Tribes and Dialects
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Habitat. The people live in a mountainous region called Abkhazia that is situated on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea. This narrow strip of land is characterized by an extreme variety of natural conditions. There are three different vegetation zones: subtropics, mountain lakes, springs of mineral water and abundant forests. The natural borders of Abkhazia are the Psou river in the west, the Ingur in the east, the Black Sea in the south and the main range of the Caucasus in the north. Administratively Abkhazia belongs to Georgia as an autonomous republic. Abkhazia is divided into five districts, two of which (Gudauta and Otshamthira) are populated mainly by the ethnic Abkhaz.
Population. At the middle of the 19th century the number of Abkhaz was estimated at 130,000 (together with Abazian and Ubykhian peoples). More precise data has been available only since the end of the 19th century:
The substantial decrease in the population from 1897 to 1926 and the unnaturally small increase from 1926 to 1939 reflect the consequences of civil war and collectivization together with Stalinist national policies.
In addition there is a small Abkhaz community living in the Adzhar ASSR, Georgia. They have inhabited the place since the Caucasian wars, in the middle of the 19th century. According to the 1970 census statistics the community consisted of 1,361 Abkhaz people, 72.2 % of whom spoke their mother tongue, the rest preferring to communicate in Georgian or Russian.
Anthropologically the Abkhaz belong to the West-Caucasian type of the Balkano-Caucasian race. They are characterized by an above-average stature, a slight build, relatively light skin, sharp features and dark eyes.
Religion. Amongst the Abkhaz Christianity mixes with Sunnite Islam and ancient pagan traditions. Contacts with Christianity were made early as the first missionaries reached the place already in the 1st century AD. The first reports of a local Christian congregation date back to the 4th century when Stratophilus, the Archbishop of Pitsunda took part in the first Council of Nicaea held in AD 325. The Abkhaz deserve credit for helping spread Christianity among other peoples of northern Caucasia. One cannot underestimate the role of Christianity in the political and cultural convergence of Abkhazia and Georgia. The 16th century Turkish invasion brought along a spread of Islam that retained its position as a state religion consolidating the central power of Turkey until the beginning of the 19th century. Both religions were first embraced by the nobility. The ruler's faith was also received by his subordinates, but this was a rather formal act. The country people retained their pagan traditions, slightly accommodated to the prevailing religion, and in this way preserved their place of prime importance in their life and mentality.
Ethnologically the Abkhaz people belong to the aborigines of Caucasia. Their material culture is typical of Caucasia having developed in close cultural and political contact with the Proto-Georgian tribes. The first written mention of the Abkhaz people is believed to be the note on the Abesla tribes living in Asia Minor, found in the records of the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-pileser. The Proto-Abkhaz tribes Apsil, Misiman, Abazg, and Svanig were known to the ancient Greek and Roman historians like Hekateus of Miletus, Strabo and Flavius Arrianus. In the 1st century AD the Proto-Abkhaz tribes set up their own principalities that were united with the Cazika Principality in the 4th century. The 7th--8th centuries witnessed the consolidation of the Proto-Abkhaz tribes into the Abkhaz nation. In 740 Abkhazia was separated from Lazika, in 780, Leon II, Prince of Abkhazia united western Georgia into the unitary state of Abkhazia, the capital of which was Kutaisi. In 978 the Abkhazian throne passed into the possession of a dynasty that ruled Georgia. Abkhazia was incorporated in to Georgia until it regained its independence in the 16th century under Prince Shervashidze. During the rule of that dynasty Abkhazia became protectorate of the Turkish Sultanate. At first it meant mainly an obligation to pay a yearly tribute, but in the 18th century Turkey aimed for the political subordination of Abkhazia. The Shervashidzes turned to Russia for help, and in 1810 Tsar Alexander I issued an order declaring Abkhazia a Russian protectorate. The following Crimean and Caucasian wars were very closely connected with the Abkhaz people. Yet, after the final victory in 1864 Abkhaz autonomy became unnecessary for the Russian government. The last Prince Shervashidze was sent into exile, and tsarist power and Russian bureaucracy were established. The Abkhaz people revolted in 1866. As a result of the heavy suppression of the mutiny mass emigration to Turkey ensued (the so-called Manadzhir Movement). About 70,000 people are believed to have left Abkhazia during 1866--1878. This is also when the Adzhar community of the Abkhaz people sprang up. The tsarist government reacted by banning the name Abkhazia and introducing an extensive colonial policy leasing the empty lands to peasants immigrating from Russia. This unsettled the ethnic composition of the region an the extreme which is exemplified by the following list of villages situated in the vicinity of Sukhumi at the beginning of the 20th century: 1 Abkhaz, 6 Russian, 2 German, 5 Megrelian, 10 Greek, 3 Estonian and 1 Bulgarian.
For the Abkhaz society annexation to Russia meant the final establishment of feudal relations and the consolidation of serfage privileges. Land passed entirely to the hands of princes (ataua), nobility (aamsta) and clergy.
The Abkhaz economy is a reflection of the enviroment. On the coast and foothills the main occupation was field cultivation and, to a certain extent, also horticulture. The main crop was millet, but from the 19th century on its place was taken by maize. Cotton, flax and hemp were also grown. The technology of cultivation was quite primitive resulting in low yields. Mountain-dwellers dealt mainly with raising livestock as pastures were abundant. The main stock consisted of sheep and goats; horses were fewer. Apiculture and hunting were highly developed.
The Russian state reforms of 1870 laid the basis for an acceleration in the development of capitalism. In agriculture money rent and market orientation became the new passwords. Tobacco, tea and subtropical crops became more widely grown. Industries (coal, timber) began to develop. Health resorts started to be built. The overall economic rise favoured a rise in the national self-consciousness of the Abkhaz people and fostered the development of a local intelligentsia.
By the year 1917 a strong nationalist and separatist movement had developed coming to a head following the democratic February Revolution. In 1917 a provisional Government was set up in Sukhumi. In November 1917 an Abkhaz National Council was formed with the aim of securing an autonomous Abkhazia. During 1918--1921 there was constant warring which ceased only with the stifling of the nationalist movement by the Soviet power. In February 1921 the Abkhaz SSR was established, in December of that year it was incorporated into the Georgian SSR according to the Union treaty.
The Soviet period in Abkhazia was divided into two phases by World War II. The first part is characterized by "Red Terror" to a backdrop of a general economic boom, the second by a weakening of the national tradition and mentality. Abkhazia being an agrarian region the land reform effected through collectivization had an important role in sovietization. During 1929--1935 the number of collective farms rose from 14 to 472. By 1940 the rate of collectivization had reached 93.8 %. Such outstanding results could hardly have been achieved without the physical elimination of the opposition, or least their banishment or deportation to the Tkvarcheli coal mines. The uniting of plots into large fields made it possible for the kolkhozes to specialize in the monocultivation of tobacco, tea and subtropical crops. The increase in the production of agricultural raw material laid the basis for food and tobacco industries which in their turn worked for the growth of cities and urbanization. The Abkhaz were 5 % urban in 1926, 15 % in 1939, 28 % in 1959 and 34.5 % in 1970. Soviet economic policy had exhausted its potential by the 1960s when the first signs of stagnation and regression appeared.
The mentality of a people is most influenced by changes in culture and everyday life. This is why the Soviet authorities launched a campaign of "Cultural Revolution" by means of which the whole cultural life was to be subordinated to their ideological pattern. A Latin-based alphabet for the Abkhaz language had already been devised by P. Uslar in 1862. Three years later the first Abkhaz books were published, and by 1912 a vernacular prose had developed. Yet the Soviet power found it necessary to change the alphabetic basis of the language on as many as four occasions: in 1926 the analytic alphabet of N. Marr was introduced to be replaced by Roman letters in 1928, Georgian ones in 1938 and Slavic ones in 1954. Such somersaults could hardly have benefited Abkhaz cultural life. Periodicals only started to be appear in the Abkhaz language in 1954.
In tsarist Russia the Abkhaz received their education in Russian. In 1864 the Tsar issued an order allowing non-Russian students to be instructed in their mother tongue as a special subject, but in practice it never became very popular. Vernacular education reached the Abkhaz people in the first years of Soviet rule. Until 1932 Abkhaz was used in the first and second forms, later even up to the fourth, although senior classes remained conducted in Russian. The positive effect of a partly vernacular education to the preservation of national identity is reflected in the fact that the language retention rate of the Abkhazian Abkhaz is higher than that of the Adzharian Abkhaz whose language of literacy and education has been Georgian. On the other hand it is of no little importance what mentality is carried by the educational system. Strong ideological-grounded education has always been an effective weapon in the hands of the central authorities.
One of the most acute problems of the modern Abkhaz people is that they are a minority on their native territory. This has happened as a result of the colonization policy that followed the Mahadzhir emigration and the strong tendency to Georgianization characteristic of the peripheral regions of Abkhazia. According to the 1979 census statistics the percentage of the ethnic Abkhaz in the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Republic was only 17.1 in Abkhazia, while Georgians made up 43.9 %, Russians 16.4 % and Armenians 15 % of the population. The status of a minority certainly does not favour either the political or cultural self-assertion of the Abkhaz people.
Ethnic culture. During the past thirty years several changes have occurred in the Abkhaz material culture and folk traditions. The reasons are twofold: the advance of European urban culture and the Soviet propaganda that has been directed against national cultures. The elements of folk tradition still common in the Abkhaz villages in the 1950s have been lost or are on their way out. In most cases national costumes are not worn any more. The former traditional settlement planning and vernacular architecture has given way to planned villages and urban dwellings. Owing to religious conservatism more has been retained of old customs.
The Soviet national policy has sharpened contradictions between the Abkhaz and the Georgian people and this has led to several open conflicts. The political change effected in the Soviet Union since the middle of the 1980s has enlivened Abkhaz society. Open talks of a separate national existence and autonomy have been heard. Demands for a vernacular university have been aired. The situation became aggravated in June and July of 1989 when the Abkhaz people repeatedly demonstrated against the Georgian government.