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Grigory Pasko: A Trip to Abkhazia

I recently found myself at a rather uneventful conference near the border of the world’s newest nation – at least in the eyes of the Kremlin as well as two other Latin American statesmen with high degrees of interest and knowledge of the Caucasus – and I thought to myself, why not see if I could hitch up with a tour across the border and do a report for the blog? What follows are some of my impressions from my first Abkhaz experience. – G.P.

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The Sovietness of the tour journey from Dagomys into Abkhazia wasfelt literally right from the start: the bus travelled for nearly threehours through Sochi-Adler-Matsesta-Khost and the flophouses on theshore of the Black Sea, gathering tourists. They were gathered. Wearrived in Veseloye to the border.

It’s a very funny border: lots of fences, but any sense of the security reality is absent. Dogs highly trained to find fried ground meatcutlets wandering around in droves. Abkhazian borderistas and customsagents wandering around in droves (I did not see what they are highlytrained to find). The guide asked if the Russo-turistos (some 50 peoplehad crammed themselves into the bus) had narcotics, weapons and otherunlawful items. In response EVERYBODY was silent. And after this theydid not check ANYBODY.

The first poster on the neutral strip we cameacross – an advertisement, for the American cigarettes West. This isall the more funny because the official powers both of Russia and ofAbkhazia are doing everything they can to demonstrate their dislike ofthe USA, which support Georgia.

The Russian border guards checked passports: just like they ought to -in a database on a computer. An Abkhazian maiden checked passportsselectively, skipping over every one-two people, without any of thosesilly computers and databases.

We crossed the Psou on foot and saw chebureki [a common street food, afried folded flatbread usually filled with something vaguely resemblingmeat–Trans.] at 50 rubles and a bus of other tourists with the signYebenes tour. Droves of dogs were wandering around it.
A person in a camouflage uniform entered (they’re fashionable there)and collected 15 rubles each – «insurance fee». The guide Mananare-counted everyone: one girl – a Korean – our borderistas had«rejected as defective». She remained in our Motherland.

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The first excursion site (for an additional 150 rubles) – the dacha ofcomrade Stalin №2 on Kholodnaya [Cold–Trans.] river (somewhere in themountains between Leselidze and Gagra). The dacha is in dismalcondition. It can be seen that they had plundered its interior but good- even not all the light bulbs are burning. The excursion of the dachawas led by… the security guard. He recounted fairy tales about Stalin.It seemed to everyone that the lad obviously sympathized with thetyrant. Then we asked why they aren’t showing us the third story.«There, – the security guard said importantly, – are the apartments ofSergey Vasilievich». Who this «Sergey Vasilievich» is clearly noteveryone knew, but, apparently, guessed, that this – is president ofAbkhazia comrade Bagapsh. (I’ll never understand this habit of peoplewho have climbed to the pinnacle of some kind of power to settle in themansions of previous tyrants).

The dacha did not make any impression on me whatsoever: boring, dusty,dirty, smelling of mold…But then around the dacha is wonderful pineyair. And also, of course, impressive is the labor of prisoners, whocarved out so much space in a cliff face for dacha constructions androads.

…In Gagra, it was the state of ruin that struck the eye. Houses withoutwindows and doors, abandoned constructions, garbage along the roads…Inanticipation, Manana began to talk about the blockade of Abkhazia bythe Georgian «occupiers and aggressors», about how they had vandalizedand destroyed everything around in the course of the 6 years of the«blockade». Something didn’t quite connect with the arithmetic: the warhad ended in the year 1993. That is, already 16 years had passed. Thatis, 16 years already since the «occupiers» had gone. That’s the firstthing. The second thing, in Gagra and Gudauta rayons, supposedly, therehadn’t been any «occupiers» at all. So who had destroyed the houses andhad strewn garbage all over the place?

Of the intact sites in Gagra, sticking in memory was the sanatoriumof the Russian ministry of defense. Such an impression that no warstake the desk commandos of our ministry of defense. Furthermore, evenin the crisis they contrive to build something there – like an aerialcable-car tram.

From Gagra we went to Pitsunda. Regularly encountered along the roadwere huge little monsters of a macabre appearance – bus stops tackilyoverlaid with mosaic-like small tiles in the form of a spotted littlehen, a little octopus, a little fish, a little shell…As Mananaclarified, this – is the graduation projects of the great sculptorZurab Tsereteli. (Later I recalled that I had already seen thistackiness earlier in Peredelkino: there the sculptor-raptor haddecorated his dacha in this manner).

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In Pitsunda we were met by the already customary ruin and untendedness.It was cold, a strong wind was blowing, clouds had overcast thesky…Maybe it was for this reason as well that an atmosphere ofunfestiveness was felt. There were few people around. In the main -women at the market. They were selling souvenirs, made who knows wereand who knows by whom: you can encounter this kind all over Russia.Moreover, predominating were shells- beads-clay abominations of exactlythe same coloration as the little Tseretelian monsters-bus stops. Couldit be that he is the author-raptor of these souvenirs?

One woman offered me «home-made wine». I foolishly took a gulp. Itdidn’t smell like wine. I’m not even talking about the taste. Let meput it this way: do not drink, little Ivan, from the hoof, you willbecome a goat. (Later, I, of course, did try Abkhazian wines. So-so.But you can drink them, especially the dry reds like «Chegema» and«Eshera». Although… I still wouldn’t call all this wines).

…Obviously threatening the breathtaking beauty of lake Ritsa are themultitude of constructions cropping up without any rational plan:cafes, restaurants, boat rental centers, souvenir stands… Then I oftennotices this disorder, lack of a unitary architectural approach. Themotleyness at times distracts even from the beauties of the siteitself. That’s how it was also, by the way, next to the artificialwaterfall in Novy Afon [New Athos–Trans.]…

…Next stop – the New Athos Simono-Canonite monastery. A very beautifulmonastery – not even the ubiquitous scaffolding gets in the way ofseeing this. It’s amazing that the place is actually in good condition.It is not amazing that there once used to be a tourist base here.
The Novy Afon karst cave – this is a truly amazing creation of nature.And the people here have actually put in some effort – the metro insidethe Iverian mountain alone is impressive enough. [Everything that hasbeen preserved and is still functioning had obviously been made in theSoviet years–G.P.]. In the tourist handbooks they write – «the halls ofthe cave are very beautifully lit». In actuality, the halls aredisgustingly poorly lit. Darkness everywhere you look. Some 80 percentof all the beauty is simply not visible. Manana the guide clarifiedthat they had tried to make the lighting somewhat better, but theundertaking didn’t work out: the stalactites had begun to get overgrownwith moss because of the elevation of the temperature in the cave.

On the way back, the driver put in a cassette with the «Caucasianchanson « (this is – something, words fail me, you’ve got to hear itfor yourself) and a cassette with patriotic songs of the Republic ofApsny (that’s how Abkhazia is called). Here are the words from thatsong: «Stark naked you stand, o mother of mine. Everybody is rippingyou to pieces. But now you have become free, my dear Abkhazia». Haveyou imagined the picture? And just who is this «everybody»? Could theauthor of the words have had in mind not only Georgia?

…For a small advertising leaflet of the «Magical world» tourismbureau, the girl in the kiosk took 50 rubles from me. In the leaflet Iread that the Abkhaz – are the oldest nationality in the world; thatthe Abkhaz and the Kartvelians (Georgians) – are differentnationalities; that in the year 1810, Abkhazia had voluntarily attacheditself to Russia; that in the year 1866, the Abkhaz – every man, womanand child without exception – were banished to Turkey; that Abkhazia is«waiting for worldwide recognition of state status».

To this I will add that having recognized Abkhazia, besides Russia, are Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Photos: Abkhazia today (Photos by G.Pasko)

For reference:

On 14 August of the year 1992 between Georgia and Abkhazia beganmilitary actions, including with the application of artillery. Thestart of the military phase of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict was laidby the introduction into Abkhazia of Georgian troops. In Georgia theydeclare that the troops entered by mutual understanding between Tbilisiand Sukhum for the protection of the railroad. In Abkhazia they areconvinced that this was just an excuse, and the introduction of troopsevoked the exacerbated resistance of the inhabitants of the region.

On 3 September of the year 1992 in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin and EduardShevardnadze signed a document envisioning the cessation of fire, thewithdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhazia, the return of refugees,however the parties did not fulfill a single item of the agreement, andmilitary actions continued.

At last, on 27 August of the year 1993, Sukhum transferred to thecontrol of Abkhazian troops. Georgian troops were forced completely toabandon Abkhazia.

During the time of the war around 16 thsd. people died, including 4thsd. Abkhaz, 10 thsd. Georgians and 2 thsd. volunteers from therepublics of the North Caucasus and South Ossetia.