Erik R. Scott’s book Familiar Strangers examines a national minority group in the Soviet state. Unlike most works—such as The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule by Audrey L. Altstadt (1992) or The Circassian Genocide by Walter Richmond (2013)—that focus on Soviet ethnic minorities in their homelands, whose authors often perceive the relationship between a minority and the Soviet empire as a dichotomy of resistance and suppression, survival and assimilation, Scott takes an unfamiliar approach. He has chosen to focus on a minority group through the lens of diaspora community within the USSR. This approach allows Scott to reveal the larger and often overlooked interactions between ethnic and imperial networks and uncover the mutual benefits derived by the minority and the empire. The minority group under consideration is Georgians. The fact that Joseph Stalin, a Georgian, dominated Soviet politics for more than a quarter of a century presents both advantages and challenges for any such study. It is clear that because of Stalin’s ethnic origins Georgians came to occupy an unusual position among minority groups in the USSR. Georgians became more visible and recognizable to the larger Soviet public. After all, Stalin emphasized his origins: he spoke with a thick Georgian accent, vacationed in Georgia, and enjoyed Georgian cuisine. This visible presence of Georgians at the Soviet political center provides the rich research material that Scott has used in this book. At the same time, this circumstance of Stalin’s birth brings about a question about how typical, or rather how unique, the case of the Georgian diaspora in the USSR is. Can a framework developed for it be used to analyze other diaspora groups in the Soviet state? There is little doubt that the Georgian diaspora was able to offer to the Soviet public visibly different cultural goods supported by long-established cultural traditions. But to what extent was the Georgians’ success in displaying their otherness to a transnational Soviet audience due to the initial impact of Joseph Stalin in Soviet politics? The opening chapters of the book follow a more traditional route of historical narrative by examining the trajectory along which the Caucasian and especially Georgian Bolsheviks were propelled to Moscow in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Scott shows the whole array of Georgian Bolsheviks (among them Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Avel’ Enukidze, and infamous head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria) then establishing themselves among the rulers of the Soviet state and thus providing an important link between Georgians and the empire. By and large this early Georgian presence was political, but already at this early stage the Georgian diaspora made an impact on the Soviet cultural sphere and cuisine in particular. With the death of Stalin and the demise of Lavrenti Beria in 1953, the Georgian political presence in the center largely ended. It might seem that the story could logically be concluded here, but in fact, it really takes off after the end of Georgian political domination in the USSR. This is where the book excels and differs from the traditional narratives. The subsequent chapters are divided thematically and chronologically by considering, sequentially, how Georgian food, dance, and cinema and, eventually, the role that Georgians played in the Soviet shadow economy that thrived due to catastrophic shortages of consumer goods shaped Georgians’ positions in the USSR. Erik Scott masterfully uses and integrates criminal incidents (an airplane hijacking, a murder case) that he has investigated in the archives as plot devices to open several chapters. Scott’s argument is that Georgians became “familiar strangers” across the USSR and retained this position after the death of Stalin. The Soviet state ideologically benefited from authentically non-Slavic cultural and edible products, which helped to project an image of the USSR as a multinational state of equal nations (241–242). At the same time, Georgians could successfully market their otherness to a wider Soviet audience through Georgian cuisine, music, and film and, finally, by supplying deficit commodities, such as subtropical fruits grown in Georgia, to the Russian markets in the Brezhnev era while acquiring resources to develop and preserve their own identity. The book’s conclusion opens up an entirely new chapter, and in my opinion it indicates a possibility for future research. In his conclusion, Scott looks at how the Georgian (mostly cultural) elites grew increasingly dissatisfied with the limited opportunities presented within the Soviet state, and contributed to its dismantling by challenging its legitimacy though cultural products (for example, Tengiz Abuladze’s 1984 film Repentance offered a thinly veiled devastating critique of the Stalinist terror). Georgian intellectual elites began to see the need to adjust Georgian cultural products to make them attractive to the wider Soviet audience as threatening and diluting the authenticity of the Georgian culture (234, 243). With the collapse of the Soviet multinational empire and the opening of national borders, the unique function of Georgian otherness within the confines of the USSR ceased to be relevant. With the end of the USSR, state support for cultural projects similarly dried up and was never properly replaced within independent Georgia (255). These concluding observations are important and warrant a separate study. I do hope that Scott will undertake this project in his future work. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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