The social aspect of communications ethnography of Abkhazia


It is hard to understand features of Abkhazian traditional household culture, including etiquette, without an explanation of what Abkhazian society represented in the recent past, in the sense of its social structure and degree of development.

Abkhazia until the 1860s was a feudal princedom with considerable remnants of earlier social structures, occupying in respect of its general socioeconomic development a position between West Caucasian mountain semi-patriarchal societies on the one hand, and feudal Georgia on the other. In other words, on the whole Abkhazia was a country with typical features of so-called mountain feudalism.

The ruling class was feudal nobility, in the persons of princes and noblemen, with clergy adjoining them. The most exclusive group of feudal lords comprised representatives of the princely Chachba (Shervashidze) family, of which the country’s possessor was also a member.

The power of the possessor extended, mainly, over inner Abkhazia (Bzyb, central Abkhazia, Abzhua and Samurzakan). Mountain societies were actually independent of the power of the possessor, which was abolished in general by the imperial government in 1864.

It is notable that there were a relatively large number of aristocratic families in such a small country as Abkhazia. In addition to Chachba (Shervashidze), a princely rank was carried by the Achba (Anchabadze), Aimhaa (Emuhvari), Marshan, Dziapsh-ipa, Inal-ipa, Chaabalirhua, Gechba, and Chkhotua families. The most influential surnames of other noble families were considered to be Maan, Lakrba, Mkanba, Zvanba, Akirtaa, and Blabba.

On a prince’s estate, in addition to a different sort of spongers, there always lived many village girls and young men, who formed a court yard of youth, undertook every possible kind of work, and at the same time joined the culture of the court yard; in particular, they acquired elements of the etiquette of the estate.

At the heart of Abkhazian traditional household culture some major principles prevail: the principles of an estate, of blood relationship, of respect for age with a cult of seniors and following from this a corresponding system of complicated subordination, a principle of hospitality, a principle of military courage and heroism, etc. All of these are united in one extraordinarily broad and powerful concept ‘apsuara’ or ‘abkhazstvo’. The concept of apsuara incorporates a set of Abkhazian national traditional characteristics, including concepts of good and justice, honour and conscience (alamis), and national aesthetic and moral principles - in a word, everything that connects with the features of national culture and with the traditional household culture of the Abkhazian people.

Certain democratic features had been incorporated in the ancient tradition of ‘atalychestvo’, which as one of the elements of ‘apsuara’ was widespread in Abkhazia up to the beginning of XX century. Through this, children from noble families were brought up by peasants from the moment of their birth, frequently up to their majority, and had a complete course of national mountain education according to apsuara.

One of the main elements in an education, according to Abkhazian belief, is the mastering of traditions and customs of the people. This thought is expressed in the proverb: ‘If you respect what you have, you will get what you don’t have’.

In respect of those characteristics which make someone a worthy person, a not unimportant role is played by complicated Abkhazian etiquette, which worldly-wise diplomats from the League of Nations could envy. This etiquette, developed in many respects to the smallest detail, represents the epitome of unwritten laws and rules of behaviour for a person in a social environment. It is difficult to know what is the more surprising - the variety of unwritten laws regulating the acts and behaviour of a person in company, the knowledge expected of its moral principles and psychology, or the widespread possession of the difficult unwritten book of graceful manners by simple people who never usually held books in their hands.

In Abkhazia, etiquette is not simply an external form of the ability to behave in society, but a part of apsuara or Abkhazian alamis, which is the conscience of the people. About the great value that Abkhаzians give to this word, two characteristic sayings will suffice: ‘Seven mules don’t lift Abkhazian alamis’ and ‘Instead of death, for the Abkhazian there is alamis’. This last expression presents difficulty in translation from Abkhazian, and can be understood in the sense that death is not only the termination of physical existence - all people are mortal - but also incompatible with alamis when a person dies alive and becomes a live corpse, as a shameful moral death is a hundred times more terrible then physical death.