In the early 1960s, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was on holiday at his dacha in the Abkhaz resort town of Pitsunda, he sat down at a feast with some army generals. One marshal from Belarus, who did not know Abkhazia very well, was taken to have a look at the tea plantations in Duripsh. While driving through this village, the marshal suddenly asked why there were so many houses of culture (notoriously big public buildings). When he was told that these large houses actually belonged to ordinary farmers, he ordered the car back and said to Khrushchev: “These farmers are too rich! You have to do something about this!” Khrushchev replied: “You should ensure that people in Belarus live like the Abkhaz, rather than the other way around”.
Abkhazia is a tiny strip of land on the Black Sea coast. In Soviet times, it was an autonomous republic of Georgia and had one of the highest living standards in the union, mostly due to it being a popular tourist area. The sub-tropical climate meant that fruit could be exported at market prices, while imports from other Soviet republics were subsidised. Unlike in other Soviet territories, land in Abkhazia was never nationalised. People were allowed to live in rural areas on their farms and work in the city on government salaries. All this made us uniquely well-off in the USSR, especially those living in the major tea-growing areas.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Georgian-Abkhaz war in 1992-1993, Abkhazia became de facto independent from Georgia but its economy collapsed. Half the houses were destroyed, the population fell significantly, and the railway fell into disuse. The general post-Soviet malaise after the collapse of the USSR was made worse in our case by the devastation caused by the war. Any economic recovery was stalled in January 1996 when the Council of Heads of State of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) banned any official economic ties with Abkhazia. This was done to “encourage Abkhazia to take a more flexible position on the return of refugees”. Officially, these sanctions were only lifted in October 2008. So we effectively spent 12 years in isolation, even though Russia gradually softened its position in 2000. That same year, Russia began issuing passports to Abkhaz residents. Until then, we had been using the old Soviet passports, which meant that we could not travel anywhere outside Abkhazia.
Pensioners were worst-off initially. The Abkhaz pension was so low that in the mid-1990s you could buy no more than two loaves of bread with it. Many elderly people living alone died of malnutrition before aid organisations came to the rescue. In the early 2000s, the economy began to get back on its feet, but there was still no railway, banking, or postal services. Cash had to be smuggled across the Russian-Abkhaz border. Abkhazia’s many agricultural products were literally exported in wheelbarrows pushed along mostly by women. Rain or shine, they would queue for hours to cross the border. During these years, many locals would leave and then return, missing the good old times. But then they would leave again, having realised that making a living in a devastated country was very difficult. To this day, many people work abroad, mostly in Russia, and send money home to their families.
Abkhazia is an incredibly diverse place. Armenians, Turks, and the Pontic Greeks have long been engaged in trade in these parts, and in Soviet times Abkhazia was one of the most ethnically diverse republics, with the Abkhaz making up only 17 percent of the population. During the war, this all changed dramatically. In the first few months, Greeks and Estonians were evacuated by their governments and many Jews fled. Others left of their own accord and settled in a number of different countries, but mainly in Russia. Towards the end of the war, over 200,000 Georgians left too.
After the war, people’s standard of living was in many respects defined by their ethnicity. The Abkhaz and Armenians were the most well-off because many had homes and land in rural areas and were able to feed themselves and their relatives. The most vulnerable were the Russian-speakers who lived mostly in the cities and had no means of providing for themselves. This part of the population decreased dramatically. To a large extent, the state of affairs is the same today. Those who were better-off to begin with were in a superior position to benefit from the slow economic revival which began in the 2000s, with a gradual increase in the flow of tourists (mainly from Russia) and direct financial assistance from Moscow.
In the shadows of war
But, in general, life today in Abkhazia is still tough. People are constantly forced to adapt to their surroundings. Timur Kvitsinia, an ethnic Abkhaz, lost a leg in the war. He has a prosthesis which allows him to move about, but he cannot do physical work. In the first post-war years he worked as a driver for an NGO helping disabled war veterans. Then he found work as an environmental inspector. His wife is a teacher. Their only daughter now studies at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations on a scholarship received on the basis of his disability. They are not rich, but they get by and hope that their daughter will have a better life than they did.
Another friend of mine, Rosa, had a typical post-war fate. Her brother died in the war, leaving a wife and two small children. When the war began, she was single and working as the deputy headmistress of a school. After the war, she took charge of her brother’s family. Ever since then, she has been selling fruit on the street. Life was tough, but she managed to put both her nephews through university and the eldest one is already married. Rosa retains a zest for life and an interest in politics. Every time I walk by, she asks me questions. She is also a good source of information; she knows everything about the market, which products are selling well, who the thieves are, and how well (or not) the police force is working. She says there are many well-educated women working at the market for the sake of their families, and she jokes that this is the most educated market in the post-Soviet space.
Larissa Akmeeva has so much mixed blood in her veins that she does not know what ethnicity she is and does not care either. “I am from Sukhumi”, she says. “I was born and raised here and never thought that at my age I would have to bake pies in Moscow to support my family”. They left at the start of the war on one of the first Russian boats which came to evacuate civilians to Sochi. They found their way to Moscow, where she would bake cakes at home and sell them on the street, whatever the weather, while her husband worked as a loader in shops or as a plasterer on construction sites. Five years later he died, unable to handle this unsettled life. Larissa was forced to bring up her two daughters by herself.
Now both daughters are married and have their own children. One works as a hairdresser, and the other is an economist at a small private company. “They are Muscovites”, Larissa says sadly. “Unfortunately, they do not remember the Sukhumi life. I will never forget it. Every year I come back to Abkhazia on holiday to look after my parents’ house which has been standing empty all these years. Every day I dream of the times when in the morning I would go out onto the balcony with a view of the bay of Sukhumi and sit down in my father’s old chair with a coffee and a cigarette. This used to be a family ritual. My parents died here nine years after the war; they did not want to move to Moscow to be with us. My father built this house with his own hands; they loved it here. I would like to come back for good next year; as my grandchildren grow up, they will come here in the summer, and I will teach them to love this house and the sea. I will never sell this place”.
The small Russian population is also ageing rapidly. The young leave to study in Russia, and then stay there for the better career opportunities it offers. But some who grew up in the USSR did in fact return after the war. Oleg Karyavov was born in Sukhumi; his parents came here in the 1960s to work at the Sukhumi Physical-Technical Institute, the largest scientific centre in the south at that time. After school, he went to Moscow to study and survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the early 1990s well enough. He had his own business, apartment, and car, but when he turned 40 the air pollution started to take its toll. He returned to his parents’ empty apartment in Abkhazia and decided to work with ceramics, a long-held dream of his. He found clay deposits near Sukhumi and built his own kiln; he has been experimenting with different types of pots. When he had spent his savings, he began to fish in a rubber boat, and make wine from grapes bought from villagers on the cheap. This allowed him to get by until he managed to make more professional ceramic pots with local designs and sell them to restaurants and cafes. Now he has found another market and taken a big order for the New Year’s party at Krasnaya Polyana, which was built for the Sochi Olympics and is now a fashionable ski resort.
His ex-wife and children still live in Moscow. He hardly ever goes there; he has his own life now, and they have theirs. Oleg whiles away his free time with former classmates and new friends who, like him, are single and have returned to their war-ravaged hometown because, for various reasons, they were not able to put down roots elsewhere. This small group of friends go out of town together to fish at night. They’ll make their own plov right on the beach and drink Oleg’s wine which gets better by the year. This year he bought some seeds of the famous “Tsolikauri” white grapes from an old Mengrelian woman from Tsebelda and has promised the first tasting of the celebrated wine in a few years’ time.
In Soviet times, there were 14,000 Greeks in Abkhazia. Now there are just over 1,000. Before the war, Ivan Chekalidi made tombstones. It was a well-paid job and left him a lot of free time. “I lived like a king”, he reminisces. “I worked in the mornings and got paid cash in hand. Then my friends and I would go out and sit in the restaurant until the evening”. He went to Greece on the first Greek ship, which departed at the outbreak of war. He had no relatives there, and he and his family were resettled far from Athens. He worked on a construction site for several years – this was boring and back-breaking work. Exhausted, he tried to find a better job but, unable to, he returned to Abkhazia. He spent ten years going back and forth before staying in Abkhazia for good, leaving his wife and children, who were better able to adapt to life in Greece. Here he gets by on odd jobs, but feels useless and lonely. “Life has passed me by”, he says, “and I do not even understand why all this had to happen. It all started so well, and then the damn war broke out and turned our whole world upside-down. My elder brother is in Greece, my children too, life is hard but they manage. But I could not hack it. I had it too good before the war to be able to adapt later on”.
Atmadja Kilic came from the Turkish town of Ezgat in 1991, when he was only 21, to study at the Abkhaz State University. In the mid-1990s he got by selling bread, but now he has a business selling construction materials. He married a local girl and they have four children. He earned enough to buy an apartment, and says that they live well now. His brother and sister stayed in Turkey, but some nephews have also moved to Abkhazia. He mastered the Abkhaz language and learned Russian. Unlike many Turkish Abkhaz who moved back to their historic homeland and keep themselves to themselves, he takes an active part in the social life of the wider community.
I went to have tea with him at a street cafe – it was December, but it was still quite warm. Atmadja tried to explain to me why he came back to Abkhazia. His ancestors left in the 1860s, shortly before the end of the Russian-Caucasian war. In Turkey, they wandered about for a long time before settling in a village which is still home to many of their relatives. Of course, they would often reminisce about their homeland, so unlike Turkey with its harsher climate and different culture. They passed on this homesickness to their children. “Yes, I did have Turkish friends”, he says, “but they thought I was a Turk and did not want to hear about Abkhazia. Our family was different to Turkish families. I wanted to live among my own people and speak the Abkhaz language. I wanted my children to speak their native language, and that’s why I’m here”.
With the collapse of the Russian rouble and the introduction of sanctions, the standard of living in Abkhazia has dropped and ordinary people are feeling this keenly. “We might have to start working on our vegetable gardens again”, people say, “but instead of going to Egypt or Turkey, the Russians will come to us in the summer. So we’ll get by”.
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