The Akhvakhs

The self-designation of the Akhvakhs is ashvado, and their language ashvalkhi mitskhtskhi. Their closest neighbours and linguistic relatives, the Avars, call them ghakhyevalá, hence the internationally known designation. The Akhvakh language belongs to the Andi subgroup of the Avar-Ando-Dido or northwestern group of the Dagestan languages and is divided into two dialects: North-Akhvakh and South-Akhvakh. The first is homogeneous, while the latter is further divided into the Tlyanub and Tsegob subdialects. The difference between the South-Avar and North-Avar is rather considerable and users of the two dialects prefer communicating in the Avar language. The ancient layers of the vocabulary have been preserved quite well, even though complemented by numerous Arabic, Avar and Russian loans. As the Akhvakh language has not been studied much, the first publications date from the 1940s.

The Akhvakhs live in the northwestern part of Dagestan, in the mountains between the Andi-Koisu and Avar-Koisu rivers. Between the territories of other nations their habitat represents two small enclaves that could perhaps conventionally be called the northern and the southern territories. The former is situated in the Akhvakh District and consists of five villages: Tad-Magitl, Kvankero, Logonitl, Kuydab-Roso and Izani. The southern territory comprises three villages: Ratlub, Tsegob and Tlyanub. Administratively they belong to the Sovetsky District. One Akhvakh village called Akhvakh-Dere is found in the Zakataly District of Azerbaijan. The southern villages are surrounded by Avar settlements, the northern ones border on Avar areas to the east and south, and on Tindi areas to the north.

Population. As a separate nation the Akhvakhs have been counted only since the 1926 census. The data from the 1950s and 1960s has been taken from academic publications and is approximate.

Anthropologically the Akhvakhs belong to the Caucasian type of the Balkano-Caucasian race. They are characterized by a relatively light skin, tall stature, a broad face and a massive skull. Some features, however, echo the Caspian type and sometimes they are considered a transitional type between the Caucasian and the Caspian anthropological types.

The religion of the Akhvakhs is Sunnite Islam, introduced in Dagestan by the 8th-century Arab invaders and becoming really influential following the raid of Timur in the 14th century. The consolidation of Islam was inhibited by the simultaneous advance of Christianity from the west. Alongside the weakening of the Georgian state, however, the base for Christianity shrank and Islam prevailed. As people living in a natural state the Akhvakhs also nurtured many pagan beliefs which in an adapted from Islam persist until today.

Ethnoculturally the Akhvakhs are connected to the Avars and other Ando-Dido peoples. Common traits can be observed both in the material and spiritual spheres while local peculiarities are few (waxen water jugs, certain elements in the national dress). The only cultural feature distinguishing the Akhvakhs from the Avars is their language, but this was already restricted to domestic use by the beginning of the 20th century while the rest of the communication, even inside the villages, proceeded in the Avar language.

The history of the Akhvakhs coincides to a large extent with that of the Avars as their territories are in close proximity. Since the 7th century the region has suffered from foreign invasions. In Avaria the 8th--14th century period can be considered the era of Arabs and Mongol-Tatars, the 15th--18th centuries were characterized by hostile contacts with Turkish and Persian invaders, to be followed by a Russian period beginning in the 19th century. During the 15th--18th centuries the Akhvakh people were subjects of the Avar Khanate, but the subordination was rather nominal as geographical isolation prevented the Khan from exercising his power on the Akhvakh territories. By the 17th century the Akhvakhs had developed two small administrative structures, the so-called free communities of Ratlu-Akhvakh and Tsunta-Akhvakh. The development of the communities, however, was hindered by incessant domestic troubles and warring. Historical records tell of the wars waged by the Akhvakhs against the Bagulals and the Karatas. Even a military union was concluded between the Karata and the Gidatl community against the Akhvakhs. In 1806 the territory of the Akhvakhs was united with Russia, but, as this could not end the wars either, the regular functioning of the Russian administrative and executive organs was achieved only by 1860--1870.

The economy was shaped by the natural conditions. The mountain pastures created ideal conditions for seasonal livestock breeding. Sheep were raised, as well as cattle and horses. Domestic fowl (poultry) were kept. Wool and cheese were exchanged for grain produced on flatter lands. Land cultivation, despite its high level, had an auxiliary role. As arable lands were scarce they had to be created artificially. The solution was found in terraced fields supplied by a good irrigation system. The main crops were wheat and rye, later potatoes and vegetables were added. On the sunny slopes horticulture and viticulture were practised. The incorporation of Avaria into Russia meant access to the Russian market which, in its turn, boosted the local economy. Monetary and commercial relations developed, creating material differentiation within the society. On the other hand subordination to Russia meant being subjected to the colonial policy of the central authority, a policy took little heed of the wishes of the local peoples.

Soviet power that was officially established in Dagestan on January 20, 1920 and immediately faced serious consolidation problems. First, it was necessary to do away with the territorial isolation of the mountain villages. Secondly, a schooling system had to be introduced that would spread Soviet ideology alongside intensified central propaganda. All this was meant to change the national ideology and mentality of the Akhvakh people. Results, however, being slowish to appear pre-war campaigns (collectivization, anti-Islam struggle) were carried out with violence and bloodshed. During collectivization many Akhvakh nationalist were killed.

Radical changes in the mentality and everyday life of the Akhvakhs emerged only after World War II, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s and especially amongst the younger generation. This was expressed in the different attitudes towards folk customs towards their observance and preservation. Since then the young have tended more and more to adopt Soviet ways and European urban clothing. The old customs, when observed, are not observed from any inner compulsion, but rather out of mere inertia or respect for the older generation. The traditions are falling into oblivion. The most acute problem for the Akhvakhs is connected with their mother tongue. At school the first five forms are taught in Avar, and from then on, in Russian. No subjects are taught in Akhvakh. The norms of endogamy that previously used to regulate the family relations have receded, and the number of mixed marriages is growing.

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