Ekho Kavkaza — For the last three days, the Abkhazian society has been engulfed in shock and a search for those responsible for the devastating fire that destroyed the collections of the National Art Gallery of Abkhazia on the night of "Black Sunday," January 21st.
In the Abkhazian segment of social networks there are users who are inclined - sometimes because of some trifle, accident - to inflate tragedy of universal scale. However, what happened to the gallery really cannot be called anything but a national catastrophe. True, fires of terrible magnitude have happened throughout history in various countries for various reasons. But this incident is a concentration of the misfortune that has plagued our country not just in the present moment but also over the past three decades, during which we have failed to establish a proper art gallery. Interestingly, a Facebook user living outside Abkhazia expressed sympathy upon learning of the tragedy and then confessed to not even knowing of the gallery's existence despite multiple visits to the republic.
Indeed, the gallery was established back in 1964, but the dream of having its own building remained unrealized. In reality, it served primarily as a storage facility for an ever-growing collection. I had the opportunity to see items from the gallery's collection in the first years after the war (1992-93 —Trans.). They were housed in the so-called Fishkov House on Sukhum's Pushkin Street, now the site of the 'Ainar' Children's Creativity House, and later in several rooms on the second floor of the Union of Artists of Abkhazia building on Sukhum's Lakoba Street, which recently burned down. The conditions for storing paintings in these rooms were indeed nightmarish, not only in terms of fire safety. The storage conditions were dire, a nightmare not just in terms of fire safety. There was, however, a certain logic to moving them there, as the Central Exhibition Hall of the Abkhazian Union of Artists is located on the first floor of this beautiful, old brick building. From time to time, individual paintings and sculptural busts were brought downstairs to participate in various exhibitions hosted by the Central Exhibition Hall. Therefore, it's not accurate to say that fine art enthusiasts never had the opportunity to see them. These works were also displayed in exhibitions abroad. But all these activities represented just a tiny portion of the more than four thousand art objects in the collection. This relocation was logical, assuming it was seen as a temporary measure. The first president of the Republic of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, allocated a building on the same Pushkin Street, a former pre-revolutionary women's gymnasium, for the gallery, but it required restoration. Unfortunately, although over the past decades, it was possible to thoroughly renovate buildings such as the Abkhaz State Drama Theatre, the Philharmonic, the National Library, and others with the help of the Russian investment program, the gallery fell victim to the residual principle of financing culture.
President Aslan Bzhania in a Meeting with Government Members and Law Enforcement Agency Heads.
Yesterday, President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, addressed the issue of the burnt gallery publicly for the first time. This occurred during his meeting with government members and law enforcement heads. Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations, Tigran Delibaltian, reported that despite all efforts, it was impossible to quickly contain the fire.The roof and the second floor, housing the collections of the Art Gallery and a bank, were destroyed. The fire spread from the attic to the second floor due to the wooden and hollow nature of the attic ceiling. President Bzhania instructed Prosecutor General Adgur Agrba to involve necessary experts to determine the actual causes of the fire. Aslan Bzhania also stated:
"All leaders of Abkhazia have always, I would say, paid heightened attention to cultural issues. There were times when substantial funds were invested in the development of culture and in cultural facilities, such as our museums, theatres, museum of military glory, houses of culture, and music schools, perhaps even more so than in the actual economic sector.' This is a fact. Many things could not be accomplished. Regarding the same storage facility... I was not involved in this activity at that time, but I recall, when I was chairman of the SGB (State Security Service —Trans.), I believe in 2013, the President gave instructions to prepare design and estimate documentation. And, as I remember, by the spring of 2014, the document was ready to include this object in the investment program for socio-economic development. Unfortunately, due to certain circumstances, this did not materialise."
He instructed the Ministry of Culture to send letters to their Russian counterparts to solicit their help.
“Engage restorers, and also determine if there are works by Abkhazian artists in Russian repositories and other countries, and assess the feasibility of transferring the originals or high-quality copies of these works to Abkhazia.”
As for the 'certain circumstances' mentioned by Bzhania, it was clear to everyone that he was referring to the events of May 27 of that year, after which the then head of state, Alexander Ankvab, who is now the Prime Minister, resigned.
It's no surprise that, as always after such emergencies, politicised citizens began to blame the opposing political camp for failing to create a real Art Gallery with better fire safety measures and visitor access… Of course, such accusations were made in this case too, but many, from whom this could be expected, refrained this time. After all, both ruling teams had replaced each other several times over these decades, so either could have realised the planned project. In short, such attacks would also appear as attacks on their own.
Today, I spoke with Aslan Kobakhia, a public and political figure, and a Hero of Abkhazia. Like many others in Abkhazia, he viewed what happened as a personal tragedy:
"For the first time in the post-war period... We have seen various things, but here, people truly stood and wept. It drove me crazy, seeing our people cry. It's something extraordinary, and it deeply affects me. I stood there, feeling utterly helpless, unable to aid these people or our Motherland. There was Sveta Korsaya, the Director of the Dirmit (Dmitry) Gulia House-Museum, standing and sobbing. Just a small spark, and the Gulia Museum could be no more. Everything is in such a dreadful state... When areas like education and culture are funded on a residual basis, development is impossible. This must be acknowledged. I remembered the summer of 1993, when, before our offensive on Sukhum, Vladislav Ardzinba, the commander of the artillery, instructed me to ensure not a single shell fell in the quarter where our cultural sites were. And not one did. He was thinking ahead. After the war, when we were impoverished, Vladislav began building this structure for the gallery. Some then thought Vladislav was mad. But he truly loved his people. That building just needed to be finished and everything relocated there. I'm certain, give today's authorities a chance to turn back time, and they would complete and relocate everything within two or three months. But the opportunity has passed. That's sometimes how we are. It wasn’t just them; it was the same with us. Those responsible for this area must realise what they have wrought. Thankfully, we have the Ministry of Emergency Situations. I am astounded at their ability to contain it. They lost time switching off the electricity and breaking down doors because the watchman was asleep, as I was informed. The prosecutor's office needs to investigate all these details. Frankly speaking, the fire originally started in the neighbouring bank within the same building."
This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.