Azganvan popokhutyun (Georgia)

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Azganvan popokhutyun 🇬🇪
Georgia map.png
Location: Georgia
Definition: Surname change by ethnic Armenians living in Georgia, usually for reasons of ethnic identity
Keywords: Georgia FSU Caucasus Ethnicity Diaspora
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Kinship lock-in
Author: Anri Grigorian
Affiliation: Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
Website: Profile page at LinkedIn

By Anri Grigorian, Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Azganvan popokhutyun is the practice of surname change by ethnic Armenians for reasons related to ethnic identity. Historically it is particularly notable among ethnic Armenians residing in Georgia. A parallel practice, gvaris gadaketeba in Georgian, has also taken place among ethnic Georgians. The practices have been observed during numerous periods of ethnic tension in Georgia from the second half of the eighteenth century to the post-Soviet era. Historical specificities of the practice are the source of much controversy among Armenian and Georgian historians, as they form part of historical narratives of national identity that serve as a foundation for the statehood of former Soviet countries in the post-Soviet period.

The surname represents an important element of an individual’s identity. Surname change as a general practice takes place globally: an individual may change their surname for many reasons associated with cultural practices, for example marriage, or the adoption of a ‘professional name’ to ensure uniqueness and/or a suitable image. Azganvan popokhutyun is an instance of a subset of this practice also observed in many countries around the world: surname change as a means of hiding one’s ethnic origin and adopting a new identity. When a significant number of individuals from an ethnic minority change their surnames to ones which are similar (in terms of sonority) to surnames representative of the ethnic majority, an informal practice of surname change emerges.

Surname change as a response to 'external pressure' can be associated with a sense of personal loss, inasmuch as the surname represents an important attribute of personal identity to the individual[1]. However, in the face of ethnic discrimination, surname change can place in order to avoid the even greater cost of 'existential isolation' – isolation from ‘moral resources’ that are important ‘to live a full and satisfying existence’ (Giddens 1991). Another perspective explaining surname change is that of 'place-identity', which is defined as 'those dimensions of self that define the individual's personal identity in relation to the physical environment by means of a complex pattern of conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, values, goals, preferences, skills, and behavioural tendencies relevant to a specific environment'[2]. Intolerance towards one's ethnic origin can damage one’s place-identity, and surname change can be a means of restoring it.

The practice of azganvan popokhutyun by ethnic Armenians, and gvaris gadaketeba by ethnic Georgians, both have a long history in Georgia. The first evidence of such practices dates from the second half of the eighteenth century. In 1783, the Treaty of Georgievsk established Georgia as a protectorate of Russia. Afterwards, the tendency of changing Georgian surname suffixes to the Russian form '-ov' emerged, and continued up to the beginning of the twentieth century[3]. For example, the Georgian surname Markarashvili was registered as Markarov, and the Armenian church baptized Markarovs as Armenians. Furthermore, Armenian landowners in Georgia would change their Georgian surnames to Armenian ones[4].

There are controversies over a number of Armenian and Georgian surnames that have a common stem, but different suffixes. For instance, the following surnames have Armenian and Georgian variants respectively: Torosyan/Torozov – Torozashvili; Khechikyan – Khechikashvili; Kirakosyan/Kirakosov/Kirakozov – Kirakozashvili. The Armenian surnames take the suffix ‘-yan’ (sometimes also transliterated as ‘-ian’), while the suffix ‘-shvili’ is Georgian. Similarly, while Badalian is an Armenian surname, Badalashvili is Georgian.

An interesting controversy exists over the stem Badal, an Arabic word meaning ‘equivalence.’ According to Georgian sources, the surname Badalashvili first appeared in the Georgian village of Koda in 1873[5]. An Armenian church was proactive there, resulting in many Georgians being baptised by Armenian priests as Armenians, with subsequent changes to surnames, including Badalashvili, modified to accommodate the suffix '-ov' or '-yan' to the stem. This process is reported to have reached its peak in 1886[6]. However, Armenian sources provide a different story, suggesting that Badalyan is an Armenian surname in its own right, rather than an adaptation of the Georgian version. For instance, in the case of the surname Badalyan, 'Badal' itself was a widespread name in Armenia during the eighteenth century, which suggests that the surname Badalyan was derived from this first name[7].

Another controversy concerns the Catholics living in the Javakheti region of Georgia, which borders Armenia to the south and has an Armenian ethnic majority. In the post-Soviet period the region has been the subject of political demands for greater autonomy within Georgia, and even transfer to Armenia by some Armenian nationalist groups. Armenian ethnographers and historians(Lalayan 1983, Melqonyan 2003) claim that the Catholics emigrated to Georgia from Western Armenia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Georgian church, it is alleged, forced Armenian Catholics to change their religion over the period 1860-1880, while the Menshevik government of Georgia re-categorised Armenian Catholics as Georgians through threats, promises and terror. Some Armenian Catholics changed their surnames by joining the Georgian surname suffix '-dze' or '-shvili' to the Armenian surname stem; however, others chose to preserve their national identity[8]. Georgian scholars such as Javakhashvili[9] and Akhuashvili[10], by contrast, claim that the Catholic Armenians of Javakheti had originally been Georgians, but changed their surnames to Armenian ones. They accuse the Russian Empire of ‘Armenianifying’ the Georgian Catholic church through Armenian Catholic clergymen giving Armenian names to Georgian Catholics after baptizing. Furthermore, the Catholic population of eight villages of the Javakheti region categorised themselves as Armenian despite being of Georgian origin[11].

The practice of azganvan popokhutyun once again became evident in the first decade following the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Armenians living in Georgia adopted Georgian surnames to combat discrimination, due to apparently discriminatory policies towards ethnic minorities adopted by the first Georgian government. Armenians, Azeris, Greeks and Ossetians were all affected[12]. The nationalistic rhetoric of the government led to the de facto oppression of ethnic minorities. Despite the nationalistic politics being abandoned by successive governments, the emigration of ethnic minorities continued apace due to fear and uncertainty. Following the fall of Soviet Union, there have been significant changes in the proportion of ethnic minorities in the total population of Georgia. Thus, according to demographic census data, in 1989 ethnic minorities comprised 30% of the population, but by 2002 this figure had fallen to 16% [13].

Surname change related to ethnicity is evident in other parts of the world. For instance, there is evidence of Jewish and Italian surnames being changed to American surnames in the USA during the 1900s. American students at the University of Copenhagen tended to adopt abbreviated names because of ‘environmental pressure’[14]. Arai and Thoursie[15] have documented the surname change of Asian, African and Slavic immigrants in Sweden during the 1990s.

Borkowski[16] studied the patterns of Polish surname changes in the USA. The most frequent pattern was so-called 'substitution', where the surname was changed completely, e.g. Czarnecki to Scott, Borkowski to Nelson. Another pattern was 'subtraction', when the ending of the surname is dropped, e.g. Bolanowski becomes Bolan, Adamski – Adams, and so on. The other pattern was translation of the literal meaning of the Polish surname into English, e.g. Krolewski into King, Zimotrowicz into Winters.

Zagraniczny[17] examined the reasons for Polish Americans changing their surnames. One reason was 'spelling and pronunciation errors': the 'confusion and embarrassment' caused by surname errors induced US Poles to change their surnames. ‘Business reasons' was another factor cited – for instance, one respondent stated that his Polish name confused his customers. Generally, simple, short and easily memorised names were preferred in order to 'facilitate business transactions'. Another reason for 'Americanising' a Polish surname was to hide the individual’s Polish origins. The rationale behind the 'Americanisation' of surnames would appear to be the desire to be fully integrated in American society, although more research is needed in order to fully understand the motives of those involved. Finally, and relatedly, Zagraniczny’s study found sixty-four cases where Polish professionals such as teachers changed their surnames for increasing their chances of career advancement.

According to Armenian electronic media sources (such as,,, some Armenians residing in Georgia in the post-Soviet period also changed their surnames in order to help their advancement in the labour market, believing that, even after the change of the first nationalistic government, they would be more likely to find success in the labour market with Georgian surnames.


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