Thomas de Waal
Senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. United Kingdom.

What is Abkhazia? It’s a basic question but one that eludes an answer.

I have written a lot about the politics and history of Abkhazia and Georgia and will not do so here. Reflecting on the sad anniversary of 30 years of conflict I want to note here how that politics has reduced the rich identity of Abkhazia to dry politicised husks of stereotype and slogan.

This was once a special cosmopolitan place of many nationalities and multiple identities. Conflict and historical trauma always lurked in the background, but had history taken a different turn—had Tengiz Kitovani perhaps not sent in his marauding army in August 1992—Abkhazia could have had quite a different story.

What do I mean? Go to Google Maps and you see a region where an unbroken black line, the border, defines it as a region of Georgia, whose towns are written in the Georgian script, as well as English. The people for whom Abkhazia is named, the Abkhazians, are erased. Go to the place itself, or look at Russian maps, and you see only the Abkhazian and Russian identity of the place – it is Georgians who are erased or forgotten. Neither of these stories is a true one. People from Abkhazia, who know its past, know better but are powerless to do anything about it.

Since the unlucky tragedy of August 1992 blighted Abkhazia and all its people—and continues to do so—these two conceptions of the place have diverged even further.

In the last 30 years, scholars and peace-practitioners have developed a whole new field of study, researching the role of memory and trauma in conflict, as phenomena that perpetuate conflict in people’s minds and continue to sow division and injustice if not properly confronted. Marianne Hirsch gives the useful name “Postmemory” to the phenomenon whereby unresolved trauma and painful memories are handed down to subsequent generations, who did not experience them directly. The concept of “transitional justice” has been developed to help societies come to terms with injustices in the past.

Abkhazia, a place of multiple and diverging memories, of buried trauma, of a depressingly long litany of grievances, badly needs the creative power of these ideas.  

In October 1992 Abkhazia’s collective memory was gravely wounded when Georgian paramilitary soldiers deliberately burned down the republic’s archive and more than 90 percent of the precious records inside were destroyed. It is a story to which I have a personal connection, as I came to know the archivist Nikolai Ioannidi, who rescued what he could of the archive, after it was burned, and preserved it. I counted him as a friend and a model of decency and professionalism in time of war.

Before that, at the height of the Stalinist era, another attempt was made to erase and falsify Abkhazian culture and history in the 1930s. This fear of genocide lies behind the Abkhazian national movement of the 1980s.

On the other side, there are still more than 200,000 Georgians who also feel written out of history. They were born in Abkhazia, were forced to flee in 1993 and are still unable to return. They must endure the unhealed trauma of still being separated from their homes and homeland.   

Kamila Kuc’s film What We Shared, released in 2021 is the best work I have seen or read on Abkhazia in recent years. Kuc spent many months in Abkhazia thanks to a residency at the Sklad arts-centre. As an artistic project she had the idea of asking local people to tell her dreams—intuitively sensing that there was another reality behind the one she saw every day and that dreams might reveal a different Abkhazia.

What Kuc did not anticipate was how memories of the war of 1992-3, of loss and tragedy, are still the main stuff of dreams in Abkhazia, and are the background to everything that happens there. The dreams people tell in her film are both non-fiction and fiction, told by both real people and actors. They ache with loss and nostalgia. Beautiful images of empty houses and of the sea (the medium of submerging and sublimation) permeate the film. It is a profound evocation of the beautiful, mysterious, often surreal place that is Abkhazia.

I know that, if Abkhazia has a decent future (and I still hope it eventually will find one), it will be as a place that respects all these stories and the people who tell them. What is for sure is that the political labels that currently apply are all inadequate and a different kind of thinking is required.