Soviet Tanks in the Streets of Tbilisi
03 November, 2011
Soviet Tanks in the Streets of Tbilisi

On the 8th of April of 1989, the Soviet tanks appeared in the streets of Tbilisi. They were passing not along the Kura River Embankment Street, as they usually did before, but right  in the central streets of the capital city – Vazha Pshavela and Chavchavadze avenues, having finally reached the spot were the protesing Georgians were rallied in the Rustavei Avenue. Professor Simon Maskharashvili has more.

GJ – There were thousands rallied in front of the government building on April

4 and 5 of 1989. The manifestations of protest had turned into huge demonstrations of masses. Voiced at the meetings were the demands of secession of Georgia from the Soviet Union and reinstatement of Georgia’s independence, lost to the soviets in 1921. Irritation of the rally participants was particularly exacerbated due to the demand of the Apkhaz separatist to allow Apkhazeti (Abkhazia) to secede from Georgia. How did the events develop further?

SM – The news about the mass demonstrations in Tbilisi soon reached Sokhumi where the local Georgians decided to express their solidarity with the protesters in Tbilisi. Thus stood the Georgians and the Apkhaz on different sides in those days, and all the time after that! The atmosphere became extremely charged in Sokhumi. The situation was in fact so strained that even the troops were put out into the streets there. Part of the Georgian communist party elite, headed by Guram Enukidze was directed to Sokhumi with the mission to calm the situation down, which they managed to do at that particular stage of developments. By the 8th of April the number of the protest rally participants in Tbilisi decreased. On April 6 and 7, before noon, we the students marched towards the government building where the hunger strikers were sitting and the leaders of national-liberation movement were fussing around. The briefings were held on regular basis. At night, only 20 to 30 people stayed in front of the government building. That was it! We all knew that the main protest event was going to take place on April 14, 1989.

GJ – But on the 8th of April the Soviet tanks appeared in the streets of Tbilisi, didn’t they?

SM – Yes, they did! And they were passing not along the Kura River Embankment Street, as they usually did before, but right in the central streets of the capital city – Vazha Pshavela and Chavchavadze avenues, having finally reached the spot were the protesting Georgians were rallied in the Rustaveli Avenue.

GJ – In principle, that was the warning signal for all of us – the meeting participants, the leaders of national-liberation movement and the entire Georgia if you will, wasn’t it?

SM – The warning signal it was! And people wondered what would happen as the Soviet tanks were seen in the streets of Tbilisi. Here is what happened: One of the Georgian protesters in the crowd Koka Gatserelia laid himself under the tank. The tank stopped. Before that, a Georgian policeman stopped his car in front of the tank and the tank rolled over it, but the soviet troops refrained from trampling people under the tank caterpillars. This created the impression in the people that the Russian army units would not (or could not) use radical measures. The appearance of tanks in the streets of Tbilisi was a serious irritant for the population. The well-known Georgian scholar Solomon Khutsishvili applied to Georgia’s communist party boss (who was number one in the country at that time), telling him that the entire responsibility would be put on his shoulders. People started marching towards the Patiashvili residence, calling him names like traitor, conspirator, Judas and shouting up at his windows to say what was going on actually. Patiashvili kept mum. Nobody could have touched him physically, but it was obvious that he was completely stressed out and worried. At that moment, a plane from Moscow landed at the Tbilisi airport which carried a special KGB squad, the so called Dzerzhinsky Division. They were here in Georgia to perpetrate that infamously sadistic measure which would take place soon after their arrival if the protesting crowds were still in Rustaveli Avenue. The squad had the Kremlin’s special instruction to act accordingly. Aboard the same plane was Eduard Shevardnadze, the USSR foreign minister of that time. Givi Gumbaridze, the new chief of Georgia’s state security came to the airport to meet the unwelcome visitors. Patiashvili was in certain isolation – he found it very difficult to make any reasonable decision at that point

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