The Mingrelians (Mingrelian: Margalepi; Georgian: Megrelebi) are a Kartvelian people who live in northwest Georgia, in the region of Mingrelia (Mingrelian: Samargalo; Georgian: Samegrelo).
Sounds innocuous, right? It’s not. The claim that Mingrelians constitute a “people” would be considered seditious by many Georgians, since it suggests that Mingrelians are not, in fact, Georgians. This, in turn, might lead one to suppose that Mingrelians ought to have their own independent state. That would be a big problem for Georgians, so they claim Mingrelians as their own.
Similarly, you might think that it would be uncontroversial to say (as I have said several times on this blog) that the Mingrelian language is a language which is similar to but distinct from the Georgian langauge. But here again, many Georgians (and many in the outside world who haven’t looked very far into it) think that Mingrelian is not a separate language, but rather an exceptionally corrupt dialect of Georgian. This is because classifying Mingrelian as a language would suggest that Mingrelians are a people unto themselves, and this would again raise the threat of separatism.
In fact, fears of Mingrelian separatism are greatly overblown, as Richard Berge has argued. This is mainly because Mingrelians tend to think of themselves as Georgians, or at least as Georgians who are also Mingrelians. Indeed, Georgia’s first democratically-elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was both a Mingrelian and a rabid Georgian nationalist. He was a proponent of the infamous slogan “Georgia for Georgians“, which helped foment violence against Ossetians and Abkhazians. He never said “Georgia for Georgians and Mingrelians Alike”, which suggests that he took Mingrelians to be Georgians without a problem.
On the other hand, after Gamsakhurdia was deposed in 1993 by a coalition of mob bosses and Party bureaucrats, his support base largely receded to his native Mingrelia. Consequently Mingrelia was ransacked by Georgian criminal paramilitary groups in search of Gamsakhurdia supporters, many of whose burnt-down houses can still be seen in the region today. This has led some commentators (not without controversy) to suggest that Gamsakhurdia’s toppling and the ensuing civil war were at least partially motivated by Georgian distrust of Mingrelians, giving Mingrelians a more second-class status than they or other Georgians would like to admit. Nevertheless, Mingrelians remain well-integrated into Georgian society.
At this point, if the reader is anything like me, she’s thinking “Okay, political considerations are well and good, but ethnically speaking, are Mingrelians Georgians or not? Are they a subgroup of Georgians, like Wikipedia says, or are they something else altogether?”
First off, we should clarify what we mean by “Georgian”, since under some interpretations this question is trivial. Recall that Georgians don’t call themselves Georgians (or gruziny, the Russian word for Georgians). They call themselves kartvelebi (Mingrelians call them kortuepi) and they would more usefully be called Karts in English. It has been suggested that “Georgian” / “gruzin“ is a strictly exonymic category: the outside world makes no distinctions among Kartvelians and groups them together as one. Thus “Georgian” is a unifying name for the conjunction of Karts, Mingrlians, and Svans***. If we interpret “Georgian” in this way, then it becomes trivially true that Mingrelians are Georgians.
But this is a highly idealized interpretation. In reality, when Georgians (Karts) argue that Mingrelians are Georgian, what they really mean is that Mingrelians really are Karts. This is why it is so critical for them to establish that Mingrelian is merely a dialect of Georgian.
It’s also not uncommon for Georgians to insinuate that Mingrelians speak Georgian natively. This isn’t true either. Young Mingrelian children do not in general know Georgian, and they don’t learn to speak it until they learn it in school. So if by “Georgian” we mean “those people whose first language is Georgian”, then (disregarding typical Georgian misinformation) it is trivially false that Mingrelians are Georgians.
Update (11/7/13): A Canadian English-teaching friend of mine living in Mingrelia tells me that, in fact, many Mingrelian children do know Georgian when they begin school, at least where he lives. As far as I know there has never been a study done on the true extent of Mingrelian usage. If any reader knows of one, please let me know.
Most discussions of Mingrelian ethnicity vis-à-vis Georgian focus on the language difference. This is because culturally, Mingrelians are not all that different from Karts. About two months after I got to Georgia, I visited Zugdidi, the capital of Mingrelia. At that point I didn’t know much about Mingrelians, and it never once occurred to me that I was among a different ethnic group. As far as the ignorant observer that I was could tell, they were just Georgians. Generally, Mingrelians speak Georgian perfectly well, and historically, literate Mingrelians (i.e. clergy and royalty) have always spoken Georgian. They’ve also always been Christians, and in particular they’ve always belongედ to the Georgian church. So there aren’t a lot of outward signs of difference besides the language.
The separate ethnicity (or not) of Mingrelians is not an easy case, but we can compare it to some other cases which are easy.
- Adjarans speak Georgian. Unlike most Georgians, they are Muslims, not Christians. Historically, Adjarans have been oriented towards Turkey. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to compare their relation to Georgians to the relation between Austrians and Germans. Although they have a different history and religion, Adjarans are Georgians.
- Ingliois speak Georgian. Like Adjarans, they are Muslims. They live in Azerbaijan and are oriented towards Azeri culture. I’m inclined to say that Ingilois are Georgians, but they are quickly assimilating, and it’s not impossible that within a few generations they will be completely Azerized. If they were to stop speaking Georgian, I would say that Ingilois would not be Georgians.
- The Laz speak a Kartvelian language, but few of them speak Georgian. They are Muslims, and for the most part they have nothing to do with Georgia. In spite of what some Georgians say, Laz are not Georgians.
Based on this list, it looks like speaking Georgian natively is sufficient to qualify a group as Georgian. The question is: is it necessary? We can say that the Laz aren’t Georgians, but language in this case is not the sole consideration, since they are also heavily Turkified. Mingrelians are have always been a part of Georgia and the general Georgian cultural realm. Since they also all speak Georgian nearly-natively, shouldn’t we at least say that they are quasi-Georgians?
Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that, contrary to what I just said, a significant population of Mingrelians used to live outside of Georgia. Immediately following the Circassian Genocide, Mingrelians began moving into mostly-vacant Abkhazia (especially around the town of Gal / Gali). This process was accelerated in Soviet times under the control of the Mingrelian director of the Soviet secret police, Lavrenti Beria. For much of the twentieth century, southern Abkhazia was majority-Mingrelian (to the point that many Abkhazians spoke Mingrelian!).
Unlike the Mingrelians of Mingrelia, the Mingrelians of Abkhazia often did not speak Georgian, instead using Russian as their literary language, and they were oriented more towards Russian culture than towards Georgian. Following the Abkhaz War of 1993, most Mingrelians were expelled from Abkhazia, and to this day many of them live as refugees throughout Georgia. (These so-called IDPs (internally displaced persons) are almost entirely Mingrelian. Some commentators have suggested that the Georgian government’s refusal to resettle the IDPs is motivated in part by Georgian distrust of Mingrelians.)
It’s not as simple as saying that Mingrelians are Georgians because they belong to Georgia, because some of them didn’t! There is nothing necessary about Mingrelians’ connection to Georgian culture. That said, the Abkhaz Mingrelian community is a thing of the past, so it’s fair to say today that Mingrelians are all part of Georgia.
Okay, blah blah blah, are Mingrelians Georgians or not? I would say yes, Mingrelians are Georgians, but it must also be kept in mind that Mingrelians are Mingrelians. I’m fine with referring to someone like Beria as Georgian, but it irritates me when I hear the New York Times or the BBC talk about “200,000 Georgian refugees”, completely ignoring what could potentially be an important ethnic dimension to the problem. In general, a person’s being Mingrelian should be mentioned whenever it might be relevant. The conjunctive designation “Mingrelian Georgian” is an economic solution, being both descriptively adequate and recognizable to people who don’t know what Mingrelians are (i.e. most of the world).
Fun Fact: Mingrelians do not refer to the capital of Georgia as “Tbilisi“. Instead, they call it “Karti” (ქართი), as in Karts, Georgians. Abkhazians call it by a similar name (Қарҭ).
This post is mostly based on two articles.
- The first is an essay by George Hewitt called “Yet a third consideration…” Hewitt argues strongly against the identification of Mingrelians as Georgians and gives many examples of Georgian suppression of Mingrelian identity. He addresses the issue in other contexts as well; see, for instance, his article “Abkhazia, Georgia, and the Circassians“.
- The second is an article by Laurence Broers called “Two Sons of One Mother“. Broers takes a less polemical approach than Hewitt, and he argues that Mingrelian identity has always existed alongside other identities (Georgian, Soviet, Christian, etc). As far as I know, it’s only available in a recently-published collection called When the Elephant Broke Out of the Zoo: A Festschrift for Donald Rayfield. However, a rough draft of the essay is available, and although it’s not as detailed as the long version, it’s still excellent.
***Svans are another Kartvelian people who live in the mountains north of the Mingrelians. I probably won’t get around to writing a post about them, but much of this post applies to them, since they are also kinda-sorta-but-not-really Georgians.