People often leave their homes in Javakheti and move to live elsewhere – temporarily or for good.
Others, on the contrary, come here in search of a new homeland.
Migration is a process that never ends here
Javakheti is distinguished by everything, be it a landscape, climate, people or architecture. Every time I visit it, I try to figure out, where Javakheti’s main secret lies.
Back in the 70s, it was just a dead end, a border of the Soviet Union, where people needed passes to travel. Many people left Javakheti then. Whereas today, this region has become a corridor, an intersection where three countries meet. The major projects are implemented in this region and some big countries’ interests lie here.
In this story, I’m going to tell about how Javakheti has changed or not changed, what has been brought or taken away from here by people, as well as about birds, that constantly seek shelter in this area.
Javakheti is predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians. The Georgian Muslims, the eco-migrants from Ajara region, were forced to settle down here in the 80s-90s. Earlier, in 40s of the past century, the Muslim Meskhetians were herded into freight trains and deported from here overnight on Stalin’s order. There are also a couple of villages, populated by the Doukhobors, the Slavs who have already become the local exotics. What’s the reason for such a frequent change in the region’s human landscape? Does the secret of Javakheti’s uniqueness lie in that very change?
The land of big lakes
Located at the altitude of 1,800-2,100m. above sea level, Javakheti is the coldest place in Georgia, with the temperature dropping down to 40 degrees below zero in winter period.
But the locals are accustomed to snow and sub-zero spells. There are practically no forests in this region. So, people use dung fuel (cube-shaped, dry animal faeces) to heat their houses in winter.
However, spring brings changes to this cold and snowy region. The alpine flowers start blossoming on the meadows and hundreds of birds flock together here. On a side note, Javakheti is a major bird migration corridor in Georgia.
Paravani, Saghamo, Khanchali, Tabatskuri Madatapa, Bughdasheni-‘the land of big lakes’, that’s how Samtskhe-Javakheti can be referred to. Some of them are deep, others are shallow, some are cold, others are warm, but they are a real paradise for the waterfowl. Therefore, most of them choose Javakheti. Some come here to build their nests, while others use it as a migration stop-point.
It was late autumn of 1835, when the people travelling on foot and carts, first appeared in the vicinity of Ninotsminda.
The Doukhobors, or ‘Spirit-Wrestlers’, that’s how they call themselves.
Javakheti was actually an uninhabited area after the Russian-Turkish war. So, the Russian Emperor decided to exile the Doukhobors, who were regarded as the ‘rebellious’ (they didn’t recognize the Protestant Orthodox Church and refused to serve in the army) and ‘disgraced’ people, to Javakheti region.
It was an ideal decision. Nikolay (Kolya) Sukhourukov, an elderly Doukhobor, one of those few, who reside in Javakheti nowadays, will tell you why it was a perfect solution:
Nikolay’s narrative: “Some of us are Romani, others are Germans, Poles, Mordovians, Tatars, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Finns. We are the mixed-blood people. However, the nationality isn’t that important, since we are the God's sons and daughters.
For example, if you are thirsty and someone gives you water, are you going to inquire about the origin of this water? A conscientious person will just say thanks and drink the water.
When I decided to get married, we went to our parents and told them: ‘We both love each other, our ‘word is a law’. Only love makes the family strong and tightly-knit. The nationality doesn’t matter. My wife is of different nationality.
Our forefathers communicated directly with God, who dwells in each person’s heart and soul. We’ve never recognized any mediators between humans and God. For a certain period of time our world outlook harmoniously coexisted with the Christianity. But then we were subjected to persecution and exile allegedly because we didn’t go to church."
The industrious and diligent Doukhobors gradually gained a foothold in Javakheti. They settled down in Gorelovka, Spasovka, Efremovka and other villages. Later on, they turned into the Slavic settlements, with nice small houses, neat and tidy streets and people dressed in traditional, embroidered garments. The aforesaid added more diversity to Javakheti region.
According to the 2014 population census data, Samtskhe-Javakheti population reduced by 47,094 people, compared to 2002. Gorelovka, Spasovka, Orlovka, Efremovka, Troitska, Tambovka and Radionovka, those 7 villages that were earlier populated by the Doukhobors, are almost abandoned now.
Nikolay Sukhorukov, a native of Gorelovka village, says that most of his fellow villagers left this area in search of a better life.
The Doukhobors were mostly engaged in livestock breeding. The alpine zone is distinguished by its unique pastures, allowing to produce a perfect-quality cheese. Today, in Javakheti, you will frequently hear people, saying that they miss the Doukhobor cheese.
Other people live now in the areas, formerly inhabited by the Doukhobors. As they claim, they ended up here by a quirk of fate and nature.
They are the eco-migrants from a landslide and flood-affected Ajara and some other southern regions of Georgia, whose houses were destroyed as a result of natural disaster.
They’ve got adapted to Javakheti region’s harsh natural conditions. Yet, they are facing certain problems: the houses they live in haven’t been registered under their ownership, they don’t have enough grazing land for their livestock etc.
Each family here has been allotted just a 2ha. land plot, whereas the hay gathered here is hardly enough for feeding 2 heads of livestock, especially as winter here lasts for 7 months. Some eco-migrants are employed at the local farms, but they are underpaid.
“The only thing we demand is that the houses we live in be titled to us and the mowing land be allotted. We just want to have ‘a roof over the head’. If something happens, where should we go then? We can’t live as the displaced persons all our life. We don’t have any land, so, how are we supposed to feed our livestock then?” said Omar Shavadze, an eco-migrant, who moved to Gorelovka from Adigeni village.
Omar’s narrative: “I am a native of Adigeni village. My house was ruined as a result of a landslide, in 2011. So, I came and settled down here. The government helped me and I was allotted his house. At first, there were five of us in the family, but my daughter got married. We keep the cows, sell milk and thus earn our living. That’s how we live.
Nobody stays here for a long time. The Georgians also settled down here in the 80s-90s, but many of them have gone. It’s so cold here in winter, that many simply can’t stand it. We were grown up in Javakheti, so we are accustomed to it. I can’t live without land here…
There are a dozen of businessmen, who lease the land. They claim ownership of that land, so we can’t use it. We travelled to the regional centre (Ninotsminda), as well as to the governorate (Tbilisi), and met with the government officials there, but that didn’t work out. We were told that we should buy that land. I don’t have any money, so how am I supposed to buy it? It’s a pity, because this place is really very nice and suitable for living, especially for those who are fond of cattle breeding.”
Today, there are about 90 Georgian families in Gorelovka village. Most of them have been displaced from Adigeni and Khulo villages, that were affected by the natural disaster.
The Georgian Muslims, who settled down in Gorelovka, have arranged a makeshift mosque there. They bought a house, repaired it and invited a mullah.
“We would like to stay here, but it would be hardly possible without the land. Personally I am not fit for going to Turkey for work. It was a good time, when the railway was being constructed here. Although we were not employed in the construction works, but we hired as the guards there.”
In each and every Armenian family here at least one family member leaves for Russia in search of a seasonal or permanent work. Those are mostly men, who go there in summer. They work at the construction sites, build roads and then live on those earnings in winter period.
I have no complaints. I am employed in the construction works, I have 10 heads of livestock and I sell milk. I have a wife and 2 daughters. The only bad thing is that I still don’t have a son, and I wish, I had one, because it’s essential.
I haven’t been anywhere for 10 years already. Earlier, I often went to Russia, to Krasnodar province, for work. I was employed in construction works there 6 months a year. I have a lot of friends in Russia, since I spent at least 5 five years there.
Although there are more job opportunities, but it’s hard to live there, far away from your family, without home-cooked meal.
About 20 men from our village work in Russia nowadays. Whereas earlier, nearly half of the villagers travelled to Russia for work. It no longer makes sense, since money has depreciated. You exchange the sum you’ve earned and theirs is almost nothing left of it. Whereas in the past, you lived on those earnings throughout the winter. I was born here. My father was a driver at the collective farm. It was a good time. My family didn’t lack anything.
My daughters are the school students. They aren’t going to get married yet, since they want to continue their studies. They are fluent in Georgian. One of them won the second place in the Math Olympiad. So, they will support me in future. They will be better than I am, since they will be well-educated. After the school they attend the Georgian language classes, so as not to have any problem finding a good job in future.
My elder daughter wants to study and work in Tbilisi. I’m going to rent an apartment for her and she will move to Tbilisi. When we worked in Russia, we jointly rented an apartment. But sometimes we didn’t have any apartment, we didn’t have anything. So, we had to sleep on the wooden boards, 6-7 men all together. So, it’s much better to live in the family. I hope, my daughters would never live in the same conditions as I lived.
One of the major bird migration corridors passes through the plateau, in Javakheti. Thousands of birds, flying northward in spring and southward in autumn, are crossing this plateau. The local shallow lakes, that are rich in edible planktons and fish, are the perfect place for the waterfowl recreation and recuperation.
Migration is a lengthy and labour-consuming travel that requires plenty of energy. Therefore, the birds start preparing for it in summer, they gain weight and are ready to set out for a trip in autumn. Some of them fly in the daytime (e.g. storks, predators), others – at night (ducks and some Passeriformes).
Bird don’t stay here in winter, because it’s usually chilly here, the lakes freeze up and the food is unreachable.
However, not all the birds leave this area in summer. For many of them it’s the migration end-point. They make nests and raise their younglings. Storks, pelicans, ducks and even cranes (three couples have presumably nested in Javakheti this year) find shelter and food in Javakheti National Park and the adjacent area. A large colony of the Armenian gulls (Larus armenicus) could be found on Madatapa lake. A peninsula, which is turned into an island in summer as a result of increase in the lake water level, provides habitat to more than 10,000 of birds.