In the period 1922—1930 Abkhazia
enjoyed the status of a union republic associated with but not
subordinate to Georgia. On February 19, 1931 the Sixth All-Georgian
Congress of Soviets decided, presumably with Stalin’s consent, to
deprive Abkhazia of this status and incorporate it into Georgia as an
autonomous republic. In several Abkhaz villages there were mass protests
against this change as well as against forced collectivization, then
underway across the Soviet Union. Georgian leader Lavrenti Beria
mobilized a security police detachment to suppress the protests, but
Nestor Lakoba, the first leader of Soviet Abkhazia, managed to defuse
the confrontation and avert bloodshed.
The result was that Abkhazia retained substantial de
facto autonomy for another five or six years, although Lakoba now needed
to make frequent visits to Tbilisi to consult with the Georgian
leadership. By referring to the special conditions prevailing in
Abkhazia, he was able to halt collectivization, avoid carrying out
purges, and even distribute financial allowances to Abkhaz princes and
nobles. In these respects, Abkhazia found itself in a uniquely protected
position at a time of general upheaval.
Stalin and Beria
Murder of Nestor Lakoba and subsequent
This idyll came to a sudden end with the death
of Nestor Lakoba in December 1936, ushering in the period of repression that
I refer to as the Stalin—Beria terror. The cause of Lakoba’s death has never
been formally established, although historians acknowledge that he died
under suspicious circumstances. However, various oral versions have survived.
In an interview given by the famous Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander, the
interviewer suggests that Beria summoned Lakoba to his office and shot him
right there, but Iskander rejects this version:
No, no, he was poisoned by Beria! What do I know? An order
came from Beria that Lakoba should report to him in Tbilisi.. Nestor
Apollonovich usually went to Tbilisi with his wife, but on this occasion he
refused to take her with him—apparently he understood that things were
difficult there. He arrived in Tbilisi, and on the very first day he and
Beria had a vicious row at the offices of the Georgian Central Committee. [According
to historian Stanislav Lakoba, Beria presented Lakoba with a plan to
resettle peasants from Western Georgia in Abkhazia, which Lakoba refused to
implement—SDS] Lakoba returned to his hotel room. After a while the
telephone rang. It was Beria’s wife Nina, or perhaps Beria’s mother. “Why
are you and Lavrenti quarreling, Nestor? You are friends, after all. Come to
our place, we’ll dine together.” So she persuaded Lakoba to come. I’m sure
she knew nothing of Beria’s intention. When they met, Beria handed his
“friend” a glass of poisoned wine. After the meal Beria and Lakoba went to
the theater, where Lakoba felt unwell, stood up, and headed for the exit. On
the street he told his chauffeur in Abkhaz: “They’ve killed me!” He repeated
these words a number of times, evidently already feeling the effect of the
poison. Hardly had he reached his hotel room when he lay down and died. Some
time—half an hour or an hour—later Beria turned up at the hotel...
I was a little boy at the time and vaguely remember how it
was declared that Lakoba had died of a heart attack or something of the sort.
His body was brought to Abkhazia, but Lakoba’s wife was a very courageous
woman: knowing of the difficult relations between her husband and Beria, she
called in her physician, who determined that Lakoba had been poisoned. Then
she asked the physician to go to Moscow and inform [the Kremlin] of the
cause of Lakoba’s death. The physician set off, but on the way he was
intercepted and taken to Sochi. After that all trace of him is lost.
Evidently he was either shot right away or jailed.
After that there began in Abkhazia [show] trials like those taking place in
Moscow. It was Beria’s intention that Lakoba’s chief accusor should be his
own wife. The chief accusation against him was that he had been a Turkish
spy. [Lakoba’s wife was of Turkish origin—SDS] But Lakoba’s wife,
despite every kind of torture, would not betray her husband, so she never
appeared in court. She went insane from the tortures and died in jail.
They had a son. He was immediately arrested. When the war began, he wrote
Beria a letter: “Uncle Lavrenti, let me out of jail and I’ll go to the
front.” Beria is said to have responded: “What? Is he still alive?”—and gave
the order for him to be shot.1
In light of some of the
circumstances surrounding Lakoba’s death, it seems quite possible that his
murder was Beria’s “personal initiative,” taken without Stalin’s knowledge
or consent. Beria was not merely an obedient executor of orders from “the
boss”: he had a long history of sadistic behavior on his own account.
Lakoba received a state funeral with all honors; then shortly
afterward he was declared an “enemy of the people.” This set in motion a
purge that in the course of 1937 and 1938—the height of the Great Terror in
the Soviet Union as a whole—decimated the ranks of Abkhazia’s political,
managerial, cultural and academic elite.
On November 2, 1937, twenty-eight members of Abkhazia’s
supreme government body, the Central Soviet Executive Committee, were
removed from office,2 the
majority of them ethnic Abkhaz. They were arrested as “counter-revolutionaries,”
“enemies of the people,” and so on. Over the period from July 1937 to
October 1938, at least 2,186 persons are known to have been arrested in
Abkhazia on political charges; of these 754 were shot. A show trial of 13
well-known public figures was held in Sukhum in October—November 1937; the
defendants were all sentenced to be shot as murderers, agents of foreign
The victims of the purge being disproportionately ethnic
Abkhaz, the purge had the effect of drastically changing the ethnic
composition of the elite. Thus, by 1952 over 80% of the 228 top party and
government officials and enterprise managers in Abkhazia were ethnic
Georgians (there remained 34 Abkhaz, 7 Russians and 3 Armenians in these
Suppression of the Abkhaz language
The Beria regime in Georgia conducted a long-term policy
aimed at forcibly assimilating the Abkhaz. This policy had two principal
components: suppression of the Abkhaz language and demographic engineering.
The first step taken in the linguistic field was the decision
in 1939 to switch Abkhaz writing, which since 1926 had been based on the
Latin alphabet, to a specially adapted version of Georgian script.
In 1945—46 Abkhaz-language schools were closed. Abkhaz
children were compelled to attend schools in which the language of
instruction was Georgian. This left particularly painful memories in the
minds of the generation of Abkhaz growing up at that time, for they were
beaten if they spoke their native language and had to cope with a language
of which they had no previous knowledge.
At the same time, publishing and radio broadcasting in Abkhaz
ceased. In general, public use of the Abkhaz language was progressively
restricted. Between 1947 and 1951 numerous age-old Abkhaz place names were
replaced by Georgian place names.
Measures to restore Abkhaz-language schools (and
Armenian-language schools, which had also been closed) in Abkhazia—teacher
training programs, textbook preparation, and so on—were taken in the second
half of 1953, following Stalin’s death (in March) and Beria’s arrest (in
Between 1937 and 1953 tens of thousands of peasants from
Western Georgia were settled in Abkhazia, shifting the ethno-demographic
balance further against the Abkhaz. At the time of the Soviet census of 1926
the Abkhaz had still accounted for over a quarter of the population of
Abkhazia (26.4%).5 The
demographic engineering of the late Stalin period brought this proportion
down to about one sixth (17—18%).6
A special organization was set up in 1937 to build housing
for new Georgian settlers—“Abkhazpereselenstroi” (“Abkhazia Resettlement
Construction”). In 1939 compact Georgian settlements appeared in close
proximity to Abkhaz villages in Gudauta and Ochamchira districts, for the
clear purpose of breaking up the sole remaining areas of contiguous Abkhaz
habitation. Later, settlers were also placed on the lands of Abkhaz villages
(for instance, in 1951—52).
In general, unused arable land was in short supply in
mountainous Abkhazia and this limited the potential for resettlement—unless
resettlement could be combined with deportation. In 1949 the Greek and
Turkish minorities were deported from Abkhazia to Kazakhstan and Central
Asia, and Georgians were settled in the formerly Greek and Turkish villages.
Thus, the Georgianization of Abkhazia did not occur solely at the expense of
There is evidence that plans were being prepared in 1949—51
to deport the Abkhaz as well. It is not clear why these plans were not
carried out. Historians suggest that policy makers, increasingly confident
in the success of forcible assimilation, may simply have decided that
deportation was unnecessary.
One of the most difficult problems in interpreting this
period of the history of Abkhazia is that of assigning responsibility
between Tbilisi and Moscow. To what extent was the “Stalin—Beria terror” in
Abkhazia the doing of the general Soviet leadership (Stalin), and to what
extent specifically of the Georgian leadership (Beria)?
Research in Soviet party archives has shown that in
implementing the policy of Georgianization bureaucrats in Tbilisi and Sukhum
were acting in general accordance with the directives of the central
leadership in Moscow.7 Georgianization
in Abkhazia was a local application of a much broader policy aimed at the
assimilation of ethnic minorities in all the union republics (Ukrainians in
southern Russia, Tajiks and Karakalpaks in Uzbekistan, etc.).
However, the Georgian leaders were enthusiastic participants
in this policy. They went further than they were required to by the Kremlin.
For example, their instructions stipulated that teaching was no longer to be
carried out in local minority languages like Abkhaz, but they did not
prohibit the teaching of such languages as special subjects. The Georgian
leaders chose not to exploit this loophole, and suppressed the teaching of Abkhaz
as well as teaching in Abkhaz.
Nevertheless, it seems fair to place responsibility primarily
on Moscow rather than Tbilisi. And yet this does not appear to have been how
the Abkhaz tended to interpret the matter. They were inclined to blame “the
Georgians.” A number of reasons can be suggested for this: the Georgian
origin of Stalin and Beria, the simple fact that they were being subjected
to Georgianization not Russification, and their positive experience in the
preceding period, which predisposed them against blaming the Soviet system
The bitterness against Georgians that originated in the late
Stalin period was an important factor underlying the escalation of the
Abkhaz-Georgian conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Fazil_’ Iskander: Rossiia v etoi voine vela sebia ochen_’
sderzhanno,” Russkii Bazar,
no. 35(645), August 28—September 3, 2008 (http://www.russian-bazaar.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=13268).
One problem for this version is that Lakoba’s corpse is said to have been
returned to Sukhum with the internal organs removed in order to make it
very difficult to identify the cause of death.
Nine of these were members of the presidium of this body.
Here and below, I rely heavily on Section 4.4 (pp. 331—4) of O.Kh. Bgazhba
and S.Z. Lakoba, Istoriia
Abkhazii s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei (Moscow,
Bgazhba and Lakoba give names for ten of the defendants: V.
Ladaria, V. Lakoba, M. Lakoba, M. Chalmaz, K. Inal-ipa, D. Jergenia, M.
Kishmariya, P. Seisyan, A. Engelov, S. Turkiya.
Before deportations of Abkhaz began in the 1870s, the
Abkhaz constituted the overwhelming majority of the population of
Abkhazia. In 1886 they still accounted for 85.7% of the population, but by
1897 the figure was down to 55.3%.
Besides resettlement, part of this shift was achieved (at
least on paper) by reclassifying as Georgians individuals previously
registered as Abkhaz, especially in the Gali district of southern
G.P. Lezhava, Mezhdu
Gruziei i Rossiei (Moscow:
TsIMO IEA RAN, 1997), pp. 116—61.
Stephen D. Shenfield is
an independent researcher and translator living in the USA.He specializes in
Russian and post-Soviet affairs. He produces the Research and Analytical
Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List, an e-mail listing on Russian affairs (for
an archive of past issues, see http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/jrl-ras.cfm).