Georgian Alpinism and Soviet Tourism at the Edge of Empire

Benjamin Bamberger (PhD Candidate in History) was a 2015-2016 American Research Institute of the South Caucasus (ARISC) Graduate Fellow. Below he shares his preliminary findings and his experience of conducting dissertation research in Georgia. Originally posted in the 2015-2016 ARISC Member Newsletter, no. 7, pages 12-13:


My dissertation examines the role of alpinism and other forms of touring in the construction of national identities and national space in Soviet Georgia. In particular, I focus on alpinism as a key site for the contestation and consolidation of ideas about the Georgian nation and Georgian people, between both Russian and Georgian intellectuals and between Georgian intellectuals and the mountainous populations within Georgia at this time. Georgian alpinism began in 1923 with the first ascent of Kazbegi (known locally as mq’invarts’veri) under the leadership of Georgian mathematician Giorgi Nikoladze, which marked both the first major Soviet summit and the beginning of a dedicated Georgian alpinist community.

In the pre-war period, Georgian alpinists were an integral part of the burgeoning Soviet alpinist movement and accomplished many of the first victories of Soviet alpinism.Yet, while the Georgian alpinist community became more closely integrated with Soviet sports and tourism institutions, the goals of Georgian alpinists often remained more nationally focused, causing conflict between prominent Georgian alpinists and officials in Moscow well into the 1950s. Such conflict was exacerbated by the centralization of control and resources in Moscow, and by the continued use of Orientalizing stereotypes by Russian alpinists and tourists during their travels to the Caucasus.

Relying on archival materials, newspapers, periodicals, and books from both Tbilisi and Moscow, my research examines the ways that Georgian and Russian alpinists had conflicting conceptions of Georgia as a space and different understandings of the proper relationship with local mountainous peoples. Ultimately, my research explores the limits of Soviet anti- imperialism and the complicated ways that the Soviet project was committed to supporting forms of national autonomy while never truly escaping a belief in the “backwardness” of non-Russian peoples.

Due to the generous support of ARISC, I was able to extend my research in Tbilisi by two months where I continued to focus on print materials located at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia. There, I examined relevant books, journals, and newspapers from the period of my research (1920’s-1950s). Although my work plan had a neat delineation of reading newspapers in February and books in March, in reality both months contained significant research in both types of sources as citations from one type of source would often lead me to another.

Working this way allowed me to maximize the number of sources I was able to examine and prioritize those that were most important for Georgian alpinists during the decades of my research. One of my central research questions concerned the relationship between Georgian alpinists in Tbilisi and their counterparts in the mountainous regions like Svaneti or Khevi. Initially, I expected to find a form of “nested orientalism” — in short, that Tbilisi-based alpinists would see their regional counterparts as more primitive and backwards and in need of cultural development in a way that mirrored Russian discourses about backwardness in the Caucasus more generally.

However, my research has shown that not only was this not the case, but in fact the opposite was true. From the very beginning of Georgian alpinism in the 1920s, Georgian alpinists from Tbilisi saw the mountainous populations as equal partners in their endeavors and often made a point to include local people in their expeditions. In many instances, they explicitly rejected the Orientalizing impulses of Russian tourists, alpinists, or researchers.

The result was a productive partnership between Tbilisi and the mountainous regions that led to the development of large cadres of local alpinists, especially in Svaneti. It is clear that such collaboration was part of a Georgian nation- building project that helped to better connect places like Svaneti to the Georgian nation and which helped to lay claim to the mountainous regions as inherently Georgian. But this partnership also caused a number of conflicts within the larger Soviet alpinist community based in Moscow, which sought to develop alpinism among workers in the trade unions and which continued to conceptualize places like Svaneti as separate from the larger Georgian nation.

As a result of the ARISC fellowship, I have gained a much better understanding of the continuity in the overall goals of the Georgian alpinist community from the 1920’s until the 1950’s. After their first ascent on Kazbegi (mq’invarts’veri) in 1923, Georgian alpinists articulated a set of goals that argued for cooperation with local people, a physical and discursive conquest of specifically Georgian mountains, and for scientific research of the “motherland.” These goals remained clear operating principles well into the 1950’s, even as the Georgian alpinist community was more closely integrated into sport and tourism structures in Moscow. By examining Georgian language works during my fellowship, I have also been able see the many ways that Georgian alpinists continuously memorialized past expeditions and how they used these expeditions as orienting devices for future goals. This research has allowed me to understand how Georgian alpinists themselves conceptualized what was specifically Georgian about Georgian alpinism.

My current research has confirmed that conflict between Georgian alpinists and sport and tourist institutions in Moscow centered on conflicting conceptualizations of the Georgian nation, differing relationships with the mountainous populations, and ultimately contrasting ideas about how alpinism should be developed in Georgia. In the prewar period, this conflict continued to escalate and often led to outright hostility between Georgian alpinists and officials in Moscow. Unfortunately, the sources in Tbilisi were largely silent on how this relationship changed in the post-war period, since many of the most relevant materials for this period are located in Moscow archives. As a result, I spent an additional two and a half months examining documents in Russia, where I found a remarkable continuity to the pre-war period. Here, conflict between Georgian alpinists and Russian officials continued to revolve around competing ideas of space, arguments over the proper relationship with local peoples, and disagreements over the function of a nationally minded Georgian mountaineering community more generally, insights that would not have been possible without first examining many of the Georgian language sources available in Tbilisi made possible through the ARISC Graduate Fellowship.

Benjamin Bamberger is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. His research interests include Georgian mountaineering, Soviet nation-building, and Soviet tourism to the Caucasus.

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