The beginning of Georgian nationalism can be traced to the middle of the 19th century, when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. From being more culture-focused in the Imperial Russian and Soviet periods, it went through several phases, evolving into radical ethnocentric in the late 1980s and early in the post-Soviet independence years, and to a more inclusive and civic-oriented form in the mid-2000s. However, vestiges of ethnic nationalism remain among many Georgians.
Modern Georgian nationalism emerged in the middle of the 19th century as a reaction to the Russian annexation of fragmented Georgian polities, which terminated their precarious independence, but brought to the Georgians unity under a single authority, relative peace and stability. The first to inspire national revival were aristocratic poets, whose romanticist writings were imbued with patriotic laments. After a series of ill-fated attempts at revolt, especially, after the failed coup plot of 1832, the Georgian elites reconciled with the Russian rule, while their calls for national awakening were rechanneled through cultural efforts. In the 1860s, the new generation of Georgian intellectuals, educated at Russian universities and exposed to European ideas, promoted national culture against assimilation by the Imperial center. Led by the literati such as Ilia Chavchavadze, their program attained more nationalistic colors as the nobility declined and capitalism progressed, further stimulated by the rule of the Russian bureaucracy and economic and demographic dominance of the Armenian middle class in the capital city of Tbilisi. Chavchavadze and his associates called for the unity of all Georgians and put national interests above class and provincial divisions. Their vision did not envisage an outright revolt for independence, but demanded autonomy within the reformed Russian Empire, with greater cultural freedom, promotion of the Georgian language, and support for Georgian educational institutions and the national church, whose independence had been suppressed by the Russian government.
Despite their advocacy of ethnic culture and demographic grievances over Russian and Armenian dominance in Georgia's urban centers, a program of the early Georgian nationalists was inclusive and preferred non-confrontational approach to inter-ethnic issues. Some of them, such as Niko Nikoladze, envisaged the creation of a free, decentralized, and self-governing federation of the Caucasian peoples based on the principle of ethnically proportional representation.
The idea of Caucasian federation within the reformed Russian state was also voiced by the ideologues of Georgian social democracy, who came to dominate Georgian political landscape by the closing years of the 19th century. Initially, the Georgian Social Democrats were opposed to nationalism and viewed it as a rival ideology, but they remained proponents of self-determination. In the words of the historian Stephen F. Jones, "it was socialism in Georgian colors with priority given to the defense of national culture." The Georgian social-democrats were very active in all-Russian socialist movement and after its split in 1905 sided with the Menshevik faction adhering to relatively liberal ideas of their Western European colleagues.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was perceived by the Georgian Mensheviks, led by Noe Zhordania, as a breach of links between Russia and Europe. When they declared Georgia an independent democratic republic on 26 May 1918, they viewed the move as a tragic inevitability against the background of unfolding geopolitical realities.
As the new state faced a series of domestic and international challenges, the internationalist Social-Democratic leadership became more focused on narrower national problems. With this reorientation to a form of nationalism, the Georgian republic became a "nationalist/socialist hybrid." The government's efforts to make education and administration more Georgian drew protests from ethnic minorities, further exacerbated by economic hardship and exploited for their political ends by the Bolsheviks who promoted the export of revolution. The government's response to dissent, including among the ethnic minorities, such as the Abkhaz and Ossetians, was frequently violent and excessive. The decision to resort to military solutions was driven by security concerns rather than readiness to settle ethnic scores. Overall, the Georgian Mensheviks did not turn to authoritarianism and terror. However, the events of that time played an important role in reinforcing stereotypes on all involved sides in the latter-day ethnic conflicts in Georgia.
After the sovietization of Georgia in 1921, followed by suppression of an armed rebellion against the new regime in 1924, many leading nationalist intellectuals went in exile in Europe. In the Soviet Union, Georgian nationalism went underground or was rechanneled into cultural pursuits, becoming focused on the issues of language, promotion of education, protection of old monuments, literature, film, and sports. Any open manifestation of local nationalism was repressed by the Soviet state, but it did provide cultural frameworks and, as part of its policy of korenizatsiya, helped institutionalize the Georgians as a "titular nationality" in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Thus, by maintaining the focus of Georgian nationalism on cultural issues, the Soviet regime was able to prevent it from becoming a political movement until the 1980s perestroika period.
The late 1970s saw a re-emergence of Georgian nationalism that clashed with Soviet power. Plans to revise the status of Georgian as the official language of Soviet Georgia were drawn up in the Kremlin in early 1978, but after stiff and unprecedented public resistance the Soviet central government abandoned the plans. At the same time, it also abandoned similar revision plans for the official languages in the Armenian and Azerbaijani SSRs.
Georgian nationalism was eventually more tolerated during the waning years of the USSR due to Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost policy. The Soviet government attempted to counter the Georgian independence movement in the early 1990s with promises of greater decentralisation from Moscow.