A small gathering of Georgians and Harvardians at Houghton Library last fall watched as President Neil L. Rudenstine symbolically gave back to a delegation of officials from the Republic of Georgia 82 cartons of that nation’s historical state documents that the University had held since 1974. Most of the Harvardians on hand–librarians, scholars, and administrators–sipped their champagne and balanced tea sandwiches on napkins of Georgia’s red, black, and white with the benign smiles of people who find themselves present at somebody else’s great event. For the Georgians, the occasion was powerful.
Richard Pipes, Baird professor of history emeritus, explained the situation to a Harvard University Gazette reporter: “It’s as if Britain had won the Revolutionary War, and the members of the Revolutionary government had gone into exile. All those documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the deliberations of the Continental Congress, would be extremely precious, and after independence had been obtained, we would want them to come home.”
Pipes had been a key player in the drama of the papers, which unfolded in the following manner. In 1801, the Russian Empire annexed the Georgian Kingdoms, in the Caucasus, where civilization dated to at least the fifth millennium b.c., and proceeded to Russify the place. In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Georgia declared itself free. The Soviets tolerated that at first, even signing a non-interference treaty in 1920 that recognized the sovereignty of the Georgian Democratic Republic. In 1921, however, Lenin invaded. “The red banner blows over Tbilisi,” his commissars reported.
Georgian government officials escaped to Paris, bearing with them the documentary record of their three years of recent independence, including the non-interference treaty. The government-in-exile stashed the papers initially at the French National Library, later moving them to the damp confines of Château Leuville, where mold and mildew set to work on them. Time went by. Then, on a Guggenheim fellowship in Paris in the early 1960s, Pipes met a top member of the Georgian government-in-exile. Would Harvard take the papers for safe keeping? the official asked.
The University librarian was willing, and arranged for a government airplane to collect the papers at Orly Airport. But at the last moment the Georgians thought better of the plan. The papers continued decomposing in their chateau.
In the early 1970s, the Georgians reconsidered their hesitancy. The documents arrived at last at Logan Airport in 1974 and went straightaway to be fumigated. The deal was that Harvard would give back the papers in 30 years whether or not Georgia was free. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the governments of Georgia and Harvard arranged an accelerated return. Tedo Japaridze, Georgian ambassador to the United States, and his colleagues took possession of the archive on October 2. At the ceremony Guivy Zaldastani, M.B.A. ’51, a Georgian living in Boston and the most recent chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Georgian Archives, beamed. “It’s a very important event and a very nice event,” he told a reporter. “We should all be proud of Harvard for protecting and caring for the papers of a foreign government in exile for all these years.”