Prof. George Hewitt

Tejmuraz A. ACHUGBA ‘Ètnicheskaja istorija abxazov XIX-XX vv. [The Ethnic History of the Abkhazians in the XIX-XX centuries]

Abkhaz World, 8 September 2011

Tejmuraz A. ACHUGBA ‘Ètnicheskaja istorija abxazov XIX-XX vv. (Ètnopoliticheskie i migratsionnye aspekty)’ [The Ethnic History of the Abkhazians in the XIX-XX centuries. (Ethno-political and Migrational Aspects)]. Sukhum. ABIGI. 2010. 356pp.

Over the years Temur Achugba has published significant works documenting crucial aspects of Abkhazia’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these works are and will remain essential reading for anyone wishing to gain a proper understanding of the roots and essence of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, which culminated in the bitter war of 1992-1993. One can mention his role as joint-compiler (along with the late Badzhgur Sagarija and Valiko Pachulija) of the immensely valuable 1992 Abxazija: dokumenty  svidetel’stvujut 1937-1953 [Abkhazia: Documents Bear Witness 1937-1953], which provides evidence on the artificial, politically motivated mass-importation of Kartvelians from various regions of Georgia during the anti-Abkhazian repression of the Stalin-Beria years; more recently he has produced with co-compiler Ruslan Agwazhba two large volumes Abxazija i abxazy v rossijskoj periodike (XIX-nach. XX vv.) [Abkhazia and the Abkhazians in Russian Periodicals (XIXth – Start of XXth centuries)] containing material on Abkhazia culled from Russian publications from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of special importance, given that Achugba is a native speaker of Georgian (having been born and raised in Batumi), is his 1995 collection of citations from Georgian sources Ètnicheskaja “revolutsija” v abxazii (po sledam gruzinskoj periodiki XIX v.) [The Ethnic “Revolution” in Abkhazia (in the Footsteps of Georgian Periodicals of the XIX Century)], for here we see in the starkest relief what Kartvelians themselves were saying about how they should act in relation to the then-recently denuded areas of Abkhazia following the tragedy of the Great Migration (Maxadzhirstvo) of the bulk of the native Abkhazian population to the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the Caucasian war (ended 1864) and the subsequent Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. Achugba’s 2006 book O problemax natsional’nogo samosoznanija naselenija jugo-vostochnoj abxazii [On the Problems of the National Self-conception of the Population of South-eastern Abkhazia] has always seemed to me to be of such importance that it should be translated into Georgian (or, indeed, Mingrelian) so that the Mingrelian residents of the Gal District, not all of whom have full command of Russian, can learn something of their own origins.

Clearly, one of Achugba’s main concerns is the demographic structure of Abkhazia and the changes it has undergone since Russia took control and the bulk of the North West Caucasian people (Abkhazians, Circassians and, in their entirety, the Ubykhs) found themselves living in exile, as they continue to do today in their various diaspora-communities. The present monograph presents a summation of the relevant developments and analyses the processes concerned. This is achieved in five chapters, plus a conclusion and a series supplements, consisting of seven texts dating from 1878 to 2008. The five central chapters have the following titles: 1. The ethnic situation in Abkhazia upto the mass-deportation of the Abkhazians; 2. The ethnic revolution in Abkhazia (2nd half of the 19th-start of the 20th century); 3. The problem of preserving the national self-awareness of the Abkhazians: the assimilation of the Samurzaq’anoans; 4. The dynamic of the national makeup of Abkhazia in the Soviet period and the problems of the ethnic self-preservation of the Abkhazians; 5. The ethno-political processes in post-Soviet Abkhazia in the context of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Acquaintance with the sections dealing with the 19th century will speedily dispel any notions that the Abkhazians are natural allies of the Russians; the current close association is a consequence of Tbilisi’s decades-long machinations and/or outright aggression plus the West’s wholly counterproductive, pro-Georgian policies since the collapse of the USSR.

Over the course of the last two decades since the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict erupted in the fatal clashes of July 1989 and then developed into all-out war (14 August 1992 to 30 September 1993), many commentators have written about the dispute without a full knowledge of its history, and many (?most) of these tend to write from a Georgian perspective, having been exposed to the full force of the Georgian propaganda-machine. Abkhazians have produced numerous books to make their own case, but most are in Russian and thus not immediately accessible to the Western ‘commentariat’. This book deserves to be translated into English so that the highly contentious demographic aspect of the debate can be properly appreciated and evaluated accordingly. In this regard, it is a pity that Daniel Müller’s finely argued article on this very topic in my own edited The Abkhazians: a Handbook (from 1998 for Curzon Press) is not mentioned in the work.

One general comment of relevance to the structure of books that follow the Soviet/Russian tradition is that footnotes, placed in this volume at the end of each chapter, should not be used for bibliographical citation, for this practice can make quick checking of references very complicated for readers. There should be one holistic Bibliography (or list of references) at the end of the work, and citations should be placed within the body of the text after the pattern: (author’s surname+year of publication+page-reference). Full title and relevant bibliographical data will then appear within the book only once, namely at its conclusion. This obviates the need both for possible repetition of this or that book-title within the footnotes, which should be reserved for the insertion of comments which, while important, are not entirely central to the general thrust of the text’s main argument, and for use of such terms as op. cit. or ibid, which send the reader on a time-consuming search for the book concerned in some earlier footnote.

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