‘Our city froze’: rereading Kolau Nadiradze’s 1921 poem on Georgia’s lost golden age of independence

‘Our city froze’: rereading Kolau Nadiradze’s 1921 poem on Georgia’s lost golden age of independence
The first session of the Constituent Assembly of Georgia, 1919. Image: Georgia's National Archives via Wikimedia

In 1918, Georgia became the world’s first socialist democracy. But the Soviet occupation, which began on 25 February 1921, abruptly ended that brief, hopeful political moment. Suppressed for decades, a poem by Kolau Nadiradze captures the feeling of fear and betrayal at the time of the Soviet invasion.

25 February 2021

I first came across Georgian symbolist Kolau Nadiradze’s poem 25 February 1921 in a short story by post-Soviet author Aka Morchiladze. In “Once Upon A Time In Georgia”, Morchiladze writes that one summer during the 1980s, “they fired everyone at the Merani publishing house because it printed the original document of an anti-Soviet poem written by Kolau Nadiradze… The poem was called 25 February 1921.” Written in response to the Bolshevik invasion of Georgia in 1921 and suppressed for decades, the poem begins ominously: “It was snowing, Tbilisi was wrapped in mourning garb, / Zion Cathedral was silent, so were the people. / Our city froze, half awake, half asleep; once more / The anvil was forging horrors.”

Describing the scene as Russia’s Red Army moved in on Tbilisi, its lyrics speak of betrayal (“They’ve sold you, and yoked you to a cross of torments”), brutality (“transfixed chests, slashed arms”), sacrifice (“three hundred heroes’ bones were smashed, / Wetted by the tears of Mother Georgia”), foreboding (“On horseback, head held high, waving a red flag, / Death and its scythe slowly ambled into town…”). And its final line, “Zion Cathedral was silent, so were the people,” tells of the silence that would smother the country — and Kolau Nadiradze — until Georgia freed itself from Soviet rule in 1991.

The poem 25 February 1921, handwritten by Kolau Nadiradze. Image: Georgian Literature Museum

Nadiradze was born in Kutaisi, Georgia, in 1895 and became a key member of the Blue Horns, a symbolist group of poets with roots in Georgia’s folkloric traditions whose outward inspiration was the drunken poetics of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. Blue represented “the azure sky, independent Romantic dreaming, the establishment of a powerful kingdom,” and horns — “the traditional vessel for wine and drunkenness, to stimulate fantasy and intuition and penetrate the mysteries of the universe”, according to leading Georgian literary scholar, Donald Rayfield. With the founding of the journal Blue Horns in 1916, the radical young poets had a space to share and circulate their works which were brought to Russian readers by Boris Pasternak and Osip Madelstam in the 1930s.

Nadiradze lived and wrote well into his 90s, but his poetic halo today is dimmer than that of his contemporaries whose lives met more dramatic fates; in his case, the adage that there is no greater gift to a poet’s legacy than death, rings true. Leading Blue Horn Titsian Tabidze (described as a second Rilke by Boris Pasternak) fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, while another, Paolo Iashvili, shot himself at the Writers’ Union in the same year, tormented by pressures from the secret police to turn on his fellow poets. Grigol Robakidze — “the loudest, best-educated, and most articulate voice” according to Rayfield — defected to Switzerland in 1945, and was largely erased from the history of the Blue Horns until 1989. Nadiradze only escaped such persecution through sheer luck. In 1937, he too was targeted but his NKVD interrogator was arrested, sparing Nadiradze’s life.

The Blue Horns enjoyed patronage from the radically, even anarchically, minded ministers of the Georgian government

While Nadiradze, like many Soviet writers, with time managed to adapt his poetry to fit the Communist Party requirements, he was originally known as “the troublemaker” of the group, his early work recalling the heady, aesthetic power of Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren. The intensity of Nadiradze’s lyrics was matched by his appearance; he was said to have broad shoulders and a crooked nose: he had been a boxer in his youth. That he would go on to chronicle the events of 25 February (the day after his 26th birthday) in his poetry was perhaps unsurprising given the social slant to his work which dealt largely with Georgia’s lost glory.

In one of his early works, “Dreaming of Georgia”, he describes the country’s “Forgotten ancient fords, / Black walls of great fortresses, / Our immemorial grandeur”. No stranger to forceful imagery, he famously described pre-independent Georgia as, “Idiot homeland, burdened with a thankless task, / Aged, oppressed and tortured”. Indeed, Georgia at the time was a protectorate of the Russian Empire, and had been since the Treaty of Georgievsk of 1783, signed by Catherine the Great and the Georgian monarch, Heraclius II. But this would all change during the revolutionary events of 1918.

Late in 1917, as the Bolshevik party claimed power in Petrograd and soon throughout all of Russia, Noe Zhordania, leader of the Georgian Social Democrats (the country’s biggest party) declared: “The connection with Russia has been broken.” Led by the charismatic Zhordania — who was born in Guria, the location of an earlier socialist revolution in 1905 — Georgia briefly became part of the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia, alongside Armenia and Azerbaijan. Less than five weeks after its foundation, however, the Republic dissolved, prompting Georgia to declare independence on 26 May 1918, with the election of its first National Council, and Zhordania as Chairman. For the first time in centuries, Georgia was independent.

The Red Army enters Tbilisi (Tiflis) on 25 February 1921. Image: Georgia's National Archives via Wikimedia

The Democratic Republic of Georgia was a well-functioning democratic society and something of a political first. According to historian Eric Lee, the DRG was the only example of a “Marxist party carrying out a democratic socialist revolution in an entire country.” In his book The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution that focuses on the period between 1918–1921, he writes: “Georgia was a free society with an accountable government and a powerful civil society with independent trade unions and a strong cooperative government.”

Indeed, in the elections for the Georgian Constituent Assembly in February 1919, not only did women have the vote but 17 stood for election and five became sitting MPs. When British Labour Party leader Ethel Snowden visited in 1920 as part of the international socialist delegation, she noted its progressiveness: “Distinctions of sex do not exist in Georgian politics or in Georgian industry. Equal pay for equal work is the ruling economic dictum.”

Culturally, Tbilisi became a hotbed for avant-garde artists and thinkers. It was during this period that Nadiradze published his first collection, The Baldaquin (1920), a series of vivid cityscapes of his hometown Kutaisi. A flurry of poetry journals sprang into circulation too, including Dreaming Gazelles in 1919, the monthly The Archer in 1920, as well as the weekly Barricade in the same year. And during this period, a female poet by the name of Elene Dariani (later revealed to be Elene Bakradze) arrived on the scene, described as the “hidden sister” of the Blue Horns. The scale of her involvement with the group remains a point of debate among contemporary critics, but she is widely considered to be the author of Darianuli, a cycle of poems originally published under Paolo Iashvili’s name. In contemporary Georgian author Tamta Melashvili’s 2015 novel, To the East, the protagonist Irina sets out to research this cycle of poems — and Elene’s alleged relationship with Iashvili — as a comment on Georgia’s proclivity for myth.

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Rooted in the cosmopolitanism of Tbilisi — a kind of Parisian café society of Eastern Europe — Nadiradze and his contemporaries found the perfect external conditions for their inexhaustible creativity: “the Blue Horns enjoyed patronage from the radically, even anarchically, minded ministers of the Georgian government,” writes Rayfield, “and cooperated with even-wilder poetic happenings organised or provoked by homeless Russian Futurists.” In his letters to his wife, the British High Commissioner Oliver Wardrop — whose sister Marjorie became a leading translator of Georgian — frequently writes about visits to the opera, to see works by Paliashvili and Bizet, and performances of Eugene Onegin. Tbilisi was awash with cultural life.

Against this background of vitality, I find the muted tones of Nadiradze’s poem 25 February 1921 take on a sharper poignance. With its idyllic portraits of Georgia, (“Bountiful mother”, a place where “swords once glinted”) and melancholic refrains, the poem emerges as a kind of mourning chant to a lost future. Nadiradze asks us not just to imagine the blood-stained snow of that fateful day, but to consider what might have been.

This sense of loss is also reflected in the timeline of political events: weeks before the Bolshevik invasion, on 11 February, British foreign secretary Earl Curzon wrote to Tbilisi with the good news that His Majesty’s Government had granted them de jure recognition. On 21 February, as Russian forces were heading south along the Black Sea coast and just days before the Red Army took Tbilisi, Georgia adopted their new and, for its time, progressive constitution on which Georgia’s constitution is based today. As Lee writes, “The Georgian Constitution of 1921 described a society which never came into existence.”

In 2010, a resolution was passed formally marking 25 February as Soviet Occupation Day in Georgia. This year, Georgia finds itself approaching this day of solidarity and remembrance in the middle of an internal political storm following the arrest of the leader of the opposition, Nika Melia, for charges his supporters have deemed to be politically motivated. “It is truly symbolic that all this coincides with the tragic week of the Soviet occupation of Georgia,” noted one opposition MP, Giorgi Kandelaki. On 23 February, hours after Melia’s arrest, opposition supporters took to the streets of Tbilisi protesting what they fear is a descent towards authoritarian rule in Georgia, with cries of “Never back to the USSR”.

On this day marking 100 years since the Soviet occupation, Nadiradze’s poem continues to speak truth to the horrors that befell Georgia: “On the road where swords once glinted, / And three hundred heroes’ bones were smashed, / Wetted by the tears of Mother Georgia, / Our flag hung heavily.” Today, flags too will hang heavily, mourning what happened and considering what might have been. But Georgians, who once again are fighting for freedom, no longer remain in silence.

Learn more about the Blue Horns and Georgian literature at Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online literary festival taking place between 25-28 February.

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