Georgian archives and libraries
Updated: Jun 15
For our archives and libraries series, Peripheral Histories? editor Siobhán Hearne spoke to Anton Vatcharadze, Shorena Osipova, and Timothy Blauvelt about archives and libraries in Georgia.
Anton Vatcharadze is currently Head of Memory and Disinformation Studies at the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information and was formerly the Director of Georgia’s Central Historical Archive in Tbilisi.
Shorena Osipova is the Head of the Rare Books Department at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia.
Timothy Blauvelt is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Ilia State University and Regional Director in the South Caucasus for American Councils. He sits on the Board of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Archival Administration.
Siobhán Hearne: How did you get into your current position?
Anton Vatcharadze: I began an internship in 2008 at the HR department of the Ministry of Justice. I went there because there was an opportunity, I mean I am a historian and humanitarian, but nevertheless I started there. There are archives within the Ministry of Justice and in 2009 they required a HR specialist. A year later the director of the Central Historical Archive retired after, so there was an open call for the position. I applied and after language tests, IQ tests, and an interview, I got the job. I worked there for six years.
It was a very interesting journey, working as the director of the Central Historical Archive. I did one of the archive’s first scientific projects and applied for funding to the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation of Georgia. Now they have many projects running there, working with the US Embassy and other private funders. When I started there were around 25 people working there. At the start, I didn’t feel that they accepted me as a director because I was young, and from their point of view directors should be 60+ years of age. This changed after a few months and we did lots of good stuff together.
Shorena Osipova: I started worked at the National Library in 2007, so 16 years ago. First, I started working in the Public Relations department. The Director of the Library told me that he had an interesting project and asked me to join him. It was in the field of cataloguing, because previously we only had paper catalogues and they were very old, damaged, and there was a lot of mistakes. We started to put together our e-catalogue and during this work we worked with library items (books, manuscripts and so on) and found a lot of interesting things. During this project, we started to collect bookmarks, science books, and book stamps from the various societies of Georgia. In 2016, the director called me and offered me a job as the head of rare collections.
Timothy Blauvelt: My background was in political science. I came to Georgia in 1999 to do research for my dissertation, and then came back after I defended in 2002 and I’ve been here permanently since then. I have two jobs, and one of them is as the regional director for American Councils, and we oversee and facilitate in part research and fellowships for researchers. I would also say that exactly because there were such remarkable archival materials here in Georgia that I really became interested and switched from being a political scientist to being a historian, although I would say still really I’m a political historian. There is just so much here in Georgia, and it is just so fascinating and accessible.
I'm also a member of the Board of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Archival Administration, which oversees the Party and the KGB Archives. Because of my work with American Councils and in supporting research, I am also on the board of IDIF, Anton's organization. I've been involved with advocacy about archival openness, as well as the reform and improvement of archival procedures.
Siobhán Hearne: How did you become involved in the Ministry of Internal Affairs Archival Administration Board?
Timothy Blauvelt: I think one of the reasons I was invited was the reform in the Archival Department of this Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was overseeing the KGB Archive. At that time, they really wanted to attract international attention be open with their materials, so they were inviting in historians, international historians, and sort of local international historians, and they were also very eager to publish stuff. They began publishing this archival bulletin and they asked me to help edit that. The publication still exists, but it’s rare now (down from four editions per year to just one a year or even one every two years), and I think they don't have the funding that they did under the previous government. But the that desire for involvement and openness remains there within this archival administration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Siobhán Hearne: What are some of the hidden gems in archival collections? Or items that are only rarely used by researchers?
Shorena Osipova: Like every old library, we have some very unique items. We have many Georgian editions of books in short print runs. We have unique editions that were confiscated during Soviet times, so we might have the only copy of a given book. We also have a small collection of manuscripts and Medieval manuscripts that we have started to digitise, but some are very damaged and need restoration. We also have an archival collection including documents of many famous people from Georgia from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We also have documents about the first republic of Georgia 1918-1921. We have private letters, all of which we would like to publish.
I think that most people who come to Georgia to work at the library work with our periodical collection. For example, we recently had visitors from the German Institute of Geology and they came specially for our E. Veidenbaum collection, who was one of the first directors of the library (1917-18) and who collected all books about Georgia and the Caucasus. The researchers found all kinds of interesting books that they had never seen elsewhere.
Anton Vatcharadze: At the Central Historical Archives, there are a lot of documents that are hidden gems. I can talk a little about what we discovered during my time there. The archive is useful not only for people who are doing family history, but in general for wider society. I remember when two respectable ladies in their 50s came over from Iran to our archive and told us that they knew that their great grandfather had owned some big properties in Tbilisi. We started to search in the notary fonds from the nineteenth century and we discovered that this man was the owner of an entire medium-sized district of Tbilisi called Ortachala!
We also discovered some documents that filled the biographical gap of Alexander Kartveli, one of the aircraft engineer pioneers in the United States. We discovered his autobiography, diplomas, and some correspondence. For example, he asked the government of the First Georgian Republic to send him to study abroad in France. He went to Paris and then Georgian Democratic Republic was occupied by the Bolsheviks, so he never returned and continued on to the US. The documents that we found tell the story of the early years of his life, which until then was unknown. He participated in the First World War, worked in Petrograd, and then worked in Georgia.
There is also the so-called old documents department, which contains documents from the ninth century until 1800. This collection is well known, but still our colleagues and the other historian discovered many interesting within it. For example, there is a Bible and our laboratory discovered a hand-drawn portrait of a Patriarch, which was otherwise completely invisible. More than 100 more years will pass and people will still discover many important documents hidden gems in the Central Historical Archive. It’s big enough – there are around one million archival files there.
Siobhán Hearne: For researchers based in the UK and elsewhere who study the history of the Russian Empire, I am assuming that there are thousands of documents that they could be working with on the Georgian region of the Empire?
Anton Vatcharadze: Yes, and not only Georgia. Tbilisi was the centre of the Caucasus Viceroyalty (Кавказское наместничество). There are not only many documents on Georgia, but also on Azerbaijan and Armenia held here in Tbilisi.
Timothy Blauvelt: Regarding nineteenth century history, the Central Historical Archive also has the fonds of the Chancellery the Viceroyalty and the Military Administration of the Mountaineers (Кавказское военно-народное управление). The latter has many documents regarding how the tsarist administration governed the Muslims in the regions they considered to be unstable, so all the North Caucasus. There’s also the Gendarmes files from the period of 1898-1905, which is really interesting as it includes police surveillance of revolutionary groups.
In the Party Archive, the main fond that people use is fond 14, which is the Central Committee, and it’s a huge part of the archive and where the central political documents can be found. There’s also fond 13, which is the fond of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, which existed from 1922 to 1936. That has documents related not only to Georgia, but also Armenia and Azerbaijan. Most documents are in Russian, but there are also documents in Armenian and Azerbaijani too. There’s also fond 93, which is the Old Bolshevik Society and which contains biographical files about revolutionaries. Many revolutionaries were associated with the Caucasus in some way, so there are some really interesting people in that fond. Finally, fond 8 holds biographies and memoirs of party members. Most of them were written in the 1950s and 1960s, but many talk about the revolutionary period and the Soviet period.
The building of the KGB archive caught on fire during the war of the early 1990s so around 80% of the files in the archive were burned, including all the informant files. There are some people who say that this was not an accidental fire, as many people wanted the KGB archive to burn. Perhaps this is a convenient way to get around the issue of lustration, which has been so difficult in many other post-socialist places.
The 20% that remains is primarily the criminal case files, there are around 30,000 and the vast majority relate to the period of the terror. There is a database and you can ask staff to search names within the archive. I have never seen an opis’ or fond list, but you can search people by name. There can be some really interesting things in these case files. You can see when people ask for rehabilitation in the 1980s. There are also trials of KGB officials after the Stalin period carried out in Tbilisi in 1957-58, where at least nine were tried for counterrevolution. These are really useful for looking at the question of perpetrators and the motivations of KGB officials during the terror.
Siobhan Hearne: What about the post-war period? What kinds of documents could researchers work with?
Timothy Blauvelt: In Party Archive there are plenty of files on the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. There are transcripts of meetings, reports, and criminal cases that relate to cases of nationalism. There’s also the criminal file on the airplane boys, the famous case of these young people who hijacked an airplane in 1983.When you get to the perestroika era, that’s when the library will be particularly interesting because of its extensive newspaper collection.
Siobhán Hearne: What are the main challenges of the kind of work that you do in archives and libraries?
Shorena Osipova: The first challenge, I think, is the technical challenge. We are developing our library and our programmes, and we have now we try to adopt it to the needs of the many people who come to work here. Tbilisi is a very international city and we also have documents and manuscripts in many languages, but we often do not have specialists who are able to catalogue them. Our building is also too small for our collections and we have issues with storage. We need a new space to store our collections, which is not too far from our main building.
Anton Vatcharadze: Some of the problems relate to the broader challenges in our country. First of all, very low salaries for archive workers, which is one of the reasons that I left my job at the Central Historical Archives. Besides me, many interesting young people and young historians also left their job at the archive for this reason.
Second, after the appointment of the minister Thea Tsulukiani, the archive became more and more closed. Entry for scholars, especially for foreign scholars, became much harder. Before this we had an application that foreign scholars could submit which would grant them access to the archive for one year, but then this was changed to only three months. The application procedure also became longer and more complicated, and researchers had to wait 4-5 days for their documents to be reviewed before receiving access. It remains a big problem today. We were always trying to help scholars, especially those who come from abroad, and those who contribute to Georgian history. We also tried to make photography free and accessible in the archive, but this was refused also.
Timothy Blauvelt: It is interesting because in the Central Historical Archive there appears to be a reversion to more Soviet approaches, ie. the archive is the Ministry’s property at the employees’ job is to defend it from the researchers. When Anton was the archive’s director, you would receive permission to work there within one hour, and now it’s 4-5 days at least. Before this, Georgia was like an exemplary open place in terms of archives, but this seems to be indicative of a more general kind of change of orientation that's unfortunately happening in the country.
With that said, the Party and KGB archives are since open in the sense that you can come in and start working almost immediately. I’ve never been refused anything, or heard of people being refused files in the KGB or Party archives.
The Georgian National Library is completely open and you can photograph absolutely anything. It is open on nights and weekends, so it’s a good place to work while you wait for your access to be approved, if you are going to be working at the Central Historical Archive.
Siobhán Hearne: What do you wish people knew about archives in Georgia?
Anton Vatcharadze: Of course, I wish that more people would apply to research in the Central Historical Archive, but I also wish that the barriers were not in place. I would recommend working there, but I don’t want to demoralise people because there are access issues. But the archive is brilliant and the staff are very helpful. They want to make life easier for researchers, but they struggle because of the rules.
Timothy Blauvelt: I first should emphasize what Anton just said, which is that the issues with the archive are nothing to do with the people working in the institution. The archive people are just as frustrated as we researchers are. I would also like to emphasise the really rich materials that are available in Georgia for different periods and to answer different questions.
Given the recent push to de-centre Russian imperial and Soviet history and the need to find archival sources outside of Russia, it’s a great place to work. Anton, I and others have been encouraging researchers to come to Georgia for the last twenty years. There is a Georgian saying that a guest is a gift from God, and that I would emphasize that people here are really eager to have foreign researchers come and engage with the local community, and I think there's a lot of opportunity for that. There is a lot of material in Russian, Georgian, and other languages, and this creates great opportunities for collaboration with local researchers and cooperation with Georgian scholars.
Timothy Blauvelt has written a comprehensive guide to conducting in research Georgia, where you can find all the relevant information and links on our online resources page. Unfortunately the website of the Interior Ministry archives is (hopefully temporarily) offline at the moment.