Prince Alexandre Chavchavadze (1786-1846)
The 19th century was an age of epochal change in Georgia, a time when Western ideals and values began to effect tangible transformations in the political, economic and cultural realms. Alexandre Chavchavadze—a poet, translator, soldier, and businessman, and the founder of Georgian Romanticism—played a huge part in introducing new values, promoting social and economic welfare, and changing the trajectory of Georgian culture. In short, he left an enormously important legacy to the nation, challenging Georgians to embrace change through his own exemplary life and achievements.
His father, Garsevan Chavchavadze (1757-1811), was an influential person and a successful politician. From 1784 to 1801, he lived in St. Petersburg as a Georgian envoy to Russia, with the title of Ambassador Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the Kartli-Kakhetian Kingdom to the Court of the Russian Emperor. His diplomatic skills were highly valued by King Erekle II, and he was also held in high esteem by the Russian court. Indeed, his son Alexandre, born in St. Petersburg, was baptized by Russia’s Empress Ekaterine II as a gesture of the deep respect the Russian court had for Garsevan. King Erekle’s respect and admiration resulted in the gift of a large fiefdom in Kakheti, from the Mount of Tsivgombori to the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.
The poet’s mother, Mariam Avalishvili (1758-1836) descended from the aristocratic family of the famous Georgian dramatist, Giorgi Avalishvili. Her contemporaries characterized her as a wise and educated woman; she provided her only son, Alexandre, with the finest primary education.
Childhood and Education
As a child, Alexandre moved in elite circles and absorbed progressive ideas. His aristocratic heredity, his father’s career as a diplomat, and his cosmopolitan upbringing all played a role in the development of his own enlightened values and beliefs.
Contemporaries characterized Alexandre Chavchavadze as exceptionally well-educated. For example, German traveler Karl Koch described him as "A most educated Georgian, who used his long stays in St. Petersburg and Western Europe to acquire knowledge hard to find in remote Transcaucasia." Historical records note that he was educated in history, geography, statistics, physics, logic, mathematics, military science, and agriculture, and could speak several languages in addition to his native Georgian. Apart from Persian and Turkish—languages that were considered en vogue in Georgian aristocratic circles at the time—he spoke Russian, French, German, and English. His extensive knowledge of foreign languages encouraged Alexandre to translate the literary works of many writers, including Aesop, Corneille, Voltaire, La Fontaine, Hugo, Pushkin, and Odoevsky. Among his translations were several plays. He also was a pioneer of professional theatrical art in Georgia; the idea of establishing a permanent Georgian theater was first conceived within his family.
Military Career and Nationalism
Alexandre’s first formal career was as an officer in the Russian military. Milestones of his military service include the following:
- In 1809 he graduated from Petersburg Boys’ Military School, was transferred to a Hussar Regiment as cavalry and become a junior lieutenant of Life Guard service.
- In 1810 he was promoted to lieutenant. In the same year, he was granted the status of lieutenant-general for exceptional success and appointed Aide-de-Camp to Marquise Pauluch.
- In 1813- 1814 he served as an Aide-de-Camp to the Russian Community, Barclay de Tolly and was wounded in the Battle of Paris, in 1814.
- In 1828 he became a Major General, after liberating the Armenian City of Yerevan from the Persians.
- In 1841 he become a Lieutenant-General.
- In 1843 he fought his last battle against the Lezghins in the northern Caucasus.
During his military career, Alexander participated in many significant battles, both within the Russian Empire and outside its borders. These included a campaign against Napoleon’s army with allied forces in Saxony and France in 1813-1815, at which time he was Aide-de-Camp to Commander-in-Chief Barclay de Tolly. For his service in this campaign, he was granted several prestigious military awards, including the French Order de la Légion d'Honneur.
Although Alexandre served in the army of the Russian Empire, he vigorously defended the interests of his own nation. Before embarking upon his military career, he actively participated in the Rebellion of Mtiuleti, a Georgian province, in 1804, for which he was arrested and sent to Kizlar prison. However, because of the esteem in which his father was held by the Russian government, he was soon pardoned. Later, he became one of the core organizers of the National Independence Conspiracy of Georgian Nobility of 1832, for which he was arrested once again and exiled to Tambov for one year. Following this stage of his life, he reconciled with the Russian Government. However, in 1836 he wrote "A Brief Historical Essay of Georgia from 1801 to 1831," an initial attempt to expose the evils of the colonial regime in Georgia, in which he openly discussed the brutality of Russian colonialists toward the Georgian people. Alexandre sent this discourse to Russian Emperor Nikolas I, thus publicly stating his position regarding his nation.
Bringing the Enlightenment to Georgia
Among Georgian public figures of the early part of the 19th century, Alexandre Chavchavadze is widely acknowledged to have played a decisive role in the evolution of Georgia into a modern, European-oriented society. He brought new romanticist aspirations into Georgian poetry, but more importantly, he played a central role in introducing the fruits of the European Enlightenment—critical thinking, rationalism, and excellence in arts and science, as well as the liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and equity—to Georgia.
Historically, an affinity for Western social norms, ethical values, religious beliefs, and customs has set Georgia apart from many of its neighboring nations, which were more oriented to Persian Islamic cultures. This affinity dates back to Georgia’s strong ties with the Hellenistic city-states of ancient Greece. After this, Georgia’s European orientation expressed itself in the relationship between Georgian and Byzantine cultures. Later still, the influence of Western culture was strengthened by Georgia’s relationship with Russia. Despite Georgia’s forced accession to the Russian Empire in 1782, Russia was a corridor for communication with Europe, and this link facilitated Georgia’s shared identity with Europe.
In a very tangible way, Alexandre succeeded in bringing a European way of life to Eastern Georgia, which had been under Persian influence for some time. For example, he designed, built, furnished, and managed his hereditary estate in Tsinandali and his house in Tbilisi according to Western practices. He was the first Georgian to import a grand piano and carriage.
Moreover, Alexandre’s fascination with Western inventions and technologies permeated numerous facets of his life, including Tsinandali’s gardens, which he redesigned to incorporate several distinctively European elements. European designers planned the park, which is located on 12 hectares and includes greenhouses and many exotic plant species of Western, Oriental, and American origin. Tsinandali’s gardens are noteworthy both for their layout and for the variety of imported and indigenous plants they contain. Less disciplined than many formal European gardens, they nevertheless became well-known in Europe; some designers have even compared them to English parks, such as Richmond. Described as the "Garden of Eden" by Alexandre Dumas, Tsinandali’s gardens were also highly praised by well-known visitors.
Alexandre was the first Georgian nobleman to employ free labor and to liberate peasants, thus laying the foundation for a modern market-based economy in the country. In 1836, he liberated Grigol Maisuradze (1817-1885), a serf who later founded a fine arts press. In the following year, he paid Maisuradze’s travel and tuition expenses for a trip to study at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts.
Alexandre, his wife Salome Orbeliani, and his four children were also legendary for their hospitality, and they opened the doors of their homes at Tsinandali and in Tbilisi to an impressive list of visiting figures. While Alexandre’s father, Garsevan, was visited mainly by fellow aristocrats and diplomats, Alexandre’s family received a greater variety of guests, including artists, writers, businessmen, and many others. Tsinandali played host to so many writers and literary artists—including the French novelist Alexandre Dumas, the French historian Marie-Félicité Brosset and the Russian writers Alexandre Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Alexander Griboedov, among many others—that it was referred to as "a literary hearth of writers and poets." According to poet Alexandre Fadeev, "Alexandre Chavchavadze’s notable family was the only one in Tbilisi where guests from the North and West truly encountered Georgian hospitality."
Alexandre was also an innovator in agriculture. He was the first Georgian to produce silk, wheat, and sunflowers. But far more importantly, in the beginning at the 19th century, he rejuvenated the millennia-long Georgian wine-making tradition by introducing European wine-making technology. At his hereditary estate, he improved the quality of Kakhetian wine considerably through the adoption of new technologies and practices. He also developed original technologies for making sparkling wines and cognac. In short, he was Georgia’s first modern oenologist.
To facilitate viticulture and wine-making, Alexandre borrowed funds to construct a wine production facility and huge underground wine cellar at Tsinandali. He also constructed a steam vodka brewery, a barrel workshop, and a large wine-storage facility with amphorae. Alexandre’s personal wine collection, which survives partially to this day, included 70 brands and 16,500 bottles, including a Georgian Saperavi of vintage 1839.
Part of Alexandre's Collection
The wines produced in Alexandre’s wineries in the first half of the 19th century were famous during his lifetime not only in Georgia and Russia, but also in Western Europe. They evolved into the Tsinandali, Teliani, Mukuzani, and Napareuli brands. Geographer Elisee Reclus, the poet’s contemporary, had this to say: "Alexandre Chavchavadze’s efforts in improving his winery resulted in Georgian wine’s fame in Europe; Kakhetian wine is regarded as equal in quality to Western wines." Indeed, a popular joke in Georgia maintains that life can be divided into two parts: before tasting Tsinandali cellar wines and after tasting them. Tsinandali wine continues to be produced in Georgia and is exported to other countries. Apart from these contributions, Alexandre opened premium wine cellars and stores in Tbilisi, Stavropol, and other cities.
Alexandre Chavchavadze died on November 6, 1846 in a tragic accident, falling under a carriage in Tbilisi near his home. He died from serious head injuries. He is buried at the Shuamta monastery, in Kakheti, Georgia, not far from his beloved Tsinandali estate.
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