Abkhazia: Party Amidst the Ruins
Story and photos by Stephen M. Bland



Finding that Russian tourists will go most anywhere that speaks their language and serves cheap vodka, a writer joins them in the gutted and gut-wrenching former section of Georgia known as Abkhazia.


Abkhazia

Once billed as the "Soviet Florida," the largely unrecognized nation of Abkhazia sits nestled on the Black Sea coast. Like a window into the final days of the Soviet Union, this is the land of Lenin murals and sculptures of muscular superwomen. Beautiful, bizarre and broken, in the aftermath of the war with Georgia of 1992-1993, in towns like Ochamchira, 60% of the buildings remain derelict. This doesn't deter die-hard Russian holidaymakers from partying amidst the ruins.

The border crossing at the Inguri River isn't for the faint of heart. Arriving at the Georgian border post at eight a.m., we were still there at noon with no water or shade as the apparatchiks behind the glass stymied our progress. First, this was because an office they said they needed to call wouldn't open until ten, and then, it appeared, simply because they didn't like the idea of the breakaway republic or of foreigners visiting it.

Begrudgingly waved on our way, we eventually started out across the bridge where a statue of a gun with its barrel tied in a knot—a knock-off of Reuterswärd's bronze "Non-Violence" at the UN headquarters in New York-stands, seeming absurdly out of place. Trailing in our wake, babushkas in black who couldn't afford the bus shuffled across the baking mile where old men were line fishing in no man's land.

Reaching the barbed wire ingress to Abkhazia, we were greeted with a familiar question.

"Foto?" the Russian guard asked, indicating the bridge; but having run into trouble for taking a picture there before, I'd learned from that mistake.

A hangover from Soviet times, taking pictures of borders or official buildings is a definite no-no which can see you wind up in jail.

"Did they tell you it's dangerous here and we're bad people?" the boyish soldier laughed, indicating the Georgian side.

I replied that I'd been to Abkhazia before, a response which solicited suspicion.

"Why would a Westerner want to visit Abkhazia twice?" he probed, his smile rapidly evaporating.

"Spy," I heard a second man in a green Spetsnaz Guard Brigade uniform in the tiny booth utter, but there really wasn't anything to spy on.

Abkhazia abandoned factory

The Faded Glory of Abkhazia

In the aftermath of the conflict—which left 35,000 dead and created a wave of 250,000 refugees—with Russian "peacekeepers" guarding the borders, Russian tourists outnumbering locals and the Russian ruble as the currency, Abkhazia feels annexed in all but name. Cut adrift by the West, this tiny, depopulated nation is increasingly reliant on its mighty neighbor.

Finally permitted to enter (getting back out proved to be more difficult), we rattled on past semi-destroyed villages and tall, verdant cornfields. His shirt rolled up over his paunch, our driver chain-smoked, spitting out the window and steering with his knees.

"We should make good time if we don't die," my travel companion commented.

Parliamentary ShellIn the remains of the formerly ethnically Georgian town of Gali, the frontline in the war, we were dropped at a bus stop resembling a scaly sandal that had been lost in the sea and become home to a plethora of barnacles. Not a place to get stuck after dark, emerging from a gas station called "Ass," a scrap metal collector's back pocket bulged with a handgun.

Sunbathing in Sukhum

In the capital, Sukhum, the next morning we found that the ministry building where one has to obtain a visa had moved. The Minister of Transport agreed to take us in his Lada to the new location, though, for a price.

"Traffic," he moaned, sipping on a soft drink, though there really wasn't any to speak of.

In the center of Sukhum stands the shell of the former parliament building, where in September 1993, Abkhaz fighters backed by Chechen, Circassian and Cossack mercenaries killed the remaining Georgian parliamentarians. Beyond a line of billboards featuring a khaki-clad Sylvester Stallone advertising alcohol, a Lenin mosaic led to the seafront, where having taken heed of "Sly," men in budgie smugglers were quaffing liter bottles of "hell squirrel" vodka. Greased up for a spot of standing sunbathing, they were gyrating like kebabs on a grill. For Russian sunbathers, to sit is a sign of weakness.

In the late afternoon, the café on the otherwise derelict pier opened for business. The entrance to the pier, sporting a statue of a dolphin jumping through hoops, had breezy pale blue and white railings and doors adorned with sea creatures sculpted in a Stalinist Classical style. A favored hangout for intellectuals and artists before the war, it must have once been quite a sight. Now, with the dolphin's tail missing and the walls covered in Led Zeppelin and Motorhead graffiti, it smelled of piss.

On the esplanade, a man with hangdog features in a black suit and cowboy boots was lovingly caressing a neon pink axe. Blasting chipmunk music, two toy trains emblazoned with mad clown faces ferried passengers up and down the seafront. Each time they crossed paths, the glowering operator of the smaller train shook his fist and shot envious glances at his compatriot.

Abkhazia pier entrance

Serenaded by ever-popular accordions, old men in flat caps languidly played checkers. When settling up at the café, their bills were calculated on an abacus. With street urchins beseeching them for money, tourists decked in their best striped telnyashka Russian Navy muscle shirts promenaded past a darkened, hollowed-out husk, like a gutted monument to retro-futurism.




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