Birzha

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Birzha
Informal practice commonly found in Georgia
Georgia map.png
Map of Georgia, where Birzha commonly takes place.
Georgia flag.png
Flag of Georgia.
Entry written by Constanza Curro.
Constanza Curro is affiliated to School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

Original Text: Costanza Curro, PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Birzha refers to a group of male teenagers or young men who meet regularly in open spaces (squares, courtyards, basements), mostly in urban areas.

In standard Russian language the term literally means “stock exchange”. However, the Dictionary of Georgian slang [1] defines an alternative meaning of birzha as “an outdoor gathering of idle youth”. The reference to the financial world is somewhat ironic as the participants are generally economically inactive; on the other hand, valueable exchange does take place in birzha, but of social capital rather than financial capital. In Russian language another slang extension to the meaning of the term birzha dates back to the nineteenth century, and refers to a place where people wait for a temporary job [2].

As a fundamental space of socialisation for young males, birzha is thought to be a specifically Georgian phenomenon. The author’s fieldwork has revealed that young people from neighbouring post-Soviet countries (Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan) define local understandings of the word birzha through the meaning of “stock exchange”, with no reference to street youth.

Research on birzha is linked to sociological and anthropological analyses of “street corner societies”, mainly based on ethnographies of American ethnically-defined urban areas (most often inhabited by Afro- and Latino-American communities) and “Mediterranean cultures” [3][4]. As in Tbilisi’s neighbourhoods, in the Mediterranean model “the street” is an essential function of identification and rootedness within local communities [5]. Conversely, in the American context belonging to “street corner society” entails social and economic marginalisation [6]. Similarities (especially regarding masculinity and reliance on social networks) can also be found with American “good old boys” [7].

Every neighbourhood (ubani, kvartali) has its birzha, regardless of the social and economic prestige of the area. Similarly, the right to be part of birzha is given by birth to all males, regardless of differences in ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status. Birzha is considered as the principal school of masculinity, as well as an essential stage in the transition from teen age to manhood. Children become increasingly involved in birzha up to the end of school. However, this time can be extended, especially for young men struggling to find an occupation (working or studying).

Every male is expected to be familiar with the set of norms regulating street life. Such norms, whose key points are honour, honesty, manly attitudes and respect for the elderly, are framed and enacted within a strict hierarchy of roles and identities. The top of the hierarchy is constituted by dzveli bichi (“old boys”) – the most important figures in street communities and the main source of authority in birzha. Dzveli bichi are teenagers or young men, who typically are aiming for a career in the criminal world [8]. Key features of dzveli bichi are: utter disregard for official rules and authorities; mastery of street norms; proneness to solve conflicts through violent means; prison experience. Dzveli bichi status is regarded as the first step in a criminal hierarchy culminating with the figure of vor v zakone (in Georgian kanonieri kurdi, “thief in law” [9][10]). The other categories making up street hierarchy – patiosani bichi (“honest boy”) and dedikos bichi (“mummy’s boy”) – differ from dvzeli bichi inasmuch as they do not have aspirations towards criminal activities. However, while the former are generally manly men, able to use violence if needed, the latter are powerless victims, often associated with homosexuality[11].

Birzha members rely upon each other through ties of unquestioned trust and mutual respect. They refer to each other as dzmakatsi; dzma, “brother”, and katsi, “man”, indicates a stronger and manlier relationship than the neutral megobari, “friend” [12][13]. The duty of dzmakatsi is to always be at each other's side, offering unconditional support, especially in conflict situations with a potentially violent outcome.

As the financial origin of the term suggests, birzha is underpinned by reciprocal exchange and the ongoing interaction of individuals. Social networks arising from birzha provide people with long-lasting human connections, which are a source of informal social and economic support. Deals of various sizes and legality are conducted within birzha: from the purchase and exchange of goods such as clothes, accessories, cigarettes, mobile phones, to the offering of “favours of access” (short term informal working positions, introduction to potentially useful individuals, and so on). The latter use of birzha can be compared to the Soviet phenomenon of blat, the “use of informal contacts and personal networks to obtain goods and services in short supply” [14].

Birzha is also related to the ubiquitous practice of Georgian hospitality. Both phenomena are underpinned by exchange networks of relatives, friends and neighbours. Moreover, birzha itself is often structured as a hospitable event. Birzha is shaped by everyday activities such as sharing a bottle of vodka in the street while nibbling smoked fish and sunflower seeds, or drinking homemade wine in a basement or a courtyard. The traditional path of more formal hospitable events (supra) are followed, reproducing speech, gestures, and attitudes, especially with regard to the structured process of toasting and drinking. For this reason, birzha can be considered a veritable expression of “street hospitality” in Georgian urban areas.

Research shows that the main reasons underpinning young people’s participation in birzha are unemployment and, most importantly, protest against the state [15][16]. Birzha is a form socialisation alternative to, and conflicting with, official institutions. Birzha provides young Georgians with moral and social norms which are radically different to those gained from school, the Church, and even the family. During the period of Soviet communist rule, being actively involved in birzha was incompatible with being a member of official organisations such as the Komsomol (Young Communist League). Moreover, as the potential first rung of an ascending criminal career, birzha is the embryonic stage of informal dynamics which both compete with and threaten official public institutions and the rule of law.

During his decade in power (2003-2013), President Saakashvili’s initiatives against organised crime, corruption, and informal practices in general, included efforts to tackle juvenile delinquency and youth street communities [17]. In their official discourse, the Georgian authorities drew clear links between organised crime and the shadow economy on the one hand, and dzveli bichi and ubani street groups on the other [18]. Reorganizing Crime: Mafia and Anti-mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.. Through tighter laws, harsh punishments (including jail sentences) and stricter control on ubani and schools, the government has reduced the practice of birzha to some extent[19].

In recent years, birzha has begun to decline in social significance. Belonging to street communities is viewed as less important than before by many Georgians, who look to other values (politics, family, career, consumerism), often regarding birzha as a backward heritage from the chaotic period of the late 1980s and 1990s. Geographical and social mobility has increased, displacing individuals from native neighbourhoods[20]. This is particularly true for the new upper and middle classes, which are emerging as a result of growing social and economic inequality [21]. Thus, birzha is now increasingly becoming limited to disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The present contribution is based on fieldwork data gathered in Tbilisi in 2008-2009 and in 2014, as well as on interviews and participant observation conducted with the Georgian community in London since 2011. I am particularly indebted to Evgenia Zakharova, whose ethnography of Georgian street life is an almost unique piece of research.

Notes

  1. Bregadze, L. 2005. Kartuli jargonis leksik’oni (Dictionary of Georgian Slang). Tbilisi.
  2. Zakharova, E. 2010. "Street Life in Tbilisi as a Factor of Male Socialisation." Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, 2(1).
  3. Anderson, E. 1999. Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: WW Norton & Company.
  4. Whyte, W. 1943. Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Garot, R. 2007. "‘Where You From!’: Gang Identity as Performance." Journal of contemporary ethnography, 36(1): 50-84.
  6. Zakharova, E. 2010. "Street Life in Tbilisi as a Factor of Male Socialisation." Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, 2(1).
  7. Farr, K. A. 1988 ‘Dominance bonding through the good old boys sociability group’. Sex Roles, 18(5-6): 259-277.
  8. Finckenauer, J. and L. Kelly. 1992. "Juvenile delinquency and youth subcultures in the former Soviet Union." International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 16(1-2): 247-261.
  9. Finckenauer, J. and L. Kelly. 1992. "Juvenile delinquency and youth subcultures in the former Soviet Union." International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 16(1-2): 247-261.
  10. Frisby, T. 1998. "The rise of organised crime in Russia: Its roots and social significance." Europe-Asia Studies, 50(1): 27-49.
  11. Zakharova, E. 2010. "Street Life in Tbilisi as a Factor of Male Socialisation." Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, 2(1).
  12. Frederiksen, M. 2013. Young Men, Time, and Boredom in the Republic of Georgia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  13. Frederiksen, M. 2012. ‘Good Hearts or Big Bellies: Dzmakatsoba and Images of Masculinity in the Republic of Georgia’. In V. Amit and N. Dyck (eds), Young men in uncertain times. New York, Berghahn Books: 165-187
  14. Ledeneva, A. V. 1998. Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Zakharova, E. 2010. "Street Life in Tbilisi as a Factor of Male Socialisation." Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, 2(1).
  16. Finckenauer, J. and L. Kelly. 1992. "Juvenile delinquency and youth subcultures in the former Soviet Union." International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 16(1-2): 247-261.
  17. Shelley et al. 2007. Organised crime and corruption in Georgia. New York: Routledge.
  18. Slade, G. - (2012). “Georgian Prisons: Roots of Scandal”. Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/gavin-slade/georgias-prisons-roots-of-scandal (Accessed: 19 December 2014).
  19. Zakharova, E. 2010. "Street Life in Tbilisi as a Factor of Male Socialisation." Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, 2(1).
  20. Zakharova, E. 2010. "Street Life in Tbilisi as a Factor of Male Socialisation." Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, 2(1).
  21. Roberts, K. and G. Pollock. 2009. "New class divisions in the new market economies: evidence from the careers of young adults in post-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia." Journal of youth studies, 12(5): 579-596.