Some of the issues of Russian imperial language policy in Abkhazia and its results (Part I)
21/06/2010 14:35
Gogi Maisuradze

It is a universally known fact that by annexation of countries empires achieve several goals simultaneously. In particular, at the time the most important thing is to add new territories, to get hold of natural resources and other material wealth, strengthening and improvement of geo-strategic and military positions, change of the demographic situation in its' favour and so on. Together with the abovementioned things it is important to assimilate subdued people linguistically, culturally, religiously and ethnically in order to prevent this people in the future from becoming disobedient towards the invader.

In 1801 and 1921 after the Russian empire fully annexed and taking roots in Georgia it become important for them to achieve all the above mentioned goals including religious assimilation. But at that time in addition to Georgian-speaking majority there were ethnic groups that lived densely and spoke in other languages in Georgia. Naturally ethnical, linguistic and religious identity of groups living in Georgia to a great extent determined country's political orientation. Orthodox Christian Georgian, Abkhazian and Ossetian population together with Gregorian Christian Armenians were well-disposed, at this stage at least, towards Russia. They see in it a protector from politics of Iran and Ottoman Empire. While Muslim Georgians, Abkhazians as well as Azeris from Borchalo and Turks were leaning more towards the Ottoman Empire and at that time the Ottoman Empire was Russia's clear political and military opponent. Of course, Russian authorities also saw this and tried to use this religious factor in its favour.

As soon as Tsarism established itself in Georgia it started to get busy with mass Russification of the country's population. For this purpose ideologists of the empire made various plans getting acquainted with which shows very well real face of the empire. For example, one of the most influential ideologists of the thirties of the XIX century Platon Zubov wrote about Abkhazia: "calming (subjugation) of mountaineers implies the following: through development of trade relations implant inclination towards luxury; Turn it into necessity and educate them with a light of Christianity... Mountaineers would live in plains away from main roads... and thanks to government they would receive necessities, beautiful churches in every important village; ...schools should be opened at churches for learning Russian language and, if only for the beginning but liturgies should be conducted in native language of mountaineers. But later things should be done in a way that they would leave their own dialects and get to know Russian language which would become dominant language for their descendents as their numerous dialects that do not have scripts would soon be easily forgotten"... Tsarism authorities did almost everything to realize all set tasks.

By the beginning of the sixties of the XIX century when it became obvious that long Russian-Caucasian war would end with the victory of the empire Tsarism started to actively work to change drastically ethnic-demographic situation in Abkhazia, as well as to detach Abkhazian and Ossetian population from Georgian cultural space and to set these two ethnic groups in opposition with Georgian people. In order to achieve these goals it was decided: to create script for Abkhazian and Ossetian languages with use of Russian script and that was done; Withdrawal of Georgian missionaries from Abkhazian and Ossetian villages where they were carrying out their activities; Declaration of Georgians who lived on the territory of Samurzakano (now territory of the Gali district ) as Abkhazians; Prohibition of using Georgian language during liturgy and in schools simultaneously with forcing to use Russian language and so on...

Until 1862 Abkhazian language did not have script. Before that in case of necessity Abkhazians used Georgian language for official correspondence, to satisfy religious-Christian and cultural needs. Representatives of Abkhazian nobility and part of low social class knew Georgian very well. More, during the XIX century Abkhazian princes and other members of the nobility were using this language to conduct official correspondence with Russian authorities while intelligentsia considered Georgian language and written culture their native language and culture. For example, son of the last prince of Abkhazia Giorgi Shervashidze knew Georgian literature extremely well and he himself used to write wonderful poems in this language. And when once one German journalist made slighting remarks about Georgia, Georgian nation and Georgian culture Giorgi Shervashidze gave him an adequate reply. The same was attitude that Ossetians living in Georgia had towards Georgia, Georgian people and Georgian culture. Naturally, closeness of Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians was unacceptable for Russians authorities. Therefore in the middle of the XIX century as the Russian-Caucasian war was coming to an end, special emphasis was put on uprooting of this closeness and making the above-mentioned three ethnic groups each others' enemies. Already in 1862 Russian army General Pyottr Uslar started a scientific study of the Abkhazian language. But he was faced by a problem. What script to use to transfer Abkhazian vowels? The general who also had a great talent for linguistics knew that Georgian alphabet would have been the best suited for those languages of the Caucasus that were at that time still without script. But he did not want to use Georgian script due to political reasons. He wrote: "..(Georgian alphabet) is almost the most perfect in existing languages... Every vowel is represented by special sign and every sign represents the same vowel. Every European language has a problem. It is orthography. Georgians, thanks to perfection of their alphabet, does not have this problem... It shows that Georgian alphabet system can be taken as a basis for a common alphabet for all Caucasian languages that today do not have script; But if we borrow from Georgians not only alphabet system but also script of signs we unintentionally create difficulties that would become even more pronounced as Russian written and spoken language would spread in the Caucasus" (Gamakharia, Gogia, 1997: 353). He added also: "In this case we create a danger of Abkhazian autonomy besides Georgian and other autonomies" (Gamakharia, Gogia, 1997: 720). Uslar did not hesitate long and created an alphabet that was based on Russian script (Cyrillic), but as much as possible it used principle of Georgian script - signs did not mean different things in different cases. It is notable that at the same time when Pyotr Uslar was writing grammatical review of the Abkhazian language another group headed by General Bartolomei was working on creation of the first alphabetical book who decided to use Georgian script for writing Abkhazian words. This made Uslar very angry. He got involved very actively in this matter and forced Bartlomei group to abandon its decision and use a new script that was created by Uslar with the use of Russian script (new "Abkhazian alphabet" created by I. Bartolomei was published in 1865).

It should be noted that new Abkhazian script had no practical usage until 1912 when Dimitry Gulia published first collection of his poems in Tbilisi and thus put the foundation for history of Abkhazian literature (it should be said also that in 1892 heads of the Russian church formed translator commission in Abkhazia that translated into Abkhazian and published several religious books). For this reason in XIX century it was impossible to organize civil and religious education in Abkhazian language. There was no education literature in Abkhazian language which could have been used to teach Abkhazian pupils. Therefore a problem was created artificially. Authorities were saying that as Abkhazians were not Georgians it was unacceptable to educate them in Georgian and offer Christian services in Georgian language. But at the same time as Abkhazians neither has their own or translated into Abkhazian literature it would be proper for Abkhazian children to be educated and pray in Russian. This quintessence of Russification and "divide and rule" principle was voiced by numerous Russian officials. We should cite frank statement of one of them - Yevgeny Veidenbaum: "Abkhazian language which does not have script and literature is, of course, doomed for disappearance in more or less near future. The question is which language will substitute it? It is obvious that it should be Russian not Georgian language that implants cultural ideas and terms in (Abkhazian – T. G) population. Therefore I believe that creation of Abkhazian language should be not a goal but means for weakening of demand for Georgian language through church and school and a weapon for its (Georgian – T.G.) substitution by the state language (Russian – T.G)" (Gamakharia, Gogia, 1997: 720). By the way, Veidenbaum let slip that during tsarism there was a great demand for Georgian language in Abkhazian population.

Indeed determining real intentions of Tsarism helps us to explain as to why tsarist authorities ignored suggestions of Georgian public and church figures to conduct educational and church services in Abkhazia in Abkhazian language. For example, even before Russia officially abolished Abkhazian principality - though it was in full control of the situation in the region – personal spiritual mentor of the Abkhazian prince, Georgian priest Ioane Ioseliani raised an issue about establishment of seminary in a village of Likhny near the residence of the Abkhazian prince before the Russian authorities. Abkhazian children would have learned mother tongue in this seminary. But this project was declined. Similar suggestion was made many times afterwards but the issue always remained unsolved. Another example. Around 100 years after this, in the beginning of the XX century Georgian bishop of Abkhazia Kirion (Sadzaglishvili) was a supporter of creation of Abkhazian literature and conduction of church services in Abkhazian language. The same was proposed by prominent Georgian educator and public figure Iakob Gogebashvili who wrote in 1907: ""Some newspaper reporters are hostile towards translation of books of church services into Abkhazian and conduction of church services in this language. This astonishes me extremely. And indeed it is true that for many centuries Abkhazia was a part of Georgia's political body and church services were conducted in Georgian there and script was also Georgian but Abkhazian langaueg is not a dialect of the Georgian language. It is an independent language although closely related to Georgian. As an independent language it indeed has a right to its own church service, its script and its own national literature".

At the same time Iakob Gogebashvili called on Sukhumi Georgians to assist Abkhazian public figures in creation of school textbooks of the Abkhazian language. He also said that in case of difficulties with publication of such books in Sukhumi they to be sent to Tbilisi where Society for the Spreading Literacy among Georgians member of the board of which was Iakob Gogebashvili would pay for printing of those books (Gamakharia, Gogia, 1997: 473-474). Principles of the book of alphabet of Georgian language that was compiled by that very Gogebashvili were used by Abkhazian teacher Andrei Chochua when creating Abkhazian alphabet book. It is irony of fate that today Abkhazian separatists have Iakob Gogebashvili "black listed" and very incorrectly accused of being an ideologist of Georgianization of Abkhazians. While General Uslar is almost considered a god by them.

We believe that based on the materials presented here an unbiased reader will make relevant conclusions as to who were disinteretsted friend to Abkhazian people and who wished their eradication: P. Zubov, Uslar, Veidenbaum and Russian authorities or priest Ioselaini, Gogebashvili, Bishop Kirion, Bishops Alexander Dekanosidze and Gabriel Kikodze... (They helped christianize thousands of Abkhazians thus saved them from deportation from Abkhazian), those Georgians that worked in Abkhazia between the XIX and XX centuries unselfishly helped Abkhazian public figures to establish a society for spreading of literacy and broadening a scope of activities of this organization.

Based on the above facts we can conclude that:

In 1962 creation of Abkhazian script was very important cultural event in the history of this language but this act was not a result of natural historical development of the ethnic group that spoke on this language (as the world history shows us ethnic groups form script when they reach a high level of development and it is caused by natural maturity of internal demands of this very ethnic group. And Abkhazian people, like many other small ethnic groups of the Caucasus, did not have a demand to create their own script neither before the XIX century nor afterwards - there is no document depicting such demands). Abkhazian script was created only for political purposes and it aimed at , on one hand, isolation of Abkhazians from Georgian cultural space and, on the other hand, for preparing ground for their complete Russification through accustoming them with Russian script and Russian language.

Truth of this conclusion is confirmed , apart from the above mentioned circumstances, by the fact that Tsarist authorities often denied even a fact of existence of Abkhazian script; They prohibited using Abkhazian and Georgian languages in schools and churches; Forcing Abkhazians and Georgians to study and conduct church services in Russian language and so on. For example, in 1864 "Organization of Restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus" published "rules about parish schools" according to which parish schools opened under the aegis of this organization were allowed to conduct
educational process in native language. Despite this in Samurzakano (territory of the Gali district now) where absolute majority of population were Georgians only small number of parish schools conducted educational process in Georgian. While the rest of schools together with those in Abkhazian villages children were taught in a completely unfamiliar Russian language that did not bring any results.

In 1866 teaching in Abkhazian language was introduced in parish schools of several Abkhazian villages. But in 1884 "Organization of Restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus" completely prohibited teaching in Abkhazian and Georgian languages in Samaurzakano and Abkhazia. By orders of Geoirgia-Imereti synod department of March 17th 1889 church services and educational processes in churches and schools respectively in Sukhumi okrug i.e. Abkhazia-Samurzakano was to be conducted only in Russian language. Similar restrictions were periodically repeated in 1896, 1898. (For details see Gvantseladze, Tabidze, Sherozia, Chanuria, 2001: 105-106; Gamakharia, 2005: 669-672).

(To be continued)

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