Timothy K. Blauvelt
Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. Georgia.

The N. A. Lakoba Papers collection at the Hoover Institution – a remarkable set and immensely valuable set of documents not only for the study of Abkhazian history but for the history of the USSR as a whole – contains a long and thoughtful letter sent to Nestor Lakoba in June 1926 by a former Menshevik activist named Artem Fillipovich Pantsulaia.[1] A near contemporary of Lakoba born in the Senaki district of Georgia in 1895, Pantsulaia had been a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party since 1912, and prior to the 1924 August Uprising had been the chairman of the underground Menshevik district committee (Obkom) in Abkhazia. According to a later indictment, despite entreaties from the Menshevik Central Committee to Pantsulaia opposed the formation of a military organization in Abkhazia because of the ethnic diversity there.[2] He was among those put on trial for participation in the “Parity Committee” during the uprising, but was released by a decree from the Supreme Court of Soviet Georgia in 1925. It is not clear what became of Pantsulaia, he does not seem to figure in the Troika protocols from the period of the Great Terror at the end of the 1930s, the fate that befell so many of the former Mensheviks who remained in Soviet Georgia.

In October of 1925, the congress of a working committee of representatives of the former Menshevik Party of Georgia was held in Tiflis in order to liquidated itself, following which a special department was created in the Central Committee of the Georgian Bolshevik party “for working among Mensheviks.” In January 1926 the newspaper Sovetskaia Abkhaziia published a “conversation” with Pantsulaia about this commission, in which he (though it is difficult to discern here what are direct quotations from Pantsulaia and what is framing by the editors) emphasized the need, in the wake of the failed uprising, for the former Mensheviks and the population of Georgia to make their peace with the Bolshevik regime. At the same time, Pantsulaia threw some pointed barbs at the Bolsheviks: the Georgian Mensheviks had the “most experienced workers, peasants and intellectuals in the revolutionary struggle” he said, implying that the Georgian Bolsheviks were none of these. Therefore, according to Pantsulaia, making peace with the Mensheviks and involving them in “Soviet construction” would “make use of this valuable aktiv for the good of the toilers of Georgia and of the entire USSR.” Criticism of the existing regime on the part of the Menshevik working committee, Pantsulaia asserted, “had greatly assisted the [Bolshevik] leadership center in giving due deserts to those provincial thugs (derzhimordy) who, wrapping themselves in the flag of the Communist Party, poisoned the life of the population with their satrap-like dealings,” referring to local Bolshevik officials censured after the uprising. While observing that “it is no longer in the interests of the Georgian people to look to the West in expectation of salvation from occupation,” and that “the Soviet Constitution sufficiently guarantees the rights of the nationalities,” Pantsulaia saw Menshevik cooperation with the Bolshevik regime as a two-way street: the Bolshevik committee for working with the Mensheviks “will turn into a fiction and a self-delusion if they do not cease speaking with the former Mensheviks, who still feel themselves uneasy among the ranks of the builders of the Soviet state, in the language of the punitive organs.” This phrase seems to have particularly enraged the Abkhazian Party Obkom Chairman Giorgi Sturua, who published his angry response in the same issue (both articles were framed under a single headline, “A Conversation with Com. Pantsulaia and Response of Com. G. Sturua”). Nevertheless, Panstulaia concluded his “conversation” by asserting that the process of “drawing together” (sblizheniye) was working out better in Abkhazia then elsewhere in Georgia, as here there were comparatively more Mensheviks transitioning to the Bolshevik party. What was more, he hinted, the Mensheviks in Abkhazia were less radical than others: “I can bravely and with pleasure declare that since I returned to Abkhazia after the August events I have not met a single madman who would retain his old views, I am deeply convinced that there is not a single well-known Menshevik in Abkhazia who would dream of recreating the Menshevik organization.” This was facilitated in part, Patsulaia stated, “because all the responsible local comrades attempt to implement cooperation with the former Mensheviks in the same spirit as in Georgia.” Pantsulaia was particularly positive towards the Bolshevik leadership in Abkhazia: “I was underground in Abkhazia for about three years [prior to the 1924 uprising], and I will admit that I had not been aware of all of the achievements of Soviet power; I state without exaggeration that it has brought much that is good to Abkhazia, and I will be genuinely glad if I will be able to do my bit for the construction of a new life for the toiling masses of Abkhazia.”

It was in the wake of this public discussion that Pantsulaia addressed his letter to Nestor Lakoba, dated June 10, 1926, and marked “between us.” Writing in Russian and using the formal “vy”, Pantsulaia framed the correspondence as the continuation of their last conversation in which “my esteemed Nestor Apollonovich” had brought up “the most burning question of our day,” the national question in Abkhazia, “or more simply put, the interrelations between the Abkhaz and Georgians,” and during which neither had been able to fully express their thoughts. Since “a conversation would take more time than reading a letter,” Pantsulaia decided to lay out his views in written form.

Pantsulaia began with this with a discussion of the dominating influence of Russia in the region, as a “young, large nation” inevitably expanding and representing to “small nations” the dual dangers of either physical destruction or “spiritual degradation and assimilation.” Had Europe not intervened, Pantsulaia held, “there would now be no Persia, no Turkey, or even a number of Balkan states, there would be one united, undivided Mother Russia ‘from the north pole to the Arabian sea’ – no other nation can so threaten small nations in our region as Russia.” In the case of Abkhazia, in Pantsulaia’s view, “Russia came here as a ‘liberator’ from the Turkish yoke, and nearly ‘liberated’ Abkhazia from the Abkhaz; until the arrival of Russia there was not, and could not be, Mukhajirs,” referring to the mass deportations of Abkhaz in the 1860s and 1870s.

Georgia, in Pantsulaia’s view, as a small “but not young” nations, was “nearly wiped from the face of the earth, but having avoided physical destruction it faced the danger of spiritual degradation.” It was only Georgia’s “own rich literature and culture of the past” that prevented Russia from assimilating it (“from imposing upon it ‘the Russian soul’”), “at least to that measure which it was able to do so in Abkhazia.” Yet Pantsulaia felt that Georgia had become so weak and degraded “as a nation and as a social organism” that it could not itself present a threat to smaller nations: “Georgia cannot ‘swallow’ anybody, it is weak and continues to restore itself, to gather its discarded strengths and transform itself into a healthy organism.” Yet Russia obstructed this, as Georgia’s restoration “is not beneficial to Russia itself, since Georgia is the most imperative nation in the Caucasus for it.” If not forever, Pantsulaia thought, then “at least for a very long time Georgia will be in the defensive role (as will be the other nations of the Caucasus), while Russia will be in the offensive one.”

Nestor Lakoba, Chairman of the Council of the People’s Commissars at the 15th Congress of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). 1927.

Pantulaia then moved on to speak about “policy in Abkhazia,” by which he seems to refer to Georgian policy towards Abkhazia. He became by saying that he “had to argue a lot about this with my colleagues [presumably his fellow Mensheviks], who finally agreed with me in Metekhi Prison [presumably while incarcerated following the failed 1924 uprising]”. “Many of them then and probably still now,” he added, “are certain that ministerial posts still await them.” The correct policy for Georgia, in his view, was at the same time the healthy policy towards Abkhazia. “Sometimes medics give diagnoses, and if I may, as a ‘medic in politics,’ go a little further,” he elaborated, “I am deeply convinced that the Abkhaz themselves, as soon as their cultural level increases, will support without any kind of dictate from Tiflis, truly, and better than any true believing’ Georgian, that very same Abkhazian policy in Abkhazia.” But what does this policy comprise? Pantsulaia continues rather obliquely: “Many political officials, since they want to ‘create’ policy around Abkhazia,” should familiarize themselves more closely and dispassionately with Abkhazia and its particular history of interrelations with Georgia from the distant past. “It seems to me that we – socialists of one sort or another – turned out to be poor inheritors of our ancestors who enabled peaceful co-habitation and mutual coexistence of the Georgians and the Abkhaz.” At the same time, Pantsulaia seemed critical of what he described as the Menshevik policy towards Abkhazia, presumably referring to that of the Georgian Democratic Republic in 1918-1921: “When I glace backwards at the policy of the Mensheviks in Abkhazia, I feel shame for my comrades and many others; here we encounter empty philosophizing.” The Georgian Menshevik policy, he seems to admit, lacked focus and specific goals: “Those who desire to serve the nation should work out ahead of time, created a comprehensive and clear program that will not need to be altered, say, on a yearly basis; they must have a range of vision, a sweep, they must clarify ahead of time where the paths of positive development lead for the nation that they serve, understanding who is its friend and enemy.” The Georgian and Abkhazian peoples were always linked, “and there is no reason to think that this will not be the case in the future.” Those Georgians who are particularly concerned for Georgian interests in Abkhazia, he asserted, “should yearn to improve the cultural and economic wellbeing of the Abkhaz, directly in the Abkhazian spirit.” To the great misfortune of both the Georgians and the Abkhaz, Pantsulaia surmised without offering specific details, “many political officials approach this question armed with bile and demagoguery, attempting to capitalize on this accursed issue for political gain, it is such a pity.” Later in his letter Pantsulaia returned to the topic of the earlier Menshevik approach to Abkhazia: “I don’t know what the former Mensheviks think ‘when they’re all alone,’ but I know that genuine Mensheviks, mainly during the recent ‘underground’ period, looked at Abkhazian policy in the same way as I do, as I’ve briefly laid out here; I am also aware that almost all of the last Menshevik underground Central Committee (up to 1924) spoke negatively of the policy of the Mensheviks in Abkhazia in the past.”

In the next section of his letter, Pantsulaia addressed an issue that had been a main focus of politics in Abkhazia over the previous year, that of official languages.[3] Under pressure from different quarters either to fully implement the local indigenization element of Soviet nationality policy making Abkhazian a genuinely administrative language on the one hand or to accept greater use of the Georgian language, the Abkhazian leadership under Lakoba maintained a cautious middle road, preferring Russian as a functional lingua franca. Pantsulaia instead urged Lakoba to give priority to developing the Abkhazian language: “In so far as they (or the Abkhaz themselves) want to turn the Abkhaz into a healthy nation, all measures should be taken to make Abkhazian into the state language; before all else the Abkhaz themselves must treat their language and their newly born literature with respect – how else can they demand that others learn the Abkhazian language?” He was directly critical of the de facto preference for Russian in Abkhazia, holding that “the assertion that Russian should be preferred over others because it is the language of the October Revolution, the language of Lenin, has nothing in common with the real framing of the issue, and only naïve idealists could reason in this way.” Russian had been imposed on the region, and as he had argued earlier, carried the risk of assimilation and degradation. Caution was required in this issue, Pantsulaia warned Lakoba, but also insisted that “one should not refuse to be decisive: the logic of things demands the expunging of Russian from here, but how?” During the three-year existence of the Georgian Democratic Republic they “were not able to nationalize even all the institutions in their own capital.” In Abkhazia there were even more obstacles, though he added obliquely that these “cannot be spoken of without accusing somebody or other (whoever) of the fact that something remarkable is happening here.”

In the culminating passages of his letter, Pantsulaia conveyed both his praise for Lakoba and his apparent concerns over the course of recent events: “The conclusion from all of the above is such that in principle I support without hesitation the policy that you have implemented, as I am sure that one way or another it leads – or will lead – to a final drawing together of Georgians and Abkhaz.” This did not mean that Pantsulaia overlooked Lakoba’s mistakes, “and there are plenty of them,” although “many errors have been attributed to you while others might be guilty.” “I say openly to all that you are the first among the Abkhaz who is able to govern the country and feel yourself strong,” Pantsulaia continued, “may god allow that you remain in power in Abkhazia despite all of the obstacles that they throw at you; I am certain that you will successfully be the first among those Abkhaz who will genuinely lead the Abkhaz on the historically correct path.” Yet at the same time, Pantsulaia warned Lakoba about being too trusting of those sycophantic people around him, “those who are not particularly able or who are able only ‘to do good things’ for themselves.” In that regard, “no few such officials have gathered around you who will tell you ‘Yes you are right, it is so!’” Pantsulaia cautioned. “You might not believe me,” Pantsulaia surmised, “maybe they are all good and I am over salting (in particular regarding the so called non-party individuals);[4] for many reasons I hate them with all my soul. So yes, therefore maybe I am over salting.” 

Pantsulaia ended his letter by asking for Lakoba’s forgiveness “if this strange continuation of our discussion will seem somewhat audacious,” yet insisted that he offered “much honesty and little falsehood.” “I hope that you will sort everything out and not be lazy to read to the end,” Pantsulaia concluded, and that “you will accept all of my honesty as genuine respect for you; I am certain that I may speak with you openly and all that I have said will remain ‘between us,’ otherwise ‘it is not worth the headache,’ as the Georgian saying goes.[5] With honest comradely greeting.”

Although this letter clearly contains an interesting and unique perspective, to my knowledge it has never been cited before; historians using the Lakoba Papers collection have been at a loss for what to make of it. In part this is because Pantsulaia remains an historically obscure figure, though judging by the Sovetskaia Abkhaziia public dialogue with the Abkhazian Obkom Chairman Giorgi Sturua cited above he was well enough known in Soviet Abkhazia at the time to require little introduction. The letter also represents only one episode of an ongoing dialogue: we do not know more than Pantsulaia tells us about the preceding conversation, and we do not know Lakoba’s response. We know only that Lakoba deemed the letter worthy of preservation. We can also say that it represents a particular voice of a former Menshevik who had been directly involved in Abkhazia and his views (whether or not, as he claims, other former Mensheviks came to share his perspectives) about Abkhazia’s recent past and about the already thorny question of the relationship between Georgians and Abkhaz and about the burning issues of the day, especially that of language and, although phrased in aa seemingly purposely opaque manner, about the Lakoba’s controversial patronage entourage. These are clearly issues that would continue to reverberate throughout the Soviet period and beyond. The clear respect and esteem towards Lakoba that Pantsulaia conveys in his letter is also striking, given the more general levels of enmity during this period between the Georgian Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, which was only exacerbated by the 1924 August Uprising. The apparent mutual respect and civil discourse between the two is even more remarkable considering that Pantsulaia had been “underground” in Abkhazia during the period between the end of the Georgian Democratic Republic in early 1921 and the 1924 uprising. We are left only to surmise if there had been interaction between them during that time. In any case, I have attempted in this brief essay to lay out the themes that Pantsulaia expressed in his missive to Lakoba, and to the degree possible to place them in the context of the place and the period.


[1] N.A. Lakoba Papers, The Hoover Institution, box 1, file 48, parts 1 and 2. The pagination in the original document is inconsistent, so I have not indicated specific page numbers here.

[2] Sakme sakartvelos antisabchota partiebis paritetuli komitetis shesakheb (sabralmdeglo daskna) (Tiflis: iustitsiis saxhalkho komisariatis gamotsema, 1925), pp. 106-108, 118. 

[3] See the discussion about the language question in Abkhazia in the summer of 1925 in Timothy Blauvelt, “From Words to Action! Nationality Policy in Soviet Abkhazia, 1921-38,” in Stephen Jones, ed. The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012 (Routledge, 2014), pp. 232-62.

[4] This seems to me likely an oblique reference to the Abgostorg chairman Ismet Kady-Zade, a businessman and relative of Lakoba’s wife who was at the center of several of the political scandals of the period. See Timothy Blauvelt, Clientelism and Nationality in an Early Soviet Fiefdom: The Trials of Nestor Lakoba (Routledge, 2021), pp. 64-65, 126-127.

[5] In Georgian, აუტკივარი თავი რატომ ავიტკივო, “If the head doesn’t hurt, why make it hurt”.