Maxim Edwards

Scotland Street, Abkhazia

Descending from the ancient fortress of Anakopia, I met an Abkhazian soldier, in a jeep held together with duct tape and hope, who gave me a lift to the town New Athos. 

I could see the tarmac through the jeep’s open gearbox and he could scrutinise me through the rear view mirror. This is Caucasian hospitality, and he made it clear on the journey down into the valley that I owed nothing for the ride, save an explanation. Where was I from, and what was I doing? I was a Brit, I explained, and curiosity had bought me here. He chewed the words over in his mind, spat out his gum and before I left asked me a question. ‘Write a letter to that… Queen of yours, will you?’. So began an exploration into the undercurrents of national feeling, which in Abkhazia flow rapidly and burst their banks without much prior warning. ‘Brits and Americans’ began Artur, an ethnic Abaza who worked for Abkhazia’s border service ‘aren’t much liked here. It won’t be obvious, because you are a guest and they have to be hospitable. But beneath the surface there may be resentment’.

If there was a resentment, it was initially watered down beyond recognition with copious quantities of home-made wine. A separation of human beings from the actions of their governments was the standard by which I travelled, planting it firmly into the soil my-government-but-not-necessarily-myself didn’t recognise, to stake a claim to conversation and debate rather than argument and finger-raising. I suddenly have an unsuspected empathy for the overseas Americans who claim they are Canadian, and it’s not an entirely pleasant sensation. The east of Sukhum’s old town, just across the street from the Villa Aloiza and the sagging balustrades and balconies of the tired old townhouses, is home to Shotlandaa Rimüa- Scotland Street. The small Midlothian town of Kilmarnock, Sukhum’s Scottish twin, unveiled a monument to the dead of the 1993 war in 1995, whose opening ceremony was visited by then-mayor of Sukhum Garik Aiba[1]. Scotland Street is incongruous to a visiting Brit, yet a token psychological reassurance in a nation in which we, brandishing our unrecognised passports in an unrecognisable land, find ourselves occasionally lost for words.

On the road to Gudauta, a policeman once asked for my documents. The Abkhaz tourist visa was more exotic to him than the British passport.

‘Tourist?’ he stated, or asked (I wasn’t entirely certain). ‘Yes’, I answered, mumbling about natural beauty and wine to break the thickening ice. One could tell that he wanted to talk, but pretended that he didn’t.

‘Why do we give you tourist visas, yet you give us nothing?’

The tension was stifling. You could have made adjika with it.

I smiled a stupid English smile, and changed tack.

‘Well, who knows, maybe one day we will recognise you?’

‘Hah! Well I don’t care! Russia recognises us and THAT is all that matters!’

I smiled a stupider English smile, and the Marshrutka arrived. It is a situation for which I feel there should be a discussion, but presented with the opportunity I find myself strangely mute.

Two days later we reflected on the policeman’s words, in another ex-military jeep hurtling down the livestock strewn-roads to Lykhny. ‘I remember learning about geography in school and when I saw Great Britain on the map, I told myself, there doesn’t seem to be much Great about it’. It was a statement which- several months on- still surprises me with its high probability of truth. In ten years’ time, after my letter to the Queen which I promised to write all those years ago has yielded no results; if and when politics has fractured our Britain of dubious Greatness into separate passports and separate peoples, I will return to Sukhum to collect my thoughts. Sitting beneath the fronds of palm on Scotland Street, I will wait to be asked where on earth I am from. I’ll smile a plastic smile, and exhausting all the Abkhaz I know, tell them Sara sSHot'landiawaüup' I am from Scotland.


Maxim Edwards
Freelancer (UK) and former Opinion Editor of the Kazan Herald, Tatarstan's English-language newspaper.

The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953