On a bus driven at full speed across the Abkhazian countryside, I’m heading straight to Sukhum(i). The road is in good shape and the landscape is extremely beautiful: light-coloured houses with big yards and blossoming pink trees, green fields interrupted from time to time by rivers and then, as we go further, the Black Sea which I see for the first time while it appears from the distance on my left side.
As I look around, I realize that my attention is drawn to another kind of landscape – the linguistic one. Already in the Gali district and all the way long until Sukhumi, every single advertising billboard, shop sign or road sign indicating towns and streets is written in Abkhazian and Russian – sometimes with an English transliteration. I’m quite sure that they were there before the war, but it seems that the charming curves of the Georgian alphabet have been erased from everywhere. If many post-Soviet states which experienced a situation of linguistic conflict - including Georgia - opted for a quick derussification of the public space, in Abkhazia things turned out quite differently. Indeed, the outcomes of the linguistic conflict in Abkhazia were more or less similar to those of the military one: Georgian disappeared from the public space, while Russian remained and even expanded its presence, as the second official and the de facto most spoken language in the Republic.
In Sukhumi, I spot the Mkhedruli script for the first and last time on the cover of some old books in the library of the House of Writers & Academy of Sciences, where I end up by chance during a random walk. I’m hoping that someone there could answer some questions about the Abkhazian language policy, but the two bored old ladies sitting in the tiny library room say that there is no one to speak with.
That answer isn’t really surprising either. The overall atmosphere in Sukhumi is one of absence. Not a lot of people are on the streets, in the cafés, on the seaside. I keep seeing the same Russian tourists everywhere, probably because they are the only ones. On the seafront, the same small groups of men gather everyday around wooden tables, tirelessly playing backgammon under palm trees, notwithstanding the unstoppable rain. Maybe it’s because of the bad weather, maybe the end of March is not really a season for tourism. But I’m quite sure that this feeling of emptiness is due to something else. Too many houses in Sukhumi are abandoned and void, as a result of the war and the expulsion of ethnic Georgians. Sukhumi’s population is now 60.000, only half the one before the conflict.
The Russian-American poet Iosif Brodsky wrote about Saint Petersburg that “in such places you pay more attention to façades than to faces”. This is true in Sukhumi too, but for completely different reasons. First of all because, as I said, on the streets there are not many faces to look at. Secondly, because in Sukhumi façades more than anything else speak about the country’s recent history. I’m curious to see the hotel Abkhazia, one of the symbols of the city’s past glory as a holiday resort in Soviet times; I read that the war left visible traces on its façade, like a scar right in the middle of Sukhumi’s face. But the hotel is being renovated and wrapped up in a white plastic which conceals its wounds.
Other façades are more explicit. Many, even on the central streets, are almost falling apart, surrendering to the grass which is growing on them. Often, buildings themselves just look like hollow shells. Like the former Baratashvili Railway Station behind the botanical garden, which is now the perfect place for a hipster photo session among ruins of arcades and rubbish forgotten on nicely decorated floors.
In front of the hotel Abkhazia lies a long dock hosting one of the most popular places in Sukhumi: the Amra, which is the Abkhazian word for “sun”. Indeed, it seems that in summertime the terrace on the upper floor is full of (Russian) tourists enjoying a Turkish coffee or a khachapur(i) in the sun, but at the time of this travel the café was closed. Just before writing this article I read a chronicle of life in Sukhumi with a photo of the Amra taken in 1968: it said that the fancy restaurant on the lower floor used to host concerts by international jazz stars. After the war, it has turned into an empty box: if you take a walk on the sides of the dock you can look through it, although I don’t recommend lingering over the interior. Better to cast the eyes outside what once were the windows, where the waves of the Black Sea are the only ones still dancing.
Luckily, not all buildings in Sukhumi share the same sad destiny. Passers-by are constantly reminded that many of the buildings have been recently renovated “thanks to the financial support of the Russian Federation”, as the plaques on their walls proudly state.
Actually, Brodsky’s quote is not 100% true in the case of Sukhumi. Sometimes, looking at some buildings’ façades you can’t avoid paying attention to faces.. although on paper. These are the faces of the heroes of the Abkhaz-Georgian war, depicted on huge billboards hung all over the city. The most recognizable and recurrent one is of course the face of Vladislav Ardzinba, the first president of the de facto Republic, elected in 1994. Other faces don’t really ring a bell to me, but thanks to the bilingual Abkhaz-Russian slogans under the portraits I understand that these are Abkhaz soldiers who died during the war: “Not even death will overcome the Memory of your deed”. On other billboards, slogans are written in Abkhazian only, but the aesthetics of propaganda is so immediate than it doesn’t need translation: photos of tanks and soldiers proudly saluting under the Abkhazian weaving flag are quite effective even without words.
I see many similar billboards on the road to the New Athos monastery, one of the must-see places for tourists, only some 22 km away from Sukhumi. Although half of the souvenir shops on the path which goes up to the monastery are closed and the restaurants seem rather empty, there are a few tourist buses, with Russians taking photos all wrapped up in coloured plastic raincoats. Some Georgian friends suggested me to visit Gagra’s beaches, the beautiful lake Ritza… But the rain will keep me stuck in the city.
On the third day in Sukhumi, its emptiness and monotony start to oppress me. At one point, walking round and round on the same hollow streets I feel like one of those monkeys which are kept in the former Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy, jumping like crazy from one edge to another of their microscopic cages. The absurd visit to this primate colony, where in Soviet times monkeys were trained for space travels and endured weird breeding experiments at the edge of science-fiction, is probably the most appropriate conclusion for my Abkhazian trip. Despite the heavy experience of my arrival, I’m almost looking forward to go back to the border.
“So! Did you enjoy your holidays in Sukhumi?!” – the same Abkhazian customs officer with whom I had a talk when I first arrived at the border smiles at me from his car. I realize he was probably the friendliest person I met during my trip. A customs officer... I don’t really have a clear answer for his question.
In the same way, I don’t have a clear conclusion for this article now. Basically, I spent three days in Sukhumi looking for the remainders of the past, for what was not there anymore. Maybe I should have focused on what’s new instead. For example, on the funny statues which little by little are populating Sukhumi’s seafront, making it more lively and crowded. A little boy and girl - two characters from “Chik”, one of the most famous Abkhazian novels - and a penguin, standing a bit aside next to the seaport. It stares at the Black Sea and writes on a paper a message of peace and sharing. Maybe, slowly and unnoticeably, something is changing in Sukhumi.
One month has passed since my trip and I’m still wondering whether, having visited the city on a hot summer day, I would have had a better impression. But the sense of loss I felt during my stay in Sukhumi was too strong, that even subtropical sunbeams and crowds of Russian tourists carelessly enjoying their visa-free holidays on the Black Sea would hardly be enough to overcome it.