A framework explaining the Soviet model of societal development centered around a dramatic confrontation between the Russian and the anti-Russian had dominated the Soviet research over the course of many decades. This was an easy approach to explain relationships between a political center and a periphery with the center trying to russify the periphery with all their might while the periphery resisting by means of cultivating local languages and ethnic cultures. 
However, in the process of using just black and white colors, a plethora of ethnopolitical relations and confrontations slipped through the cracks. These confrontations had impregnated the Soviet reality to the extent that they eventually set bloody ethnic conflicts into motion, thus destroying a far-fetched myth about the “friendship among peoples” wrought by the Soviet propaganda over decades.
It cannot go without admitting that an ethnic politization policy pursued by the Bolshevik in the 1920s and the introduction of a hierarchical ethnopolitical administration have made ethnonationalism a factor at all levels of domestic policies. If, in 1958 and 1978 some union republics fought against the Russification politics, ethnic minorities residing in these republics had been focusing on a different set of issues such as access to political tenure, the right to use local economic resources, receiving allocations and transfers to their localities, the right to receiving education in their native tongue, preservation of culture etc.
Pursuant to unwritten laws of the Soviet Unions, only nations were eligible to these privileges., therefore, the notion of uniqueness was extremely important from a political perspective leading to occasional artificial conversion of popular traditions which, under different circumstances of dynamic epoch of industrial and post-industrial civilizations have little chance to survive. For this very reason, the Soviet ideology was dominated by primordial views while the past as a prestigious factor was an absolute winning card for debates revolving around history and the past.
For reasons outlined above, providing interpretations of the past had been particularly important for historians who felt obliged to come up with versions of history which would underscore the reputation of their republics or ethnic groups. Therefore, whether implicitly or explicitly, ethnonationalism, had always been present in views about history and characterized the works of historians in various Soviet republics. On their turn, these ethnocentric accounts of the history constructed by these scientists had had great impact on respective ethnic groups by nurturing ethnic awareness and causing the formation of an ethnic identity. At the same time, it is evident that, an ethnocentric approach to the outside world fuels up hostility among nations since the “negative attitudes to “the others” are channeled through myths and legends”.
A setting dominated by permanent ethnic tensions pushed local inteligencia towards consolidation. This very factor explains the unity of groups of historians, something that became rather evident against the backdrop of ideological battles unfolding on the historical frontline. Attitudes to religion and demography were indeed amongst the key debatable issues among historians.
The Quation of Religion
The question of religious affiliation of the Abkhaz come to the fore in 1988-1989. Many Georgian authors, following Ingorokva’s theory, viewed the Medieval Abkhazia’s Christian communities as Georgians and pointed out that Christianity in Abkhazia went to the decline after pagan Barbarian tribes arriving from the North Caucasus adopted Islam. Throughout all these years, the Georgian media were busy to cultivate an image of the Christian Georgia surrounded by hostile Muslim peoples. The Abkhaz, portrayed mostly as Muslims also played an important role in these developments. The Georgian media would routinely discuss strong ties that Abkhazia had with Rian and Turkey. Rumors had it that First Secretary of the Gudauta District Committee of the Community Party had allegedly been obtaining weapons from Turkey which were then disseminated among the Abkhaz.
The trend of considering each and every Abkhaz a Muslim extremist, gained a stronger momentum during Gamsakhurdia’s presidency, openly supported by Mariam Lortkipanidze who portrayed the Abkhaz as Muslims and the nemesis of Christianity in the western Georgia. This trend was eerily similar to Ingorokva’s theory concerning a drastic change in the makeup of people residing in Abkhazia in the 17th century and delineating a picture whereby Christian communities were intimidated by pagan nomads. Lortkipanidze was not alone in reviving this idea with many Georgian historians embracing the same sentiments. A propaganda handbill issued in 1990 iin Kutaisi, talked about an intent of “the Apsua separatists to create a new Muslim state in the Caucasus in the old Georgian territory” with the aim to ultimately “cut off Georgia from the rest of the Christian world”.
As a response, since the1980s the Abkhaz had been trying to distance from Islam underscoring their ancient Christian roots. For example, Stanislav Lakoba argued that the Abkhaz had been Christians since the ancient times, and that Islam, introduced in Abkhazia in the 16-17 cc, failed to put down roots there. At the same time, Lakoba would frequently make a reference to successful Islamization of Georgians by Arabs and Turks.
Throughout all these years, Abkhaz scientists developed great interest in their Christian heritage. In 1989, some Abkhaz authors tried to prove that St Nino arrived in the Caucasus by the sea and that the Abkhaz were the first to be converted to Christianity before she took to the rest of Georgia. However, the idea never found popular support even in Abkhazia.
Later on, an Abkhaz archaeologist Mikheil Gunba argued there was a link between the advent of Christianity in Abkhazia and apostil Andrew the First Called. Not only did he make the Christian tradition in Abkhazia seem older than it was, but also, he made efforts to demonstrate that Christianity spread among local communities rather early. Abkhaz authors have a rather cautious position on this version, however, they from time to time underline that the roots of Christianity can be found in Abkhazia as early as in late 3rd and early 4th century. In other words, heated debates revolved around the question as to who had been baptized first – Georgians or the Abkhaz.
All of this had led to a rather interesting outcome: during the Abkhaz conflict of 1992-1993, the Abkhaz tried to get back to the foundation of the Christian church. The results of a survey conducted in 1997 suggest that approximately 50% of the Abkhaz respondents considered themselves to be Christians. A propaganda brochure about the history of Abkhazia, distributed ruing the war, highlighted Abkhazia as an ancient Christian country. Moreover, some Abkhaz intellectuals argued that Abkhazia was truly a pre-Apocalyptic monotheist country and a home to Japhet “Protoabkhaz” who transferred their knowledge to other peoples. Their ministry had allegedly created the whole circle of peoples leading the formation of a feature Christian world. According to this theory, it was from the land of the Abkhaz that the fire of true monotheism was passed on to the Semite tribes. Even though Christianity originated outside of Abkhazia, the Abkhaz were among those who were baptized by Andre the First Called. Therefore, according to this account, Orthodox Christianity had always been the only choice for the Abkhaz.
The Question of Demography
The late 1980s saw the issue of demography becoming a new subject of debates between Georgian and the Abkhaz societies. The issue was first explicitly referred to in the “Abkhaz Letter”. In no time many Abkhaz authors would routinely use it in the debates. The debate followed a series of statements made by Gamsakhurdia and other Georgian politicians arguing that 17% of the Abkhaz population (that is ethnic Abkhaz) had been enjoying privileges that were unheard of and at the same time exploiting the rest of the local communities. As a response, the Abkhaz scientists resorted to statistical data to prove a drastic change in the ethnic makeup of local communities over the course of 100 to 150 years.
One of the first to analyze these data was Inal-Ipa. He argued that up until to the mid-19th century, the Abkhaz communities resided in the area between the Inguri river to Sochi, however, the territory under the effective control of the Abkhaz dukes was confined to the lands between the Inguri and Bzipi rivers. Inal-Ipa argued that these lands were inhabited exclusively by the Abkhaz and that there were hardly any other ethnic groups. A tragedy ensuing the wars in the Caucasus befell Abkhazia between 1840-1870 when thousands of the Abkhaz were forced to leave their homes and move to the Ottoman Empire. While it is difficult to provide an accurate number of Mujtahids in exile, Inal-Ipa argued that total of 100 thousand Abkhaz had been evicted. Inal-Ipa relied on the research conducted by an American historian Ehud R.Toledano according to which the number of the evicted in 1863 totaled 150 thousand. However, Toledano’s figures did not coincide with the ones provided by Inal-Ipa himself who claimed that until the mid-19th century the total Abkhaz population ranged between 100.000 to 150.000. In any way, as a result of the eviction, the areas in the vicinity of the Bzipi river as well as lands in the central part of Abkhazia were first emptied and soon after that became home for waves of migrants, predominantly Russians, Armenians and Greeks, as part of the russification policy of the Tsarist Russia. Inal-Ipa argues that Georgians were also among the migrants since the imperial order forbidding Georgians to settle in Abkhazia was not entirely effective.
Demographic question was a matter of confrontation between Mariam Lortkipanidze, a Georgian historian and Aleksei Gogua, an Abkhaz writer. Lortkipanidze argued that in 1921 ethnic Abkhazians accounted only for 17.6% of the population in Abkhazia. In reality, based on the results of the 1926 census, the Abkhaz constituted 27.8% of the population. Tensions were also rising over the number of Megrelians who were re-settled in Abkhazia. Alexei Gogua argued that the number of Georgians moved to Abkhazia totaled 200.000 while Mariam Lortkipanidze held that as many as 79.000 Georgians moved to Abkhazia between 1926 and 1959.
In any case, Georgian and Abkhaz demographic data by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were radically dissenting. While, in 1886 Abkhaz authors argued there were 58.963 people with ethnic Abkhaz background and only 4.000 Georgians, Georgian sources indicated 28.320 and 34.806 respectively. If Georgians valued state integrity and focused on an integrational version of history, language, and culture, the Abkhaz were particularly concerned with the preservation of their own uniqueness and would fiercely oppose any efforts of assimilation.
Some Abkhaz authors apparently ignored a scientific approach and trusted figures from dubious sources. For example, an article authored by Kvarchia and Achugba, with the latter citing Gulia, talks about the decline in the number of the Abkhaz population from 600.000 to 200.000 in the period between the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th century. Similarly, demographic assumptions concerning greater part of the 19th century without any reported census, seems equally suspicious. However, they main goal was to prove that no ethnic groups, but the Abkhaz has resided in the territory of the former Abkhaz County up until 1870 and that their number progressively declined since the 1880s.
Based on the data provided by the Abkhaz authors, in the period preceding the World War 1, the Abkhaz accounted for about 60% of the Abkhaz population. They argued that Georgia had to do with a drastic decline of their number: according to them, during the First Georgian Republic, all Samurzakano communities were registered as Georgians. The same measure was taken during 1926-1939. In the 1940s and 1950s, along with the deportation of ethnic minorities (so called “Turk Meskhs”, Greeks, Assyrians, Kurds) outside of Georgia, Georgians were resettled to Abkhazia. The authors argued that, as a result of this measure, during the next 100 years saw the Abkhaz turning into insignificant minority from the mainstream population. According to them, in the period between 1897 and 1989, the number of the Abkhaz population increased from 58.697 to 93.267, while the Georgian population increased from 25.875 to 239.872. Respectively, the Abkhaz accounted for 17.9% of the population in Abkhazia, while Georgians constituted 45.7%. Therefore, the Abkhaz authors argued that the decrease in an absolute and relative size of the Abkhaz communities took place as a result of “mechanical increase of non-Abkhaz population and artificial assimilation of part of the Abkhaz population”.
Georgians, however, held a different view on this issue. In 1992, President Shevardnadze declared that the decline in the number of the Abkhaz population in Abkhazia was a natural process and Georgians had nothing to do with the trend. In other words, Shevardnadze outright denied that resettlement of ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia had ever occurred. Following this statement, Georgian authors made efforts to prove that the Georgian migration had not had any significant impact on demographic processes in Abkhazia. They argued that if Georgian migration towards Abkhazia was encouraged, it served the purpose of preventing the migration of Russian-speaking communities.
Instead of a Conclusion
It is no secret that in the Soviet Union nationalist ideologies were shaped along with the Communist ideology. This process bore an ethnic character determined by an ethno-administrative arrangement of the state. This was supported by a commonly shared idea of the state as a society of “collective individual” vigorously supported by the state ideology. That is why, while discussing the ideological nature of the Soviet regime, one has to consider the fact that not only did it support the supremacy of the Communist ideology, but also it encouraged neo-nationalist ideologies.
In any case, as it appeared, ideas about specific ancestry had played a critical role in identity formation and significantly shaped priorities of political attitudes with regard to representatives of other ethnic groups. The goal of the “title” nation in a given republic was to integrate ethnic minorities by cultivating a shared history scheme which also included minority ethnic groups as part of the history of the title nations.
Under such circumstnces, it was not only horizontal linkages that mattered for the identity, as Benedict Anderson argues, but also vertical connections, which would tie contemporaries with their ancestry. Components of ethnic identity discussed above, were ultimately connected to politics, which was inevitable in the Soviet Union where politization of ethnicity was built on a legal foundation.
In their turn, ethnic minorities would create an image of their own history and take great efforts to delimitate their own history from that of the title nation with the aim to protect their status as an independent and unique nation which would serve as the ground for demanding certain political rights.
The article is written in the framework of the project Promoting Reconciliation through Dealing with the Past in Georgia implemented by Caucasian House with the financial support of ifa with means of the German Foreign Federal Office.
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