The Deportation of Muslims from Georgia

25 February, 2009
Tournon Sophie

The deportation of Muslims from the Georgian region of Meskhetia is one of the numerous deportations carried out by the Stalinist regime during the Second World War. It occurred in a few days in November 1944, long after the Red Army had defeated the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad and at a time when no German presence threatened the Caucasus. This deportation, like the preceding ones, proceeded in well-rehearsed fashion. Nearly 100,000 Muslims were exiled from their mountainous region of southern Georgia to the remote republics of Central Asia. While no specific charges were laid against them, the deportees were accused of being traitors to the Soviet nation. They suffered exile, remained on probation, and were victims of an hereditary collective punishment.

The Context

The causes of this massive deportation were various and are still the subject of debate. One thing is certain: the deportees were never accused of collaborating with the German enemy. Among the explanations advanced for the deportation, two facts stand out. On the one hand, the population lived in a mountainous region bordering Turkey, which was an undeclared ally of Nazi Germany. On the other hand, those who were deported as ‘Turks, Hemshinli (Armenian Muslims) and Kurds’ were all Sunni Muslim in culture and were mostly Turkophone.

Only the ‘Turks’, who formed the overwhelming majority of deportees from Georgia (90 per cent), had a problematic ethnonym. The term, imposed on the occasion of the deportation, covers a disparate reality, which is a source of debates about identity up to present day (Tournon, 2007): were they Turks or Georgians? The deportees referred to by the name of ‘Turks’ and then ‘Soviet Turks’ have always had a problematic ethnic identity. Tsarist censuses referred to them by different names: Sunni Georgians, Ottomans, Azerbaijanis. Subsequently, the mere fact that they were Muslim was enough to make them potential allies of the Turks in the eyes of the Soviet authorities – especially since the border between Soviet Georgia and Turkey was well known for being porous.

Even so, Georgian intellectuals and the Georgian authorities regarded them as Georgians who had been Islamized by three centuries of the Ottoman yoke. That is why, with a view to the cleansing of the Turko-Soviet borders, the government of the Soviet Republic of Georgia proposed the transfer of this supposedly high-risk population to the interior of the country as an alternative to deportation. In addition, the plan envisaged a policy of re-georgianization of these Muslims, who did not all regard themselves as Georgians (Mamulija, 1999). But Stalin and Beria preferred the solution of banishment to the remotest parts of the USSR, with the definitive assignment of a Turkish identity deduced from their language and their religious culture.

The ethnic and religious identity of the population does not explain everything; the situation of Meskhetia also partially motivated the deportation. The Soviet leadership knew that Turkish troops had been dispatched to the border with the USSR. Even if this presence was more defensive than offensive, Stalin preferred to secure the border. Moreover, he harbored the secret project of annexing the north of Turkey and its straits. To that end, the cleansing of the borders of any dubious elements was indispensable. The Muslims of Meskhetia, who until 1921 had fought with the Turks against the Christians, were thus condemned as potential traitors. Only the Muslim Adjars, clearly identified as Georgians and enjoying an autonomous republic, were spared.

On July 31, 1944, Stalin signed the deportation order. Between November 15 and 18, the inhabitants of 212 villages from the regions of Adigeni, Axalcixe, Aspindza, Axalkalaki and Ninocminda were rounded up. On November 25-26, some hundreds of ‘Turks’ were deported from neighboring Adjara. Officially, the deportees numbered 91,000, but scholars are still undecided as to the actual number of victims. Depending upon the source, the figure ranges between 90,000 and 116,000 deportees. In sum, half of them were minors under the age of 16, 27,000 women, and around 19,000 old or handicapped men. In 1944, at the time of the deportation, nearly 40,000 Georgians were fighting at the front. Only 20,000 survived and had to join the exiles in Central Asia (Bugaj and Gonov, 1998).

A security strip of 7-80 kilometers was established in Meskhetia and punctuated by military posts screening entry and exit in order to ‘secure’ the border with Turkey. The region was thus placed under strict control. Most of the emptied villages were re-inhabited by Georgians who had been forcibly transferred from Imeretia. Other villages were simply razed to the ground and some were transformed into fields. Cemeteries and other sites of commemoration disappeared for the most part and only a handful of religious sites was spared.

Around 11,000 Muslims from Meskhetia were exiled to Kirghizia, 30,000 to Kazakhstan, and 54,000 to Uzbekistan. Reception conditions varied, but the majority of exiles lived in dilapidated barracks that offered them no protection against the severe winter. Few had a decent roof over their heads; many were without shelter. Like most deportees before them, they became ‘special settlers’, second-class citizens, forbidden to move more than five kilometers from their assigned location, which required them to present themselves to the komandatura every two weeks to report to the NKVD. The overwhelming majority, including minors, worked in kolkhozes; 6,000 were in sovkhozes; and 1,300 in factories. All of them were paid a pittance in difficult conditions (Afanasiev, Werth, 2004).

For a long time, the Muslims of Meskhetia hoped that Stalin, whom they regarded as innocent and ignorant of their case, would do them justice. After his death in 1953, a series of laws made it possible to free certain population categories: minors, the spouses of free citizens, invalids, and war heroes. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev partially freed the punished peoples one after the other. On April 28, the Turks, Hemshinli and Kurds once again became Soviet citizens, but were not able to claim reparations or return to their places of origin. In 1957, Khrushchev agreed to restore certain peoples to their rights and their ‘homelands’: Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and so on. The Crimean Tartars, the Volga Germans, and the Meskhetian Muslims did not benefit from such decisions; and their exile was arbitrarily maintained.

However, on October 31, 1957 an ambiguous decree gave the deportees hope. They obtained the right to go to the Caucasian Republic of Azerbaijan and become citizens of it. Up to 40,000 of them opted for integration into a country that was culturally close to their Muslim identity and geographically close to their Georgian homeland. But this half-solution led to a definitive division between two identitarian movements among the exiles. The first, which is in a majority, regards the deportees as ethnically Turks and accepts integration into Azerbaijan. The second, in a minority, considers them to be Georgian ‘Meskhs’ and envisages nothing less than their return to Georgia. But Georgia refuses any negotiation on the sensitive subject of repatriation (Junusov, 2000; Umarov-Gozališvili X., 1994).

The Perpetrators

The distant causes of the deportation of the Muslims from Meskhetia date from the end of the

nineteenth century, when the Tsarist empire, to which Georgia was annexed, retook Meskhetia from the Ottomans. The two belligerent empires agreed upon a population exchange. A large number of Muslims from Georgia were thus expelled to the Sublime Porte. Those who remained were undesirables in the eyes of the Russian and then Bolshevik authorities. During the Great Purges of the 1930s, the latter definitively eliminated the Meskhetian intellectual elite. In 1941, the military command for the Transcaucasus envisaged deporting these Muslims, who were potentially disloyal on account of their Turkophile past. The Second World War provided the opportunity to implement this plan, inherited from a long tradition of imperial policy for population management.

In fact, the documents ordering the deportation reflect those of previous deportations in all respects. Signed by Beria and Stalin, these documents, which were classified as secret, aimed to ‘improve the situation on the borders of the SSR of Georgia’ (Bugaj Gonov, 1998: 213). In addition, the instigators of the deportation shared a Georgian origin. Stalin and Beria were familiar with the history of strategic alliances between the Turks and Georgia’s Muslims and feared a repetition of the Muslim uprisings of 1918 in the region. Two levels of interpretation then become interwoven. At a local level, the hostility of the Georgian authorities to the Muslims of Meskhetia was based on the memory of recent local conflicts. At a higher level, Rapava, the People’s Commissar for Defense, and Karanadze, at Internal Affairs for Georgia, sent the Kremlin a file about the number of ‘Turks’ living near the border (Bugaj, Gonov, 1998: 214; Poljan, 2001). This file served as a basis for Beria and Stalin, who were seeking to eliminate any ‘fifth column’ that might ruin their plans. Ultimately, the Muslim population of Meskhetia was collectively suspected of spying for the Turks.

In the decision-making hierarchy leading to the deportation, the armed wing of the Kremlin was the NKVD, or political police, charged with operations on the ground. During the five days of the deportation, between 4,000 (Poljan, 2001) and 14,000 (Bugaj, Gonov, 1998) special NKVD forces were mobilized; 30 convoys and 900 American military lorries, received as lend-lease to bolster the Eastern Front against the Germans, were used (Afanasiev, Werth 2004). These special forces were deployed in and around Meskhetian villages a month before the rounding-up operation, in order to make a direct assessment of the number of people to be deported. They intervened in the middle of the night and gave the civilians three hours to prepare to leave, without any explanation. The latter were rapidly assembled in the stations and crammed into wagons, often believing that they were being moved to protect them from Turkish military maneuvers on the border (Bugaj, 1991). In March 1949, Meskhetian Muslims from the ranks of the NKVD and the various Party bodies were deported in their turn, accused of being traitors to the fatherland and banished to the remotest regions of the USSR. The NKVD, which controlled the whole process of deportation and supervised their exile, dehumanized the deportees, who were simply statistics for it; it minimized the negative aspects of their situation; and it manipulated the official figures to conceal its own incompetence and irresponsibility.

In the places of exile in Central Asia, the reception was non-existent. The local authorities, overrun by the ever-increasing number of deportees, found themselves incapable of performing the task thrust upon them by the NKVD. The economic and social consequences of the war, already tragic for civilians, impacted violently on the utterly destitute deportees. Incapable of providing for the basic needs of their own populations, the republics abandoned the exiles, who succumbed to the cold, hunger, and typhus epidemics. Moreover, the authorities spread extravagant rumors about the deportees, such as cannibalism and criminality, which further isolated them from the local populations. Stigmatized and discriminated against, they withdrew into themselves.

In Georgia, the local authorities erased any trace of the deportation. They burnt all birth and marriage certificates and reduced villages that were not reclaimed by displaced Georgians to ashes. Curiously, however, while reference to the deportees was officially prohibited, the Soviet Great Encyclopedia still mentioned the Meskhetians in 1954. Nevertheless, oblivion and silence were imposed; the subject was taboo. While the official history of Georgia maintains that the Meskhetian population was the ‘cradle’ of the Georgian nation, it remains silent on their present fate.

While it is difficult to establish the degree of collusion, blind conformity or connivance in the decision about deportation on the part of Georgian authorities subject to Moscow’s diktat, the responsibility of the highest Soviet instances – namely, Stalin and Beria – is beyond doubt. The results of the policy of deportation were multiple. The uprooting of the ‘Turks’, Hemshinli and Kurds of Meskhetia made possible their subjection through fear and their economic exploitation in lands that were barely cultivated. Their banishment was also an attempt at de-ethnicization through forced assimilation in Central Asia. The deportees were to become ‘Soviet Turks’ by being diluted among the Muslims of the Soviet East.

The Victims

It is practically impossible to establish the precise number of victims deported, because the archives are so divergent. Initial reports mention 91,000 deportees and some analysts suggest a maximum of 120,000. The identity of the deportees is just as complex. In addition to a minority of Gypsies (two wagons were ‘reserved’ for them), it involved around 75,000 ‘Turks’, this term encompassing Muslim Georgians who were also called Meskhetians, Turks, Tarakamas, Azeris, 9,000 Kurds, and 1,300 Sunni Armenians (Hemshinli), and some Gypsies deported in two wagons.

In the course of the deportation, the NKVD men repeated this single phrase: ‘We are deporting you. Assemble yourselves. You have two (three) hours’ (Bugaj, Gonov, 1998: 215). Some of them were reassuring, causing people to believe that it involved a temporary transfer; others ransacked houses under the eyes of their owners. The Muslim spouses of non-Muslims were spared, but in fact families generally remained together and opted for exile. However, those who did stay behind were subject to humiliating controls and intolerable psychological pressure (L. Baratašvili, 1988, no. 9: 106).

After the war, the deportations continued: a resolution of the Council of Ministers of the USSR dated May 29, 1949 ordered the deportation from the South Caucasus of all Turks, Greeks and Armenian Dashnaks (revolutionaries), without specifying their number (Bugaj, Gonov, 1998: 222). The Turko-Soviet borders were thus literally cleansed of any ‘suspect element’ – in the first instance, of Muslims.

Crammed into freight wagons, the deportees were kept in ignorance of their fate. During the journey – nearly a month long – the lack of hygiene, water and food debilitated and decimated them. Those who died of hunger, cold or illness were thrown out of the wagons, sometimes hastily buried in the snowdrifts. Estimates indicate 15-18,000 deaths during the transfer. The situation proved just as tragic once they had arrived in Central Asia. During the first years in exile, as many as 30% of the deportees perished. The mortality rate far exceeded the birth rate – a trend that was only reversed towards 1949 (Zemskov, 2003: 203).

The harsh winter, numerous typhus epidemics, and hunger were the main causes of death. No official statistics exist that make it possible to assess the real impact of the deportation and its conditions on the demographic evolution of the ‘Turks’ and other deportees from Georgia. Cross-checks with other deported peoples nevertheless allow us to suggest that between ten per cent and one-third of deportees succumbed to the conditions entailed by the journey and forced exile.

The deportees were assigned to jobs for which they often lacked the relevant skills. In order to survive, children, women and old people had to work. All were ‘special settlers’, pliable, under-paid manpower subject to strict controls. It was not uncommon for members of the same family to be exiled in different villages, even distinct republics. However, communities of Meskhetians, Kurds and Hemshinli gradually formed, knit together by the trauma of the deportation and incomprehension at their stigmatization. Endogamy seems to have been general, by tradition certainly, but also because of their situation as isolated, stigmatized, ‘punished peoples’.

In 1956, following the policy of de-Stalinization initiated by Khrushchev, some Meskhetian leaders (also called Meskhetian Turks) founded a movement to fight for the return to Georgia – the VOKO (Provisional Organizational Committee for Liberation) – probably on the model of the Crimean Tatars, their companions in misfortune. But this movement obtained no response to its numerous petitions and open letters. Its structural weakness and internal divisions prevented it from being a genuine source of agitation in a hegemonic USSR deaf to any identitarian demands, no matter how legitimate.

The Witnesses

It seems clear that witnesses observed and even experienced the deportations, even if it was only the spouses of deportees who were not rounded up. However, to our knowledge there exists very little written testimony making it possible to go into the details of the round-ups conducted during those five days in November 1944.

One of the most valuable testimonies is that of Nazira Vacnadze in her memoirs (2004). Valuable, because it is rich in original details but also precise in its observations. Nazira was eighteen at the time of the deportation. Her narrative is the only one that mentions the presence of NKVD soldiers in the Muslim villages well before the deportation, supporting the thesis of an operation that had been prepared long in advance. In particular, she recounts the preventive, systematic imprisonment of men who had returned from the front, and who were the only ones who might have been able to create a semblance of resistance at the time of the round-ups. She is also the only one to relate the testimony of friends present during the deliberate burning of public records in Meskhetia – acts that made it possible to destroy any official trace of the deportees, their identity and ethnic origin. Her description of the deportation confirms the very high degree of preparation of these operations – hence their effectiveness, rapidity and perfect organization.

The testimony of Latifšax Baratašvili is just as illuminating (1988). He carefully describes the living conditions in the wagons and shares his utter incomprehension of the events, even though he is a Party member and fervent patriot. The collection of deportees’ testimony by S. Alieva (1993), the article by Klara Baratašvili published in the bi-weekly Caucasian Focus (2000-06), and the work by Marine Beridze (2005) are the three main sources recounting life stories by deportees or children of deportees. Something they share is their belated appearance, concomitant with the collapse of the USSR.

Virtually no bystander has spoken on this subject. The testimony of G. Xvelidze (Medicinis mušaki, June 27, 1990) is an exception. Conscripted as a doctor in one of the trains during the deportation, he recounts some words exchanged with Meskhetians, which formed his opinion as to their Georgian ethnic origin – something that contradicts Soviet propaganda presenting them as Turkish spies.

There are two interpretations of the extreme scarcity of accounts. On the one hand, it was strictly forbidden to write the history of the deportation. Direct witnesses and bystanders were subject to all sorts of controls. They feared the informing encouraged by the authorities and were obliged to accept the taboo imposed on their memories. On the other hand, it could be, as K. Tomlinson (2002) has argued, that the silence of the Meskhetians and their seeming memorial apathy derives from a strategy of psychological survival. The repression of traumatic events supposedly ensures them an existential equilibrium centered on their present and not overwhelmed by a problematic past. However, this theory is open to challenge. In fact, the flood of memories displayed by Meskhetians when questioned about their experience, and their need to express themselves, are evident. The specific context in which people are speaking therefore needs to be taken into account. Tomlinson acknowledges that his interlocutors were constantly on the alert, fearful of saying too much, as if informing persisted in the Russian Caucasus some years after the disappearance of the USSR. We might also venture a third explanation for this silence: witnesses avid to recount do not encounter ears willing or able to listen. This means that even today Georgians are not ready to hear a story and memory that do not correspond to their official history or collective memory.


The collective Georgian memory is built on holes and blank pages that have progressively become denials. The non-event represented by the deportation of the Meskhetians in the USSR has thus become deliberate oblivion, a ‘blind spot’ in the official history of contemporary Georgia, totally absent from school and university textbooks. Where witnesses were initially forced to be silent by the government in power, once liberated from their enforced muteness after 1989 they came up against the deliberate deafness of the Georgians.

The difficult work of memory is also explained by the impossibility of commemorating the key dates of the contemporary history of the Meskhetians. In effect, the anniversary dates of 1994 and 2004 gave rise to no commemorative events, despite the activism of various Meskhetian groups. The Georgian government, always reluctant to open the file of their rehabilitation, has ambiguous relations with a population which, according to it, is not clearly identified. The Turkish or Georgian ethnic origin of the deportees is still at the center of bitter debates that weigh upon any reflection on their present situation as stateless, uprooted and ‘forgotten people of history’ (Tournon, 2004).

Georgia, land of origin of the deportees, seeks by all possible means not to remember the deportation and to avoid any reference to a possible return, despite the obligation to repatriate the Meskhetians within the twelve years laid down by the Council of Europe in 1999. In addition, Georgia seeks to exonerate itself by stressing the responsibility of Russia, which is legally the sole inheritor of the USSR. For its part, Russia relies on international law and recommendations (UNO), which favor the solution of repatriation for all refugees. It claims that Georgia is ignoring its moral and historical obligations by refusing any right to the Meskhetians, deliberately trapping them in the status of permanent refugees. For all that, Russia itself has not taken what it is now customary to call a second look at itself via a ‘duty to remember’. The deportations are still not events that have been incorporated into official history, or integrated into the collective memory – and this despite various works of high quality (Zemskov, 2003; Bugaj and Gonov, 1998). Moreover, the region of Krasnodar is the only one to this day to refuse Russian citizenship to the 15,000 Meskhetian refugees who live there, many of whom have already gone to the United States thanks to the American program of aid for refugees (Swerdelow, 2006).

The history and memory of the deportation of Muslims from Meskhetia might have fallen into utter oblivion had another traumatic event not reawakened them in spectacular fashion. In June 1989, pogroms – spontaneous riots according to Osipov (2004) – directed against the Meskhetian minority in the valley of Ferghana in Uzbekistan became one of the most dramatic, mediatized symptoms of the collapse of the USSR. These pogroms, which officially resulted in 100 dead and 500 wounded essentially among Meskhetian Muslims, smashed the myth of friendship between the peoples to smithereens (Lur’e, Studenikin, 1990). They revealed to the Soviet public the existence of a hitherto unknown population. As a result, the Meskhetians became an object of history, but of a history that is disturbing and which was immediately marginalized. Because they emerged at the point when the Soviet republics were acquiring their independence and detaching themselves from their Soviet past, whereas they were hyper-mediatized Soviet exiles, the Meskhetians became stateless refugees once again consigned to oblivion. The memory of the deportation was thus banished to the margins of a history of reborn Russian and Georgian nationalisms. The heroic exploits of a glorified Georgian past won out over the black pages of a history of deportations for which the Georgian state took no responsibility.

In Georgia today, talk of the deportation of the Muslims from Meskhetia invests the political scene. For some, it is the founding event of the contemporary history of the Meskhetians, forever marking their collective memory and founding their identity. Nevertheless, there are two clashing opinions. According to the first, the Meskhetians are Turks (Junusov, 2000) who must return to Meskhetia, their historical land, with cultural rights adapted to their language and faith. In this case, the preferred term is Meskhetian Turk or even Ahiska Turk. For the other opinion, the majority of deportees are Muslim Georgians, called Meskhs, demanding their repatriation. In both cases, the Georgian government refuses any dialogue, arguing economic, social and ethnic difficulties in a country already shaken by real or latent conflicts on the periphery (Abkhazia, Ossetia, Djavakhetia). Moreover, Georgian nationalists and much of the population counter-pose to the 1944 deportation the memory of the 1918 conflicts (G. K’imadze, 2005). The sporadically over-inflated recollection of the Turko-Meskhetian alliance of 1918 serves to legitimate the deportation of the ‘Turks’ from Georgia.

This conflict of memories, and the creation of competition between Georgian and Meskhetian victims, aim to relativize the historical impact of the deportation and refuse any right of return on the part of the deportees. Similarly, they tend to clear Georgia not only of a ‘duty to remember’, but also and above all of a ‘duty to history’. Georgian national history ignores the memories of its minorities. Thus, the deportation is regarded as a non-Georgian event, and hence one unworthy of featuring in the national history.

Interpretations and Assessments of the Facts

The Soviet archives, which have been open for fifteen years, provide numerous documents on the deportations. However, the figures given in the reports classified as ‘top secret’ are to be treated with caution. This is true, in the case of the Muslims from Georgia, of the term ‘Soviet Turk’. On the other hand, the formal absence of a charge justifying the deportation in the eyes of the authorities opens the door to all manner of interpretation. Areas of obscurity remain as regards the causes of the deportations. Many conjectures, from the most paranoiac to the least scrupulous, offer a view on the subject.

Two American researchers, S.E. Wimbush and R. Wixman (1975), put forward the concept of Türlük, or the ‘Turkishness’ of the Meskhetians, whom they link to the Turkish world, and make this identity characteristic of the cause of their deportation. These authors assert that the deportation was the deed of Armenians who have borne a ‘traditional animosity’ towards the whole Turkish world since the massacres of the late nineteenth century and the genocide of 1915. The goal of the Armenians was supposedly to cleanse what they regarded as their historically Armenian land from the ‘Turks’ populating it. Thus, in the middle of the war articles by Armenian academics published in the Soviet press demanded these territories. But these decidedly armenophobic arguments seem very thin in the light of the historical evidence. The Armenians were not the only ones to demand territory in Anatolia; the Georgians likewise made such declarations aimed at the return of Turkish Lazistan. Yet neither of these Soviet republics could have taken the initiative in an area as sensitive and strategic as that of international borders. Quite the reverse, these nationalist demands were encouraged and instrumentalized by the Kremlin, which engaged in a policy of verbal and diplomatic aggression against Ankara. The goal of the Soviet leaders was to provide a historical basis for their own imperialist territorial demands, which extended as far as the Turkish straits. The two authors direct all their arguments to the sole end of having us believe that the SSR of Armenia was sufficiently powerful to dictate its claims to Moscow and provoke the deportation of Turkish elements from the USSR. However, there is no evidence to corroborate the existence of such an Armenian lobby around Stalin.

In his article (1999), the Georgian historian Guram Mamulija aims to absolve the Georgians from any responsibility in the decision-making process regarding the deportation. By laying all responsibility at the door of the Moscow ordering parties, he does more than exonerate Georgia; he glorifies it by proving that Tbilisi not only wanted to protect its Muslims from deportation by simply moving them, but also succeeded in saving the Adjars. In this way, he clears Georgia of any suspicion of active, voluntary collaboration with Stalin and Beria. He claims that his country has displayed the utmost willingness to protect the Muslims of Meskhetia, that the latter have always been considered Georgian citizens who are in the process of being completely integrated linguistically and culturally. This article pursues two aims. On the one hand, it seeks to get the Georgian government to concede that repatriation is morally necessary, especially given that it was not responsible for the deportation. On the other hand, it seeks to prove to the Muslims of Meskhetia, a majority of whom are skeptical about the ‘natural and historical’ friendship of the Georgians towards them, that their homeland of origin is and always has been their ally. The sole culprit for the deportation is the whole Soviet hierarchy, not the Georgian people or authorities.

The Russian historian P. Poljan (2001) proposes to put the deportation of the Muslims from Georgia in the category of ‘preventive total deportations’. For this, he recalls that in 1950-52 Iranians and Assyro-Chaldeans from Georgia were deported in their turn. He deduces that all Soviet citizens with real or supposed links to their supposed country of origin (Iraq, Iran, Greece, Turkey) were systematically suspect. The borders were literally cleansed of these ‘undesirable elements’, which in the eyes of a Stalinist system on the defensive were threatening. The enemy within was thus preventatively unmasked in order to protect the Soviet fortress. This approach, which makes securing the international borders of the USSR the major argument in justification of the deportations, is the most commonly accepted in the scholarly community. Only the terminology applied to the act of deportation itself sometimes differs, depending on the author. Thus, J.O. Pohl (2002) is one of the few to characterize the deportations as genocide, in this following the UN definition. In so doing, he favors an approach that is more legal than historiographical.

It is above all in Georgia that another debate has come to superimpose itself on that of terminology: here it is a matter of judging the deportation and its consequences. How is this non-event to be made an event integrated into Georgian historical chronology, without risking incrimination of the Georgians? How to broach the sensitive theme of their return while balancing the purely legal aspects and issues of politics and identity? Confronted with the deportation, and the issue of the rehabilitation and repatriation of the Muslims of Meskhetia, Georgians are divided. Those opposed to repatriation stress the impossibility of cohabitation between Georgians and ‘Turks’. In this framework, the deportation, although held to be a criminal act, allowed the normalization of the situation of Georgia, which (according to them) must be ethnically homogeneous. This approach is favored in particular by the political class and most of the media. For their part, supporters of repatriation minimize the memory of recent Turko-Georgian conflicts and stress the Soviet context. They aim to exonerate the Georgian people, it too a ‘victim’ of Soviet policy, by clearing it of all active and voluntary collaboration with the Soviet government (Mamulija, 1999). The ethnic solidarity between Muslims of Meskhetia and Georgians is underlined in order to create a positive reception for the policy of repatriation among a population largely hostile to ‘Turks’. Following this conciliatory approach, repatriation is an incontestable right, although some wish that only Muslims of Georgian orientation – so-called ‘Meskhs’ – should be rehabilitated (K’imadze, 2004; M. Nattmeladze, 2002; T. P'ut'karadze, 2005). In both cases, the deportation, often characterized as a ‘crime against humanity’, is distinguished from the issue of repatriation. The latter does not come under international law, but would depend on Georgian policy and, to a lesser extent, the pressure of international bodies such as the Council of Europe.


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Cite this item

Tournon Sophie, The Deportation of Muslims from Georgia, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 25 February, 2009, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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