The first contacts between what is now Russia and the Caucasus took place as early as the 10th century. It was not until the 18th century, however, that either state was politically cohesive enough to enter into formal diplomatic relations. The story of Georgian king Erekle II is essentially the story of imperial Russia’s first forays into Georgia, and provides context for Georgia’s initial desire to ally with Russia.
portrait of Erekle II, ruler of Kartli-Kakheti
Erekle II ascended the throne of Kartli-Kakheti (modern-day central Georgia) in 1762. Although nominally ruler, he could not escape the relentless territorial claims imposed by the Ottoman sultan and the Iranian shah, who retraced their “rights” at least to the 16th century. At the time, the native middle class was relatively small, as large-scale commerce was largely in the hands of foreign merchants (Armenians, etc.).
Although comparatively sheltered from the effects of the Enlightenment, Erekle can in some ways be considered an 18th century European “enlightened despot.” In internal policy, he pressed forward with the centralization of government administration at the expense of local autonomies. Even with his nation at extremely limited levels of social cohesion, Erekle strove to limit the authority of provincial nobles and make political power and economic initiative royal prerogatives. He concentrated executive, legislative, and judicial powers in his own hands. He also strove to expand his country’s small-scale manufacturing capacity, especially metallurgy and munitions. In all these endeavors he gave the state a major role in economic development.
But like his contemporaries in Europe, Erekle also promoted the revival of a cultural and intellectual life in Georgia, unseen since the end of Georgia’s “Golden Age” in the 12th century. In undertaking his own projects of economic and social reform, his long-term goal was the Europeanization of Georgia in accordance with the Enlightenment ideals of the time. Erekle sought strategic ties with Western Europe, but at the time, the European powers could discern no political or economic advantage in fostering relations with distant Georgia. As a result, the king turned to Russia almost as a substitute for the West, or perhaps as an intermediary between Georgia and the West–such a view of Russia was by no means extraordinary, since Georgia already carried on trade with Western Europe via Russia.
As Russian-Ottoman violence began in the 1760s, Erekle approached Russia for military protection. Throughout the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, Russia treated in Georgia as useful, but always expendable, minor player in their high-stakes imperial drama. Annexation was rarely absent from the calculations of Russian statesmen. Despite above the lukewarm Russian responses to his proposals for formal alliance, Erekle persisted because he was certain that was the only means by which he could protect his country permanently from Ottoman and Iranian aggression. But after the war, the Russian Court showed little interest, at it was absorbed both by events in Europe and by the suppression of the massive rural uprising, the so-called Pugachev Rebellion, which had broken out in 1773. Russia even withdrew the one small force it had in Georgia and left the King to deal with the Ottomans alone in the aftermath of its involvement in the war.
In the later 1780s, Catherine’s close adviser Potemkin promoted an activist policy in the Caucasus based on the conviction that Georgia could potentially serve as an effective second front in Russia’s future dealings with the Ottoman Empire. With better roads and military support, it could also facilitate trade with and penetration of Iran and the Near East. This new Russian activism in the Caucasus led to the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk with Erekle in 1783, which made Georgia a protectorate of Russia.
Statue of Erekle II in Telavi, Georgia
Even with this newfound status, however, the unwillingness of the Russian Court to become deeply involved in the Caucasus was manifest during the next war between Russia and Turkey from 1787 to 1792. As the situation worsened and Aga Mohammed Khan threatened to invade Kartli-Kakheti, Ereke appealed for Russian military support. At the time, Catherine was preoccupied with European affairs such as the French Revolution, the shifting alliances of the great powers, and the impending second partition of Poland; therefore she issued no instructions to the Russian commander in the Caucasus to send troops to Georgia.
In September 1795, Aga Khan sacked and razed Tbilisi nearly to the ground, with a great loss of life and the taking of thousands of prisoners as slaves. Reports of these terrifying events at last roused the Empress and the Council of State to action. She ordered the Russian commander in the Caucasus to retaliate against the invading forces. But as it turned out, this action was not a short-term punitive expedition solely for the benefit of Kartli-Kakheti. The retaliation was quickly expanded into a concerted drive to seize Azerbaijan and Iran’s provinces along the Caspian Sea, with the evident intention of opening commercial routes to India and further east.
Erekle died in 1798 at the age of 77. He was succeeded by his less-competent and decisive son, Giorgi XII. In the year in 1800, Georgian emissaries and Russian officials came to an agreement in principle on a gradual process of incorporation that would allow the Georgian ruling dynasty to retain nominal power in domestic affairs, while Russia would be responsible for foreign relations and defense. (In fact, documentary evidence confirms that Tsar Paul and his advisers had already decided to transform Georgia into a province, thereby depriving it not only of independence but even the modest autonomy granted as a protectorate in the draft agreement).
The Russians judged events in the Caucasus mainly as a means of achieving their objectives in the Black Sea and Southeastern Europe. Their conduct of wars against the Ottomans in 1768 to 1774 and in 1787 to 1792 offer persuasive evidence of such ambitions. However, Georgia was hemmed in by enemies and in Erekle’s quest for Western orientation, turned towards Russia for aid.
Soviet monument near Guadauri in Georgia, commemorating the 200 year anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk (“Russian-Georgian Friendship, 1783-1983”).
Hitchins, Keith (2012). “Wallachia and Georgia Confront the Eastern Question,” The Balkans and the Caucasus: Parallel Processes on Opposite Sides of the Black Sea.
Lang, David (1957). The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 1658-1832.
Salia, Kalistrat (1977). “Quelques pages de l’histoire de Georgie: Iraklii II, 1744-1762,” Bedi Kartlisa
Tabuashvili, Apolon (2010). “Erekle meorisek’onomik’uri k’ontseptsiebi da repormebi kveqnis mmartvelobis modernizatsiisatvis.”
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