Gori’s Educational Seminary - The School that Changed the Caucasus
Gori, Georgia, in 1886. Image: Wikimedia Commons
If you’ve heard of the small Central Georgian city of Gori, the chances are because of Stalin, who was born there and whose life remains charted by a major local museum. However, well before the gory “Man of Steel” was thought about, Gori was known regionally for the Transcaucasian Educational Seminary. This pedagogical college opened in 1876 and would transform the young lives of many future writers, artists and statesmen who studied there. That may seem odd for a place whose primary function was to train primary school teachers.
What was unique about the place is that part of the education was [from 1879 onwards] to learn to teach the mother-tongue languages of the three South Caucasian countries, even if Russian was the overall language of the institution.
The college trained instructors to teach each South Caucasian country’s respective mother tongue, although Russian was the official language at the time.
The Institution’s Development
The seminary was born at a time when the Russian Empire, in general, was having a period of reaction against non-Russian peoples. Yet, in Tbilisi, the Caucasus Educational District (Kavkazskiy uchebnyy okrug – CED) was seen as “a sort of refuge for liberal reformers among educational administrators,” being a long way from the oversight of strict ministerial control. Many of the individuals working here had been inspired by the now-celebrated Russian pedagogue Konstantin Ushinsky.
It was one of Ushinskiy’s former students, D. D. Semyonov, who arrived in 1878 to take command of the Seminary. His first two years appear to have been less than ideal: In 1877, a report in the Iveria newspaper edited by the revered Georgian nationalist Ilia Chavchavadze, had criticized the institution for having such a poor approach to teaching Georgian and noted that only 13 Georgian students were enrolled. Semyonov appears to have improved matters considerably, turning the institution into a “centre for progressive ideas… for the local nationalities.”
Initially, those nationalities were only Armenian and Georgian. It was only in 1879 that the seminary opened its so-called ‘Tatar Branch’ (Azerbaijanis were widely called Tatars in this era), thanks to the combined efforts of Semyonov and Mirza Fatali Akhundzadeh (aka Akhundov), the writer, critic and nationalist philosopher who is said to have been the figure “at the origins of a distinctive Azeri intelligentsia.” Akhundzadeh died before the Tatar Branch formally opened. Still, his founding support gave it a critical impetus and helped set the framework that would prepare its students to be far more widely educated than might have been required for teachers bound for village primary schools. At the same time, many were imbued with a strong sense of national consciousness for an as-yet un-formulated Azerbaijani nation.
The cover of a copy of “Vatan Dili.” Image: Cangevar/Wikipedia
The Tatar Branch was led by another Ushinskiy disciple, Alexey Chernyaevsky, who had previously been head of the elementary school's directorate in Baku. Between 1882 and 1888, he and one of the institute’s first graduates, Safarali-bey Velibekov, compiled Vatan Dili (Native Language). This ground-breaking series of Azerbaijani language textbooks was an essential step in formalizing wider-spread secular education for Azerbaijanis. For many, schooling had previously been dominated by Islamic religious learning. The books were also the first to write down Azerbaijani poems aimed at children and teenagers. Vatan Dili would be the mainstay of Azerbaijani language education for decades, only dropping out of use after the Soviet takeover in 1920. These books were augmented from 1906 by the Ikinci il ("The Second Year"), co-authored by another Gori graduate, Suleyman Sani Akhundov.
Prominent Azerbaijani Alumni
To an Azerbaijani, a list of alumni of the Gori Seminary is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of national heroes. These include two of the country’s most celebrated musicians. Uzeyir Hajibeyli (also known via Russian transliteration as Uzeir Gadzhibekov) would compose the national anthem and has come to be known as the father of Azerbaijani classical music. However, on graduating from Gori in 1904, he initially took up a teaching post in Hadrut, where he published a mathematics textbook. That was a year before his first opera in Baku. A contemporary of Hajibeyli’s at Gori was Muslim Magomayev, whose teaching career lasted much longer. However, in 1916 he rekindled the musical passion he had discovered at the seminary and wrote an opera of his own. He continued composing for many years after that but is now best remembered as a great orchestral conductor.
Uzeyir Hacibeyli. Image: Public Domain
A much earlier Gori graduate was Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (1866-1932), founder and chief editor of the now almost mythical periodical Molla Nasreddin – a cartoon-style satirical magazine. It poked fun at a whole range of institutions and conservative religious beliefs, for which it was frequently in trouble with the censors.
Many political figures in Azerbaijan’s years of first independence and, after, as a republic within the USSR, were educated at Gori. Perhaps the most significant of these was Nariman Narimanov, whose monument on an eponymous avenue in Baku is the last of the gigantic Soviet-era statues to remain standing in the Azerbaijani capital.
Prominent Georgian Alumni
Georgian alumni of the institute include Nikoloz Janashia (1872-1918), a campaigner for better education in Abkhazia, and Lado Agniashvili (1860-1904), a prominent linguist, ethnographer, and public figure. Better known is Luka Pavles dze Razikashvili, a ‘mountaineer-poet’ and dramatist usually remembered under the pen-name Vazha-Pshavela or simply Vazha. His work often focused on themes of liberty, dignity and self-determination of the Georgian people, notably with the 1892 epic Bakhtrioni, which, because it told the tale of Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) standing up to 17th-century Persians rather than 19th-century Russians, was re-published in Soviet times. Today his fame in Georgia is such that the main thoroughfare and metro station in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo District are named in his honour.
Nikoloz Janashia with his students. Image: Public Domain
By 1910 the Azerbaijani Branch of the Gori Seminary was headed by Firidun-bek Kocharli (also written Kocharlinsky), who had studied there in the 1880s. He later returned as a professor, having taught Azerbaijani at a Russian-Muslim school in Yerevan. During the chaos of WWI, the three Caucasian countries found themselves independent of Russia in 1918, and Kocharli organized the transfer of the Azerbaijani faculty from Gori in Georgia across the newly drawn border to be re-established in the Azerbaijani town of Qazax. Kocharli also became a member of parliament of the new Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, making him a target for reprisals once the Bolsheviks regained power: he was shot in 1920. Nonetheless, the Qazax Teachers’ Seminary continued to produce important thinkers of whom none is better known in Azerbaijan than the “people’s poet” Samed Vurgun.
Today, there are few physical signs of the institution’s past glories. The Seminary site in Gori is now the very functional looking School #9, while the Qazax Seminary finally closed in 1958 – its run-down building being repurposed as School #4. However, it’s not for the physical structures that the Transcaucasian Seminary will be remembered. It is remarkable to ponder the degree to which a relatively small teacher training college in the small town of Gori has impacted the cultural and nationalist-political landscape of the Caucasus.