The Capture of Sukhum – Part I

This piece, by writer Alexander Rostovtsev, is devoted to the history of the Gruzia-Abkhazia war of the 1990’s, with the lede being the 22nd anniversary of the capture of Sukhum, capital of Abkhazia.  That being a win for the Abkhazian side.

In the West, more people are (vaguely) aware of Ossetia, in the context of the Gruzia-Russia War of 2008; but very few people have heard of the tiny country of Abkhazia, which also participated in that very same war.  As allies of the Ossetians and foes of the Gruzians.

“Georgia on my mind…”

Tensions between these two ancient Caucasian peoples (Gruzians and Abkhazians) were evident even back in the Soviet period, when both ethnic groups lived more or less peaceably side by side under the umbrella of Soviet Federal authority.  And before proceeding I must stipulate that when I use the term “Gruzian”, it is just a convenient word which encompasses the various ethnic groups and tribes, for example Kartvelians, Svani, Mingrels, etc., which collectively comprise the national entity which Russians call “Gruziny”.  The term “Gruzia” is not an ethnic slur, and I use it specifically in order to disambiguate from the American State of Georgia.  Being that Americans are a   geographically challenged people, and please trust me on this one.  In August 2008 when Americans turned on their TV sets and saw headlines about “Russian Tanks Invade Georgia”, there were shrieks of:  “O no!  Damn Russians!  I gotta call my cousin in Atlanta and find out if he’s okay!”

Roots Of Conflict – From Tsarist To Soviet Period

This here piece  from a book by a lady named Svetlana Chervonnaya, gives a fascinating overview of Abkhazian history from ancient times.    Everybody should read it.  Jumping over everything to the late tsarist period, the roots of the modern conflict were planted back in the 18th century when both ancient civilizations, Gruzians and Abkhazians, were absorbed, piece by piece, into the Russian Empire:

“Gruzia on my mind…”

The fate of Abkhazia and Georgia in face of the spread of the power of the Russian Empire in the Caucasus proved to be common. They entered this Empire stage by stage with the conclusion by the Russian autocracy of separate treaties with local kings and princes. These were often then broken by the Russians as, for example, the shameless breach of the terms and principles of the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk. The annexation of Georgia was carried out in parts, these colonial seizures being screened by a seemingly voluntary incorporation of separate territories into Russia. Elements of voluntariness did occur at all levels – from the ruling elite to the popular masses -for hopes were still alive that it would be easier with the Russians, and that the white Tsar would liberate them from the Turkish yoke and the imminent threat of Persian conquests. Nevertheless, this was a common and equally sad fate for both Abkhazians and Georgians. They could not withstand the onslaught of the Russian Empire and the conquest of the Caucasus..

The writer goes on to say that the Abkhazians were hopeful that the Russians would treat them fairly, as loyal but equal subjects, not play favorites, and not just put them under the boots of some other people, with whom they never got along.  This is a key point.

Do this thought experiment inside your own head:  For years now you (Mr. A) have been working side by side with (and feuding with) a colleague (let’s call him Mr. G) on the job.  You are both equally qualified and both good at your jobs.  You both have the same title and salary.  You are both proud and even somewhat arrogant individuals.  You both live in perennial fear that the other will be promoted over you.

Mr. Big Boss: “I’m … uh… gonna need you both to come in and work this weekend…”

Your company is bought up by a larger company.  The new Big Boss arrives.  Let’s call him Mr. R.  He assures both you and G that you will continue to be equal peers, neither one promoted over the other.  You both trust him and hope he is telling the truth.  And then one day he calls you both into his office and announces that G has been promoted over you, and is now your supervisor.  G smirks smugly at you as you struggle to maintain your poker face.

And so it came to pass for the Abkhazians.  When they first joined the Russian Empire, they were full of hope that their autonomy and independence would be respected by the Russians:

In his Essays on the Political History of Abkhazia Stanislav Lakoba writes in this connection: ‘As regards the Abkhazian principality (excepting the free Abkhazian communities of Aibga, Pskhu, Dal, Tsabal, etc.), it entered the patronage of the Russian Empire on February 17,1810, as an independent state political unit. The Emperor Alexander I royally endorsed on that day “the points of appeal of the Abkhazian sovereign prince” the first of which reads: “I, the legitimate heir and sovereign of Abkhazia… am becoming the subject and entering the service as a hereditary subject of the All-gracious Autocrat of all Russia …” Thus, from 1810 to 1864 the Abkhazian principality was part of the Russian Empire with the status of autonomy.”

But sure enough, eventually the Abkhazians are sat down in the office of the Big Boss, and told that the Gruzians are their new supervisor.

The Soviet Union, as a multi-national, multi-ethnic empire employed a complex algorithm to determine which peoples got to be “Republics”, and which got to be “Autonomies”, etc.  Let’s Talk Turkey, and no I don’t mean the nation of Turkey:

In Soviet terms, it is way better to be an SSR (“Soviet Socialist Republic”) than to be an ASSR (“Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic”).  To those in Academia:  It’s like the difference between being an Assistant Professor (=good) and an Associate Professor (better).

The patented Soviet Nationalities Formula, first developed by Lenin and then perfected by Stalin (to simplify a complex socialist policy/history down to a ridiculous level) was based on several factors, including but not limited to:  Amount of population, compactness of geographical location, native speakers of the language, cultural history, natural barriers such as rivers and mountains, etc.  The formula was not perfect, nor was it immune from crass ward politics or even human bias.  (Hint:  Stalin was a self-identified ethnic Gruzian – gasp!)  In 1921, as an outcome of the Russian Civil War, the victorious Bolshevik Party created the Gruzian Soviet Socialist Republic.  In an attempt to slice the baby fairly, Abkhazia was also made into a Soviet Socialist Republic – however! — it was simultaneously given the ambiguous status of a so-called Treaty Republic within the Gruzian SSR.  What that means, is that it means nothing, just politicians trying to square an impossible circle.  The Abkhazians were no doubt upset about this ambiguous state of affairs, which acted for them like a time-bomb with a very long fuse.  But there was little they could do about it.  Their only recourse might have been to try to get more ethnic Abkhazians into high positions within the Party and Government.

Speaking of high positions:  In 1931 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin demoted the Abkhazians even further, down to the level of an Autonomous Republic (ASSR) within the Gruzian SSR.  This really chafed the butts of the Abkhazians, but there was literally nothing they could do about it.  As Rostovtsev points out, Soviet migrational policies of the 1920’s and 1930’s (in which different peoples moved, or got moved, hither and yon) resulted in the Abkhazians becoming a minority within their own Autonomy!  They were about to lose even the little shred of dignity which Stalin had left them.  In the years 1937-1954 there was a constant migration of ethnic Gruzians into this area.  Gruzian farmers settled into farmlands previously occupied by ethnic Abkhazians and ethnic Greeks (who had been deported from Abkhazia in 1949).

Abkhazian school children in Sukhum, 1956

To add insult to injury:  Around 1950 the Abkhazian native language was removed from the Middle School curriculum and replaced with the official Gruzian language.  Even within the authoritarian Soviet system, incidents of unrest broke out:  Mass protests in 1957, with Abkhazians demanding to secede from the Gruzian SSR.  Further mass protests, with similar demands, occurred even in later Soviet times:  in 1967 and 1978.

By the beginning of the 1990’s, after the Soviet collapse, ethnic Abkhazians looked around them and saw that they comprised no more than 17% of the population of the Abkhaz Autonomy.   They were a dying people.  And with Gruzia on the way to independent statehood as a Western protectorate, dragging the Abkhazians along underneath them, things were looking very bleak indeed for our proud friend Mr. A.

[to be continued]

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