WiP: “A Staging Ground for the Revolutionary ‘East’: The Making of the Ajaran Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic

CRRC, ARISC and American Councils are pleased to announce the 16th talk of the Spring-Summer 2022 Tbilisi Works-in-Progress series!

This WiP presentation will be offered in hybrid in-person and virtual format! For registration for the Zoom info please use the following link: https://us06web.zoom.us/…/tZ0rd…

“A Staging Ground for the Revolutionary ‘East’: The Making of the Ajaran Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic”

Harrison King, UC Berkeley

Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at 18:30 Tbilisi time

CRRC Georgia, Liziko Kavtaradze St. 1, Tbilisi

When the Ajaran Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (or “Ajaristan”) was established through the Treaty of Kars in 1921, it was both an emblem of Soviet-Turkish conciliation in the long-contested Russian-Ottoman borderlands and a beacon of Soviet socialism perched on the threshold of the revolutionary “East.” Despite their ideological differences, the nascent Soviet and Turkish states regarded themselves as anti-imperialist bulwarks and performed Soviet-Turkish friendship on the Black Sea coast throughout the 1920s-30s. The Bolsheviks envisioned the Ajaran ASSR as a revolutionary staging ground, a model region that would broadcast the promise of Soviet modernization to other oppressed peoples of “the East” struggling against imperialism and exploitation. Yet, Ajara was also a focal point of tension between the Soviet and Turkish states as the Bolsheviks sought to gain the allegiance of Ajaran Muslims and diminish the influence of the Turkish national movement within and beyond Ajara’s borders. Even as the Bolsheviks celebrated the progress of socialist construction in Batumi and highland Ajaran villages, persistent anxieties about Kemalist agitators, Muslim notables, disgruntled Ajaran emigres, contraband traffickers, and the shallow roots of Soviet power in rural areas reinforced the image of the Ajaran ASSR as an internal “Orient” within Soviet Georgia, a culturally “backwards” hinterland that necessitated a cautious approach to state-building. This presentation explores the ways in which the Bolsheviks embedded their authority in the Ajaran ASSR through a combination of: (1) conciliatory policies towards Islamic institutions and religious practices; (2) cultural-enlightenment work to emancipate Ajaran women and create cadres of Muslim communists; and (3) anti-religious and dekulakization campaigns to eradicate vestiges of Ajara’s Ottoman past, such as a semi-feudal agrarian order and the chadra (veil). These fluctuating and seemingly contradictory policies proved to be deeply contentious and produced decidedly mixed results during the first two decades of Soviet rule. Although Party officials, writers, and foreign visitors extolled the success of the Soviet experiment in this corner of the “Soviet East,” Ajaristan remained weakly integrated into Soviet Georgia for much of the Stalinist era and a recurring headache for Soviet officials who repeatedly struggled to make inroads into the Ajaran countryside.

Harrison King is a Ph.D. Candidate in Late Modern European history at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the comparative history of the late Russian and Ottoman empires and the entangled histories of their revolutionary successor states, the Soviet Union and the Turkish Republic. With the support of an ARISC Short Term Research Fellowship in Summer 2022, he is conducting archival research in Georgia for his dissertation project on the transformation of the Russian-Ottoman borderlands after the First World War, focusing in particular on the sovietization of Ajara and southwestern Transcaucasia in the 1920s-30s. Harrison holds an MA in Comparative History from Central European University and a dual BA in International Studies and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Miami University (Ohio).

Although this presentation currently take place in virtual format, in observation of the spirit of the Chatham House Rule to which the series generally adheres, the talk will not be recorded and we courteously request that the other participants refrain from recording and/or distributing it as well. The opinions expressed in WiP talks are those of the speakers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC, ARISC or of American Councils.
WiP is an ongoing academic discussion series based in Tbilisi, Georgia, that normally takes place at the new office of CRRC at Liziko Kavtaradze St. 1. It is co-organized by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), the American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS, and the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus (ARISC). All of the talks are free and open to the publi