by Hedvig Lohm & Ilya Chkhutishvili
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of Georgia’s Doukhobors resettled to Russia, driven by regional instability, ethnic tensions and economic hardship. Those who remained became minorities in their own villages. Now, land reforms are forcing those who are left to apply for Russian citizenship. Should the Doukhobors leave, it is feared that new ethnic disputes may erupt between their Armenian and Georgian neighbours.by Hedvig Lohm and Ilya Chkhutishvili originally appeared in the e-magazine “Georgia Today” (31.08.2007) www.georgiatoday.ge/.
The Dukhobors are an ethnic Russian religious community who today reside in Russia, the Caucasus and Canada. While the word ‘Dukhobor’ means ‘Spirit Wrestler’ in Russian, today the Dukhobors living in Georgia are facing a more earthly struggle. Since the Dukhobors’ legal documents for the lease of land have been disputed by the Ninotsminda rayon’s municipal administration, this community may lose all legal rights to its land – the Dukhobors’ only source of income. If the issue of land ownership is not resolved, most Dukhobors are likely to give up the struggle to continue living in Gorelovka, Georgia, and leave for Russia. Such a development would contribute not only to the loss of a colorful and unique population group, but is also a cause for concern among local Armenians who worry that if the Dukhobors leave, the Georgian government will settle ecological migrants from Adjara and Svaneti in Gorelovka, a move which could become a source of new disputes between the Georgian newcomers and the local Armenian community.
The Dukhobors represent one of the oldest ethnic minorities in Georgia. In late 18th century Tsarist Russia, sects of religious dissenters such as the Dukhobors, Molokans, Staroveri (“Old Believers”) and Subbotniks were treated as pariahs. The Russian rulers were concerned that they would spread their heresies and seduce ‘true’ Orthodox believers. Consequently, in 1839 an ultimatum was given to the sectarians: convert to Orthodoxy, or leave for the newly conquered Caucasus region. Most of them decided to go into exile. In 1839-1845 the Dukhobors settled in the two Georgian regions of Javakheti and Dmanisi, Kedabek in today’s Azerbaijan, and Kars in today’s Turkey. Of these early exiles, the Dukhobors in Ninotsminda rayon are the only ones that remain.
Group of Doukhobor women in Gorelovka village, Georgia. GeorgiaToday.
The Dukhobors lived through very hard times during the 19th century, weathering both conflicts with Tsarist Russian authorities and disputes within the community. At the end of the 19th century there were a total of 10,000 Dukhobors in the Javakheti region spread through eight villages. During the Soviet collectivization process in the 1930s, the Dukhobor’s communal system of redistributing agricultural lands was destroyed. However, the Dukhobors were used to working on collective lands and most of them were able to easily adapt to the new Communist system. Consequently, their kolkhozes turned into some of the most efficient and profitable in the entire Soviet Union. Ethnically, their villages remained predominantly Dukhobor, though in some villages a few Armenian families resided as well.
The end of the Soviet era, however, saw many Dukhobors leaving Georgia and by the late 1980s a wave of resettlement to the Russian Federation was already in full swing. There were several reasons why the Dukhobors left for Russia. During the last part of the Perestroika years and the collapse of the Soviet Union Georgia was in turmoil. In addition, Georgian ethno-nationalist politics were on the rise while at the same time “Javakh” the Armenian, then paramilitary, organization took de facto control over the Javakheti region.
One of the main initiators of this resettlement process was Maria Uglova, who was a chairperson of the Spasovka kolkhoz. The Dukhobors who left with Uglova resettled in Russia’s Tulskiy oblast. The migrant Dukhobors moved primarily to Tulskiy and Rostovskiy oblasts, as well as to Stavropol krai. From 1979 to 1989 the number of Dukhobors in Ninotsminda decreased from 3,830 to 3,165. By the mid-1990s about 1,400 Dukhobors remained in Georgia, about 50 of them in Dmanisi.
Already by the early 1990s the Dukhobors had become minorities in seven of their eight original villages. In 1997 there was another wave of migration from Javakheti. Lyuba Goncharova, the new chairperson of the Gorelovka kolkhoz, arranged a resettlement of around 300 people to Bryanskiy oblast. By the end of the decade, the Russians were now a minority in seven of the eight Dukhobor villages. Gradually the ratio of Dukhobors in Gorelovka also changed from an absolute majority to a situation where the Armenian population is now larger. Today there are about 504 Dukhobors, 551 Armenians and 31 Georgians in Gorelovka.
The agricultural cooperative “Dukhoborets” which was established after the fall of communism in Gorelovka village on the remains of an old kolkhoz, provides the Gorelovka Dukhobors with a sense of collective security. The cooperative is weak and not very profitable, but still provides a small income to most of the remaining Dukhobor families in Gorelovka. It also functions as a social security institution for the entire community of Dukhobors. As one of the leading Dukhobors explains, the credo of the cooperative is “to help the Dukhobor community”.
In 1997 the cooperative was one of the biggest agricultural unions in the region. At present the cooperative has one major challenge: the “Dukhoborets” land lease contract is being disputed by the local authorities. In 2002, then gamgebeli Rafik Arzumanyan signed a lease contract with the Dukhoborets cooperative in Gorelovka. According to the contract the cooperative leases 4,290 ha of the original 7,700 ha that made up the Soviet kolkhoz. However, this contract is now disputed by the current gamgebeli, who claims that the Dukhoborets contract falls short of both the initial lease decision made by the gamgeoba (Georgian for “village council”) and a proper map delineating exactly which lands are being leased. The contract also lacks the proper signature of the Public Registrar and a registration number from the Public Registry. Dukhoborets representatives claim, however, that none of these mistakes can be blamed on the cooperative – rather, they fall under the concept of ‘administrative trust’, meaning that the responsibility for creating a legal lease document lies with the authorities and not with a private person or entity.
Sirotsky Dom building in Gorelovka village, Georgia. GeorgiaToday.
If the cooperative closes or the land lease contract is not acknowledged by the local gamgeoba, most Dukhobors in Gorelovka are likely to give up the fight to continue living in Gorelovka and leave for Russia. Already many of them are applying for Russian citizenship. If the cooperative continues to function, however, it could be a better choice for the Dukhobors to stay, since they are provided with income and still have a collective point of security.
The European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) is assisting the Dukhobor community in their relations with the local government and helping them to maintain their cultural heritage and present living place. As the total number of Dukhobors in Georgia has decreased to 700, another wave of emigration will lead to the loss of this minority from Georgia. To help resolve the legal problems of the Dukhobor community, ECMI in cooperation with other organizations is trying to convince local and state authorities of the importance of the Dukhobors issue. For now, with no specific actions taken either at the state or local level, the fate of the Dukhobors in Georgia remains an unknown.
For a thorough and comprehensive examination of the issue of land ownership and inter-ethnic relations among the Doukhobors, Armenians and Georgians of Ninotsminda rayon (district), in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, see Hedvig Lohm’s study, Doukhobors in Georgia.
Since the writing of this article, the remaining Doukhobors in Georgia have chosen to resettle to Russia as part of President Putin’s highly-publicized repatriation scheme. Arrangements are being made for their resettlement to the village of Maly Snezhetok in Tambov province, Russia. For more about the resettlement, see the articles Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia and More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff and also The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok by Evgeny Pisarev.