Ethno-demographic history of Abkhazia, 1886 - 1989, by Daniel Müller | Georgia (Country) | Eastern Europe

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  Daniel Müller Chapter 15. Demography: ''The Abkhazians: A Handbook'' by George Hewitt (Editor) Richmond, Surrey: The Curzon Press 1999 (Caucasus World / Peoples of the Caucasus & The Black Sea), pp. [218]-239.
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  Ethno-demographic history of Abkhazia, 1886 - 1989 by Daniel MüllerChapter 15. Demography: The Abkhazians: A Handbook by George Hewitt (Editor) Demography has many aspects. With regard to the Abkhaz, their famed longevity comesimmediately to mind. However, it is difficult to prove just how old one is when, at thesupposed time of one’s birth, registration was the exception rather than the norm. It has beennoted that in the (15 January) 1970 All-Union Census the number of people in some higherage cohorts was actually larger than had been the size of corresponding (eleven year younger)cohorts in the (15 January) 1959 Census. Unless we assume a pensioner-invasion of theUSSR in between, this must caution us to realize that some people may have a tendency inold age to advance more rapidly in years than the rest of us! 1 However, we shall not deal with this interesting matter here, nor with any other of themore classical topics of demography. What we shall restrict ourselves to here is what is inRussian so aptly termed ethno-demography ( étnodemografia ). This issue is controversial.Generally, Georgian and pro-Georgian writers try to prove the largest possible percentage of 'Georgians' (i.e., Kartvelians) in the territory that today is Abkhazia throughout history,whereas Abkhaz and pro-Abkhaz writers perform the process from an opposite point of view.We shall narrow our focus in the main to Abkhazia, treating the Abkhaz diaspora only in acursory manner. Concentrating on the topic of Kartvelian versus Abkhaz dominance, we shallalso allocate less space to the many other groups in Abkhazia’s history than would bedesirable if space were no problem.Our focus in time will be the period from 1864 until 1989; in fact, the first good sourcewe can use is for 1886. Not that we lack sources; there are literally many thousands of them.We will here restrict ourselves to a) what may be called the canonical sources, i.e. those usedin normative Soviet scholarship, namely census-results for 1897, 1926, 1939, 1959, 1970,1979 and 1989, and b) a few of the 'non-canonical' sources shunned by the Soviets and thusregularly overlooked by Westerners.The theoretical and methodological pitfalls in writing the ethno-demography of Abkhaziaare awesome indeed. We cannot even try to list them here; hopefully we shall soon do soelsewhere. For a useful introduction to the Russian and Soviet Censuses in general, see Clem(1986). Suffice it to say here that it is certainly not enough to grab a book from a shelf, openit and take out an isolated figure or two, as is so often done when the pseudo-objectivity of numbers is employed (more often than one would believe, even such shortest of quotes willon close inspection turn out to be patently false). Figures have a context, which is often verycomplex and must be considered. If this were not so, future historians might indeed concludethat hordes of pensioners actually did descend on the USSR between 1959 and 1970. 1 Note that we are not denying that the phenomenon of Abkhaz longevity exists.1  Figures before 1864 The Russian Empire incorporated the territory that today is Abkhazia only after the end of organized West Caucasian resistance in 1864. Before that, no real administration existed,although some Russian presence had intermittently been maintained, namely on the coast,rising and falling with the ebb and flow of Russian fortunes on the Black Sea, having beenvery low as late as the Crimean War. 'No administration' means 'no reliable figures'. Despiteor because of this, we have a large number of demographic figures for this period. To callthese estimates would be to accord honour where none is due. None of the authors of oursources could or did claim to have counted the people, or at least to have visited all inhabitedplaces, many of them inaccessible, some accepting no outside authority at all. The figures,even when compiled by people in a (semi-)official capacity, were based as much on hearsayas not. Before 1864, neither Russians nor Ottomans nor any other power, local or otherwise,were in a position to make anything like a realistic estimate of the population. To give any of these guesses (for that is what they are) precedence would be quite arbitrary.What can be surmised is ethnographic rather than demographic in nature; namely, that thepopulation consisted mainly of people speaking Abkhaz; in the north, the boundaries withspeakers of other West Caucasian tongues, i.e., Ubykh and Circassian, were ill-defined, as bi-or possibly trilingual groups lived and moved in the area. Not far away (closer than today)were also bands of Abazinians, plus some hordes of Turkic-speaking Noghays. To the east,high altitudes made for a clear boundary with Turkic Karachays and Kartvelian Svans,although it need not necessarily have conformed to modern borders. In the south, the strip of land known as Samurzaq’an(o) was a bone of contention between the ruling houses of mostof Abkhazia, and of Mingrelia; the locals were largely Georgian orthodox and probably to alarge degree bilingual in Abkhaz and Mingrelian. It would prove difficult to decide whetherthese were Abkhaz in the process of mingrelianisation or vice-versa 2 . Beyond the Ingur beganMingrelia proper. Only in some of the tiny coastal towns was the population somewhat moremixed. Besides people from the hinterland, there were Turks and other Ottoman Muslims, aswell as possibly some Greeks, Armenians, Jews or Persians. Presence of Russians was limitedto places where, and times when, their garrisons were in place. Due to the slave trade, forwhich Abkhazia provided entrepôts, there may have been some Africans.The slave trade was also responsible for what one could euphemistically call out-migration. The tradition of Abkhaz men being sold was old, the ethnonym  Abha:z appearing,for example, in mediæval Mamluk sources. Another form of this export delivered females toOttoman harems. The dimension of this body-drain is unclear. The Abkhaz were alsodecimated through risings, wars, epidemics and abysmally low living standards, whichbetween them may have more than offset natural growth for longish periods. 2 The discussion of contemporary material by Hewitt (1993b.275-277; 1995b.Ft.15) clearly supports the former[Editor].2  From 1864 until 1886 Even before 1864, the out-migration of Abkhaz accelerated. In 1864, it reached consi-derable proportions, then declined until the end of 1866, when a doomed Abkhaz rising thatlasted well into 1867 led to a second wave. Another lull followed until the Russo-Ottomanwar of 1877/1878, when Ottoman troops landed in Abkhazia and were supported by localirregulars. Russian victory meant heavy casualties and the outflux of probably an actualmajority of the population; wide areas were totally depopulated.Again, we will not attempt here to grapple with the many figures of how many Abkhazactually left. The Ottoman authorities generally indiscriminately counted all the Caucasianarrivals under a single heading; when Abkhaz are listed separately, they often may have been,or included, either Abazinians or Ubykhs. Finally, the appalling loss of life en route meantthat only a portion of the out-migrants from the Russian Empire ever became immigrants intothe Ottoman realm; some entered the country illegally by land and sea (for example beingsmuggled in as slaves) and were thus not counted at all. The Russians, who were in a betterposition to count, were not too interested.Numbers were, however, dramatic, especially between 1864 and 1878. A tricklecontinued long afterwards, in fact outlasting both Empires. There was also a considerableremigration of Abkhaz unhappy with life in the Ottoman Empire, although in size it was justa fraction of the out-migration. Some Abkhaz who had gone to the Batumi area werereincorporated into Russia without bodily returning, being annexed in 1878 with their newhomes, although many chose to leave for the Ottoman interior.The Abkhaz diaspora in the Ottoman successor states today bears witness to the scale of these forced migrations; the greatest number live in Turkey, where Abkhaz as a language waslast mentioned in the published results of the 1965 census, although due to what seems tohave been the customary combination of bureaucratic incompetence and Turkish nationalism,reported numbers were ridiculously low: just 4,563 first- and 7,836 second-language speakers(see Andrews (1989.167)). Another sizeable community lives in Syria, where before 1967 itshomes lay mainly on the Golan, from where practically all were driven out by the Israelis.Since World War II, a secondary 'outer' diaspora has sprung up, as inter alios Abkhaz fromTurkey came to Germany, Golan Abkhaz to the USA etc.; not using Turkish or other non-Russian sources, we shall restrict further remarks on the diaspora to the 'inner' groups insideRussian/Soviet/former Soviet territory.The departing Abkhaz were replaced by newcomers from all over the Russian Empire andeven abroad. The most obvious new arrivals came from Mingrelia, where serfdom had beenfinally abolished in 1867. Population-densities there were high and many newly freedpeasants stranded landless; in Abkhazia, population-density was very low in huge fertileareas, the health hazards of which (like malaria) the neighbouring Mingrelians wereadditionally better prepared to brave than people from other climes. 3  The Cameral Description of 1873 After the Russians took military control of the western Caucasus in 1864, it was a longtime before they actually established a more or less efficient administration. The numerousfigures released after the occupation in any case closely resemble those before in theirinexactitude. Of these post-1864 statistics, we want to single out for scrutiny the so-calledCameral Description of 1873. At present I only have results of this in the doctored versionwhich Nikolaus von Seidlitz, an official statistician, wrote for the 1880 volume of a Germanlearned journal. It would be interesting to consult the original results (see Seidlitz1880.340-347). The German version gives four components for Sukhum territory: the town of Sukhum, the counties of Ochamchira and Pitsunda, and (the prefecture of) Ts’ebelda. Table 1: Supposed population of the Sukhum territory (1873)Sukhum townOchamchiraPitsundaTs’ebeldatotal Population 1,500 32.179 7,080 605 41,364Mingrelians?26,4750026,475Abkhaz05,7006,90060513,205Russians?01380138Turks0442046Greeks, Armenians?000?In Sukhum town, population is said to consist mainly of Russians, including the garrison,plus some Greek, Armenian and Mingrelian traders. For the whole territory, 64.0% notincluding those in Sukhum town would have been Mingrelians, just 31.9% Abkhaz. It isstrange that, as far as I know, Georgian authors do not use these figures, given their being sowell suited to their purpose; the only reason I can see for this is that they have never comeacross this source. As it is, rounded figures, quite untypical of a source where rounding is notgenerally employed, nurture suspicion, which is found to be well grounded: the figures areadmittedly not those for 1873, having been tampered with, as from a footnote we learn thatbesides these Abkhaz a further 32,000 plus 847 Kabardians from near Gagra near Pitsundahad emigrated to 'Turkey' (the Ottoman Empire) in the war of 1877/78. This would leave uswith a figure of *74,211 for 1873, *45,205 of whom or 60.9% would have been Abkhaz,35.7% (plus some in Sukhum) Mingrelians. 3 The figures only begin to make sense when werealize that the Samurzaq’anoans are here treated as Mingrelians, not Abkhaz. Even so,outside the southern fringe of Abkhazia, i.e., Samurzaq’an(o) (here under Ochamchira), therewere practically no Kartvelians, whereas Abkhaz were living all over the territory, except forSukhum, where they were rarely and barely tolerated by the authorities (although fourAbkhaz were reported in Tiflis). 3 A well-known 1895 book that for statistical data relied mainly on the 1886 Family Lists gave the populationof Abkhazia as 72,415, of which (it stated) 30,000 were often counted as Mingrelians; this fits well with re-constructed 1873 figures. See Erckert (1895).4
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