A review of “Eric Scott, Familiar Strangers: Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire, Oxford 2016, 352 p.” by Tamar Qeburia

Familiar Strangers: Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire, published by Oxford University Press in 2016, begins with an overview of early Stalinism and outlines, up until the Brezhnev era, the political (as well as geopolitical) and cultural life of Georgian diaspora under Soviet rule. The main question Eric Scott attempts to answer concerns the oversized role Georgians seem to have played in the formation of Soviet life and the consolidation of Soviet rule in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution. How did Georgians, who only comprised 2% of the Soviet population, come to enjoy such positions of power and privilege in Moscow and what cultural and political relations enabled their improbable advancement? In his search of answers, Scott arrives at a novel understanding of Soviet imperialism that transcends the center-periphery binary and allows for the consideration of a much more complex and multidimensional cast of actors and their interrelationships.

Scott’s book is remarkable for its ability to deconstruct, by revealing various contradictory rifts and shifts within the Soviet system, the myth of a monolithic and unidimensional Soviet system based on autocratic rule. Instead of relying on a framework of rigid, totalitarian rule, Scott chooses to draw the reader’s attention to the sometimes-banal interpersonal relationships, workplace intrigue, all-too-human temptations and the pursuit of personal gain that influenced policy making in the Soviet Union. As Paul Manning rightfully observed elsewhere, one of the chief strengths of Scott’s book is the fact that it provides a much-needed material history of Georgian nationalism and ethnic identity.[1]

Familiar Strangers is divided into six chapters, the first of which overviews theoretical and conceptual frameworks that underpin the book’s methodological and analytical approach to diasporic studies in a Soviet context. The second chapter follows Caucasian revolutionaries on their paths from the Bolshevik revolution to their prominence in Soviet Moscow. In charting these trajectories, Scott provides an in-depth look at the “Caucasian purge” Stalin undertook against many prominent Georgian Bolsheviks, including his own comrades from their shared revolutionary past. The third and the fourth chapters are devoted to the success of Georgian material culture within the Soviet Empire. In the fifth and the sixth chapters Scott writes about the privilege and fortune of Soviet Georgian artists and scientists. Collectively, these chapters reveal the virtuosity of Georgian diaspora in being both “familiar” and “strangers” in the imperial social fabric, which they navigated through translating their nationalism in imperial terms and, later on, through endowing national culture with socialist meaning.

Scott’s book, which compiles a rich assortment of amusing anecdotes and stories, makes for a pleasurable reading. In this review, I will focus on those topics that seem most relevant to current discussions of Soviet Georgian historiography and emphasize, in the process, the most revealing threads of Scott’s work. 

UNION OF GEORGIAN BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTIONARIES

In his doctoral dissertation, A Reconstruction, Using Anthropological Methods, of the Second Economy of Georgia (1983), Yochanan Altman identifies three types of friendship prevalent Georgian culture, symbolized, respectively, by a dzmobili, a friend and a comrade. Altman explains that while dzmoba elevates a relationship to the level of familial kinship, friendship endows it with loyalty, unconditional support and trust. As for comradeship, it is the most formal of the three and it entails no social commitments.[2] Scott’s tracing of social ties between Georgian Bolshevik revolutionaries spans all three types and goes well beyond them, extending all the way to declared treason.

Scott devotes more than 80 pages to the history of Georgian Bolshevik revolutionaries. The story begins in the late 19th century, when resistance was largely confined to North Caucasian peripheries and continues well-into the revolutionary period, when the struggle reached the capital and the “Caucasian group,” with Stalin at its helm, found itself perched at the top of Soviet power structure. Stalin was the prototypical member of this revolutionaries, who “held together by shared history, revolutionary beliefs, and fluency in a common culture”. (Scott, p.41) As Scott writes, shared ethnicity, close social ties and a common language were all important factors in binding the group together. Scott cites numerous instances of high-ranking Soviet officials corresponding in Georgian when discussing personal matters and exchanging informal requests.

Familiar Strangers shows how relationships of patronage between members of the Caucasian group were often flexible and relatively horizontal, paving the way for many Georgian cadres to ascend the ladder of Soviet nomenklatura. Scott does not shy away from concluding that these social ties were crucial in Stalin’s ascent to power. But from the 1930s onward, in times of Stalinist terror, these affiliations became more of a curse for Georgian Bolsheviks. The purges targeted Stalin’s inner circle and the members of his Caucasian social milieu first and most severely. Stalin’s comrades from his revolutionary days in the Caucasus, who had attained positions of significant power in various Soviet structures of governance and who had played crucial roles in early Soviet state formation, were arrested, shot and deported en masse. Abel Enukidze, who had been personally close to Stalin and represented the core of the Caucasian group, was the first to be declared “the enemy of Socialism.” Only Sergo Orjonikidze preceded him, who committed suicide in February, 1937.

Scott relates the targeting of the members of the “union of the old Caucasian Bolsheviks” to Stalin’s pursuit of depersonalized power that would be devoid of any reference to the contingency of his Georgianness. He strove to create a political bureaucracy that would rely on his absolute power and provide opportunities for advancement only to those unconditionally devoted to serving him (Scott, p.84) By the end of 1937, the totally decimated union of Georgian Bolshevik revolutionaries (only Philipe Makharadze and Mikha Tskhakaia had survived) had been replaced with new cadres, one of whom shared Georgian origins – Lavrenty Beria.

RESTAURANT “ARAGVI”

The menu at Aragvi, a Georgian restaurant in the heart of Moscow that opened its doors in 1940, was an exception to the centrally controlled, uniform, standardized offerings to be had at other eateries around the USSR. In Aragvi, patrons, mostly members of the Soviet nomenklatura, could savour Georgian cuisine and enjoy an assortment of famous Georgian wines, while also engaging in backdoor politics. Scott paints a vivid picture of post-war feasting and dining in an atmosphere of opulence, with a rich tapestry of exotic decor and murals providing a colourful backdrop for a varied repertoire of entertainment.

VIP patrons, exclusivity, a carefully curated menu, a steady supply of natural and high-quality ingredients delivered straight from Georgia, the watchful management of Stalin’s personal chef, Longinoz Stazhadze (with his famous chicken in niortsqali) all contributed, according to Scott, to Aragvi’s unrivalled popularity. Logistics and management were no less important: “although it served the Soviet capital, the restaurant technically operated under the auspices of the Ministry of Trade of the Georgian SSR. While archival sources in both Moscow and Tbilisi are silent concerning the degree of initiative institutions in the Georgian SSR may have had in launching the restaurant, they do reveal that Georgia’s Ministry of Trade oversaw the Aragvi’s supply of wine, cheese, meat, vegetables, mineral water, herbs, and spices, all of which were shipped specially from the southern republic.” (Scott, 102)

For Scott, the case of Aragvi is an important illustration of the process through which Georgians, hailing from a culture unfamiliar to Muscovans, became not just “familiar,” but attained the status of quintessential hosts in the imperial center. Gradually, Georgian traditions and rites of dining, cooking and feasting – the institutions of the supra and the tamada – became popular, well-known and welcome forms of entertainment in Moscow and for the rest of the Soviet population. The story of Aragvi is also a story of how in-demand diversity and “otherness” were in the Soviet empire. Even if the restaurant itself was exclusive and largely inaccessible for the average Soviet citizen, its walls were too thin and transparent to keep its menu, recipes, stories of politicking and jokes not to spread well beyond Aragvi’s colourful interior.

Destalinization did nothing to diminish the festivities at Aragvi. After all, the restaurant was Khrushchev’s favorite, too. In 1959, the restaurant finally seceded from the Ministry of Trade of the Georgian SSR and became part of Mosrestorantrest, a local body overseeing Moscow’s restaurants. But despite this change, the menu, which now included Russian, Armenian, Ukrainian and Uzbek dishes, remained dominated by Georgian delicacies. De-Stalinization seems not to have affected the popularity of Georgian cuisine. On the contrary, as Scott remarks, ironically „Thus at the same event where Khrushchev denounced the ills of Stalinism in his “secret speech,” the food of Stalin’s native Georgia was given a considerable boost, with the party supporting “measures to improve the work of public food service enterprises“. (Scott, p.110)

DISINCTIVE CLIMATE, CHARMING CULTURE

What distinguished Georgians from the rest of the Soviet population was often ascribed to their “national temperament” and the unique climate that differed radically from that of the other Soviet SSRs. These sentiments can be readily discerned in Khrushchev’s memoir from 1960, which Scott cites in Familiar Strangers. In this passage, Khrushchev reflects on the “‘preponderance of Georgians ‘profiteering and speculating everywhere they go.’ On the Georgian climate, Khrushchev writes, “this part of the Soviet Union is a paradise, with citrus trees growing year-round. There are many temptations in Georgia for speculators: the climate is warm, there are many vineyards and many other human delights.” (Scott, p.171)

Familiar Strangers tells of Soviet tourists mesmerized by Georgian climate, landscapes and the abundance of agricultural produce. Scott writes that this experience simulated a departure beyond the borders of the USSR and functioned as an encounter with a genuinely novel way of life. Lively street life, unusually appetizing fruits and vegetables, a higher standard of living and exotic local culture enthralled Soviet citizens and delivered a feeling of being in an unfamiliar country.

“A Map of Good Life in Soviet Georgia” published in Crocodile, a Soviet satirical magazine, reproduces that same image of material abundance (see image 1). As Familiar Stranger attests, Georgian SSR of the late Soviet period was indeed considered, for its climatic and natural conditions, a pampered southern republic, where earning a living seemed much easier than in the austere and cold north. Stereotypes of Georgians as temperamental, proud and deft subjects added to and amplified mythical connotations.

Perhaps these oversimplified and hackneyed imperial representations of Georgia as a peripheral, southern, tropical republic should have been a matter of critique and concern for Georgian historians and social scientists. But in fact, Scott writes, the niche turned out to be comfortable for Georgian elites who used it to underline their entitled, privileged position in the Soviet hierarchy of nations. Scott finds that the products of Georgian climate and nature charmed not just tourists but consumers all over the Soviet Union who sought Georgian goods in their local markets: “Georgian traders commodified and sold a subtropical abundance rooted in Georgian territory, offering the charms of their distinctive climate and culture in markets throughout the Soviet Union. The borders that divided the official and unofficial Georgian economy—much like the distinctions that separated entrepreneurs and state officials in the Georgian SSR—were often blurred. Flowers grown on a state farm might be illegally sold in Moscow, wine produced in a Georgian factory might be illicitly traded in Siberia, and citrus fruits grown for a collective farm might unexpectedly brighten a winter market in Leningrad.” (Scott, p.190)

Notions of distinctiveness and familiarity were just as useful in marketing culture. According to Scott’s assessment, the thaw created new opportunities for national cultural production and inspired a new wave of creativity for Georgian artists. Georgian folklore, pop music, cinematography, opera and theatre all saw important advances in the late Soviet period. Georgian choreographers, scenographers and directors turned out to be capable and competent in translating Georgian traditional art and culture into the language of empire. Their works display a careful balancing act between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the “national” and the “socialist.” Georgian cultural products (Georgian dance, polyphonic singing, film and music) began to attain popularity not just within the USSR but beyond its border. In the cold war, Georgian cultural production adorned Soviet diplomacy on the international stage.

LOCATING THE REPERTOIRE OF RESISTANCE

The last chapter of Scott’s book, Beyond the Ethnic Repertoire, opens with the story of Aeroflot Flight 6833,[3] which creates the impression that the narration will shift its focus to the repertoire of resistance that Georgians, both dissidents and others engaged in collective resistance, deployed within the USSR. But as the reader soon discovers, Scott is mainly concerned with an altogether different, and understudied history of resisting and antagonizing Soviet rule. He begins with Georgian intellectual and political elites and their disappointment in failing to save the hijackers from capital punishment – an experience that turned, for them, into a bitter discovery of the limits of imperial benevolence. From there, Scott turns to Georgian filmography and outlines the history of critical engagement with Soviet authority as reflected on screen in works by Giorgi Danelia, Otar Ioseliani and brothers Shengelaia. Scott reflects on the ways in which these directors navigated Soviet bureaucracy to produce works (Repentance, Giorgobis Tve, Blue Mountains, or An Unbelievable Story, etc.) that evaded censorship by mobilizing the discursive language of Soviet ideology and folkloric aestheticization. 

It could be argued that Georgian filmography was the most prominent avenue of articulating and expressing dissent prevalent in Georgian intelligentsia of the period. According to Scott, Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance epitomizes these efforts best as it contains the most clear-cut declaration of Georgians’ unease with their role in reproducing Imperial rule. The outspoken nature of the film helped unseal and consolidate criticism towards Soviet authorities within the USSR.

CONCLUSION

Eric Scott’s Familiar Strangers: Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire is special not only for its contribution to our understanding of Soviet imperialism, but also for its success in reconstructing the interests, aims and the everyday life of Georgians and others in late Socialism. Familiar Strangers productively reconfigures the questions of Georgian nationalism, culture and economy within Soviet history and historiography. In fact, the book is subversive in its attempt to think beyond well-established narratives of Soviet rule and its political history, as well as in its aspiration to shed light on previously overlooked spaces of Soviet life.

Scott’s writing challenges the common presentation of the USSR as a monolithic, homogeneous and opaque system of rule. At the same time, its gaze is often that of a stereotypical Soviet tourist enthralled by Georgian cuisine, climate and cultural contradictions. In this, Scott risks reproducing the very tendencies of exotization and orientalization that the book should critically assess – but sometimes seems to be unable to find the time to. While the book devotes ample time to Soviet attempts of “familiarizing” the “unfamiliar,” it does not question the underlying conceptual composition of “familiarity” and “unfamiliarity.” Instead of this exploration, the book describes the way the empire, as well as diasporic elites, instrumentalized and utilized “strangeness” for occupying positions of privilege within imperial rule.

Familiar Strangers is a testament to the complexity of human subjectivities and aspirations even within closed-off systems of governance. Soviet citizenry is often described as a passive mass of grey, in which there is no possibility of individual expression or agency. Scott, in contrast, writes about the temperament and temptation, elusiveness and flexibility of lives of late Socialism.


[1] Paul Manning, ‘When the Guest Becomes the Host: Review of Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire’, Diaspora 19, no. 2–3 (1 March 2017): 351–60

[2] Yochanan Altman, ‘A Reconstruction, Using Anthropological Methods, of the Second Economy of Georgia’ (phd, Middlesex Polytechnic, 1983)

[3] On November 18, 1983, a group of young Georgians, all from Georgian elite families, hijacked an airline of the state-run Aeroflot company. They tried to flee the Soviet Union and divert the plane to Turkey. The attempt was counteracted by Soviet military forces that resulted in the death of eight passengers. Soviet Georgian court tried the arrested hijackers, and in August 1984, all four men were put under a death sentence and shot. Their female co-conspirator received a 14-year jail sentence. The event was described as the most violent hijacking to come to light in Soviet aviation history.


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