Who should be settled in Abkhazia? By Jakob Gogebashvili (1877)

Tiflis Bulletin is a literary and political newspaper.

Tiflis Vestnik - literary and political newspaper.

This article by the famous Georgian publicist Jakob Gogebashvili was published in the newspaper "Tiflis Vestnik [Тифлисский вестник]" No. 209, 210, 243, 244, 245, 246, 248, 249) September-November 1877. The article is written in Russian.

The article determined the ideological basic principles of the whole programme of "development" of Abkhazia by Georgian settlers, as a result of which tens and hundreds of thousands of Mingrelians, Svans, Georgians rushed to the fertile Black Sea lands.

Who should be settled in Abkhazia?

The present war, among numerous other consequences, has brought with it the result that one of the wonderful corners of our outlying areas has suddenly become completely deserted, having been abandoned by almost all of its inhabitants. We are talking about Abkhazia and its inhabitants who left their homeland and moved to Turkey. This resettlement, without any doubt, is not temporary, but irrevocable. Abkhazia will never see their sons again. 

This circumstance raises the question: who will populate the country, forever abandoned forever by its inhabitants?

It seems that it is not difficult to attract settlers to a country that is justly famous for its excellent fertility and the rare richness of its nature, to a country where grapes in the wild reach fabulous sizes and where lemons, oranges, and even the olive tree grow freely in the open air. But one circumstance makes the successful settlement of the deserted Abkhazia extremely difficult. The circumstance is harmful climatic features that bear the direct consequences of the geographical structure and position of the country.

Abkhazians have become completely acclimatised to their country over a long series of centuries.

Knowing the properties of our countries and the tribes inhabiting them, it is not difficult to decide who cannot inhabit this region and who, on the contrary, can replace the Abkhazians without risking becoming victim to harmful climatic influences. Those lands of our state, which, by nature and climate, differ sharply from Abkhazia, cannot provide suitable colonisers for it. First of all, Russia proper must be considered such a country. The same must be said about most of the Transcaucasus. Eastern Georgians living on the other side of the Suram Pass, in a country that has almost nothing in common with Abkhazia, very quickly become victims of swamp poison on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, and therefore there can be no talk of their resettlement in Abkhazia. Armenians are even less able to withstand the fight against the poisonous climate of Abkhazia. This explains the seemingly strange phenomenon that the Armenians, who have such a strong commercial sense and quickly build a nest in all profitable trading points, could not establish themselves on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and were forced to leave trade in this important spot to others. nationalities. That is why the idea that appeared in the press of the capital about the settlement of deserted Abkhazia by Armenian families who fled from Turkey to our borders, should be considered completely untenable and extremely unsuccessful. Most of the inhabitants of Western Georgia are not able to colonise Abkhazia to the same extent. Experience has repeatedly shown that the Rachans, Svans and Upper Imeretians, on becoming inhabitants of the eastern coast of the Black Sea, do not withstand the destructive action of the marshy atmosphere and die of malignant fevers. But the Mingrelians feel at home in Abkhazia. And no wonder. Mingrelia is the only region in our country that in all respects is more similar to Abkhazia. Therefore, the body of the Mingrelian tribe is quite adapted to endure the effect of the swampy atmosphere.

This circumstance explains the fact that in Sukhum, Ochamchira and other places in Abkhazia trade is mainly in the hands of the Mingrelians. As a result, the Mingrelian tribe is the most capable of successfully colonising Abkhazia. The tightness and lack of land in Mingrelia, forcing its inhabitants to leave their homeland and go to different parts of the Transcaucasus to earn money no doubt make it very desirable for many Mingrelians to move to Abkhazia. Possessing an organism most capable of fighting the malignant swamp air, the Mingrelians combine in themselves other conditions necessary for good colonisers. Like other Georgian tribes, they show great love and ability for productive labor, and therefore, able to take full advantage of the rich nature of Abkhazia and actively exploit its rare natural wealth. Another quality that makes the Mingrelians excellent colonisers of Abkhazia is that they show a great ability for trade and commercial enterprises, making an exception in this respect among all Georgian tribes. Possessing this quality to a sufficient degree, the Mingrelians can fully take advantage of the conveniences of the coastal position of Abkhazia for the development of trading activities. Finally, as regards political reliability, which no doubt will be kept in mind when settling this important coastal region, the Mingrelians, like all Kartvelian tribes, possess it to such an extent that nothing more remains to be desired in this respect.

In a word, of all our tribes and peoples, only the Mingrelians combine the necessary qualities for successful colonisation of the deserted Abkhazia that will be profitable for the state.

Our article about the settlement of Abkhazia by Mingrelian tribes provoked an objection placed in issue 207 of the newspaper Kavkaz. From one point of view that Abkhazia has an extremely malignant climate, dooming to an eternally sick existence and extermination any tribe that is not adapted in its organisation to endure a swampy atmosphere, we expressed the idea that this country cannot be colonised by either Armenians or Georgians, nor the Russians, without the risk of exterminating them with swamp-poison. On the other hand, having in mind the complete adaptability of the Mingrelian organism for successfully counteracting a feverish infection, the fitness caused by the swampy terrain and the feverish atmosphere of Mingrelia, the ability of the Mingrelians, both for productive labour and for commercial enterprises; a great lack of lands suitable for cultivation in Mingrelia, which caused agrarian unrest in it the year before last, and, finally, their complete devotion to our common fatherland and complete political reliability – we expressed the idea that it is most convenient, equitable and best to leave the Mingrelians, the closest neighbours of Abkhazia, to colonise this country, abandoned by the majority of its inhabitants. The author of the objection did not like such a view and such a solution to the problem, and he, fearing the implementation of our idea in practice, tried in his article to provide the Mingrelians with all sorts of shortcomings and make them worthless candidates for replacing the Abkhazians who had resettled in Turkey. 

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If, despite their natural talent and their rare qualities of determination, the Mingrelian tribe did not have time to further develop their culture, then this is because for a long series of centuries the following insurmountable reasons stood in the way of such development: a terrible thousand-year-old turmoil, incessant wars, now with the Abkhazians, now with the Turks, now with the Imeretians, now with the Gurians, now with the Samurzaqanoans, now with the Rach’ans; but mainly it was the despotic system of life, formed under the influence of extremely unfavourable historical circumstances, that fettered any development of the people's life in Mingrelia until they were liberated from serfdom. It is essential to know that nowhere in any country has serfdom been accompanied by such absolute lack of rights for the peasants and boundless arbitrariness on the part of the landlords as in this country. Chardin, who described Mingrelia with remarkable accuracy, says: "The upper class has the right to the life and property of its subjects, does with them what it wants, takes women, children, sells them, uses them for whatever they want."

Litvinov, who at the beginning of this century was the ruler of Mingrelia, presents the Mingrelian peasants as the same disfranchised and oppressed slaves of numerous despots of the landowners, who at the same time, unfortunately, constituted the landowning and military aristocracy, as were the Negroes in the hands of the American planters.

The Mingrelians also show the ability to trade. The author of the objection, considering it impossible to reject in the Mingrelians the ability to engage in commercial enterprises, tried to belittle it as a quality, calling the Mingrelians small traders and speculators. But a country which for a long succession of centuries did not know what the security of property means, which was subjected to continuous attacks from all sides, which was often the scene of civil strife and which only recently found peace under Russian rule, could not immediately begin trade on a grand scale and put into circulation large capital.

It kept in its hands all her internal trade and did not fall under the exploitation of the Armenians and Jews (not a few of the latter live in Mingrelia) – who seized all the trade of Transcaucasia and made it almost impossible to compete with them in this respect. The Mingrelians achieved this favourable result, thanks, inter alia, to one remarkable feature of life, namely the existence of bazaars.

Having consolidated internal trade, the Mingrelians transferred their commercial activities outside Mingrelia to Imeretia, Guria, Abkhazia and partly to Kartli, covering these countries with their shops. In particular, the Mingrelians were of great importance for Abkhazia, serving as intermediaries in their trade.

In general, the Mingrelians show a lot of skill and a lot of courage in trade. “Enterprise,” Borozdin says, “is also a remarkable feature in the Mingrelian tribe: to go to Kakheti to complete the cultivation of a half-made garden, or to the Black Sea coastline as a shop-keeper, to smuggle contraband in front of the noses of customs-officers ­– all these are such enterprises that any Mingrelian does not think twice about. In 1860, workers were needed in Kerch during the construction of fortifications: this news reached one Mingrelian contractor, and he very soon found up to 500 hunters and sailed with them on a steamer to Kerch.

To understand the full force of these reviews by Borozdin that are so flattering for the Mingrelians one needs to know that they date back to the time when Mingrelia was still groaning under the cruel yoke of serfdom, which, as we have already said here, was extremely implacable.

In the political sense, the Mingrelians are just as Russian as the Muscovites, and in the same direction they can influence every tribe in contact with them, a striking proof of which is the fact, recognised by our opponent, that due to the influence of the Mingrelians, the Samurzaqanoans are a branch of the Abkhazian tribe, – being in constant communication with the Mingrelians, they became completely Russian subjects and during the repeated uprisings of their fellow tribesmen did their best to help the government in suppressing disturbances and pacifying the rebels.

Rejecting the Mingrelians as future colonisers of Abkhazia, the author of the objection tries to convey the idea that this country can be inhabited without great risk by another tribe living in a different nature and not adapted in its organisation to marshy terrain. Recognizing that the Abkhazian coast was indeed a nesting place for malignant fevers and was distinguished by terrible morbidity, he asserts that in recent times it has allegedly undergone remarkable changes that have reduced the contagiousness of its climate.

Speaking about the extreme danger of the settlement of Abkhazia by inland-Georgians, we gave an example of the extermination of 80 militiamen from the Svans by swamp-poison along the Abkhazian coast within two years.

Inconsistent and arbitrary our author’s thinking about the less malignant climate of western Abkhazia, which is completely abandoned by the inhabitants and subject to settlement. He bases this idea on the mountainousness of this part of Abkhazia. But in the Pitsunda district – this is the name of the western half of Abkhazia in administrative terms – the location of the mountains and hills is such that not only does this not prevent but actually rather contributes to the formation of swamps. Further: there is even more moisture here than in the eastern half in the Ochamchira district.

In view of the foregoing, we consider extremely rash the idea of our opponent to populate Abkhazia not with Mingrelians but with residents of the southern and middle provinces of Russia. These provinces differ sharply from Abkhazia in all respects, but, especially in terms of climate, they cannot provide suitable colonisers for the unhealthy Black Sea coast.

Our conviction that the climate of Abkhazia can be tolerated without much harm only by a tribe living in a country like it is so firm that, knowing, for example, the terrible lack of land in the Racha district, where the tithe is valued at a fabulous sum – 1,600 roubles – and where, as a result, the population is in a difficult state, they did not dare to propose the idea of resettling the Racha residents in Abkhazia, although Racha has much more in common with Abkhazia than the southern Russian provinces.

But we consider the idea of the author of the objection about the settlement of Abkhazia by the inhabitants of the southern Russian provinces not only extremely thoughtless but also completely frivolous. One could seriously speak of such a measure only when the South Russian Territory suffered from a surplus of population and could freely provide the 50,000 needed colonisers. But who does not know that this region, like the whole of Russia, suffers rather from a lack, a paucity, of population than from a surplus and density. This lack of population explains the fact that the vast expanses of the Caucasus, distinguished by both the health of the climate and the richness of nature, remain deserted to this day and wait in vain for colonisation. The Black Sea district itself, adjacent to Abkhazia, has long and badly needed Russian settlements, but they are not there, since Russians are not yet densely packed in their dear homeland...

Turning from the southern provinces to the level of population of Mingrelia, we have seen a diametrically opposite phenomenon: the discrepancy between the number of inhabitants and the amount of arable land is so great that the total peasant allotment here is four ktsevi, or about one and a half tithes of land. This very severe shortage of land was the only reason for the recent agrarian unrest in Mingrelia. Therefore, Mingrelia can very easily provide a sufficient contingent of colonisers. The resettlement of several tens of thousands of Mingrelians would save the country from an abnormal state and would make it impossible to repeat such unfortunate incidents. From this point of view, the colonisation of Abkhazia by the Mingrelians is a matter of national importance.

Thus, everything leads to the conclusion that the only reasonable and expedient means for the successful colonisation of Abkhazia lies in the implementation of our proposed idea, i.e. granting the right to the young and landless Mingrelian peasants to occupy the territory abandoned by the Abkhazians. Such a solution of the issue represents all the benefits, without containing a single inconvenience... Being a tribe capable of both productive occupations and trading enterprises, they are able fully touse both the natural wealth of Abkhazia and the benefits of its coastal position...

At the same time, they will present an insurmountable barrier to enemy invasion. Representing the best colonisers of Abkhazia in all these respects, the Mingrelians should be the primary replacements of the evicted Abkhazians.

Tiflis [Tbilisi], 1877.




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