Staunton, April 9 – Thirty years ago today, Soviet forces used poison gas and entrenching tools to disperse a demonstration in Tbilisi, apparently believing that force alone would be enough to stop a people committed to their own dignity and independence. But a little over two years later, Georgia and the other former Soviet republics were free.
Georgians will never forget or forgive what Moscow did to them, especially now when 30 years later, “the Russian army occupies a significant part of the territory of Georgia,” Mikhail Kaluzhky says (graniru.org/Politics/World/Europe/Georgia/m.275890.html). But the events of 1989 are a reminder of how powerful a people enraged can be relative to a repressive state.
Today, Georgians have paused to remember what the Soviet military did and is doing and even more the price Georgians paid not just for their freedom but for the freedom of everyone. It is entirely right and proper that all people of good will should do so as well because the Tbilisi events were far more important than is often assumed.
Boris Vishnevsky, a Yabloko deputy in St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly, provides an especially valuable recounting of what happened. On April 9, 1989, he writes, “military forces dispersed an opposition meeting at Government House” in the Georgian capital (echo.msk.ru/blog/boris_vis/2404189-echo/).
The Soviet military used gas and entrenching tools against the unarmed demonstrators. Sixteen of them were killed on the spot and another three died later in hospital. Some 200 participants were hospitalized and “about 4,000 had to seek medical care,” Vishnevsky continues.
The Sobchak Commission, formed by the First Congress of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR, spoke about “’the excessive use of military force’” but it didn’t name any specific individual or hold them accountable.
But despite this, Vishnevsky argues, “this was one of the first applications of the army against the people in perestroika times – and I think that from that moment on, the independence of Georgia was pre-determined. In the republic, they haven’t forgotten or forgive this.”
Vishnevsky recalls that he visited Tbilisi four months later to take part in a conference and he asked people he met “who can tell me what occurred in April?” His interlocutors immediately told him all they knew and took him on a tour of all the places where the tragedy happened.
The following day, his Georgian friends showed him a many-hours-long film about the events of April 9, a film that Vishnevsky says, he doesn’t think anyone in Petersburg ever saw. But returning to the northern capital, he told people what he had seen. People were transfixed, but soon other actions overshadowed what had happened in Tbilisi.
None of the military was held accountable, and today many Russian nationalists view the commanders in Tbilisi in April 1989 as heroes who defeated in their view the first “color revolution” organized by the West and directed against the USSR. But any victory they achieved was Pyrrhic: it didn’t last long and it came at a higher price than they expected.
Tragically, for many non-Georgians, those events are remembered only on “round” dates, five years from the tragedy, tend, twenty, thirty …” But two things must be recalled at all times. On the one hand, those with guns always look more powerful but typically prove far less so even more rapidly than anyone expected.
And on the other, Vishnevsky concludes, had those responsible for the Tbilisi massacre been held accountable at the time, “much that occurred later possibly would have been avoided.” They weren’t and on the shoulders of those who didn’t do that weighs a guilt almost equal to that of those who attacked peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi a generation ago.
Window on Eurasia — New Series