Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 00:33 UK

Georgia recalls Soviet crackdown


Tbilisi's main square was strewn with the dead and injured after Soviet troops crushed a popular protest

By Steven Eke
BBC Russian Affairs Analyst

"Like a scene from a medieval battle," is how one of the Soviet soldiers involved remembers the dawn hours of 9 April 1989.

He was referring to the violent clashes between troops and protesters on the main square in front of the Georgian government building, on Rustaveli Avenue, in the heart of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The clashes left 20 people dead, mainly young women.

It was one of the defining moments of late Soviet history.

It was also the first time since the suppression of uprisings in Russia in 1962, and Kazakhstan in 1986, that large-scale fatalities had resulted from the deployment of troops and security forces against Soviet civilians.

The events of 9 April 1989 were the culmination of weeks of demonstrations for Georgian independence and against separatism in the Georgian Black Sea region of Abkhazia.

At times, these two separate demands seemed to merge.

The demonstrations included hunger strikes, but were overwhelmingly peaceful. At their peak, about 10,000 people are estimated to have been present.

The request to send Soviet interior ministry troops came from the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Jumber Pastiashvili.

The troops were commanded by Colonel General Igor Radionov.

In the hours before the attack, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church made an impassioned address to the crowd, beseeching the demonstrators to leave the square. They refused.

Minutes before 4am on 9 April, Gen Radionov told his troops to clear the square by all means available.

Sharpened spades

As they advanced, backed up by armoured personnel carriers, his men attacked the demonstrators with clubs and sharpened spades.

Soviet tanks in Tbilisi, April 1989
The crackdown was a key moment in the final days of the Soviet Union

They also used potent crowd-control gases (later refusing to tell medics treating those poisoned precisely which agents they had employed).

In the chaos and panic of the stampede that followed, many civilians were crushed or asphyxiated.

At least one of the victims, a teenage girl, was beaten to death by soldiers.

Video footage shows Soviet soldiers attacking ambulances attempting to remove the injured from the scene.

Local police officers were also assaulted by the troops.

The next day Soviet central television put the blame for the night's events on the demonstrators.

Gen Radionov claimed his men had been attacked first.

However, the violence had been captured on film, and it told an entirely different story.

Severe injuries

Local Georgian television broadcast pictures of the dead, many of them with obvious, severe head and facial injuries.

Two entirely contradictory reports were to emerge.

One, from the Soviet prosecutor general's office, echoed Gen Radionov's claims about the behaviour of the demonstrators.

The other was compiled under the leadership of Anatoly Sobchak, a member of the first quasi-democratic Soviet parliament of the time (the Congress of Peoples Deputies).

Mr Sobchak's exhaustive report, published several months later, confirmed the army had used gas, spades and clubs to disperse the demonstration.

It characterised this as "a severe violation of official instructions", and labelled the Soviet army's actions "a violent reprisal against civilians".

The Georgian authorities asserted that more than 4,000 people eventually required some form of medical help.


Georgian film-maker and opposition leader Georgi Khaindrava returns to the square and recalls the events

The Soviet Politburo was split in its assessment of the events.

Mikhail Gorbachev put the blame squarely on the army command.

Reformists condemned the Georgian Communist Party leadership for deciding to use force against civilians.

But among the conservatives, there were warnings that such events could happen again, should the Soviet republics' drive for independence not cease.

It did not cease, of course.

Indeed, the 9 April 1989 killings in Tbilisi greatly accelerated Georgia's push for independence and for an end to Soviet domination.

Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in the streets in the days after the massacre.

An especially large demonstration of at least 300,000 people gathered on 26 April to mark the anniversary of the declaration of the Georgian Democratic Republic in 1918, prior to Georgia's incorporation into the Soviet Union.

A year later, on 9 April 1990, Georgia adopted a Declaration of Independence.

By this time, Georgia was under the leadership of the nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Igor Radionov went on to become a member of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, and minister of defence under President Boris Yeltsin. A conservative man, fundamentally anti-Western in his attitudes, he remained unrepentant about his actions in Tbilisi.

Georgians now take a public holiday on 9 April to mark their Day of National Unity.

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