*19 November 1992
John Lloyd reports from Abkhazia
By Soviet standards, the town of Sukhumi was a place of real pleasure: arranged about a crescent bay of the Black Sea, the climate warm even in October, with seaside hotels and restaurants. Those who knew the customs of the place, and had the money or clout to exploit them, could have a grand time here in the Georgian manner, drinking and feasting. A senior Georgian official I met while trying to get to Sukhumi told me of three and four-day feasts in homes or restaurants, in the course of which pigs would be slaughtered and a bear on a chain gave entertainment to the drinkers – by becoming drunk himself.
One of Stalin’s many dachas is in the town. A bust of Marx on a slim pedestal is revealed when the high gates are opened by the guard: behind it, through a lush ornamental garden, a road corkscrews up a hill – security proscribed a straight road to the dictator – between palms and soft lamps. A clutch of buildings is dominated by a high villa, furnished in dark wood and heavy drapes: after Stalin’s death the villa passed to the collective ownership and pleasure of the Politburo, more recently to become a high-class sanatorium. In one of the outbuildings a billboard spells out the stern order of Soviet collective leisure: the times at which to present oneself for dinner, to vacate one’s room, to set off for the beach.
Today, it is the headquarters of the Georgian armed forces, who hold the town against surrounding units of Abkhazian separatists, North Caucasian irregulars and – they say – Russians. In the eyes of most Georgians, including the ministers who supposedly govern from the ramshackle ministries in Tbilisi, Georgia is at undeclared war with Russia.