Aidan Hartley Aidan Hartley

Wild Life | 30 August 2008

The ‘No’ republic

The ‘No’ republic


In Gagra, where Stalin had his Black Sea dacha, a dog bit my producer Alex. Since the USSR’s collapse Gagra has been in Abkhazia, an illegal, separatist region of Georgia. Not the place to find rabies vaccine. We raced to Sochi in Russia, overtaking Putin’s armoured columns pulling back from their blitzkrieg against Georgia. Here in a hospital soaked with dried blood from pugilistic Muscovite holidaymakers, Alex had his jabs. Next, the taxi driver — a cantankerous Armenian — attempted to rob us.

The only thing I will miss about Abkhazia is the landscape: mountains above, sea below. Part of the natural charm is its arrested development due to 16 years of war. The Abkhazians ethnically cleansed half the population. Entire towns have become forests of oleander, silent but for cicadas, random gunfire and bored youths effecting handbrake turns in battered Ladas. I grazed on figs, plums and apples among derelict farms, stepping carefully to avoid landmines. I found herds of cows in destroyed banks and apartment blocks. Abkhazia could sell itself as a movie location for post-Apocalyptic film sets.

I did like the rural folk. They were generous with their wine, honey and cheese — the secret, they say, to their longevity. They arebig-nosed Circassians. Many women looked disconcertingly like my wife Claire, who has a Caucasus ancestry. And at the funeral of a young soldier killed by a roadside bomb I met a peasant who was the spitting image of Boris Johnson, but with ginger hair.

But Abkhazians lingering in the ruined towns are a miserable bunch, their character a mix of ex-Soviet idleness, tribalism and self-pity. ‘The Georgians are clever at making people like them, but Abkhazians just don’t care,’ the Vice President told me.

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