The Double-Edged Sword: The Impact of Russian Rule on Abkhazia (1801-1917)

The 19th century witnessed a dramatic shift in Abkhazia’s destiny with the arrival of the Russian Empire. Between 1801 and 1810, Russia’s annexation of major Georgian kingdoms like Kartli-Kakheti and Imereti paved the way for their southward expansion into the Caucasus. The Russo-Turkish War (1806-1812) proved to be a turning point. In 1810, Russian forces captured the strategic fort of Suhum-kale (modern Sukhumi) and installed a pro-Russian prince, Sefer Bey (Georgi). This marked the beginning of Abkhazia’s incorporation into the Russian sphere of influence, albeit initially as a vassal principality.

However, establishing control proved a slow and arduous process. Russian authority initially remained confined to the Suhum-kale area and the Bzyb River valley. Much of Abkhazia remained under the sway of pro-Ottoman Muslim nobility, a testament to the region’s complex political landscape.

 

The following decades were marked by a series of conflicts. Russia clashed with the Ottoman Empire and the fiercely independent North Caucasian tribes. Through a series of piecemeal acquisitions between 1829 and 1842, Russia gradually gained control of the entire territory of Abkhazia. Yet, true consolidation of power wouldn’t come until 1864. This year saw the abolishment of the local princely authority, with the last Abkhaz prince, Michael Shervashidze (Chachba), being exiled to Russia.

 

This forceful consolidation of power had devastating consequences for the Abkhaz people. Two major revolts erupted in 1866 and 1877, fueled by heavy taxation and Ottoman intervention respectively. The Russian government’s harsh response, including allegations of massacres, triggered a mass exodus. Many Muslim Abkhaz chose to become Muhajirs, migrating to Ottoman territories between 1866 and 1878. Estimates suggest that as much as 60% of the Abkhaz population left their homeland during this period, with the reliability of population data at the time being a point of contention.

 

The exodus left vast swathes of Abkhazia depopulated. To fill the void, the Russian government actively encouraged the resettlement of Armenians, Georgians, Russians, and others. This demographic shift had a lasting impact on the region’s ethnic composition. Georgian historians point to a long-standing Georgian presence in Abkhazia, tracing it back to the Colchis kingdom. The 1897 census appeared to support this claim, with Abkhaz constituting 60-65% of the Sukhumi district’s population (roughly equivalent to modern-day Abkhazia) with Georgians making up the remaining majority. However, discrepancies exist. The 1911 edition of the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica paints a different picture, suggesting a two-thirds Mingrelian Georgian majority and a one-third Abkhaz minority in the Sukhumi district, with the caveat that its boundaries differed from those of present-day Abkhazia.

 

The Abkhaz who remained faced further challenges. Those who hadn’t converted to Christianity were labeled a “refugee population” by the Russian government, denied the right to settle in coastal areas. This policy fueled resentment and further strained relations between the Abkhaz and the growing Georgian population.

 

Despite the turmoil, the 19th century also witnessed some positive developments under Russian rule. The 1870 serfdom reforms liberated bound peasants, including slaves, in Abkhazia, paving the way for a modest growth of capitalism. Cash crops like tobacco and tea gained prominence, alongside the development of industries focused on coal and timber. The rise of health resorts and the transformation of Gagra into a popular tourist destination under the patronage of a German prince further diversified the region’s economy.

 

However, political divisions deepened along ethnic lines. The Abkhaz generally remained loyal to the Tsar during the 1905 Revolution, while the Georgians tended to oppose Russian rule. This loyalty was rewarded in 1907 with an official pardon from Tsar Nicholas II, removing the Abkhaz designation as a “guilty people” imposed after their 19th-century rebellions. This episode further solidified the mistrust and tensions between the Abkhaz and Georgian communities, a factor that would have profound consequences in the wake of the coming Russian Revolution.

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