Ilia Chavchavadze – Important People From Georgia (podcast)

Megsy Tbilisi Podcast

Ilia Chavchavadze – Important People From Georgia

Below is the script from our Ilia Chavchavadze episode. Please note this text is entirely unedited, or you can listen to the full podcast which is very much edited! 

In this episode we are talking about national hero Ilia Chavchavadze
We’ll discuss:
– his life, growing up as a prince, but that didn’t save him from a life of heart ache.
– why he is such an important figure in Georgian History
– and how his influence has helped shape the Georgia we know today

Chavchavadze is more than just a big boulevard in Vake. He was and is today a voice of the Georgian people.
Ilia Chavchavadze was a journalist, a publisher, a writer and a poet and the thing I had no idea about – he was a prince. (but more on that in a bit),

Inspired by the contemporary liberal movements in Europe and Russia, as a writer and a public figure, Chavchavadze dedicated his time to awakening national and liberal ideals among his fellow Georgians. He was the author of many many MANY articles and discussed a number of topics, including: national issues, literature, education, theater, politics, economics, and events happening not just in Georgia, but around the world and especially in Europe.

Through his writing, he also urged nationwide resistance to the House of Romanov’s policy of forced Russification. He wanted to see the revival of the Georgian language, and the cultivation of Georgian literature which he obviously was pretty keen about. Chavchavadze also pushed for reviving the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the control of the Tsar and the Holy Synod and, for Georgia’s political independence. Both of these things had ended when Georgia had become part of the Russian Empire.

His views about self-government, judicial system, social issues, human rights, women rights, economics, education and civic activism were very modern for the day and his works contributed to the Georgian sense of national identity that we can still see in Georgia today.

He was and still is a hero to the people of Georgia and in this episode we are going to take a look at the man and the legacy of Ilia Chavchavadze.

Ilia Chavchavadze Early Life

Born on October 27, 1837, in the Kvareli village near Telavi, Ilia Chavchavadze entered into a family already well known for their greatness. In fact the surname “Chavchavadze” is veeery famous and has been in historical records since the 14th century. Members of this family were known for their bravery, compassion, and determination and because of this, in 1726, King Constantine II granted the Chavchavadze family the rank of Prince and Lordship over the Kvareli-Shildani region in the Alazani valley in recognition of their valor to the nation.

From an early age, Ilia was influenced by his parents who were highly educated in classical literature, Georgian history and poetry. From his parents, Ilia learned the inspiring stories of Georgian heroism in classical historical novels. In his autobiography, Ilia mentions that his mother knew most Georgian novels and poems by heart and encouraged her children to study them. He wrote: “She loved to read in the evenings to us her children stories and tales, and after reading would tell them over again in her own words and in the next evening whoever of us repeated best what he had heard the night before was rewarded by her praise, which we greatly prized.”

Sadly his mother died when he was 10 years old and his father also died only 4 years later leaving his fathers sister Aunt Makrine to raise the children. At this time Ilia was already in Tbilisi continuing his secondary studies but apparently he actually didn’t do so well in school. Given the death of both of his parents, also later his brother Constantine, was killed during the Dagestani raid on Kakheti so you can understand that he wasn’t particularly able to focus on his studies. One of his first short-poems called Sorrow of a Poor Man is an open expression of his anguish and grief at his brothers death.

Having finished his studies at the academy in Tbilisi, Ilia continued studying in Saint Petersburg in Russia. During this time he became deeply interested in economics and politics, and he would frequently engage in debates and discussions with his university peers. Illia was always conscious of the hardship of his beloved country, particularly its fight for independence. So with the revolutionary movements across Europe in the early 19th century, Ilia watched these events that were transpiring, hoping for something similar to take place in his own home country.

After graduating from the University of Saint Petersburg, Ilia returned to Georgia. On his return journey, he wrote one of his most famous and influential texts, “The Traveler’s Diaries”, in which he talked about nation-building.

I’ll quote a bit for you now….

“It was a beautiful evening so I decided to stay
the night that my eyes might open on the lovely view.
Oh Georgia !
“Where is there another Georgia!
In what corner of the world?”

  • Following his return to Georgia Ilia kept himself busy over the years becoming leader of contemporary youth intellectual movement named “Tergdaleulebi” which tanslates as: one who has drunk the waters of the Terek”; that is, one who has been to Russia. This was a group of intellectuals who had been educated in Russia but were calling for the social and national liberation of the Georgian people.
  • founding two modern newspapers: Sakartvelos Moambe and Iveria.
  • He was a translator of British literature
  • He played an important role in the creation of the first financial structure in Georgia. For 30 years he was a chairman of the Land Bank of Tbilisi, the bank financed and promoted most of the cultural, educational, economical and charity events which took place in Georgia
  • he also participated in the foundation of “Society for the Spreading of Literacy among Georgians” – the first NGO-type organization that established a number of schools all around Georgia, where education was provided in the Georgian language – not Russian.
  • During the 1905 Russian Revolution Chavchavadze was elected as a representative of Georgian nobles to the imperial State Council.
  • He also advocated against capital punishment and lobbied for Georgian autonomy.

he was a super busy guy until…..

Ilia Chavchavadze Death

Ilia garnered a lot of support from the population of Georgia, but also created many enemies, particularly from the Bolsheviks and the Russian Social Democratic party.

On 28 August 1907, while travelling with his wife Olga from Tbilisi to Saguramo, Ilia Chavchavadze was ambushed and shot by a crew of six assassins in the small village of Tsitsamuri, near Mtskheta. He died 2 weeks later on September 12th 1907.

The assassination of Ilia Chavchavadze remains controversial today.

Although the Soviet Government later accused the Tsarist secret police, of ordering the assassination, at the time, the most “widely held suspicion” was that the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party were behind the hit. Some people have even said that Joseph Stalin may have had something to do with it as there is some evidence that 2 of Stalin’s friends organized or took part in the assassination. But there is no actual evidence of his involvement and Chavchavadze was actually a former mentor of the young stalin during his time at the Orthodox seminarian in Tbilisi.

Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore stated that “Stalin always praised Chavchavadze’s poetry in his old age and there is no evidence that he ordered the hit, but he was very close to those involved and he was certainly more than capable of separating literary merit from cruel necessity: politics always came first.”

His death was a national tragedy and people came out to the streets to mourn his death, and a period of national mourning took place from August 30th to September 9th.

As a result of Chavchavadze’s death, the Georgian Social Democrats started to gain significant power and support among the Georgian people. Eventually, it was decided by the Georgian Mensheviks to revive Georgian statehood and proclaimed independence on 26 May 1918. This period lasted until the Soviet invasion of Georgia in 1921, at which time Chavchavadze became for Georgian nationalists the symbol of Georgian freedom and national liberation.

After his death:

  • In 1987, Ilia was formally canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church as “Saint Ilia the Righteous”.
  • In 1989 during the anti-Soviet protests in Tbilisi, Ilia’s poems and political beliefs became a driving force behind the struggle for independence.
  • In 1998, Stephen Kinzer, a famous American academic, wrote about Ilia: “Today leftists in Georgia embrace Chavchavadze for his hatred of injustice, centrists love him for his nonviolent humanism, and right-wing nationalists have adopted his slogan: Motherland, Language, Faith.

Extract from “The Phantom”
“O Georgia, thou pearl and ornament of the world. What sorrow and misfortune hast thou
not undergone for the Christian faith! Tell me, what other land has had so thorny a path to tread?
Where is the land that has maintained such a fight twenty centuries long without disappearing
from the earth? Thou alone, Georgia, couldst do it. No other people can compare with thee for
endurance. How often have thy sons freely shed their blood for thee! Every foot of thy soil is
made fruitful by it. And even when they bowed under oppression they always bravely rose again.
Faith and freedom were their ideals”.