Filling in Georgia's Blanks

Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia, by Donald Rayfield. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. 512 pages.

Georgia: A Political History Since Independence, by Stephen Jones. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012. 382 pages.

For students and observers of Georgia it is unusual to read one new book of the quality of these two volumes. Receiving both within a few months is indeed a treat, and fortuitous because there is a real synergy between them. In their different ways, Stephen Jones’and Donald Rayfield’s books are both essential for scholars and others with a strong interest in Georgia.


Rayfield’s book is a comprehensive history of Georgia offering a useful overview of the centuries preceding the Soviet period and independence. Notably, much of the material on the earlier periods takes a kings-and-wars approach to history that is almost quaint. The book is filled with anecdotes about how monarchs came to power, the battles they fought, and how they died. While these stories are entertaining, they add up to less than the sum of their parts. With little analysis, and for the most part very little description of Georgian society over much of its lifespan, it is difficult to discover the fruits of Rayfield’s formidable research and command of his material.

The primary contribution of Rayfield’s work is to put more than 2,000 years of Georgian history in one place, in English. This is a substantial contribution to the field. Nonetheless, because this work will likely – not without justification – become the standard English-language treatment of Georgian history, the subjects not addressed, the questions not asked, and the analyses not made are particularly troubling.

His book gives relatively little insight into what an ordinary Georgian experienced during various points in the country’s tumultuous history, or even how the meaning of being Georgian changed over the centuries covered in the book, although these questions are addressed a bit more deeply in the later sections of the book focusing on the period from the 19th century to the present.

Many of Rayfield’s observations provoke reconsiderations of the contours of Georgian history. Among them are his contention that King Mirian III’s need for a new patron was a major reason Georgia adopted Christianity, or his conclusion that the alphabet and religion, the cornerstones of Georgian cultural identity, came to the country from beyond its borders. These are both historical examples of the complex relationship between Georgia and the outside world and the way external world views and ideologies, not least communism and democracy, have played such significant roles in Georgia’s political history. These observations help us think about Georgia differently and raise questions about the extent to which outside forces continue to play a major role in the evolution of the Georgian nation. However, Rayfield does not probe further into these or most other topics. Instead, he moves on, leaving the analysis to the reader. Similarly, major themes that frame Georgia, even in its contemporary form, such as its tenuous relationship with the West or its geopolitical setting at a crossroads of Islam and Christianity, are raised but not sufficiently explored.

Fresco portraits of King Mirian III and Queen Nana above their tomb at the Samtavro church in the old Georgian royal capital of Mtskheta. Photo by Iberia Forever/Wikimedia Commons

Georgia is a country with a long, but not always well-documented history, where the lines between history, storytelling, and nationalism are often vague. Rayfield recognizes this in part, describing one Georgian king as “more historical than, say, King Arthur,” while later reporting that the king in question reigned for 75 years. Rayfield is a respected scholar of Georgian literature and language, yet he does not directly confront this central methodological challenge involved in writing a history of Georgia. Because he does not seek to determine the line between stories and history, much of the early history recounted in the book remains in that gray area.

Rayfield raises a lot of interesting questions about Georgian history, but seems satisfied simply to raise them, rather than to probe deeper. For example, the discussion of Abkhazia in the 19th century is very relevant to Georgia today, but that connection remains unmade. Similarly, Georgia’s long and complex relationship with Russia is recounted but not analyzed.


The tone of the book changes as Rayfield turns his attention to the last 200 years. These sections offer more depth, but his analysis is not always accurate here, either. The discussion of the Rose Revolution includes small errors – Transparency International was not one of the civic organizations that played a major role in those events – and larger ones: the United States was not, as Rayfield claims, working to oust Eduard Shevardnadze during the months leading up to the Rose Revolution. On balance, this book is a very useful history, yet it may leave many readers vainly looking for an analytical framework around the factual base built on years of rigorous research.

In some regards, Jones’ book picks up where Rayfield’s leaves off. Although Rayfield brings his survey almost up to the present – concluding with a dismissive remark about the prospects of upstart politician, now prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili – what distinguishes the book above all is the material on Georgia before independence, and really before the 20th century. Jones, on the other hand, focuses almost entirely on the years since 1991. His is the only work available that successfully examines these more than 20 years so insightfully.

Jones teaches at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and, Amazon tells us, also briefs the U.S. State Department and the CIA on Caucasus affairs. His book is more oriented toward political science and political sociology than Rayfield’s narrative history, as he seeks to examine questions such as the role of nationalism in Georgia’s political development, why political leadership and parties emerged the way they did in the early 1990s, and why moving toward a more democratic government has proved so confoundingly difficult for Georgia.

Jones’ discussion of Georgia in the years between independence and the Rose Revolution, a time often misunderstood by kibitzers anxious to either lionize or demonize longtime Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, is the highlight of the book and a major contribution to the literature on Georgia. These sections are thoroughly researched, thoughtfully analyzed, and sufficiently well-written that even a reader familiar with the period will still be drawn in to the narrative.

Jones’ deep knowledge of the country comes through clearly as he challenges assumptions and provides insightful analysis. He is a true insider who knows contemporary Georgia extremely well. However, this material would have also benefited a bit from an outsider perspective, which might have lent itself to a more comparative approach. In fairness, Jones did not set out to write a comparative work, but his analysis would be even richer if Georgia’s struggles were put in a broader post-Soviet context so that readers could see how Georgia was similar to or differed from its post-Soviet neighbors.

His new book is more like two books, as Jones recognizes in the introduction. The first is a fascinating history of Georgia from roughly 1991 to 2003, the year in which a group of young Western-backed reformers used a disputed election as the springboard for a popular uprising that brought down Shevardnadze and his government. The second is more of a narrative account of events in Georgia since the Rose Revolution. This section is also well-researched, and at times insightful, but it is not as compelling or even as interesting as the first. This may be in part because there is so much more writing about Georgia since 2004 than there is about the earlier period, but it is also because the tone and structure of the book changes.

In the first section, Jones artfully follows the arc of history to tell an exciting story, but the second part reads more like a report on contemporary Georgia, albeit one written by one of the best people in the field. His treatment of domestic politics, foreign policy, and economic affairs is thoughtful and well-researched, but it feels out of place given the bigger-picture issues with which Jones wrestled in the first half of the book. The exception is his chapter on the “myth of Georgian nationalism,” which recaptures the insightful and probing style of the book’s first part. This section reads almost like a stand-alone essay and is an excellent discussion of the nuances of nationalist and ethnic politics since independence.

Rayfield and Jones have written books that all Georgia specialists will read, consult, and use in their research. Jones in particular offers sharp and concise analysis of a critical time in Georgia’s history, while Rayfield condenses millennia of history into one accessible volume. These works have their limitations and perhaps appropriately leave many questions unanswered, but they are among the best books on Georgia to appear since independence.