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Defending the Border

Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia

Mathijs Pelkmans
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Defending the Border
    Book Description:

    This book, one of the first in English about everyday life in the Republic of Georgia, describes how people construct identity in a rapidly changing border region. Based on extensive ethnographic research, it illuminates the myriad ways residents of the Caucasus have rethought who they are since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Through an exploration of three towns in the southwest corner of Georgia, all of which are situated close to the Turkish frontier, Mathijs Pelkmans shows how social and cultural boundaries took on greater importance in the years of transition, when such divisions were expected to vanish. By tracing the fears, longings, and disillusionment that border dwellers projected on the Iron Curtain, Pelkmans demonstrates how elements of culture formed along and in response to territorial divisions, and how these elements became crucial in attempts to rethink the border after its physical rigidities dissolved in the 1990s.

    The new boundary-drawing activities had the effect of grounding and reinforcing Soviet constructions of identity, even though they were part of the process of overcoming and dismissing the past. Ultimately, Pelkmans finds that the opening of the border paradoxically inspired a newfound appreciation for the previously despised Iron Curtain as something that had provided protection and was still worth defending.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6176-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. A Note on Transliteration and Translation
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Terms and Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction: Temporal Divides and Muddled Space along the Former Iron Curtain
    (pp. 1-16)

    At midday on a July 2000 afternoon in Khulo, the district center of the eastern mountainous region of upper Ajaria, I accompanied an acquaintance as he paid his last respects to his former colleague Otari Abuladze.¹ We entered the apartment where Otari’s body was on view, walked around the coffin, and expressed our condolences to family members. We left the apartment and spent a few minutes outside talking to men who had gathered in the street. At the time, I did not think the event was particularly special, but I changed my mind a few days later when Murman, an...

  7. PART I A Divided Village on the Georgian-Turkish Border

    • Introduction: Divided Village
      (pp. 19-21)

      When I arrived at Aman’s house in the hilly part of Sarpi, his daughter-in-law told me that he had gone to feed the cows and would be back in a minute.¹ I waited at the small table in the yard and looked out over the village beneath me. Down at the sea was the border gate connecting Georgia and Turkey. Trucks and cars entered the customs area one by one; taxis and minibuses were parked on both sides of the complex, ready to take customers to their respective destinations in one country or the other. Away from the coast, uphill,...

    • 1 Caught between States
      (pp. 22-43)

      Whenever the weather permitted, elderly male inhabitants of Sarpi passed their leisure time in what was called the “old men’s house.” During my stay in the late 1990s I often sat down with the old men to ask questions, or, conversely, to be asked questions about my life in the Netherlands. On several occasions I noticed a peculiar behavior. When talking about Europe some of these men would point not to the west but to the northeast, that is, away from the border. There was some logic to this. One day a man had just started to talk about his...

    • 2 Mobilizing Cultural Stuff with Boundaries
      (pp. 44-70)

      During a wedding celebration in Sarpi in 1999, several young men guided me into the basement of an affluent villager’s house, which contained a kind of small private exhibition featuring a boat, fishing gear, and other items. As I admired this homespun museum they explained that they were all crafted in an original Laz style, preserved over many centuries. The boat owner emphasized that the Laz had once been extraordinary sailors. He traced this tradition back to the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, who had traveled to the Colchis kingdom. This comment reflected local opinion that the Colchis...

    • 3 Lost Relatives
      (pp. 71-88)

      “On August 31, 1988, perestroika finally arrived in Sarpi.” So began one Russian journalist’s account of the border opening. The article continued with blunt metaphor: “After three days of subtropical rain, the sky cleared, and when the border was finally opened the sun began to shine. For the first time since 1937 villagers were allowed to meet their relatives. They embraced one another, recognized one another’s old surnames, and exchanged the family news of so many years” (Mdivani 1992, 13–14). The opening of the long-closed Georgian-Turkish border was a momentous occasion for many. It was a surprising one as...

  8. Part II Frontiers of Islam and Christianity in Upper Ajaria

    • Introduction: Christian Incursions
      (pp. 91-94)

      The start of my fieldwork in upper Ajaria in May 2000 coincided with nationwide festivities celebrating famous moments in Georgian history. It had been approximately three millennia since the first Georgian state was established and two millennia since Christianity made its entrance into Georgian territory. The Autonomous Republic of Ajaria played a special role in these events because of its unique history. Although the inhabitants of Ajaria are (or were) predominantly Sunni Muslim, the province is believed to be the site where Christianity first took hold. The memorable year 2000, then, was an excellent occasion for the Georgian Orthodox Church...

    • 4 The Making and Transformation of the Frontier
      (pp. 95-120)

      The central tenet of undisrupted Christian-Georgian continuity, as propagated by the clergy and the intelligentsia since the 1980s, gives weight to the missionary activities of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Ajaria. According to this myth, Ajarians had never really been Muslim but rather had always, if only subconsciously, perceived themselves as Georgians and thus, implicitly, as Christians.¹ The advancement of this myth points to a tendency that has been observed in many postsocialist countries. In Verdery’s words, “Throughout the postsocialist world there has been a veritable orgy of historical revisionism, of writing the communist period out of the past” (1999,...

    • 5 Defending Muslim Identities
      (pp. 121-141)

      “During Communism we had more freedom; we still had our own lives. Now, we are losing everything.” This lamentation, expressed by an imam in Khulo, succinctly summarized the feelings of many elderly Muslims in upper Ajaria. It articulated frustration with the restrictions on Muslim expression in post-Soviet Ajaria and a longing for a past in which—ironically—such restrictions were usually more severe. This nostalgia for state atheism may seem odd, as it contradicts widespread ideas about religious freedom after socialism and the repression of religion during the Soviet period. Nevertheless, I argue that the imam’s statement contained a sound...

    • 6 Ancestors and Enemies in Conversion to Christianity
      (pp. 142-168)

      In the late 1980s, when restrictions on religion were lifted, Ajarians seemed to be converting en masse to Christianity. A local newspaper of that time reported that five thousand people had been baptized in Batumi in a single day and that the recently opened churches were unable to seat all the worshipers who had finally been able to “return to their ancestral faith,” Georgian Orthodoxy (Sovetskaia Adzhariia, 29 May 1989). Bishop Dimitri recalled those days with delight, remembering that “we baptized from early morning to late at night, one after the other, and still there were people waiting.” These mass...

  9. Part III Postsocialist Borderlands

    • Introduction: Treacherous Markets
      (pp. 171-173)

      In February 1997, just before my first visit to Ajaria, I had been in a rush to make all the necessary purchases for my fieldwork. Anticipating that fieldwork would involve extensive walking I decided to buy new shoes. Eventually I bought relatively inexpensive shoes (approximately $50), Italian Dolcis. They seemed well suited for the rough conditions, and I expected that they would last at least until I returned. However, three weeks of walking on unpaved village paths and plenty of rain and mud were obviously not the conditions for which the shoes were designed. Only a month after I had...

    • 7 Channeling Discontent
      (pp. 174-194)

      The fall of the iron curtain between Georgia and Turkey brought about a tremendous flow of goods and people across the border. It offered Georgians access to Western consumer goods and hard currency; both were extremely valuable there at the time. Transnational trade rapidly increased in volume and continued to be important for the region as a whole, affording many residents a means of living. Although the positive effects of the border opening seemed obvious, inhabitants of Ajaria increasingly tended to ascribe negative qualities to it. My acquaintances said the border opening had been responsible for the spread of diseases...

    • 8 The Social Life of Empty Buildings
      (pp. 195-214)

      The rapid changes following the demise of socialism challenged familiar spaces and shook social relations. In Batumi, these changes were intimately related to the breakdown of the centralized economy and, equally important, to the fall of the nearby iron curtain with Turkey. As mentioned in earlier chapters, the impact of these events should be understood in relation to changes in the position of Ajaria within the Georgian republic. Although its status as “autonomous republic” had its origin in the early days of Soviet rule, this status meant fairly little during most of the twentieth century, when Ajaria was an integrated...

  10. Conclusion: Borders in Time and Space
    (pp. 215-224)

    A view from the border highlights the contradictions and imperfections in the grand narratives of nations and states. It shows that the rhetoric of the state becomes problematic at its edges and that along borders nationalizing policies are regularly defeated, ignored, or redirected. The fact that the ideals of the nation are contested at its borders may also be the precise reason for vigorous attempts by the state to “tame” borders and to intensify the dissemination of state ideologies. The changing balance and interlocking of these characteristics—that borders tend to escape state control and therefore attract the close attention...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-234)
  12. Index
    (pp. 235-240)