Thirty years ago today, the dying Soviet empire lashed out at the people of Georgia. April 9, 1989, launched our country on its path to independence, freedom and democracy.
I was a teenager attending Public School No. 1, on the central avenue in my hometown of Tbilisi. The school stood just a short distance from the spot from where, on that fateful spring day, Soviet troops assaulted my countrymen in an attempt to crush our thirst for freedom. Thousands of people — some of them on hunger strikes — gathered spontaneously to demand independence from Russian rule. Moscow dispatched Soviet troops under the command of Russian general Igor Rodionov to stop it.
Teenagers are impressionable, and nothing was left to the imagination. We witnessed unspeakable brutality. Russian soldiers bludgeoned unarmed citizens with military trenching tools. They gave no quarter, attacking even some of those who were fleeing. They fired tear gas and CS gas — a chemical weapon — at the crowds of peaceful protesters, paralyzing some, killing others. In the end, 21 Georgians lay dead, including 17 women and three that were no more than 16 years old, battered with trenching tools and suffocated by gas from the Soviet army.
Over the next few days, Soviet media claimed that these young men and women were guilty of stirring ethnic unrest and endangering public safety, and that they were trying to overthrow the government. But we knew the truth. Our friends and relatives had died because — like so many Georgians — they could no longer tolerate imprisonment in the Soviet Union’s empire. They sought to regain our nation’s independence from Moscow and to govern themselves in a democracy. Their only weapons were their voices; their only offense was gathering peacefully, which precipitated the unprovoked attack.
Two years to the day after Russian soldiers murdered our citizens on the streets of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Georgia declared its independence.
When you’re a teenager, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of crowds and the turmoil of events. I’m not certain I entirely understood the gravity of what had happened at that moment, but I did know that it was part of what was occurring in the broader region around Georgia thanks to broadcasts from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A captive nation was rejecting the disintegrating Soviet empire. The events of that terrible day set off a chain reaction of unrest throughout the communist bloc, ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself at the end of 1991.
For us, April 9 shifted the axis on which Georgia’s world had been spinning. Indeed, it was the beginning of some difficult years, as we had to sort out the complexities of breaking with a political order that had been forced upon us while restoring our old links to European civilization, which we saw as our birthright.
It wasn’t easy, and I doubt that anything my history teachers might have taught me about the collapse of empires such as the U.S.S.R. would have seemed much like the reality of what was happening on Tbilisi’s streets. The tumult of tumbling empires certainly looks much different to academics in laboratories than to the teenagers at the heart of events in Public School No. 1. For us, the sense of freedom we felt on the street was quite enough.
Today, when I visit my old school, now called “the Classical Gymnasium,” I meet students steeped in the values of Western civilization. The attributes of democracy we so deeply yearned for 30 years ago — real and free elections, an independent media, governance based on the protection of human rights that defends our freedom to worship, travel, speak openly, and to celebrate being Georgians — are commonplace to them. English is their second language of choice. In Tbilisi, modern businesses, banks, restaurants and boutiques have replaced their shabby Soviet predecessors. When students see soldiers, they are usually from Georgia’s own forces, who have been trained and equipped by NATO and have fought with their American brothers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many students continue their educations abroad, usually in the United States and Europe. Georgia’s Association Agreement with the European Union has opened previously closed doors; our candidate membership in NATO speaks to Georgia’s transatlantic aspirations. Georgia is fast becoming a gateway for U.S. businesses to access untapped Eurasian and regional markets via its U.S.-supported Black Sea ports, facilitated by Georgia’s many free trade agreements from Europe to China.
April 9, 1989, marked a new beginning for my country. It provoked a dramatic civilizational choice, which cannot be negated — even by Russia’s continuing occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. None of this was visible then, but this date has defined my country ever since, when the dreams of that teenager and his friends converged with a moment of Georgia’s destiny. A state was reborn, freedom triumphed, and nothing and no one would remain the same.
David Bakradze is Georgia’s ambassador to the United States.