It was once the most sought-after holiday destination in the Soviet Union. Wedged between gentle Black Sea waters and the Caucasus’ lofty peaks, senior communist party officials would jostle for a week in Abkhazia. Stalin kept five dachas here, and Nikita Khrushchev was enjoying the region’s subtropical sunshine when he learned of his political demise. Indeed, during its Soviet heyday, apartments in the capital Sukhumi cost more than in Moscow.
But over the past 25 years, Abkhazia’s lustre has diminished: before my first visit, I purchased warzone travel insurance. A bloody secessionist conflict with Georgia in the early 1990s left the small territory internationally isolated and littered with war-damaged infrastructure. De facto independence came at a great cost, and even belated recognition from Russia and several unlikely allies has not rescued Abkhazia from its pariah status.
This has not stopped Russian tourists flocking to the beaches around Sukhumi, Gagra and Pitsunda. Abkhazia is the most-visited international destination for Russians, with lower- and middle-class holidaymakers flocking there for its warm beaches, cheap accommodation and Soviet nostalgia. Non-Russians visitors, on the other hand, are few and far between.
Crossing the border from Russia — a legally-questionable act under Georgian law — I feel a sense of trepidation, heightened by the stern welcome from an FSB border guard. Derided in the West as a Russian-occupied territory, Abkhazia is rated as a do-not-travel zone by the British and American foreign offices. With no consular assistance available, losing your passport here is ill-advised.
Daylight coincides with my arrival in Sukhumi, and the apprehension gradually eases. Abkhazia’s capital has a distinct charm — classical Soviet-era architecture, seaside walkways and a refreshing ocean breeze. An Australian author once described the city as possessing “the appearance of the lush, raffish capital of a Latin America banana republic.” Even the most prominent reminder of war — the burnt-out parliament building — offers stunning views for those brave enough to climb its 12 derelict floors. At night, the main waterfront promenade comes to life, with Abkhazians of all ages socialising as they stroll rhythmically back and forth.
Eating shashlyk, adjika and delicious khachapuri at bustling cafe overlooking the Black Sea, it is easy to forget that, to most states, this is a country that does not exist. The green, white and red Abkhazian flag is ubiquitous and a colourful visa sticks out of my passport — posted to me a week earlier by Abkhazia’s honorary consul in England, a retired academic-cum-de facto ambassador. It is not until online searches default to Google Georgia and my smart phone jumps to Georgian time (Abkhazia is an hour behind) that the contested reality of my temporary home becomes patent in the most banal ways. This is the paradox of a visit to Abkhazia: the picturesque territory’s anomalous international status is both nowhere and everywhere, invisible and strikingly obvious in equal measure.
The journey to Lake Ritsa is not for the faint-hearted. With winding mountain bends, frequent stray cows, oversized buses filled with Russian tourists and the typical Abkhazian disregard for road safety, finally arriving at the vista overlooking the sapphire waters is a considerable achievement. But after admiring the stunning view — tree-covered peaks descend into impenetrable depths — the informed traveller makes a brief detour. On the opposite shore, nestled metres from the water amid a forest of verdant trees, sits Stalin’s favourite holiday house.
Lyubov Sosnaliyeva is the caretaker of this curious historical relic. In the job for five years, she ensures the dacha and its surrounding grounds are well-maintained. The house also welcomes foreign dignitaries; although with Abkhazia only recognised by a handful of countries (including diplomatic heavyweights Nicaragua and Nauru), such receptions are infrequent.
Stalin’s popularity in Russia has surged in recent years. Sosnaliyeva, who lives in the former quarters of Stalin’s security entourage, demurs when pressed on this complicated legacy. “The history of any country is important,” she offers. “There are positive and negative aspects to history, but we need to learn from it all.”
Stalin is also responsible for a pocket industry of conspiracy theories in Abkhazia. Legend has it that the famously-paranoid leader would never reveal where he was going to stay in advance, so all five of his Abkhazian dachas were prepared for his impending visits. Even more outlandish is the supposed explanation for the preponderance of thinly-leaved gum trees, native to faraway Australia, dotting the Abkhazian landscape. “Stalin had them planted so snipers could not hide in the trees,” one local suggests. The more likely if more mundane rationale is that they were planted to extract water, and thereby mosquitos and malaria, from the seaside marshlands.
Snipers and mosquitos disappear from my mind when I tighten my hands around the wheel of a vintage motorboat, which apparently once belonged to the moustachioed leader. Normally its driver, Astamur, takes Russian tourists around Ritsa at a serene pace, but after he discovers that his latest passengers hailed from such distant pastures he generously hands over the wheel and cranks the engine.
Later I discover that Sosnaliyeva has an interesting legacy of her own. She is not Abkhazian but Circassian-Russian. Her now-deceased husband, Sultan, was in the Soviet military for three decades, before retiring to the private sector in the North Caucasus. At that point, Sosnaliyeva might have expected to live out a quiet life enjoying the region’s scenery. Then the Abkhazian-Georgian war broke out, and Sultan Sosnaliyev committed to fighting for the Abkhazians — eventually rising to defence minister. What prompts a husband and wife to leave their hometown for a warzone, and stay for over two decades? “Abkhazia is small and needed help,” Sosnaliyeva explains. “You can’t just kill off a nationality.”
The war is the proverbial elephant in the room throughout any conversation with an Abkhazian. With the conflict unresolved — the parties have not signed an agreement on the non-use of force — the threat of violence lingers. While there has been little bloodshed since the early 1990s, other than a brief conflagration in the shadows of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, tensions are still high.
On 14 August 1992, Georgian troops entered Abkhazia in response to a declaration of independence from the autonomous parliament in Sukhumi. Despite a long and distinct history, Abkhazia was welded to Georgia during the early Soviet era and endured a lengthy campaign of “Georgianisation”. Ethnic tensions stirred as the USSR crumbled, before the arrival of soldiers from newly-independent Georgia precipitated a full-scale conflict. The Abkhazian-Georgian war, which lasted for over a year, claimed thousands of lives and accusations of ethnic cleansing have been made against both sides.
Tengiz Tarba wants to restore Abkhazia’s tourism industry to its pre-war state. “In the Soviet era there were 120,000 hotel beds in Abkhazia,” he says in the marble lobby of his own establishment, Hotel Amra, in central Sukhumi. “Today, there are 18,000.” The bearded 36-year-old, equally comfortable in a suit or hiking gear, is a leading figure in the tourist sector’s reinvigoration. He gave up a career with the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry to establish a non-profit, Highland Abkhazia, and open his hotel.
Notwithstanding the quantitative contraction in accommodation, visitors to Sukhumi are spoilt for choice: grand Soviet-era sanatoriums, homestays with Abkhazian babushkas and one swanky business hotel, frequented by international organisations. Even Airbnb has availability in Sukhumi, much to the chagrin of Georgians who started an online petition for the company to stop operating in a region they say is “controlled by separatist and terrorist militant formations along with Russian occupant military.”
Tarba is also trying to pioneer adventure tourism here. His friends already run a company offering rafting, hiking and caving (Abkhazia boasts the deepest known cave in the world), while the Abkhazian mountains offer untapped potential for snow sports. On the road to Ritsa, excited Russian tourists can be seen rafting down a nearby river, while a select few wealthy visitors have tried heli-skiing in the high Caucasus (adventure brand RipCurl even sent a crew there in 2008). But dearest to Tarba’s heart is a project to uncover ancient history deep in Abkhazia’s inaccessible peaks. With the help of a government-loaned helicopter, his team have found remnants of rock huts and other objects that together provide evidence of settlements dating back 5,000 years.
The former law graduate is well-aware of his homeland’s negative image: “There are lots of problems with information about Abkhazia abroad.” To further complicate matters, the rare international visitor must either cross the border with Russia, requiring an expensive journey down bureaucratic mazes to secure a double-entry Russia visa, or enter via Georgia — where a ramshackle bridge connects two warring territories and travellers are treated with suspicion. “It would be great if our airport was operational,” Tarba sighs. It was bombed during the war and is now only used by the local air force. Abkhazians fear that Georgia might shoot down passenger planes operating in the contested airspace, which dampens investment interest.
Nearing the end of our conversation, Tarba abruptly makes an unexpected offer. “Why don’t you come up to the mountains with me?” he asks. If anything could overshadow driving Stalin’s boat, it would be a birds-eye view of the enchanting Abkhazian mountains. “You don’t mind riding in an old Soviet military helicopter, do you?”
At sunrise the next morning, an urgent thought crosses my mind. After my first visit disabused me of the notion that Abkhazia was a dangerous post-conflict zone, no “rebel republic” nor “Russian-occupied” territory, I opted against warzone cover for my second and third trips. Standing on the runaway beside the khaki helicopter, with a derelict terminal building in the distance, I mutter quietly: “I doubt my travel insurance will cover this.”
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