This spring I joined the SRAS team and in my new position, I will be developing faculty-led programming throughout our region (Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Baltics, the Balkans, and the Caucasus). The Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – have become increasingly popular destinations for faculty-led programming in the absence of Russia and I will attempt here to describe what it is that makes this region so interesting – and worth studying.
Since first exploring Armenia and Georgia on an SRAS’ ICON program five years ago, I’ve found myself drawn to this small yet diverse region of the world. In those five years that passed, I have lived in Ukraine and Russia, taught English in Uzbekistan, and conducted graduate research on the Aral Sea crisis in Karakalpakstan. The more experience I gained in the post-soviet space, the more I found myself able to articulate what it is that makes each region and country so unique. I was able to “circle back” to the Caucasus this past month and really focus on what the region has to offer in terms of unique perspectives and experiences.
The Caucasus for Teaching Language and the Geopolitics of Language
Many of the groups we host come from Russian departments. Here it is important to address the question on everybody’s mind, which is the degree to which this region is conducive to study of Russian language. We are not speaking about the ability to study in the classroom. We have excellent Russian instructors in Georgia and Armenia. Time abroad, however, is more about putting the language to use outside of the classroom. Here is where the Caucasus are more challenging than, say, Central Asia.
In Central Asia, Russian is still often commonly taught in public schools, openly spoken in the streets, used for listing shop prices in stores, and much more. The political and cultural bonds between Central Asia and Russia remain strong, and the language remains popular there as one that can be economically valuable in terms of running a business or working abroad.
In the Caucasus, a very different situation has evolved. In Armenia, Russian is still taught in some schools, but in Georgia it is not taught at all. In both countries, the shop signs and price tags are mostly printed in the local language (each with a unique alphabet) and Russian-language signage is rare. While in all the Caucasus countries Russian is still the most common second language among the population, this is not likely to remain the case in the coming decades, as the study of Russian is no longer actively encouraged and, in fact, is sometimes actively discouraged as political and cultural bonds are strained.
Thus, while it is possible to strengthen Russian skills in the Caucasus through peer tutoring, organized tours or events in Russian, and many other ways, one of the most powerful lessons that can be learned is that language can be political. There is a certain etiquette in Georgia, for instance, for starting a conversation with a stranger in Russian. I quickly discovered that the best way to approaching conversations with waiters, grocery store clerks, or people I met in coffee shops was to ask first if it was okay to speak in Russian. While many in Tbilisi were happy to converse in Russian, there were also those instances that reminded me of how tense the political atmosphere in Georgia is. There is a plethora of strongly worded anti-Russia graffiti on the streets and while visiting the country this June, the first thought I had when I found myself in a situation where speaking Russian was greeted with hostility and resentment was, what an interesting experience to be able to witness these political and identity conflicts playing out. To quote my colleague, April, this is “geopolitics in action,” and these are valuable experiences for students of Russian, political science, or global studies to see firsthand.
The Caucasus for Teaching About Multicultural Societies
Another value to studying in Georgia is to see firsthand the diversity that the Russian Empire and the USSR once held. Indeed, studying the Caucasus themselves requires a nearly mind-bending acceptance of how much history, complexity, and diversity can be packed into a relatively small geographic space.
A nation that sits on the edge of many powerful historic empires, Georgia is a testament to cultural, religious and linguistic preservation despite their history of being surrounded or occupied by much larger neighbors. When we zoom in closer to analyze the conflicts that exist within the borders of the country, identity grows even more complex, as different ethnic groups live alongside and interact with one another. For example, despite the anti-Russia sentiment found in Tbilisi, there is a sizable Russian population living there and speaking Russian. The more time you spend in Georgia, the more you realize just how diverse and intricate the history of the nation is. Different ethnic groups such as the Svans, Mingrelians and Adjarians, who all identify as Georgian, populate different regions of the nation. A seemingly homogeneous community from the outside, once on the ground, it quickly becomes apparent that there is as much diversity within the nation’s borders as there is surrounding it. For example, while Georgia is labeled a Christian country, and it has an ancient and deep cultural tradition rooted in Christianity, many Adjarians, who live on the black Sea close to the border with Turkey, practice Sunni Islam. This dichotomy between muslim and christian worshipers reflects a period of Ottoman conquest and rule over the region of Adjara, and speaks to Georgia’s complicated history with its neighbors.
The Caucasus for Teaching About Post-Colonial Identity Building
Whereas peeling back the layers of Georgian identity reveals many differing groups of people, their neighbor to the south, Armenia, tells an equally fascinating, yet vastly different story. My first impression of Armenia after coming from Georgia was the strong sense of national pride, and homogeneity among the Armenian people. There was an overwhelming sense of unification and cultural understanding among every Armenian I met. Given their long history of being oppressed and subjugated by their surrounding neighbors, this national mindset makes sense. The Armenian Genocide was a little over one hundred years ago, yet the trauma it caused is still felt by Armenians all over the world, and the memory of it continues to loom large when visiting the country. However, it’s important to remember that this small yet beautiful nation is more than their worst tragedy.
While in Armenia, equally important to understanding culture are religion, cuisine, language and of course, the people. Armenian’s pride for their nation, their national traditions and religion, and their language was evident in every excursion. For example, a highlight of my time there was our visit to Matenadaran, the manuscript museum. This impressive collection houses numerous ancient Armenian texts, as well as preserved manuscripts in foreign languages. However, the focus was clearly on the Armenian language, showcasing the beauty of the alphabet, and also the cultural significance of preserving the Armenian language despite centuries of Ottoman suppression.
There is no short supply of fascinating material to study in the Caucasus. Religion, food, geopolitics, history, and identity all warrant deep exploration. The Caucasus are not Russia. Taking students to Tbilisi is a completely different experience from taking students to St. Petersburg. While Russian language, culture, and politics have had their impact on Georgia and Armenia, these nations are beginning to form their independent historical narratives, and reshaping their historical identities in a modern context. As nations such as Armenia and Georgia develop and assert their independent languages and cultures, students have a unique opportunity to witness post-colonial development and identity building as it unfolds.