Functioning of the Abkhazian Language in Education

The Abkhaz is a new "written language". The founder of the first Abkhazian alphabet was the Russian general and linguist Pyottr Uslar.  Hitherto and after it (up to the twenties of the 20th century), Abkhazians had been using Georgian language in tuition.

Among the functional spheres of any written language one of the most important is education. However, the Abkhazian literary language in the course of its existence was not used at all in this sphere or its functioning was limited. Unfortunately, currently the utilization of the Abkhazian language in tuition is also restricted.

In 1810, when the Abkhazian princedom still maintained nominal independence, it was Georgian priest Ioane Ioseliani - personal spiritual mentor of the Abkhazian prince, who raised the issue of who put forward the issue of using the Abkhazian language in education. In accordance with his project, in a village of Likhni near the residence of the Abkhazian prince, seminary was planned to be opened where the Abkhazian children would have learned their mother tongue.  The proposal was supported by the Abkhazian prince but the Russian authorities declined this initiative.  

On May 30, 1851, the Holy Synod of the Russian church adopted a resolution on the establishment of the church school in Abkhazia. A month and a half earlier before the adoption of this resolution on April 15, the dean (director) of the educational institution was appointed Georgian hieromonk (later the overseer) Alexander Okropiridze who made an immense contribution to the promotion of Christianity among the Abkhazians and organization of spiritual education. The mentioned four-year school began functioning in the village of Likhni from 25 September, 1852. There was studied catechism, Russian language, Georgian language (civil and ecclesiastic), calligraphy in Russian, calligraphy in Georgian, Arithmetic, Russian Grammar, Georgian Grammar, chants, geography, and the exercises in the Abkhazian [Saint...2006: 11-17]. This was the first case in history to introduce the study of the Abkhazian language.

The list of the pupils enrolled in Likhni church school that was filled in by A.Okropiridze's hand dated January 27, 1853,  has come down to us. From this document it becomes known that there were a total of 11 pupils in this school. In our opinion six pupils of them must have been of Abkhazian background: Spiridon Bzhania from Ilori, Tevdore Lakoba from Souksu (Likhni), David Marshania from Gup, Tevdore Lakoba (from Likhni), Mose Eshba from Jirkhva, David the son of Sosran Marghania (his birth place is not indicated but it is mentioned that he was "tatar", i.e. Muslim but Muslim Georgians did not reside in Abkhazia), Philipe Lakerbaia from Otkhara [Saint...2006: 70-71]. Among these children A.Okropiridze maintained S.Bzhania on his own [Saint...2006: 68-69]. There exists a notice of May 29, 1867 concerning those eight pupils whose tuition fees were covered personally by A.Okropiridze. They appeared to be: Giorgi Marshania, Giorgi Eshba, Petre Iaskua, Petre Pilia, Petre Antia, Nestor Grigolia, David Gvilia, Grigol Teblia [Saint...2006:36, 141].

The church school of Likhni operated until October of 1855.

A.Okropiridze was an initiator of opening a school for Abkhazian children in the village of Ilori and also the head of this school for which he was awarded with so-called samxreuli on May 8, 1852 [Saint...2006:11]. Thanks to the special concern of the Bishop Alexander Okropiridze, the first Abkhazian Christian clergymen, well-known later, were brought up. They were Ivane (Ioane)Gegia, Ioane Argun, Petre Pilia and others [Saint...2006:36, 34]. Of them I.Gegia participated (1862) in the work of the Commission lead by general I.Bartholomei who composed the first Abkhaz alphabetical book.

The concrete material presented here testifies to the truth of the conclusion made by Georgian scholar J.Gamakharia: "It is not an overstatement to state that Bishop Alexander laid the foundation to the literacy among the Abkhazs" [Saint...2006:37]. Unfortunately, today the outstanding contribution made by this public man to the Abkhazs has been forgotten.

 In 1862, the Commission was established in Tbilisi by the "Society for the Restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus" to compose the first Abkhaz textbook for church schools. Russian general I. Bartholomei was appointed as Chair of the Commission and its members were: a Georgian D.Purtseladze and a Russian V.Trigorov. The Commission was assisted by Abkhazian public men: the above mentioned priest Ioane Gegia, warrant officer Giorgi Kurtsikidze, nobleman Simon Eshba.  Abkhazian text material of the textbook composed by the Commission was checked and edited by Hasan Marghania, Konstantine the son of Giorgi Sharvashidze and Grigol, the son of Alexander Sharvashidze. The textbook was published in Tbilisi in 1865. The Abkhaz reading material in it was translated into Russian and Georgian languages [The History...1986: 12-13].

In 1866 in several parish schools of Abkhazian villages the education process was conducted in native language that naturally was a positive fact, but in 1884 "The Society for the Restoration of Orthodoxy in the Caucasus" banned the learning in Abkhazian language at all and introduced Russian as a language of tuition in the existed schools.

In the same 1866 in Tbilisi there was published "Brief History of Religion" for Abkhazian parish schools in which the text material was presented in Abkhazian and Russian languages. The Abkhazian translations were performed by Ioane Gegia, David the son of Kats Marghania and Giorgi Kurtsikidze [The History ...1986:14].

In 1892 in Tbilisi there was published the second textbook in Abkhazian language. Its authors were Dmitri Gulia - the future founder and classic of Abkhazian literature and his Georgian teacher Konstantine Machavariani. The book included the prayers translated from Russian, "Ten Commandments" and "Credo". In the preface it was indicated that the textbook was designed for the Abkhazian children to be fascinated with their mother tongue and make it easy for them to study Russian language [The History ...1986:14].

Of course, the opening of church and secular schools in the middle of the 19th century was also an important event because the Abkhazian children got an opportunity to receive an early schooling but in these schools instruction language was Russian and Abkhazian had only the function of auxiliary language - it had to help the thorough study of Russian. This function of the Abkhazian language is clearly seen in the preface of the above mentioned textbook compiled by D.Gulia and K.Machavariani. Besides this, to receive a full education in Abkhazian language was impossible due to the fact that there had been no literature in this language by that time which specimens could be used during the learning process. In addition to this, the authorities were not interested in the conduction of educational process in Abkhazian language at all. Moreover, tsarist Russia tried to accelerate the Russification of the Abkhazian people and this policy was conducted openly by the representatives of the government and its ideologists. For example, from the formation of the Abkhazian writing up to the tens of the twentieth century Abkhazian language was practically rarely used in tuition by P.Uslar. From 1864 when Russia finally conquered the Principality of Abkhazia, the Russian authorities themselves tried to organize the study in Abkhazian language and in 1865, a year after the issuing of the first Abkhazian textbook, parish schools were established in several Abkhazian villages for Abkhazian children where the language of instruction was Russian but Abkhazian was also taught.

In these schools the study of Abkhazian language was not of priority: based on the Russian script Abkhazian literary language was regarded as an adjuvant to study Russian. Besides this, the ideologues of Russification aimed at separation of Abkhazian people from Georgian cultural space (before this the Abkhazians studied Georgian in the families and used it in official paperwork, church service and cultural spheres). The Russian ideologists and authorities named several reasons due to which it was impossible to conduct educational process in Abkhazian language:

  1. The organization of secular and ecclesiastic education was  not possible because there were no academic books in this language;
  2.  The Abkhazians were not Georgians and therefore, it was inadmissible to continue the education and church service in Georgian language.
  3. The Abkhazians had to study Russian so well as to finally forget their mother tongue and became Russified.


For example, one of the ideologists of Russification, Evgeni Veidenbaum wrote: "Abkhazian language which does not have script and literature of its own is, of course, doomed for disappearance in more or less near future. The question is as to which language can substitute it. It is obvious that it should be Russian not Georgian language that implants cultural ideas and terms in (Abkhazian) population. Therefore I believe that creation of Abkhazian language should be not a goal but means for weakening of demand for Georgian language through church and school and a weapon for its (Georgian) substitution by the state language (Russian)" [Gamakharia...1997:720].

E.Veidenbaum purposely did not attach any importance to the fact of existence of the Abkhazian script by that time. Besides this, he let slip that Abkhazians preserved the traditional demand for knowledge of Georgian language.

In such circumstances, it was an act of heroism on the part of those Abkhaz and Georgian public men who still tried to implement the teaching of Abkhazian language in the schools established with great efforts in the Abkhazian villages of the region. In this respect of particular importance is the contribution of the Abkhazian educationists: Toma Eshba who was considered to be the "grandfather of Abkhazian education", Dmitri Gulia, Andrei Chochua, Dmitri Marghania, Samson Chanba, Anton Chukbar,Simon Basaria, Nikolay Pateifha, etc., as well as their Georgian associates and companions: Konstantine Machavariani, Petre Charaia, Nikoloz Janashia, Mariam (Masho) Dadiani, etc. For example, Petre Charaia who was a brilliant linguist and author of remarkable researches devoted to the history and structure of Abkhazian and Georgian languages, on the issues of Abkhazian folklore and ethnology, throughout all his adult life taught Abkhazian and Georgian languages to Abkhazian children residing in the village of Eshkit.

  In 1909,  an Abkhazian educator, Andrei Chochua published, "Abkhazian alphabet" compiled on the basis of pedagogical principles developed by Iakob Gogebashvili, in which along with original Abkhazian children's texts several stories from "Ruskoe slovo" (Russian word) translated by I.Gogebashvili were introduced. The merit of this book was that it followed Iakob's pedagogical principles according to which, the study of mother tongue shouldn't be a minor thing, but mother tongue should help the pupils in perception of the world, inspire the wish to learn, creative ability, raise cultural level and foreign language must be learned only when the pupil have essential knowledge of mother tongue and the influence of foreign language would not interfere. This principle of Iakob contributes to the survival of linguistic and ethnic identity of the nation.

It is also worth mentioning that I.Gogebashvili concerned about the improvement of learning in Abkhazian language. He backed the proposal put forward by the Georgian bishop of Abkhazia Kirion (Sadzaglishvili) about the necessity to conduct study and divine service in Abkhazian language. In 1907, Iakob wrote about Abkhazian language: "As an independent language it indeed has a right to its own church service, its script and its own national literature". He called on Sukhumi Georgians to assist Abkhazian public figures in creation of school textbooks of the Abkhazian language and in case of difficulties with publication of such books, to send the texts to Tbilisi, where the Society for Spreading Literacy among the Georgians, member of the board of which was Gogebashvili, would pay for printing of those  books [Gamakharia, 2005: 473-474]. We suppose that it was this proposal of I.Gogebashvili that inspired the Abkhazian educators and the response to this appeal must have been the publication of such book as "Abkhazian book for Abkhazian schools" compiled by a group of authors in Tbilisi in 1908, the title and content of which clearly indicated that the authors wanted to establish not Russian schools with elements of learning language as it had been before, but proper Abkhazian national schools.

It is irony of fate that today Abkhazian separatists tagged the bishop Kirion and I.Gogebashvili as the greatest "enemies of Abkhazians" and "assimilators". From the view point of spreading the Abkhazian language in educational sphere the most important event was the establishment of pedagogical seminary in Sokhumi and inviting D.Gulia in Abkhazia as a teacher. It's true in this seminary too Abkhazian language had the function of auxiliary discipline, but D.Gulia managed to excite the student's interest with native language, which was favored after the restoration of Georgian independence, in 1919, the creation of Abkhazian literary circle which published the manuscript magazine "Sharpietsva" ("The Morning Star"). The future Abkhazian writers participated in the work of the circle and published their first novels: Iva Khogonia, Mushni Ahashba, Dzadz Darsalia, Mikha Lakrba, Shamil Khokerba, etc.[Abkhazian...1986: 45]. D.Gulia the editor of the first newspaper   in Abkhazian language "Apsny" established in the same 1919 appealed to Abkhazian people to protect native language and receive good education in it [Abkhazian...1986: 43]. It seems he believed that in independent Georgia it would be possible to receive good education in Abkhazian language. Unfortunately Georgia soon had lost its independence and the soviet power was established.

If we want to show the soviet educational system objectively, we should recognize that the main achievement of the system was the eradication of mass illiteracy and making the secondary education compulsory, which raised the cultural level of population. However, we can't say the same in relation to the education in national languages. From this viewpoint the languages spread in the Soviet Union were divided onto several categories:

1.      The only really privileged language was Russian, which knowledge was obligatory for each citizen irrespective of nationality. At Russian schools all over the country each subject was entirely studied only in Russian language (except one of the west European languages).

2.      In the republics of the union the studies in the languages of the titular nations proceeded in schools of two categories: in national schools of some republics (Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Baltic republics) the language of study was titular nation languages and in the rest republics ( for example, 5 countries of middle Asia) the schools were pseudo national and the primary education in them proceeded in national language and from the 5th grade the majority of the subjects except humanitarian subjects was taught in Russian;

3.      The schools located in the places of compact settlement of national minorities and other autonomies were also named "national schools" but in them too the primary education was in national language and from the 5th grade the majority of the subjects except humanitarian subjects were taught in Russian.

The school in Abkhazia that is called Abkhazian till nowadays belonged to the third category. There Abkhazian students received education in native language only during the first four years of academic year and at high schools the language of study was Russian and a child was taught only Abkhazian language and literature in their native language. This means that actually the so-called Abkhazian school was Russian language school with the elements of study of native language that aimed at denationalization of the Abkhazians and Russification.

In Abkhazian separatist literature it is considered a terrible accusation to prove as if the government of the Soviet Georgia aimed at assimilation of the Abkhazians with Georgians and to reach this purpose in 1945 remade Abkhazian schools into Georgian schools and banned to study Abkhazian language and literature in them. This accusation distorts the reality. In reality things were quite different:

On January 24, 1938 the organizational bureau of the Central committee of the Communist Party adopted a resolution on reformation of the educational system. It was written in the resolution:

a)      To transform special national schools (German, Finnish, Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian, Greek, Izhorian, etc ) into the soviet schools of ordinary type, also to abolish special national branches existed at ordinary soviet schools;

b)      ... it is necessary that the reorganization of special national schools be happen by means of their transferring the soviet textbooks  of ordinary type and educational programs, to the language of relevant republic or by starting to teach in Russian language..."[Papaskiri,2003:19].

This resolution implied the transferring of learning in the so-called Abkhazian schools into Georgian language. As has been justly pointed out by the scholar D.Jojua, the then government of Georgian soviet republic was very cautious and delayed the reform of the so-called Abkhazian schools [Jojua,2007:327], but finally the step was done, because Moscow  wouldn't tolerate this. It is also essential that from 1945 the study of Abkhazian language and literature in the so-called Abkhazian schools was not annulled, which is proved by the following facts:

 1. The Abkhazian writer Bagrat Shinkuba recalls: "In that year [1945-T.G] I returned to Sokhumi, started to work at the Abkhazian institute. I researched the issue of the structure of the Abkhazian word, made remarks on putting stress in Abkhazian language. I started constant recording of Abkhazian folklore, participated in the compilation of selections from Abkhazian literature, wrote and publish the grammar for II and III grades" [Shinkuba, 1989: 540]. Of course, if in 1945 the study of Abkhazian language and literature was banned at schools neither compilation nor publication of school textbooks in Abkhazian language and selections of Abkhazian literature would be permissible. It should be also mentioned that Abkhazian writer studied in Tbilisi up to 1945, at post graduate of the Institute of Ethnography of the Georgian Academy of Sciences and later defended candidate dissertation on the structure of Abkhazian complex root words.

2. In 1947-1953 an Abkhazian poet Aleksei Dzhonua taught Abkhazian language and literature at the Sokhumi State Pedagogical Institute [Abkhazian...1986:260]. This fact also evidences that in the 1947-1953 there was a demand for training the teachers of Abkhazian language and literature, and thus, the study of this subject was not annulled.

3. From the fiftieth of the 20-th century till 1922 around 70 Abkhazian students studied at the Department of the Caucasian languages of the Faculty of Humanities at the Tbilisi State University, who attended the course of lectures in Abkhazian language delivered by the biggest expert of this language, academician Q. Lomtatidze, under the leadership of whom the dissertation in linguistics was defended by the majority of Abkhazian linguists currently lived and worked ( L.Chkadua, Sh.Aristava,V.Konjaria, S.Amichba, V.Amichba, Z.Avidzba, N.Arshba, E.Kilba, L.Hagba, A.Khetsia, etc.) If Abkhazian language was really banned in the fifties, then a question arises as to how the Abkhazian students and post graduate were delivered the course of lectures in this language.

Thus, it is obvious that separatist's statement on the prohibition of study Abkhazian language and literature at schools is not true. Actually from 1945 Georgian language substituted Russian study Abkhazian language and literature at schools remained at the same level as it had been up to 1945. In this respect the things didn't change after 1954 when Russian language returned its function in the so-called Abkhazian school.

Unfortunately, the state of teaching Abkhazian language and literature was improved neither in 1993 after the liberation of Abkhazian, nor in 2008 after the recognition of Abkhazia's "independence". In modern so-called Abkhazian schools the study in Abkhazian language operates in the first four grades and from the fifth grade all subjects except several Humanitarian subjects are taught again in Russian that endangers not only Abkhazian language, but the future identity of Abkhazian ethnos.


The History …
The History of Abkhazian literature. Book I.Sokhumi. (In Abkhazian).
Gamakharia J.
Abkhazia and Orthodoxy (first century-1921).Tbilisi.
Papaskiri Z.
Historical Studies. Vol.VI. Tbilisi (in Georgian). The myth about Georgian’s try to disorder Abkhazian’s individual ethnocultur
Shinkuba B.
Compositions in four volumes. Vol.3. Sokhumi (in Abkhazian).
Jojua D.
Abkhazia in the epoch of Soviet socialism. 1938-1990. Essays from the history of Georgia. Tbilisi (in Georgian)
Gamakharia J., Gogia B.
Abkhazia- historical province of Georgia.Tbilisi (in Russian).
Saint Alexander (Okropiridze) the Bishop and Abkhazia. Investigation and commentary by J.Gamakharia. Tbilisi.