Abkhazia: The Soviet Riviera

By: Maria-Madalina Aldea

Abkhazia is probably one of the least known regions from a Western perpective, however in the Soviet Union it was once known as a prime vacation destination for the Soviet elite.

Abkhazia is a small strip of land with a magnificent and diverse natural heritage. A stretch of only 50km wide between the shoreline and the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, the region encompasses all existing climactic zones, from rainforest to perennial snow and glaciers.

This article will focus on Abkhazia's classification as the 'Soviet Riviera' and as a prime vacation destination for the most equal of Soviet citizens. Today, it is still visited annually by more than one million Russian citizens.

Climate and Weather

The average annual temperature in Abkhazia is 15°С, with Abkhazian winters being the warmest in all of the Caucasus region. Snowfall is rare and the average temperature in January rarely falls below 7°С. In the summer, the average temperature is 28°С.

Average annual rainfall is approximately 1400mm and average relative atmospheric humidity in Sukhum is 72%. The number of hours of sunshine in the republic's capital is 2,238 hours a year, with maximum hours in the summer (812) and minimum in the winter (317).

Mountains and Caves

There are 14 mountain passes in the Greater Caucasus range that lie within Abkhazia's borders, at altitudes ranging from 2,300 to 3,000m above sea level.

Most of these passes are difficult to access and are closed for travel most of the year. In centuries past, travel routes through the Klukhori Pass, situated on the Sukhumi Military Road, and Marukh Pass were actively used as a link to countries on the other side of Greater Caucasus.

The Black Sea

The perennial snows crowning Abkhazia's mountaintops year-round are spread out over an area of 77km sq. Over the summer, the snows melt partially, filling the river beds of Abkhazia's many streams with the purest water. There are approximately 120 rivers, 186 mountain lakes, and 170 mineral springs in Abkhazia.

Abkhazia's portion of the Black Sea coast is renowned for its wide pebble and sand beaches and pure sea water and the coastline is 210km long.

The composition of the sea water is rich and diverse, containing approximately 60 various mineral salts, although Black Sea water salinity is half that of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Black Sea is home to approximately 250 species of seaweed, 180 species of fish, more than 200 species of crustaceans, including several species of jellyfish, shrimp, crabs, and three dolphin species, a list that doesn't begin to sum up all of its animal and plant life.

Abkhaz Language and Literature

Abkhaz is the official language of the Republic of Abkhazia. Together with Abaza, the Circassian languages (Adyghe and Kabardian), and the now extinct Ubykh, it belongs to the Abkhaz-Adyghe group, which today encompasses several million people.

As the common Abkhaz language was being formed, several dialects developed due to the feudal division of the country.

In 1862, P. K. Uslar, a linguist and researcher of Caucasian culture, published a work on Abkhaz grammar and created the Abkhaz alphabet based on the Russian Cyrillic script. D. I. Gulia, considered to be the founding father of Abkhaz fiction and the creator of the Abkhaz literary language, published the first lyrical epic poem in Abkhaz in 1913.

Abkhaz literary language evolved actively during Soviet times, as the language of the nation underwent a formative stage. Over a relatively short time, the vocabulary of the written language expanded greatly by borrowing from the native dialects and foreign languages. As time went on and the use of written Abkhaz widened, a variety of writing styles developed: business writing, scientific writing, journalistic writing, and above all literary language, the language of fiction.

Traditional Abkhaz oral poetic narrative played an enormous role in the formation and evolution of the Abkhaz literary language, as did works by Abkhaz writers, poets and playwrights, such as Dmitry Gulia, Samson Chanba, Iua Kogonia, Bagrat Shinkuba, Ivan Papaskiri, and Alexei Gogua.

Abkhaz Folklore

Abkhazian culture is rich with folk poetry and songs, dance and music. Abkhazian folk songs are a combination of vocal melody and chanting. Ancient pagan songs survive to this day, along with work songs, ritual songs, fairy tales, legends, myths, sagas, sayings and proverbs.

The oldest songs belong to the hunting and herding folklore; more recent ones celebrate particular folk heroes: Khadzharat Kahba, Saluman Bgazhba and others. There is a widely known series of ritual songs performed to ease the suffering of the wounded.

Abkhaz traditional mourning and circle dance songs are very expressive, and traditional weddings include a theatrical performance accompanied with songs and dance for the occasion.

Traditional Abkhaz Clothing

Traditional clothes are an important element of Abkhazian culture. In the past, people dressed in accordance with their occupation, and divided their clothes into everyday clothing, clothes for festive occasions, and ritual dress. The chokha (or cherkeska) is the oldest and, even to this day, the most popular article of traditional male clothing. It was traditionally worn with trousers, a shirt with a button-up collar and a pair of rawhide shoes or, for special occasions, custom-decorated goatskin shoes.

Spats or felt stockings were worn over the calves, and knee pads over the knees. The curiously shaped bashlyk served as the traditional men's head gear. A must-have for every Abkhaz horseman was the burka (auapa in Abkhaz), a long cape with high square shoulders that was made of shaggy felt and made the silhouette look almost regal.

The traditional women's costume consisted of several key items: a dress with a short or long tunic coat worn over it, a shirt, two underskirts, a pair of trousers, and a hat or a head scarf.

A decorative sash, worn around the waist on top of all the layers, was often a genuine work of art. The short tunic coat was usually made of homespun broadcloth or velvet; it fit tightly in the chest area and widened below the waist.

The alabasha, a tough wooden staff with a metal foot and a hook on top, was a symbolic element of traditional appearance.

A walking stick that doubled as the simplest weapon, it would also serve as a sort of a "soap box" for someone about to make a speech: if an elder dug his staff into the ground and leaned on it, it was a sign that he was about to speak.

Vacation Spot of the Soviet Elite

Abkhazia was once the most sought-after holiday destination in the Soviet Union. Wedged between gentle Black Sea waters and the Caucasus’ lofty peaks, senior communist party officials would jostle for a week in Abkhazia.

Stalin kept five dachas here, and Nikita Khrushchev was enjoying the region’s subtropical sunshine when he learned of his political demise. Indeed, during its Soviet heyday, apartments in the capital Sukhumi cost more than in Moscow.

Stalin is also responsible for a pocket industry of conspiracy theories in Abkhazia. Legend has it that the famously-paranoid leader would never reveal where he was going to stay in advance, so all five of his Abkhazian dachas were prepared for his impending visits.

Even more outlandish is the supposed explanation for the preponderance of thinly-leaved gum trees, native to faraway Australia, dotting the Abkhazian landscape. The most likely rationale is that they were planted to extract water, and thereby mosquitos and malaria, from the seaside marshlands.

Sochi, Russia

Sochi, a city in Krasnodar Krai, Russia, located on the Black Sea coast near the border between Georgia/Abkhazia and Russia, began functioning as a resort during imperial times, when it catered mostly to the aristocracy.

At one point, even the royal family took up lodgings nearby. These vacation offerings got an approving nod from Vladimir Lenin after the revolution, and the Soviet leader declared the area open to the proletariat.

Stalin was not the first to think of making Sochi a socialist resort, but few would refute how much was done on his orders to turn the city into the alluring paradise it was during the Soviet period. Sochi received more than 1 billion rubles for its transformation in the 1930s — a fantastic sum by the standards of the time.

Much of the money went to developing the Matsesta region’s healing sulfur springs, which a number of the country’s political leaders have used to regain their strength and fight off aging.

Stalin came to Sochi to soak in the Matsesta baths as a way to treat his rheumatism. While in the city, Stalin stayed in a former local entrepreneur’s dacha, but this temporary arrangement did not quite align with the party’s position on capitalism, so the Soviet leader ordered that his own dacha to be built not too far from the bathhouses.

A Resort Fit for a General Secretary

The work on Stalin’s dacha made it all the more important and urgent to turn Sochi into a first-rate resort city. The main transportation artery running along the coast was named Stalinsky Prospekt, now Kurortny Prospekt, and strict dress and behavior rules were observed there.

The road was cleaned three times a day, drivers had to wash their cars to go on it, and women were forbidden from parading around in their bathrobes.

Meanwhile, landscape and construction work went ahead at record breakneck speed. Ministries, factories and unions hastened to build sanatoria for their workers in the area.

Vacationers from the party elite were sent to the Rossiya sanatorium, the miners went to Ordzhonikidze, the metalworkers to Metallurg, and Frunze had the honor of hosting party workers, labor camp survivors, foreign communists and cosmonauts.

The dacha was built for Stalin in 1937. It is situated on a hill 50 meters above sea level, with scenic views of the Greater Caucasus mountain range and surrounded by a forest. The views and fresh air were supposed to help improve Stalin’s health, but he probably valued them even more for the security they provided.

It can be appreciated fully when scaling the hill by foot and then attempting to locate the moss-green house among the trees and shrubbery. This natural defence shield was not enough to relax Stalin, so he had the dacha surrounded by three security cordons while staying there.

Also strict about his privacy, Stalin had special keyholes made in his bedchambers to prevent any overly curious servants from spying on him. Stalin usually stayed in the region from August to October and was accompanied on these visits by his wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva.

VIP Dacha

After Alliluyeva’s death in 1932 and the completion of Stalin’s personal dacha complex, members of the party elite took up nearby cottages to keep their leader company. These included Vyacheslav Molotov, future foreign minister, and the head of the secret police apparatus Lavrenty Beria.

The country’s most powerful men would come to the dacha at mealtimes and discuss political questions over food. Some of the key decisions about the repressions were made here and then orders were dispatched by telegram to the capital.

Dacha Life in Abkhazia

The Dacha became a safe haven for Stalin’s daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter during World War II, and Stalin himself came here incognito in 1945 after suffering a stroke.

Stalin lived in a separate building from his support staff — allegedly, he disliked the clatter of plates and the smell of food in the dacha kitchens.

One local legend claims that there was supposed to be a fountain in the middle of the complex, but it was taken out because Stalin did not want to be disturbed by the sounds of dripping water.

The building is still shrouded in secrecy. The grounds are fenced and closed to ordinary visitors. However, it is still preserved in good condition, along with all of Stalin's personal belongings, including his study with the war-time desk and the sofa where he slept.

Upon becoming President of Russia in 2000, Vladimir Putin summoned the most powerful business oligarchs of Russia in Kuntsevo, in what was described as a "very symbolic" move by Sergei Pugachev, a participant in that meeting.

Another participant was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who said that, by summoning them at Kuntsevo and sitting in Stalin's office, Putin "wanted us to understand that we, as big businessmen, may have some power, but it is nothing compared to his power as the head of state."

Khodorkovsky "did not take that message to heart" and wound up serving 10 years in prison, on charges of tax evasion.


Abkhaz World: Natural Heritage of Abkhazia. Tuesday, 24 August 2010. Retrieved on 19th September 2019 from: https://abkhazworld.com/aw/abkhazia/natural-heritage

Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Abkhazia, Autonomous Republic of Georgia”, on 11th September, 2019. Retrieved on 22nd September 2019 from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Abkhazia

Golovanov, A. and Kivrin, S.: “Inside Stalin’s Sochi Villa” in The Moscow Times, June 1, 2018. Retrieved on 19th September 2019 from: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/06/01/inside-stalins-sochi-villa-a62037

Hornstra, R. and Bruggen, A: “A Paradise Lost” in The Sochi Project. Retrieved on 19th September 2019 from: http://www.thesochiproject.org/en/chapters/a-paradise-lost/

OECD (2019), Population (indicator). Accessed on 19th September 2019 from: https://data.oecd.org/pop/population.htm

Pender, K.: “Letter from Abkhazia: a former jewel in the Soviet crown hoping to sparkle once more” in The Calvert Journal on 12 October 2017. Retrieved on 22nd September 2019 from: https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9055/letter-from-abkhazia-former-jewel-soviet-crown-tourism-stalin

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