Trauma and Triumph in Literary Texts: Post-Independence Georgia

The proposed article presents the research carried out within the framework of  the project entitled Georgia: Trauma and Triumph towards Independence (Project N FR-18-3459) financed by the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation of Georgia.


The 20th century can be defined as a “century of traumas”. The study of collective trauma has developed into one of the major areas of cultural studies. Experience in exploring occurrences of traumatic events across countries has expanded. Georgian reality remains under-analyzed in the light of trauma theories. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the gaining of independence and radical changes in social, economic and political systems have been accompanied by various traumatic events such as the April 9 tragedy (1989), Tbilisi civil war of 1991-1992, conflicts in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, natural disasters (landslides, earthquakes, and floods).

This article aims to demonstrate to what extent the traumatic events of 1990s have been manifested, analyzed, understood and interpreted in post-independence literature. By employing case study, content analysis and discourse analysis methods, we will attempt to demonstrate to what extent the epithets “trauma and triumph” correspond to the case of Georgia.


In the article, the theoretical framework is exhibited by the theory of collective/cultural trauma the key domains of which have been determined by Jeffrey Alexander (Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, University of California Press, 2004; Trauma. A Social Theory. Polity, 2012); the theory proposed by Piotr Sztompka is equally important (Society in Action: the Theory of Social Becoming. The University of Chicago Press, 1991; The Trauma of Social Change: A Case of Postcommunist Societies. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, University of California Press, 2004; The ambivalence of social change: Triumph or trauma? WZB Discussion Paper, No. P 00-001), dealing with the trauma of dramatic social change and the trauma of victory.


            As mentioned above, post-independence literature has been selected as empirical data. At this point, we focus our attention on the following three books:

1. Journey to Karabakh by Aka Morchiladze, 1992;

2. Mameluk  by Aka Morchiladze, 2003;

3. Southern Elephant by Archil Kikodze, 2016.

The selected books are both popular and widely recognized by literary critics. The texts were published at least ten years apart, therefore, we found it intriguing to observe the narrative dynamics from the perspective of an extended period of time. In addition, in the first and the third books in the list, the action takes place in the center of the capital city, and their main characters represent the center in terms of geography, politics and culture, while the second book, i.e. Mameluk depicts the life in a small provincial town. We believe it is compelling to examine whether or not the author addressed any differences between characters’ perception of the same events.

The theory of collective trauma

We will now begin the discussion by addressing the most important question as far as identity is concerned: who am I? and who are we? Answering those questions involves the way boundaries are defined for the We-group since those of our circle remain within the group, while others stay beyond those boundaries. That is what creates the unity referred to as an “imagined community” by Benedict Anderson. Identification of our group is possible when members of this group are aware of and recognize boundaries of their oneness (Anderson, 2003).

It is in this imagined group that collective / cultural trauma spreads and often serves as one of the pillars of identity.


According to Jeffrey Alexander, Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways[Alexander, 2004:1]. Cultural trauma is explored by Jeffrey Alexander as a scholarly concept providing significant conceptual and causal relationships between unrelated events, structures, beliefs and actions. From his perspective, members of a group (community) determine the causes of trauma, thus taking moral responsibility for themselves. “Is the suffering of others also our own? In thinking that it might in fact be, societies expand the circle of the “we” [Alexander, 2015:96]. According to the author, one of the great advantages of this new theoretical concept is that it partakes so deeply of everyday life. In the twentieth century, throughout the world people spoke continually about being traumatized by some events. “We often speak of an organization being traumatized when a leader departs or dies, when a governing regime falls, when an organization suffers an unexpected reversal of fortune. Actors describe themselves as traumatized when the environment of an individual or a collectivity suddenly shifts in an unforeseen and unwelcome manner” [Alexander, 2015:96].

He believes that trauma is not a natural phenomenon; rather, it is generated by the society. In a particular social system, massive disruptions may occur which are expected to construct traumatic effects – governments change, institutions collapse, authorities fail to perform, etc. but Alexander argues that “For traumas to emerge at the level of the collectivity, social crises must become cultural crises. Events are one thing; representations of these events are quite another” [Alexander, 2015:103]. According to Alexander, in order for the events and facts to acquire the impact of cultural trauma, carrier groups should emerge, and trauma should develop into a master narrative. In order to establish the narrative successfully, it should explore the nature of the pain, the nature of the victim, the relation of the trauma victims to the wider audience, and attribution of responsibility since the collective trauma narrative is supposed to describe the event and reveal what actually happened, clearly depicting the affected group and demonstrating that a traumatic event had impact on both the particular group and the wider audience. The narrative is to manifest the perpetrator, who is to be held accountable (Alexander, 2004).

Piotr Sztompka considers the concept of cultural trauma as applicable to the concept of social change. He believes, the most paradoxical and challenging observation is that even the changes which are truly beneficial, welcome by the people, dreamed about and fought for - may turn out to be painful.

Just like Alexander, Sztompka suggests that not every change is traumatogenic. Otherwise, it would mean that all societies were permanently and irreparably traumatized. Sztompka claims that only some types of changes bring about traumas, and therefore that only some societies in some periods of their history become traumatized. In Sztompka’s opinion, “we define as potentially traumatogenic only such changes which are sudden, comprehensive, fundamental and unexpected” [Sztompka, 2004:157-158]. He identifies four major traits of traumatogenic changes, namely:

1.               Speed and severity (inflation, collapse of the economic system, etc.);

2.              The second traumatogenic change involves a wider audience and many aspects of life (for instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union which led to not only the change of the political domain but also to that of economy, law, medicine, culture as well as its values, thus impacting the entire population rather than only minor groups);

3.               The third traumatogenic change is radical and fundamental;

4.               It is an unexpected, shocking change.

Cultural Trauma in Literature

Aka Morchiladze is one of the most recognized and popular writers in post-independence Georgia. His being a historian by profession indeed contributed to the fact that he has become a literary figure describing key socio-cultural phenomena that occurred in the 20th century Georgia. Journey to Karabakh represents one of the critical literary works for our research. It is one of the first literary introspections on the ongoing events. As the author himself indicates, he wrote the book as a twenty-six-year-old young man in 1992, between Tbilisi and Abkhazia wars, that is by the end of Tskhinvali war [Morchiladze, 2017:5-6].


The very first sentence of the book is traumatic, further encompassing the tragic nature of the period in a few lines of the text. From the outset, the author emphasizes that it is the political confrontation that is a defining feature of the period: “it was the war or whatever its name – when he fled and then …. you know, these things never fascinated me, and now even less” [Morchiladze, 2017: 8]. Truly, he is not fascinated but he makes sure to mention it since the plot of the novel is largely defined by the very event that is not even clearly identified, i.e. “the war or whatever its name”. Basically, the novel is definitely a traumatic narrative, and as the author himself indicates in the preface of the 2004 edition, “while writing, I figured it out that endless aggression occurred from nowhere. I did not even try to overcome it, as I would fail anyway” [Morchiladze, 2017:7]. The plot of the novel develops against the background of endless war and confrontations between father and son, Zviad and coup d'etat supporters, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, etc.

This narrative has even been covered in Aka Morchiladze’s other works. Written after ten years following the publication of Journey to Karabakh, the novel Mameluk by the same author has become one of the critical texts for our research. While the narrative manifests the journey that the characters have embarked on, readers are getting acquainted with tragic events that unfolded in Georgia in 1990s. This text is another valid argument that the 1990s events explicitly fall within the limits of an ambivalent nature of the trauma of victory. The novel begins with the time being specified. At the very outset, we are clearly dealing with a traumatic narrative: “I've known Peter Goldsmith since the time they were shooting in our streets” [Morchiladze, 2019: 3]. It is already clear that the story unfolds in 1990s. The text is also valuable in terms of the traits identified by Sztompka according to whom the event becomes traumatogenic only when it is sudden, comprehensive, extremely painful and shocking. The world depicted in Mameluk is exactly in such condition. The text explicitly specifies: “The story began unexpectedly. It was spring. Tbilisi had already seen the terrible events of people killed by Russian soldiers” [Morchiladze, 2019:50]. “Meanwhile, new flags were waving in the country. every day everything was marked by change…” “hard times were coming…” [Morchiladze, 2019:77]. “life became more and more troubled…”  “the city was kind of wretched” [Morchiladze, 2019:88]. “The city encountered nothing but wakes…” [ Morchiladze, 2019:98].

Even the excerpt specifically described by Morchiladze embraces Sztompka’s means to cope with trauma, saying that the knowledge of English and education are among the tools for overcoming traumatic experiences. This is exactly what one of the main characters of Mameluk recommends to another character when speaking about the way out of the hardship in the country: “you should somehow learn a foreign language… I guess, English is the best. You need to learn something. Life is changing” [Morchiladze, 2019:58].

            The interpretation of 1990s events in literature is still ongoing.  Southern Elephant by Archil Kikodze is one of the new novels and, I would say, the one of highly creative value. It is written in urban fiction genre depicting the events happening during the day. A movie director who intends to never produce any films, lets his friend stay at his place to be able to meet his beloved woman. And he himself, passing time, is wandering through the streets of Tbilisi. The most important part of the text deals with the story of the main character’s mother. Their parent-child relationship was challenging. The mischief of it is that these problems may have been avoided. They were caused by the overall context of the life in the country, rather than by merely a parent-child disagreement. “My mother was throwing stones, too” [Kikodze, 2016:106], this is how the author introduces the mother of the main character and narrator. This part is a witness to the traumatic nature of events of 1990s. This short sentence itself is an independent paragraph in the text. It is further underlined. As for the reason for throwing stones, it is clearly specified: the mother is a supporter of the first President of Georgia. She further continues her life fully embracing the tragedy of Tbilisi war, while her ex-husband whom she divorced is among the opposition supporters. The text depicts the worst outcome of the 1990s, two conflicting parts of the society: putschists and Zviadists! The confrontation was so distinct, heavy and unceasing that “parties following the dissertation defenses encountered hand-to-hand fighting “. “Putschist” was the main swear word: “my son did not prove useful as a patriot. His best friend is a putschist whose father is even worse, a putschist, drunkard and ignorant!” [Kikodze, 2016: 106]. The civil war trauma affected the life of the main character’s mother, and had an impact on her attitude towards the world, the division of everything into two opposed groups – good and bad, and her attitude towards her son: “first, we would merely speak to each other, just the two of us and second, without presidents, their supporters and those who despised them. No! She was not willing to…” “she spent the last fifteen year of her life cursing putschists, Shevardnadze, Masonry and whoever, doing nothing else even when bedridden…” “until her death, Mother had her share of strength and resentment…” [Kikodze, 2016:108]. Such resentment and strength were rooted in the sense of injustice.

A direct and explicit story of Tbilisi war unfolds in the text. The following section of the text could be regarded as a classical example of trauma / triumph narratives. “there are some advantages of losing a battle. You become a martyr and a victim as opposed to an opponent – an executioner and a murderer. And Mother would take advantage of these privileges. After Gamsakhurdia fled Georgia, she never missed a demonstration of supporters of the first president – demonstrations where the protesters have been attacked, shot and, at times, even killed in raids. She would throw stones, receiving bullets in response. I looked for her countless times in the streets and, at the end of the day, I did find her accompanied by other like-minded persons after the raids, given shelter under someone’s roof or in some dead-ends – always with blazing eyes and excited but never scared” [Kikodze, 2016: 107].


The findings of the proposed research reveal that, on the one hand, the 1990s traumatic events provide the source for post-independence Georgian literature and, on the other hand, such explicit, detailed and unceasing accounts of these events transform them into trauma. The ways of coping are provided in certain cases. Based on the analysis of the above texts, we may assume that the events of 1990s explicitly fall within Sztompka’ trauma of victory narrative. It is apparent that the events are characterized by all the following features that are typical of cultural trauma: sudden and shocking events that have adverse impact not only on a single group but also on the entire society on every level – economic, social and cultural. The next phase of the research will involve the examination of both fiction and memoirs by a larger group of authors, making the accuracy of the research hypothesis even more apparent. Special attention will be payed to the analysis of those sections of the text that witness the dual nature of the events through simultaneous occurrence of trauma and triumph.


Morchiladze A.
Mameluk, Tbilisi.
Morchiladze A.
Journey to Karabakh, Tbilisi.
Kikodze A.
Southern Elephant, Tbilisi.
Alexander J. C.
Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma, Ron, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Sztompka P.
The Ambivalence of Social Change Triumph or Trauma?