, whilst the fame of my country is my fame too. I believed that I would be more useful to my country than to another." Indeed, that was during a time when Georgia was happy about the return of the Georgian sculptor and commissioned him to undertake as much work as possible (the Society for the Spreading of Literacy among Georgians commissioned Nikoladze to carve a monument on the grave of Ilia Chavchavadze in 1908 and, several years later, one for the grave of Georgian writer Egnate Ninoshvili).Something missing from the books published about Iakob Nikoladze is mention of his efforts to emigrate. In 1921, Nikoladze arrived in Istanbul via Batumi, where he met Noe Zhordania, the chairman of the government of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, who had gone into exile as a result of the invasion of the Bolshevik Red Army. His aim was to make preparations for accommodation for his family in Paris. As Iakob Nikoladze's grandson, Guram Nikoladze, recounted, Noe Zhordania showed Iakob Nikoladze a newspaper in which an address that Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Orjonikidze had made calling on everyone to return to Georgia and get involved in political activity was published. "Who was chasing after you when you fled? Go back. This does not concern you," Zhordania told Nikoladze. Zhordania thus successfully persuaded the Georgian sculptor to return to occupied Tbilisi.
The Memoirs of a Sculptor, published under the Soviet period in 1964, provides Iakob Nikoladze's recollections of that period. Since 1910, having moved to Tbilisi, he taught painting in various educational institutions. He created only a few works during that time because he did not get many orders and sculptors were not in demand. Therefore, Nikoladze was frequently encouraged (in, for example, a well-known letter by Georgian historian Ivane Javakhishvili) to carve portraits of actors and writers for free.
The same book provides material showing how Nikoladze criticized the Menshevik ministries of Noe Zhordania's government, which he had unsuccessfully lobbied to support opening sculpture classes. Concerning the Soviet government, however, he wrote: "In 1921, the arena of my activity significantly broadened. Since the very first days of the installment of the Soviet government in Georgia I was bestowed with attention from the political party and government." Perhaps the Menshevik government did deserve criticism, but what happened when he became witness to the repressions of the Bolshevik government? After 1937, Iakob Nikoladze contained his activity within a relatively safe sphere: limited himself to carving portraits and particularly focusing on public figures from the 12th century.
That the Soviet government engaged in political repressions is well known to everyone in Georgia. The ruthless actions undertaken against political opponents after the 1924 revolt in Georgia had been thwarted, even led Sergo Orjonikidze, when addressing the political bureau of the Communist Party, to declare that they "went a little too far." In the 1930s even the staunchest supporters of Bolshevism and decent communist civil servants came to comprehend the criminal activity of the Soviet government. Mikheil Mgaloblishvili's memoirs, Recollections of a Repressed Person is proof of the realization of this fact.
Forms of collaboration
There have always been different forms of collaboration.
Some artists had to pay minimal costs in order to stay safe. For example, Richard Strauss tried to use his influence to defend his Jewish relatives. When Strauss was asked why he agreed to his appointment as the head of the Third Reich's Institute of Music, he said: "I hoped I would be able to do a beneficial thing and avoid misfortune."
Those who saw doing their job and, consequently, developing the culture of a specific country as the ultimate goal, also had to pay a price to work (I think Iakob Nikoladze belongs to this category of people). Such passive forms of collaboration (writing poems, making public speeches, et cetera) implied self-survival and not harming anyone else.
When analyzing the Georgian reality one more circumstance must be taken into account. The idea of the Georgian nation state in the period preceding the occupation of Georgia was being developed in parallel with the process of self-identification. There was the concept of "homeland" and not of an independent state. That is why it is necessary to take into account different time periods and different perspectives.
It is impossible to say that Iakob Nikoladze did not do his job for his "homeland." He laid the foundations of Georgian sculpture, developed this branch of art, raised generations of sculptors and created perfect works of Georgian sculpture. He was developing Georgian culture within the boundaries of the Soviet Union: "Georgian literature and its great masters determined my creative activity. It was in them that I sought and found an untapped source of inspiration to convey my thoughts into artistic forms, to express the greatness of my people and I thus served my people and culture."
On the other hand, there were those who actively collaborated with the regime, denouncing others and participating in the campaigns of persecution. As Georgian historian Akaki Bakradze has written: "They sacrificed neighbors, friends, and teachers to save their lives, but all these efforts were futile. The communist death sickle ruthlessly reached everyone." Although one's own survival might be grounds for such forms of collaboration, these acts are still considered a form of active collaboration.At a meeting held in the House of Writers on 17 August 1937, every attendee, save for Geronti Kikodze, unanimously voted for the physical annihilation of famous Georgian writer Mikheil Javakhishvili. According to the stenographic minutes of the meeting, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Kale Bobokhidze and Zakro Zakashvili were especially active in the move against Javakhishvili.
To make it clearer what those people were agreeing to, let me provide an excerpt from the recollections of a student who was placed in the same prison cell as Mikheil Javakhishvili: "A low, skin-and-bones old man with deeply seated troubled eyes, extremely pale and with a shaggy beard was sitting in a corner. At first, I got frightened at seeing a skeleton placed in the corner. Yes, he looked like a real anatomical skeleton; he was murmuring to himself. I was told this very skeleton-human was Mikheil Javakhishvili. I nearly started weeping...."
One can also recall the trial of famous Georgian theatre director Sandro Akhmeteli, at which a famous actor, Akaki Vasadze, was a chief witness for the prosecution. Even though later, during the consideration of a case to rehabilitate Akhmeteli, Vasadze himself denied his testimonies, the case shows that Vasadze visited the investigator three times to expose people involved in "counterrevolutionary activity." Among those persons named, along with Sandro Akhmeteli, were poet Paolo Iashvili (who went on to commit suicide), writer Mikheil Javakhishvili and poet Titsian Tabidze (who were both executed).
Ideological support is manifested by a different type of collaboration. Such people shared the spirit of the regime and even played the role of agents or informers. For example, Coco Chanel was a Nazi agent with the number F-7124 and the codename Westminster. Nero, Morning, Breeze – are some of the codenames given to Georgian agents (whose identities I do not know), which can be found in the documents concerning the trials of the writers.
Clearly, such types of collaborationism directly harmed innocent citizens, helping brand them "enemies of the people." Aside from those who were forced into giving evidence under torture, there were people who actively collaborated with investigators with the aim of obtaining new apartments or promotions at work."Lovers of honey cake are in abundance in any society, but one has to deserve it, no one will give that for free," wrote Akaki Bakradze. Hard work undertaken with the aim of deserving "honey cake" – or the good life – conditioned reality. According to Bakradze, the "morality" of society became treason, spying, informing, and betrayal. In such a manner a society of confused minds was formed, where betrayal was deemed to be an obligation of good citizenship.
One cannot help but recall the notion of "doublethink", as explained in George Orwell's novel 1984. Doublethink, as a vast system of fraud, means simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Any good communist must be a master of doublethink. In accordance with the needs of the party, he/she must be flexible, consciously capable of lying and sincerely believing in the objective reality of that lie. On the façade of the building of the Ministry of Truth in the novel three slogans were displayed – War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.
We still have not fully freed ourselves from the society of confused minds and the legacy of doublethinking. This prevents us from correctly realizing our history. When thinking about the past, do we consider Georgian collaborationism as only a form of conformist behavior? Where does the line between conformism and collaborationism run? Does this line alleviate the feelings of guilt?