Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Dukhobor Tribulations

Persecuted by the Soviets, hounded by nationalists, Georgia's Dukhobor community are now falling victim to ethnic Armenian separatists.
By Giga Chikhladze

Driving to the village of Gorelova in southern Georgia is a strange experience. As you negotiate the pot-holed roads that wind awkwardly up to this desolate plateau everything seems to change.

The weather turns to wind and rain, the villages into toy-town sets. White and blue houses, fussed over streets and yards. It's another world.

All the more so when you discover that village leaders on this weather-beaten plateau in the Djavakheti region are women. In Georgia's male-dominated society, the idea of the fairer-sex exerting such authority is considered something close to heresy.

But time is running out for this unusual community. As ethnic tensions escalate in the southern Georgian province of Djavakheti, the Dukhobor, ethnic-Russians whose numbers have dwindled from tens of thousands in the middle of the last century to just a few hundred, are coming under increasing pressure to leave.

Armenian groups lobbying for the autonomy of the area which borders on Armenia are keen to get rid of non-Armenian ethnic groups. For the Dukhobors this is not the first time they have found themselves victims of local ostracism.

Russian Quakers, their stand against Russian Orthodox beliefs led to their forced resettlement in the Caucasus in the 1830s. They endured religious persecution during the Soviet years. Then came the nationalist hysteria of the early 1990s under President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, when many non-Georgians left because of a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

"Some said that clashes between Armenian and Georgians would start up," said Lyubov Deminova, a resident of Gorelovka. " We were in the middle and stood to suffer the most."

When the exodus began, Georgian and Armenian organsations bought up Dukhobor properties. "The auction was a vile and disgusting symbol of our times," recalled one elderly Dukhobor.

But the new Georgian owners found the conditions here too harsh and soon left. Armenians stayed in some of the houses, using others for construction materials, and letting many go to rack and ruin.

As a result, the villages soon changed character. The blue and white houses, with their turf rooves, storks for every chimney pot and yards surrounded by blossoming ash bushes, soon turned derelict.

Dukhobors who remain feel alienated and intimidated by their Armenian neighbours. " They want us to speak Armenian, but they have little interest in speaking to us, and sometimes simply just tell us to 'get lost!'" complained one villager.

More and more follow this advice. Many head for Russia, leaving what they call their "native land".

The problem will likely get worse as Armenian separatist activity fuelled by Yerevan increases. Right-wingers there are backing local Armenian groups, like Javakhk, which is demanding autonomy for their community. The latter are stirring up resentment against the Dukhobors - although they deny they have anything to with the exodus of the group, blaming Georgians instead.

Whatever the case, no one is trying to prevent the community from leaving. Georgia's model matriarchy might not have that long to live.

Giga Chikhladze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi

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