In February 1973, an African-American newspaper published a series of three articles about Africans in the Soviet Union, in particular those in Abkhazia. The article below is the second in the series.
Many Africans Came To The Soviet Union During Turkish Rule
THE AFRO-AMERICAN- FEBRUARY 10, 1973
By Slava Tynes
(Second of three parts)
“I do not remember myself as a small child. I do not remember any details, but I recollect both Russia and Africa singing at my cradle with deep feeling.” wrote James Patterson, a friend of mine.
A Soviet poet, the son of a black American and a Russian woman, he sings of his Russian motherland in all his poems and at the same time draws parallels with Africa, the land of his forefathers on his father’s side.
“This interlacing is not the result of a split personality, but a desire to express oneself better,” he told, “to make people understand that I am a Russian, but that I nevertheless carry faraway Africa and black America in my heart and sing a hymn to their struggle for freedom and progress.”
I recollected these poetic words of James Patterson when I was becoming acquainted when the life of Caucasian Africans and this to a certain extent helped me to understand some things that seemed strange at first glance.
During my first talk with Viano Pachulia, an Abkhazian scientist, he told me that he had visited 11 villages in the republic in which he had met many descendants of the Africans who had landed on the Black Sea coast during the period of Turkish rule.
“All of them,” said Pachulia, “know that their grandfathers and great grandfathers came from Africa, but they have no concrete information concerning the part of the African continent they came from.
“They only remember that their fathers and grandfathers had always been respected members of the village community.”
I paid my first visit to the village of Adzyubzha which has received much attention from Russian historians and journalists since as far back as 1913, when Africans were first discovered in the Caucasus. The village is not fat from Sukhum.
After travelling by car for half an hour from the center of Sukhum in a southerly direction. I soon reached the village where the African family of the Abashes had settled long ago.
Shaaban Abash The Afro American - Feb 10, 1973
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It turned out that the Abashes were descended from parents who had been brought from the African continent to Turkey, and from there by Prince Abashidze to his estate in Abkhazia.
Like all other Africans who had been sold into slavery, they had been deprived of their own names and became Abashidze’s property. (Their descendants, in order to get rid of any connection with the Prince’s name, shortened their name to Abash)
The history of the Abashes, like that of the other Caucasian Africans, is very similar to the history of the American blacks, as both groups were brought from Africa by force and found themselves thousands of miles away from their home.
Like their Afro-American brothers and sisters, the Abashes do not know their native language and do not remember any of the customs and traditions of their native people and tribes.
Having found themselves in absolutely gradually became assimilated with the local population. This process atmosphere in which the Abashes and other Caucasian Africans found themselves.
The present Abashes told me the following story they had heard from their grandmother Sophia who lived to be 112 and died only in 1952. According to her, when the Abash married couple were brought to the village, the population met them warmly, but with certain curiosity.
The relations between the newcomers and the villagers were friendly from the start. The villagers helped them to build a house and even supplied them with food and clothes. As they were very friendly and industrious, the Abashes soon became very respected people.
Later, moving from village to village and talking to the descendants of the Africans who had come to Abkhazia in one way or another, found themselves, unlike the American blacks, in a more favourable environment.
They also had to work on plantations – tea and citrus fruit, but they worked on equal terms with the Abkhazians and other peoples. (They slaved for the prince together and shared their joys and sorrows with each other. Neither peoples were their own masters. This resulted in brotherly solidarity, and the black color of the Africans’ skin did not cause racial antagonism.
Thus the Africans joined the poor peasants of Abkhazia and shared their meagre bread with them. And when the Revolution took place in the country, which resulted in the exploiters being overthrown and power passing over to the people, the Africans were on the side of the working people.
Many of them fought for the establishment of Soviet power in Abkhazia which proclaimed that the land should be given to the people. Representatives of the Abash family were also among the soldiers of the Revolutionary army.
“The Revolutionary War Council of the Independent Caucasian Workers’ and Peasants’ Army hands the present honorary certificated to commemorate the third anniversary of the heroic struggle for the liberation of the working people and the defense of the Socialist Fatherland to Shaaban Abash, a Red Soldier of the Abkhazian Mounted Regiment as a symbol of the performance of his duty to the workers’ and peasants’ Fatherland.”
This text was signed by Sergo Ordzhonikidze, member of the Revolutionary War Council of the Red Army, an associate of Vladimir I. Lenin, the leader of the Socialist Revolution in Russia and the future Soviet republics. This honorary certificate is the pride of the Abashes.
Shaaban was the son of Sophia, the African woman whom I have already mentioned. Before the Revolution, he, like the other inhabitants of the village Adzyubzha, suffered from poverty and oppression. As a member of the “native division” of the czarist army he took part in World War I.
In the trenches he made friends with the Russian soldiers who were displeased with the existing order in Russia and became acquainted with revolutionary ideas. Shaaban understood then that only revolutionary change could bring happiness to himself, his fellow villagers and all the poor people of Abkhazia and other part of the country.
And when the echo of the events of the Great October Revolution of 1917 reached the outskirts of the Russian Empire, he turned his arms against the exploiters without a moment’s hesitation.
Nutsa Abash and Shamil Chamba spoke to me with pride about their uncle Shaaban, who had taken an active part in the social and economic transformation not only his village, but all over Abkhazia as well.
Considering his great service to the Revolution, Shaaban Abash was elected by the people to the government of Soviet Abkhazia – he was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Abkhazian Soviet of Working People’s Deputies, the highest executive body of power.
He, an African by ancestry, helped to build a new a happy life for the Abkhazian people and dreamt of a brilliant future. “Nutsa,” Shaaban used to say to his niece, “in 50 years time you will not recognize our land. It makes me happy to know that you will live under socialism.”
“Shaaban Abash did not live till our days, but his contribution to the building of a new life in Abkhazia has not been forgotten by the people. His name is still mentioned with respect by his fellow villagers,” Bagrat Dzhanashiya, secretary of the Abkhazian Institute of History and Languages told me.
People who have become the flesh and blood of their new motherland and have come to love it, can only look upon themselves as its sons and daughters.
That is why the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Africans who live in Abkhazia consider themselves Abkhazians, or “Black Abkhazians” as they are called here.
NEXT: And what has been the fate of the generation of Caucasian Africans born and brought up under socialism, a society of which Shaaban, a soldier of the Revolution, used to dream?
"In one bizarre twist in the tragedy the three villages of Adziuzhba, Kindigh (Georgian Kindghi) and Tamsh (Georgian Tamishi), which housed the only population of African descent in the entire former USSR, were destroyed by Georgian troops as part of the operation to besiege Tkvarchel. The fate of these unique Afro-Abkhazians has yet to be determined, though at least one survivor has been seen." Abkhazia by John Colarusso (Central Asian Survey (1995), 14(1), 75-96