The courage to protest: Georgia's first youth-led movement

Author: Lasha Shakulashvili

Illustrator: Mananiko Kobakhidze


Grandparents tend to tell their grandchildren fairy tales, stories of fantasy or great deeds. I grew up listening to different kinds of stories—my grandma's real-life adventures.

My grandma, Lamara Museridze, protested in the 1956 demonstrations against the Soviet Union in Tbilisi. She was just 23 at the time and her courage has continued to inspire generations of children in our family.

As children, we didn’t fully grasp the courage it took for our grandmother to join the protests. But her stories of surviving that day, and the knowledge that she could find the strength to speak out against the repressive Soviet system, have inspired generations of her family to follow in her footsteps.

As children, we didn’t fully grasp the courage it took for our grandmother to join the protests. But her stories of surviving that day, and the knowledge that she could find the strength to speak out against the repressive Soviet system, have inspired generations of her family to follow in her footsteps.

My grandma, Lamara Museridze, protested in the 1956 demonstrations against the Soviet Union in Tbilisi. She was just 23 at the time and her courage has continued to inspire generations of children in our family.


In March 1956, demonstrations broke out in Tbilisi following Nikita Khrushchev’s famous denouncement of Stalin. While the protests have largely been cast as Georgians’ rebuke over Khrushchev’s speech, Irakli Khvadagiani, researcher at the Soviet Past Research Laboratory, notes that the rally quickly evolved into an anti-Soviet protest a fact the Soviet government tried to hide.

"Despite the fact the whole protest was pro-Stalin, it was also highly anti-Soviet. The anti-Soviet aspirations of the March 1956 protests portrayed disagreement toward the entire Soviet system,” he says.

 “This particular protest wave was quite significant not just in Tbilisi, but for the whole Soviet Union. It was a tremendously large-scale protest wave, which spanned from monuments to various locations at river embankments. The protest also had its central spots, making it well-organized.”

While Soviet newspapersin Georgia and elsewhere in the USSRlargely ignored the protests, the New York-based Georgian Opinion carried a detailed report following the demonstration. 

“The most vivid and tragic example of Moscow’s colonial and empyreal policy can be observed in Georgia. As you know, last month, clashes against Moscow took place. The Georgian press followed the version of Moscow and explained these clashes as sympathy of Georgian people toward Stalin. We believe the latter scenario to be wrong and we can recall numerous proofs for that. We believe that fights in Tbilisi had a different meaning. In order to have a better understanding of Georgians’ actions, we shall recall the past. As you know, Georgia was occupied by the Soviet Union in February 1921, which caused abandoning each and every spiritual value that Georgia had been creating throughout centuries. Georgia is the only country in the Soviet Union, which, during Stalin’s rule, has organized three armed clashes against Moscow, which does not speak for love of Georgian toward Stalin”.

On March 27, 1956 The New York Times quoted the Russian-language Soviet newspaper Zaria Vostoka (Eastern dawn) as reporting that “Georgian students are completely absent from the lectures on Marxism-Stalinism and Russian history & literature. The latter fact does not imply a love of students to Stalin. The Zaria Vostoka also acknowledges that students are interested in old history of Georgia.”




While Soviet newspapers—in Georgia and elsewhere in the USSR—largely ignored the protests, the New York-based Georgian Opinion carried a detailed report following the demonstration.


My grandma was just 23 at the time, a young German and Latin scholar. The daughter of a repressed intelligentsia, young Lamara had plenty of grievances with the Soviet system and no love of Stalin.

Until she joined the demonstration, her acts of protest against the brutality of Stalin’s repressions had been largely limited to moments of kindness.  

Lamara remembers the bitter feeling of “protest on mute,” watching while the remaining residents of their neighborhooda historically German settlementwere  deported and nobody could do anything. 

“In 1945, when German soldiers were brought to Georgia to work on constructionsome of them ended up being assigned to our neighborhood. I had a great desire to speak German again and kept seeking opportunities to talk to these refugees, however, I was afraid. By the time I was 12, the fear of the system had been cultivated into my behavior,” she says.

That changed one day when she gathered up the courage to give one of the Germans working in the neighborhood something to eat. “I was afraid, but I also listened to my inner voice that humans are humans everywhere and we shall help the needy ones. Once I gave food, the soldier thanked me and advised me to be careful, because ‘the walls have ears.’”

When she heard about the rallies, Lamara recalls feeling buoyed by a sense she could change something. She risked her life and her career when she and a friend decided to join the protest on March 9, speak out against the system that had hurt her family and loved ones.

“I arrived at the protest. Apparently, the rallies which began in the early days of March had turned into a grandiose protest storm with a terrible wave of anger,” she says.

“The people represented each and every angle of social and economic groups of the society. I was particularly happy to see a combination of young and elderly people.”

 


My grandma was just 23 at the time, a young German and Latin scholar. The daughter of a repressed intelligentsia, young Lamara had plenty of grievances with the Soviet system and no love of Stalin. (Lamara Museridze in the middle)

When she heard about the rallies, Lamara recalls feeling buoyed by a sense she could change something. She risked her life and her career when she and a friend decided to join the protest on March 9, speak out against the system that had hurt her family and loved ones.


“During those days there were many slogans that people chanted. I remember that one that I had joined the day after March 9, when we marched to the Krtsanisi Residence in Tbilisi. Along with protesters I also chanted “Zhu De, Zhu De'' because we knew that on that day the Chinese Communist leader Zhu De was in Tbilisi. However, neither Zhu De, nor any other human came out to talk to us; as if everyone was hiding in their shell,” Lamara recalls.

Declassified top secret documents from the Soviet Union’s Central Committee of the Communist Party indicate it was a wide spread demonstration and soldiers were “forced to use power” to disperse the crowds: “… protesters decided to attack radio station, post office, telegraph, publishing house of the newspaper “Communist”. With the latter attempts, part of the crowd, around 5000 people started marching. Despite numerous warnings from the police or army – they kept on being violent though throwing stones, sticks, breaking windows, attacking security and even wounded several members of armed forces. Soldiers had been forced to use power. 13 have been killed, 63 wounded but 8 of them died later. Due to the fact that allies of (our) enemies have started spreading rumors about March 9 events, Georgia’s Central Committee of the Communist Party in Kutaisi, Batumi, Gori are engaged into sending out members and candidate members to educate citizens about the real essence beyond March events and its political assessment”.
 
Today, now 87, Lamara can still recall the terrible noise of the approaching soldiers when the crackdown began.
 
“It was already late evening when I heard a gunshot, but it was so low that people did not pay that much attention; however, little did we know that it would be followed by an intensive gunshots and rifle.”
Lamara and her best friend ran away from shooting and went into hiding, just like many other young people on that day. When she did not return home, her family feared she had been hurt or arrested. The next morning, people were looking for their friends, sisters, brothers or relatives.
 
“We heard that casualties were much higher than people could have thought. I remember the famous actress Leila Abashidze, who was standing next to the morgue as she tirelessly searched for her brother,” Lamara recalls.


The feeling of protest and anger accelerated a few days later, when no newspapers or news bulletins reported a single word about the deadly crackdown on the protesters in Tbilisi.

The Communist  did not mention the protests or the bloody crackdown in its coverage of  Zhu De’s visit to Georgia. The newspaper’s front page story following the demonstration was an article headlined “Statute of village-agriculture works and collective farming production management”.
The Soviet government was eager to keep the protests from spreading.

“Basically, before 1988, there were only two self-organized protest waves in Georgia, one in 1956 and the other one in 1978. The 1956 demonstration was the first youth-led movement in Georgia which resulted in significant casualties,” Khvadagiani says.

Over 60 years later, little has changed in the way Georgians protest, he says, adding however that chanting is not quite as popular as it was for Soviet youth.

The Communist did not mention the protests or the bloody crackdown in its coverage of Zhu De’s visit to Georgia. The newspaper’s front page story following the demonstration was an article headlined “Statute of village-agriculture works and collective farming production management”. The Soviet government was eager to keep the protests from spreading.


My family is still inspired by the courage of my grandmother, the drive to take a risk for a better tomorrow.

On that day on March 9, 1956, Lamara was inspired by the idea that she, one person in a wave of thousands, could bring about change.

“Sometimes, simply showing up is enough,” she says. “I remember meeting some friends and relatives in the crowd. They were happy to see me and so was I.”


My family is still inspired by the courage of my grandmother, the drive to take a risk for a better tomorrow.

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