Georgian Mensheviks explain Georgia's declaration of independence, 26 May 1918
Letter from N Zhordaniya and I Tsereteli to the RSDRP Central Committee
Tiflis, 2 June 1918
On our initiative on 9 April 1918 the independence of Transcaucasia was proclaimed. And following that, on 26 May, we took the initiative in declaring the independence of Georgia.
If there had been continuous contact between you and Transcaucasia, these steps would have been no surprise to you. But contact between us over the past half year has almost ceased. And we are worried that the steps we have taken will lead to confusion among you.
Our close ideological links with you are infinitely dear to us.
Mutual understanding is an essential condition for keeping those links. And therefore we feel bound in all openness to set out the reasons for the steps we have taken.
As you know, seven months ago, from October 1917, the Russian army started to desert the front which had previously defended the borders of Transcaucasia from the Turks. This desertion went on for four months, regiment after regiment, division after division abandoned their positions. By February 1918, the borders of Transcaucasia were finally left bare. Under Bolshevik influence, the soldiers leaving the front partly gave over their weapons and military supplies to the enemy, partly destroyed military property, and partly took it back with them to Russia or sold it off on the way to the population, in particular, the Tatars.
On the front there were only Caucasian volunteers remaining - Georgians and Armenians. For them, the defence of the borders was literally the defence of hearth and home. But the local Bolsheviks launched a desperate assault against these voluntary brigades we had created in haste, accusing them of being counterrevolutionaries who had sold themselves to the imperialists and were prolonging the war. The Bolsheviks did everything they could in order to disorganise our brigades and deprive them of the chance of continuing the fight against the Turks. We could give you innumerable examples of how the Bolshevik regiments took artillery, machine-guns and cars away from our brigades and sold them to the Turks. We could tell you how those regiments used armed force to prevent us evacuating stocks of shells and bullets, and then either blew up these stocks, or gave them over to Turkish brigades for "safe-keeping".
In this situation we undertook to defend the front which had been deserted by the Russian army.
During this time, between October and February, an avalanche of fleeing soldiers, deserting the front, swept through Transcaucasia. This mass of people was a massive danger for Transcaucasia, threatening our towns and villages with ruin. The Bolsheviks, who had no support at all among the workers and peasants of Transcaucasia, were trying to seize power in our territory with the aid of soldiers' bayonets. They made it their aim to keep this mass of demoralised soldiers, which they had taken from the front, within Transcaucasia for as long as possible. They delayed the evacuation of the army in any way they could, inciting the mass of ignorant soldiers against the peoples of Transcaucasia. They tried to use this mass to rout and seize Tiflis.
In this situation, threatened with an enemy who was ready to plunge deep into the country, threatened with the rout of our still unsecured state by mobs of Bolshevik soldiers, and with almost no technical means, Transcaucasia had to organise the defence of its borders.
The whole weight of this task lay on our shoulders, on our party. And in order to understand the full weight of this task, comrades, you should be quite clear in your minds as to what the defence of Transcaucasia's borders entails.
For Transcaucasia defence is not just a question of preserving the gains of the revolution, freedom and state independence. It is above all a question of preserving the physical existence of the people of the area, because an incursion into Transcaucasia by the Turks, and particularly by Muslim nomads armed by the Turks, would lead not only to the enslavement of Transcaucasia, but the physical annihilation of entire peoples, first and foremost, the Armenians.
The task of defending Transcaucasia had to be solved by two small nations on their own - the Georgians and the Armenians. The Muslims, who make up the majority of the population of Transcaucasia, did not want to take part in the struggle against their co-religionists, the Turks, while Transcaucasia could not count on assistance from Russia, which had fallen under the power of the Bolsheviks.
But though we were left to ourselves, we still did not lose hope that Russian democracy would regain its strength. We were prepared to endure any sacrifices in order to hasten the restoration of Russia's unity. Given these considerations, Transcaucasian social-democracy exerted all its might to preserve the formal state link between Transcaucasia and Russia. And when the Transcaucasian Commissariat received an invitation to take part in the peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, we considered it our duty to consider the impending negotiations from the standpoint of the interests of Russian unity. Recognising that our independent participation in these talks would be to diminish the rights of the all-national Constituent Assembly, we decided not to send a representative of Transcaucasia to Brest-Litovsk. We too this decision because in our view the direct benefits of participation in these talks would not compensate for the damage done by acting against the sovereign rights of the Constituent Assembly, which embodied the unity of Russia. But, as the disintegration of Russian statehood under the influence of Bolshevism progressed ever further, Transcaucasian democracy was being obliged more and more often to take those measures for self-preservation which the isolation of the Transcaucasian state demanded.
We could have organised our own army without formally breaking the link with Russia. But it turned out to be impossible to carry on separate diplomatic relations with the outside world without formalising the independence of Transcaucasia. Moreover, at a certain point it became vitally necessary for us to undertake such negotiations. Defending the rights of the Constituent Assembly, which had been crushed by the Bolsheviks, we did not send our own representatives to Brest-Litovsk. But as you know, comrades, the Brest-Litovsk negotiations ended with the Bolsheviks' outrageous betrayal towards all Russia and in particular towards Transcaucasia: at Brest-Litovsk it was agreed that Kars and Batumi provinces be torn away from Transcaucasia.
It is hard for you comrades to appreciate what a blow was struck against the defence of Transcaucasia at Brest. The Bolshevik treaty deprived Transcaucasia of its best fortifications which barred the enemy's path to Tiflis, and its best port Batumi, the cradle of the culture of all Western Transcaucasia. In addition, confusion was sown among the peoples of our region; the impression was given that Turkey had a right to its claims. Transcaucasia, already ruined by the Bolsheviks, was finally given over to Turkey at Brest-Litovsk.
At that point we made a desperate attempt to fight. On 31 March we broke off talks with Turkey and, faced with an unequal struggle to the death, we made an appeal for your help, comrades. We believed that this appeal would be heard by you. We asked Russia for help with weapons, bread and people.
But our appeal did not reach you. Our telegrams and radio appeals were intercepted by the Bolsheviks. It was precisely at that time that the Bolsheviks in Petrograd and Moscow launched their campaign against "Menshevik atrocities" in Transcaucasia. It was at that time that volunteers on their way to help us at the front began to be shot in the North Caucasus. At the same time the Bolsheviks in Transcaucasia began a desperate agitation against defence. Working, perhaps unconsciously, hand in glove with Turkish emissaries, the Bolsheviks tried to organise riots in the rear of our detachments fighting the Turks. These efforts were joined by all the Black-Hundred elements in our region and by deserters from the army. In places, these efforts were successful. Our small detachments, exhausted by fighting, were threatened with being cut off and surrounded.
Straining all our efforts in the struggle with turkey, we were obliged at the same time to deploy our party Red Guard against treacherous risings in our rear. The best section of our armed forces, the Tiflis Red Guard, was particularly concerned with the struggle with the traitors in our rear. We were obliged to fight Turkey, not only without the technical means of defence, but also bound hand and foot by internal chaos. Our struggle with Turkey was greatly hampered by the Bolsheviks' policies in Baku.
Here, in order to seize power, the Bolsheviks used national tensions, which from time immemorial have been a curse and misfortune of Transcaucasia. In Baku, the Bolsheviks turned the civil war they have been igniting all over Russia into carnage between nationalities. It was the Tatars (mainly workers) who suffered more than anyone from this carnage. Thousands of them were butchered and shot by the Bolsheviks.
The Transcaucasian democratic forces were not strong enough to liquidate the Bolsheviks' actions in Baku in time. And this created the fateful illusion among the broad Muslim masses that they could expect help and protection only from the Turks. This illusion was particularly dangerous for the defence of Transcaucasia, because even before this, its Muslim population had been leaning towards Turkey.
In such circumstances our struggle against Turkey was too uneven. As a result of the defeats we suffered, we were obliged again to resort to diplomatic negotiations. And, in order that our hands should not be tied in those negotiations, in order to be able to deal not only with Turkey, but also with other powers, we were obliged to declare the independence of Transcaucasia on 9 April. This step was essential also to preserve the unity of Transcaucasia: we hoped that by that step we would be able to keep the Muslims, who were leaning towards Turkey, within the boundaries of Transcaucasia.
We did not take this step in order to break our links with you, comrades. We were simply formalising a position which had come about against our wishes and in spite of our efforts. But we did not succeed thereby in saving Transcaucasia from enslavement. The Turkish imperialists decided to make full use of the situation which had come about thanks to the Bolsheviks' destruction of Russia and the evident military weakness of Transcaucasia. Additionally, among the Muslims of Eastern Transcaucasia, what had been sown by the bloody butchery in Baku was bearing fruit. The orientation towards Turkey was getting stronger every day, and led eventually to an open appeal to the Turks to occupy Eastern Transcaucasia. This movement was headed by those elements of the Muslim population who had been deprived of their dominant position, land and power in the course of the revolution. To further their counterrevolutionary aims, these elements exploited the mood of the Muslim masses, which had been brought about by the violence against their fellow-believers in Baku and other places in Russia.
As a result of this unfavourable set of circumstances, a united Transcaucasia ceased to exist. The southern half of Transcaucasia, inhabited mainly by Armenians, was occupied by Turkish troops. Eastern Transcaucasia was ready to recognise the authority of the Sultan voluntarily. The banner of revolution, the banner of freedom is fluttering at present only over a part of Western Transcaucasia. The surviving oasis of revolution is Kutaisi and Tiflis gubernias - i.e. the historical territory of Georgia. Georgia is all that currently remains of free Transcaucasia, all that has not yet been enslaved by Turkey.
The broad masses of the population of Georgia are following our party and are looking only to it for salvation. Our party therefore bears the duty to take all measures to defend the freedom and physical existence of the peoples who populate Georgia. And this presented our party with the task of creating new state forms for the parts of Transcaucasia which had survived the enemy onslaught. This was the task our party was trying to fulfil on 26 May, when it recognised that Transcaucasia had collapsed, declared the independence of Georgia and organised a new Georgian government.
We shall continue with our former revolutionary work within our narrower state boundaries, and shall remain true to our international socialist ideal. In particular, in the present situation we consider the defence of the interests of the Armenian population to be a vital task for us. They have been suffering the heaviest blows from the conquerors.
Another no less pressing demand on us is the defence of the interests of the Muslim population against the danger of enslavement. By doing this, we are preparing the ground for a new unification of all the peoples of Transcaucasia.
We know that by carrying out this work, we are continuing along the path we had previously been travelling together with you. This is the basis for our firm conviction that the old ideological connections which united us will not be weakened by the blows that history has been raining on us both, Russia and Transcaucasia. But we want you, comrades, to understand fully the whole tragic difficulty of our position.
All of democratic Georgia is behind our party. There is no other party in the country which can contend with us for hegemony and influence. For this reason, to walk away from government, to hand over the running of the state to someone else, is something we cannot do. We have to share everything with the people right to the end, including any humiliations it may suffer.
The task of preserving the freedom and physical existence of the peoples of Georgia may demand further great sacrifices from us. But whatever paths the forces of history compel us to take, our ultimate goal remains unchanging. And with the firm conviction that this goal of ours - socialism - can only be attained by the united forces of the proletariat of the whole world, we place all our hopes on the struggle of world democracy.
We greet your successes in the struggle to secure Russia's freedom with real joy. Every failure on your part is also a defeat for us. We would like you to consider our struggle to secure the freedom of Georgia and Transcaucasia to be a part of your struggle. And we think that once you understand our situation, that is indeed how you will regard our work.
On behalf of the Regional Committee of the SDRP and the SD faction of the Georgian National Council
N N Zhordaniya
2 June 1918, Tiflis
Source: GARF f. 5856, op. 1, d. 669, ll. 184-194. Typescript copy.
Nash Golos, No. 9, 5/18 June, 1918
Translated from D. Pavlov, compiler, Men'sheviki v 1918 godu,
ROSSPEN: Moscow, 1999, pp. 512-516.