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Contrary to the will of the people: how the S[oviet] S[ocialist] R[republic] of Abkhazia became an autonomy within Georgia

From the book: Trans-Caucasia by Harold Buxton (1926)

On 19 February 1931, at the VI Pan-Georgian Congress of Soviets, a resolution was adopted on the transformation of the "Treaty" SSR of Abkhazia into an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR.

The decision on the entry of Soviet Abkhazia as an autonomous member of the GSSR was made at the III Session of the Central Executive Committee of Abkhazia and approved by the popularly elected supreme authority of the Abkhazian state - the VI Congress of Soviets of Abkhazia, held on 11 February 1931.

How the annexation was accomplished

The annexation of the SSR of Abkhazia to the Georgian SSR as an autonomous republic was presented by the leadership of the USSR as the will of the Abkhazian people themselves.

"On 11 February 1931, the Congress of Soviets of Abkhazia accepted a request that the Congress of Soviets of Georgia agree to accept Abkhazia as an autonomy within Georgia. That is, it was formulated as a request from the Abkhazian side. This suggests that by 19 February everything that happened in Abkhazia was done under the dictation of the Georgian SSR," says historian Aslan Avidzba.

The annexation became possible because the Georgian SSR was supported by Moscow, headed by Joseph Stalin, he stressed.

"The situation could have worsened if there had been a different leader in Abkhazia, rather than Nestor Lakoba. Thanks to his personal contacts with the leaders of the Soviet state, including Stalin, he was able to resolve issues. This also applies to the issue of collectivisation, which was in progress at that time. By the way, many officials blamed Lakoba for not allowing complete collectivisation here; he did not allow them to imprison or punish many who were considered ‘kulaks’ [wealthy peasants],"Avidzba noted.

The historian Guram Gumba in his book "The Form and Essence of the National Movement of the Abkhazian People" writes that in 1931 Abkhazia, under pressure from Stalin, was forcibly included in the GSSR as an autonomous republic.

+ The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953, by Stephen D. Shenfield
+ The Great Terror in Abkhazia (Abkhaz ASSR, 1937 - 1938) Vol. I - II - III
+ Documents from the KGB archive in Sukhum. Abkhazia in the Stalin years, by Rachel Clogg
+ Stalin’s Downgrading of Abkhazia from Union Republic Status Decried, by Paul Goble

"And, as stated in all our documents," from that time on, the Georgian authorities pursued a policy of colonialism and aggressive nationalism against the Abkhazian people, the main goal of which was the complete assimilation of the Abkhazians. At the same time, Georgians moved into Abkhazia en masse under a special programme, which led to a sharp change in the demographic situation," he notes.

The film-clip (from a 30-minute documentary on Abkhazia shot in 1941) talks of settlements having been created in the Gagra, Gudauta and Ochamchira districts and shows incomers travelling on carts, the building of their homes, and one family actually moving in. The scale of the population-movement can be seen by comparing the census-data for 1939 vs 1959, which demonstrates that the number of Kartvelians (viz. Mingrelians, Georgians, Svans, Laz, but chiefly Mingrelians) resident in tiny Abkhazia shot up by some 66,000, with extremely damaging demographic consequence for the native Abkhazian percentage of the overall population.

+ See: Resettlement to Abkhazia
+ Demographic change in Abkhazia 1897–1989

Guram Gumba notes that all decisions of the authorities of Abkhazia, including the concluding of the Treaty Union with Georgia (1921 - ed.) and the annexation within the latter, were taken involuntarily, under strong pressure from Joseph Stalin and Tbilisi.

"In fact, the leadership of Abkhazia had no other choice. Yes, indeed, this is true — that the leaders of Abkhazia could not independently make decisions, including on even the structure of their country," Gumba emphasises.

The scholar continues that starting from the very moment of the establishment of Soviet power in Transcaucasia in 1921 with the help of units of the Red Army and the proclamation of Abkhazia as a Soviet republic, an ultimatum was effectively delivered to the leadership of Abkhazia by the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the RCP (b):

To consider the existence of an independent Abkhazia economically and politically inexpedient.

To invite comrade Eshba to submit his final conclusion on the entry of Abkhazia into the Federation of Georgia on a contractual basis or on the basis of an autonomous region - in the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic].
(Decree of 16 November 1921)

In the book "History of Abkhazia from Ancient Times to the Present Day" it is noted that the issue of transforming Abkhazia into an autonomy was considered at the VI Congress of Soviets of Abkhazia on 11 February 1931, although it was not even on the agenda, and then by the VI Pan-Georgian Congress of Soviets on 19 February 1931 there was adopted a decree on the transformation of the "Treaty" SSR of Abkhazia into an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR (this status remaining until 21 December 1991).

"From the rostrum of the Congress Nestor Lakoba announced that this issue had been resolved, but at the same time called on the Abkhazian peasantry to oppose such a decision, hoping to scare the Kremlin with this extreme measure and to halt its implementation. In Duripsh, Lykhny, Achandara and other villages between the 18th and 26th February 1931 there took place a days-long nationwide gathering (the so-called "Duripsh Gathering") of the Abkhazian people, which spoke out against entry within Georgia and against collective farms," says the book.

Nestor Lakoba's mother took an active part in this project. Lavrenty Beria, who headed the Transcaucasian “Chekists” [security agents], arrived in the Gudauta region with a punitive detachment and artillery. Bloodshed might begin at any moment, but at the last moment the situation was resolved.

"The violation of the sovereign rights of Abkhazia, the reduction of its status to the level of an autonomy led to public indignation at the Duripsh Gathering, which expressed distrust of the Soviet regime and the government. At the same time, it should be noted that, thanks to such a difficult and controversial decision, collectivisation was in fact not carried out in Abkhazia in its harsh forms," the publication states.

“Abkhazia is just about the only republic whose political status was downgraded rather than upgraded by Stalin.”
―Vladislav Ardzinba



On the "Duripsh Gathering"

Historian Aslan Avidzba notes that the decision to hold the Duripsh Gathering was made on 14 February 1931, that is, two days after the VI Congress of the Soviets of Abkhazia, at which the appeal was made to accept the republic into Georgia.

"An initiative-group was created to convene the "Duripsh Gathering" and the date was set for 18 February, that is, the day before the Pan-Georgian Congress of Soviets, where a decision was to be made on Abkhazia's joining Georgia. What is interesting is that even in the secret documents there is no advertising of the issue of the Abkhazian SSR joining Georgia as an autonomy," Avidzba emphasised.

On the second day of the "Duripsh Gathering" on 19 February 19, when a decision was made in Georgia to join the Abkhazian SSR to Georgia, the situation at the gathering became more complicated.

"On this day, representatives of the government of Abkhazia came to the gathering, and they were not received. The participants of the gathering decide to create an armed detachment, which was needed in order to maintain order at the gathering and in order to prevent the arrest of the participants and organisers of the gathering," he noted.

Then troops from Georgia were brought into Abkhazia, but the parties managed to find a way out of the situation.

"Duripsh Gathering" ended with Nestor Lakoba persuading its representatives to disperse; he himself undertook to consider the issues raised at the meeting. But it could not end so peacefully, for more than 500 participants of the gathering were arrested — there were shootings and deaths. In some places, for example in the village of Dzhirkhwa, when they came to arrest people, they put up resistance," Aslan Avidzba said.

“At the same time, thanks to Nestor Lakoba, mass-shootings were avoided,” he noted. “In Soviet times, dissatisfaction of the Abkhazian peasantry with collectivisation was given as the reason for the "Duripsh Gathering", but modern historiography notes that it was connected, among other things, with political issues, namely, people's dissatisfaction with the inclusion of the SSR of Abkhazia in Georgia as an autonomous republic,” the historian says.

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