Challenging Georgian Narratives (Response 2): A Further Exploration on Abkhazia by Stanislav Lakoba

Caucasian Peoples and Districts, End of the 18th Century.

Caucasian Peoples and Districts, End of the 18th Century.

In the book "Ответ историкам из Тбилиси (документы и факты)" (English: "A Response to Historians from Tbilisi: Documents and Facts"), Abkhazian historian Stanislav Lakoba addresses critical issues surrounding Georgian-Abkhazian relations. Drawing from extensive research and documentation, Lakoba delves deep into the intricacies of historical narratives and their role in contemporary conflicts. The first response from this book was published on AW under the title "Rewriting History? A Critique of Modern Georgian Historiography on Abkhazia" (pp.-3-7). Below, you will read the second response from the same book (pp. 7-18).

Let us return to the above-mentioned “Investigations”. As far as ancient and mediaeval history is concerned, I hope that Abkhazian scholars will give necessary clarifications on the issues raised in the nearest future. I will touch upon some interpretations, facts and provisions that cover the XIX-XXth centuries. It is this period of the new and modern history of Abkhazia that the following articles of the "Investigations" are devoted, in particular: G. Paichadze ‘Abkhazia within the Russian Empire (1810-1917)’; A. Menteshashvili ‘Georgian-Abkhazian relations in the First Quarter of the XXth Century’; L.Toidze ‘On the Question of the Political Status of Abkhazia (1921-1931)’; G. Zhorzholiani ‘Historical and Political Roots of the Conflict in Abkhazia/Georgia’.

My attention will mainly focus on the work of A. Menteshashvili, as well as on some fundamentally important documents and provisions touched upon by the other authors.

Thus, for example, G. Paichadze repeats the old point of view on the process of the incorporation of Abkhazia into the Russian Empire, and many answers and explanations in this regard are contained in my work “Aslanbey”[11], in connection with which I will not repeat myself but only note that Seferbey could not be the heir to the Abkhazian throne by virtue of his origin. The legitimate ruler in 1808-1810 was the eldest son of Keleshbey – Aslanbey, who was not amenable to the Russian authorities and was slandered by Princess of Mingrelia Nina Dadiani and her son-in-law Seferbey. The fortress of Sukhum-Kale fell on 10 July 1810 after being stormed by a Russian landing from the sea and movement of tsarist troops and Mingrelian militia under the command of General D. Orbeliani from the direction of Zugdidi and the River Ingur. The ruling prince Aslanbey Chachba (Shervashidze) resisted the troops to the last, but the forces were unequal. As a result of military intervention rather than voluntary accession to Russia, Sukhum was taken under the control of tsarist troops. A treacherous role in this whole story was played by Seferbey who under the dictation of Nino Dadiani and her confessor, the priest I. Ioseliani, appealed not from Abkhazia but from Russian Mingrelia with petitions to Emperor Alexander I to accept Abkhazia as a Russian subject while in Sukhum the country was ruled by the legitimate heir to the Abkhazian throne, Aslanbey. From 1810 to 1830 Aslanbey continued to fight against the tsarist authorities, raising repeated rebellions against its proxies in Abkhazia, but he never managed to regain the throne.

We cannot ignore the part of the publication where the researcher reports that “historian A. Menteshashvili introduced into scholarly circulation a very interesting archival document of 1870” – a report-note of deputies of Abkhazian and Samurzakan nobility addressed to the chairman of the Tiflis Committee on estate- and land-affairs, Prince Svjatopolk-Mirsky. In this document, reports Paichadze, “Abkhazia is clearly spoken about as a part of Georgia" (p. 233). But Paichadze is not original. Already on the eve of the Georgian-Abkhazian war the newspaper “Free Georgia” published the same memo, which, according to the editors, “gives an opportunity to any reader to understand whether Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgia“[12]. Menteshashvili apparently really "discovered" for himself this document, which has long been known to specialists and which he has been tirelessly publishing and commenting on since 1990 not only in the Georgian press, but also in his book[13]. G. Zhorzholiani is also delighted with this note (pp. 420-421) as it speaks about "Abkhazia belonging to Georgia". And Menteshashvili, taking the opportunity, for the second time, quoted Abkhazian and Samurzakan deputies B. Emukhvari, M. Marshania, T. Margania and K. Inal-ipa abundantly: “Most of the places have Georgian names; most of the inhabitants recognise their Mingrelian or Georgian origin and have even kept their Georgian and Mingrelian surnames. Only one thing that can give reason to consider Abkhazia as a separate entity from Georgia is language; but even there we find half of the words to be of Mingrelian and Georgian origin, although often heavily modified, but it is not very difficult to find the original Mingrelian or Georgian root.” In conclusion, continues Menteshashvili, the Abkhazian deputation expressed the hope that in “the application of peasant-reform to Abkhazia and Samurzakan we shall not be excluded from the common family of the Georgian peoples to which we originally belonged. We allow ourselves to think that those provisions that the Emperor was favoured to establish for the rest of the former Georgian kingdom can be applied to us and that no exception will be applied to us”.

Finally, the Georgian historian concludes: “As we can see, deputies elected from all classes of the Abkhazian people considered Abkhazia historically an inseparable part of the Georgian state” (pp. 269-270).

The above-document has been quoted very often by Tbilisi scholars and politicians over the last ten years. Meanwhile, I have repeatedly had to warn future publishers against an uncritical approach to this source, so I shall have to touch upon this topic once again.

The reporting-note of the four deputies of Abkhazian and Samurzakan nobility of 23 March 1870 is a document that has long been known, and it is simply impossible that Menteshashvili revealed it.

As deputies representing the princes and nobles of Abkhazia and Samurzakan, i.e. the upper class and not the entire population of Abkhazia, as the Georgian historian supposes, B. Emukhvari, M. Marshania, T. Margania and K. Inal-ipa were seeking to gain the same financial and material benefits during the upcoming peasant-reform in Abkhazia as the upper nobility of Georgia had gained earlier. In order to achieve this goal they had to convince the tsarist authorities that Abkhazia was allegedly the same as Georgia and the conditions of Abkhazian life were no different from those in Georgian.

There are many pieces of documentary evidence from the 19th century that refute this speculative opinion. For instance, on 10 September 1877, the newspaper “Tiflis Vestnik" found it necessary to note the following: “There is no doubt that the ethnographic, social, political, and economic life and outlook of Abkhazians sharply distinguish them even from neighbouring peoples”.

In Abkhazia, for example, there was no feudal ownership of land, there was no serfdom, and more than 3/4 of the total population were free community-members. Here all categories of peasantry were landowners. In 1869 in “A sketch of social and political life of Abkhazia and Samurzakan” it was stated: “All classes were equal in land relations.” The Abkhazian rural community was imbued with “milk-kinship” (atalychestvo), which united all strata of Abkhazian society, both higher (princes and nobles) and lower (peasants). A feudal lord had no right to take land away from a peasant, to cause offence (no by God!), let alone raise his hand or sell him. Konstantin Machavariani noted in 1913: “Such a land-law put the lower class beyond any dependence on the privileged classes”.

Due to the misunderstanding of local living conditions by the tsarist administration, an uprising broke out in the village of Lykhny in 1866. An eyewitness and active participant of those events, son of the last ruler of Abkhazia G. M. Shervashidze wrote later: “Announcement of a manifesto to the people on the basis of serfdom that did not exist among this people and was therefore not applicable to them was an unforgivable mistake on the part of officials of the administration.... The people could not understand from whom and from what they were being freed”. (see: G. M. Shervashidze ‘This is How History is Written’, – Zakavkaz’e, 1910. 6 June. No. 126).

The situation was completely different in Russia and in neighbouring Mingrelia, where serfdom existed in extreme conditions, and in the interior of Georgia it was already formed in the XIVth century.

On 8 November 1870, Emperor Alexander II, taking into account previous mistakes by the administration that led to the insult of the Abkhazians, approved the "Regulations on the cessation of personal dependence and land-arrangement of the population in the Sukhum Department". Unlike other peasant-reforms that explicitly mentioned “serfdom”, the Abkhazian one only talks about “cessation of personal dependence” (i.e. non-economic). And since all Abkhazian peasants were owners of their land and did not depend on feudal lords economically, they had to pay ransom only for personal liberation. At the same time, Georgian and Mingrelian princes and nobles also received ransom money for land, which put them in a much more favourable position than the Abkhazian privileged upper class.

The tsarist authorities, in accordance with the real state of affairs, did not recognise the rights of Abkhazian landlords to land-ownership of peasant plots. That is why, purely out of selfish, mercantile considerations, several Abkhazian princes and noblemen, with the help of Georgian ones, “compiled” on 23 March 1870 the “report-note”, in which they tried to adjust the story to their immediate interests.

In 1975 famous Caucasian scholar G. Dzidzaria stressed: “This tendency of the Abkhazian nobility, i.e. aspiration to attribute themselves to the Georgian, was most vividly and generalised in the report of the deputies of the princes and nobles of Abkhazia of 23 March 1870...”[14].

It was said about the report already in 1872, i.e. two years after its appearance: "The Tavads and amystas[*] of Abkhazia and Samurzakan were far from having such a high opinion of their position as that given to them by those who wrote about Abkhazia. As a proof of the conclusion that their rights did not differ from the rights of the Tavads and Aznaurs[**] of Georgia, it is usually cited to this day that Abkhazia was a part of the Georgian kingdom. But can hegemony of one state over another serve as a proof of identity of all rights and relations that existed in them? If we prove the inevitability of this, then why in this case should the rights and relations of Abkhazians and Samurzakans not be considered identical with the rights and relations that existed in Turkey, as for the previous three centuries they had been under the rule of this power. The entire past history of Abkhazia shows, on the contrary, that it was in a position where it could, and even should, have retained the relations developed by its own way of life”[15].

The note of 1870 was also criticised by the famous historian A. Fadeev who, in particular, noted: “Representatives of Abkhazian feudal lords submitted a petition in which they tried to prove that they were no worse than Russian and Georgian landlords”[16]. However, these differences were quite significant.

The report of 1870 was thoroughly criticised by a major Georgian historian of the pre-revolutionary period S. Avaliani, the author of the fundamental work “The Peasant Question in Transcaucasia" (in 5 volumes). Thus, the scholar devoted a whole section to the analysis of the special class- and land-relations in Abkhazia: "Peasant-reform in the Sukhum Department”[17]. For the information of Menteshashvili, the researcher writes: “Peasant-reform in the Sukhum Department had its own peculiarities and was resolved in accordance with local conditions, not as in other parts of Transcaucasia..." Social and political organisation of Abkhazia and Samurzakan did not differ from each other..." S. Avaliani notes that in 1870 Abkhazian deputies were invited to Tiflis for a meeting of a committee. "The statements of the deputies from the upper class of Abkhazia and Samurzakan are extremely curious - S. Avaliani reports - from these statements what strikes the eye first of all is the fact that the deputies of the Tavads completely ignore the age-old relations created in the Sukhum Department. All their efforts are straining to treat the relations of the dependent classes as typically those of serfs.... The Tavads of Abkhazia and Samurzakan thought to convince the committee that typical serfdom existed in the afore-mentioned regions: if they managed to convince members of the committee of this, then, such being the case, the Tavads would have a reason secondly to seek to establish ownership of lands and remuneration for the personal freedom of those released.... Dependent classes did exist in Abkhazia and Samurzakan, but their dependence is not at all to be interpreted as landed dependence, but rather as personal dependence.”

In 1986, the 5th volume of S. Avaliani's work was published in Tbilisi. In the introductory article to this edition Professor G. Margiani, in connection with the peasant-reform in the Sukhum Department, stated: "Abkhazian peasants by the time in question already owned land as property. By virtue of ancient customs they paid certain taxes to nobles, but these taxes did not refer to specific forms of serfdom. Therefore, according to S. Avaliani, Abkhazian peasants were not a serf-class.”

It is impossible not to touch upon the fact that the afore-mentioned note of 23 March 1870 was written during the deputation's stay in Tiflis. The fact that representatives of the Georgian nobility also had a hand in it proves one obvious fact. Two of the four signatories, princes Bata Emukhvari and Msowst Marshania, were illiterate. Ivan Zedgenidze signed in their stead....

One can only wonder why such an authoritative Georgian historian as A. Menteshashvili has been silent about these facts and evidences that are directly related to the so-called "report-note" of the Abkhazian nobility of 1870 (since 1990). We think that the purpose and background of this "note" is wholly transparent.

Researchers in recent years, referring to the publication in the Georgian journal Teatri da Tskhovreba [= Theatre and Life] (1916, № 23), quite often cite information about another Abkhazian deputation that was received in April 1916 in Tiflis by the Viceroy of the Caucasus[18]. The deputation consisting of princes M. Shervashidze, M. Emukhvari, A. Inal-ipa, P. Anchabadze and representatives of the peasantry B. Ezukhbaja and A. Chukbar arrived in Tiflis with the main purpose of supporting the decision of the tsarist government that was being prepared from the beginning of 1914 to transform the Sukhum Department into an independent Sukhum Province. This fact is also reported by Georgian authors (G. Paichadze.P.233; A. Menteshashvili.P.260-261). However, they emphasise that the deputies allegedly demanded not to separate the Sukhum diocese from the Georgian exarchate, but, in case the issue of the Sukhum Province was not resolved positively, to join the District to Kutaisi Province. With regard to the latter statements, the deputation, on their return to Abkhazia, issued a denial, and Chukbar published his response to this in the press at the same time. (See: A. Chukbar ‘Letter to the editor’ – Sukhum Gazette, 1916. 19 May. № 108).

What conclusion do Georgian historians draw when insistently recalling the deputations of 1870 and 1916? G. Zhorzholiani was the most frank: "Here, agreeing with the opinion of both deputations of the Abkhazian people, we should note that Georgians and Abkhazians are connected not only by original historical and cultural community, but also by genetic kinship...". For Zhorzholiani all this is allegedly confirmed by the results of anthropological research, data of archaeology, folklore and ethnography (P.421). In general, it should be said that he issues a call to the Abkhazians to friendship and brotherhood with Georgians (pp. 438-439), then he talks about forcing peace by non-military means (p. 437), then, following Ingoroqva, he repeats the thesis of the Abkhazians' origin in the late mediaeval period (p. 414), then suddenly he himself emphasises that Abkhazians "had and have no other homeland" (p. 438), and the most important factor in restoring trust between the two peoples is "increase of national consciousness of the Abkhazian people" (p. 439), not even realising that he is insulting the Abkhazian people.

And how he writes about the past war, and not only him – after all, it did not touch their cosy Tbilisi offices. Zhorzholiani condemns the "communist Union of the USSR", and one cannot disagree with him here, but this topic has long since become a familiar one. The most frequent commentators on this issue are former Party functionaries like G. Zhorzholiani, who was once the First Secretary of the Sukhum City Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia, and is now working in the field of history.

"Comrade" Zhorzholiani should not twist ethno-demographic statistics of the XIX-XXth centuries, referring here to "G. P. Lezhava, who kindly provided photocopies of the cited documents" (p. 443). For this it is enough to look into the works of Lezhava himself, where the reasons that led to the reduction of the Abkhazian population in this period and changes in the demographic situation are discussed[19]. Thus, when citing the family census of 1886, G. Zhorzholiani, S. Lekishvili and many other authors classify Samurzakans as Georgians, while in the final section of the census they are given in the column - Abkhazians (85.7%). As for the Mingrelians, Lazs, Svans, they are all given , and there were only 6% of them. That is why they decided to increase the number of Georgians at the expense of the Samurzakans, about whom in the 70s of the XIXth century famous Georgian publicist Iakob Gogebashvili wrote that they were “a branch of the Abkhazian tribe”[20]. At the same time in the authoritative "Collection of information about Caucasian mountaineers" it was said that Samurzakan is "one with Abkhazia, related to it both by tribal origin, its historical destiny and the nature of internal relations”[21].

Why are Zhorzholiani and his kind trying to impose Ingoroqva's myth of "Abkhazians coming to Abkhazia" in the 17th century on public opinion? Yes, because there are irrefutable documentary written sources, first of all Georgian, about the exact date of the mass-resettlement of Mingrelian peasants from Western Georgia into Abkhazia. This event took place after the end of the Russo-Caucasian war, the abolition of the autonomous Abkhazian principality (1810-1864) and the forced deportation of Abkhazians (makhadzhirs) to Turkey as a result of the uprisings of 1866 and 1877. The same Iakob Gogebashvili wrote about all this in detail in 1877 in the newspaper "Tiflis gazette" in a lengthy article known under the title "Who should be settled in Abkhazia?" (№ 209-210, 24, 24). (№ 209-210, 243-246, 248-249). Zhorzholiani and other latest "publicists" point blank fail to see this documentary source, which gives a detailed plan of the Georgian-Mingrelian colonisation of Abkhazia. Demographic development of Abkhazia by Georgians continued in Soviet times, especially in the 30s-50s. It is enough to familiarise oneself with the works of Abkhazian scholars [22]. So do not, "comrade" Zhorzholiani, blame us for not "bothering to refer to documents, materials and sources". And can this be being said to us after the Georgian occupation-authorities barbarously burnt down the Central State Archive of Abkhazia and the Abkhazian Institute of Language, Literature and History in Sukhum in October 1992?! There is nothing to be said – it is truly brotherly.... Some people hope that we have nothing left, but fortunately they are wrong.

[*] Abkhaz terms for ‘princes’ and ‘nobles’ respectively.
[**] Georgian terms for ‘princes’ and ‘nobles’ respectively/


  1. S. Lakoba, Aslanbey: To the Question of Political Confrontation in Abkhazia in the First Third of the XIXth Century (Sukhum: 1999).
  2. Svobodnaja Georgia, 14 May 1992.
  3. See: Zarya Vostoka, 25 July 1990; Narodnoe Obrazovanie, 29 July 1990; A. Menteshashvili, From the History of Relations between Georgian, Abkhazian, and Ossetian Peoples (Tbilisi: 1990), pp. 19-22. Also, response-articles by S. Lakoba in: Sovetskaja Abkhazia, 14 August 1990; Unity, No. 3, 1991.
  4. G. A. Dzidzaria, Makhadzhirstvo and Problems of the History of Abkhazia in the XIXth Century (Sukhum: 1975).
  5. Collection of Information about Caucasian Mountaineers (Tiflis: 1872), p. 26.
  6. A. V. Fadeev, Russian Tsarism and Peasant-reform in Abkhazia (Sukhum: 1932).
  7. S. Avaliani, The Peasant-question in Transcaucasia, Vol. 2 (Odessa: 1913).
  8. A. Surguladze, Georgian Democratic Intelligentsia in Three Revolutions (1900-1921) (Tbilisi: 1986), p. 242 [in Georgian]; A. Menteshashvili, From History.
  9. G. P. Lezhava, From the History of the Working Class of Abkhazia, 1921-1941 (Tbilisi: 1978); G.P. Lezhava, Change of Class-Ethnic Structure of the Population of Abkhazia (Late XIXth Century - 1970s of the XXth Century) (Sukhum: 1989).
  10. Tiflis Bulletin, 9 November 1877, No. 245.
  11. Collection of Information about Caucasian Mountaineers (Tiflis: 1870), pp. 23-24.




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