Mingrelians - History and Cultural Relations

Mingrelians now occupy part of a region that was known by ancient Greeks and Romans as Colchis or Lazica, and by western Georgians as Egrisi. In the fourteenth century, it became a separate feudatory under the princely Dadiani family and was known as Odishi. It was not until the nineteenth century that "Mingrelia" became the popular name for the region. Mingrelia has always been part of the broader Georgian cultural and political sphere, in large part through the influence of the Georgian Orthodox church. At times, however, in common with western Georgia, it has come under different cultural influences from the Georgians in the east (Kakhetians and Kartlians) who were separated from the western regions (Georgian imier, "over there") by the Likhi mountain range. The Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires had much more influence in west Georgia. In the seventeenth century Georgia was divided into two by the Persian and Ottoman empires. West Georgia, including Mingrelia, became part of the Ottoman sphere and east Georgia, part of the Persian. The Georgian church was likewise split into two, and Mingrelia, which established its own mint and customs barriers, became one of the competing feudatories of west Georgia until it was finally taken under Russian protection in 1804 as an autonomous territory. Autonomy was withdrawn after a revolt in 1856-1857, by Mingrelian peasants who seized the regional capital of Zugdidi and threatened czarist control of the region. In 1867 the kingdom was formally abolished by the Russian Empire. Under Russian rule, the serious problem of malaria was solved by draining swampland. Between 1918 and 1921, Mingrelia was part of an independent Georgia; in 1921 it became part of the USSR.

There had been little conflict in the past between Mingrelians and their neighbors, except on a dynastic level. The assimilation of Mingrelians by the Georgians, which accelerated in the nineteenth century under the impact of modernization, was completed after the Soviet annexation. Some half-hearted attempts by local Bolsheviks to establish autonomy failed. Abkhazian and Mingrelian relations in the mixed southern regions of Abkhazia were soured by the Georgianization policies of Lavrenti Beria (a native of Mingrelia) in the 1940s and 1950s. Conflict between local Georgians (mostly Mingrelians) and Abkhazians emerged briefly in the 1960s and 1970s. In July 1989 there was a bloody conflict in Abkhazia between Mingrelians and Abkhazians over Abkhazian demands for secession; more than twenty people were killed. The majority of Mingrelians reject suggestions of a politically autonomous Mingrelia and identify with the struggle for Georgian independence.

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