Abkhazia: The ‘country’ living in a Soviet time warp
By Stephen Dowling31 May 2019
Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in the 1990s, but few countries have recognised this Soviet time warp on the shores of the Black Sea.
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Abkhazia is a land that few have heard of, and even fewer have visited.
Wedged between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, the mostly unrecognised state is a peculiar Soviet time capsule, trapped in the amber of the break-up of the USSR three decades ago.
As the Soviet Union began to splinter in the late 1980s, tensions grew between the Abkhazians and Georgians who shared this stretch of the Black Sea coast as Georgia clamoured for independence.
All pictures: Stefano Majno/The Story Institute
Ghosts of the past
Since the 1930s, Abkhazians had limited autonomy within the Georgian SSR, the Soviet state that would later break away to form independent Georgia. But prior to 1931, it had been recognised as its own individual state.
After Georgia declared independence in 1991, Abkhazians believed their statehood would be subsumed. Tensions rose until civil war erupted in 1992.
Georgian soldiers initially pushed Abkhazian militias out of the city Sukhumi, but a major counter attack – aided by Russia – led to bitter fighting. Tens of thousands of people died, and more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians are thought to have fled to escape reprisals.
Abkhazia was one of the most popular tourist resorts of the Soviet Union, blessed with a subtropical climate. But since the civil war, and further fighting in 2008 which saw the last Georgian forces on Abkhaz territory withdraw, the hotels and sanitoriums have fallen mostly silent.
State of disrepair
Photographer Stefano Majno first travelled to Abkhazia in 2017 as part of a project shooting enclaves still trapped in the shadow of the Soviet Union.
“It was not so difficult, though the borders are under the control of Russian paratroopers. It is ‘independent’, but in effect it is a Russian puppet state,” he says.
Since its short war with Georgia in 2008 – Russian forces used the territory to mount attacks into Georgia itself – Abkhazia has forged ever-closer links with Moscow. Majno says the country is heavily dependent on financial aid from the Kremlin.
“The influence is not limited only to the formal control of the borders; the economic dependence on Russian tourism is evident,” he says. “The influence is political and social. The interest in real estate in the region and the strategic position of the region will always ensure economic support from the Russian side.”
Much of the former Soviet infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, testament to Abkhazia’s almost invisibility on the world stage. Only five countries – Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria – officially recognise it as a separate nation.
“I had the opportunity to travel to Abkhazia between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018,” says Majno. “Moving from Gali near the Georgian ‘border’ to the north in Gagra 50km (31m) from the Russian city of Sochi, it was an extensive journey touching all the cities on the seaside and obviously the capital Sukhumi.”
Back in time
Majno says it is very difficult to hire a rental car in Abkhazia, another factor that adds to the feeling that you have slipped back in time and are visiting the Soviet Union.
“It’s a really unique place,” says Majno. “It’s like a Soviet time capsule. You can’t rent a car so you have to travel around in these old Soviet buses, really slow, between the most important cities.”
Even the bus stops in the “Soviet Riviera” date from the days of the USSR. After the fighting in the early 1990s and the following years of neglect. Abkhazia has drifted closer to Russia in the decade since the 2008 war. The Russian rouble is its official currency, and various state assets have been sold or leased to Russian companies.
Abkhazia is one of several unrecognised enclaves of the former Soviet Union Majno has visited, including the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, a Russian-speaking area of Moldova which declared unofficial independence in the 1990s.
“But Transnistria, for instance, has its own national currency while Abkhazia has to use the rouble,” he says.
Unlike Transnistria, Abkhazia does not have its own parliament. The remains of the parliament building, a 12-storey Soviet-era building in Sukhumi, remains empty after the fighting in the 1990s. Nearby, the capital’s main railway station also lies empty.
Majno says Abkhazia feels safe. ”It’s difficult to take pictures in places like the markets or neat government buildings, but other than that it is not a problem taking photos.”
While in Sukhumi, Majno held an “analogue photography workshop” where locals could borrow cameras and film and document their lives. Majno had to get their films processed in Istanbul, however, because they are no longer any photographic labs in this unrecognised state.
A new tourism future?
In the years before the end of the Soviet Union, some 200,000 people a year visited this scenic stretch of the Black Sea. Now, however, some one million Russians now visit Abkhazia every year, drawn by the sun and sand and the cheapness of its Soviet-era hotels and guesthouses.
For Georgians, however, this unrecognised state remains a no-go area – under the country’s laws it is forbidden for Georgians to visit.
One of Majno’s abiding memories of Abkhazia is the lack of people. The departure of nearly a quarter of a million ethnic Georgians halved the state’s population at a stroke. “Most of Abkhazia is empty,” he says.