Ethnic groups in Georgia #16 ? Estonians

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at
Tue Jun 10 09:11:13 UTC 2008

Tom Trier and George Tarkhan-Mouravi
Georgian Times , June 9

This week?s article in the series of the wealth of ethnic groups in  
Georgia features the Estonians. The materials on the ethnic groups are  
provided by the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI) and the  
Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and are extracted from the book,  
Georgia ? An Ethno-Political Handbook by Tom Trier & George  
Tarkhan-Mouravi. With support from the foreign ministries of  
Switzerland, Norway and Denmark, the book will be published by the end  
of this year in a Georgian and an English edition.

Total population: 1,100,000.

Settlement in Georgia: Georgia proper: Tbilisi and other urban areas.

Abkhazia (compact settlement in Salme village (Gagra district) and  
scattered in the villages of Sulevo (Gagra), Estonka (Gulripshi), and  

Kin State: Estonia (921,000 Estonians). Other countries of settlement:  
Brazil, Russian Federation, USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland.

Who, What, Where?

The Estonians is a Finno-Ugric people with its kin state, Estonia, on  
the north eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Estonians call themselves  
eesti (estoneli in Georgian), and have lived in Georgia since the mid  
19th century, where as a result of Russian colonial policies, a few  
hundred Estonian families resettled to Abkhazia. The main part of the  
Estonians still living in the region, left Abkhazia during and after  
the civil war in 1992-93, though several hundred Estonians still  
reside in the remaining Estonian villages of Abkhazia. A small number  
of Estonians or persons of Estonian origin can also be found in  
Tbilisi and in other urban areas largely living in mixed,  
Georgian-Estonian families.

A Bit of History

The resettlement of Estonians within the expanding Russian Empire  
began in the 1850s. Over the following half century, dozens of  
Estonian settlements were established in North and Central Russia,  
Siberia, the Russian Far East, in Crimea and in the Caucasus. The  
resettlement was part of the Russian imperial policies of  
colonization, and included impoverished peasants from Estonia along  
with peasants from other groups such as Germans, Bulgarians and  
Moldovans, who were willing to resettle for economic reasons. In the  
peripheries of the empire, it was a strategic aim to encourage the  
settlement of groups considered loyal to the Tsar and diminish the  
numbers of the often unruly populations in newly annexed territories.  
In the Caucasus, Estonians were mostly settled in Abkhazia, after the  
large scale expulsions of Abkhazians in 1864 and 1877-78. The first  
Estonian dwellings appeared in Abkhazia in 1882 when Estonian peasants  
who initially had resettled from Estonia to Samara province  
(guberniya) in central Russia in the 1850-60s. These settlers  
established a new village, Estonka, south of Gulripshi. Some Estonians  
also settled with Germans in Upper and Lower Lindava (Lindau) near  
Sukhumi. In 1884 and 1885, two more settlements, Salme and Sulevo,  
were founded by peasants (from the Estonian region of Harjumaa) north  
of Gagra near the Psou river, adjacent to Moldovan and Armenian  
villages. Some Estonians also settled in the village of Lezelidze,  
while Estonian settlements were also founded in Punase-Lageda  
(Krasnaya Polyana) and Eesti-Aiake (Esto-Sadok) across the Psou in  
today?s Krasnodar krai of Russia. According to 1886 data, Estonian  
villagers in Abkhazia comprised of 638 individuals, and 608 persons  
according to the 1897 census.

Upon their arrival to the new colonies, Estonian settlers faced a  
variety of problems before they gradually got used to the new  
environment and their new neighbors of many different ethnicities. One  
major problem was that of the language barrier. The main language of  
inter-ethnic communication in Abkhazia up until the 1920s was Turkish,  
and Estonians did not easily adopt the new language. Difficulties  
concerning religion also existed, since the Lutheran Church, to which  
the Estonians belonged, had not been established in Abkhazia at that  
time. Malaria and other diseases also affected the settlers. In  
addition, the new arrivals faced problems with the growing of crops in  
their new environment; initially Estonians tried to grow Northern  
European crops such as beetroots and potatoes, which appeared  
unsuitable under the weather conditions in Abkhazia. Gradually, they  
adopted local crops such as tobacco, grapes, hazelnuts etc.

According to Soviet census data, there were 871 Estonians in 1926, of  
which 779 in Abkhazia alone. In 1939, there were 2,498 Estonians in  
the Georgian SSR as a whole, an increase mostly explained by the  
influx of specialists and skilled workers that also characterised  
other European ethnicities. The figure gradually declined and in 1979,  
the number of Estonians had been reduced to 1,625 persons. However,  
the 1980s saw an increase and by 1989, there were 2,316 Estonians in  
Georgia of which approximately 1,500 in Abkhazia, and most other  
Estonians living in other cities of Georgia, especially in Tbilisi.  
Due to the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia, most Estonians have left the  
region, today constituting 446 persons according to the 2003 census  
conducted by the de facto Abkhaz authorities. In Georgia proper, there  
were as few as 59 Estonians according to the 2002 census, mostly  
living in Tbilisi.

Like the case of most other minorities, Estonians emigrated from  
Georgia throughout the 1990?s as a result of the political turmoil and  
economic decline in Georgia. Hundreds of Estonians left the country,  
and most of them moved to their kin state, Estonia. Worst affected was  
the Estonian community in Abkhazia, some 1,500 persons in numbers,  
directly facing the consequences of the civil war.

As a result of the war, the Estonian villages of Upper and Lower  
Lindava were totally vacated and destroyed. The Estonian communities  
in Salme, Sulevo, Estonka and Sukhumi survived the civil war, but in  
subsequent years Estonians have migrated in large numbers. There are  
still a community in Salme. After the war and with the departure of  
Estonians, the demography has changed in the historically Estonian  
villages. Many Armenians, who fled Ochamchira/Ochamchire or Gal/i  
districts moved to the northwest and settled in houses in Salme  
vacated by Estonians. In total, it is estimated there are less than  
300 Estonians left in Abkhazia, mostly elderly, who do not wish to  
resettle to Estonia, while there have also been a few cases of return  
migration from Estonia to Abkhazia.

Culture, Language and Economic Issues

Most Estonians in Tbilisi and other bigger cities faced a full  
linguistic assimilation in Soviet times and became first language  
speakers of either Russian or Georgian. In Abkhazia, however, in spite  
of the fact that in Soviet period Russian became the main language of  
education, Estonians preserved their native language while at the same  
time learning Russian. In Tbilisi, Estonian is spoken only by those  
who have arrived in Georgia relatively recently, i.e. mostly women  
married to Georgian men. Both in Abkhazia and Tbilisi many families  
have preserved their original Estonian family names, while others due  
to mixed marriages have adopted Georgian, Russian or in a few cases  
also Armenian family names.

There is no governmentally supported language training in Estonian in  
Georgia proper or in Abkhazia. However, in Salme, ten Estonian pupils  
are taught at the primary school and two teachers in the village  
receive supplementary teacher?s allowances from the Estonian consulate  
in Sochi for providing lessons in Estonian. The school in Salme also  
receives textbooks in Estonian from the consulate. There are no  
Estonian language courses in Sulevo village, though some pupils  
periodically attend language trainings in Salme. In addition, 28  
pupils in Estonka and Sukhumi receive private tuition in the language  
with support from the consulate. In recent years, several Estonians  
from Estonia have visited their relatives in Abkhazia.

Religiously, the Estonians are traditionally Evangelic-Lutheran. While  
largely, Protestantism was banned in Georgia during the Soviet era up  
until the beginning of the 1980?s, some Estonians have again become  
active members of Lutheran congregations, and a few Estonians attend  
ceremonies in the Lutheran Church in Tbilisi, while Estonians in  
Sukhumi to a limited extent attend services in the Lutheran Church  
there. In the village of Salme in Abkhazia, Estonians maintains a  
small Lutheran church. Largely, Estonians in Georgia, as in Estonia,  
are not strongly religious. In Tbilisi, only few Estonians attend  
ceremonies in the Lutheran Church and there are no religious  
activities organized in the Estonian language.

Many Estonians or persons of Estonian origin, living in Tbilisi are  
unified under the umbrella of the Estonian community organization  
established in 1995 and named after distinguished community leader,  
the late Juta Palm-Bedia. The organization today consists of about 60  
members, though only a few of them are of Estonians background, while  
others are non-Estonian family members and relatives. Mostly, the  
Tbilisi Estonians arrived in Soviet period, largely as young woman who  
married to Georgian men. Due to financial problems, the Estonian  
community organization in recent years has been unable to actively  
organize cultural activities, but a few particular committed members  
have contributed to the development of Georgian-Estonian cultural  
relations. Particularly noteworthy is Juta Palm-Bedia (1944-1996), who  
translated numerous Georgian literary works into Estonian and visa  
versa. Her most important work is a translation of Shota Rustaveli?s  
?The Knight in the Panther?s Skin? into Estonian, published in 1992.  
Estonians in Abkhazia also venerate the important Estonian writer  
Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878-1940), who spent over a year at a  
sanatorium in the Estonian village Eesti-Aiaki (now in Russia across  
the Psou River) in 1911-12 after he contracted tuberculosis. There is  
a memorial house for Hansen Tammsaare in the village.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list