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Converting Georgians:

The Ethno-histories of Anania Japaridze


Metropolitan Archbishop of Manglisi and Calki
of the Georgian Orthodox Church

The writing of history is often a discipline ancillary to the practice of politics.

Some of the most striking examples of this can be found in the post-Soviet republics of

the South Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Post-Soviet historiography is, in

part, a reaction to the norms that shape-shifted their way through the era of Communist

Party rule. In addition, the variegated ethnic structure of the Soviet Empire necessitated

much attention to the way in which national and ethnic histories were constructed and re-

constructed. Ethnic rivalries were often held in tension by the dominating concept of

дружба народов (i.e., friendship of peoples). The Soviet Union's "ethnic harmony" was

maintained as the logical consequence of history.1 The Great Russian big brother, even in

his imperial costume, was often said to have played a positive role in the development of

this or that nation/ethnic group and its development toward the socialist/communist ideal.

Even as дружба народов supplied a frame for the historical development of

interethnic harmony, other scholarly enterprises were laying the foundation for conflict

among the narratives that would be offered in the post-Soviet construction of national and

ethnic histories. The search for ethnogenesis was one of these enterprises. Under the

cover of Soviet historiography, the description of a people’s beginnings in the distant and

misty past was but the start of a history that would conform to the predominant historical

1
In 1987 Gorbachev, one can only say in a state of profound denial, touted the ethnic harmony that had
developed as a consequence of Soviet socialism, “Вряд ли нужно доказывать важность
социалистических основ в развитии национальных отношений. Именно социалзм покончил с
национальном гнетом и неравноправием, с каким бы то ни было ущемлением прав людей по
национальным мотивам, обспечил экономический и духовный прогресс всех наций и народностей.”
Quoted in А.А. Дусоколов, Меж-национальные браки в СССР.(Москва: “Мысль,” 1987) 6.

1
determinism promoted by the Communist Party and its ideologues. Chapters of ethnic

and national histories would often begin with a nod to the politically correct progression

before moving on to other matters.

In the Soviet period some of these ethnic histories involved geographical overlap.

This was due, in some part, to the arbitrary nature of Soviet ethnic jurisdiction. Since,

however, ethnicity and nationality were “forms” and not “contents” in Soviet structure,

contradictions that co-existed among academic publications did not often break into

public conflict.2

As old nations were re-created and new ones born at the collapse of the Soviet

Union, national narratives were reclaimed, repeated, and written anew. This task was

especially difficult in the Caucasus region where competing claims for territory became

the underpinning for open conflict and civil war. Ethnic conflict in the newly independent

Republic of Georgia was especially severe. Two would-be independent republics remain

among the frozen conflicts in post-Soviet space: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.3

One of those engaged in the construction of new histories is Anania Japaridze, a

Metropolitan Archbishop of the Georgian Orthodox Church. He has written

comprehensive church histories as well as a number of ethnic histories, two of which

form the basis for this paper: - : [K´art´l-Kaxet´i : the Armenicization

2
“Nationalist in form and socialist in content” was one of Stalin’s interpretations of the Soviet Union’s
structure. The ethnic hodgepodge of Soviet Socialist Republics, Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics,
Autonomous Oblasts, and the like, was the “practical” outgrowth of this slogan. The status of a group’s
ethnic jurisdiction sometimes had consequences for language and education policy. As a matter of legal
reality, however, this organization had no particular guarantees. Decrees could extinguish an ethnic enclave
almost in an instant, as, for example, when “autonomous” jurisdictions were eliminated toward the end of
World War II when entire nations, such as the Chechens and Crimean Tatars, were packed up and sent into
internal exile.
3
Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is the third of the major frozen
conflicts in the South Caucasus. I would argue that this conflict is substantially different in its origins as
compared with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The three self-reclaimed and unrecognized republics have,
however, from time to time made common cause with each other.

2
of Georgians]4 and : „ “ [Abkhazia : the Abkhazification of Georgians].5

Japaridze has written both of these histories with some attention to religious history. In

K´art´l-Kaxet´i his thesis is that Georgian populations, subjected to economic and

political pressure to convert to Armenian Christianity, also “converted” elements of their

nationality. In his short monograph Ap´xazet´i Japaridze focuses some attention on class

and social issues in the context of in-migrating Abkhazians/Apsny.6 My paper this

morning will explore some of the issues involved in Japaridze’s writing, including his a

priori assumptions about ethnic history and his use of source material. His use of ethnic

and religious terminology will also be considered.

Metropolitan Japaridze’s role as a historian in relation to his ecclesial office

should be noted. Japaridze has been a bishop of the Georgian Orthodox Church since

1981 and was, therefore, an early participant in the revival of that church under the

leadership of Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.7 The church had become the target of political

dissidents in the 1970s and was accused of corruption and infiltration by the KGB.8 After

the arrest and imprisonment of Metropolitan Gaioz in 1979 the church’s governance was

greatly improved, and by the fall of the Soviet Union it was ready to assume a more

active role in society. That role has been codified in Article 9 of the Georgian

4
, – : . (Anania Japariże, K´art´l-Kaxet´i: K´art´velt´a gasomxeba) [Kartl-
Kaxeti: the Armenicization of Georgians]. (T´bilisi: Sak´art´velos sapatriark´os Manglis-Calkis epark´ia,
1999).
5
, : „ “. (Anania Japariże, Ap´xazet´i: K´art´velt´a “gaap´xazeba”) [Abkhazia:
the Abkhazification of Georgians]. (T´bilisi: Sak´art´velos sapatriark´os Manglis-Calkis epark´ia, 2001).
6
Even the issue of who has the “right” to Abkhaz/Abkhazian identity is an issue in history writing. Ap´sny
is the self-designation of the ethno-linguistic group that is usually identified in English sources as
“Abkhaz” or “Abkhazian.”
7
Ilia II was enthroned 25 December 1977.
8
Zviad Gamsaxurdia, the ill-fated first president of Georgia as it moved toward independence in 1990, was
the author of several samizdat articles that made accusations against the Georgian Church during the
catholicosate of Davit´ V.

3
Constitution9 and in the 2002 Concordat signed between the Georgian government and

the Georgian Orthodox Church.10 At the present time the Church, with its priests and

hierarchs, enjoys a place of high prestige within Georgian society. This prestige would

enhance the authority of a history writing hierarch.

At this point it would also be useful to say that reconstructing the ethnic history of

the Caucasus region is a very difficult task, despite the many attempts and the many

claims that are made in this field of endeavor. Our modern understandings of nation and

ethnic identity are difficult to apply to the sources we have at hand. Systematic census

data is only available since the nineteenth century and even some of this is difficult to

interpret as “Muslim” was an ethnic/national category in the 1897 census of the Russian

Empire.

Ancient and early medieval writers made lists of “tribes” that lived on what is

now Georgian territory. Again, although we have ethnonyms such as “Apsilioi” and

“Abasgoi” applied to people in the territory of Abkhazians, we have no “field data,” as it

were, that would confirm the language or ethnicity of these people. What we do have is

testimony to the extraordinary diversity of this corner of the Greater Caucasus. Pliny

reported that Timosthenes claimed that 130 interpreters had to be employed in the ancient

city of Dioscurias (on the site of modern Soxumi) in order to cope with the 300 dialects

and languages of those who would come to trade in this Black Sea port.11 This number

alone, even when adjusted for some amount of exaggeration, should give anyone making

9
[The Constitution of Georgia] (T´bilisi: “Bona kauza”, 2007) 9. “The state proclaims
complete freedom of faith and confession, and with this acknowledges the special role of the Georgian
Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church in Georgia’s history and its independence from the state.”
10
For a text of and a commentary on the Concordat, cf. ,
. [Davit´ Č´ikvaiże, Commentary on the Constitutional Concordat
between the Government of Georgia and the Georgian Autocephalous Orthodox Church] T´bilisi: 2003.
11
Pliny, Natural History, Book VI, 5. (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1961) v. 2, 348-349.

4
claims about the ethnic makeup of this region reason to pause with some amount of

humble introspection. The complete elimination of the modern “other” from ancient

history would seem an act of impossible hubris, yet it is done on both sides of the “frozen

conflict” of Abkhazia.12

Japaridze begins with several assumptions about the national and ethnic history of

Georgia. The first assumption is that there has long been a unified culture, and often a

unified state, on the present territory of Georgia. Both books under consideration in this

paper start from this understanding. In the book K´art´l-Kaxet´i Japaridze assumes that

these two regions have always been a part of “Georgia,” i.e. Sak´art´velo; this includes

the territories of Javaxet´i and Upper K´art´li where significant Armenian populations

now live. While the concept of a unified “Sak´art´velo” is sometimes a historian’s

construct, these two areas have long been central to the political and cultural existence of

the Georgian people. At the same time, to get from the assumption of territorial integrity,

even in pre-modern times, and ethnic homogeneity it is necessary for Japaridze to find

mechanisms whereby Georgians have become Armenians.

Included in this understanding of Georgia’s unity is that Abkhazia has always

been a part of Georgian.13 As mentioned above, this understanding begs the question as to

whether there has always been a “Georgia.” In fact, Georgia has existed in a number of

different permutations, with the first historical unity being achieved under the Bagratids

in the eleventh century.14

12
The most egregious “out-writing” of the “other” this author has seen is: Т.М. Шамба, А.Ю. Непрошин,
Абхазия : правовые основы государственности и суверенитета. (Москва: ООО “Ин-Октаво”, 2004).
13
Ilia II has often made such a statement. Cf.
14
Cyril Toumanoff, Christian Caucasia. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1963) 437:
“The territory occupied by the Georgian people was for the first time united into one whole by the
Bagratids in the eleventh century.” The “received tradition” of Georgian history is that a unified state of a

5
The assumption is also made that much of Georgia’s past is characterized by a

relatively homogeneous population of the Georgian nation’s direct ancestors. This

understanding is shared by many whose careers spanned the later decades of the Soviet

period. Previously these individuals had written more or less to the party line about ethnic

relations. Converted now to writing more explicitly nationalist histories, these historians

use selected assumptions from Soviet-era writing to promote the agenda of writing “new”

histories.15

In the two works under discussion Anania Japaridze deals with populations of

Armenians and Abkhazians within the boundaries of the Republic of Georgia, as these

boundaries are recognized under international law; i.e. not recognizing the self-

proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia or of the Republic of South Ossetia. He writes about

the Armenians, with special attention to the Armenians of Javaxet´i and to those of Upper

K´art´li. The Abkhazians under question are in the Soviet-era territory of the Abkhazian

Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and under post-Soviet Georgian law as the

Abkhazian Autonomous Republic.16

It is important to mention that Japaridze does not call non-Georgians in Georgia

“guests.” This idea was a mainstay among the more chauvinist Georgians at the fall of the

Soviet Union, but has, by and large, disappeared from Georgian political discourse. This

was applied to ethnic groups that had lived within the current borders of Georgia for

sort existed under one of the earliest of Georgia’s rulers, Parnavaz, and again during the reign of Vaxtang
Gorgasali.
15
Mariam Lortkipanidze could be considered a convert of sorts in this context. Pavel Ingoroqva’s 1954
work Giorgi Merč´euli has played a crucial role in the Georgian understanding of ancient ethnic
homogeneity.
16
For a time under Zviad Gamsaxurdia Abkhazia’s autonomy was eliminated. This was among the many
acts that exacerbated relations between the Georgians and the Abkhazians. Autonomy was restored and has
been the subject of much legislation from Georgia’s Parliament. The practical application of these laws
awaits resolution of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.

6
centuries. One could only surmise that the concept of “guest” meant that these peoples

were destined at some time in the [near?] future to go “home.” The Abkhazians were

especially threatened by this categorization. Most of them believe that they were

autochthonous to the region they now occupy. There are, among the Georgians, various

ideas about the “tardiness” of their arrival, with Japaridze taking the middle ground that

they appeared in Georgian territory in the late medieval period, when a group of North

Caucasian Adyghe peoples migrated southward.

In Ap´xazet´i Japaridze acknowledges a basic two-fold split in Georgian history

between the political realities of Eastern and Western Georgia. He insists that “the

territory that is now called Abkhazia, was, according to Old Georgian sources, settled by

Kartvelians, i.e. Mingrelian, ethnic groups.”17 Japaridze also makes this broad claim: “ …

according to Georgian sources, the widespread territory of Western Transcaucasia, up to

the Kuban River, was settled by Georgians …”18 The use of the term “West Georgia” to

include Abkhazia helps to predetermine the outcome of the discussion.

In K´art´li-Kaxet´i Japaridze works from an assumption that many of the

Armenian Christians in Georgia have Georgian ancestry. Following the analysis and

conclusions of Guram Maisuradze he states that Georgians would have converted to

Armenian Christianity in the late medieval and early modern periods because the

Armenian Church was in a more favored position in both the Savafid Persian and

17
Ap´xazet´i, 5.
18
Ibid., 7. The ambiguity of the term k´art´veli has been used by both sides of the debate. It can mean
simply “Georgian” or it can be used to mean “Kartvelian” in the sense that includes Svans, Mingrelians,
and Laz. Those who want to convey a broad understanding of the Georgian nation use the former
understand, while those who want to reduce the number of proper Georgians, use it in the latter fashion. It
is especially difficult when population statistics are cited; one must be careful to take into account the
underlying terminological assumptions.

7
Ottoman Turkish Empires.19 Japaridze makes the further assertion that the Georgian

Orthodox Church, among all other Christians in these Muslim empires, was singled out

for persecution. The period under consideration was one of great turmoil in Georgian

lands and, lacking modern means of communication and transportation, it is difficult to

conceive of a unified and widespread Georgian politically-defined national self-identity

at that point in time. At the same time the Orthodox Church can be credited for providing

some sense of unity among those territories where Georgian was maintained as the

liturgical language. It is important that Japaridze explores the religious element of

Georgian identity.

The territory of Georgian liturgical use included Mingrelian and Svan speaking

areas, as well as Abkhazia. The latter by the late medieval period was a region of mixed

ethnicity and language. The Orthodox Church, as Ottoman control became more direct,

was unable to hold its place in the Abkhazian society. Japaridze sees this as an occasion

for the denationalization of some of the local “Kartvelian” population; here mainly

Mingrelians.

It is difficult to take the small amount of evidence that Japaridze gives for the

preference of the Armenian Church and turn it into several centuries of favor. Any

favoritism of the Armenian Church in the Persian Empire should be remembered only in

light of the massive deportation of Armenians to New Julfa in Isfahan at the beginning of

the seventeenth century. Georgians were also moved to the Persian Empire during the

Safavid period. There is, however, some disagreement as to whether they were Christian

or Muslim when that transfer was made.20 Japaridze does cite important evidence from

19
K´art´l-Kaxet´i, 4-8.
20
Babak Rezvani

8
cemetery inscriptions that Georgians in New Julfa were affiliated with Armenian

Churches, perhaps because this was the only alternative allowed by the Persians.21

The use of ethnic and religious nomenclature is an issue in both works. In

K´art´li-Kaxet´i Japaridze uses “Grigorianuli,” i.e. Grigorians, to describe Armenian

Christians. This is a nineteenth century Russian designation that refers to Gregory the

Illuminator who brought Christianity to Armenian lands in the early fourth century.

While not historically inaccurate, one might make the case the using Grigorian

(analogous to Lutheran?) is a way of narrowing the scope of the Armenian Church’s

claim to apostolic validity. Would anyone call the Georgian Orthodox Christians Ninoite?

Japaridze’s use of Grigorian, however, turns out to be moderate when compared

to some more virulently anti-Armenian literature of the post-Soviet period. One example

of such a work is –– ? 650 [Armenia – Friend or

Foe? Or Why do the Armenians claim 650 Churches?].22 This work, published by the St.

David the Builder Orthodox Parish Union, is a virulent screed against Armenian

Christians. The authors are not content with the use of Grigorians. They recognize

Gregory the Illuminator’s Orthodoxy, but insist that the Armenian Church, by not

accepting the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, has betrayed the faith of Gregory.

Rather, they assert, that Armenian Christians might better be called “Petrosians” after

Peter the Fuller, an anti-Chalcedonian Patriarch of Antioch in the sixth century.23

Japaridze also uses the term “Monophysite” for the Armenian Christians. This

term has become more problematic as ecumenical discussions over the past several

21
K´art´li-Kaxet´i,
22
–– ? 650 . (Somxet´i – mteri t´u moqvare? anu ratom ič´emeben
somxebi 650 eklesias?) [Armenia – Friend or Foe? Or Why do the Armenians claim 650 Churches ].
(T´bilisi: Cm. Mep´e Davit´ Aġmašeneblis saxelobis mart´lmadidebeli mrevlis kavširi, 2006).
23
A Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition. (London: Mowbrays, 1995) v. 2, pt. 1: 252-254.

9
decades between Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have yielded agreement over

how much their Christologies, despite terminological and historical issues, do essentially

coincide.24 The use of the term is now more restricted to its original meaning; i.e. as a

fifth century epithet used by those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon against those

who did not. The aforementioned work from the St. David the Builder Union considers

this usage proper to the Armenians they deem heretical.

Ethnic terms in Japaridze’s Ap´xazet´i for the Abkhazians and their ancestors

present some issues. Perhaps the most problematic of the epithets frequently used by

Japaridze is one version or another of mt´ieli [mountaineer]. On its face, this term is just a

description of someone who lives in the mountains. Yet, in this book the level of

“civilization” is an issue and there is a whiff of “hillbilly,” perhaps, in the frequent use of

mountaineer to describe the ancestors of today’s Abkhazians. Japaridze cites Archangelo

Lamberti who described the mountain people as not living in organized towns or villages,

but rather only in small groups.25

Japaridze also differentiates in places between what he calls “new Abkazhians”

and “old Abkhazians.” By old Abkhazians he means those of Kartvelian (mainly

Mingrelian) ethnicity. The New Abkhazians are those who are now called by the term

Abkhazian (in Georgian ap´xazuri). This is a way of emphasizing that the “new Abkhaz”

are not autochthonous and foreign to the territory they have occupied for at least several

centuries.26

24
Paulos Gregorios, et al., ed., Does Chalcedon divide or unite : towards convergence in Orthodox
Christology. (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981). The authors of these essays comment on
statements made after discussions in Aarhus (1961), Bristol (1967), Geneva (1970), and Addis Ababa
(1971).
25
Ap´xazet´i,
26
Ap´xazet´i,

10
Japaridze also uses variations on the terms Adyghe and Cherkess. These terms are

used in connection with Aps´auri – a Georgian version of Apsny, i.e. what the

Abkhazians call themselves. These terms are for Japaridze a way of emphasizing the

foreignness of Abkhazians, especially when used in conjunction with “northern.” The

“North” Caucasus in the Georgian historical mind is often the source of the more

“primitive” and denominates the “other” in the Georgian perspective.

One other aspect of Japaridze’s thesis that Kartvelian/Georgian Abkhazians have

been “converted” into Adyghe/Cherkess/Mountain Abkhaz is that these conversions have

been for reasons of social standing. He posits two separate manifestations of this sort of

“social” conversion.

Japaridze, following Nikoloz Berdzenishvili, posits a conversion of Mingrelians

to an Abkhazian identity in the imperial period and says that this is so because of the

perception that the Abkhazian mountaineers were relatively free in contrast to the

Mingrelians, many of whom still lived as serfs into the nineteenth century. This makes

for a curiously Marxist interpretation of ethnic history in Abkhazia. Some of the evidence

offered for this “conversion” has to do with the shifting definition of Abkhazian, as well

the differences of opinion about who the Samurzaqano people are/have been. They are

counted in some numerations of the small territory in the mixed borderland between

Abkhazia and Mingrelia.27

Japaridze also speaks of “conversions” in the Soviet period. He refers to the last

decades of the Soviet period, as Abkhaz language policy and culture suffered during the

time of Stalin and Beria. The near prohibition of Abkhazian language publishing and the

27
Ap´xazet´i,

11
lack of Abkhazian language instruction in schools are a sign of Abkhazian disfavor

during that period. Only after Stalin’s death was there a reversal of this oppression.

Further, Japaridze makes a significant mistake in the use of census data in

providing data for the idea that Georgians have become Abkhazian in the later Soviet

period. He considers an important excess of Abkhazian growth between the 1939 and

1970 censuses.28 His figure of 83,000 Abkhazians for 1970 is actually the number for

1979 and when the increase of 1939-1979 is compared to the increase of the general

Soviet population, the Abkhaz population actually grew slightly more slowly, [47.6 %]

than the general population [55.9 %]29 during that same period. This inaccurate reporting

of census data puts a serious crimp in this concept of social conversion.

In K´art´li-Kaxet´i Japaridze speaks of the Dmanisi region of Georgia where there

are persons who call themselves Armenians and have Armenian names, but whose native

language is Georgian. He believes that they are Georgians on their to becoming

Armenians. They are perhaps among the 32,246 ethnic Armenians resident in the

Georgian S.S.R. listed in the Soviet census of 1970 with Georgian as their native

language. The category of Armenian native speakers of Georgians disappears in the 1989

census, in which only 1,214 Armenians consider “other languages” of the U.S.S.R. as

their native tongue. Presumably some of these are in the Dmanisi region and are native

speakers of Georgian. Some of the 32,246 Armenian speakers of Georgian may be

included in the 28,370 who in 1989 considered Georgian as their second language. The

number of Armenians in Georgia who considered Russian their native language grew

from 36,410 to 60,610 between 1970 and 1989. It is also possible that some of the

28
Ibid., 81.
29
This figure would need to be adjusted downward to exclude the Baltic nations and other territories that
the Soviet Union annexed prior to and during World War II.

12
Georgian speaking Armenians of 1970 considered themselves Georgian by 1989. They

certainly would, one might assume, not be among those migrating out of Georgia.

Specific census data for the areas under discussion by Japaridze would have been helpful,

as it seems that there is only a trend in Georgia for fewer Armenians.30

Concluding remarks

Metropolitan Anania Japaridze in the two books under discussion, K´art´li-

Kaxet´i and Ap´xazet´i, writes about sensitive issues in the context of ethnic relations in

the Republic of Georgia. Both sides of various conflicts have wielded the writing of

history as a weapon in these conflicts. This is especially so as a matter in the “frozen

conflict” between the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of Georgia.

Abkhazians and Georgia have written vast numbers of books and articles to bolster past

and present historical and territorial claims. Fewer books have been written about the

place of Armenians as an ethnic minority within the Republic of Georgia, but there is a

great deal of passion and feeling when these are done in the context of church history.

Japaridze is clearly writing from the Georgian perspective in both of the books

under consideration. That he is relatively moderate in his perspective gives us an idea of

the extremism that is too often characteristic of ethnological historiography. His

terminology, in some ways, predetermines the conclusions he makes. He does not allow

for a lot of discussion of other perspectives, sometimes covering a less than confident

conclusion with “ ” (unda vip´ik´rot´) [we must think].

While Japaridze’s writings do represent one side of the arguments under question,

they must be taken together with other material in a dialogue of perspectives. It is also

important to check the information behind Japaridze’s writings (such as census numbers)
30
Ibid.,

13
and to ask questions of source material that he does not consider (such as the audience for

Armenian language material written in Georgian characters; what Georgian characters?).

Japaridze writing would also have been enhanced by a more critical use of older sources.

14
Bibliography

, , – : . (Anania Japariże, K´art´l-Kaxet´i: K´art´velt´a


gasomxeba) [Kartl-Kaxeti: the Armenicization of Georgians]. T´bilisi: Sak´art´velos
sapatriark´os Manglis-Calkis epark´ia, 1999.

, , : „ “. (Anania Japariże, Ap´xazet´i: K´art´velt´a


“gaap´xazeba”) [Abkhazia: the Abkhazification of Georgians]. T´bilisi: Sak´art´velos
sapatriark´os Manglis-Calkis epark´ia, 2001.

–– ? 650 . : .
,
2006.

15