Georgia is a storied nation both figuratively and literally. It’s a place that’s dealt with centuries of censorship, iron fist ruling, and ongoing occupation that’s led to a past equal parts tragic, victorious, and complex. Have a look at some of Georgia’s most notable historical figures – many of them were writers, poets, journalists – storytellers at their core. Or take an afternoon stroll down any neighborhood in Tbilisi, and you’ll find that every other street is named after a writer or artist. Whether you’re new to Georgia or not, you’ll find that literature in all its forms is a key part of its history, culture, and identity. Which is why I put together a list of my favorite Georgian writers and poets that I think you should know about. Their stories are unique, colorful, and in a lot of ways shaped the Georgia we see today.
Ilia Chavchvadze (1837 – 1907)
Ilia Chavchavadze, and that’s Prince Ilia Chavchavadze to you, is one of the most recognizable names in Georgian history. As one of the country’s most appreciated heroes, he was a prominent leader in Georgia’s national movement, which gained traction in the early 1900s. In his day he wore many hats, he was a renowned poet, patriot, journalist, lawyer, and publisher – but his most profound work actually came from his journalism and work on literacy throughout Georgia. He founded two notable newspapers – Sakartvelos Moambe (Narrator of Georgia) and Iveria – the latter of which was used to focus on Georgian liberation from Russia, the revival of the Georgian language, and rekindling of Georgian culture and traditions, many of which had been lost or watered down by the Russian Empire.
Adamantdantly against the “Russification” of Georgia, he established schools across Georgia that provided education in the Georgian language and created several other cultural, educational, and economic institutions in the name of preserving Georgia and, ultimately, Georgians. He continued to work toward autonomy through the years while publishing some of the country’s most important stories and poems, such as The Hermit, Happy Nation, and The Ghost.
In 1907, he and his wife were traveling between Tbilisi and Saguramo when they were ambushed and murdered outside the small village of Tsitsamuri. His killers were never found, and the reasons behind his death are still heavily debated. Many think he was killed by Tsarist secret police. Others believe he was taken out by the Bolsheviks who were quickly gaining traction and would have reason to take out a prominent figure who advocated for Georgian autonomy. His legacy is still strongly felt throughout Georgia today. In fact, in 1987, he was canonized as Saint Ilia the Righteous and is referred to by many as “The Uncrowned King” and “Father of the Nation.”
There, where Mount Kazbek rears his noble brow, Where eagle cannot soar, nor vulture fly, Where, never melted by the sun’s warm rays, The frozen rain and snow eternal lie; — The Hermit // Ilia Chavchavadze
Galaktion Tabidze (1892 – 1959)
Galaktion Tabidze, or Galaktioni, is synonymous with hopeless romantic. He was a man who felt things deeply – he was emotional and sensitive and tender-hearted and absolutely lovelorn and full of so many pretty things to say. In his lifetime, he authored literally thousands of poems with symbolism playing on his inner conflict and frustrations – one of the most famous being The Moon Over Mtatsminda. Galaktioni famously survived Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s, which led to the deaths of a million people in the Soviet Union, many of them artists, writers, and poets just like him. His wife, Olga Okujava, wasn’t so lucky. During the Purge, she was arrested and exiled to Siberia, where she eventually died, and Titsian Tabidze, his cousin and fellow poet, was executed.
Sadly, despite surviving one of the largest mass murders in the Soviet Union, his fate would still be a tragic one. He was thrust into decades of extreme depression and alcoholism, which eventually landed him in a psychiatric hospital in Tbilisi, where he commited suicide.
His most famous works include Without Love, I and the Night, Azure Horses, and The Wind Blows. I personally like The Moon Over Mtatsminda – here’s a clip.
My eyes have never seen the moon so lovely as tonight; In silence wrapt it is the breathless music of the night. Moonbeams embroider shadows with fine thread of silver light; O, eyes have never seen the sky so lovely as tonight! –Galaktion Tabidze // The Moon Over Mtatsminda
Vazha-Pshavela (1861 – 1915)
Luka Razikashvili, known by his pen name Vazha-Pshavela, is easily one of Georgia’s most iconic figures and recognized by his deep, powerful stare framed with a frizzed papakhi and thick beard. The name Vazha-Pshavela translates to “son of Pshavians” in Georgian, a tribute to his highlander roots in Eastern Georgia’s Pshavi province and main inspiration behind his work.
He authored around 400 poems, many of which played on heavy societal themes, Georgian liberation, and everyday life. A patriot through and through, Vazha was notorious for his tales of strong-willed, tenacious people with a zeal for freedom and nerve to resist while also examining the human condition, and deep-rooted problems in society. Given the storied and often tragic past of Georgia being occupied, even today, people like Vazha serve as a symbol of national pride and defiance.
On the far side of the village was a hill, Scorched, and dusty; Many brave men lay there, Lion-hearted, nobly bred. The silent hillside sloped below, A torrent flowing through clay. Those who wielded sword and gun, Their strong hearts no longer beat; The voiceless ground devours them, Harsh and insatiable; — Guest and Host // Vazha Pshavela
Shota Rustaveli (1160 – 1220)
Picture this, it’s the 12th century, and the Kingdom of Georgia is living its best life. Art is flourishing in every form imaginable, from architecture to literature to painting; it boasts one of the strongest and most respected military defenses in the region, and the country is run by a woman who’d go down as one of Georgia’s most iconic Kings (you read that right). This, friends, was Georgia’s Golden Age, and Shota Rustaveli was smack dab in the middle of it. He laid the groundwork for plenty of artists and poets to come, and it’s mostly thanks to his love for Georgia. Well, Georgia and King Tamar.
One of the most notable things about Rustaveli was his nonstop pining over the most powerful woman in the Caucasus, King Tamar. However, aside from his unrequited love and a deep sense of patriotism – after all, he did author Georgia’s most beloved national epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin – very little is known about him.
Despite his relative ambiguity, today you’ll find the name “Rustaveli” written all over Tbilisi, from avenues to metros to theatres and beyond. The way I see it, the mysteries surrounding Rustaveli only add to the allure surrounding Georgia’s most prosperous and fascinating era.
A warrior sat weeping on the bank of the stream– a strange knight. Holding his black horse by the rein, he looked strong and ready to fight. His pearl-studded armor, saddle and bridle were all glossy white. His ruddy cheeks were wet with tears: they had never seen such a sight. –The Knight in the Panther’s Skin // Shota Rustaveli
Mikheil Javakhishvili (1880 – 1937)
Mikheil Javakhishvili’s own life story is as fascinating and tragic as his literary works. Born Mikhel Adamashvili, his surname was changed because his grandfather killed a man and had to take up a new name. He kept the name Adamashvili into adulthood but eventually returned to his ancestral name of Javakhishvili. Then, when he was in college, robbers killed his mother and sister, and his father died shortly after.
If that weren’t bad enough, Tsarist regimes were at an all-time high, and his critical journalism of the Russian Empire forced him to leave the country. He wound up in Paris, traveled around Europe for a while, and lived a relatively happy and adventurous life. A decade or so later, he returned to Georgia only to be arrested by the Tsarist errand boys and exiled from Georgia for good.
Fast forward a few years, and the Bolsheviks had successfully taken down the Russian Empire only to replace it with the Soviet Union, which would land him in a much worse fate. Mikheil once again heads back home, where he continues writing and churning out some of the best novels of Georgia’s 20th century. However, because of his patriotism and anti-Soviet views, he was tortured to death and became one of the million victims of the Great Purge.
His writing is famous for its portrayal of the tragically short-lived independence in Georgia and satirical, funny yet devastating parallels found in Tsarist, independent, and Soviet times. At the core, though, Mikheil is a tragic example of the fates of countless other artists, thinkers, and people who dared to have ideas.
“Georgian nationalism or patriotism is only hatred of foreigners who have invaded your house, wife, and children, and work. Russian nationalism is the unbridled greed of the beast, which has eaten nine out of ten neighbors and demands a tenth.” – Mikheil Javakhishvili
Alexander Kazbegi (1848–1893)
Born in Stepantsminda, the heart of Kazbegi and arguably Georgia’s most beautiful mountain area, Alexander Kazbegi is one of the greats. He’s mostly famous for his novel The Patricide, which follows a Caucasian rebel named Koba who had a big taste for vengeance and defending the poor. Think Robin Hood – equally heroic but more violent. He studied in Tbilisi, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow but decided instead to become a shepherd for a more adventurous and humble life experience.
After seven years of tending to sheep, he continued writing as a journalist, novelist, and playwright, but sadly his days were numbered. Later in life, he suffered from insanity and died in Tbilisi at just 45 years old. Just a few decades later, a certain Iosif Jughashvili, aka Joseph Stalin, would become inspired by the tales of Koba and perverse it into his own revolutionary ambitions.
Paolo Iashvili (1894 – 1937)
image: National Parliamentary Library of Georgia/Dato Shugliashvili
Paolo Iashvili was a well-educated Imeretian poet who hailed from Kutaisi and spearheaded the Georgian symbolist group Blue Horns. The literary club included members like Giorgi Leonidze, Titsisan Tabidze and countless other respected authors of the time. He travelled all over and even had a stint at the Louvre’s Art Institute in Paris. In the 20’s he would’ve been described as “brilliant, polished, and amusing,” but that was all slated to change.
Early on, Paolo was a sincere supporter of the Sovietization of Georgia and even wrote a poem on it called New Georgia. He saw his conformity into the Union as an obligation to move toward a better future – a necessary responsibility to move away from Imperial Russia and toward whatever the Bolsheviks were doling out. Then, in 1924, his brother was shot dead in the August Uprising, the largest armed demonstration against the Soviets in Georgia. But by that time, he’d already bitten off more than he could chew and was deep in the throes of the Union.
Following the bans on Georgian literature (and lots of other things) he became one of the most exploited and abused pawns of the Great Purge. He was forced by Beria and Stalin to testify in public trials against several of his close friends and fellow writers, intellectuals, and artists who the Soviets deemed “ideologically harmful” or “enemies of the Union.” In no time at all, he was left with nobody. His forced testimonies led to nearly everyone he knew being tortured and then executed.
“Inseparable melancholy set in his velvet eyes. Rarely if ever did we meet him, either at the Writers’ Palace or on Machabel Street. His life was so quickly extinguished. “–Shalva Apkhaidze
He was given the option to publically denounce his lifelong friend and fellow poet Titsian Tabidze (cousin of Galaktioni who was later executed anyway), effectively killing him, or be arrested and tortured by the NKVD. Instead, he burst into the doors of the Writer’s Palace and shot himself. Though it wasn’t seen that way at the time, Paolo’s death was a murder by the Soviet regime rather than a suicide.
Stalks of barley and black wheat nod ominously. I race towards them. The poet’s pen no longer sings though it used to be his nightingale. — Desk – My Parnassus // Paolo Iashvili
Ana Kalandadze (1924 – 2008)
image: National Parliamentary Library of Georgia
Georgian poetry is not all male revolutionaries and lovesick misters. Hailing from the humble village of Khidistavi in Guria, Ana Kalandadze is one of, if not the most influential female figure in all of Georgian literature. And she certainly earned her stripes. The majority of her poetry examines the tenderness, intimacy, beauty, and bittersweetness of life. Throughout her lifetime, Ana racked up more than a few prestigious recognitions, especially for a woman.
During the Soviet era, she was awarded two Badges of Honor and an Order of Merit. Later she received the Shota Rustaveli State Prize, Galaktion Tabidze Prize, and Saba, along with countless other awards and accolades. Her poetry has also been transformed into lyrics with songs like “Sakartvelo, Lamazo” (Georgia, beautiful) which can be heard here.
I can hear the grass is breathing as it grows, And yet…why is my heart still closing on me? Dry seeds left over on the branches of the rose, The sparrows peck them up and then the sparrows flee. — Sun of the Dead // Ana Kalandadze
Nikoloz Baratashvili (1817-1844)
Baratashvili’s biggest claim to fame is his combination of modern nationalism with European romanticism which is just a fancy way of saying he combined his musings for patriotism with some imaginative and emotional pizazz. He’s even been famously coined as the “Georgian Lord Byron.” However, not financially able to finish his education and unable to serve in the army due to a leg defect, he led a mostly frugal life – but not without at least a little adventure. He was heavily involved with Princess Dadiani of Mingrelia, Ekaterine Chavchavadze, who inspired a great deal of his poetry. But of course, because of his status, she eventually rejected him for a prince. Deep inside, he was troubled and felt his life had no purpose at all.
Then, at just 27 years old, he died of malaria, mostly unpublished, unheard of, and irrelevant to the world of poetry. It wasn’t until years later that his less than 40 poems were published and made him one of Georgia’s most appreciated and revered literary figures.
He wrote one of his most influential poems at just 22 years old, Fate of Georgia, where he tells a story of King Erekle II and his chancellor opposing a union with Russia for the sake of Georgia’s national identity.
Akaki Tsereteli (1840 – 1915)
Akaki Tsereteli was one of Georgia’s most proactive national liberation figures and great friend of Ilia. He was born into a wealthy Imeretian aristocratic family who followed an old tradition of sending their children to be raised by village families. He was brought up by peasant ladies in the village of Savane; which gave him a distinct sympathy for village and peasant life under the Russian Empire.
In his time, he authored countless patriotic, historical, and satirical poems; all of which played on a desire for a revival of Georgian culture. The most famous of which was transformed into a famous Georgian folk song Suliko which is based on Tsereteli’s poetry. You can hear it performed by the famous Basiani Ensemble here.
I was looking for sweetheart’s grave, But I couldn’t find it, it was lost. I cried my heart out: ‘Where are you, my suliko?!”
I noticed rose among thorns, Which was blossoming there alone. With excitement I asked: “Are you my suliko?!” — Suliko // Akaki Tsereteli