Manana Gnolidze-Swanson (excerpts from the article”Activity of Russian Orthodox Church 
     among the Muslim Natives of the Caucasus in Imperial Russia” 
     Caucasus and Central Asia Newsletter (UC-Berkley) / Issue 4 / Summer 2003






The Caucasus is a region with an incredible variety of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. The Muslim North Caucasus and Azerbaijan, Orthodox Christian Georgia, and Christian-Monophysite Armenia, together with people of different sects and denominations represent a multidimensional picture of the region.


This variety does not, by itself, lead to conflict. The variety encompasses common customs, traditions, and the ethnic and psychological individualism of the Caucasian people. If measured by diversity and integrity, the most interesting area in the Caucasus could be Georgia, where the majority Orthodox Georgian population has always lived alongside people of different ethnic and religious denominations. Religious faith has never caused war inside the country, but the Orthodox Christianity of Kartli-Kakheti (East Georgia), combined with political aspirations, determined the pro-Russian sympathies of the ruling class. This alliance with Russia in the eighteenth century defined the Caucasus. future destiny to become a part of the Russian Empire.


The Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji between the Russian Empire and Sublime Porte on 10 July 1774, in articles concerning the Caucasus, pronounced Russia to be the protector of all Orthodox Christians in the East.1 It prohibited the tribute of young girls and boys from Georgia to the Ottomans2 . a most despised obligation for Georgia. This act began to create real obstacles to slave trade from the Caucasus.


In 1783, Kartli-Kakheti signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, which continued Russia.s political advance into the Caucasus. In it, Georgia openly declared its desire for Russian protection against Turkey and Iran. In exchange for relinquishing part of its political independence, Georgia demanded that its protector help conquer and win back Georgian territories occupied by the Ottomans between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most importantly for

the present analysis, the act established regulations of the two Orthodox Churches (in Russia and Georgia) that made the Patriarch of Georgia a permanent member of the Holy Synod.3 This agreement instituted a new relationship between the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch and the Holy Synod, giving eight degrees of sanctity to the Georgian Patriarch and ranking it behind the Archbishop of Tobolsk.4 This meant that the Georgian Church lost its independence, coming under the jurisdiction of the Russian Catholicos-Patriarch. Importantly, as the Synod was supervised by a (secular) Ober-Prosecutor who answered to the Empress, the Georgian church became dependent on the Russian state.


Russia needed to articulate a sound ideological basis for extending its political rule over the newly annexed territories, and the Treaty of Georgievsk allowed the Orthodox faith to serve this purpose.




The beginning of missionary activity 


The idea to use the Orthodox faith to create a common ideology in the Caucasus was not new. Missionary activity in the region had been pioneered in the eighteenth century by two clergymen, Joseph (Archbishop of Sameba Monastery in Georgia) and Nikolai (head of the Znamensky Monastery in Moscow). In 1743 they presented a petition to the Empress Elizabeth, asking for permission to found a missionary society to spread the Orthodox faith in Ossetia. The petition was approved and led to the establishment the Clerical Commission of Ossetia in 1745.


The Society sent its first missionaries from Moscow the next year. The centre of the mission was Mozdok. Nevertheless, despite its energetic attempts, the Commission did not achieve any significant goals. The instability of Russia.s political presence in the North Caucasus led the Empress to abolish it in 1792.


The status of the Georgian Church began to erode in reality after the kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti was joined to Russia in 1801 and lost its independence completely in 1811. The Synod then appointed Varlam Eristavi as Exarch of Georgia (the head of the Georgian Church and a Bishop, ranking below the Patriarch). The Synod obliged him to reform the Georgian church to match Russian Church organisation and also to make Georgia the centre for spreading Orthodox Christianity among the non-Christian population of the Caucasus.5


Following the reforms in the Georgian church, the erstwhile Clerical Commission of Ossetia was re-established in 1815, now centred in Tbilisi. The Synod appointed Dositheos, Archbishop of Telavi and of Georgia-Caucasus, as head of the Commission.The Imperial Treasury distributed the substantial sum of 14,750 rubles annually for the Commission, as well as money for the maintenance of 100 Cossacks and 30 church peasants (the latter served as guides through the

mountains). The fact that Cossacks were enlisted indicates Russia.s fear of the mountain people.s resistance to the missionary project.


In 1810, the kingdom of Imereti (West Georgia) joined Russia. Accordingly, the borders of the Georgian Exarchate expanded to the west to include Megrelia and

Abkhazia. Thus, the area of the Commission.s renewed activity was already much bigger and included territory beyond the Caucasus Mountains. The main new objectives were directed against Islamic influence in Georgia, specifically in Abkhazia and Saingilo (Kakhi and Zakatala districts of today.s Azerbaijan).


According to the missionaries. reports, they baptised 216 Abkhazians, as well as 2,788 Kists (Chechens and Ingush) living in Georgia, and 43,927 Ossetians between 1817 and 1825.6


In 1857, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Alexander Ivanovich Bariatinskii, and the Exarch of Georgia, Isidor (Nikolskii), reported to the Emperor that, “The duty of the Orthodox Christian state is to create a Society for the restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus. Russia cannot remain indifferent to the problems of religious education for our younger brothers who have wandered from the Christian church due to Muslim propaganda. Muridism expresses this propaganda. Individuals must play an active role in the preservation of Christianity among the Caucasian mountain people. Orthodoxy is the main tool of Russia, and Russia is the

tool of Orthodox Christianity herself”7


The report presented by Bariatinskii and Isidor was discussed for three years in St. Petersburg. Circumstances for the main ideological attack were suitable after the Russians captured Shamil and ended his holy war against Russia (1834-1859), and the Society for the Restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus was established in July 1860. The Society announced that Empress Marie Alexandrovna would be its official patron.8


The Society declared, as did Bariatinskii, that the main aim of its work was to spread Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus as a counter to extensive Muslim propaganda.


Bariatinskii wrote, in a report cited in the Survey of Activity of the Society for Restoration of OrthodoxChristianity in the Caucasus, 1860-1910, that:


“Islam for the Caucasian mountain people is the faith of patriotism. It is the symbol and flag of independence. Independence means everything for the mountain people, it is their aim in life. Both the laypeople and priests, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, accept such an evaluation of religious faith (from its political point of view).


For the entire population of the Caucasus Mountains, the Muslim mountain people are .their. people accepted with honour anywhere. The non-Muslim is a pariah, a slave, an outcast. [...] For our half-Christian tribes, the prophets of Muridism embody the ideal of the man.s dignity, man.s pride and courage. He is a person who is always ready to sacrifice himself, but not to suffer. He does not understand suffering. He is ready for death with pride in the most unequal battle against the giaours (non-Muslims) for the glory of God. [...] Islam attracts mountain people from all walks of life.9


As this quote makes clear, for Russian policy makers in the Caucasus, being Muslim was incompatible with being a Russian subject.


The establishment of the Society proclaimed the aim of restoring Christianity in the region where the natives had been Christians since ancient times. The main directions of the Society.s activity were:


1) To construct and restore churches, and to establish nearby housing for the clergy;


2) To establish and finance parochial schools for the education of the locals;


3) To translate and publish the Bible and other sacred books into local languages and to compile alphabets for peoples who did not have them;


4) To improve the social position of priests and to improve their training.10



Abkhazia, 1860-1885 


The Russian Orthodox missions in Abkhazia were extremely successful. Building on the activity of the Clerical Commission of Ossetia in Abkhazia, the Society worked to strengthen and spread Orthodox Christianity in the region.


Before examining the main reasons for its success, we must first examine the form of Islam that was prevalent in Abkhazia.The establishment of Turkish supremacy over the Black Sea coast of Georgia between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was the main impetus for the spread of Islam in the region. The rulers of Abkhazia (as well asthe rulers of Adjara and Samtskhe [Ahkaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki]) were converted to Islam, largely in response to the Muslim law that prohibited non-Muslims from owning land. Actually, in the Muslim countries the ruler of the country owned the land, and he distributed it to his servants. In practice, land ownership was hereditary but the ruler needed to approve it.


In 1810, after realizing Russia.s increasing strength in the Caucasus, the Abkhazian ruler Sapar-bei Sharvashidze declared his alliance with Russia and converted to Orthodox Christianity together with his nobles.


The Society reported that despite their conversion, Abkhazian political interests and religious sympathies still were biased towards Turkey:


“There is no sign that Christianity is preserved either among the princes or the people”.30


To expand their activity, the missions needed to have detailed descriptions of different regions and ethnic groups in the Caucasus. The Society did this work in

Abkhazia and in the other parts of Georgia and Caucasus, and reports were submitted by the Society.s missionaries.


The missionaries divided the Abkhazian Muslim population (in accordance with their devotion to Islam) into two groups: fanatics and non-fanatics.


The former, a minority, kept all the traditions of Islam strongly but were not committed to pilgrimages to the sacred Muslim sites nor to praying five times a day.


Non-fanatic Abkhazians, who formed the majority, maintained Islamic traditions by keeping Ramadan and the feast of Kurban-Bairam, and by inviting mullahs to ceremonies. They practised a more syncretic Islam, as they also celebrated Christmas, Easter, New Year, Whit Sunday, and festivities observing the Virgin Mary and St. George. In addition, they worshipped icons and lit candles when praying, dyed eggs on Easter, and poured wine on bread in memory of dead ancestors.31


The missionaries concluded that there was no religious friction in Abkhazia between Muslims and Christians. The missionaries had been disturbed by the fact that religious difference did not impede marriage between Christians and Muslims in the Caucasus, and this was most common in Abkhazia. They decided that the only difference that the Abkhazians recognised was based on social status and not on religion.32These and other facts led officials to conclude that the great majority of Abkhazians (the so-called nonfanatics) were Christians, despite the influence of Turkey in the region.


According to the missionaries’ reports, the two main centres of Islam in Abkhazia were Atsi (in the Gudauta region) and Jgerda (in the Kodori region), where there were two small mosques. The Muslims in Gudauta were more devoted Muslims than their coreligionists in the Kodori region. Nevertheless, the influence of Orthodox Georgians living in Samurzakano (the Gali district of today.s Abkhazia) did not outweigh the influence of Islam on the population of Kodori.


Samurzakano is a territory in Abkhazia where the great majority of the natives are Georgians (Megrelians).


The Society claimed that one outstanding result of missionary activity here was the fact that in 1910 there were not any Muslims recorded among the citizenry. In this situation the missionaries exaggerated the impact of their work, as the great majority of natives in Samurzakano were Georgian Christians even before the missionary activity began.


The reality was that the observance of Christian traditions in the region persisted, albeit weakly, and that the missionaries had simply strengthened existing tendencies. The Society also emphasized that the population tried to preserve and restore Christianity in other parts of Abkhazia.33


The popular Georgian newspaper Droeba mentioned that about 2,875 Muslims and 876 pagans were baptised in 1867, the majority of whom were Abkhaz.34


The real success in baptising Muslim Abkhazians was achieved by Bishop Gabriel (Kikodze, 1869-1885) of Imereti. He sent David Machavariani (as part of the Clerical Commission of Ossetia) to carry out missionary work in Abkhazia.


Although the Commission for Ossetia no longer existed, Machavariani continued his work after 1869 under the authority of the Society for Restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus. In October of 1879, 700 Abkhazians were baptised. Machavariani organised the mission and divided the region into two parts, Bzipi and Kodori. Mokvi (Samurzakano) was chosen as the centre of the mission for Bzipi and according to the reports eighty percent of the population was baptised.35


Georgians contributed significantly to the success of Russian missionary work. in fact, they defined the success of the Russian Orthodox missions. Their knowledge of local languages, customs, traditions, and ethnic psychology simplified their task. Tradition also played important role. Georgians, indeed, had historically beenthe propagators of Christianity among the different ethnic groups in the Caucasus.


The Society was a pioneer of mass education in Abkhazia and in many regions of the Caucasus. Machavariani opened the first school in Okumi (Samurzakano) and as of 1885 the Society.s schools were the only educational institutions in Abkhazia.36 The Society founded the new school in 1876 at the New Athens Monastery where about twenty Abkhazian young men studied...





The next step to increase the influence of Christianity was to found libraries at the schools and the churches of the Society,51 and to open two parishes in Abkhazia in 1899.52 Special attention was given to the professional education of the youth. The pupils at the New Athens Monastery were permitted to continue study for a fifth year to study agriculture and Psalm teaching.53 The fruits (lemons) grown at the monastery were represented at the agricultural exhibition of the Caucasus. The authors of the 1898.1901 report admitted, “Favourable conditions

in Abkhazia for cultivating even tender southern plants ... will no doubt bring region a significant profit. To introduce the natives to scientific methods of planting through the help of the New Athens Monastery school’s students ... will result in the growth of economical prosperity in the country”.54


From 1889 to the end of the century, the Muslim population began to increase in Abkhazia: “Many Christian settlements became totally Muslim. Before 1889, not a single village in Abkhazia had a majority Muslim population. Christians lived even in the centres of Islam in Abkhazia (such as Gudauta) and, concerning the birth records, Christian Abkhazians there diligently carried out their Christian duties..55


The Bishop of Sohkumi reported that the inclination of Abkhazians towards Islam was very serious and dangerous for the influence of Christianity in the region. In order to revise and lead the missionary activity in Abkhazia, in 1899 the Society appointed the missionary Tarasi Ivanitskii. His main task was to draft an accurate

picture of the influence of Orthodox Christianity in Abkhazia. Ivanitskii reported that the Turks living in Sokhumi, Ochamchire, and Gudauta were the key factor for the conversion of Abkhazians to Islam. They secretly kept mosques in Jgerda, Atsi and even in Megrelia (Tskhenitskali). Ivanitskii emphasized that the reason for the weakness of Orthodox Christianity in the region was its use of Old Church Slavonic for church services instead oflocal languages, and, conversely, the requirement that the vernacular be used for teaching at schools. He paid particular attention to the method Ilminskii used in Kazan to return native Tatars to Christianity, including the use of Tatar in teaching the Bible and in the church service. The teachers and the priests were required to know the local languages.


Arseni, Bishop of Sokhumi, appealed to the Military Governor of Kutaisi to exile the mullahs from Abkhazia or at least to forbid Muslim propaganda. The Governor arrested the mullahs, but soon he had to release them.56


In 1899, the Society relocated the anti-Islamic library from Zakatala district to Abkhazia.






10 Report of the Society for Restoration of Orthodox Christianityin the Caucasus for 1906-1907 (Tiflis, 1909), .Chart of the Society for Restoration of Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus,. p. 7 (in Russian).


30 Survey., p. 62.


52 Ibid., p. 48.

53 Ibid., p. 61.

54 Ibid., pp. 61-62.

55 Ibid., p. 80.

56 Ibid., p. 111.




Caucasus and Central Asia Newsletter

Issue 4 Summer 2003


University of California, Berkeley

Caucasus and Central Asia Program

260 Stephens Hall MC #2304

Berkeley CA 94720-2304



Manana Gnolidze-Swanson is a senior research fellow at the G. Tsereteli Institute of Oriental

Studies at the Georgian Academy of Sciences