Giorgi and Felix: Phage therapy in Georgia (part 2)
In 1937, Stalin’s Great Terror began. Like many others, in January 1937 Eliava was arrested and accused of anti-Soviet activities. Many legends have grown around his arrest – that he was arrested on horseback and hacked through an officer before being apprehended; that he had been rude to Beria when treating him for an infection; that Beria was jealous of Tinatin Jikia, the wife of Eliava’s friend Vladimir who had been arrested earlier – there is no evidence of an affair, but Beria was obsessed with Tinatin. The memoirs of Eliava’s daughter, Ganna, (she was 21 at the time) and the Budu Mdivani case files from the Archives of Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs allowed me to reconstruct the story with more clarity. Eliava was arrested at his house, on 22 January 1937, with his wife Amelia. Ganna was arrested a few days later, as a family member of an enemy of the people.
Eliava on horseback
Eliava’s arrest was part of the campaign against Budu Mdivani, the old Bolshevik who, like so many, had fallen out of grace. With typical meticulousness, the persecutors crafted increasingly preposterous accusations: that Eliava was recruited by both French and British secret services during his visits to Paris; that he introduced Mdivani to foreign agents, including Daniel Patrick O’Brien of the Rockefeller Foundation; that Eliava, Mdivani and others organised a counterrevolutionary Trotskyite centre in Tbilisi and intended to sabotage Georgia with defective bacteriophages; that Eliava had supervised the production of a typhoid vaccine intentionally contaminated with virulent microbes. Whatever his personal relationship with Beria, Eliava’s testimony was extracted from him to use against a more formidable foe. On 10 July 1937, Mdivani, Eliava and five more men were executed. The Dawn of the East (Zarya vostoka), the official Communist newspaper, triumphantly called for ‘Death to the Enemies of the People’. Ganna and Amelia remained under arrest; remarkably, they briefly shared the same cell in the women’s prison, and managed some communication after they were separated. Amelia was executed some time after Gogi in 1937 – no records of her case remain – and Ganna was exiled to Kazakhstan. She managed to return to Tbilisi in 1944.
After his execution, Eliava’s name was rapidly erased from his institute, sometimes literally so. His fate was not unique among microbiologists – many others were arrested. Two prominent phage researchers in Ukraine, Hnat Ruchnko and Moisei Melnyk, met similar fate that in the Terror. Stories of well-poisoning with bacteriophage, paralleling Nazi antisemitic propaganda, proved useful in building NKVD cases. They did not stick, however; as USSR started a military campaigns against Finland in 1939, and entered World War II in 1941 after the Nazi armies invaded, bacteriophage became an important and promising medicine once again, especially for dysentery and wound infections. While the plans for the All-Union Bacteriophage Institute were scaled down, as it was merged with the local Microbiology and Epidemiology Institute and the new establishment opened in 1939. Some of Eliava’s former colleagues, especially Elena Makashvili persisted with his research agenda, and d’Herelle’s approach to the study of phages that emphasised their role within individual human bodies and human populations during pandemics. Eliava was officially rehabilitated in 1956, after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s reforms; his name slowly returned into circulation in the 1960s, but the official recognition of his central role to the Institute and Soviet phage work had to wait until 1974.
Bacteriophage Institute (1939)
Among the depressing paper trail of the Eliava/Mdivani case, one document gives a brief moment of relief. During the rehabilitation proceedings in 1956, Nina Egiazarova, Eliava’s former technician, testified. She described Eliava as an “exceptionally humane and understanding man” whose enthusiasm for scientific work was infectious. “Eliava was a patriot of his country, a patriot of his work… The workers of the institute, and the whole scientific world treated his arrest as a huge loss for us, and for science.”
"an exceptionally humane and understanding man"
I thank Gogi’s descendants, Natalia and Dimitry Devdariani, Nina Chanishvili at the Eliava Institute and the Archives of the Minsitry of Internal Affairs of Georgia for their assistance in researching this story