War in Ukraine Awakens Georgian Trauma5 min read

 In Analysis, Civil Society, Eastern Europe, War in Ukraine
The ongoing crimes against Ukrainians committed by Russian forces have awakened memories of brutality against Georgians in wars with Russia during previous decades. Over the last 30 years, Georgia has experienced three armed conflicts with different scales and forms of Russian involvement. Those too young to remember know of these war tragedies through stories told by their parents or grandparents, particularly the painful struggles of the 1990s. Over time, these stories have become an integral part of Georgian collective memory. 

Images of the Bucha massacre have shocked the world, not least in Georgia, where many are haunted by how familiar these events seem. Posts and comments soon started to appear on social media channels, telling the tragic stories of those tortured, raped and killed during the war in Abkhazia. Articles list the names of those who experienced such brutality. Archival photos showing the similarity between killings in Gagra, Sokhumi and Bucha spread like wildfire across Georgian social media. For many of those who did not witness the events themselves, this was the first time seeing the names of real people who experienced these tragedies. The horrors in Ukraine have awakened Georgian trauma, giving rise to discussion and analysis many years after experiencing similar atrocities.

The collective memory of trauma in Georgia

Collective trauma is caused by traumatic events that affect an entire society, substantially changing the lives of those within that society. It holds significance in society’s self-image by giving a sense of meaning to what happened, why it happened and how it affects a group’s identity in the present. Collective memory is usually reproduced from generation to generation, so it continues to live on after the actual eyewitnesses and survivors of the events. 

An example of collective trauma is the Tbilisi Tragedy of April 9, 1989, the tragic day when Soviet forces violently dispersed a large demonstration demanding independence from the Soviet Union. The tragedy resulted in hundreds injured and many being poisoned by a chemical substance used by the Soviet forces. It also led to the death of 21 people, the majority of whom were women, including 16-year-old children. Every year, Georgian society remembers what happened and honours the memory of those who have died, with April 9 marking the Day of National Unity in Georgia. The reproduction of this memory of trauma in time became symbolic of Georgians’ continuous fight for freedom: those who were killed died in the name of freedom for the next generations. Each year Georgian people thank them for this.

Compared to April 9, however, the wars of the 1990s remain much less discussed. Instead, memory of these events has passed through generations more like stories told by those who experienced or witnessed it themselves, less in the way of a systemized, collective approach. 

Memory of wars

In Georgia, discussing the wars of the 1990s remains a sensitive topic due to the complex nature of these wars themselves. They had several dimensions, including inter-ethnic and inter-state aspects. Despite this, the Georgian public widely perceives the wars as provoked by Russia and as a part of its aggressive policy towards its neighbours, viewing the Russian state as the main perpetrator. 

The traumatic events of the wars are strongly associated with individual heroism. In Georgian collective memory, heroes represent the spirit and ideals society was and is fighting for. The memory of the events of the 1990s is largely associated with Georgian figures, such as Guram Gabeskiria, the former Mayor of Sokhumi, whose answer “Never in my life!” to Abkhaz separatists when asked to kneel before being shot remains a symbol of patriotism. 

Similarly, memories of the 2008 August Russo-Georgian War are closely linked with individuals such as Giorgi Antsukhelidze, who was captured, tortured and killed by separatist South Ossetian and Russian forces. Or the so-called Shindisi heroes, who, despite their small numbers, refused to surrender to Russian forces. Other stories include that of Archil Tatunashvili, who was similarly tortured and killed by separatist forces in 2018 for supposedly “participating in Georgian aggression”, according to South Ossetian authorities.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War is often now referenced in international arenas in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Many perceive the war in Ukraine as part of a larger picture of Russian aggression, where the first move played out in Georgia back in 2008. However, attention from the international community was not as strong in 2008 as it is in Ukraine now, perhaps partly due to the West’s belief that it was still possible to appease the Kremlin.

For many Georgians, 2008 demonstrated Russia’s intention to dominate Georgia’s internal and foreign policies. In the 1990s, Russian involvement in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia was not as linear as in 2008. During this time, Russia often denied its involvement in the conflicts, though in 2008, there was no room for questions about who invaded Georgian territories. It is noteworthy that Russia recognized the independence of the occupied territories of Georgia after the Russo-Georgia War in 2008. In the Georgian collective memory of centuries-old tensions with Russia, the events of 2008 marked a new era that threw the bilateral relations into a more acute phase that continues on today. This shift was reinforced by the tragedy and blood once more shed for Georgia’s independence from Russian influence. 

The need to reflect

The atrocities committed in Bucha by Russian forces have pushed Georgians to awaken their memories of the brutal practices used against Georgians. Horrifying stories of rape, executions and torture have surfaced in public discourse and have served as proof for many Georgians of how the tactics used by Russian forces have not changed decades later. Even though these memories have always been alive, they are only now being widely discussed publicly. Commemorating those who tragically died has become a way to speak about the collective trauma experienced by Georgian society. Consciously or subconsciously, these traumas have already become a part of Georgian identity.

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