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Georgia: Historical Documents Return Home

Washington, 7 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An American professor involved with the U.S. preservation of a number of priceless Georgian historical documents says he was happy to see finally their return home Friday after more than 75 years abroad.

Richard Pipes, professor emeritus of Harvard University in the eastern U.S. state of Massachusetts, told RFE/RL that a historical archive of Georgian documents was turned over to representatives of the Georgian government Friday after being stored in Harvard's library for more than 20 years.

The documents containing important laws, treaties and even a declaration of independence were written from 1918 to 1921, the years of Georgia's self-rule. The collection was smuggled out of Georgia shortly after the Red Army marched into the nation in 1921.

Pipes says for many years the collection was hidden in the French National Library, and had to be protected not only from the communists, but also from the Nazis during World War II.

The collection was still in France, says Pipes, when he went to Paris in the early 1950's as a young scholar to do research on a book on the Soviet Union. He says during his research for that book, he made and maintained many excellent contacts in the Parisian Georgian community.

On a return trip to Paris in 1962, Pipes says a few members of the Georgian community cautiously approached him and asked if he thought Harvard University would be interested in preserving and maintaining the historical documents until they could be returned to Georgia.

Pipes says Harvard University was indeed interested in the archive, but negotiations for the transfer stalled. Pipes says the Georgians were so cautious and protective of their collection that it took 16 years to negotiate a satisfactory agreement.

Pipes says the final agreement stated that Harvard could keep the documents for 30 years -- or until the year 2004 -- at the end of which time the documents would have to be returned to Georgia, regardless of what kind of government was in power.

Pipes says that when Harvard finally received the collection, the library staff was shocked by its condition.

"It was clear the documents had been hidden in rather bad conditions. They were in a very poor state and had to be chemically treated at once," says Pipes.

Pipes says that Harvard's agreement to take care of the crumbling and mildewed documents was a "expensive proposition" which required fundraising to pay for the needed preservation, restoration and cataloguing.

"It really was a selfless act on the side of the university," says Pipes. "They deserve a lot of credit."

When Georgia gained its independence in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Harvard decided to waive its right to keep the documents until the year 2004, and agreed to turn over the collection this year to Georgia.

"It is rare that one feels happy about giving documents away .... But in this case we were really quite happy," says Pipes

Pipes says as thanks for the preservation of the collection, the Georgian government gave Harvard microfilm of more related material that had been among the documents smuggled out of the country, but had never been turned over to the university.

Georgian Ambassador to the United States Tedo Japaridze accepted the historical collection on behalf of Georgia at a ceremony at Harvard University last Friday.

Japaridze told RFE/RL that the ceremony was "incredible" and "emotionally overwhelming" and that he was honored to take part in the return of the priceless documents to his nation.

Japaridze says: "The documents are not only papers -- the information that is in these documents contains emotions and the history of what Georgia went through in those very turbulent years between 1918 to 1921 when we first experienced independence and freedom."

Of particular importance among the documents, says Japaridze, is the treaty signed between the Soviet Union and Georgia in 1920 in which the Soviets agree to respect Georgia's sovereignty.

"A treaty which Russia violated in 1921," notes Japaridze.

Japaridze says the archive will be extremely useful for research and scholarly purposes as well as a practical application of the knowledge gleaned from the documents.

"History is a recital of mistakes. What is important about these archives is that they are not just historical documents. We need to research them and learn from them and not to make the same mistakes that were made by the first independent Georgian government," says Japaridze.

Japaridze adds: "What is interesting for me, is that the ceremony was not only about the archives and the history of Georgia, but it was about the future of my country .... I hope Georgia will remain democratic and independent and a part of the democratic commonwealth and community of nations."