Magharich (Armenia)

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Location: Armenia
Armenia map.png
Author: Meri Avetisyan
Affiliation: University of Basel, Armenian State Pedagogical University

Original text: Meri Avetisyan, University of Basel, Armenian State Pedagogical University

Magharich’ refers to a traditional gift-giving practice in Armenian culture, which in more modern times has also become a euphemism for a bribe. Thus, the word magharich’ is used to characterise two substantially different practices, with the meaning shifting according to the context of use.

In its original meaning, magharich’ means a gift given by a person who receives good news on personal matters, to a friend, relative, neighbour, or to the person who conveys the news (Hayots Lezvi Barbarrayin Bararan Vol. 4 2007: 17)[1].The first appearance of this word in Armenian dictionaries can be dated to 1944 (Malkhasyants 1944: 244)[2], where it was presented as a synonym of the word avetcheq, which means a gift given to a person who brings good news (Raffi 1970, see also Aghayan 1974: 960, Jamanakakic Hayots Lezvi Bats'atrakan Bararan 1974: 468)[3][4][5]. Essentially, the magharich’ gift is given because the recipient of the good news is so thankful that they wish to share it in some way. Indeed, the receiver of the magharich’ might not even expect anything in compensation for the service. The same meaning holds where the beneficiary offers a magharich’ to friends, neighbours or relatives, in order for them to share joy, good fortune or happy news. A typical example of this type of magharich’, especially in Soviet Armenia, was money given to midwives who brought news of a successful delivery and announced the gender of the newborn. Armenian fathers were especially generous when the newborn was a boy. Another example is giving money to a doctor following successful surgery.

In the modern sense of the word, magharich’ is simply a ‘camouflage’ word for a bribe. To give a magharich’ or to ask for magharich’ commonly means to bribe or to solicit a bribe. Many examples of the use of the word magharich’ in this sense can be found in the Armenian media. For instance, in a report on a high profile court case, a witness was quoted as saying that he gained employment because his mother gave magharich’ to the accused, a former head of a government agency (Hetq 2004)[6].

Image depicting the informal practice of Magharich.Author: Sveta Ghazaryan

The use of ‘camouflage’ words to describe bribery-related practices can be found in different countries. In this context the use of the word magharich’ is very similar to the notion of ‘envelopes’ which is widely used in a number of countries including China, France and Latvia, or ‘un petit cadeau’ (a little gift) in North Africa. The word magharich’ in this meaning is also comparable to the Persian word baksheesh, which is widely used in many Middle Eastern countries to mean ‘tip’ and ‘alms’ as well as ‘bribe’ (Economist 2006)[7].

In Armenia it is widely believed that the term magharich’ (in the original sense of gift-giving) is an Armenian word that has migrated to wherever Armenians went in the former Soviet Union and beyond. However, both the word and the same definition of the practice are found in other languages too. The etymological roots of the word magharich’ might come from an Arabic word خارج‎‎ (maḫāriǧ) which literally means costs and expenses ( The use of the word in Russian (in modern Russian: магарыч; in old Russian: могорьць, могорецъ, магарецъ) dates back to the beginning of the sixteenth century (Slovar ruskogo yazika XI–XVIIvv 1982: 230)[8]. The word can also be found in Dal’s esteemed Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language (Dal’ 1863-1866)[9], where it is described in both contexts: firstly as a gift, mostly in the form of alcohol, given after a good deal has been concluded; and secondly as a bribe.

In Russia, examples of the use of magharich’ in both meanings (gift-giving and bribery) have been documented by a number of researchers exploring various aspects of the cultural, political and economic life of people in the regions of Kazan, Don, and Tula (Kiselev 2009, Krasnov 2010, Skryabin 2011)[10][11][12]. The word featured in the tsarist police force’s anti-corruption plans in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century (Salnikov 2009: 171-174)[13]. Interestingly, while describing the functioning of the legal and social autonomy of the Cossacks in the Russian Don area, Krasnov draws attention to the practice of ‘putting out magharich’’ (in form of alcohol) at village meetings, to solicit support of the most articulate and dominant representatives of the community. These krikuni (literally ‘speakers–shouters’) often had more influence than the village elders, and supplying the magharich’ to them could influence their view and help to achieve the desired outcome. This practice of influencing the process of community decision-making in Cossack villages in the Don region has become enshrined in the saying ‘Without magharich’ a person from the Don wouldn’t make any speeches’ (‘Без магарычей нет у донца и речей’ ), widely used from the second half of the nineteenth century (Krasnov 2010: 45)[14]. Moreover, the elders (atamans) in the Don region ‘put out magharich’’ in order to be elected as heads of their communities (Riblova 2008)[15]. This local practice has been satirised in the film ‘Election Day’ (Den’ vyborov 2007). Other typical examples in contemporary Russian discourse include, ‘Hey, friend, they say your daughter got married, so you owe us magharich’’, meaning that the father of the bride should buy drinks or a meal for friends or colleagues in accordance with the tradition; or ‘I got a place at university – the magharich’ is on me!’, referring to the willingness of a student to share their joy with friends by offering them a drink.

Painting representing a celebration of the informal practice of Magharich. Author: Minasyan

In the most recent linguistic analyses, magharich’ is viewed as a type of a bribe alongside other colloquial terms such as peshkesh and baksheesh (Shaev 2013: 863-866)[16]. Similarly, Nona and Robert Shahnazaryan refer to the word magharich’ as a form of bribe in their discussion of alternative economic relations, family relations and forms of corruption in the communities of the Caucasus. They also identify other euphemisms for bribery such as уважить (to show respect), подсластить (to sweeten), кормить (to feed), умаслить (to cajole), and отблагодарить (to thank) (Shahnazaryan and Shahnazaryan 2010: 68)[17]. It can be concluded that the meaning of magharich’ has evolved in the Soviet and post-Soviet contexts.

The traditional unsolicited gift-giving as a token of gratitude has turned into all kinds of informal add-ons to underpaid professionals in Soviet Armenia. The practice of compensating doctors and teachers for their inadequate pay and giving magharich’ for good service was widely perceived as appreciation, and to some extent the state connived in the practice. Although morally dubious and illegal, informal payments were often perceived by both donors and recipients as fair and necessary under the constraints of the Soviet regime. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, such practices have become regarded as a form of corruption. In 2013, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Armenia was ranked 94–101 out of 177 countries on the basis of payments for services in the public sector (Transparency International, 2014)[18]. No study to date has examined the ambivalence of informal payments – associated with blurred boundaries between traditional gifts and monetary payments – in the context of the Armenian tradition of magharich’. It is a cultural tradition that conflicts with international measurement of corruption, and the reinvention of such ‘traditions’ can lead to dangerous territory that ‘camouflages’ pragmatic needs, greed, and extortion. Further research on magharich’ is needed in order to better understand the boundaries between traditional gift-giving practices and corruption in Armenia.


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