Pre-Soviet Abkhazia: Russian Imperialism, Makhadzhirstvo, and Menshevik Georgia

Map of the the Caucasus in the 19th century

Mobilizing in Uncertainty: Collective Identities and War in Abkhazia, by Anastasia Shesterinina (Cornell University Press, 2021)


Parts of this narrative extend beyond the scope of our discussion, but recent historical memory dates back to the nineteenth century. Then, the Russian Empire, in its struggle for control over the Caucasus, colonized and depopulated Abkhazia in mass deportations known as makhadzhirstvo (exile)—to give way to the resettlement of the territory, primarily by Georgians, but also by Russians, Armenians, and Greeks (Dzidzarija 1982; Achugba 2010). Abkhazia became Russia’s protectorate in 1810 and an administrative unit of the empire in 1864, as the Caucasus War of 1817–1864 ended in Russia’s annexation of the Caucasus (see table 3.1 for a list of status changes). Mass deportations occurred in the course of colonization, with major waves following the Abkhaz anticolonial uprising of 1866 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. The empire declared the Abkhaz a guilty nation for participation on the Ottoman side, a status that was removed for neutrality in the 1905 antitsarist revolution. But approximately 135,000 Abkhaz, most of the Abkhaz population, were deported by then, leaving 59,000 Abkhaz in Abkhazia, according to the 1897 census, and creating an Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey and elsewhere (Dzidzarija in Achugba 2010, 105; Müller 2013).

The prominent Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lakoba (2004) characterizes this as the moment of abolition of Abkhazia’s statehood, then a princedom, and the makhadzhirstvo associated with this moment is a painful memory in the collective Abkhaz discourse.  One respondent, who was a Communist Party worker and regional newspaper editor in the Soviet period, captures this widely shared sentiment: “After the makhadzhirstvo, the Caucasus wars, most of the Abkhaz were forced to resettle to Turkey. The lands were emptied, especially central Abkhazia, the heart of Abkhazia. By the end of the nineteenth century, pamphlets appeared among the Georgian intelligentsia, [including] ‘Who should be settled in Abkhazia?’ The demographic situation in Abkhazia began changing dramatically. As a result, the Abkhaz, the titular nation of this territory, turned out to be a minority.”

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