by Oleksandr Polianichev, Stockholm

Among the cities of the Russian Empire, even against the backdrop of the South Caucasus’ variegated ethnic and cultural landscape, Artvin was unlike any other. This is the opinion that many tsarist subjects who had a chance to see it firsthand would subscribe to. For one thing, getting around the city meant going downward and upward: a late-19th-century map indicated its location at an altitude within the range of 462 and 1553 feet, but the highest houses could be found at 2083 feet. Situated on a slope, Artvin stretched across a long distance. If asked by a stranger, “where is the bazaar street, where is the post?” a local resident might point not left or right, but up to the sky. Entering Artvin, “leave behind any idea of a street, even that of Bakhchisarai,” one traveler wrote, warning that here one would find narrow, paved, ladder-like corridors in place of what is normally understood by a street, which made Artvin as easy to navigate through as a deep gorge in the mountains. For this reason, moving around on carriages was unthinkable—a traveler was left with two choices: either on horseback or on foot. City dwellers had a particular appearance as well: a typical men’s headdress was either fez or turban. This, as another visitor noted, made you easy to imagine you are in the realm of Abdul Hamid.[1]

It was so for a reason. Artvin, locally known as Livane, was one of the latest acquisitions of Tsarist Russia, which annexed it from the Ottoman Empire after its victorious campaign of 1877–78. Populated mainly by Catholic Armenians and Muslim Georgians, it never had a sizeable Russian community save for a Ukrainian Cossack unit—the 1st Plastun Battalion of the Kuban Cossack host, stationed there to guard the border.

Artvin’s unusual location had an interesting environmental feature—while its highest part was positioned in the zone of alpine meadows, its lowest neighborhoods were buried in the lush greenery of vineyards, peach, pomegranate, fig orchards, and caper bushes.[2] Among the local tree species, there was another one, however, which rendered the whole place truly unique on an all-imperial scale. Olive groves dotted surroundings of Artvin and nearby villages on the hills and in the valley of the Chorokh River. Indeed, this was not the only territory in the Russian Empire where olive trees were grown—such places like Crimea or New Athos in Abkhazia were famous for successful attempts at the introduction of Olea europaea, but those were modest achievements of individual amateurs. In Artvin, things were serious. Here, olive trees had for centuries been the backbone of the local economy. After the annexation of the region by Russia, a mass exodus of Ottoman subjects brought along a devastation of groves. Many owners of the olive orchards deliberately cut down their trees to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.[3] Those who stayed and switched subjecthood carried on with their routine. A significant portion of the groves changed owners, who were quick to start making use of the fruit.

On average, each household had no more than 10–15 trees, the majority of which were 30–50-year-old, even though hundred-year-old olive trees were not altogether rare. According to the calculations by the agriculturalist Sergei Timofeev, each tree brought 10 puds of fruit (1 pud was approximately 16.4 kg), or 10–20 rubles of net profit. Soaking in the water or brine were the most widespread ways of curing olives for table use. A far smaller number of olives was dried. Oil production was the least popular because of the low prices for oil—a mere 1–5% of olives were pressed for oil. Only a relatively small part of the olive crop was consumed on the ground.[4] In the late 1870s, most of the fruit was brought to the nearby cities of Ardagan/Ardahan and Akhaltsikh/Akhaltsikhe, where it was traded for bread, while some made it all the way up to Tiflis/Tbilisi.[5] After the new imperial situation reconfigured economic connections and trade routes in the region, Tiflis became the most important market, but now the geography of the consumption of Artvin olives included also Odessa/Odesa, Sukhum/Sukhumi, Kerch, Novorossiisk, and other major cities of the empire’s South, where it was delivered by sea through the port of Batum/Batumi. All in all, by the turn of the 20th century, from 4,000 to 10,000 puds of olives were exported outside of the region (if to believe Timofeev), while some observers claimed that the amount of export reached 30,000 puds.[6]

There were several olive cultivars. The most common and valuable was called Tiflis or Sate, ideal for salting. Otur was a variety of very large, dark olive. Butko was a variety of rather small olive. Finally, the variety called Gorvala did not normally go for export because the olives were particularly small, but they had the most excellent taste among the four. Tiflis olives were soaked in water for 40–45 days before they were ready for export. Otur and Butko, were exported fresh and salted upon arrival at the market.[7]

It comes as little surprise that the tsarist authorities were eager to make use of the region’s unique climatic conditions and its rich olive-growing traditions to bring the cultivation of olives on a new level. The Russian Empire was entirely dependent on the export of olives and olive oil from abroad. In the late 1880s–early 1890s, Russia imported approximately 100,000 puds of olives and 700,000 puds of olive oil worth 6,5 million rubles annually. Good-quality oil, particularly needed by the church, was a luxurious product. To make it more affordable for the Russian market, European sellers diluted olive oil with rapeseed, cotton, sesame, and peanut oils. A much larger amount of adulterated olive oil was produced in the Russian Empire on the spot.[8]

Artvin groves provided the tsarist metropole with a rare opportunity to become somewhat more self-sufficient in its reliance on these Mediterranean commodities. The 1890s were the time when the tsarist government began investing in a range of ambitious projects aimed at taking full advantage of the climate, soil, and landscape of the South Caucasus in order to produce exotic, tropical, or “colonial” commodities. This had been a long-lasting aspiration from at least the 1820s, but only at the end of the century it materialized into a carefully planned and professionally organized endeavor. The Sochi and Sukhum experimental stations, the Kutais experimental field and, most importantly, the Chakva subtropical estate, along with many other research and agricultural facilities that were established at that time, were the institutions responsible for the introduction, acclimatization, and popularization of valuable sub-tropical and even tropical cultivars brought from around the colonial world. Many of them were also intended to introduce rational cultivation techniques for local crops. If Chakva dealt with tea, mandarins, and bamboo, the Karaiazy experimental field—with cotton, Artvin was an obvious choice for an experimental institution dealing with olives.

In 1896, a senior official at the Department of Agriculture, Prince Vladislav Masal’skii, put forward an idea of establishing a state olive nursery in the Artvin region. Its purpose was the introduction of the best European olive cultivars to the South Caucasus to substitute the local ones, “not distinguished by high quality.”[9] The area for the nursery, 1,5 sq. km large, was found just near the city, in the village of Lomashen, on a land plot that belonged to Fatıma Şerif Bayraktar kızı, whose brother owned it before he fled his homestead for the Ottoman Empire. It seemed an ideal place for the tsarist olive project thanks to its proximity to the river pier and two roads as well as to a two-story house and two dozen old olive trees around it.[10]

In 1899, the nursery started its activities. Timofeev, appointed as its head, began introducing European olive trees. He purchased 100 saplings of olive trees and 50 of fig trees from Damman & Co., the world-famous nursery of sub-tropical plants near Naples.[11] In the coming years, the nursery ordered and planted many more saplings of cultivars from Italy, France, Algeria, Greece, and other places, but these plantations grew at an extremely slow pace and did not bear much fruit. The Artvin nursery was left with the only one option—to harvest olives from the indigenous trees and to propagate the local varieties from cuttings and seedlings. The nursery experimented with methods for curing olives with the use of brine, vinegar, and lye treatments. While each had its own advantage, it turned out that indigenous techniques such as water and dry salt curing were not at all deficient.[12]

The production of olive oil, rather than the introduction of new varieties and curing methods, was by far the most significant innovation that the Artvin nursery brought about. Local oil, obtained exclusively from olives that were unfit for consumption, was not used for food. In 1909, eager to be able to manufacture oil from its own harvest, the nursery purchased in France a mill and a press. Butko turned out to be perfectly fit for oil. The production began in 1910, when the nursery produced its first 39 puds of oil. In 1911, it sent its first 50 bottles of oil to Tiflis. The same year, the Artvin nursery participated in the Turin 1911 Expo, where its “Butko” oil, a Mediterranean delicacy coming from a northern empire, was awarded the main medal. Oil extraction machines drew interest of Artvin olive farmers—at least a dozen of them brought their own harvest to the press to obtain olive oil.[13]

The Artvin nursery did not live to see the plantations of its newly introduced olive trees mature. It was severely devastated in WWI and, along with the entire Artvin and Kars regions, was brought under Turkish control in 1921. Old indigenous olive trees, which had stood on this spot before the Russian Empire emerged as their overlord in 1878, remained in the same place after it ceased to exist. What they witnessed was an unusual Russia’s attempt at joining the Mediterranean world as a producer of canned olives and olive oil. In the eyes of many, these trees themselves were a vivid proof of the Tsarist Empire’s tremendous geographical reach. They corroborated the broadly held assumption that the imperial space included nearly all climate zones, including the Mediterranean one, of which Olea europaea was the most important marker. Tsarist botanists, in turn, conceptualized this part of the South Caucasus precisely as such.[14] Just like the local population, the olive orchards were subject to the imperial civilizing mission, that is, to betterment and progress. However, despite the tsarist image of Russia as a conduit for “civilized” European agricultural techniques, knowledge, and cultivars, the Artvin olive nursery was forced to rely on the local tradition to a much greater extent than its founders wished or might have been ready to admit.

[1] Petr Yurchenko, “Zametki o poezke po ushchel’iam rek Chorokh-su do Artvina i Murguli-su do Nizhnei Kury v Batumskoi oblasti,” Kavkaz, October 13, 1881, 1; Zaezzhyi, “V oblasti r. Chorokha,” Kavkaz, December 6, 1894, 2; “Ot Batuma do Artvina,” Kavkaz, January 13, 1879, 1–2; V. Prianishnikov, “Poezdka v Artvin,” in S. Anisimov (ed.) Batumskoe poberezh’e. “Russkie tropiki” (Batum: Tipografiia G. S. Tavartkalidze, 1911), 163–81.

[2] Prianishnikov, “Poezdka,” 176; I. A. Veru, Batum i ego okrestnosti (Batum: Tipograffia V. Kiladze i G. Tavartkiladze, 1910), 103; N. Shavrov, “Kratkoe opisanie marshrutov ot Batuma do Benary i do Ordzhokha i ot Artvina do Ardanucha,” Zapiski Kavkazskogo otdela IRGO 26, no. 2 (1907): 37.

[3] S. Timofeev, “Razvedenie masliny v Zakavkaz’e,” Sbornik svedenii po kul’ture tsennykh rastenii na Kavkaze. Vol. 1 (Tiflis: Tipografiia K. P. Kozlovskogo, 1895), 36.

[4] Timofeev, “Razvedenie masliny,” 57–66.

[5] N. Levashov, “Zametki o pogranichnoi linii i zone, na rasstoianii ot berega Chernogo moria do goroda Artvina,” Izvestiia Kavkazskogo otdela IRGO 6, no. 2 (1879): 238; “Sovety kavkazskim sel’skim khoziaevam,” Kavkaz, February 19, 1887, 3.

[6] Timofeev, “Razvedenie masliny,” 67; I. Kanevskii, Liubopytnye ugolki Kavkaza. Batumskii okrug. Svanetiia. Ocherki zhizni i prirody (Tiflis: Tipografiia Kantseliarii Glavnonachal’stvuiushchego Grazhdanskoiu chastiiu na Kavkaze, 1886), 81; “Razvedenie maslichnykh rastenii na Kavkaze,” Kavkaz, May 6, 1908, 2.

[7] “Razvedenie maslichnykh rastenii,” 2; N., “Chto mogut poslat’ kavkazskie plodovody na vystavku-yarmarku plodovodstva v S.-Peterburge,” Kavkaz, August 9, 1907, 3.

[8] Timofeev, “Razvedenie masliny,” 42; “Odin iz modnykh voprosov,” Stavropol’skie eparkhial’nye vedomosti, February 1, 1888, 129.

[9] National Historical Archive of Georgia (Sakartvelos sakhelmtsipo saistorio arkivi, Tbilisi; hereinafter SSSA), f. 243. op. 7, d. 213, l. 1.

[10] Ibid., ll. 5–6.

[11] Ibid., l. 43.

[12] SSSA, f. 243. op. 7, d. 385, ll. 48–49.

[13] “Kavkaz v 1909 godu,” Kavkaz, January 8, 1910, 3; “Provanskoe maslo,” Kavkaz, December 11, 1910, 2; “Khronika,” Kavkaz, April 17, 1911, 3; “Kavkaz v 1911 g.,” Kavkaz, February 28, 1912, 2; Pervaia vystavka Chernomorskogo poberezhia Kavkaza v S.-Peterburge pod nazvaniem “Russkaia Riv’era” (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia V. F. Kirshbauma, 1914), 67.

[14] For example, N. Kuznetsov, “Printsypy deleniia Kavkaz ana botaniko-geograficheskie provintsii,” Zapiski Imperatorskoi Akademii nauk. Po fiziko-matematicheskomu otdeleniiu 24, no. 1 (1909): 16. For the construction of the notion of the Mediterranean region as a the one where olives can be produced, see P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 13.