Presentation at the webinar Shaping Identity of Georgia: Museums, Maps and Monuments organized by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University on 2 March, 2023.
Several years ago, at a conference organized by the US Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) Hon Dov S. Zakheim mentioned that the current generation, unlike its predecessors, does not seem to have a sense of history while that quality is critical. He also said that it is a great skill and even art to appropriately apply the lessons of the past to strategy and policy (both current and future ones). However, the skill and art should start with a more or less clear understanding that those lessons are really lessons.
Unfortunately, the skill and art mentioned above have been largely lost, and, as a result, contemporary people do not wish to learn any lessons from the past. Others who still do learn the lessons of history are a tiny minority and have to watch helplessly those who do not. However, there is an alternative to helplessly watching. The alternative is to continue doing historical research on the under-researched past and to share it by publishing related articles and books, as well as by teaching history in the classroom. Like a few other colleagues of ours, we prefer that alternative.
Now, what is the best way to teach history in our modern age? This is a pertinent question. A century ago, and even some 25 years ago, history books and lectures were usually presented to students as lengthy and arid texts with few, if any, illustrations or maps. While some educators did provide students with high-quality historical maps, this was the exception rather than the rule. By the way, as for the quality of historical maps in the past and present, I will take the liberty of addressing that a bit later.
Today, can we expect to engage students with dense and obscure texts filled with unfamiliar names and events? I guess you would agree with me that it is doubtful.
Why so? Well, let's remember the immortal book by Lewis Carroll, 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,' and give the floor to the little girl Alice: 'What is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures ...?'
Why did I quote Alice? It's because it's no secret that students are becoming increasingly infantilized before our very eyes. Let's not delve into the socio-psychological reasons for this phenomenon right now, as we don't have time for that. Besides, it would require a special qualification, which most of us lack. Let's just agree that this is a reality. I don't want to judge this phenomenon right now and say that it's bad. It might not even be bad. But the fact remains: it's impossible to hold the attention of listeners or readers with dry texts alone these days. If multimedia isn't offered to them, students may fall asleep right in the classroom or simply close the book and never open it again.
On the other hand, it can be difficult for students to remember certain historical facts and events without the aid of a map. For example, when hearing or reading about the Peace of Versailles, which awarded Belgium the territories of Eupen, Malmedy, and Moresnet, it can be challenging to visualize their locations without a map. Similarly, when discussing the disputed territory between Armenia and Georgia from 1918-1920, including the counties of Akhalkalaki and Borchalo, it may be hard to understand the context without a map. Even when describing the struggle for Abkhazia during the same period, Georgian students who are familiar with the location of the Psou River may have hard time to imagine the locations of Mehadyr or Makopse.
Fortunately, today we have access to a wide range of technical tools, including graphic elements, that enable us to provide history students with illustrations and historical maps (some of which are even interactive). This can greatly enhance the learning experience. However, it should be acknowledged that while there are hardly any problems with illustrations today, the situation is much worse when it comes to historical maps. There simply aren't enough of them. What is the reason for this situation?
To address this question, we should first understand who is qualified to create historical maps and what skills they require. The answer is straightforward: such a person should be an educated historian and, at the same time, should possess advanced graphic skills, effectively making him a graphic artist. During the Renaissance era and a bit beyond, individuals with these combined skills were more readily found. However, in our present society marked by narrow specialization, finding individuals with both historical and graphic expertise is a significant challenge, if not a major problem.
First of all, creating a high-quality historical map requires a significant amount of time. Incompetent people might say: "What difficulties are there with those maps? Just ask Google, and it will give you any map you need." Yes, of course, Google will give you almost any contemporary map with unchanged physical features: the outlines of the coastline and mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, and... that's about it. And even after obtaining this data from Google, the creator of a historical map still has to manually transfer them to a graphic file, spending a long time without taking their hand off the computer mouse.
Certainly, once such work is done, the obtained contour maps of a certain region can be used to create many new historical maps, adding to them military actions, changing borders, occupied or transferred territories, and so on. But even at this preliminary stage, the time-consuming preparatory work does not end. Putting aside the fact that even over several decades, the outlines of lakes can change (let's remember at least two natural disasters of the 20th century: the drying up of the Aral Sea and Lake Sevan), and the location of cities and towns can slightly shift, we should not forget about another problem: changes in city names. For example, in a number of Eastern European countries, the names of cities and rivers have changed at least twice over the past hundred years, while in the Caucasus and adjacent areas of Turkey and Iran, they have changed three times over the same period! And all this requires separate research using a large amount of professional literature in different languages. And even that is not all.
After the preparatory work, the most interesting and enjoyable part, in my opinion, begins - adding historical events of the past to the already prepared contour maps. But these actions also cannot be done without serious preliminary research!
In other words, the time-consuming process of creating each worthy historical map requires a significant amount of time, and here arises a new question: who and from what means will pay for the work of such specialists? Unfortunately, today, this is also a big problem.
This could be one of the reasons why we don't have enough historical maps today, and why many of the ones we do have are of poor quality. Often, map creators are not given enough time to produce accurate and high-quality maps. As a result, those maps are often incomplete, contain inaccuracies, or lack the necessary level of detail.
And here is an example of what can happen when a map is created by cartographers who are not well-versed in history. Recently, a colleague of mine came across a historical atlas that had just been produced in Germany by Putzgers, an established publisher. It was on high quality paper and printed in high definition. However, when he looked at the page dedicated to the Soviet-Georgian war of 1921, he was surprised to see that the Red Army was shown invading Georgia through Batumi. According to the map's author, the 11th Army had landed in Batumi and then marched onto Tbilisi. What an "accurate representation" of the actual events!
Now I would like to address a problem with historical maps that have been published worldwide in the past hundred years, which is directly connected with the understudied history of Georgia. From the late 19th century until 1995, most historical atlases published in Europe and North America largely ignored the existence of Georgia as a state in the past. This was likely due to a widespread opinion among colleagues in history that Georgia and the Caucasus were nothing more than Russia's backyard and would remain so. Therefore, why bother studying its history?
As a result, many historical maps covering the East Mediterranean, such as those devoted to the Crusades or periods embracing the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, or even maps devoted to the Great Schism, do not show Georgia as a country. Instead, its territory is shown as part of the Arab Muslim world or other empires, despite the fact that during the periods shown on those maps, Georgia existed as an independent kingdom or as several kingdoms and princely states.
It is not surprising that at the Paris peace conference in 1919, when the Georgian delegation showed up, many western diplomats, politicians, and even political leaders were surprised and asking naive questions like, "What is Georgia? Has it ever been separate from Russia?"
Even as recently as 1990, a few members of the British Parliament made public speeches in which they mentioned that the West was not going to recognize the independence of any of the republics of the Soviet Union because, unlike the Baltic states, they had never been independent nations and were never conquered by Russia or the USSR.
Unfortunately, we do not have enough time today to discuss the politicization of historical mapping in details. Here I mean a number of maps and atlases documenting the history of the Caucasus that have been recently published in Russia and/or funded by Russia even if published in the West … Some of these maps depict a united Georgia during the reign of Queen Tamar the Great, but… without Abkhazia. This is just one instance of "politicized mapping," but it highlights the concerning situation in this field.
And finally, I would like to mention that while there is currently a shortage of objective historical maps of Georgia published worldwide, this vacuum is being filled with disinformation. While there have been some quality maps published, including a few historical maps in my own books and articles, and those of my colleagues, it is not nearly enough. As the old proverb goes, a sacred place is never empty. Consequently, the internet is awash with pseudo-historical maps that are marked by wishful thinking. Among them are the so-called "historical maps of the First Georgian Republic within internationally recognized borders." These Georgian maps are based on a map drawn for the Georgian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, which aimed to show territorial claims but not real borders.
Unfortunately, similar pseudo-historical maps of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine for the same period of 1919-1920 are also circulating on the internet and are sometimes included in Wikipedia articles and beyond (see Appendix). As I mentioned earlier, a sacred place is never empty.
In conclusion, I would take the liberty to say that we have a wide field of activity in this sphere and we will work in this direction.
Appendix (a few examples of pseudo-historical maps twisting the real history):