Avoiding Soviet “fragrance” in naming: Georgia, Sakartvelo or Gruzia?


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For over 20 years, Georgia has been urging the international community to use the name “Georgia” or the self-designation “Sakartvelo,” rejecting the Soviet or Russian term “Gruzia.” Similarly, Ukraine is seeking to change the imposed Russian variants of Ukrainian city names to “Kyiv” (not Kiev), “Odesa” (not Odessa), and many others. The trend of changing toponyms in official usage to self-designations is being embraced by an increasing number of countries. Georgian historian, publisher, and professor at Caucasus University, Buba Kudava, explains why this is important.


Both historically and in modern times, we have many cases of different languages referring to the same country, people, region, or city in different ways. A number of factors contribute to the formation of these language traditions. These include the history of relations between nations, the regional, political, or cultural context, as well as the influence of big states and international languages, among others.

The Kingdom of Georgia (Sakartvelos Samepo) during the reign of Queen Tamar the Great. XII-XIII centuries.


My country is no exception. For more than a thousand years, we have called our homeland Sakartvelo, which literally means “The country of Georgians” (Sa- and -o are affixes). Prior to this, two main political spaces existed here: Kartli in eastern Georgia (the Iberia / Iveria of western sources) and Egrisi (Kolkhida / Lazika) in the west. The self-name (autonym) of our people Kartveli derives from the first of these, which, in turn, became the basis for the name of the central region of the kingdom – Kartli. Since the early Middle Ages, the importance of the name Kartveli gradually increased, and came to encompass the populations of other regions that were linguistically, ethnically, and-politically aligned.


Today, almost everybody in the world knows us by a different name. The bases of the most common forms, sometimes altered in individual langues,  are Georgia / Georgian (common in Western countries, or those under their influence), Gruziya / Gruzin (mainly in Russian / Slavic societies and Post-Soviet countries, as well as other linguistic groups under the influence of Russian) and Gurjistan / Gurju (in Eastern cultures). There are exceptions too; for example, the neighboring Armenians call Georgia Vrastan, and in the Abkhazian language the name of the country (K’rtti’la) comes from the Georgian autonym.


Over many years of study, scholars have proposed differing theories about the origin of these forms: some suggest that Georgia is derived from Greek and means “the land of farmers,” while others believe that the country was named after St. George, who was highly revered here, among other theories. In the end, however, scholars have ultimately agreed that, as strange as it may seem, all of these different exonyms (names of a country / people in another language) come from one common root. In Old Persian, Vrkan meant “land of wolves,” which was reflected in other languages in different forms over time: Virk / Vurgan / Gurgan; Djurdjania / Djorgania / Gorgania / Giorginia / Georgia; Djurzan / Gurzan / Gurzi / Gruziya, and so on.

The earliest known example for an ethnonym Kartveli (Georgian): “This is the grave of Iohane, Bishop of Purtavi, a Kartveli.”

Umm Leisun, Jerusalem. Georgian inscription, 5th-6th centuries. Photo by Davit Tskhadadze


Regardless of its origin, it is a fact that Gruziya entered other languages through / under the influence of Russian. Accordingly, in parallel with the linguistic studies, there is a perception among Georgians (and others as well) that Georgia is a “western” name for the country, while Gruziya is a “Russian” and “Soviet” name.


From the beginning of the 21st century, the Georgian government initiated efforts to replace Gruziya with Georgia in many countries. . As a result, Israel (2005), South Korea (2011) and Japan (2015) abandoned the Russian-influenced Gruziya. In 2018, they were joined by Lithuania, which made an unusual decision and became the first foreign country in the world where Georgia is officially referred to by a term corresponding to its autonym – Sakartvelas. In return, Georgia renamed Lithuania Lietuva in place of Litva, a name that had also been introduced via Russian.


How to refer to a foreign country / people in one’s own language is, in my view, a decision that should be made by a specific state, its people and its government. The choice might be based on history and tradition, linguistic or cultural argumentation, or even the modern political context and its challenges.


Gruziya and Gruzin clearly have a Russian and Soviet “fragrance” to them. In addition, these names are also associated with Russian imperial attitudes and perceptions about Georgia and Georgians. Incidentally, Gruzin-i (=Gruzin) has already become a slang term in the modern Georgian language, used to denote a pseudo-patriotic, pseudo-traditional Georgian – the kind of Georgian who was formed and then formed again by the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, over the course of two centuries. Russia, their successor, continues to desire and envisions such a Gruziya and Gruzin: the “region” that has become Russia’s backyard, Solnechnaya Gruziya, with its wine, khinkali, khachapuri, and Mimino, its hospitable, fiery, and artistic culture, and its men with moustaches and big caps, Gruzinskiye pesni i tanci (“Georgian songs and dances” in Russian)… The difficult experiences of the past and the rejection of such stereotypes have led to protests against the names Gruziya and Gruzin. However, on the other hand, there is nothing inherently unacceptable about these exonyms (aside from some comical, offensive, and anti-scientific etymologies of Gruzin common in modern Russian society).


It is interesting that we Georgians like the exonym Georgia; it doesn’t feel alien to us, but rather familiar, and we even take some pride in it. After all, regardless of the name’s etymology, it is associated with the icon of faith and battle, St. George. Indeed, this is how Georgia was understood in ancient European sources, and this is how it is understood today by ordinary Georgians, who see St. George as the patron saint of their homeland, fighting for faith and freedom since time immemorial.

Georgia on a map by Johann Baptist Homann, a German geographer and cartographer. Fragment. 1720.

The map shows three names of the country in different languages: Georgia, Gurgistan (Gurdjistan), Carduel (Sakartvelo/Kartveli).


There isn’t unanimous agreement among us about  how foreigners should best refer to Georgia / Georgians. Most Georgians prefer Georgia to Gruziya and, certainly, over Gurjistan (which evokes images of unequal battles with great eastern empires and a conquered country). However, some believe  that the foreign use of Sakartvelo is somewhat artificial. To those who hold this view, this is a new, “strange” trend. Such a tradition did not exist until recently, and the term Sakartvelo seems otherwise to have belonged exclusively to the Georgian and Caucasian linguistic heritage. It should also be taken into account that in many languages and cultures, the exonyms Georgia and Georgians have a centuries-old tradition (as with the eastern equivalents Gurjistan / Gurju). Could name change also lead to conflicts with the cultural / literary / scientific traditions of certain peoples? These kinds of issues are for the people of the countries involved to think about and judge.


For us, Sakartvelo is something truly special – a uniquely sweet-sounding term; it is as if it is impossible for a person who does not know the Georgian language to fully understand it. It is also true, though, that everything traditional was once new and unusual at some point.


Finally, I can’t help but wish Ukraine a great and timely victory. After all, this is our common fight.


Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!