In April of 1989 an anti-Soviet peaceful demonstration demanding secession from the Soviet Union was violently dispersed by the Russian Army using tanks and guns on Rustaveli Avenue, in the center of Tbilisi, resulting in 21 deaths. Among the deceased were 17 females and 4 males, two 16-year-old students and a pregnant woman.

The events of 9 April 1989 were the culmination of weeks of demonstrations for Georgian independence and against separatism in the Georgian Black Sea region of Abkhazia. The demonstrations included hunger strikes, but were peaceful. At their peak, thousands of people are estimated to have been present. Local Soviet authorities lost control over the situation in the capital. First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party Jumber Patiashvili asked USSR leadership to send troops to restore order. The troops were commanded by Colonel General Igor Radionov. In the hours before the attack, Ilia II the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church asked the demonstrators to leave the square due to the danger which accumulates during the day after appearance of Soviet tanks near the avenue. They refused. Minutes before 4am on 9 April, Gen Radionov told his troops to clear the square by all means available.

As they advanced, backed up by armoured personnel carriers, his men attacked the demonstrators with clubs and sharpened spades. They also used potent crowd-control gases (later refusing to tell medics treating those poisoned precisely which agents they had employed). In the chaos and panic of the stampede that followed, many civilians were crushed or asphyxiated. The next day Soviet central television put the blame for the night’s events on the demonstrators. Gen Radionov claimed his men had been attacked first. However, the violence had been captured on film, and it told an entirely different story.

A Parliamentary commission on investigation of events of April 9, 1989 in Tbilisi was launched by Anatoly Sobchak, member of Congress of People’s Deputies of Soviet Union. After full investigation and inquiries, the commission confirmed the government’s claim that the deaths had resulted from trampling, but another contributing factor had been the chemical substances used against the demonstrators. It condemned the military, which had caused the deaths by trying to disperse demonstrators. The commission’s report made it more difficult to use military power against demonstrations of civil unrest in the Soviet Union. Sobchak’s report presented a detailed account of the violence which was used against the demonstrators and recommended the full prosecution of military personnel responsible for the April 9 event.

A year later, on 9 April 1990, Georgia adopted a Declaration of Independence. By this time, Georgia was under the leadership of the nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia Georgians now take a public holiday on 9 April to mark their Day of National Unity.

By Kato Bakradze