Independence of the DRG had been recognized by Russia in the May 7 1920 treaty and the invasion of Georgia was not universally agreed upon in Moscow. It was largely engineered by two influential Georgia-born Soviet officials – Joseph Stalin and Grigoriy (Sergo) Ordzhonikidze, who obtained, on February 14 1921, a consent of the Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, to advance into Georgia on the pretext of supporting the "peasants and workers rebellion" in the country. The Soviet forces took the Georgian capital Tbilisi (then known as Tiflis to most non-Georgian speakers) after heavy fighting and declared the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic on February 25, 1921. The rest of the country was overrun within three weeks, but it was not until September 1924 that the Soviet rule was firmly established. Almost simultaneous occupation of a large portion of southwest Georgia by Turkey (February-March 1921) threatened to develop into a crisis between Moscow and Ankara and led to significant territorial concessions by the Soviets to the Turkish National Government in the Treaty of Kars.
Georgia effectively wrested out of Russian control in the chaotic aftermath of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917. After an abortive attempt to unite with Armenia and Azerbaijan into a federative state, Georgian leaders proclaimed the country’s independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia on May 26 1918. Through sporadic conflicts with its neighbors and occasional outbreaks of civil strife, Georgia managed to maintain its precarious independence and achieved more or less firm control over its newly established borders in the troubled years of the Russian Civil War.
Despite relatively high public support and some successful reforms, the Social Democratic leadership of Georgia failed to create a stable economy and build a strong and disciplined army that could be able to oppose the easily predictable Bolshevik advent. Although there were a significant number of highly qualified officers who had served in the Imperial Russian military, the army was underfed and poorly equipped. A parallel military structure, the People’s Guard of Georgia, was recruited from the members of the Menshevik Party, and was hence more honored and disciplined, but dominated by party functionaries and highly politicized.
Following the establishment of Soviet rule in Baku in April 1920, Ordzhonikidze, acting most probably on his own initiative, advanced on Georgia to support a planned Bolshevik coup in Tbilisi. The coup failed, however, allowing the government to concentrate all forces on successfully blocking the advance of Russian troops on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. Facing an uneasy war with Poland, the Soviet Russian leader, Vladimir Lenin, ordered to start negotiations with Georgia. In the Treaty of Moscow signed on May 7, 1920, Soviet Russia recognized Georgia’s independence and concluded a non-aggression pact. The treaty de jure established the existing borders between the two nations and obliged Georgia to surrender all third-party elements considered hostile by Moscow. In a secret supplement, Georgia promised to legalize the local Bolshevik party.
Despite the peace treaty, an eventual overthrow of the Menshevik-dominated government of Georgia was both intended and planned. With its well-established diplomatic ties with several European nations and its control of strategic transit routes from the Black Sea to the Caspian, Georgia was viewed by the Soviet leadership as “an advance post of the Entente”. Another reason why it was thought impossible to allow the Georgian government to stay in power was the Bolsheviks’ desire to take revenge on the Russian Mensheviks in European exile whose anti-Soviet propaganda could not so easily be silenced.
The cessation of Red Army operations against Poland, the defeat of the White Russian leader Wrangel and the fall of the Democratic Republic of Armenia provided a favorable situation to suppress the last independent nation in the Caucasus to resist Soviet control. By that time, the British expeditionary corps had completely evacuated the Caucasus and the West was reluctant to intervene in support of Georgia.
However, Russian military intervention was not universally agreed upon in Moscow and there was considerable disagreement among the Bolshevik leaders on how to deal with the southern neighbor. The People's Commissar of Nationalities Affairs, Joseph Stalin, who had, by the end of the Civil War, already accumulated a remarkable amount of bureaucratic power in his own hands, took a particularly hard line with his native Georgia, strongly supporting a military overthrow of the Georgian government and continuously urging Lenin to give his consent to advance into Georgia. The People's Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, strongly disagreed with what he described as a “premature intervention” explaining that the population would be able to carry the revolution. Pursuant to his national policy on the right of nations to self-determination, Lenin had initially rejected use of force, calling for extreme caution in order to ensure that the Russian factor would help and not dominate the Georgian revolution. However, as victory in the Civil War drew ever closer, Moscow’s actions became less restrained and, for many Bolsheviks, self-determination was increasingly "a diplomatic game which has to be played in certain cases".
According to Moscow, relations with Georgia deteriorated over alleged violations of the peace treaty, re-arrests of Georgian Bolsheviks, obstruction of the passage of convoys passing through to Armenia, and a suspicion that Georgia was aiding armed rebels in the North Caucasus.
On the night of 11 to 12 February 1921, with the instigation of Ordzhonikidze, the Bolsheviks attacked local Georgian military posts in the ethnic Armenian district of Lorri and the nearby village of Shulaveri, near the Armenian and Azerbaijani borders. The Armenia-based Red Army units quickly came to an aid of the insurrection, though without Moscow's formal approval. When the Georgian government protested to the Soviet envoy in Tbilisi, Aron Sheinman, about the incidents, he denied any Russian involvement and declared that any disturbances which might be taking place must be a spontaneous revolt by the Armenian communists. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks had already set up a Georgian Revolutionary Committee (Georgian Revkom) in Shulaveri, a body that would soon acquire the functions of a rival government. Chaired by a Georgian Bolshevik Filipp Makharadze, the Revkom formally applied to Moscow for help.
Disturbances erupted also in the town of Dusheti and among Ossetians in northeast Georgia who resented the Georgian government’s refusal to grant them autonomy. Georgian forces managed to contain the disorders in some areas, but the preparations for a Soviet intervention were already being set in train. When the Georgian army moved to Lorri to crush the revolt, Lenin finally gave in to the repeated requests of Stalin and Ordzhonikidze to allow the Red Army to invade Georgia, on the pretext of aiding a staged uprising, and establish Bolshevik power. An ultimate decision was made on the February 14 meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party:
The Central Committee is inclined to allow the 11th Army to give active support to the uprising in Georgia and to occupy Tiflis provided that international norms are observed, and on condition that all members of the Military Revolutionary Council of the Eleventh Army, after a thorough review of all information, guarantee success. We give warning that we are having to go without bread for want of transport and that we shall therefore not let you have a single locomotive or railway track. We are compelled to transport nothing from the Caucasus but grain and oil. We require an immediate answer by direct line signed by all members of the Military Revolutionary Council of the Eleventh Army.
Yet, the decision to support the invasion was not unanimous. It was opposed by Karl Radek and was held secret from Trotsky who was in the Ural area at that time. The latter was so upset by the news of the Central Committee decision and Ordzhonikidze’s role in engineering it that on his return to Moscow he demanded, though fruitlessly, the set up of a special party commission to investigate the affair. Later Trotsky would reconcile himself to the accomplished fact and even defended the invasion in a special pamphlet.
At dawn on February 16, the main 11th Red Army troops under Anatoli Gekker crossed into Georgia and started the Tiflis Operation aimed at capturing the capital of Georgia. At the battle on the Khrami River, the Georgian border forces under General Stephan Akhmeteli were overwhelmed and suffered a defeat. Retreating westward, the Georgian commander General Tsulukidze blew up railway bridges and demolished roads in an effort to delay the enemy’s advance. Simultaneously, Red Army units marched to Georgia from the north through the Daryal and Mamisoni passes and along the Black Sea coast towards Sukhumi. While these events were proceeding, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs issued a series of statements disclaiming all knowledge of military actions between Georgia and the Red Army, and professing willingness to mediate in any disputes which have arisen within Georgia.
By February 17, the Soviet infantry and cavalry divisions supported by aviation had significantly advanced to the Georgian capital, less than 15 kilometers southwest. The Georgian army put up a stubborn fight in defense of the approaches to Tbilisi, which they held for a week in the face of overwhelming forces of the Red Army. The strategic heights of Kojori and Tabakhmela passed from hands to hands from February 18 to February 20, when the Georgian forces under General Giorgi Mazniashvili rolled back the Red Army units which suffered heavy losses and started regrouping in an attempt to squeeze the circle around Tbilisi. By February 23, the railway bridges had been restored and Soviet tanks and armored trains joined the main Red Army troops into a renewed assault on the capital. While the armored trains laid down suppressing fire, the tanks and infantry penetrated the Georgian positions on the Kojori heights. On February 24, the Georgian commander-in-chief, Giorgi Kvinitadze, in an untenable position, bowed to the inevitable and ordered a withdrawal to save his army form complete encirclement and the city from destruction. The Georgian government and Constituent Assembly evacuated for Kutaisi, western Georgia.
On February 25, the triumphant Red Army entered Tbilisi and the Bolshevik soldiers engaged in wide-spread looting. The Revkom headed by Mamia Orakhelashvili and Shalva Eliava ventured into the capital and proclaimed the overthrow of the Menshevik government, the dissolution of the Georgian National Army and People’s Guard, and the formation of a Georgian Soviet Republic. On the same day, in Moscow, Lenin received the congratulations of his commissars – "The red banner blows over Tbilisi. Long live Soviet Georgia!"
The Georgian commanders planned to concentrate their forces at the town of Mtskheta, northwest to Tbilisi, and to continue battle on the new lines of defense. The fall of the capital, however, heavily demoralized the Georgian troops who had finally to abandon their positions at Mtskheta. The army was gradually disintegrating as it continued its retreat westward, offering largely unorganized, but sometimes fierce resistance to the advancing Russian troops. It took another two weeks to the Soviets to take hold of major cities and towns of eastern Georgia.
The Mensheviks entertained hopes of aid from a French naval squadron cruising in the Black Sea off the Georgian coast. On February 28, The French even opened fire on the 31st Rifle Division of the 9th Red Army under V. Chernishev operating at the coast, but did not land troops. Yet the Georgians managed to regain control of the coastal town of Gagra. Their success was temporary, however, and the Soviet forces joined by the Abkhaz peasant militias, Kyaraz, succeeded in taking Gagra on March 1, New Athos on March 3 and Sukhumi on March 4, and advanced eastward to occupy Zugdidi on March 9 and Poti on March 14.
The Georgians’ attempt of holding out near Kutaisi was further dashed by the surprise advance of a Red Army detachment from North Caucasia which traversed the virtually impermeable Mamisoni Pass through deep snow drifts and advanced down the Rioni Valley. After a bloody clash at Surami on March 5 1921, the 11th Red Army also crossed the Likhi Range into the western part of the country. On March 10, the Soviet forces entered Kutaisi, which had been abandoned by the Georgian leadership, army and People’s Guard to the key Black Sea port city of Batumi in southwest Georgia. Part of the Georgian forces withdrew into the mountains and continued to fight.
By that time, despite Moscow’s military successes, the situation in the Caucasus front became very precarious. Armenians, aided by the Red Army involvement in Georgia, had revolted, retaking Yerevan on February 18, 1921. In the North Caucasus, Dagestani rebels continued to fight the Soviets. The Turkish occupation of Georgia’s territories implied the near certainty of a Soviet-Turkish confrontation and the Georgians repeatedly refused to capitulate. Lenin, who feared an unfavourable outcome of the Georgian campaign, sent, on March 2, his "warm greetings to Soviet Georgia" but clearly revealed his desire to bring hostilities to an end as quickly as possible. He emphasized the "tremendous importance of devising an acceptable compromise for a bloc" with the Georgian Mensheviks. On March 8, the Georgian Revkom reluctantly proposed a coalition government, but the Mensheviks refused.
However, when the Turkish authorities proclaimed the annexation of Batumi on March 16, the Georgian government was forced to make a choice. Their hopes for French or British intervention had already vanished as France never considered sending an expeditionary force and the United Kingdom ordered the Royal Navy not to intervene. Furthermore, on March 16, the British and Soviet governments signed a trade agreement, in which Prime Minister Lloyd George effectively promised to refrain from anti-Soviet activities in all territories of the former Russian Empire. Simultaneously, a treaty of friendship was signed in Moscow between Soviet Russia and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, whereby Ardahan and Artvin were awarded to Turkey, which renounced its claims to Batumi.
The Turks were reluctant to evacuate Batumi and continued its occupation, however. The Georgian leaders quite ready, rather than have the Turks take Batumi, to see it occupied by the Bolsheviks agreed on talks with the Revkom to prevent Georgia's permanent loss of the city. In Kutaisi, the Georgian Defense Minister Grigol Lordkipanidze and the Soviet plenipotentiary Avel Enukidze arranged an armistice on March 17 and then, on March 18, an agreement which allowed the Red Army to advance in force to Batumi.
Amid the ongoing Turkish-Soviet consultations in Moscow, the armistice with the Mensheviks allowed the Bolsheviks to act indirectly from behind the scene, through several thousand soldiers of the Georgian National Army mobilized at the outskirts of Batumi and inclined to fight for the city. On March 18, the Georgians under General Mazniashvili engaged in a heavy street fighting with the Turkish garrison. While the battle raged, the Menshevik government boarded an Italian vessel and sailed into exile escorted by French warships. Fighting ended on March 19 with the port and most of the city in the Georgian hands. On the same day, Mazniashvili surrendered the city to the Revkom and Zhloba’s cavalry entered Batumi to reinforce the Bolshevik authority there.
The sanguinary events in Batumi halted the Russian-Turkish negotiations, and it was not until September 26 when the talks between Turkey and the Soviets, nominally including also the representatives of the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian SSRs, finally reopened in Kars. The Treaty of Kars, signed on October 13, contained the provisions agreed upon in March and some other new territorial settlements just reached. In exchange for Artvin, Ardahan, and Kars, Turkey abandoned its claims to Batumi, whose largely Muslim Georgian population was to be granted autonomy within the Georgian SSR.
The world largely neglected the violent Soviet takeover of Georgia. On March 27 1921, the exiled Georgian leadership issued an appeal from their temporary offices in Istanbul to "all socialist parties and workers' organizations" of the world, protesting against the invasion of Georgia. The appeal went unheeded, though. Beyond passionate editorials in some Western newspapers and calls for action from such Georgian sympathizers as Sir Oliver Wardrop, the international response to the events in Georgia was silence.
In Georgia, an intellectual resistance to the Bolshevik regime and occasional outbreaks of guerilla warfare evolved into a major rebellion in August 1924. Its failure and the ensuing wave of large-scale repressions orchestrated by the emerging Soviet security officer, Lavrentiy Beria, heavily demoralized the Georgian society and exterminated its most active pro-independence part. Within a week, from August 29 to September 5, 1924, 12,578 people, chiefly nobles and intellectuals, were executed and over 20,000 exiled to Siberia. From that time, no major overt attempt was made to challenge Soviet authority in the country until a new generation of anti-Soviet movements emerged in the late 1970s.
The 1980s wave of Gorbachev's Glasnost ("publicity") policy refuted an old Soviet version of the 1921-4 events. The first Soviet historian, who attempted, in 1988, to revise the hitherto commonly accepted interpretation of the Soviet-Georgian war, was a notable Georgian scholar, Akaki Surguladze, ironically the same historian whose 1982 monograph described the alleged Georgian worker revolt as a truly historical event.
Under strong public pressure, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR set up, on June 20 1989, a special commission for investigation of legal aspects of the 1921 events. The commission came to the conclusion that "the [Soviet Russian] deployment of troops in Georgia and seizure of its territory was, from a legal point of view, a military interference (intervention) and occupation aimed at changing the existing political regime. At an extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR convened on May 26 1990, the Sovietization of Georgia was officially denounced as "an occupation and effective annexation of Georgia by Soviet Russia."
Modern Georgian politicians and some observers have repeatedly drawn parallels between the 1921 events and Russia’s policy towards Georgia and Western Europe’s reluctance to confront Russia over Georgia in the 2000s, especially during the August 2008 war.