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David Dadiani

 

David Dadiani was, for all intents and purposes, the last of the House of Dadiani to rule Samegrelo. He reigned from 1840-1853. After his death, his wife Ekaterine ruled for four years as regent in place of David’s successor, Niko Dadiani (1847-1903), who was far too young to assume the responsibilities of leadership at the time. In 1857, the government of the Russian Empire began to directly administer Samegrelo.

David Dadiani

David was born in 1813 in the small town of Chkaduashi, where his father, Levan V Dadiani (1793-1846) had a palace. As child he was sent to Kutaisi, the capital of the neighboring Kingdom of Imereti, to live with relatives from his mother’s side of the family and attend school. When he was just ten years old, his father had him married to Darejan Dadeshkeliani, the daughter of the Svanetian ruler Tsiok Dadeshkeliani. (In 1835, he divorced her and arranged for her to marry a Kakhetian noble by the name of David Abkhaz; to save face with her family, he granted her a pension of 150 Russian gold chervonetses.[1]) In 1831, he moved to Tbilisi to begin an apprenticeship in government under the Governor of the Tbilisi province of the Russian Empire.

Unique Path to Power

David’s father Levan was a weak ruler with little interest in the practical business of governance. He preferred to spend his time pursuing entertainments, and planned to have his son assume responsibility for Samegrelo’s governance as soon as possible. Indeed, shortly after the 18-year-old David was sent to Tbilisi, Levan asked the Russian Empire’s Governor to recognize him as co-ruler of Samegrelo.

During the first few years of this unique arrangement, David’s responsibilities in Zugdidi were not onerous, and his superiors in Tbilisi allowed him time to attend to them. However, shortly after David was assigned to the Cossack Regiment in 1834 to learn the ways of the military, his father summoned him back to Samegrelo to manage a growing political crisis. Levan’s minister Nikolas “Didi Niko” Dadiani—on whom he depended to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities of government—had died, and several Mingrelian nobles were challenging Levan’s authority.

Upon arriving, David rapidly set about reforming Samegrelo’s governance—establishing uniform tax rates (in effect, preventing local nobles from taxing peasants at arbitrary rates), taking steps to democratize the province’s justice system, and generally seeking to establish stronger central governance. These changes did not endear him to Samegrelo’s nobles, as they tended to weaken the nobility’s privilege and narrow its scope for the exercise of arbitrary power. His zeal for reform ultimately caused a rift with his own father, when David sought to cut Levan’s extravagant budget for personal expenses.

Having lost his father’s support, David returned to Tbilisi in 1838, where he resumed his place in the city’s high society and developed a friendship with the family of Alexander Chavchavadze—a well-known poet, military leader, and aristocrat whose name is today synonymous with the 19th century project of introducing Enlightenment values to Georgia. David became a frequent guest at the Chavchavadzes’ country house at Tsinandali. There, he met and fell in love with Alexander’s strong-willed daughter Ekaterine, who at the time was being wooed by several other suitors from among the nobility. However, it was David who won her favor, and they wed in 1839 at Kashueti Church in Tbilisi.

The marriage had a political rationale as well. After David left Samegrelo in 1838, the political situation again rapidly deteriorated. The nobles resumed their challenge to the House of Dadiani, and Levan’s response was no more effective than it had been five years before. Facing the imminent end of the Dadianis’ centuries-old rule over Samegrelo, Levan relented and again turned to his son. This time, however, Levan promised to cede full Principal rights to David and to leave politics once and for all. Because Samegrelo’s ruler was required to be married, it was imperative that David be wed as soon as possible, so he could assume full authority before Levan had the chance to change his mind again.

The official registration of David’s marriage took almost two years, so it was not until 1840 that David was officially appointed as the sole governor of Samegrelo. Thus, when David finally assumed the formal title of Principal after his father died in 1846, he had already ruled the province for more than half a decade.

Reforms

Because David enjoyed the support of the Russian Tsar, who had placed his imprimatur on David’s appointment as governor, the restive Mingrelian nobility submitted to his authority. This gave him the space to resume major reforms of Samegrelo’s governance.

Perhaps most importantly, David changed the court system, over which the Principal had hitherto held sway. He appointed 12 independent lawyers as the final arbiters of justice, which had the effect of extending the reach of the justice system beyond the nobility. Other important reforms included the liberation of the clergy from the Principal’s authority; the prohibition of human trafficking; the abolition of the institution of dowry; and the construction of roads and canals. He also created scholarships that sent ten or more Mingrelians to Tbilisi each year for professional education. The rapid tempo of these efforts was driven his recognition that Samegrelo, which was already a protectorate of the Russian Empire and was by then the last remaining independent Georgian principality, would in all likelihood soon be abolished as a separate political entity.

These reforms all required money. David’s strategies to raise funds for his initiatives included buying up income-producing patrimony land and engaging the government in several profitable lines of business, including strawberries, cigars, and most importantly, silk. (Unfortunately, these business ventures all collapsed soon after David’s death.) At times, David even financed his reforms by selling personal property.

David’s personal life was marked by sorrow. The first three of his seven children died of childhood illnesses during David’s lifetime: Maria (1840-1842), Nina (1841-1848), and Levan (1842-1844). Of his remaining four children—Nikolas (1847-1903), Salome (1848-1913), Andria (1850-1910), and Tamar (1853-1859)—the oldest was barely seven at the time of David’s death. To cope with the pain of losing three young children, David came to focus almost obsessively on his mission to modernize Samegrelo, and pushed himself without regard for his own health. In August 1853, he suddenly fell ill of malaria, and died soon afterward. He was laid to rest at Martvili Church.

Because David’s eldest son and heir, Niko, was still a young child at the time of his death, David’s wife Ekaterine assumed the powers of regency. However, Ekaterine was unprepared for the responsibilities of governance, and the challenges that she soon faced—including war with Turkey and renewed rebellion within Samegrelo—would have tested even the most accomplished statesman. After four tumultuous years, the government of the Russian Empire stepped in to assume direct administrative control of Samegrelo in 1857, and the reign of the House of Dadiani was effectively at an end.

[1] The name for a gold coin minted in Russia, and used more generally to refer to currency of proven value in Russia. Chervonetses were issued in the Soviet Union as well. They were a trusted monetary “brand” in Russia.

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