How Abkhazia was alienated...

  • 10/09/2023
A remarkable and a more balanced narrative of history from the Georgian scholar Beka Kobakhidze;

“How Abkhazia was alienated, how the Abkhaz nation was formed, and how we ended up with separatism"

In the 10th century united Georgia was not a nation-state in the modern sense. It was a unity of feudal estates, the ideological foundations of which were created by Leonty Mroveli, Sumbat Davitidze, and others.

Before that, there was the Abkhaz kingdom in Georgia. The most famous king was Leon II. The Abkhaz have three sacred persons in history: Leon, Lakoba, and Ardzinba.

The fact that Leon was an Abkhaz and a great man, so to say David-The builder of the Abkhaz, is beyond doubt in Sukhum.

However, on the other hand, Marika Lortkipanidze proudly stated in one of her interviews: “You do not know what war I had to go through in Moscow to have Leon included as a Georgian king in essays on the history of Georgia”.

In other words, the question of what should be in our minds was decided not in scientific discussions, but in Moscow and in the Central Committee of Tbilisi and Sukhum.

In fact, Leon would be neither Georgian nor Abkhaz in the modern sense. Moreover, we have no surviving written sources, but I am almost sure that he spoke Greek.

Abkhazia was then united with the rest of Georgia, and Georgian cultural and political dominance from the late tenth century onwards is unquestionable.

However, when unified Georgia broke up in the 15th century, Abkhazia remained in the “far west”, cut off from religious and political centers.

Instead, it found itself close to the Ottomans. Islam spread in Abkhazia, Ottoman garrisons appeared and alienation from the rest of Georgia began.

Numerous rich sources on late medieval Abkhazia can be found in Ottoman archives, but unfortunately, there are no more Ottoman connoisseurs in the country. And this language is not taught in our universities at all. Although much more information about the history of Georgia can be gleaned from the archives of Istanbul than from the archives of Tbilisi.

In the 18th century, inscriptions appeared on European maps: “Free Abazinians”. In 1790 a treaty of the Iberian kings-princes was signed, which actually represents a manifesto of cultural and political identity. Irakli, Solomon, Dadiani, and Gurieli claimed to have a common past and to be one people. However, this treaty did not bear the signature of the Abkhazian prince. Why? Georgian historiography turns a blind eye to this.

There is much more evidence that in the late Middle Ages Abkhazia left the Georgian cultural and political space.

When Russians entered Abkhazia in the early 19th century, local princes were Keleshbey, Safarbey, and Aslanbey. These people were then baptized and renamed as Russian Orthodox Georgis, or given other Christian names.

In 1864 the Abkhaz kingdom was abolished. The last head was Khamutbey (Mikhail) Shervashidze. His epistolary legacy has been preserved, and nowhere does it appear that he knew Georgian or had anything to identify him as a Georgian.

Russian colonialism, Abkhazia, and Georgia is a subject for a separate discussion. We believe that the entire 19th century was a continuous national liberation struggle. Yes, there were class and mostly local uprisings in the first third of the century, but then Vorontsov concluded treaties. The Georgian nobility became the main supporting force of Russian colonialism. This force fought Shamil and the Ottomans more than any other, and those who reached Moscow-St. Petersburg safely forgot the Georgian language.

In the second half of the XIX century, Russia created a society restoring Christianity in the Caucasus, in which Georgians actively participated – in Zagatala, Ossetia, Abkhazia, and other places.

During the Crimean War, the Ottoman Omer Pasha and French or British agents roamed comfortably in Abkhazia and Circassia. However, after the war, the Empire saw the Muslim Abkhaz and Circassians as a threat. The empire abolished the Abkhaz principality and deported or killed people en masse. This was a genocide, which is spoken about in today’s Abkhazia in somewhat hushed voices.

We say that Russia pursued an anti-Georgian policy in Abkhazia, but no one has tried to explain why Russia appointed Georgian nationalists – Ambrosius, Kirion, and others – as high priests in Abkhazia. This was complemented by the work of the Society for Restoration of Orthodox Christianity with the participation of Georgians.

I am not asserting anything, because there was no relevant research, but

The question that needs to be answered is whether Russia used Georgians as a subjugating and Christianizing force.

At the same time serfdom was abolished, railroads were built, and urbanization began. The peasantry were given freedom of movement, but not land, although they were given the right to buy land. To buy it they needed cash, which they could not earn in the countryside. They had to go to the city for work. They used the railroad and went to Tbilisi, Batumi, and Kutaisi. At the same time, the Society for Literacy among Georgians was founded, which for the first time taught the Georgian language to the Mingrelian peasants. About 650 schools were opened, most of all in Samegrelo. Then these peasants with Georgian education took a train and came to Tbilisi. This is how their identity was created, this is how they became Georgians in the modern sense.

Exactly the same thing happened in Ajara, where railroads, the Georgian Literacy Society, and the press helped to overcome religious differences.

What then happened in Abkhazia: the Literacy Society opened only one school in Sukhum. Why not more? This is a research question. The number of subscribers to Georgian-language newspapers in Sukhum did not exceed one or two dozen people.

The railroad came to Abkhazia not from Georgia, but from Russia – Novorossiysk.

Until the 1930s, if you came to Sukhum from Tbilisi, you had to go to Batumi by rail, and from Batumi to Sukhum you had to go by ship. Liberated Abkhaz peasants in the 1860s faced a choice – either to overcome this difficult and expensive route of labor migration and urbanization or to use the much easier way – take the train to Novorossiysk.

This is how cultural and political integration of the population of Abkhazia into the Russian, not Georgian space took place. I am absolutely sure that if the railroad to Abkhazia ran from Kutaisi and there had been more schools of the Literacy Society in Abkhazia, the problem of Abkhazia would not exist today at all and integration would have happened long ago.

Why did Russia use the Abkhaz railroad from Novorossiysk and create the Black Sea province? Our historiography explains everything simply – nationalism and anti-Georgian policy of Russia, but often the empire was also guided by economic logic. This question is fundamental and should be investigated.

In 1918-21 modern Abkhaz nation was not yet formed, it was in its infancy, and we cannot talk about the Abkhaz as a national unity. For example, after the fall of tsarist power Abkhazian princes – Sharvashidze and Marshania – supported the Ottomans. Why? Because they were afraid of Bolsheviks in Russia and Social Democrats in Georgia – both were threatening to confiscate their land. And in the Ottoman Empire, they were guaranteed ownership of land. In the summer of 1918, the Abkhaz Bolsheviks proclaimed a Soviet republic. Tatash Marshania with three hundred men came to Valiko Yugeli and told him: “We will be by your side, we will drive away Bolsheviks but do not touch our lands”. Yugeli made no such promise. Then Marshania and Sharvashidze sided with General Denikin who was planning to restore the old order and supported landlords. On the other hand, Abkhaz Bolsheviks were supported by the peasantry as Bolsheviks promised to confiscate land from landlords and give it to peasants. Georgian Social Democrats, on their part, promoted educated Abkhazism by supporting the Abkhaz intelligentsia led by Arzakan Aamkha (Emukhvari). He was committed to democracy, freedom, and the autonomous status of Abkhazia within the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

Abkhaz Bolshevik leader Nestor Apollonovich Lakoba wanted Abkhazia to become the fourth full-fledged subject of the Transcaucasian Federation along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, but Ordzhonikidze told him that “we cannot divide the USSR into such small parts and do what you want”.

Now, in retrospect, in the collective memory of the Abkhaz, Lakoba is a patriot, a defender of Abkhazian national interests, and a hero. The historical reality is different: Lakoba was a “red feudal lord”, and national interests were the last thing on his mind.

From the 1920s, the USSR began a policy of “korenization” [from the Russian word “корень” meaning roots] or return to the roots, initiated by Lenin. Every small nation was to create a literary language out of its mother tongue, laced with ideology, to develop national schools, poetry, writing, theater, cinema, etc. Lenin needed this, on the one hand, to contrast with the chauvinistic policy of the tsarist government; on the other hand, the Bolsheviks introduced a new “religion” – Marxism-Leninism. In order to preach it, it was necessary to spread literacy and “preach” in the language most accessible to the people.

And so Lakoba was instructed to open Abkhaz schools and start running administration matters in Abkhazia in the Abkhaz language. Georgian communists from Tbilisi were pushing him to do this.

Lakoba resisted and refused, preferring to use the Russian language. Abkhazian language was not ready for this, he said. So what is nationalism?

Four-class Abkhaz schools were established in Abkhazia, and secondary and specialized secondary schools were Georgian and Russian.

Lakoba was a man of great influence. According to contemporaries, he was one of the few who addressed Stalin “in a simple way”. Stalin often visited him in Pitsunda, in Gagra. Lakoba was so reckless that he did not carry out collectivization in Abkhazia.

In 1931 Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was appointed head of the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Communist Party of Georgia. He was born and raised in the village of Merkheuli in Abkhazia. Beria, who was very ambitious, did not tolerate the “local prince” and began to attack Lakoba. In 1931 Beria downgraded the status of Abkhazia to an autonomous republic, and in 1936 he invited Lakoba to Tbilisi and poisoned him (this is a popular version). Obviously, this could not have been done without Stalin’s consent. The precedent of refusing collectivization was too much for the leader. After his death, Lakoba was declared an enemy of the people, his entire entourage was arrested, exiled, or shot.

In the 1930s, throughout the USSR, Stalin stopped Lenin’s policy of “Korenization”. Great Russian chauvinism returned to Russia, and the Russification of Ukrainians and Belarusians began. The North Caucasians, peoples of Central Asia, and Siberia were educated in Russian, as their national languages were declared “backward” and were thought not to be ready to become languages of education and administration. In contrast, the inhabitants of the South Caucasus and later the Baltic States were considered advanced. They retained the privileges of “rootedness.” These peoples became “titular nations” with legal advantages in their republics.

As part of this policy, for example, the rights of Lithuanian Poles in Vilnius were diminished in favor of Lithuanians.

In Georgia, it was acutely manifested in relation to the Abkhaz. After the assassination of Lakoba and the destruction of his entourage, the Communist Party of Abkhazia actually stopped accepting ethnic Abkhaz as its members. The proportion of Georgians in the party and among the population increased. Georgian Akaki Mgeladze was appointed head of the regional committee of the Communist Party of Abkhazia. Four-grade Abkhaz schools, which taught in the native language, were closed. The Abkhaz alphabet created on the basis of the Cyrillic alphabet was banned and replaced by the Georgian alphabet. The number of repressed per capita in Abkhazia was higher than in the rest of Georgia.

At the same time, Pavle Ingorokva wrote a book “Giorgi Merchule”, which by inertia was published already after Stalin’s death, in 1954 or 1955. At that time, de-Stalinization had not yet begun – no one had yet condemned the leader, and Khrushchev’s power was not yet strong.

This book created a collective memory of Georgians about Abkhazia, and its conclusions were appealed to by a significant part of the national movement in the 1980s. If you stop a passerby on the street, he will have no idea who Pavle Ingorokva is, but he will tell you exactly what he wrote.

Ingorokva wrote that the Abkhaz came from the North Caucasus in the Late Middle Ages, while historically only Georgians lived in Abkhazia. This conclusion does not withstand any scientific criticism.

It is obvious that the Abkhaz did not have their own written language, It is also clear that Georgian politics and culture dominated in Abkhazia until the 15th century, but to say that the Abkhaz did not live there is too much!

What we do not see in sources is toponymy, and toponymy does not lie! Toponymy in Abkhazia is largely Abkhaz. If an unbiased researcher came along, he would find this out and calculate it in percentages.

For example, more than 30 texts of Levan II Dadiani [in the 17th century he was the ruler of Mingrelia] have been preserved. All of them are in Georgian. But this does not mean that the Mingrelians did not live in Samegrelo, does it? Although the inscriptions are in Georgian, the toponymy in them is Mingrelian. The same is true in Abkhazia.

Ingorokva’s theory, which was a continuation of Stalin-Beria’s policy, served badly for the collective memory of Georgians. After de-Stalinization and the abolition of all pressure by Khrushchev, “anti-Ingorokva people” came to be. They claimed that Georgians were invaders or guests in Abkhazia in the zone of common residence. And the so-called “feud with pen” started between these opponents, which drove historians and intellectuals on both sides crazy.

The policy of “Korenization”, pursued to a limited extent, created the preconditions for the formation of a modern nation and nationalism in Abkhazia. The repressions of Beria and Stalin contributed to the lasting consolidation of nascent nationalism, the identification of the enemy, and the ideological unification of the Abkhaz. Just as Putin is a kind of “unifier” of the modern Ukrainian nation, so Beria and Stalin were the same – for the Abkhaz. In the opinion of an Abkhaz, Beria, and Stalin are Georgians. And repressions are also an accusation against Georgia and Georgians. How much Georgian nationalism there was in Beria’s actions and how much of it was his personal “feudal” enmity with Lakoba – this is a subject of a separate study, one that requires serious personal work.

However, as a Georgian, I do not feel any responsibility for the policies of Beria and Stalin, despite their nationality. They represented the occupying state and did the most damage to Georgia. They were not elected by the Georgian people.

We are not responsible for their actions until we begin to justify them.

A historically, morally, and politically correct action here would be to recognize what happened, condemn it together with the Abkhaz, and say that it was wrong and erroneous. Only in this case, we will not be responsible for their actions.

I think in 2015 German scholars sympathizing with the Abkhaz (Mark Junge and others) published a book “Ethnophobia and Terror in Georgia” where they discussed Stalin-Beria’s repression in Abkhazia. The book contains a transcript of a conversation with Georgian historians. They were from Sukhum University, the Institute of History, and the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Georgian historians claimed that there was no policy of repression and Georgianization. However, it is not difficult to prove that there was, it is quite an obvious fact. When you deny this, you are defending Beria and Stalin, i.e. you are taking responsibility for their actions. And if this is “sold” in such a way that this is the position of Georgians, then it turns out that we are accomplices of all crimes.

This Soviet patriotism must be destroyed! There are two main traumas and markers of identity in the collective memory of the Abkhaz: repressions of Stalin-Beria and the “patriotic war” as Abkhazia calls the war of 1992-93. Little is known about it in Georgia, and historians do not talk about it.

Both are fuelled and driven crazy by supporters and opponents of Ingorokva. The other day, I came across a public FB discussion of two professors – one of them claimed that the word “Elarji” was introduced into the Georgian language by Murats. Allegedly, upon seeing suluguni stretched in mamaliga, Murat exclaimed: “C’est large!” [“This is big”] and the word has remained in the language ever since. And his colleague – a professor who speaks Abkhaz – began to object to him, claiming that in “that language” “elarji” means “fried together”. However, lest the Abkhaz lay claim to the word, we’ve opted for the French version.

We have been paying these people for decades to say all this in classrooms. I do not know any of them personally, but everything has a limit!

A professor specializing in Abkhazia said that the Abkhaz had no schools, so there was nothing to close. I reminded him about four-class Abkhazian schools. And he asked – what schools are you talking about?

Imagine if, in the XIX century, those four-class and two-class schools of the Literacy Society were closed by Russians, What noise Georgian historiography would have raised!

Books and articles are written with this pathos. We prove to each other how good we are, and how right we are. But outside of Georgia these studies are not read because they are considered nationalistic madness. We just drive each other crazy by reproducing and replicating Ingorokva’s theory.

Going back to the trajectory of historical development: after de-Stalinization and the actions of March 9, 1956, nationalism is on the rise in Georgia. What we ask from Russians, the Abkhaz ask from the Georgians. For example, when we spoke out in defense of our language in 1978, the Abkhaz also spoke out. If I remember correctly, they demanded and then were given their own television, theater, and the Abkhaz sector at the university.

On March 18th, 1989 Abkhazians held a rally in Lykhny with 30 thousand people demanding “restoration of the sovereignty” as it was during Lakoba’s time and a place in the USSR as a separate union republic.

The episode with Lakoba is very interesting from a historiographical point of view – how collective memory and circumstances transform human history. After the murder of Lakoba, the Abkhaz remembered that they had “Korenization”, that they did not have collectivization, that the Georgians did not sit over them, that they’d had the status of “Soviet Republic” and all this made Lakoba a victim, a martyr, a national hero, despite who Lakoba actually was.

Now let’s talk about our myths: an easy way to justify any of our stupidity or bad behavior is to blame it on Russian imperialism and helplessly say, “Well, what could we do!”.

As of 1989-90, Gorbachev did not support separatism in Abkhazia, Karabakh, or anywhere else. He was afraid that the USSR would collapse and this would provoke internal conflicts.

In the same period, the Georgian section insisted and separated from the Sukhum University, and the Sukhum branch of Tbilisi State University was established. And in this “separation,” we outstripped the Abkhaz!

If you do not know, I will tell you that modern Georgian nationalism did not originate in Tbilisi, it was brought from St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other university cities by representatives of the Tergdaleuli group [patriotic-democratic trend of Georgian enlightenment thought of 1860-1870s, the brightest representative – Ilya Chavchavadze]. Education plus ethnic discrimination equals protest and nationalism. In the 1980s students who came from Sukhum to Tbilisi were told that they were Georgians and simply did not know it, or that they had been resettled from Adygea… Do we know with what thoughts these people returned to Sukhum? These Shambas and Ardzinbas, all had gone through Tbilisi.

In the national movement, they openly said that these people were migrants and even stated that they had to leave.

Then Georgians had to elect the chairman of the Supreme Council of Abkhazia, but they did not elect him.

And this is when we destroyed the country with civil war and putsch. Kitovani, who knew nothing, liked to brandish a machine gun, though, and he entered Abkhazia.

All these mistakes were very well used by the Abkhaz nationalism, actively supported by Russia since 1991.

And what happened after that [with Georgians]? Even Stalin and Beria did not do such things with the Abkhaz. Complete ethnic cleansing, devastation of property, and establishment of apartheid regime in the Gali district. This even by the standards of the first half of the 20th century is a huge crime committed before humanity that has no justification or forgiveness.

Today Abkhazia has formed into a fascist entity. They are proud of the ethnic cleansing that has been carried out there and have no sympathy for the residents of Gali. This is a separate issue, and I do not want to deviate from the historical discourse, but I will try to explain what history says about the future of these relations.

Nationalism, especially in the Caucasus, is a very irrational phenomenon. What would Russia have to offer me or you personally that would make us agree to join it willingly? Sovereignty has no price tag.

The Abkhaz are even more convinced of this. Their nationalism has reached the point of chauvinism and this is also reflected in the legislation. I cannot recall a case in history when nations have peacefully united and coexisted under such circumstances.

In Europe, nationalism has become economic. For example, Catalonia wanted independence because it is richer than the rest of Spain and didn’t want to feed it. Greenland has nationalists, but they are subsidized by Denmark and don’t want independence at all. On the contrary, Denmark would be more than happy to give them self-government and thus cut costs. The fact that the economy of the Irish Republic has outperformed that of Britain has made Sinn Féin [the National Republican Party] popular in Northern Ireland. And fewer and fewer people remember the war between Catholics and Protestants.

We are very far removed from that. And the Abkhaz are even further away than us. What I hear and read about current discourses in their society, I often can’t relate to the 20th century. I say this purely sincerely, no offense. Neither we nor they will be able to move to economic nationalism in our lifetime.

At least at the first stage sovereignty of Georgia should be returned to places where the Abkhaz do not live and undoubtedly the territory is an area of settlement of Georgians – Samurzakano and Kodori Gorge. After that, free communication should be opened and we should observe and see what we do next: do we divide, unite or what else do we do?

This will not happen before the fall of Russia. Therefore, glory to Ukraine!

Beka Kobakhidze

(The historian, Doctor of History, Associate Professor at Ilia State University, and a guest lecturer at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs).