A Century Ago, Georgia’s Government-in-Exile Chose a French Estate

As the Soviets expanded their power, the fledgling autonomous state set up shop in a chateau near Paris

A Century Ago, Georgia’s Government-in-Exile Chose a French Estate
The Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1927. (taglichtmedia/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

On March 11, 1921, three ships left Georgia’s port city of Batumi, sailing west across the Black Sea for Constantinople. The passengers on board included Prime Minister Noe Zhordania and other elected representatives of what would later become known as the first Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG). Stowed in the boats’ holds were countless reams of official documents from the infant state’s archives, artworks from Tbilisi’s newly established national gallery and priceless religious artifacts from churches across the country — all saved from destruction at the hands of the invading Red Army.

Arriving in France several weeks later, Zhordania and his fellow exiles purchased a chateau and grounds at Leuville-sur-Orge, a commune about 20 miles south of Paris. It was a fitting setting, having earlier provided refuge to Bernard Germain de Lacepede, a renowned botanist and early proponent of evolutionary theory during the Reign of Terror in the 1790s.

For years to come, the estate would serve as the headquarters of Georgia’s anti-Soviet emigre community in Europe, becoming not only a symbol of many Georgians’ hopes for an independent, democratic future but also the immense obstacles that stood in the country’s historic path and which, to a certain extent, still do.

Without exception, every Georgian ambassador to France since the collapse of the USSR over 30 years ago has expressed a keen interest in the estate at Leuville-sur-Orge. The question of its return to Georgian state ownership has become a test of veracity for every post-independence administration as the de jure heir to the DRG’s legacy in the eyes of the exiled government’s descendants. In 2016, the chateau was finally returned to Georgia after 89 years, and in 2018 the country elected President Salome Zurabishvili, herself a French-born Georgian whose forebears included influential members of the DRG.

The leafy 11-acre Leuville estate boasted a fairly serene base for exiled DRG members. Surrounded by picturesque fields, woodlands and marshes, the three-story stone building is painted a gentle orange. Just weeks after their arrival in France, the former Georgian state representatives bought the chateau and grounds with financial help from their political allies in Poland.

Zhordania, who had himself studied in Poland, enjoyed a close friendship with Polish chief of state Jozef Klemens Piłsudski, who had not forgotten how he had helped repatriate Polish tsarist troops from Georgia following Russia’s withdrawal from World War I.

Up to 30 Georgians are thought to have initially lived at the chateau, divided up into 15 apartments with a common lounge, with others lodging in smaller buildings on the grounds. To support themselves, residents kept cows, pigs and chickens, and they farmed local vegetables, Georgian red beans and Russian pickles that were sold at Parisian markets. For many years, even after the official Georgian legation was abolished in 1933, the estate remained a vital hub at the heart of the emigre community. As Zhordania’s granddaughter, Christine Pagava-Boulez, tells New Lines from her home in Paris: “When I was little, my grandparents would stay there during the summers. They had a little garden of their own, and when my grandfather wanted to do some gardening, there was always someone younger who would insist on doing it for him.”

Over time, however, many descendants of the exiled government gradually moved out to the capital and other parts of France, and despite the best efforts of Le Foyer Georgienne, the civil society organization set up by Zhordania and other former representatives, at the start of the 21st century, the estate at Leuville, namely its chateau built during the 17th and 18th centuries, had begun to fall into disrepair. By the time it was finally handed back to the Georgian state in 2016, its roof was leaking, its attic was full of water-damaged historical documents, and its white walls were peeling. Many of the doors were boarded up, the windows were closed by shutters, and much of the grounds were covered in overgrown shrubbery.

The Georgian government has since embarked on a large, $6 million refurbishment program so that the estate and its vast facilities — which include a vineyard, a library and a conference hall — can be used again, forming a cultural and research base for Georgian historians. The works, which Tbilisi says will restore Leuville’s previous prominence as key to its country’s development, are expected to be completed by 2026.

The Leuville estate in 1910. (National Parliamentary Library of Georgia)

The Georgians heading west across the Black Sea that late winter day were fleeing a country that was on the cusp of being swallowed by the Soviet Union after an impressive experiment with democracy — itself a burst of independence that had followed over a century of oppression under imperial Russia.

Tsar Alexander III brutalized Georgia. Assuming the Russian throne in the wake of his father’s 1881 assassination, the emperor pursued a ruthless policy of Russification across the Caucasus. A succession of military generals was charged with mercilessly routing out dissidents, ousting local languages from the school curriculum and banning non-Russian subjects from holding official positions. By the 1890s, repression had swelled the number of Georgian emigres to Europe, where, disillusioned with imperial rule, they were radicalized by the writings of Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the fathers of communism and anarchism, while studying at universities in Germany and France. Among them was Zhordania, son of a petty land-owning family, who returned from Poland in 1892 to work closely with peasants and factory workers in agitating against the tsarist regime.

Violence also reigned under Alexander’s son and successor, Nicholas II. In the aftermath of the 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre in St. Petersburg, popular uprisings in the western Georgian regions of Guria, Imereti and Adjara saw police officials killed, treasuries looted and estates burned to the ground. There were multiple assassinations, notably the bombing murder of Gen. Fyodor Gryaznov (likely orchestrated by a young Georgian rebel who would later call himself Josef Stalin), and the shootings of lauded national poet Ilia Chavchavadze and Nikon Sofiisky, an “exarch” (high-ranking official) of the Russian Orthodox Church sent from St. Petersburg to oversee Georgian ecclesiastical affairs. These in turn only met with further repression from the state, though financial reforms and subsequent economic growth did serve to reduce the level of generalized terror toward the end of the 1910s, further aided by patriotic fervor at the threat of an Ottoman invasion with the outbreak of WWI.

Not long after the tsar abdicated in March 1917, Russia’s provisional government authorized a Special Transcaucasian Committee to assume control of the region from what had previously been the viceroy’s palace in Tbilisi, only to be supplanted by the Transcaucasian Commissariat following the October Revolution later that year. The existence of this second body, too, would prove short-lived, owing largely to one crucial yet highly controversial question. Amid civil war in Russia, most members of the commissariat understood the need for European support in protecting against Ottoman aggression, but the Armenians favored intervention from the British while the Georgians advocated for help from the German Empire; the Azeris, meanwhile, were relatively unfazed by the expansionism of their Turkic kin. With Transcaucasian politicians paralyzed by disagreement, the Ottomans indeed busied themselves annexing portions of western Georgia, prompting Georgia’s newly established National Assembly, chaired by Zhordania and dominated by members of his Social Democratic Party, to declare sovereignty on May 26, 1918.

Though independence in these early years of the 20th century would last a total of 1,028 days, it was a period of extraordinary transformation. Under Zhordania’s leadership, women were granted equal suffrage and Georgians elected a Muslim woman to Parliament (few records survive of the life of Peri-Khan Sofieva, though folk anecdotes portray her as an indomitable, pipe-smoking, Mauser-pistol-wielding figure among Georgia’s patriarchal ethnic Azeri minority). The government also swiftly set up magistrate and supreme courts, multiparty administrative bodies, national universities, museums and galleries — including the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University and the National Art Gallery, also in the capital. Elected positions were created at the local level, with the express purpose of guarding against the emergence of clientelism and oligarchy, while the country’s Parliament came to include representatives of nine ethnicities, from Russians and Armenians to Azeris and Jews. Such were the provisions for decentralized governance, freedom of religion and protection of minority rights that Minister of Justice Razhden Arsenidze even declared Georgia to have acknowledged “the supremacy of the people in a uniquely democratic manner, not seen in any European constitution.” In their eyes, these progressive, Western-educated politicians had founded a modern state more European than Europe itself.

Domestic reforms nevertheless stood in stark contrast to the grinding realities of external affairs. Having seceded from the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (an independent state that briefly replaced the Transcaucasian Commissariat for less than a month in 1918), Georgia did secure protectorate status from the German Empire, though the Reich succeeded only in getting the Turks to respect Georgia’s ethnic borders before promptly collapsing and suing for peace just six months later. While the annexed territories were eventually returned under pressure from Britain, official British interests in the Caucasus only really extended as far as keeping Baku’s oil fields out of Bolshevik hands. Future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at that time the minister of war, was also a particularly strident supporter of former tsarist forces, and by extension the ambitions of White generals to see the region returned to Russian rule, winning him little favor in Tbilisi.

For the DRG, a young nation located at a continental crossroads, protection from the West posited not merely an existential question but also, should it survive the Russian Civil War, of what sort of future it might carve out for itself amid the radical upheavals and uncertainties of the 20th century. As Zhordania told the National Assembly during a 1920 speech: “The West, or the East — this is the question that is posed to us and on this question, we cannot hesitate. We have always chosen and will continue to choose the West.”

There was also, for Georgia’s first modern independent leader, no fundamentally irreconcilable tension between his party’s Marxist ideological foundations and the rule of empires with which Georgia sought closer alliance at that time. “I know, the enemies will say — you are siding with the imperialists! But I say without hesitation: I’d rather stand with Western imperialists than with Eastern fanatics!” he told the assembly. “The elementary thing is that working people stake their hopes on culture, not barbarity. They are the heirs to the capitalist society, not of the Asian self-isolation. They claim the right to riches they have created under imperialist direction. But they stand fully by the tenets of European industry and of European ideas,” he said, using some of the racial tropes common at the time.

Such hopes and entreaties, however, ultimately fell on deaf ears. By the time both Azerbaijan and Armenia had fallen to the Red Army at the end of 1920, the British had all but abandoned the Caucasus, and in February of that year the Bolsheviks invaded Georgia from the south, making quick work of the DRG’s defenses.

Among the former officials and representatives who set up headquarters at the estate, many of them also living at the chateau and its grounds with their families, dreams of soon saving Georgia from Bolshevik rule endured for several years. Zhordania, and in particular Noe Ramishvili, a former DRG war minister later assassinated by Soviet secret police in Paris, held fast to the idea that a decisive and well-coordinated rebellion at home would win the support of European nations, forcing the USSR to release Georgia from its control. A Committee for the Independence of Georgia was quickly established, an associated network of underground groups that would act to capitalize on the exiled government’s prevailing popularity at home, culminating in the August Uprising of 1924.

The committee’s long-plotted rebellion was crushed in just three days, with almost 1,000 of its participants executed by firing squads belonging to the Cheka (the Soviet secret police) and many hundreds more shuttled off to Soviet prison camps north of the Arctic Circle. It was a demoralizing defeat, exacerbated by the retributive shooting of several Georgians at a student meeting in Prague that summer and, two years later, the murder of founding committee member Grigol Veshapeli, both orchestrated by Soviet intelligence. Still, the emigre community, headquartered in Leuville, continued to work at preserving a sense of independent national identity — glorifying acts of defiance and decrying the declining quality of life at home in such newspapers as Free Georgia and La Georgie Independente, which were in turn smuggled into the country. Efforts were also made to impress a politics of differentiation upon their European hosts, in particular those of Sossipatre Assathiany, a former provincial governor, by lobbying French and Belgian politicians and diplomats to ensure Georgians were registered as distinct to Russians by their respective refugee administrations.

Eventually even these modest channels of resistance and influence were shut down. Having formally recognized the Soviet Union in 1924, the French finally abolished the Georgian legation just under a decade later, and by the time that Stalin’s Great Terror began in 1936, emigre editors were forced to concede that even clandestine networks could do little to disseminate their publications at home. Nevertheless, DRG representatives had already prudently undertaken to privatize the chateau at Leuville to prevent the estate being claimed by the USSR, with the proviso that it would be returned to state ownership if and only when Georgia should shake loose from Moscow’s rule. The arrangement was orchestrated with the help of Marius Moutet, a socialist member of the National Assembly of France and a sympathizer to the exiled government’s plight. Le Foyer Georgienne successfully bid for the estate at an auction in 1926, with Moutet ensuring that publicity and therefore any prospect of real financial competition were kept to an absolute minimum.

In France, Georgia’s exiled politicians, and in time their descendants, naturally came to serve as a sort of living embodiment of interrupted aspirations of independence. But it was the emergence in the late 1970s of a new generation of dissidents that witnessed a fierce revival of domestic interest in the short yet transformative history of the DRG. These included the musician and human rights campaigner Merab Kostava, who was active in protests for an independent Georgia free from Soviet rule (Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev freed him from prison in a 1987 amnesty for political prisoners), and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who would later become Georgia’s first independent leader in more than 70 years, in 1991. Indeed, off the back of this nationalist resurgence, Georgia’s eventual secession from the Soviet Union was framed not as a “declaration” but instead implemented through the adoption in 1991 of the “Act of Reestablishment of Independence.” And when the Georgian Military Council ousted Gamsakhurdia in a coup the following January, its first act was an attempt to fill the resulting power vacuum by restoring, word for word, the very same constitution ratified by the DRG back in 1921.

Interest in the question of returning Leuville to Georgian state ownership really began under Gamsakhurdia’s successor, President Eduard Shevardnadze, who set up an official commission on the subject and even personally visited the chateau in 1998. Le Foyer Georgienne, by this point made up almost entirely of the children and grandchildren of DRG members, felt however that Shevardnadze’s administration was unable to sufficiently guarantee their forebears’ legacy at the estate would be duly honored and were ultimately unable to reach an agreement with the commission.

But the momentum of such entreaties redoubled under Mikheil Saakashvili. Assuming power after leading Georgia’s bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003, Saakashvili’s avowedly pro-Western stance proved a constant thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who even suggested that the Georgian president should be “hung by his balls” for supposedly provoking the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, which itself saw Moscow consolidate control of two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, comprising just over 20% of sovereign Georgian territory. In the aftermath of the conflict, multiple state-sponsored projects were commissioned to commemorate the 1921 invasion, part of a wider effort to reaffirm the Georgian narrative of historic occupation in the midst of renewed Russian aggression. After much legal wrangling, a memorandum for the purchase of the Leuville estate was agreed upon in 2011, on condition that the building be turned partly into a museum and partly into a space for Georgian students to participate in cultural residency programs.

There remains a final ironic twist, as it was not in fact under Saakashvili’s leadership that the transfer of the chateau to Georgian state ownership was eventually completed in 2016, his government having suffered a resounding electoral defeat at the hands of billionaire business owner Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party four years earlier. Initially viewed as a new dawn after the 2008 war (to mention nothing of the rampant human rights abuses that plagued Saakashvili’s tenure as president), Georgian Dream has long clung to a mandate for ensuring non-escalation in relations with the Kremlin. Beginning in 2019 with the now-notorious “Gavrilov incident,” an official visit that saw Russian member of Parliament Sergei Gavrilov take a seat in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s chair, the trajectory of that policy has seen the country plunged into a state of perpetual political crisis that has only sharpened with the outbreak of war in Ukraine. In the wake of the invasion, critics have repeatedly accused Georgian Dream of seeking to inch Georgia ever further into Moscow’s orbit, exploiting the conflict by pushing a thinly veiled pro-Russian narrative of events while refusing to join sanctions against the Putin regime, all with a view toward alienating historic allies in the West.

Coupled with increasing attacks against opposition voices and civil society organizations (most notably earlier in March, when government attempts to pass an analogue of Russia’s “foreign agents” law prompted two nights of rioting in Tbilisi), this had serious implications for the Georgian public’s long-held aspirations of one day joining the European Union. The most recent turn in Georgia’s ongoing political crisis had been the attempted impeachment of Zurabishvili. Proceedings were launched after the president, who is also a French national, supposedly violated Georgia’s constitution for conducting a series of meetings with European political figures in an effort to further promote the country’s prospects for future integration.

Earlier this month, the European Commission did recommend the European Council grant Georgia candidacy status on the basis of overwhelming popular support, but noted that “these aspirations need to be better mirrored by the authorities… and further progress is needed” on areas for reform. Even if candidacy is granted, it will be many years before full membership, itself not a guarantee, can be secured. Leuville-Sur-Orge, and all it represents, has perhaps never seemed so close, and yet so far.

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