Monday, October 24, 2011

Ethnic simplification in Abkhazia

I happened to come across one more instance of the larger story of post-imperial ethnic simplification in the 20th century.  (For some clarification of what I mean by the deliberately abstracted and ironically euphemistic phrase "ethnic simplification," see here & here.) This case involves Abkhazia, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, which was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century and was a semi-autonomous, multi-ethnic region of Georgia when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.

Some selections from an openDemocracy piece by Thomas de Waal on "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history":
[In May 1992] Abkhazia had only three more months of peacetime existence. In August that year the Georgian army - or to be precise a collection of ragged armed looters nominally subordinate to the embryonic military forces of a new and barely functioning state - entered and sacked Sukhumi and ousted the Abkhaz authorities. War broke out. The Abkhaz were first driven north by the Georgians, then in the autumn of 1993, with Russian help, turned into vengeful victors, driving out the Georgians.

A history erased

It was ten years before I saw Sukhumi, the archive [of the cosmopolitan history of Abkhazia] and Ioannidi [the archivist] again. In the meantime I had covered the war in Chechnya and the aftermath of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, but had not been back to my first conflict zone in the Caucasus.

I could barely make sense of the geography of the place I visited. Although fighting had ended eight years before, grass was growing in the streets of Sukhumi and half the city was still in ruins. The vast burned hulk of the Abkhaz parliament loomed over the town, a blackened shipwreck beached in the middle of the central square. There was an air of Pompeii about it: the city's largest community, its Georgians, had fled in their entirety, leaving Sukhumi the half-empty capital of a new separatist state, recognised by no one.

The Abkhaz had won a "victory", but the price was impossibly high.
Abkhazia is still occupied by Russian troops, of course. The bulk of the ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia involved the ethnic Georgians, almost half the pre-1992 population,  most of whom (200,000 or so) are living as refugees in Georgia proper.  I already knew about that.  What I didn't realize, I guess, is that the long-established Pontic Greek community in Abkhazia is also gone. By an interesting coincidence, I happened to discover a few weeks ago that Greece has taken in a number of ethnic-Greek refugees from Abkhazia (and Georgia) and resettled them in Thessaloniki–or, to use the alternative version of the name, Salonica.  (Another instance of the centuries-old history of modern Greek 'Zionism', with its ingathering of the Greek diaspora from the Balkans, Anatolia, Ukraine, etc.) According to the local Greeks, the "Georgians" live predominantly in one ghetto-like part of the city, and a number of locals wonder whether all of them are actually Greeks. Whether or not those last observations are correct, I have no way of knowing ... but these are typical reactions, reminiscent of the way that "Old Greeks" reacted to the Greek refugees from Anatolia in 1923.

As de Waal explains, his perspective on the Abkhazia story happens to be Greek-centric, more or less by accident:
I had a rather skewed view of this strange tense situation because all my companions [in 1992] happened to be Greek. I had chosen Abkhazia, pretty much at random, as a location to make a BBC radio feature about the plight of the Pontic Greeks, and the dilemma they were facing as the Soviet Union collapsed: should they abandon their ancient Black Sea habitat and emigrate to a strange country called Hellas?

I spent several days, living in a wooden hut by the Black Sea, being plied with too much cognac, touring villages, schools and cultural societies - and never for a moment freed from the hospitable guard of my Greek hosts. It felt as though I was the captive of some long-lost Greek domain from the Byzantine era.

One day they took me to see the archive and its remarkable Greek curator, Nikolai Ioannidi. He was tall, gaunt, with parchment-pale skin and keen blue eyes - from his German mother, it seemed, rather than his Greek father. He smoked a lot, talked clearly and exactly and wore a navy-blue beret. He was the great expert about the history of Abkhazia and about the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea.
Then, when de Waal went back a decade later:
Instead of an archive there was a damp square of ground with the low black empty shell of a building - one wreck amongst many. Ioannidi now worked out of two corridors in the cold wing of the university, piled waist-deep with cardboard packages. He told me the story of what had happened.

Ioannidi lived in Sukhumi's "new town", a Soviet dormitory of tower-blocks two miles from the centre, where the archive was. On 22 October 1992, the city was under Georgian military control and curfew and he had made his precarious way home when it was still light, as the snipers were beginning their evening's work.

At 8pm a neighbour who lived next to the archive rang and said the building was on fire. There was no way Ioannidi could make his way back, so he had to wait until morning to find out what had happened during the night.

Late in the afternoon a car with five or six young Georgians wearing black uniforms of the Sukhumi military police had drawn up outside the archive. They broke down the door of the building, went in and set it on fire. Neighbours of all nationalities, including Georgians, rushed to put the fire out. However, the armed men returned forty minutes later. This time they drove away the neighbours with shots, ringed the building, poured kerosene over it and set it ablaze again. A fire-engine, which came to put out the fire, was not let through.

Frantic telephone calls to the KGB, the police, even the Orthodox bishop, yielded no result. It seemed as though the arson had been officially sanctioned, though no one would ever claim responsibility for it.

Ioannidi arrived at 6am the next morning to find it all gone. When he opened the safe in his wrecked office he believed for a moment that his own unpublished manuscripts had survived, only to see them turn to ashes from the heat before his eyes.

A crowd of curious onlookers gathered. Then the distinguished Abkhaz writer, Shalva Inal-Ipa, walked up stiffly and, observing the ritual of an Abkhaz funeral, bowed his head to the ground.

In a single night Abkhazia's documentary history had been virtually erased. 95% of the archive was destroyed. The only section that more or less survived at all was the radio archive from the 1930s. Nothing from the extensive 19th-century collection was preserved.

The following year, Abkhazia's Communist Party archive, kept in a different building, was annihilated in fighting, as the Abkhaz recaptured Sukhumi from the Georgians. Ioannidi estimates that of 176,000 archival documents in Abkhazia, before the war, 168,000 were destroyed. He ensured that at least some of it survived, for a long time keeping the remaining documents piled at home in his damp ninth-floor apartment, before he was allocated the empty rooms at the university, where the remnant of the archive is now housed.

A legacy project

It is a truism that combatants in war try to rewrite history. This is a chilling instance where one side succeeded comprehensively in actually destroying the history of its adversary. Part of the struggle between Georgians and Abkhaz is the complaint by the latter that their history was always belittled by their bigger neighbour. But there are multiple ironies here: Abkhazia was a cosmopolitan Black Sea territory with many different nationalities. By erasing the documentation of its rich multi-ethnic past, the Georgians were not only denying the Abkhaz their right to have a history of their own, they were also wiping out the complexity of the real history of this mixed region and sending it back to Year Zero. And of course they also erased themselves.

Nowadays, you would barely know that any Georgians had lived in Sukhumi as all traces of their heritage have been removed. And the Greek community of the city, amongst which Ioannidi grew up, has virtually disappeared. What Stalin began and the Georgian warlords continued, the Greek government helped complete by sending a big empty cruise ship to evacuate a thousand Greek citizens from Abkhazia at the end of the war in what they grandly called "Operation Golden Fleece".

Ioannidi stands as a dignified emblem of a multicultural road not taken. [....]
As we know, in the whole area that was covered in 1900 by the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the western and south-western portions of the Russian Empire, that potential "multicultural road" very rarely survived the upheavals of the terrible 20th century. So this is not an isolated incident, but one more example of that larger process.  And where that process of ethnic simplification wasn't completed by the end of the 20th century, it's often still going on.

So it goes, unfortunately  ...

=>  It occurs to me, by the way, that de Waal's historical account of what happened in Abkhazia in the 1990s is incomplete in one potentially misleading respect.  Russian troops were not the only outsiders who helped to carry out the expulsion of Georgians & other non-Abkhaz ethnic groups from Abkhazia. Muslim irregulars from various other parts of the Caucasus also played a significant role ... including, ironically, some of the same Chechen fighters who later wound up fighting a long and brutal war against the Russian army.

Yours for facing reality (though not necessarily accepting it without protest),
Jeff Weintraub