Svaneti in the Snow: No Country for Old Men

Here, in Svaneti, people often say: “the families that never flourish are ones of an elder and of a hunter.” As it turns out both for the same reason – they have to spend much of their time far from homes. But while a hunter does it to get food for his family, an elder leaves home to solve others’ problems. Usually the only thing he gets back for that is people’s deference.

Being a makhshvi (elder in Svan) in Svaneti, a highland region in the North-West part of the Georgia, means being respected. But this is basically all about it – elders are not paid for their “service.”

IMG_9990_1Makhshvi, a Svan elder, 2010.

The tradition of asking Svan village elders for their help in settling social and criminal issues dates back centuries ago. In order to solve an issue several makhshvis from different villages get together and come up with a possible solution.

The number of elders in such councils depends on severity of a case: three or four elders are usually enough to make a match or to solve a case of abduction of a girl; about eight elders to deal with a case of injury or wounding during a fight; and not less than twelve for a murder case.

Before they started the trial, each makhshvi had to “vow on an icon.” That meant to stand in front of one or several icons of saints and to swear they would use “the most of their knowledge and brain to conduct a case in a proper way.” Such an oath was, and still is, the strongest word in Svaneti – connection with the spiritual world is most respected here. Rarely anybody dares to break it. An oath breaker would forfeit the commune’s support to become a society’s exile. In small societies like ones in Svaneti this was worse than death.

Bauchi Qaldani Bauchi Qaldani, 84, the elder of Adishi, 2010.

To come up with a solution elders would gather in some place where nobody can hear them. Usually it’s a separate house, but sometimes they even have to go to the woods. They say that nobody must know a verdict until they announced it to litigant parties. After a verdict was brought in one of the elders would put a pebble on the ground saying something like – “let this pebble be a gravestone to whoever tells anybody what’s been said here before the time.”

Verdicts usually were of two kinds: reconciliation and reconciliation with material compensation. In the first case, families of both sides of a case would just make up. In the second – they would make up after the certain amount of money (or material property) was paid to the injured party.

Natalia Qaldani helps her husband saw firewoodElder Bauchi Qaldani saws firewood with the help of his wife Natalia in the yard of their house, 2010.

But such simplicity was in fact rather delusive. In Svaneti, where society is clan-based, blood feuds could sometimes start up from even a minor argument. Two centuries ago people would often get killed only for claiming that some piece of land was theirs. Land was scarce then, especially on the steep slopes of Svaneti mountains. Either intentional or involuntary murder was also a reason to seek blood at the counter side. Uncontrolled blood feud sometimes would continue until the elimination of one of the families. Since then things become much milder, but occasional cross-family murders still happen to these days.

In such situations a council of elder was a mechanism to stop continuing vendetta. Elders say that usually two or three deaths from either side was enough to stop. After that elders would hold a council to reconcile warring parties. Even when a wrongdoer was punished by a state law and was imprisoned, council of elders still would consider his case because the aggrieved family would seek a revenge, even after the wrongdoer has served a sentence. Reconciling two families was crucial for Svaneti’s closed societies.

IMG_9738_1 Iliko Margiani, 74, an elder in the town of Mestia, 2010.

In one part of Svaneti, like in villages of Adishi, Ipari, Ushguli and Tsvirmi the material compensation was usual part of reconciliation. The price strongly depended on the complexity of the case. In the mid-20th century “the price list” was as follows:

  • for kidnapping a girl with her consent the family of the aggrieved party would get 3,000-4,000 Soviet Rubles (around $3,300-4,400 in 1960s);
  • for kidnapping a girl without her consent – around 8,000 Soviet Rubles (~$9000);
  • for wounding with a knife or a gun – 12,000 Soviet Rubles (~$13,000) plus a yoke of oxen;
  • for an unintentional murder – not less than 120,000 Soviet Rubles (~$130,000).

In other places, like in Mestia, Mulakhi etc. elders didn’t set material compensation, but would rather apply to “put-in-a-place” method – an aggrieved party was suggested to imagine him/herself on the offender’s side. Amazingly enough this method usually worked. The idea was that people realized that under other circumstances they could do the same and therefore tended to forgive the offender.

However, in intentional murder cases the family of a killed person would seek blood and would almost never accepted a compensation. Such cases were rather hard to solve. But still possible. After several people were killed from both sides, elders would force sides to reconcile, frequently with a help of a commune. If the whole village demanded the reconciliation from warring sides, hardly anybody would go against the society. The refusal to make up was fraught with expulsion from the community.

The council of elders in Svaneti seems to be very similar to the modern jury trial (especially in the murder cases, when the minimal number of elders in a jury is twelve). Before bringing in a verdict, they collect facts, question sides and witnesses etc. Being under the oath elders are very concerned about making the right decision.

IMG_9662_1Bagrat Kakhberidze, a 85-year-old elder, with his wife Tamara in the town of Mestia, 2010.

But they say times of elders’ mediation is going away. New generation in Svaneti often tends to apply to criminal authorities rather to makhshvis to solve problems. In many cases laws of the Soviet times’ criminal world are not much different from the logics used by elders, simply because it’s based on the common sense, and, in a sense, it’s fair too. That’s why young people often say there’s no difference between a matter settled by an elder and “a thief in law” (a Soviet phenomenon, read about it here). However, there are some key differences: for instance by the criminal world’s law you couldn’t squeal on somebody, if you witnessed a scene of, say, murder. Otherwise you were a fink. This means that the investigation of a case was not as thorough as when elders dealt with it, and often biased.

Elders usually were not chosen or assigned and their status didn’t depend much on their age. Instead, whoever made a name of reasonable and wise person was often automatically treated by people as a makhshvi. They would go to him for an advice, and with time he would be called to take part in councils.

 Sandro Gulbani, 82, an elder of Ipari village. Sandro Gulbani, 82, an elder of Ipari village, 2010.

But being an elder meant spending much time away from home. Usually, while an elder was dealing with others’ problems, his wife was taking care of the household alone. Many elders later would say they wished they never were makhshvis and could dedicate themselves more to their own family and farm instead. People’s lifetime respect was a sort of compensation for elders for their time spent on others.

Read the story about one of Svan elders in EurasiaNet online magazine.

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One thought on “Svaneti in the Snow: No Country for Old Men

  1. Pingback: Svan Trick or Treat (Svaneti-Racha Hike) « Temo Bardzimashvili's photo blog

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