A Lost Soviet Tribe, Scattered by Stalin’s Whim
After 70 years, a Georgian Muslim minority has yet to return from forced deportation
In the waning days of WWII, Stalin cast a wary eye on the Soviet Union’s southern border, considering a military engagement with Turkey. He worried about the loyalty of Meskhetians, a Muslim minority who spoke an Eastern Anatolian dialect of Turkish and populated the Georgian mountains. For several days in November 1944 they were forced from their homes and onto trains traveling to a variety of different places. Very few have managed to return, out of numbers estimated to be around 100,000.
Their story isn’t well known. Photographer Temo Bardzimashvili first became interested in the deportations when on assignment photographing families of returnees. A few months later he went back to produce a multimedia report, but still he was only scratching the surface.
“Even after publishing the story I felt there was more to tell about these people, since back then there was very little information available to the general public in Georgia,” says Bardzimashvili. “Largely, that is still the case — many Georgians do not have much information about the Meskhetians and have reservations about their possible repatriation. I personally hope that my project helped fill this information gap.”
What started as a couple of isolated stories morphed into an odyssey of discovery spanning Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and throughout his native Georgia. Stalin’s soldiers had distributed Meskhetians throughout Central Asia and while they were granted some freedom of movement after Stalin’s demise they weren’t allowed to return home.
Covering vast distances required backing, which Bardzimashvili found in the European Centre for Minority Issues. He connected with NGOs who worked with Meskhetian communities, learning about their history and sometimes accompanying workers into the field. Sometimes he was on his own.
“In some places, like Kyrgyzstan for example, I would contact someone from the Meskhetian community, often a young person, who would show me around and help me meet people,” he says. “Since the vast majority of Meskhetians speak Russian, I never needed an interpreter.”
It was easy to visit families who had found their way back to Georgia, so Bardzimashvili would make repeated trips there for several days at a time. Flying to Kyrgyzstan was another matter entirely, and weeks would be dedicated to a single place to which he couldn’t easily return.
Wherever he met Meskhetians, Bardzimashvili was welcomed with open arms, though they’re not a homogenous people. Suspicion, violence, and upheaval have afflicted certain arms of the diaspora. In 1989 throughout Uzbekistan, once home to the largest exile population, pogroms forced an estimated 60,000 to flee, most settling in Azerbaijan.
But while some communities remain outcasts others have assimilated into the prevailing culture, and their customs and ceremonies have incorporated outside influences. This cross-pollination isn’t always welcomed by the many elders who still remember the frantic packing, shouting soldiers and freezing cattle cars that tore them from their native land.
The Georgian government has made returning nearly impossible. Procedures for repatriation were only crafted in the late ‘90s, and only as a condition for membership in the Council of Europe. The process was a gauntlet of bureaucratic cunning: Paperwork had to be filed in English or Georgian whereas most Meskhetians speak Russian or Turkish; documents proving blood ties to deportees had gone missing or been destroyed. Less than 10,000 applications were submitted during the short window permitted, half of which were dismissed as invalid. Some people returned on their own and aren’t on a path to citizenship.
“Nearly all of the elders I’ve met were planning to either return to, or at least visit the places where they grew up. Many would sell their houses, and urge their families to resettle to Georgia, sometimes starting from the scratch, just to have a chance to spend the last years of their lives in their homeland.”
After legislation for repatriation passed, opinion polls showed a hostile public. Bardzimashvili found his Meskhetian hosts to be hard-working, tightly-knit communities built around a core of family and tradition. Not everyone has broken into the middle-class but a support network keeps the less fortunate from slipping into poverty. He assumes ignorance is behind antipathy towards the exiles, as well as stubborn stereotypes about Islam.
Even within the diaspora Meskhetian identity is split between those who believe they’re ethnic Turks from Ottoman times and those who believe their ethnically Georgian who were converted during the empire.
“Before I started working on this project I knew very little about Meskhetian traditions,” he says. “I grew up in a multicultural city, so I was somewhat familiar with Azerbaijani, Armenian, Kurdish, and Russian customs. However, for decades any information about Meskhetians was either totally blocked, or warped.”
It was precisely the sort of traveling and meeting people required by this project that lured Bardzimashvili to a life in journalism. Originally he’d pursued science and technology, earning a physics degree in his hometown of Tbilisi and going to grad school for industrial mathematics at Michigan State. Years of school won him a software development job for a Georgian phone company but office life wasn’t for him. Photography presented itself as an option when a friend offered him freelance work for a local magazine.
Once he had completed his travels for the project, Bardzimashvili put together an exhibition. Seeing everything laid out together proved there was a strong, cohesive story and, publishing a book was the next step.
The process, aided by his wife Negin who has a deft eye for layout and a knack for storytelling, forced the photographer to re-examine his work from different angles and contexts. The book is titled The Unpromised Land.
The deportation of the Meskhetians is only one chapter in Georgia’s story. Bardzimashvili grew up in the volatile years following the collapse of the USSR when the nation’s economy was wrecked. Abkhazia and South Ossetia revolted and soon after he returned home from studying abroad, Russia sent in tanks. Photography kept him from abandoning his homeland to its fate.
“Upon returning to Georgia, I was thinking about leaving the country soon again, as I did not see many opportunities there as an IT specialist,” says Bardzimashvili. “However, by the time I started to work as a professional photojournalist, I rediscovered the country. I started to travel around, meet more people, and tell their stories. I think Georgia is very rich with photographic texture and material. One small village can easily become a life-time project there, just depends on how deep you want its story to be.”
The stories of Georgia were compelling enough for him to work after hours and on weekends while still clocking hours at his day job. After two years of moonlighting Bardzimashvili left tech for a journalism school in Tbilisi.
But today he’s circled back to computers. The economy has improved and there’s a healthy journalism industry in Georgia. And most of his former colleagues survive off assignments from foreign publications. In 2013 he emigrated to Canada where he lives today, working on combining his two lifelong passions.
“Currently I am working on a tech startup project that involves development of remote control systems for professional cameras,” he says. “I co-founded the British Columbia based research and development company Brainy Lantern that develops mobile device utilities for professional and serious amateur photographers.”
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