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Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora in the Soviet Union


The experience of the Georgian diaspora in the Soviet Union is a story of the paradoxes of Soviet empire. On the one hand, the arrival of the Red Army in Tbilisi in 1921 brought Georgia's brief period of independence to an abrupt end. On the other hand, membership in the newly-constituted Soviet Union opened up new opportunities for Georgians and other ethnic minority groups. Such opportunities were seized upon most effectively by an internal Georgian diaspora within the Soviet Union, a small but highly mobile and visible community. The Georgians, who traveled to Moscow from the periphery of the Soviet empire, could be seen at the center of Soviet life at every stage of Soviet history. Georgians headed the state that built socialism, provided the food and entertainment when Soviet citizens desired new forms of consumption and leisure, dominated the burgeoning second economy, and were among the first to seek an exit from the Soviet Union amidst the rising nationalism that accompanied its demise. By examining the aspects of Soviet life where Georgian prominence was greatest, the dissertation explores the broad sweep of Soviet history from the perspective of this dynamic ethnic minority.

The dissertation begins by introducing the concept of internal diasporas in Soviet history and outlining the unique roles played by the Georgians. Subsequent chapters explore the rise of Georgians in the Soviet political elite, the dissemination of Georgian food and drink through institutionalized Georgian social networks, the unique forms of ethnic entertainment created by Georgian cultural entrepreneurs, and the vital role played by Georgian traders in the second economy of the Soviet Union. The final chapter looks at how Georgian ambitions, bred in the Soviet context, led the republic's intelligentsia to eventually seek an exit from the Soviet Union, and an epilogue takes the story of the Georgian diaspora up to the present day.

While scholars in the past have focused on the periphery as a way of challenging theories of revolution and society based on the Soviet empire's Russian core, this project looks at how a multiethnic center was created by groups from the periphery, and how lines between center and periphery, as well as those between colonizer and colonized, were particularly blurred in the Soviet context. Unlike earlier studies of nationality, the dissertation looks not at a particular group in a specific territory in isolation from all others, but rather examines the interplay of diverse ethnic groups across geographic boundaries. It also brings into focus social and cultural factors previously neglected in the study of nationality and empire, including entertainment, everyday life, and material culture. Finally, the Georgian case challenges our understanding of the concept of diaspora. Rooted Soviet cosmopolitans, members of the Georgian diaspora maintained and capitalized on their connection to a specific territory and culture even as they traveled beyond the borders of their native republic.

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