The snow catastrophe of 1986/87 in Svaneti

Every visitor to Svaneti notices the many dilapidated buildings while walking or visiting the villages. Adishi, for example, which lies on the hiking trail from Mestia to Ushguli, resembles a landscape of ruins, as more than half of the houses have collapsed.

Destroyed and abandoned houses in the village Adishi, some are being restored

In the winter of 1986/87, the Western Caucasus and North Caucasus were affected by heavy snowfalls. Entire villages were buried in the mountains. Snow thicknesses of up to five metres were reached, traffic routes and power lines were interrupted. After the first snowfalls, about 1500 people were evacuated from the high mountain region of Svaneti. In the village community of Mulachi there were 400 families with their many relatives in the first phase. Within the second wave of snowfalls, the villages above Mestia, such as Tsvirmi, were more severely affected. About 1200 people were evacuated from there. The damage was so extensive that the affected families were permanently settled in the southeast of Georgia as early as the beginning of February 1987. In total, the State resettled about half of the population of Svaneti.

Pictures of a lost world in Upper Svaneti

On February 12, the Central Committee of the USSR decided to help the Georgian SSR to cope with the natural disaster. By the end of 1987, another 300 Svan families had been resettled, many of them to newly established settlements. However, due to the tense economic situation at the end of the Soviet era, the construction of these settlements did not progress as quickly as required. Today, the rooms emptied of people and the morbid charm of dilapidated buildings certainly make up part of the attraction of Svaneti. The avalanche events have left deep traumas, as almost every family has suffered death. Often it was the spring thaw that revealed the full extent of the tragedy. And the experience of being uprooted, having to leave the area from one day to the next, where most family lines can be traced back to the Middle Ages, has also left its traces in family histories.

The photo documents are taken from the quoted volume; due to the gravity of the events, the picture and text volume can be found in many households in Svaneti; the copy made available to me comes from the house of the Temraz and Fridon Nizhardze family, Ushguli.

The Svans in Kvemo Kartli (Lower Kartli): Anthropologist Stepháne Voell has studied the culture of the Svans living in the resettlement areas in the villages of the Kwemo Kartli region in southern Tbilisi. He paints a picture of a society that is still organized in family groups. In the Svan communities of Kvemo Kartli, narratives of traditional legal practices to prevent blood revenge and to settle cases of bride robbery and succession disputes still play an essential role. Above all, the resettlers tried to preserve their way of life and thus their self-image by often orienting their lives more strongly towards traditional ideas than they had done in the mountains. Today, many of the resettlers push back in summer to earn money from tourism. Unemployment in Kvemo Kartli, like everywhere else in Georgia, is high.

Recommended reading: Stéphane Voell (2016): Traditional Law in the Caucasus. Local Legal Practices in the Georgian Lowlands.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photographs: © Stefan Applis (2018, 2019)

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