The Legacy of Empire

In rural regions of Georgia, a lack of social and economic integration has hindered immigrant communities since the end of the Soviet Union. Those particularly affected are groups of people who were forcibly relocated within the Union and have maintained an isolated existence in their new, and often unfamiliar, surroundings. Facing competition with the local, indigenous community for land and resources, numerous migrants have failed to integrate after the dissolution of the Union and the foundation of new, often ethnically or religiously based nation states. 

In two villages in the North and the South of the country, on the Azeri and Armenian borders, religious minority groups whose presence in Georgia is a result of imperial and Soviet politics, continue to chafe against each other, uncomfortably co-existing in a foreign land. In Gorelovka, along the road leading to Armenia, an uneasy peace persists between three communities that have involuntarily found themselves living side by side in a poor and windswept part of Georgia. Each of the communities has its own, sometimes painful, history recalling its arrival in Georgia. 

The Doukhobors, Russian religious dissenters who rejected the central tenets of the Orthodox Church, were exiled to Georgia in the 1830s and 1840s by Tsar Nicholas I. When a massive earthquake rocked the north of Armenia in 1988, people left their devastated villages in the mountains and moved to villages such as Gorelovka on the Georgian side of the border. Here they joined Islamic communities who are part of the nearly 10% of the Georgian population that are Muslim and have lived in Georgia for centuries. 

On the other side of the country, in the impoverished village of Davitiani near the Azeri border Molokans, another non-conformist Russian sect, was also exiled from Russia in the early 1800s. During the Soviet era Molokan communities in Georgia co-existed happily with the majority Georgian orthodox population. Since the 1990s, however, Molokan communities complain that they are being overlooked by the Georgian government. Many, especially among the young, have started to migrate back to Russia or to the cities. Though all these communities share a history of displacement they seem to struggle to get along in the post-Soviet reality. 

The relationships between the communities are complex. Doukhobors have been herding cattle and farming in Georgia for generations but have found themselves increasingly marginalised and bought out by Armenian settlers. Today many labour in quasi-servitude on Armenian-owned farms, enduring harsh winters, treacherous roads, and limited access to fuel or fresh water. With little prospect of competing with the Armenian community, many Doukhobors are gravitating back to Russia. The Muslim population has also been squeezed by Armenian farmers in the region and local by-laws forbid Muslim cemeteries within the village limits so the Muslim dead have to be transported to be buried outside the village. Without an obvious other country to emigrate to, Muslims have tended to leave the agricultural areas and migrate into Georgia's larger cities where a more multi-cultural climate prevails. 

Hossein Fatemi travelled across Georgia in 2018, meeting the different communities and listening to people's stories. He found villages disunited and a growing sense of frustration with the short-comings of the Georgian government that struggles with numerous other issues such as the de-facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the north of the country and the need to update outdates Soviet infrastructure and housing.

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