MINELRES: IWPR: Last Days of the Georgian Dukhobors

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Fri Oct 1 14:42:41 2004

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LAST DAYS OF THE GEORGIAN DUKHOBORS Squeezed out by their neighbours in
southern Georgia, the religious sect is returning to the land of its
forefathers. By Mark Grigorian in Gorelovka, Georgia (Photographs by
Ruben Mangasarian)

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Dadayev and Ruslan Zhadayev in Chechnya and Ingushetia

in the North Caucasus likely to deepen bureaucratic feuds and
corruption. By Valery Dzutsev in Vladikavkaz

GEORGIA: PANKISI IN FIRING LINE Chechen refugees in Pankisi fear they
will be in Russia's sights after Beslan tragedy. By Sebastian Smith in
Dzibakhevi, Pankisi valley, Georgia

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four women have become nuns - but they don't regret it. By Karine
Ter-Saakian in Echmiadzin

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Squeezed out by their neighbours in southern Georgia, the religious sect
is returning to the land of its forefathers. 

By Mark Grigorian in Gorelovka, Georgia (Photographs by Ruben

A large loaf of white bread, which our hostess had just pulled out of
the old Russian stove, was lying on the table surrounded by cheese,
tomatoes and sour cream. Suddenly a bottle of "samogon", strong Russian
homemade alcoholic brew, appeared from nowhere as if by magic.

"Oh no, don't pour me any," 75-year-old Aunt Niura protested in
embarrassment but took the glass and immediately pronounced a toast. "To
your health! If your health is strong, then everything else will follow.
But if not..."

She was interrupted by her neighbour Nastya, "I just wish that God keeps
at least a handful of people here. Because if everyone leaves, what will
become of all of this?"

"Let's drink to our dear little corner, to our mountains..."
That little corner is the village of Gorelovka in the mountains of
southern Georgia, home to some of the last members of the Dukhobor sect
to remain in the country. Sadly, they may not last long. Almost all have
close relatives in Russia and almost all are planning to emigrate.

Only fifteen years ago Dukhobors inhabited eight villages, but today the
community, which once boasted some 7,000 people, shrank to less than

Dukhobors (the Russian word means "spirit wrestlers") are ethnic
Russians, representatives of a rare Christian Orthodox sect expelled to
the Caucasus in the mid-nineteenth century.

They do not recognise the church or priests, but believe that each man's
soul is a temple. Dukhobors do not worship the cross or icons and they
reject the church sacraments. They believe that Jesus Christ
transmigrated into God's chosen people - the Dukhobors. The life of
every Dukhobor should serve as an example for others because love and
joy, peacefulness and patience, faith, humility and abstinence, reign in
each believer.
In the late 19th century, having become acquainted with the ideas of the
great writer and pacifist Leo Tolstoy, the Dukhobors refused to serve in
the Russian Tsar's army. And in 1895 they famously collected together
all their weaponry and set fire to it.
"The Dukhobors put all the weapons into one big pile and lit it up,"
said Tatyana Chuchmayeva, leader of the Dukhobor community in Georgia.
"When the government called in the Cossacks, they stood around the fire
holding each other's hands and sang psalms and peaceful songs. All the
time the Cossacks were flogging them with whips."   

Many of those who burned the weapons were punished and around 500
families were exiled to Siberia. However, Tolstoy managed, with the help
of English Quakers, to organise the resettlement of Dukhobors to Canada
where they were spared military service. 

Many others stayed in Georgia and survived all the tribulations of the
20th century.

However, life under independent Georgia has proved the biggest test. Two
censuses conducted in 1989 and 2002 show that of 340,000 Russians that
lived in Georgia in 1989 less than ten per cent - about 32,500 people -
remained there thirteen years later. Other ethnic minorities also left.

Fyodor Goncharov, chairman of the Gorelovka village council, said that
the first wave of emigration occurred in 1989-1991 when the extreme
nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia was leader of Georgia. About half of the
Dukhobor population left the region.

In the late 1980s, the Merab Kostava Foundation was set up in Tbilisi
with the stated aim of making Georgians the dominant ethnic group. They
focussed strong attention on the southern province of
Samtskhe-Javakheti, where over 90 per cent were ethnic-Armenians and the
rest, with few exceptions, were Russian Dukhobors.

The Merab Kostava Foundation bought about 200 of the Dukhobors' houses
and gave these to Georgians. Clothes and funds were provided to the new

However, the experiment failed. "They could not endure our living
conditions and ran away from here after one year," said Konstantin
Vardanian, a journalist from the local town of Ninotsminda. "During the
first winter they heated their houses with coal and firewood that the
foundation had left for them. Then, after they ran out of coal, they
lived in one room of the house and pulled up floors in the other rooms
and burnt them in stoves. When spring came they all left."

Local Armenians were alarmed by the Merab Kostava project and one result
was that the Armenian Javakh Committee, founded to fight for Armenian
rights in Javakheti, also began to buy houses from Dukhobors - just to
keep them out of Georgian hands. "It was some sort of competition,
really," Vardanian said, with Armenians and Georgians vying for the same
houses in Dukhobor villages.

At first, Armenians enjoyed being neighbours to the Dukhobors.
"Akhalkalaki people always preferred to buy butter, cheese, curd cheese
and other dairy products from Dukhobors," remembers Karine Khodikian, a
well-known Armenian writer originally from the local town of
Akhalkalaki. "It was a sign of respect for them, their cleanliness and

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians got envious of the
Dukhobors and their apparently orderly, calm lives. "Armenians saw that
the Dukhobor community in Gorelovka was self-sustaining, they said that
Canadians Dukhobors helped it," Vardanian said.

Armenians from mountain villages, where living conditions were much
worse than in Gorelovka, began to move into the houses purchased by the
Javakhk Committee and to buy land. They were joined by immigrants from
Armenia who used to live in the city of Gumri and its neighbouring
villages - a region almost entirely demolished by the 1988 earthquake.
Relations between the Dukhobors and these newcomers was far worse than
with their old neighbours.

Enterprising Armenians opened small shops and started producing sour
cream, butter and cheese, traditional Dukhobor products. They purchase
milk from the Dukhobors, but the latter are very unhappy with the buying
"Armenians buy milk in our village," said Goncharov. "Then they make
cheese out of it, take it to Tbilisi and sell it. They pay us only 30
tetri for a litre (about 15 cents), while we have to pay 70 or 80 tetri
just for one litre of fuel."

Dukhobor villager Sveta Gonachrova said that her neighbours were
frightened by the incoming Armenians, "You step outside and get punched
in the face." 

Vardanian believes that antipathy between the Dukhobors and Armenians is
not the only reason Dukhobors are leaving, but "it contributed".
This new wave of emigration has found help from the Russian authorities.

In December 1998, Russia's then-prime minister Yevgeny Primakov signed a
decree on assistance to the Georgian Dukhobors and the Russian
parliament, the State Duma passed a special resolution on the group. The
International Organisation for Migration helped with the resettlement,
while Georgia's emergencies ministry provided buses.

In January 1999, community leader Lyuba Goncharova led a large number of
her community on a journey whose final point of destination was the
Bryansk region of Russia. Many of those left behind are now seeking help
from the Russian embassy in Tbilisi to go and join them.

The remaining Dukhobors say they are worried by Georgia's new president,
Mikheil Saakashvili, whom they see as a Georgian nationalist. There are
also rumours in the community - denied by Georgian officials - that all
non-Georgian schools will be closed.

"Saakashvili's rise to power scares everyone," said Chuchmayeva.
"Everyone is panic-stricken. People see what is happening in (South)
Ossetia and feel scared," she added in a reference to Saakashvili's
attempts to restore central authority to that breakaway region.

"Now they are talking about making all schools switch to the Georgian
language... And that scares people. They are terrified that main
subjects in schools will be taught in Georgian from 2006 and our
children will not be able to study."

Georgia's minister for refugees and migration, Eter Astemirova, told
IWPR that "the main reason they are leaving, as far as I know, is due to
problems with the local Armenian population. There is no basis to their
worries about the Georgian language or schools".

Astemirova said the Georgian state was entirely neutral in the affair.
Dukhobors are not helped "to leave or to stay", she said. "If there is a
problem, we will try to address it. ... So far, I don't know, because we
have no information about Dukhobors."

The cultural attaché of the Russian embassy in Tbilisi, Vasily
Korchmar, said another reason for the Dukhobors' desire to leave is the
difficult economic situation in Georgia and its tense relationship with

Gonachrova agreed that tradition counted for nothing as this community
made up its mind. For young people in particular life is better in
Russia than in Gorelovka, "We are sorry to leave, but what can one do?
There are [proper] conditions for young people in Russia. Discos and all
sorts of amusement. We have nothing."

Mark Grigorian is a producer with the Central Asian and Caucasus Service
of the BBC World Service in London. To see Ruben Mangasarian's
photographs go to


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