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The Greeks from Tsalka

For many religions the return to one’s land of origins has almost an eschatological meaning. For example in Christianity, the idea of return is equated with that of fulfilling a promise, evangelising the reunion of Divinity with humankind. At the same time, the act of coming home, often recorded as Nostos, is one of the constitutive elements of the discourses and practices that contribute to the formation of diasporas (Safran 1991). The strong connection between diaspora and religion is not a coincidence. Religion generates a broad repertoire of symbols and myths within which migration often represents an anomalous condition for believers, whereas the return home is represented as a metaphysical destiny. Home is fundamental in the mythologies of diasporas. Nevertheless, if we take a closer look, it becomes evident that migration has been at the heart of various religious formations. “It is no coincidence that stories of migration are at the beginning of all three Abrahamic religions: the story of the Exodus, the story of Jesus the wandering preacher, and the story of the hejira” (Schiffauer 2006, 1). Although the idea of roots is closely tied to that of a theological paradise as a metaphor of home (Malki 1992), the emergence of new religions was frequently connected to socio-political and dogmatic conflicts which produced various forms of migrations (exile, pilgrimage and other). Let me turn, here, to my ethnographic example which depicts a return home as a journey that renegotiates identities at various scales and cultural contexts. The history of religion does not only involve struggles for power, but it is also produced by moments of resistance. The latter are frequently generated by human mobility. Similarly, migration is often described in immigrants’ accounts in a more symbolic way, as a quest for a new life.

The arrival of my landlady’s two young children was expected with impatience. It had been a long time since the family was reunited in their paternal home in Tbilisi. Grigor, in his early 30s, and Anka, in her early 20s, had been too involved in their work and studies. The former worked as a lawyer in a legal firm in Thessaloniki and the latter was a law school student in the same city. Olga, in her late 50s, was very proud of both of them since she had practically raised them on her own after the sudden death of her Georgian husband in the 1980s. It was this death and the sudden political and economic changes in Georgia that had marked a threshold of a new, transnational lifestyle for this mixed Georgian-Greek family.

The months I spent with Olga as her tenant allowed me to observe day after day her longing for this reunion. Every day, she spent time in front of her family shrine, in reality a wooden shelf hanging on the wall opposite the double bed in the master bedroom. This shrine was full of small icons of Orthodox saints. Every day, Olga lit a small candle in front of the icons and said a prayer. Her origin from the Turkish-speaking Greek community of Tsalka (central Georgia) reinforced her faith, since the Orthodox religion tightly connected Tsalka to Greek identity. It was believed that the Greek communities of Tsalka had been the only ones to resist Islamisation and assimilation when these communities lived within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. In this part of the paper I will present a short historical account of Tsalka and its ethnic Greek population, elaborating on the ways religion and migration became a significant part of the land and the people.

Tsalka forms part of the ancient region of Trialeti. Pashaeva (1992, 7) underlines that the archaeological findings have shown that Trialeti had been inhabited and known to all the people of Caucasus since the middle Bronze Ages. It is situated in a plateau of lesser Caucasus in cen?tral Georgia, approximately 1500 metres above sea level.1 One district of this region is known as Tsalka, which is also the name of the capital of the district. Its geographical position made the wider area of Tsalka the target of various conquerors.

Roland Topchishvili states that, “[i]n the beginning, Georgian ethnic groups [inhabited the area] and then, from the coastal area outside Georgia, non-Georgian ethnic groups arrived” (2008, 90). According to this representation, Tsalka is portrayed as a zone of encounters between those recognised as Georgian groups and foreigners. As a result, Tsalka’s Georgian character seems to be stressed. From the eleventh century until the eighteenth century, the Tsalka region followed the fate of eastern Georgia, with short periods of stability and expansion, but also a series of conquests by the Arabs, Mongols or the Ottomans. Much of the population was sold as slaves to the nearby markets, leaving Tsalka empty. Emptiness, though, is not an innocent metaphor but a representational strategy of Modernity. Through this metaphor, Modernity has postulated its ambition to construct a breaking line with the past in order to rewrite the latter through its own discourses and symbols.

During the nineteenth century, the Russian imperial regime expanded towards the south (the Caucasus) and east (Central Asia). First of all, the Russian administration promoted economic reform, changing the system of land tenure to produce a greater quantity of marketable products and industrial crops. It also promoted industrialisation and developed the transport system (Suny 1994, 50-150). Secondly, the Russians established an administrative system that made use of modern techniques of quantification and categorisation in order to map the various peoples and land units under their rule (Holquist 2001, 115-145). The Russo-Ottoman war for dominance over the wider Black Sea Region and the Silk roads culminated after the Treaty of Andrianople (1829). The impact was immediate for the Christian population of the area. Russia “invited friendly” Christian populations to areas in which Russian troops were stationed, whereas they forced Muslims to follow the road of exile to the Ottoman Empire, thus further strengthening their religious identities. These population management policies in both empires suggest the way religion, as well as migration, functioned as part of the political repertoire of imperial government. They were employed to manage people and territory through specific technologies of power. This was not irrelevant to the wider European political landscape. The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) recognised the significance of religious rights in 1815, thus paving the way to the concep?tualisation of minorities (Christopoulos 2002) and their instrumentalisa- tion in imperial politics and conflicts.

In this framework, we find almost 6000 Turkish-speaking Greeks arrive in Tsalka and Akhaltsikhe (South Georgia) in the first decade of the nineteenth century (Dzhanashia and Berdzeninishvili 1990, 299). The Christians, in majority ethnic Greeks2 and Armenians living in the Black Sea coast of Turkey (known as Pontos, thus Pontic-Greeks), were familiar with the ecology of the area, something that seemed to serve the Russian imperial agendas both for development and security reasons. These settlers were given economic incentives and military exemption: an amount of money (five silver rubles) was offered per capita annually, as well as twenty-five kilos of cereal per month for each new immigrant, tax-free land for each five-member family with all the necessary animals, and exemption from military obligations (Xanthopoulou-Kyriakou 1991, 357-364; Hassiotis 1993, 1997).

These settlers were, in terms of professional identity, petty-traders, artisans and peasants. Depending on their area of origin in the Black Sea coast of the Ottoman Empire, known as Pontos, they spoke Pontic- Greek or Turkish, or often due to trade they were bilingual or even trilingual (Pashaeva 1992; Xanthopoulou-Kyriakou 1991). In all cases, Greek Orthodoxy was very important and the ties to the Patriarchate in Constantinople strong. The millet system, where these settlers originated from, recognised religious and cultural differentiation. Nevertheless, these categories, as I will discuss, were not as strictly defined then as they are in modern national politics.

In their settlement in the wider area of Tsalka, the Greeks of Tsalka started to appropriate space by gradually transforming Tsalka into their land in an economic and cultural, as well as symbolic, sense: they changed the Georgian toponyms, mostly giving the names of their old villages in Turkey; they rebuilt the churches and brought their languages and customs (Pashaeva 1992, 1-30). These ethnic Greek groups were categorised by the Georgian and Russian ethnographers as Urumebi, a term which originates from the Rum-i-Millet and was attributed to all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire practising the Christian Orthodox religion, despite their linguistic or cultural differences. However, the Tsarist census of 18973 preserved the distinction between language and religion by referring to Greek-speaking, Turkish-speaking and Tatar-speaking Greek subjects. These categories pointed to the gradual salience of language over religion in politics.

Language as a criterion for constituting imagined communities started to provoke problems in the context of Tsalka. As Matalas underlines (2002, 18-21), the Church until the first half of the nineteenth century used the Greek language as sacred language. This changed with the formation of the Greek state, which marked the transition from an imagined religious community to a new secular one. A political agenda was hidden behind this shift. The Greek state tried to incorporate as part of its cultural legacy ancient Greece, which the European modernity considered its cradle. At the same time, the Greek irredentism aspired to include the Orthodox communities represented by the Patriarchate into its territorial borders both symbolically and literally.

Although the Greek populations of the mountainous Tsalka region did not remain indifferent to these changes, they were not part of these irredentist claims due to distance and lack of essential underpinnings by the Greek state. Generally, ethnic Greek communities tried either to selffinance their Greek education, or to turn to the Patriarchate for support in the form of books or clergy. Similar efforts were postulated by the Greeks of Tsalka. They tried to create first a Greek-speaking education mainly through community funding and the Patriarchate. For example, Greekspeaking grandparents taught Greek to the children, or one male child in the wealthier families was sent to urban centres in order to become a teacher (Aggelidis 1999). The success of these efforts was related to two parameters: the economic prosperity of each community; and the pressures of the Russian government and the Georgian church for winning over these populations in the framework of their own nationalisms. As a result, the ethnic Greek villages in Tsalka today are divided into Greekspeaking or Turkish-speaking.

In terms of the Greek administration, the category used in order to include these populations beyond national borders was that of omoge- nis (belonging to the same kin/blood). The specific term was used in the political vocabulary of Greece to symbolically express the idea of an expanded Greek nation beyond national borders. The recognition of who could attain Greek citizenship privileged language over religion, but generally both categories were employed to legally recognise someone as a Greek (Vogli 2007, 2009). A network of consulates eventually developed in areas where omogenis lived and helped the registration of the latter. Most of the Greeks of Tsalka, due to their early arrival in the country, were recognised as Tsarist subjects, something that would help them integrate smoothly into the Soviet system of citizenship through the Soviet

Nationality Policy, which respected the cultures of the various ethnic groups but it submitted them to an ideological indoctrination.

According to the latter, the identity of the Greeks (Greki in Russian) as one of the recognised nationalities (natsional’nosti) of the former Soviet Union was built. The formation of territorialised nationalities and ethnicities within this socialist ideological and political framework resulted in the further bounded-ness of the identity of Greeks of Tsalka. It should be underlined that the presence of the Greeks of Tsalka was not interrupted by the Stalinist deportations of 1949, when Greeks from western Georgia and Abkhazia were forced to resettle in Central Asia.4 The Greeks of Tsalka, due to their prior integration in the imperial system, did not face deportation except for individual cases. As a result, Tsalka continued in this period too to host Greek, Armenian, Azeri and Georgian villages, which turned into kolkhoz.

In this way, a historical vernacular cosmopolitanism rooted in the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of the region seemed to become filtered in the context of Soviet Tsalka through the ideological premises of Soviet Nationality Policy. The latter supported national and ethnic cultures, allowing, in this way, cultural differentiation through monitoring and controlling their compatibility to socialist agendas. At the same time, diasporic affinity to other national capitalist cultures became a threat to the regime. As a result, diasporic cosmopolitanism—in other words the connection of diasporas to other cultures—was stigmatised when the latter became related to national territories beyond the Soviet homeland. On the contrary, the Soviet multi-ethnic society exemplified socialist cosmopolitanism (kosmopolitzm). In this framework, Others were accepted only through ideological conformity (see for a detailed account of the term Humphrey 2004; Voutira 2006). Despite the regime’s ascribed atheism, religious identities like Greek Orthodox identities were retained as part of the ethnic culture, which was embraced by the regime. It should be noted, however, that Greek Orthodox identities were preserved more through everyday practices than through institutional expression (Church).

As a result, Orthodox religion remained salient for the Greeks of Tsalka. As language was lost, they could retain their sense of Greekness through access to an imagined community by means of religious affiliation. At the same time, religion connected the Greeks of Tsalka to the Orthodox ecumenism (Russian and Georgian religious identities). Finally, religion was also tied to local cultural memory and practice. After the declaration of independence in 1991, the growing Georgian nationalism and, more importantly, the economic conditions in Georgia, but also Greek diaspora politics which were based on an ethnic-friendly logic, led to the massive migration of the ethnic Greek Georgians to Greece (Wheatley 2010, 8).

Olga’s children were among those who had decided to migrate. In what ways was this migration linked to religion and diaspora? What kind of conceptualisations of cultural and national belonging did the Greek state use to include people like Olga?

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