Third Rome: A (Very) Brief History of Russia and Georgia

Over the last two weeks, Georgians have been out on the streets in possibly the largest wave of protests in the country’s recent history. And, like with so many former Soviet Republics, these protests are directed at Russia.

In this week’s Third Rome, I aim to understand the history of this region and its troubled relationship with its gigantic northern neighbour.

From Anarchy to Anarchy

Georgia’s critical geopolitical position, on the Black Sea shore of the Caucasus (white oval), means that the region has been a target of “influence operations” for much of classical antiquity.

Observe the two yellow ovals. In the West, broadly, are the Hellenistic kingdoms of the early centuries BCE. In the East are the ancient heartlands of Persia (Iran). Both these regions are interested in the red oval: Mesopotamia (Iraq). Both of them are vulnerable to attack through Anatolia (Eastern Turkey). By the turn of the millennium, the region where the yellow arrows clash had worked out a system of geopolitical arbitrage, with the kingdom of Armenia proving remarkably successful at balancing between the two powerhouses. The famous Roman general Marcus Antonius, for example, was totally crushed when he attempted to invade Parthia (Iran) without ensuring the complete cooperation of the Armenians.

Georgia was also pulled into this dynamic, especially after the 3rd century CE as a resurgent Persia under the Sassanian Dynasty began to challenge the Roman Empire with greater and greater success. This dynamic would continue into the early medieval period, with the Byzantines and Abbasids competing with each other and both attempting to outflank each other via control of the Caucasus. While this played out to Georgia’s South, the Caucasus also provided little shelter from nomadic Turkic peoples to the North, the Khazars. Up till around 900 or so, the Khazars dominated much of the northern Black Sea region and controlled much trade heading into Ukraine, until the Byzantines, as discussed in an earlier edition of Third Rome, decided to work directly with the Kievan Rus. Within the next century or two, the yellow ovals began to shrink drastically in influence as both the Abbasids and the Byzantines were shattered by invasions of the Seljuk Turks. It was in this anarchy that Georgia would emerge as a major power in its own right.

The Rise and Fall of Georgia

After centuries of continuous conflict, inhabitants of the region had by this time developed the collective institutions necessary to organise larger and larger armies and states, in line with Peter Turchin’s thoughts on the formation of imperial structures in frontier regions. In the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Byzantines began to push back against the varied coalitions of Turks who had settled in Anatolia, Georgia would emerge as a valuable ally, a far cry from the geopolitical pawn it had once been. Many Byzantine empresses would be Georgian. Georgia’s success in repelling Turkic attacks – aided by the terrain of the Caucasus and its control of fertile agricultural lands on the Black Sea Coast – was critical to its so-called “Golden Age”, a period of intense religious and cultural activity exemplified by the remarkable “King-of-Kings”, the Mepe-Mepeta, Queen Tamar.

By the mid-13th century, however, the geopolitical balance was once again “reset”, as it were, by the invasions of the Mongols. Georgia was shattered and the region was ruled by smaller kingdoms, which, once again, were pawns in the broader pattern of competition below the yellow ovals above, except this time the actors in question were the Ottoman Turks and the Safavids of Iran. Memories of the “Golden Age”, however, did not fade, though by the late 18th century, a third actor would emerge in the vast steppe plains from where the Khazars had once come: Russia.

Russia’s rise to superpower status was the culmination of geopolitical processes centuries in the making. The Mongol invasions had devastated older state structures in the region, including Kiev. As Georgia had emerged out of conflict against the Turks, Muscovy, too, would emerge out of conflict against the Mongols. Muscovy/Russia, however, was not a geopolitical crossroads, and, moreover, had the ability to raise vast bodies of troops, and equip them with gunpowder weaponry imported from Europe or manufactured locally. This would prove critical to its ability to expand into Central Asia, crushing the once-invincible armies of cavalry archers, and threaten Safavid Iran from that direction. This introduced yet another element into the complex geopolitics of the Southern Caucasus.

By the 1800s, it was all over for independent Georgia: after severe defeats at the hands of the Safavids, Russia was invited in, took over, and Georgia’s dynasties were incorporated into the Tsardom, with one representative even serving as a general on the Russian side in the Napoleonic Wars. Georgia’s autocephalous Orthodox Church was absorbed into the Patriarchate of Moscow, and it would be deeply integrated into the geopolitics of Russia over the next two centuries. A Georgian, Josef Stalin, would even serve as the leader of the USSR.

Post-USSR

As one can imagine, the denouncement of Stalin and the end of Georgia’s Orthodox Church and its royal family have meant that Georgia does not exactly look at its gigantic northern neighbour with the friendliest of eyes. This, of course, is not helped by Russia’s own dreams of influence over former Soviet territories, or, for that matter, its vision of itself as the Third Rome and the supreme authority of the Orthodox Christian world. In 2008, Russia would support the independence of two republics in Northern Georgia, which (thanks to centuries of interaction with the steppe) are ethnically quite different from the regions around the capital, Tbilisi. This, too, is seen as a major sticking point, and Georgia has made repeated attempts to join NATO as a result.

This puts recent protests in Tbilisi into perspective. Georgia’s government has attempted to normalise ties with Russia, which is obviously a sensitive and not very popular matter. A Russian MP recently visited and made a speech about Orthodoxy in Parliament, which sparked protests. The government cracked down on these with unprecedented brutality (some opposition factions claim this was at Russia’s behest). This made protests even larger, worrying Russia, which has threatened sanctions, which has made protests even larger.

I have three big takeaways from this series of events. First, many former Soviet Republics have very strong historical identities, which Russia ignores today at its own peril. Second, Orthodox Christianity is not as much of a binding glue as Russia seems to assume. Third, Russia’s occupation of strategically important territories – such as Crimea, Donbass, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia – will continue to create massive diplomatic problems for it with many of its neighbours going forward. The task of reclaiming the fallen mantle of the USSR’s superpower status will require a more subtle hand than the brute force Russia has chosen to apply so far.

I also have questions, which, if you’ve gotten this far, you probably have answers to. What we see today is essentially a resurgence of the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle of the previous section, but complicated by the presence of balancers such as NATO and Israel. As we’ve seen, when these regions are weak, the Caucasus is able to chart a relatively independent path. But as they become more assertive, what becomes of the Caucasus? What next for Georgia? Hit me up at anirudh@takshashila.org.in or @AKanisetti on Twitter with your ideas.