by Peter Bridges
The United States and the ancient kingdom, now republic, of Georgia have honorable histories as civilized nations — Georgia’s far longer than America’s. The first, unofficial contact between the two came a quarter of a century after the United States had declared independence from Britain, and at a time when Georgia was losing its independence to Tsarist Russia. It would be decades more before American consular officials were stationed in Georgia — after a visit by a famous American general.
1 War and revolution of course closed that playground for a long time, for Americans as well as others.
The first recorded American visitor to Georgia was a man who bore the most common surname in America: Smith. He was, however, a most uncommon man, at least as regards travel. Joseph Allen Smith, who has been called an “American Grand Tourist,” was born in 1769 to a wealthy family in South Carolina,and, like a number of other wealthy young Americans, he went abroad.
Joseph Smith, however, did not go on the usual Grand Tour that a wealthy young Englishman might take, which was a trip of several months to France, Italy, and sometimes Germany. Smith spent fourteen years in foreign travel, and his travels took him to the Russian Empire including, briefly, Georgia, at the beginning of 1804. He went beyond Georgia into Azerbaijan, with a Russian military escort, and watched the Russian army occupy the Muslim khanate of Gandja. Smith might have returned to the Caucasus if he had become the American envoy to Russia, as he hoped would happen; but he was never named to a diplomatic post and never returned to the Russian empire.2
The next American to visit Georgia, just three years after Smith, was another wealthy young man from South Carolina, Joel Poinsett.3 Poinsett is best known as the American envoy to Mexico in the 1820s who, as an amateur botanist, discovered the shrub with beautiful red flowers which is named for him — the poinsettia. Later in life he served as a member of the U.S. Congress and as Secretary of War.
Poinsett traveled to St. Petersburg at the end of 1806, when he was 27 years old. Like Smith before him, he had a friendly audience with Tsar Alexander I. As a result, when he left the capital in March 1807 for the Volga and the Caucasus, accompanied by a 20-year-old Englishman, Lord Royston, the authorities provided them with an escort of Cossacks and sent word to Russian commanders that they should offer the two travelers all possible assistance. They traveled from Astrakhan to Baku, Tbilisi, and Erevan, where they watched the unsuccessful Russian siege of that city.
One can question how much young Poinsett, traveling with a Russian military escort, learned about Georgia and its people. However, we know from his diary that he “supped with Her Majesty the Queen of Imeretia on the roof of her house.” This was presumably outside Kutaisi, and the lady was presumably the wife of King Solomon II, who retained his throne until the Russians deposed him in 1810.4 One can only guess whether the queen gave Poinsett a briefing on Georgia and its difficulties.
Two other early American visitors to Georgia were Protestant Christian missionaries, the Reverend Eli Smith and the Reverend H.G.O. Dwight. They visited Tbilisi in 1830 in the course of a journey planned mainly to look into the condition of Christian communities in Armenia and Iran.5 They decided that there was no possibility of undertaking missionary work among the Georgians, given what they called “the thorough amalgamation of their church with that of Russia”.6
A decade after the two missionaries, a gentleman from the State of Vermont named George Ditson visited Georgia, escorted by a Georgian colonel in the Russian service whom he calls “Carganoff.” Ditson was both a good writer and an admirer of the Georgian people. He describes how two centuries earlier, “Georgia made her last grand stand against the whole Persian strength…acquitting herself with a sublimity of valor which still fires the souls of her sons….”7 When Ditson went from Tbilisi to see Mtskheta, the country’s ancient capital, he found that the beauty of the surroundings and the history of the place combined to “…give them a power over the beholder which he cannot surmount and which he can never forget.”8
As American society developed in the nineteenth century, an increasing number of Americans traveled abroad not just as tourists but as journalists and scholars. One of the more interesting American visitors to Georgia in that period was the first George Kennan. He was an elder cousin of the American diplomatist George Frost Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, after serving as American ambassador to the Soviet Union and publishing a number of notable historical works on Russian-American relations and other subjects.
The elder Kennan had first visited the Russian empire as a young surveyor for a possible telegraph line through Siberia. He came to eastern Georgia in 1870 when he was 25 years old.9 His purpose, he said later, was “partly to gratify a love of rough travel, and partly to study a comparatively unknown and highly interesting race of people — the Caucasian mountaineers.” (Besides his love of rough travel, Kennan had arranged before leaving America to give a series of lectures on his return that he was going to call “The Land of the Golden Fleece,” focusing on Georgia’s coast.10 In the event, he saw the coast but never delivered the lectures.)
Young Kennan reached Dagestan in September, coming from St. Petersburg. He decided to cross the mountains into Georgia not on the Georgian Military Highway but instead, in order to have a “novel and adventurous experience,”, to take a more southerly and far less traveled route. He spent a week in the village then called Temir-Khan-Shura (today’s Buinaksk) without finding anyone he could employ as a guide. Then, fortunately, he met a Georgian nobleman in the Russian service, Prince Giorgi Davidovich Djordjadze,11 who was returning to his home in the valley of the Alazani and who, Kennan found, was traveling with an escort of 25 armed men as well as guides and interpreters. Kennan was pleased, indeed relieved, to be invited to join him.
In early October the party passed through the last village in Dagestan, which Kennan called Bezhuta, and made their way upward along a rough snow-covered track to a pass at an elevation of twelve thousand feet, i.e. over 3600 meters. They were in a cloud, but as they descended the cloud lifted and, Kennan wrote, “beneath us lay the beautiful semi-tropical valley of Georgia…orchards, vineyards, and olive groves diversified it here and there with patches of darker green, and far away in the distance loomed the purple, snow-clad peaks of Armenia.” He was enchanted, and he remained enchanted when, hours later, the party rode into the courtyard of the prince’s white-walled mansion at Eniseli in the Alazani valley. There he spent five pleasant days. Alas, he wrote, the countryside was not what it once had been. On the prince’s estate, which was half as large as an American county, “I counted 14 churches and cathedrals, all empty and deserted….”12
In 1891 Kennan published his most famous work, Siberia and the Exile System. It was a shattering attack on the police regime of the Tsars. Unfortunately he never got around to writing a book about the Caucasus, although he planned to do so. In his index card files in the Library of Congress in Washington is a card from 1883 on which he had written “Title for my book on the Caucasus ‘Yalboos or the Great Ice-Mane,’ the Tatar name for the Caucasus range.”
So far, most Americans who were coming to Georgia were private persons and not officials. As transportation improved — including the opening of the rail line from Batumi to Tbilisi — and after the American Civil War ended in 1865 and many Americans became more prosperous, more Americans came to Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus.
Probably the most notable American who came to Georgia in the nineteenth century was not a private person but a senior military official. This was William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the top generals in the Union Army during the Civil War — the general who led the famous March to the Sea in 1864, cutting the Southern Confederacy in half. It was a march, in fact, through Georgia, the State of Georgia, for five hundred kilometers from Atlanta to Savannah on the Atlantic coast. When the Civil War ended, a composer wrote a song called “Marching through Georgia” that was often played at reunions of war veterans. They say that General Sherman heard the song so many times that he came to hate it — but that did not stop him from coming to the ancient Kingdom of Georgia.
Sherman came to Georgia in 1872, at which point he was the Commanding General of the United States Army. His visit was part of a long trip through Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, which he had arranged after an American admiral who was going out to command the European squadron of the U.S. Navy offered to convey Sherman from New York to the Mediterranean on his frigate.13 While the official purpose of the trip was to study European military establishments, a certain element of tourism was also involved.
From the Mediterranean, Sherman and his small party — including the American envoy to Russia, Andrew Curtin — took a commercial ship into the Black Sea. After several stops they reached Batumi and took the railroad to Kutaisi. Beyond Kutaisi the line was still under construction, but Sherman and his comrades took a construction train for another hundred kilometers and then continued by carriage to Tbilisi. The road was rough, but an aide who accompanied Sherman wrote that the countryside was “splendid.” Rhododendrons were in bloom and “the whole scenery enchanting.”
When the party reached Tbilisi, Sherman was received and entertained by the Russian viceroy for the Caucasus, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, the fourth son of Tsar Nicholas I. At this point Sherman decided not to retrace his route to Batumi but instead to take the Georgian Military Highway across the mountains to Vladikavkaz, which he did without incident, accompanied by an escort of sixty Cossacks.14 He seems to have enjoyed the several days he spent in Tbilisi; his aide wrote that their accommodations at the Hotel de l’Europe were “quite good” and that among other pleasant sights they saw was “a fine public park.”
American visitors kept coming to Georgia, though not in great numbers. Some, at least, could appreciate the country’s culture and long history. A correspondent of The New York Times who signed himself “D.K.” wrote after a visit to Georgia in 1884 that he had found there a mingling of East and West that “defies all powers of language.” How was one to behave, he asked, among men who showed you in modern times the very rock to which Jason moored the Argo when he came looking for the Golden Fleece? Five minutes’ walk in Tbilisi took you from the nineteenth to the ninth century. Sadly, though, “The historical names of Georgia’s hereditary nobles — Shervashidze, Vatchnadze, and the like — still linger on the scene of their former greatness, but they are now to be found inscribed over the doors of wine shops or on the gateways of public offices. A tall factory chimney flings its smoke over the river bank along which the hosts of ‘Prince David the Restorer’ marched in triumph 900 years ago.”15
Lyman Abbott, a well-known Protestant clergyman and author, wrote a detailed account of his visit to Tbilisi in the spring of 1901.16 He had sailed from New York several weeks earlier, on a cruise ship that made frequent stops as it sailed through the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. Before reaching Batumi, Abbott had read a brochure — presumably not written by a Georgian — that offered the ship’s passengers the possibility of a four-day excursion to Tbilisi, which was described as “a half-European, half-Asiatic town, aptly described as a city of contrasts, Cairo alone presenting a similar mixture of Oriental poetry and decay, with some of the humble types of European society.” Abbott was intrigued, and decided to take the excursion, along with a hundred and fifty other passengers, most if not all of them presumably American. A special train was arranged to take them from Batumi to Tbilisi and back to the ship.
After going ashore in Batumi, Abbott met the American consul, J.C. Chambers, who had held his post since 1890. Chambers was only a part-time consul; his salary was paid by the Standard Oil company, owned by John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller had sent Chambers to Batumi to gather intelligence on Standard Oil’s competitor, the Nobel company, which had opened the rail line from Baku to Batumi to ship Caspian oil to Black Sea tankers.17 Fortunately for the larger American business community, Chambers, as consul, also sent commercial reports to the State Department in Washington that were made available to the public.
One may note parenthetically that at the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had relatively few diplomatic missions abroad—forty-two—since there were far fewer independent countries than today. In contrast, there were over three hundred American consulates in foreign cities like Batumi. (The Batumi consulate had been opened in 1886.) The consuls and vice consuls were often only part-time government employees, but they played a useful role, helping American citizens abroad and sending a stream of informative reports to Washington.
A high point of Lyman Abbott’s trip to Tbilisi came when his excursion train reached the top of a long ascent through arid country, went through a tunnel, and “emerged, in a garden; the fields green with verdure, the trees radiant with blossoms, the villages alive with apparent prosperity.”/p>
Tbilisi was not quite what Abbott had expected. The hotel was pleasant, where he had expected a dirty room, and the city was less exotic, less “Oriental,” than what he had seen in Istanbul. Whether Abbott returned to America with any better appreciation of Georgia’s long history seems doubtful.
Another American visitor to Georgia, in the autumn of 1902, was a woman who wrote, under the pseudonym of “Margaret Stirling,” several articles for The New York Times that make good reading even today.18 Stirling arrived in Batumi from Odessa aboard a Russian passenger ship, after being “overjoyed” to see from the deck the “magnificent range” of the Caucasus and then the “wonderfully fine” coastal scenery as they approached the port. Stirling and another American woman took the train to Tbilisi, and several hours after their arrival set off for the Georgian Military Highway and Vladikavkaz in a private carriage pulled by four horses. On the second day of the trip they were told there had been recent skirmishes with bandits, and so they were pleased to join company with two other carriages, one of them carrying four Russian officers who were in turn pleased to be traveling with the two intrepid ladies. They crossed the mountains and reached Vladikavkaz safely, after what Stirling described as “a journey which, in beauty of scenery and events of interest, in my mind, can have no equal.”
Stirling and her friend returned to Tbilisi via Baku, and spent four days at what she described as the “delightfully clean” Hotel Ingles. Stirling was slightly disappointed with Tbilisi; it was interesting but not as “Eastern” as Tangiers; like Lyman Abbott she had hoped for something more exotic. She and her friend spent a day haggling for souvenirs in the bazaar, visited old churches and the “cool shades and quiet” of the old botanical gardens, and returned to Batumi “a little mournful at the thought of leaving the Caucasus and ending up the weeks which we could consider among the pleasantest of our lives.”
Mention was made earlier of European alpinists in Georgia. The author has found no record of American climbers in Georgia, or elsewhere in the Caucasus, in the 1800s. Some, at least, came in the 1900s, and of course a number come today. One of the climbers in the twentieth century was Lawrence Coolidge, a prominent American lawyer until his death in 1950. Coolidge went to Georgia as a young man in 1930, and later reached the summit of Elbruz alone, after a fellow-climber came down with altitude sickness.19 An American glaciologist and graduate of Harvard University, W. Osgood Field, visited the then remote region of Svaneti in 1929.20 His photographs of Svaneti and other parts of Georgia are prominently displayed today at the Hotel Tetnuldi in Mestia, the chief town in Svaneti.
Georgians began to come to America in the nineteenth century although, as best the author can ascertain, no Georgians reached the United States until some years after the first Americans visited Georgia. Givi Kobakhidze has written that the first Georgian immigrants in the United States and Canada arrived as early as the 1820s. More began to come, especially from the poorer mountainous regions of Georgia, in the 1860s, after the abolition of serfdom in the Russian empire and the end of civil war in America. A group of a dozen horsemen led by Prince Ivan Rostromov Marcheradze came in 1890, hired by the famous Buffalo Bill Cody and his Western show, the Wild Congress of Rough Riders. It is not clear how Buffalo Bill obtained the services of Georgian riders, but he had performed in Europe and his show included riders from various countries. A second group of Georgian riders, both male and female, came to America in 1910 and performed with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
It is difficult to ascertain how many Georgians may have come to America in the 1800s. Indeed, as Elene Medzmariashvili has made clear, it is difficult to be sure exactly how many Georgians have emigrated to America even in recent decades.21
The first well publicized account of Georgians in America was the first book published by George Papashvily and his wife, called Anything Can Happen. It told about his experiences as a penniless immigrant in this country in the 1920s, and it sold six hundred thousand copies in the United States alone. Papashvily became famous in America not only as a writer but as a sculptor. From what Papashvily wrote, there may have been no more than two or three Georgians in all of New York City at the time he arrived there. However, Givi Kobakhidze reports that by the 1930s a considerable number had come. A “Community of Georgian Emigrants in the United States” was founded in New York in 1931 on the initiative of Vano Kobakhidze and Pavle Kvaratskhelia.22
By the middle of the twentieth century a number of Georgian immigrants had become famous in America. Among them were the choreographer George Balanchine (born Giorgi Balanchivadze), the perfume manufacturer Prince Georges V. Matchabelli (Giorgi Machabeli), and the aircraft engineer Alexander Kartveli (Kartvelishvili), designer of the P-47 and F-84.
As to official contacts between the two countries, there were none, to the author’s knowledge, before Georgia was incorporated into the Russian empire at the beginning of the 19th century. The story begins when a man named Frederick Edison Gibbins was appointed part-time American consular agent at Batumi in 1883. Three years later, in 1886, came the opening of the American consulate there. As noted earlier, our consuls abroad sent periodic commercial reports to Washington, but for some years our consuls at Batumi were only part-time employees of our government and it does not appear that they were able to promote much American trade with Georgia.
One of the more interesting reports from Georgia, in 1910, was written not by a consul but by Frank Meyer, an American who was sent to the Caucasus by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find plants of possible economic value. He found that a factory in Georgia called Argo was manufacturing a product from roasted soybeans that was intended as a substitute for coffee. Meyer tasted the product, and found it better than a well-known coffee substitute called Postum that was sold in the United States until 2007. However, there is no indication that the Georgian product was ever imported into America.
Perhaps the most notable American consul in Georgia in the years before World War I was Felix Willoughby Smith, who was a native of the Black Sea region; he had been born in Odessa in 1872 when his father was the American consul there. Smith was an experienced member of what had by now become a career American consular service. Before entering the service he had practiced law in America for fourteen years, and he had served as a consular officer at Catania, Warsaw, Beirut, and Aden before coming to Batumi in 1914. He spoke fluent Russian and French, but no Georgian.
The World War broke out in August 1914. By November, Turkish forces were threatening Batumi. The Russian commandant there informed Consul Smith, on instructions from the Viceroy in Tbilisi, that all foreign consuls in Batumi and their staffs were to leave Batumi immediately for Tbilisi. Smith telegraphed the embassy in Petrograd to ask whether he should comply, and the embassy replied that he should “Accede to wishes of Viceroy.”23 Soon it seemed safe enough for consulates to return to Batumi. In May 1915, however, Smith was told by the commandant that he must again move to Tbilisi. He moved unwillingly — he saw no immediate threat — but he soon decided that Tbilisi was a better site than Batumi for his post. Tbilisi had greater wealth and political importance; it was the seat of the Russian Viceroy and “The powers of the Viceroy are absolute, few cases are referred to Petrograd or decided there contrary to his wishes.” The Caucasus offered wide opportunities for American-made goods. Smith was confident — and, he added, the Viceroy hoped — that the volume of trade would increase. Finally, Smith noted, all the major powers except for the Americans and the British had their principal consular offices at Tbilisi. 24
Thus began the official American presence in what would become, in 1918, the capital of a new Georgian republic. Smith did a competent job at Tbilisi. A consular inspector reported in November 1916 that “Smith is discreet officer and linguist and is well liked at this post. It is recommended that he be retained there until end of war unless his health demands transfer.”25It seems he was already suffering from the unspecified condition that was to bring about his death in 1920 at the age of 47.
After the Bolsheviks seized power in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1917, American officials focused their attention on the question of anti-Bolshevik forces in southern Russia. Consul Smith reported to Washington that in the Caucasus, the population and the army were refusing to join the Bolsheviks, and he recommended that the United States aid the anti-Bolshevik forces. The State Department was doubtful about this; it did not want to encourage what it called “sectionalism or disruption of Russia.” Smith responded that the new “temporary” Trans-Caucasus government in the process of formation was expressing “full loyalty to Russia.”
George Kennan, the diplomatist, has suggested that Smith was closely acquainted with many of the “local figures prominent in political developments” and as a result lacked objectivity in analyzing and reporting on these developments.26Neither Smith nor any other American official, it seems, foresaw that very soon, in May 1918, the Transcaucasian Republic would be succeeded by independent republics in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. (American officials’ inability to predict what was going to happen in the Caucasus is perhaps not surprising when one recalls how few experts predicted the demise of the Soviet Union.)
Before Georgia proclaimed independence, conditions in Georgia were seriously disturbed and it appeared that the Turkish army might occupy Tbilisi. In March 1918 Willoughby Smith moved his consulate across the mountains to Vladikavkaz.27Smith soon went on to America. Eventually the consular staff returned to Tbilisi. Smith too later returned there, but left for good after several months, as his health worsened. In January 1920 a new consul arrived, another experienced officer, Charles K. Moser.
Unfortunately Moser’s relations with the new republican government of Georgia proved far less than satisfactory. He blamed this in good part on the Minister of Supply, Giorgii Eradze, in the government led by Noe Zhordania, a Menshevik politician and journalist. Moser reported to Washington that Eradze was the dominant figure in Zhordania’s cabinet and that “He is credited with being the implacable foe of ‘capitalism’ and of ‘capitalistic government,’ in short, a pronounced Bolshevik.”28
There was, however, another problem. Georgia was now an independent republic and, as such, it expected—or at least hoped—that other governments would send to Tbilisi not just consular but diplomatic representatives. The fact was that the United States did not want to recognize the independence of Georgia or other nations that had been incorporated in the Russian empire, with the exception of Finland, Poland, and later Armenia. The State Department made clear that while Washington opposed the Bolsheviks it did not want to “prejudice…the principle of Russian unity.”29 In contrast, President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points of January 1918 had urged “autonomous development” for the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had later backed the creation of new republics like Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, despite American failure to recognize Georgian sovereignty, by January 1921 Consul Moser was able to describe his relations with the Georgian government as “amicable.”30
Alas, this situation did not last. The next month the Soviet army invaded Georgia and occupied Tbilisi. The American consulate was closed. This was, however, not quite the end of an American official presence in Georgia. For another eighteen months an officer of the U.S. Department of Commerce maintained an office in Tbilisi, and the official American Relief Administration carried out a relief operation in Georgia, as it did elsewhere in the former Russian empire, saving an estimated ten million lives. Finally, in September 1922, the pressures from the Soviet authorities had become intolerable. Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover informed the Department of State that he was closing the office at Tbilisi.31 Almost seven decades were to pass before American officials were again stationed in Tbilisi, after Georgia declared its independence from the USSR in 1991.
3. For Poinsett see Stillé, Charles J. “The Life and Services of Joel R. Poinsett,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 12:2 (July 1888), 129-164, and Charles Lyon Chandler and R. Smith, “The Life of Joel Roberts Poinsett,” op. cit., 59:1 (1935), 1-31.
9. Kennan, George. “The Mountains and Mountaineers of the Eastern Caucasus.” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York 5 (1874), 169-193. Years later Kennan published a more detailed account of his 1870 trip to Dagestan and Georgia in “An Island in the Sea of History,” The National Geographic Magazine, Washington, DC, 24:10 (October 1913), 1087-1139.
11. This prince may have been related to Prince Dimitri Jorjadze (1898-1985), who emigrated to America and became a hotel executive in New York. For an account of Giorgi Djordjadze’s modern descendants in Georgia see the Afterword by Frith Maier in Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan, ed. Frith Maier (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 243-246.
18. The articles in the The New York Times are “American Woman’s Trip through the Black Sea,” October 26, 1902, 26; “No Use Trying to Hurry Crossing the Caucasus,” November 2, 1902, 26; “Soldiers Guard Women on Rough Mountain Drive,” November 16, 1902, 33; “On the Highest Peak of the Green Caucasus,” November 23, 1902, 31; and “Perils of Train Travel in Russia,” November 30, 1902, 26.
20. Field spoke to the Harvard Travellers Club on April 22, 1930 on “The Swanetia, a District in the Mountains of Central Caucasus.” See Harvard Travellers Club, http://www.harvardtravellersclub.org/750th_meeting/HTC_list.pdf.
23. Embassy Petrograd telegram 97 to Department of State, November 5, 1914. National Archives & Records Administration (hereinafter NARA), Washington, Records Group 59, Records of Foreign Service Posts. .
25. Embassy Petrograd dispatch to Department, November 27, 1916, signed by the inspector, Nathaniel B. Stewart, adding that Smith “understands consular work very well and is familiar with both political and commercial conditions in his district.” NARA, loc. cit.
29. Letter, January 7, 1920, from Secretary of State Robert Lansing to representatives of Provisional Government of Lithuania. Text in “No Recognition for Lithuania,” The New York Times, February 10, 1920, 17. Lansing made clear that the United States was refusing to recognize not only Lithuania but other republics that, like Georgia, had declared independence from Russia.