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Hewitt: Language is the foundation, without which it will be impossible to preserve the identity of the Abkhaz

Mr. Hewitt, you have spent many years studying the history, languages and cultures of the people of the Caucasus. How did it all begin? How did you become interested in the Caucasus? 

It happened entirely by accident. I studied Latin and Ancient Greek at Cambridge University and then progressed to take the Cambridge Diploma in Linguistics. After considering a career in the police, I decided to do research for a doctorate and sought advice in 1973 from the Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit, Professor Sir Harold Bailey, one of the leading scholars in Indo-European languages of his day, and, on his advice, I decided to investigate the similarities and differences between Ancient Greek and Old Armenian. Having registered for this topic, I returned to see Sir Harold, whom I visited many times until his death in 1996, and he told me that, if I was going to study Old Armenian, I would also have to look at the neighbouring language, Georgian, as there had been much interaction over the centuries between these unrelated languages. Sir Harold showed me a Georgian book, and I immediately fell in love with the script! So, I bought Hans Vogt’s ‘Grammaire de la langue géorgienne’ and realised at once that Georgian is a much more complicated language than Armenian and thus of more interest to the linguist. I spent more and more time looking at Georgian and discovering something about the other languages of the Caucasus during the next 2 years, when I was supposed to be garnering information on Greek and Armenian subordinate clauses. In the summer of 1974 I had the opportunity to spend several weeks in Turkey in a Circassian (Abzakh) village, during which time I was able to make a trip to the last village where Ubykh was still known by a few old persons. While there, I was given the contact-details for the last fully-competent native speaker, Tevfik Esenç, in Istanbul and, on my return to Istanbul, met him and made some recordings of his speech – these are now available on the Net. In 1975-76 I spent the academic year in Tbilisi, courtesy of the British Council, learning Georgian and having theoretical instruction in Avar (North East Caucasian) and Chechen (North Central Caucasian). I had wanted to investigate Circassian further as a representative of the North West Caucasian family, but there was no-one in Tbilisi who could speak to me in English about this language. And so, I was offered theoretical instruction in Abkhaz, which I gladly accepted, though it was never my intention to specialise in this language. By the end of the academic year I was married to an Abkhazian (from Ochamchira), and thus began my intimate connection with Abkhaz and Abkhazia. After working for two years after my return to Cambridge on a research-project dealing with the non-Slavic languages of the USSR, I resumed my doctoral research and eventually gained my doctorate on the topic of a comparative-contrastive study of subordinate clause syntax in Abkhaz and Georgian. 

In the 1970s you began to visit Georgia regularly with the aim of conducting research, you studied the language, history and culture of the Georgian people and you were a welcome guest in Tbilisi until you began to support the Abkhaz. How did your exposure to Abkhaz culture begin, and what influenced your views on relations between Georgia and Abkhazia? 

Naturally, once I was married into an Abkhazian family I made the most of the opportunity this gave me to familiarise myself more deeply with Abkhaz. I was also asked to contribute a volume on Abkhaz to a series organised with a Dutch publisher by my doctoral supervisor, Bernard Comrie, and my first major publication was the resulting grammar of Abkhaz, which was volume 2 in the Lingua Descriptive Studies series. Having close connections with both Georgians and my in-laws in Ochamchira, I was aware of tensions between the two peoples, but it was not until 1987 that I really came to understand the reasons behind these feelings (at least on the part of the Abkhazians). I spent the last 5 months of 1987 on a sabbatical from my university (Hull University), partly working on Mingrelian grammar and partly gathering information on the language-policy implemented in Soviet Georgia. This research introduced me to what had happened in Abkhazia during the years of the Stalin-Beria repression of the Abkhazians, their language and culture (1937-53): the shift of the script in 1938 to a Georgian base, the closure of Abkhazian language-schools, the prohibition of pubishing/broadcasting in Abkhaz, the appearance of the so-called ‘Ingoroq’van Hypothesis’, no doubt as a ‘scholarly justification’ for the envisaged deportation of the Abkhazians to Siberia/Central Asia in the late 1940s. I had been asked to prepare a talk on the topic of language-planning in Soviet Georgia for a seminar at London University’s School of Slavonic and East European Languages at the start of 1988, and I realised while conducting the research that, if ever I was to make full use of the information I was collecting, I would probably run the risk of losing the excellent reputation I had earned for myself among the Georgians, most notable as a result of the live television-appearance I made early in 1987 on the occasion of Ak’ak’i Shanidze’s 100th birthday, and, of course, this then happened in due course two years later.

Your Open Letter to the Georgian People in May 1989 is notorious, what prompted you to write it? 

I used to receive from Tbilisi the weekly newspaper ‘Lit’erat’uruli Sakartvelo’ or ‘Literary Georgia’ (in Georgian) and the fortnightly ‘Samshoblo’ (Homeland). As Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’ took hold from the middle of 1988, some very interesting articles about the Stalin-Beria period started to appear, but shortly thereafter less appealing articles of a nationalist nature began to be published, and these intensified as 1988 turned into the fateful year of 1989. I was horrified to read the kind of ugly materials that were appearing about the minorities living in Georgia, especially (for obvious reasons) the Abkhazians. It was clear that events were moving in a dangerous direction, given the way that, after the Lykhny Declaration of 18 March that year, the Abkhazian ‘question’ became linked with the 9th-April tragedy in the centre of Tbilisi. So, though I was due to give a talk entitled ‘Why we need a new grammar of Mingrelian’ at a day’s conference (Georgian Studies’ Day) at the university where by then I was employed as lecturer in Linguistics and Caucasian Studies (London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies = SOAS), I decided at the last moment to talk about the growing crisis in Abkhazian-Georgian relations. I had reason to believe that most Georgians might not have known about what took place in Abkhazia during the Stalin-Beria years and I felt that, if they could be made aware of the history of the region, they would at least understand why Abkhazians were cool towards them and might not feel inclined to follow the anti-Abkhazian hysteria being whipped up by the leaders of the nationalist cause (such as the Mingrelians Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Merab K’ost’ava, and Gia Ch’ant’uria). I was the last speaker on that Friday afternoon, and everyone was surprised by what they were hearing (certainly nothing to do with Mingrelian grammar!). An elderly Georgian in the audience, Dr. Ak’ak’i Ramishvili whose father, a minister in Georgia’s Menshevik government, had been assassinated by Stalin’s agents in Paris in the 1930s, and with whom I had dined the previous evening, stood up and said that I should send my thoughts to Tbilisi to see what the reaction would be. So, that weekend I wrote down what I styled my ‘Open Letter to the Georgian People’ in Georgian (I otherwise only had rough notes made on the day of the conference itself). I showed the document to my wife. She said that it was comforting to see what I thought about the situation but said: ‘You have known the Georgians for 14 years and have an excellent reputation there. I lived among them for 30 years and know them better than you. They won’t accept this, even from someone of your standing. Don’t send it.’ So, I went ahead and sent it! Thinking that it might be ignored, I translated it into English and sent this to friends in Sukhum. They rang through to Tbilisi (presumably the editorial office of ‘Literary Georgia’) and were told: ‘It would be good to publish it, but our brothers would kill us.’ [Presumably the ‘brothers’ were the nationalist leaders in Tbilisi]. Anyway, the Letter was translated into Russian and hung outside the Philharmonic Hall for anyone interested to read it, and it was apparently widely read during the two weeks it hung there. My wife, daughters and I arrived in Abkhazia a week before the fatal clashes in Sukhum. Since Ochamchira was essentially the front line between the Abkhazians and the Georgian/Mingrelian/Svan forces after a tanker was exploded on the bridge over the Aaldzga, thereby blocking access north to the hordes on the Gal side, Party Boss Givi Gumbaridze flew in to Ochamchira on the Monday morning (17 July 1989). Hearing of his presence, I went with my wife to see if I could talk to him. We were ushered in to Sergej Bagapsh’s office, where, in the presence of Bagapsh, Boris Adleiba and V. Khishba, we spent about 25 minutes in discussion with Gumbaridze. I asked why my Open Letter, which was NOT meant to be read as simply a pro-Abkhazian essay, but was designed to calm down the nationalist hysteria in Georgia and thus help establish some kind of good-neighbourly relationship between Tbilisi and Sukhum, had not been published. Gumbaridze said he would look into the matter once back in Tbilisi, and, lo, my Letter was published in that week’s edition of ‘Literary Georgia’ (Friday 21 July) ALONG WITH THE FIRST ATTACKS ON ME THAT THEN CONTINUED FOR THE FOLLOWING THREE WEEKS ACROSS ALL MEDIA-OUTLETS IN GEORGIA. My wife’s prediction had been correct – my name in Georgia has been mud since that Friday… 

The publication of that letter had unpleasant consequences for you, you were to all intents and purposes barred from entering Georgia. How negatively did that affect your future research plans, after all, at that juncture you were already working on a book on Georgian grammar? 

It had been my intention to write major grammars of Georgian when I was in my mid-fifties (I was born in 1949), but, as of July 1989, it was clear that my access to Georgia and my range of informants for the language in Tbilisi no longer existed. And so, when I was asked by Routledge to write a self-tutor and by John Benjamin to write a comprehensive grammar, I decided that I would accept and publish these major works in my mid-40s. As a result of these (and other publications, both of a linguistic and non-linguistic nature), I was able to apply for promotion to Reader and then Professor, winning a fellowship of the British Academy, all in the mid- to late-1990s. And so, though my relations with the Georgians came to an abrupt end, everything worked to my advantage in terms of advancing my academic career, ironic though this be! 

Abkhazia won its independence from Georgia as the result of a bloody war. And in 2008 its independence was recognized by Russia, and then by a few other countries that are members of the UN. Has the West’s attitude to Abkhazia’s independence changed over those years? 

I can’t say that there have been any major changes noticeable in the views of most of the members of the so-called ‘international community’. My opinion has long been that it was an unforgivable error (based, as are many decisions on the part of leading politicians, on ignorance) to have recognised Georgia within its Soviet borders in the spring of 1992, given the conditions prevailing in Georgia at the time. But once decisions are made, politicians are loath to admit their mistakes, and so the innocents in countries around the world are left to suffer the consequences, and the predictable consequence here was the war initiated by Shevardnadze on 14 August 2014, a decision I have always thought to have been motivated by a wish to unite against the ‘common foe’ (the Abkhazians) not only the supporters of the military council in Tbilisi but also the largely Mingrelian supporters of the ousted president Gamsakhurdia. As we know, this gambit failed, and the civil war in Mingrelia continued. 

How do you see the prospects for Abkhazia’s further development and how highly do you rate its chances of gaining broad international recognition? 

I have long argued that Georgia’s insistence that its ‘Soviet’ territorial integrity be respected and the support it has gained in this regard internationally, resulting in the various sanctions imposed on Abkhazia over the years since 1993, have only worked against Georgia’s own interests insofar as Abkhazia has been driven ever more into Russia’s embrace. The best solution for Georgia would be for Tbilisi to come to its senses and recognise Abkhazia as a fully independent state. This would then lead to the international community falling into line and offering recognition themselves. This in turn would pave the way for western investment and know-how (of which there is a HUGE need in Abkhazia). But, in those circumstances, how would Russian react??? 

You have represented Abkhazia’s interests in the UK for many years, please explain what this entails. What kind of difficulties do you encounter? 

I can’t say that I have experienced any difficulties over the years since Vladislav Ardzinba conveyed this honour upon me. I did once receive a note from the Protocol Department of the British Foreign Office demanding that I desist referring to myself as ‘Honorary Consul’ for an unrecognised country. But, as there is no law prohibiting me from calling myself whatever I like, there was no way that the Foreign Office could enforce its demand. 

You have a fine command of the Abkhaz language, and by your personal example you have demolished the myth that this ancient language is impossible to learn. Today, when the issue of the disappearance of the Abkhaz language is more relevant that ever before, what advice would you give to those who have begun to study the language and to those who teach it? 

Whilst I might acknowledge having a reasonable practical knowledge of Georgian, my knowledge of Abkhaz is theoretical in nature. Abkhaz is one of the most demanding languages when it comes to learning it (other than as a child growing up in an Abkhazian speech-community), and its future is by no means secure, though it is noticeable that the language is more often heard, even amongst the young, on the streets here in Sukhum than used to be the case when I first started visiting here. If we’re talking about foreigners abroad learning the language, then, given its intriguing structure and innate challenges, linguists will always be attracted to it and need no encouragement. As for those living in Abkhazia, then it should be natural for ethnic Abkhazians to learn it, and to this end, the only thing that is needed is for parents/grandparents actually to speak it to them from their infancy and not to use Russian. As for non-Abkhazian residents of Abkhazia, then, in line with the law that envisaged all state-transactions being conducted in Abkhaz from 2015 [sic!], one would hope that they will encourage their children to study with enthusiasm the language at school. Regarding teachers, then, firstly they need to be properly qualified and paid an appropriate salary, and they should think of themselves as instruments for passing on a most valuable commodity – the language of a people is surely essential if that people’s identity is to be preserved. Perhaps one positive outcome of the tragedy of the 1992-93 war is that Abkhazians became more aware of the privilege they had in having and passing on mastery of their mother-tongue. One hopes that a similar awakening might arise among the Mingrelians before that language too suffers a decline, be this in Abkhazia or in Mingrelia itself.

Can we say that over the past 20 years you have become better known not as a Caucasus scholar, but as a conflictologist or an Abkhaz diplomat? I ask this on the basis of your numerous articles and publications on Georgian-Abkhaz relations, and also your activities as Abkhazia’s honorary consul in the UK. 

Because, as stated above, my first major publication was my 1979 grammar of Abkhaz, for many years I was approached by fellow linguists as a specialist in Abkhaz, something I always rejected, as I regard myself as a specialist in Georgian. Whilst I may be Honorary Consul for Abkhazia, I would not consider myself as a diplomat of any sort. After all, I am a Yorkshireman and Yorkshire folk have a reputation for speaking their minds, something that diplomats are trained not to do! Yorkshiremen should not enter the diplomatic profession, if they wish to boast of their Yorkshire identity. Since the Georgians now regard me as a champion of the Abkhazians, I am not sure that they see me as someone from whom advice on conflictology would be sought, though I maintain that what I have said over the years (namely, avoid nationalist hysteria and cultivate good relations with your minorities; recognise Abkhazia IN YOUR OWN INTERESTS; and do not attempt to join NATO, surely a red rag to the Russian bear) best serves the interests of the Georgians themselves. So, I would prefer to be thought of exclusively as a Caucasian linguist. 

To focus specifically on your academic activity, one would like to know what you are currently working on and what your future plans are? Given your crammed schedule, do you manage to devote enough time to your scholarly work? 

Having published a self-tutor for Abkhaz some 5 years ago, I hope to live long enough to be able to complete a comprehensive grammar of the language, and for this I have been noting interesting grammatical features encountered during my reading over the years. At the moment I am checking the translations of the 4 Gospels into Abkhaz by my wife and Mushni Lasuria against the original New Testament Greek, for both these translators translated not from Greek but from Russian. As we also have the 1912 translation of the Gospels, it is proving very interesting to see how the three different translators deal with the same source-material. So, many of my examples in the envisaged grammar will necessarily be of a Biblical nature! 

You will be celebrating your imminent birthday in Abkhazia, how do you plan to spend the day? 

Well, it would be good to go out and celebrate the occasion, but, as my wife is in mourning and as the weather is predicted to be AWFUL, it seems that I shall be celebrating the event in our flat in the company of my immediate family only.


This interview was published by Sputnik Abkhazia and is translated from Russian. 

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