FLAS Fellow Benjamin Wheeler Starts a Radio Show in Tbilisi, Georgia

Benjamin Wheeler

REEEC FLAS Fellow Benjamin Wheeler (PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology) has spent the 2016-2017 academic year in Tbilisi, Georgia, studying Georgian and Anthropology at Tbilisi State University. While attending classes at a local university, he has started an English-language radio show on the university’s radio channel (GIPA FM 94.3) called “Caucasus All Frequency,” which plays music from the Caucasus region and explores “the many meanings and unique stories behind the music.”

Check out Ben’s show at: https://soundcloud.com/radiogipa/caucasus-all-frequency

Current Events Roundtable: “State Capacity at the Border: Relinquishing or Reinforcing Contentious Border Regions”

For the February 2nd roundtable discussion, “State Capacity at the Border: Relinquishing or Reinforcing Contentious Border Regions,” we were joined by Dr. Ralph Clem (Professor Emeritus of Geography at Florida International University), Dr. Erik Herron (Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University), and our very own Dr. Cynthia Buckley (Professor of Sociology and REEEC affiliate), who presented their current research on the topic. Using Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and Kazakhstan as case studies, Buckley, Clem, and Herron took an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the issues of elections, health care, and state capacity within the Eurasia region.

State capacity, as noted by Dr. Buckley, is a very obtuse conceptualization—so how do we operationalize state capacity? There are a few key things to think about when defining state capacity: for example, the ways in which states, as actors, strive to maintain internal control and stability, particularly when their territorial integrity is under threat. In other words, can a state protect its territory? State capacity isn’t simply the ability to protect; it is also defined by the extent to which a state can implement its goals (to enact and realize legislation, social programs, etc.) and to overcome obstacles and opposition. State capacity is also marked by two key features—governance (the ability of the state to govern and realize its goals) and legitimacy (the acceptance of state authority). When thinking about state capacity, many scholars tend to focus on extractive and coercive capacity (e.g., the ability of a state to collect taxes and extract resources from its populace). Buckley, Clem, and Herron take it a step further—beyond extractive and coercive capacity, they consider the question of a state’s regenerative and distributional power, especially when governing (or attempting to govern) a heterogeneous population that may or may not view the state as legitimate. With that in mind, Buckley, Clem, and Herron focus on the ability of a state to hold legitimate elections and the ability of the state to provide healthcare and wellbeing.

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Dr. Erik Herron, whose research focuses on comparative electoral systems, led the discussion on state capacity and election administration in Ukraine. In terms of state capacity, elections serve as a test of a democratic system’s ability to demonstrate what a democracy can accomplish. Dr. Herron challenged us to think about several things—how does a state mobilize tens of thousands of people and train them to successfully manage elections? What are the impediments to conducting and managing elections? How does a state hold elections in crisis conditions? As most of us know, large swathes of Eastern Ukraine (namely the Donbass) are currently embroiled in an armed conflict between the Ukrainian state and pro-Russian separatists. Unsurprisingly, this poses many problems for conducting legitimate elections and making them accessible to people affected by the conflict. In Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, many polling stations weren’t operational during the 2014 parliamentary elections—essentially disenfranchising countless Ukrainians. The conflict in the Donbass has clearly threatened Ukrainian state capacity; however, the Ukrainian state has also demonstrated an ability to contain the conflict to the Donbass, and was able to conduct elections successfully and legitimately in regions unaffected by the conflict.

Providing another vantage onto state capacity, Dr. Cynthia Buckley focused her discussion on state capacity and health. More specifically, health is meant as the extent to which a basic level of healthcare is available to the population. The issue of health is particularly interesting and complicated in border regions. As noted by Dr. Buckley, borders don’t mean anything to contagion and disease—epidemics can spread easily and rapidly across borders, and into neighboring states. More importantly, border populations tend to be unique. People living in border regions may have transnational identities (and may travel back and forth between neighboring states), or they may have different ethnic, gender, and age compositions than people living in non-border regions. In terms of healthcare, people living in border regions may travel outside of their state of residence to seek medical treatment. For example, people living along the Russian border in Kazakhstan are more likely to travel to Russia and see Russian doctors and go to Russian polyclinics, whereas people living in Astana or Almaty would seek healthcare within Kazakhstan. Dr. Buckley frames the issue of health in terms of metrics, specifically input (provision of clinics, doctors, etc.) and outcome (life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.) These metrics can help shed light on a very important question: are regions at the border disadvantaged in terms of healthcare? In the same vein, how do people in border region experience health provision, how do they perceive the quality of these provisions, and do these factors influence their views on state legitimacy?

Wrapping up the discussion, Dr. Ralph Clem presented us with a geographer’s perspective, asking the question of what it means to be in a particular place and how that affects your life. In the context of Ukraine, it makes a difference whether you’re living in Kyiv or whether you’re living in the Donbass. Geographers tend to talk about two things: scale and location, both of which influence what kind of data can be extracted. Scale can drastically change the overall picture of a place. For example, on a global scale, the United States has an infant mortality rate of 6.0 (which is good). But if you go down to the state level, Alabama has an infant mortality rate of 8.7 (which is not so good). Going even further down, Macon County, Alabama has a worse infant mortality rate than Sri Lanka. In other words, scale matters. But location is equally important, especially when thinking about border regions. Living in a border region can affect all aspects of a person’s life—it can affect whether or not you have access to elections, whether or not you have access to healthcare, and whether or not the state is capable of providing these services.

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a first-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, specifically issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights (particularly LGBT rights) in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

Georgian Alpinism and Soviet Tourism at the Edge of Empire

Benjamin Bamberger (PhD Candidate in History) was a 2015-2016 American Research Institute of the South Caucasus (ARISC) Graduate Fellow. Below he shares his preliminary findings and his experience of conducting dissertation research in Georgia. Originally posted in the 2015-2016 ARISC Member Newsletter, no. 7, pages 12-13:


My dissertation examines the role of alpinism and other forms of touring in the construction of national identities and national space in Soviet Georgia. In particular, I focus on alpinism as a key site for the contestation and consolidation of ideas about the Georgian nation and Georgian people, between both Russian and Georgian intellectuals and between Georgian intellectuals and the mountainous populations within Georgia at this time. Georgian alpinism began in 1923 with the first ascent of Kazbegi (known locally as mq’invarts’veri) under the leadership of Georgian mathematician Giorgi Nikoladze, which marked both the first major Soviet summit and the beginning of a dedicated Georgian alpinist community.

In the pre-war period, Georgian alpinists were an integral part of the burgeoning Soviet alpinist movement and accomplished many of the first victories of Soviet alpinism.Yet, while the Georgian alpinist community became more closely integrated with Soviet sports and tourism institutions, the goals of Georgian alpinists often remained more nationally focused, causing conflict between prominent Georgian alpinists and officials in Moscow well into the 1950s. Such conflict was exacerbated by the centralization of control and resources in Moscow, and by the continued use of Orientalizing stereotypes by Russian alpinists and tourists during their travels to the Caucasus.

Relying on archival materials, newspapers, periodicals, and books from both Tbilisi and Moscow, my research examines the ways that Georgian and Russian alpinists had conflicting conceptions of Georgia as a space and different understandings of the proper relationship with local mountainous peoples. Ultimately, my research explores the limits of Soviet anti- imperialism and the complicated ways that the Soviet project was committed to supporting forms of national autonomy while never truly escaping a belief in the “backwardness” of non-Russian peoples.

Due to the generous support of ARISC, I was able to extend my research in Tbilisi by two months where I continued to focus on print materials located at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia. There, I examined relevant books, journals, and newspapers from the period of my research (1920’s-1950s). Although my work plan had a neat delineation of reading newspapers in February and books in March, in reality both months contained significant research in both types of sources as citations from one type of source would often lead me to another.

Working this way allowed me to maximize the number of sources I was able to examine and prioritize those that were most important for Georgian alpinists during the decades of my research. One of my central research questions concerned the relationship between Georgian alpinists in Tbilisi and their counterparts in the mountainous regions like Svaneti or Khevi. Initially, I expected to find a form of “nested orientalism” — in short, that Tbilisi-based alpinists would see their regional counterparts as more primitive and backwards and in need of cultural development in a way that mirrored Russian discourses about backwardness in the Caucasus more generally.

However, my research has shown that not only was this not the case, but in fact the opposite was true. From the very beginning of Georgian alpinism in the 1920s, Georgian alpinists from Tbilisi saw the mountainous populations as equal partners in their endeavors and often made a point to include local people in their expeditions. In many instances, they explicitly rejected the Orientalizing impulses of Russian tourists, alpinists, or researchers.

The result was a productive partnership between Tbilisi and the mountainous regions that led to the development of large cadres of local alpinists, especially in Svaneti. It is clear that such collaboration was part of a Georgian nation- building project that helped to better connect places like Svaneti to the Georgian nation and which helped to lay claim to the mountainous regions as inherently Georgian. But this partnership also caused a number of conflicts within the larger Soviet alpinist community based in Moscow, which sought to develop alpinism among workers in the trade unions and which continued to conceptualize places like Svaneti as separate from the larger Georgian nation.

As a result of the ARISC fellowship, I have gained a much better understanding of the continuity in the overall goals of the Georgian alpinist community from the 1920’s until the 1950’s. After their first ascent on Kazbegi (mq’invarts’veri) in 1923, Georgian alpinists articulated a set of goals that argued for cooperation with local people, a physical and discursive conquest of specifically Georgian mountains, and for scientific research of the “motherland.” These goals remained clear operating principles well into the 1950’s, even as the Georgian alpinist community was more closely integrated into sport and tourism structures in Moscow. By examining Georgian language works during my fellowship, I have also been able see the many ways that Georgian alpinists continuously memorialized past expeditions and how they used these expeditions as orienting devices for future goals. This research has allowed me to understand how Georgian alpinists themselves conceptualized what was specifically Georgian about Georgian alpinism.

My current research has confirmed that conflict between Georgian alpinists and sport and tourist institutions in Moscow centered on conflicting conceptualizations of the Georgian nation, differing relationships with the mountainous populations, and ultimately contrasting ideas about how alpinism should be developed in Georgia. In the prewar period, this conflict continued to escalate and often led to outright hostility between Georgian alpinists and officials in Moscow. Unfortunately, the sources in Tbilisi were largely silent on how this relationship changed in the post-war period, since many of the most relevant materials for this period are located in Moscow archives. As a result, I spent an additional two and a half months examining documents in Russia, where I found a remarkable continuity to the pre-war period. Here, conflict between Georgian alpinists and Russian officials continued to revolve around competing ideas of space, arguments over the proper relationship with local peoples, and disagreements over the function of a nationally minded Georgian mountaineering community more generally, insights that would not have been possible without first examining many of the Georgian language sources available in Tbilisi made possible through the ARISC Graduate Fellowship.

Benjamin Bamberger is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. His research interests include Georgian mountaineering, Soviet nation-building, and Soviet tourism to the Caucasus.

Faculty News

Dr. Nancy Scanell (wearing a white visor in the front row) with European Teaching University staff and students.

Dr. Nancy Scanell (wearing a white visor in the front row) with European Teaching University staff and students.

REEEC Faculty Associate and University of Illinois-Springfield (UIS) Associate Professor of Business Administration, Dr. Nancy Scannell, delivered in June 2016 a Financial Management seminar at the European Teaching University (ETU) in Tbilisi, Georgia, in collaboration with ETU’s Associate Professor of English, Dr. Lasha Chakhvadze, and under the direction of ETU’s Vice Rector and Dean of the Faculty of Business and Technology, Dr. Gocha Tutberidze.  With guidance from Ms. Andrea Pellegrini, Assistant Director of the University of Illinois USFSCO Student Money Management Center, Nancy incorporated student activities into her curriculum in adherence to UI’s Open Badges in Financial Literacy initiative. Nancy also led a cultural competency excursion for students to the U.S. Embassy in Georgia, hosted by Cultural Attaché Damian Wampler. The photo features from right-to-left in the front row: Gocha, Nancy (donning a white visor), ETU Chair of Administration Tamar Zarginava, Damian (holding UI jigsaw puzzle box) and (skipping to far left) Lasha. The ETU student delegation was comprised of 12 Georgian students and 1 Azerbaijani student. Nancy said that ETU, the US Embassy in Tbilisi, and the Georgian community-at-large generously welcomed her at every juncture throughout her visit, which helped to make for a successful cross-cultural collaboration. The UI community might be pleased to know that the Prime Minister of Georgia is a UIUC alum in Finance.

Peter Maggs (Emeritus Professor of Law) and Alexei Zhiltsov (co-translator and co-editor) have published new editions of their translation of the First Part of the Russian Civil Code. In particular, they have published versions of this Part: (1) as amended through January 31, 2016; (2) as amended through May 23, 2016; and (3) as amended through July 3, 2016. Here’s the background from the Introduction to the latest version by the editors and Oksana Kozyr:

“This translation of the First Part of the Code is being published in
several different forms. The authors have made arrangements for conventional
publication in book form by a leading publisher in Russia. In addition,
because conventional book publication cannot keep up with the frequent
amendments to the Code, the authors have self-published a United States
edition in e-book and print-on-demand form thorough Amazon. Their hope is
that each time that there is an amendment to the text of the First Part of
the Code, they can update the translation and publish an updated e-book and
print-on-demand book, while leaving older self-published editions available
on Amazon in e-book and print-on-demand form. Lawyers dealing with cases
involving the Russian Civil Code must have available versions of the Code in
effect at the time of the making of particular contracts or at the time of
violation of particular rights. Often even a single court proceeding will
involve events that occurred at various times. Multiple versions of the
Russian text of the Civil Code have long been available on the leading
private Russian legal databases. The authors hope to provide equal
convenience to the users of these English translations. In addition, the
authors are currently preparing revised translations of the Second, Third,
and Fourth Parts of the Civil Code for publication.”


Prime Minister of Georgia and U of I Alum, Giorgi Kvirikashvili Visits Campus

By Maureen Marshall

On Wednesday, April 27, 2016, the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, gave a public lecture in Deloitte Auditorium in the Business Instructional Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kvirikashvili is an alumnus of Illinois, having earned a Master’s in Finance from the College of Business. After being welcomed by the College of Business Dean Jeffery Brown and introduced by Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson, he briefly reminisced on his time at the University (funded by a U.S. State Department program in the 1990’s), which he said taught him new ways to think about solving problems and gave him the skills to enter the world of finance. The Prime Minister also highlighted the importance of Georgian – American relations and then described a four- point plan for reform within his country that will focus on education, economic “liberalization,” infrastructure, and reorganizing government systems including the pension system and physical spaces.  Kvirikashvili also invited audience members not only to visit Georgia, but to invest as well, drawing attention to Georgia’s key geographic position on the “new Silk Road,” tying together economies from Beijing to Brussels.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili then answered questions from an internationally diverse 200+ person audience. The first question was posed by a Russian student and concerned Georgian – Russian relations. Kvirikashvili reported that Georgia had worked to “cool down” tensions between the countries, while firmly stating that the normalization of relations requires that Russia recognize Georgia’s borders and respect Georgia’s sovereignty.  The second question came from an American student who asked who the Prime Minister favored in the U.S. Presidential Election – Kvirikashvili felt it best to refrain from giving his opinion. The third question came from an Armenian student asking the Prime Minister to elaborate on how Georgia had dealt with Soviet legacy of corrupt institutions, while the fourth was voiced by a South Korean student asking what steps the Prime Minister planned on taking to convince people that Georgia is a great place to invest. Professor Mohammed Babadoost asked about developing agriculture in Georgia and training scientists, while the final questions touched on issues relating to the oil market.

Prior to becoming Prime Minister in December 2015, Kvirikashvili served as Vice Prime Minister (2013-2015) while serving as Foreign Minister (2015) and Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development (2012-2015). Kvirikashvili received a Master’s degree in Finance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States in 1998. He obtained an undergraduate degree in Economics from Tbilisi State University (1995) and an undergraduate degree in Medicine from Tbilisi State Medical Institute (1991).

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Dr. Maureen Marshall is the Associate Director for REEEC. She earned her PhD at the University of Chicago in Anthropology in 2014 with a thesis on “Subject(ed) Bodies: A Bioarchaeological Investigation of Lived Experiences and Mobile Practices in Late Bronze-Early Iron Age (1500-800 B.C.) Armenia.” Her research focuses on the bioarchaeology of early complex polities and empires in the South Caucasus and Eurasia. She is also the Associate Director of Project ArAGATS, the joint American-Armenian project for the Archaeology and Geography for Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

Dr. Erik Scott, “Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire.”

Dr. Erik Scott (seated to the far left) and Professor David Cooper (standing).

Dr. Erik Scott (seated to the far left) and Professor David Cooper (standing).

On September 24, 2015, Dr. Erik R. Scott, Associate Professor at the University of Kansas, delivered his lecture ‘Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire.’  Scott began by putting forth the notion of reinterpreting the Soviet Empire as a collection of diasporas that were perpetuated by the structure of the empire itself, in the sense of distilling and elevating national cultures, and  by extension certain attributes and characteristics of those cultures. More explicitly,  Scott suggests that the idea of internal diasporas can be used as an analytical tool in order to re-conceptualize the relationship between the periphery and the center.

Cultural characteristics were promoted not just as distinctions but as the identifiers of that specific culture.  As it pertained to Scott’s lecture, Georgia quickly became known for its hospitality, toasting culture, national dishes and wines within the broader Soviet Union.  The relationship between the center and periphery was reinforced through the export of Georgian wines and foods, favored by the nomenklatura and others who had means.  Indeed, Georgian culture was perceived as one of the most prominent as far as peripheral relationships are concerned. The establishment of  Georgian restaurants in Moscow also transmitted a culture that was also very intensely exoticized.

Later during the 1960s and 70s, other aspects of Georgian culture such as film, literary publishing and music circulated in Moscow.  Such transfers of Georgian culture became associated with high culture and contributed to a Georgian intelligentsia community in Moscow, as Scott noted.  Moreover, the similarities between Russian and Georgian artistic representations encouraged these cultural links.  That said, this transferability of certain cultural aspects was done in such a way that its difference and “foreignness ” was made acceptable.

Further, Scott argues that it was apparent to internal diasporas that these  aspects of Georgian culture were overplayed often giving way to cultural clichés. Today there are still remnants of the role the periphery-center relationship assumed throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century but that emphasis, even though filtered to an extent through a Muscovite lens, has waned.

Katherine Butterworth graduated from the REEES MA program in 2015. She is currently working toward an MS in Library and Information Science in the GSLIS program here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Kate Butterworth’s Summer in Georgia

This past summer, I had the opportunity to study in Tbilisi, Georgia. I spent the time learning the Georgian language, and becoming acquainted with the culture and society. Georgia is a unique place, situated in one of the most geographically and linguistically varied regions of the world. The Caucasus mountain range serves as a natural border to Russia, separating the South and North Caucasus. Aside from Russia, Georgia is situated between the Black Sea, portions of Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. It has been a crossroads of many different cultures and empires throughout its history. These influences are evident in the current culture and language. While Georgian is the most prominent language in the Kartvelian group, it has been influenced by Greek, Russian, different stages of Persian, and now increasingly, English, particularly in government language. Regarding the separatist regions, Abkhazians and South Ossetians are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgians. Their claims for self determination predate the Soviet period and were vocalized prominently during the Russian Civil War.

I lived in Nadzaladevi with a very welcoming and generous couple. On the back streets of the neighborhood, there are small hole-in-the-wall shops accompanied by stands of fruit and vegetables. Walking up the steep and narrow cobblestone streets behind the apartment blocks, there is a clear view of the city and the mountains beyond. Tbilisi is home to the National Archives and a number of museums. Among them is the Museum of Soviet Occupation and the National Art Gallery, which has a number of pieces by Georgian artists. A few metro stops away is Old Tbilisi, where there are a number of outdoor cafes, bars, markets, a botanical garden, and the banya, which sits below the Narikala Fortress. That fortress has stood there since Tbilisi’s founding. Old Tbilisi is a nice historical part of the city and attracts many tourists. I took language lessons through the Language School there. Lessons were engaging, and I was fortunate to learn from a very good teacher.

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Aside from lessons and the commute to and from, I was able to travel. At one point, I went with a friend to Stepantsminda, in the Kazbegi district of Mtkheta-Mtianeti. It lies just south of the Russian border along the Georgian Military Road. It is a very popular destination for many people, especially in the summer, because, aside from its beauty, it is considerably cooler. In the remoteness of the mountains, there is a scattering of villages and livestock ambling about, often paying no heed to cars making hairpin turns up the winding road. In stark contrast to this scene, is Batumi on the Black Sea. Home to casinos, oil refineries, and a beautiful coastline, it is quickly becoming an economic hub in Ajaria.

Spending time in Georgia not only provided more depth to my studies, but also afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with people, which would not have been possible otherwise. Living with hosts added another valuable dimension to my experience and gave me ample time to practice speaking.

Kate Butterworth is a Master’s student in the REEEC program. Her research interests include ethnicity and identity in the North and South Caucasus as well as the efficacy of socio-economic policy in Georgia.  She received her BA from SUNY Brockport in 2011.

Displacement Effects on Gender Roles, Family Structure and Ethnic Identity: Muslim Meskhetians in the USA

From the accusations and discrimination of nationalistic prejudice and totalitarian politics, Muslim Meskhetians, also known as Meskheti Turks and Ahiska Turks, have faced forced deportation and displacement for almost a century. The small group of ethnic Turks formerly inhabited the Meskheti region of Georgia, but was forcibly sent to Central Asia during the Stalinist era. Since 1989, many Muslim Meskhetians moved to other former Soviet Republics, and since 2004, have created several communities in the United States. Throughout these transitions, from a minority group in Georgia with strong connections to Turkey, to the victims of displacement and deportation, and now as a diaspora, a strong traditional community, with its own cultural practices, values, and beliefs, has persisted and flourished.

Ekaterine Pirtskhalava giving her Noontime Scholars lecture

Ekaterine Pirtskhalava giving her Noontime Scholars lecture

In her Noontime Scholars lecture, entitled “Displacement Effects on Gender Roles, Family Structure and Ethnic Identity: Muslim Meskhetians in the USA,” Professor Ekaterine Pirtskhalava explored the ways in which life in the United States has shaped the family structure, gender roles, and sense of identity of Muslim Meskhetians. Using interviews conducted with Muslim Meskhetians living in Pennsylvania and Illinois, her talk specifically explored how family relationships and traditions, specifically in the context of marriage, have changed in the last few years. Pirtskhalava looked at these changing ideas in a specific social construct through the theories of place identity, place attachment theory, and imagined communities.

Though the Muslim Meskhetian communities Pirtskhalava studied have remained relatively isolated from the rest of society, limiting social interactions to those within the diaspora community and maintaining particular religious and social practices as well as continuing to use Russian and Turkic languages, she found that there has been an important shift specifically in the conception of marriage by younger and older generations alike. Meskhetian Muslims have kept the tradition of arranged marriages throughout displacements and deportations over the years, but in the U.S., these have taken on a new form. Although marriages still stay within the Meskhetian community, young people have been given a stronger voice in the selection of future spouses. This is true of both men and women. Even though marriages once were more pragmatic, with the husband and wife often meeting for the first time shortly before their wedding, love and personal connections have taken an ever-increasing role in the process. A parent might say to their child they know of someone in the community that  might be a good match for their child, but now the changing values of their children and community in general have given the children the agency to meet this candidate, and decide for themselves if they want to marry them. In a similar vein, marriages are taking place later in Meskhetian Muslim communities than they once did.

Professor Pirtskhalava considered various factors which may have contributed to these changes in tradition and cultural values. She pointed to multiple economic and cultural factors which could have acted in confluence to change the conception of a good marriage. What is clear is that this community’s status as a displaced culture in America has changed an important tradition which has held this community together for generations of external political, cultural, and social pressures. Pirtskhalava’s research will continue to explore other changes in which this culture changed in an American context, and which divides have become apparent between those generations which grew up in Georgia and Russia, and those which are coming of age here.

Andrew Dolinar is a senior in sociology and REEES at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is interested in the globalization of human rights, particularly sexuality in terms of identity and movement into post-Soviet spaces. In fall 2014, he will begin an M.A. program in human rights at Columbia University.

Visiting Faculty Highlight – Ekaterine Pirtskhalava

Prof. Ekaterine Pirtskhalava

Prof. Ekaterine Pirtskhalava

REEEC is very glad to welcome Ekaterine Pirtskhalava, Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at Iv. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (www.tsu.ge) in the Republic of Georgia, as our Visiting Scholar. The main fields of her scholarly experience and professional background, including her research project “Transformation of Gender Roles and Changes in the Muslim Meskhetians (Meskhetian Turks) Family in the USA,” are social psychology and sociology. Her primary research interests are in the family and family relationships as well as issues related to Muslim Meskhetians.

Who are the Meskhetian Turks or Muslim Meskhetians? Some researchers call them Meskhetian Turks, but Prof. Pirtskhalava calls them the Muslim Meskhetians because they are a Muslim people from Meskhetia (a region in southwest Georgia now called Meskhet-Javakheti). The Muslim Meskhetians (or Meskhetian Turks) refer to a local population that has historically lived in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, near the Turkish border. They converted to Islam in the 16-17th century, during the Ottoman occupation of southwest Georgia. In the 1940s, as a result of Stalin’s social policy to clean the southern border of the Soviet Union from “undesirable peoples,” the Muslim population, predominantly comprised of the Turkish-speaking Meskhetians, were deported from the South Caucasus to Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). Since 1944, they have been living far from their homeland – Georgia. The Muslim Meskhetians had to overcome many obstacles in order to return to their homeland. Only a small part of the population was able to return back; a significant part still resides outside Georgia. Today, repatriation of the Muslim Meskhetians to Georgia is on the Georgian government’s agenda. Therefore, Prof. Pirtskhalava emphasizes the importance of studying issues connected to the integration of the Muslim Meskhetians into the local communities.

In 2006, the U.S. government made a decision to shelter Muslim Meskhetians. Priority 2 (P-2), the designation which encompasses the Krasnodar Meskhetian Turks, is used for groups of “special humanitarian concern,” as identified by the U.S. Department of State, nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other experts. Within the former Soviet Union, the P-2 designation, as identified in the Lautenberg Amendment, also includes Jews, Evangelical Christians, and Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox religious activists with close family in the U.S. Refugee processing  procedures prior to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) eligibility interviews vary. In the case of the Krasnodar Meskhetian Turks, applicants are eligible to apply for the program directly (Trier, T. Khanzin, A. “The Meskhetian Turks at a Crossroads of Integration. Repatriation or Resettlement?” 2007). 

According to data from the International Organization for Migration, as of mid-2006, over 10,000 Muslim Meskhetians immigrated from the Krasnodar Krai to the United States. They have resettled widely across the United States, with preference given to cities where local communities and resettlement agencies have the capacity and resources to accept new refugee arrivals. Out of approximately 21,000 applications, nearly 15,000 individuals in total will be eligible for refugee status and will likely immigrate during the life of the program. As of mid-June 2006, approximately 9,000 Meskhetian Turks have been resettled in 33 states. The District of Columbia, Pennsylvania (785 individuals) and Georgia (623) have hosted the largest numbers. Sizable populations are also found in Washington (590), Illinois (508), Kentucky (499), Arizona (497), Idaho (471), Texas (417), Virginia (417), New York (394), and Colorado (365) (Koriouchkina, E & Swerdlow, S. (2007)). The number is supposedly much bigger nowadays, but the data is not available at the moment. According to some researchers, the Muslim Meskhetians continually change their place of residence to try to find better and cheaper living conditions.

Prof. Pirtskhalava’s interest in the Muslim Meskhetians first started in 2004, when she participated in the study “Meskhetian Turks Integration, Repatriation, Emigration,” implemented by the European Center of Minority Issues (ECMI), supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, and carried out in Georgia. Similar studies have been held in the other eight countries where  Muslim Meskhetians were deported and currently live: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the USA. Within this project’s framework, her duties and responsibilities included, but were not limited to, living with families of Muslim Meskhetians, observing them, talking to them, preparing diaries and writing notes from her observations. In short, her goal was to know more about the Muslim Meskhetians, study their lifestyle and values, and understand them better.

After becoming interested in the issues related to the Muslim Meskhetians, she began doing her own research on them. She found out that they have been studied only sporadically. The available studies primarily focused on their national identity and historical origin.

In 2006, Prof. Pirtskhalava had the opportunity to work on the issues of the Muslim Meskhetians. As a fellow of the H. Boll Foundation, she was one of the participants in the research project “Women’s Personal Histories and Historical Memory.” The goal of the research was to study Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim women living in Georgia (Guria, Imereti and Meskhet-Javakheti regions) who witnessed deportations of Muslim Meskhetians. After that, her interest on the Muslim Meskhetians increased. She then decided to apply to the Carnegie Fellowship Program to continue her study interests, which included the immigration and emigration issues of the Muslim population. A description of her research results is in her report “Meskhetian Turks (Muslim Meskhetians) in the USA and Georgia – Integration or Separation: similarities and differences in a process of adaptation.”

When people migrate from one nation or culture to another, they carry their knowledge and expressions of distress with them. On settling down in the new culture, their cultural identity is likely to change and that encourages a degree of belonging; they also attempt to assimilate or be bicultural (Buhrga, D. 2004). Prof. Pirtskhalava’s interest in this research is the act of migration and its impact on relationships in the family, especially from a gender perspective.

Currently, her main research interests are to study the impact of  new social and economic environments on Muslim Meskhetians, and to identify new challenges and how they reflect on their family lives, specifically on family structure, gender roles within the family, the decision-making structure and  power divisions. Her interest towards family-related issues started earlier in her scholarly career than her interest towards Muslim Meskhetians. She has been studying issues related to the family and family relationships since 1997. In 2005, she was awarded the H. Boll Foundation (South Caucasus Regional Office Heinrich Boll Foundation) Scholarship for conducting the study “Transformation of Gender Roles and Change Family Power Structure in Georgian families.” Her doctoral dissertation, entitled “Peculiarities of Mutual Perception of the Family Members” and completed in 2009, also analyzed family relationships.

As an H. Boll Foundation fellow, Prof. Pirtskhalava participated in the 2006 International Conference ”East-West Migration: Problems, Programs and Policies” in Florence, Italy, where she met Cynthia Buckley, now Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At that time, she was mostly interested in social and economic issues related to women’s labor migration. In 2012, they met again at the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) conference at Columbia University, and made plans for future collaboration. She is glad to work with Professor Cynthia Buckley here at the University of Illinois.

Prof. Pirtskhalava’s aim is to become familiar with the best practices of scholarly research dealing with migration issues, and to work on new courses for the students of Applied Social Psychology in the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Tbilisi State University. These courses will consist of such topics as theories of migration; remittances and development; diaspora; gender and migration; assimilation and migration; migration and influence of environment. The primary goal of her research project is to carry out an analysis of the American Muslim Meskhetians’ family.  Participants in her project “Transformation of Gender Roles and Changes in the Muslim Meskhetians (Meskhetian Turks) Family in the USA” will be families of Mesketian Turks living in the United States . The respondents will be interviewed from a pool of 508 Muslim Mesketians who have settled in Illinois.

Student Dispatch: Ben Bamberger on Mountain Weather

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to study Georgian in Tbilisi through a summer FLAS fellowship. There were many reasons to spend a summer in Tbilisi, ranging from the constant and delicious supply of fruit and vegetables from the Kakheti region, the casual strolling along Rustaveli Prospect during the warm evenings, or the numerous and oddly affordable open air cafes dotting the old town. But for language study, I was most excited by the opportunity to be immersed in the Georgian language and try to finally be comfortable in its alphabet and impossibly difficult consonant clusters.

Yet, by the end of the summer, I began to feel that my schedule of commuting, class, and grocery shopping was beginning to have some diminishing returns, and that it was time to practice my Georgian in a different environment. One of the reasons I applied to study Georgian this summer was because of a first year paper I wrote which analyzed how tourism reflected Soviet nation-building policies in Georgia, where I began to realize the importance of mountains and mountaineering to early Soviet tourism efforts (as well as the need to work in Georgian sources). Perhaps one of the most impressive and important of these mountains, which constantly appeared in my research, was Mount Kazbegi (or Kazbek in Russian), still a popular destination for both Georgian and foreign tourists located along the Georgian Military Highway on the Russian border. Kazbegi was not a technically difficult summit, but at over 5000 meters, it was an imposing one with constantly changing weather patterns. At some point, an Irish friend of mine named Enda, who didn’t speak Georgian, convinced me that summiting Kazbegi was something we needed to do, with the added bonus that I would get plenty of language practice with the Georgian guide. We were able to make arrangements with a local alpinist named Lasha, who promised to meet us at the base camp, and then guide us to the summit after a day of acclimatization.

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The next week, Enda and I made all the arrangements to rent the necessary equipment, and headed off to Stepantsminda, the nearest town to the mountain. Within a day, we were able to make it to the base camp at 3700 meters, where we spent the night and acclimatized to the higher elevation. Lasha arrived as promised the next day, along with some alpinist friends, and all talk was on the weather. Storms had begun to blow in, and Kazbegi was no longer visible, hidden beneath a shroud of imposing grey clouds. The plan was to wake up at 2 am the next morning to begin the summit (the weather is usually calmest in the morning), and Enda and I went to bed around 5 pm in order to get some rest for the next day. But the weather quickly turned worse, and our tent was soon rattled about by 45 mph gusts of wind. Lasha promised to wake us if the weather was good enough to summit, but there was no need as we laid awake freezing, listening to the icy wind blow down off the mountain. The next morning, Lasha explained that conditions were too poor to attempt the summit, and that we would try the next day. I quickly exhausted my weather vocabulary, not finding the right words for the constantly changing winds and freezing conditions. Lasha and his friend Tornike, both experienced alpinists, assured us that this was just “mtis amindi” or mountain weather, a rather convenient phrase for the beginning language speaker. Staring off at the icy mountain and snow in the distance, and blowing into his cold hands, Tornike ruefully stated what every alpinist must have thought at one time, “in the summer I am in the mountains, in the winter I ski, for me every season is winter!” Sitting there in all my clothes trying to warm myself on a bit of the fleeting sun, I couldn’t imagine that just a few weeks prior I had been complaining about the oppressive heat in Tbilisi or that it was even still August.

The next morning, we were awoken by Tornike at 1 am, who happily explained that the weather had changed for the better, and we were ready to set off. After a hearty breakfast of sausage, crackers, and a rich mixture of butter and honey, we headed out, greeted by the clearest skies and only an occasional breeze. As we slowly made our way up the mountain, the wind picked up but never threatened our pace, and a cool five hours later, exhausted and cold, we made it to the top of Kazbegi. The weather was stunningly clear, allowing us to see the entire Caucasian range, including Elbrus off in the distance, while Vladikavkaz appeared like a toy town below us. As we descended to the base camp, tourists heading the opposite direction kept asking Lasha and Tornike about the weather, but they refused to give a prognosis. By the time we got down to town, Kazbegi was hidden behind menacing clouds, mtis amindi indeed.

Ben Bamberger is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Summer 2013 FLAS fellow.  His research interests include Georgian mountaineering, Soviet nation-building, and Soviet tourism to the Caucasus.  Ben received his B.A. in history and economics at American University (Washington, D.C.).  After graduation, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia.  As Ben furthers his studies, he hopes to conduct research in both Moscow and Tbilisi, ultimately incorporating Russian and Georgian sources into a dissertation about Soviet nation-building projects in Georgia, and the ways the local Georgians negotiated and understood these policies.