Georgia, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, were the only Soviet republics whose native languages were officially recognized as sole state languages.
In 1978, however, Communist Party officials sought to abolish that privilege by making constitutional amendments to elevate Russian to equal status as a state language.
The move met with wide disapproval in all three republics. But the outcry was particularly strong in the Georgian SSR, where protesters had the backing of Eduard Shevardnadze, the head of the Georgian Communist Party -- who was to become the country's second post-Soviet president in 1995.
As soon as he heard about the planned constitutional amendments, Shevardnadze traveled to Moscow in a bid to convince Soviet leaders to drop the plan. But his pleas fell on deaf ears.
That's when Shevardnadze decided to launch a campaign to draw attention to the issue within Georgia.
"I personally initiated this. I called a meeting of the Central Committee [of the Communist Party] about the need to study the draft constitution," he recalls in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "The writers were the first to react to my initiative."
A Powerful Ally
Students were quick to step in, holding demonstration and collecting signatures.
The protest rallies reached their peak on April 14, 1978, the day the republic's Supreme Soviet gathered to ratify the new constitution.
Shevardnadze, who was in attendance, made sure the protesters were informed of the meeting. "I arranged it so that my speech was transmitted to loudspeakers on Rustaveli Avenue -- whoever was there could hear what I was saying," he says.
By the end of his speech, thousands of demonstrators had massed outside the government building, chanting, "Native language!" That's when Shevardnadze, to the crowd's surprise, defied Moscow's orders and canceled the draft constitution recognizing Russian as state language. The protesters were so incredulous that Shevardnadze had to go out to persuade them that the bill had really been dropped.
Shevardnadze then returned to Moscow to face his Soviet bosses, conscious that his disobedience could cost him his career. But to his own surprise, then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev chose to wipe the slate clean.
"You can call it a miracle, a miraculous salvation," he says. "It would have been self-evident for me to be dismissed, to be expelled from the party. But the issue of the native language was of higher important for me and for the whole of Georgia."
The 1978 demonstrations were a major victory for Georgians, who succeeded in maintaining their language as sole official language right up the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Georgia now celebrates April 14 as "Native Language Day."
In recent years, however, a number of Georgians have pointed to what they say is growing misuse of their language. The Georgian Academy opposition group today founded the Society for the Constitutional Protection of the State Language in a bid to curb the Georgian language's degradation.
Marina Vashakmadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report
RFE/RL Caucasus Report
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