The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953, by Stephen D. Shenfield
Stephen Shenfield | Special to Abkhaz World
In the period 1922—1930 Abkhazia enjoyed the status of a union republic associated with but not subordinate to Georgia. On February 19, 1931 the Sixth All-Georgian Congress of Soviets decided, presumably with Stalin’s consent, to deprive Abkhazia of this status and incorporate it into Georgia as an autonomous republic. In several Abkhaz villages there were mass protests against this change as well as against forced collectivization, then underway across the Soviet Union. Georgian leader Lavrenti Beria mobilized a security police detachment to suppress the protests, but Nestor Lakoba, the first leader of Soviet Abkhazia, managed to defuse the confrontation and avert bloodshed.
The result was that Abkhazia retained substantial de facto autonomy for another five or six years, although Lakoba now needed to make frequent visits to Tbilisi to consult with the Georgian leadership. By referring to the special conditions prevailing in Abkhazia, he was able to halt collectivization, avoid carrying out purges, and even distribute financial allowances to Abkhaz princes and nobles. In these respects, Abkhazia found itself in a uniquely protected position at a time of general upheaval.
Murder of Nestor Lakoba and subsequent purges
This idyll came to a sudden end with the death of Nestor Lakoba in December 1936, ushering in the period of repression that I refer to as the Stalin—Beria terror. The cause of Lakoba’s death has never been formally established, although historians acknowledge that he died under suspicious circumstances. However, various oral versions have survived. In an interview given by the famous Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander, the interviewer suggests that Beria summoned Lakoba to his office and shot him right there, but Iskander rejects this version:
No, no, he was poisoned by Beria! What do I know? An order came from Beria that Lakoba should report to him in Tbilisi.. Nestor Apollonovich usually went to Tbilisi with his wife, but on this occasion he refused to take her with him—apparently he understood that things were difficult there. He arrived in Tbilisi, and on the very first day he and Beria had a vicious row at the offices of the Georgian Central Committee. [According to historian Stanislav Lakoba, Beria presented Lakoba with a plan to resettle peasants from Western Georgia in Abkhazia, which Lakoba refused to implement—SDS] Lakoba returned to his hotel room. After a while the telephone rang. It was Beria’s wife Nina, or perhaps Beria’s mother. “Why are you and Lavrenti quarreling, Nestor? You are friends, after all. Come to our place, we’ll dine together.” So she persuaded Lakoba to come. I’m sure she knew nothing of Beria’s intention. When they met, Beria handed his “friend” a glass of poisoned wine. After the meal Beria and Lakoba went to the theater, where Lakoba felt unwell, stood up, and headed for the exit. On the street he told his chauffeur in Abkhaz: “They’ve killed me!” He repeated these words a number of times, evidently already feeling the effect of the poison. Hardly had he reached his hotel room when he lay down and died. Some time—half an hour or an hour—later Beria turned up at the hotel...
I was a little boy at the time and vaguely remember how it was declared that Lakoba had died of a heart attack or something of the sort. His body was brought to Abkhazia, but Lakoba’s wife was a very courageous woman: knowing of the difficult relations between her husband and Beria, she called in her physician, who determined that Lakoba had been poisoned. Then she asked the physician to go to Moscow and inform [the Kremlin] of the cause of Lakoba’s death. The physician set off, but on the way he was intercepted and taken to Sochi. After that all trace of him is lost. Evidently he was either shot right away or jailed.
After that there began in Abkhazia [show] trials like those taking place in Moscow. It was Beria’s intention that Lakoba’s chief accusor should be his own wife. The chief accusation against him was that he had been a Turkish spy. [Lakoba’s wife was of Turkish origin—SDS] But Lakoba’s wife, despite every kind of torture, would not betray her husband, so she never appeared in court. She went insane from the tortures and died in jail.
They had a son. He was immediately arrested. When the war began, he wrote Beria a letter: “Uncle Lavrenti, let me out of jail and I’ll go to the front.” Beria is said to have responded: “What? Is he still alive?”—and gave the order for him to be shot.1
In light of some of the circumstances surrounding Lakoba’s death, it seems quite possible that his murder was Beria’s “personal initiative,” taken without Stalin’s knowledge or consent. Beria was not merely an obedient executor of orders from “the boss”: he had a long history of sadistic behavior on his own account.
Lakoba received a state funeral with all honors; then shortly afterward he was declared an “enemy of the people.” This set in motion a purge that in the course of 1937 and 1938—the height of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union as a whole—decimated the ranks of Abkhazia’s political, managerial, cultural and academic elite.
On November 2, 1937, twenty-eight members of Abkhazia’s supreme government body, the Central Soviet Executive Committee, were removed from office,2 the majority of them ethnic Abkhaz. They were arrested as “counter-revolutionaries,” “enemies of the people,” and so on. Over the period from July 1937 to October 1938, at least 2,186 persons are known to have been arrested in Abkhazia on political charges; of these 754 were shot. A show trial of 13 well-known public figures was held in Sukhum in October—November 1937; the defendants were all sentenced to be shot as murderers, agents of foreign intelligence, etc.3
The victims of the purge being disproportionately ethnic Abkhaz, the purge had the effect of drastically changing the ethnic composition of the elite. Thus, by 1952 over 80% of the 228 top party and government officials and enterprise managers in Abkhazia were ethnic Georgians (there remained 34 Abkhaz, 7 Russians and 3 Armenians in these positions).4
Suppression of the Abkhaz language
The Beria regime in Georgia conducted a long-term policy aimed at forcibly assimilating the Abkhaz. This policy had two principal components: suppression of the Abkhaz language and demographic engineering.
The first step taken in the linguistic field was the decision in 1939 to switch Abkhaz writing, which since 1926 had been based on the Latin alphabet, to a specially adapted version of Georgian script.
In 1945—46 Abkhaz-language schools were closed. Abkhaz children were compelled to attend schools in which the language of instruction was Georgian. This left particularly painful memories in the minds of the generation of Abkhaz growing up at that time, for they were beaten if they spoke their native language and had to cope with a language of which they had no previous knowledge.
At the same time, publishing and radio broadcasting in Abkhaz ceased. In general, public use of the Abkhaz language was progressively restricted. Between 1947 and 1951 numerous age-old Abkhaz place names were replaced by Georgian place names.
Measures to restore Abkhaz-language schools (and Armenian-language schools, which had also been closed) in Abkhazia—teacher training programs, textbook preparation, and so on—were taken in the second half of 1953, following Stalin’s death (in March) and Beria’s arrest (in July).
Between 1937 and 1953 tens of thousands of peasants from Western Georgia were settled in Abkhazia, shifting the ethno-demographic balance further against the Abkhaz. At the time of the Soviet census of 1926 the Abkhaz had still accounted for over a quarter of the population of Abkhazia (26.4%).5 The demographic engineering of the late Stalin period brought this proportion down to about one sixth (17—18%).6
A special organization was set up in 1937 to build housing for new Georgian settlers—“Abkhazpereselenstroi” (“Abkhazia Resettlement Construction”). In 1939 compact Georgian settlements appeared in close proximity to Abkhaz villages in Gudauta and Ochamchira districts, for the clear purpose of breaking up the sole remaining areas of contiguous Abkhaz habitation. Later, settlers were also placed on the lands of Abkhaz villages (for instance, in 1951—52).
In general, unused arable land was in short supply in mountainous Abkhazia and this limited the potential for resettlement—unless resettlement could be combined with deportation. In 1949 the Greek and Turkish minorities were deported from Abkhazia to Kazakhstan and Central Asia, and Georgians were settled in the formerly Greek and Turkish villages. Thus, the Georgianization of Abkhazia did not occur solely at the expense of the Abkhaz.
There is evidence that plans were being prepared in 1949—51 to deport the Abkhaz as well. It is not clear why these plans were not carried out. Historians suggest that policy makers, increasingly confident in the success of forcible assimilation, may simply have decided that deportation was unnecessary.
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. See: 'Resettlement to Abkhazia'
One of the most difficult problems in interpreting this period of the history of Abkhazia is that of assigning responsibility between Tbilisi and Moscow. To what extent was the “Stalin—Beria terror” in Abkhazia the doing of the general Soviet leadership (Stalin), and to what extent specifically of the Georgian leadership (Beria)?
Research in Soviet party archives has shown that in implementing the policy of Georgianization bureaucrats in Tbilisi and Sukhum were acting in general accordance with the directives of the central leadership in Moscow.7 Georgianization in Abkhazia was a local application of a much broader policy aimed at the assimilation of ethnic minorities in all the union republics (Ukrainians in southern Russia, Tajiks and Karakalpaks in Uzbekistan, etc.).
However, the Georgian leaders were enthusiastic participants in this policy. They went further than they were required to by the Kremlin. For example, their instructions stipulated that teaching was no longer to be carried out in local minority languages like Abkhaz, but they did not prohibit the teaching of such languages as special subjects. The Georgian leaders chose not to exploit this loophole, and suppressed the teaching of Abkhaz as well as teaching in Abkhaz.
Nevertheless, it seems fair to place responsibility primarily on Moscow rather than Tbilisi. And yet this does not appear to have been how the Abkhaz tended to interpret the matter. They were inclined to blame “the Georgians.” A number of reasons can be suggested for this: the Georgian origin of Stalin and Beria, the simple fact that they were being subjected to Georgianization not Russification, and their positive experience in the preceding period, which predisposed them against blaming the Soviet system as such.
The bitterness against Georgians that originated in the late Stalin period was an important factor underlying the escalation of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
1. “Fazil_’ Iskander: Rossiia v etoi voine vela sebia ochen_’ sderzhanno,” Russkii Bazar, no. 35(645), August 28—September 3, 2008 (http://www.russian-bazaar.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=13268).
One problem for this version is that Lakoba’s corpse is said to have been returned to Sukhum with the internal organs removed in order to make it very difficult to identify the cause of death.
2. Nine of these were members of the presidium of this body. Here and below, I rely heavily on Section 4.4 (pp. 331—4) of O.Kh. Bgazhba and S.Z. Lakoba, Istoriia Abkhazii s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei (Moscow, 2007) (http://www.hrono.ru/libris/lib_b/bgzb404.php).
3. Bgazhba and Lakoba give names for ten of the defendants: V. Ladaria, V. Lakoba, M. Lakoba, M. Chalmaz, K. Inal-ipa, D. Jergenia, M. Kishmariya, P. Seisyan, A. Engelov, S. Turkiya.
5. Before deportations of Abkhaz began in the 1870s, the Abkhaz constituted the overwhelming majority of the population of Abkhazia. In 1886 they still accounted for 85.7% of the population, but by 1897 the figure was down to 55.3%.
6. Besides resettlement, part of this shift was achieved (at least on paper) by reclassifying as Georgians individuals previously registered as Abkhaz, especially in the Gali district of southern Abkhazia.
7. G.P. Lezhava, Mezhdu Gruziei i Rossiei (Moscow: TsIMO IEA RAN, 1997), pp. 116—61.
Stephen D. Shenfield is an independent researcher and translator living in the USA.He specializes in Russian and post-Soviet affairs. He produces the Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List, an e-mail listing on Russian affairs (for an archive of past issues, see http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/jrl-ras.cfm).