The Republic of Abkhazia was once the destination of choice for thousands of Soviet holiday-makers, including Stalin. The nation’s one railway line was constructed in a regal fashion. Burnt out buildings from a vicious secessionist war in 1993 scar the landscape amidst the breathtaking beauty of rural valleys – scars of a history sometimes tactfully glossed over.
Politics can be a tense subject. However, one fact both sides could accept is that nature is the true victor here, a land where everything is biodegradable. The Abkhaz railway extends for some sixty-three miles of snaking tracks hugging the Black Sea coast, marble banisters and platforms writhing out from the foliage breaking the journey. Stations are liminal places, of greetings, partings and impermanence.
From 1993 to 2008, Abkhazia was a nation decidedly not on the move. In 2009, the late Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh announced a management lease of the railway to Russia, angering Georgians and some Abkhaz alike. The occasional train trundles from Adler, in Russia, to Abkhazia’s capital of Sukhumi- some even as far as Moscow – past these grand platforms, where only pigeons and amateur photographers roost.
Baratashvili platform (see the lead photo) lies to the north of Abkhazia’s capital of Sukhumi, a few blocks’ walk from the ruined Abkhazian Parliament building, left derelict from 1993. ‘Once, a family friend of my grandfather’s was strolling around the city and was surprised to see a huge number of dogs prowling around the station platform, where a pile of suitcases and bags had been left.Fearing that the dogs could have been dangerous to disturb, he left the station.
The following day, he came back and the dogs were still there. They say these were the dogs of the Greeks who had been deported from Abkhazia to be sent to Central Asia, still waiting for their masters to return.
Once named Baratov (Russian), then Baratashvili (Georgian), and now Guma (Abkhaz,) the station’s name has disappeared, yet the sign for its buffet still remains. Its last meal, however, has long since been served. Fig trees overshadow the station entrance where locals still sit and sell oranges and home-made wine to visitors to the nearby botanic gardens.
Sukhumi’s main railway station is still occasionally served by passenger trains. A new passenger bridge has been built further down across the freight yards leading from platform one. With the future of services heading southwards from here towards Tkvarcheli and the ceasefire line with Georgia unclear, this is a terminus in every sense of the word.
Akhquatei Avokzal – “Sukhumi Station,” in the Abkhaz language. The poet Osip Mandelstam once observed ‘it follows that when reading the languages of the Caucasus, you will notice that every word begins with the letter A. When indicating non-native words, the Abkhaz, with some humour, simply add A to the appropriate Russian word’. Avokzal (“Station”). Abank (“Bank”). Amuzei (“Museum”). Amnesia.
Occasional commuters can be glimpsed between the columns. Abkhazia’s lush, sub-tropical climate is an ideal one for waiting for trains.
Novy Afon station is still operative- though in a very elastic sense of the word. Opening doors into darkened, derelict rooms reveals an arsenal of complex station machinery – all of it long since disarmed and stripped of valuables. It would seem here that the staff at the ticket office are on lunch break.
The locker room is suffering a few technical problems, its new owners staking their territory in permanent marker.
“Soon in Sochi!” some sarcastic graffiti observes in the waiting room at Novy Afon. After Kremlin-supported candidate Raul Khadjimba lost Abkhazia’s 2004 poll, Krasnodar Territory governor Alexander Tkachev threatened that he would close the Russian-Abkhaz border unless new elections were held. Sochi, Abkhazia’s only contact with the outside world, is sometimes not as close as it would seem.
These two Abkhaz at Psyrdzkha station were strolling along the tracks. Trains here are few, but there are trains nonetheless. Were they not concerned with their safety? ‘No. The trains are slow. There’s time to get out of the way’ they explained. ‘Everything is slow here’, they added after some reflection, as they disappeared into the maw of the tunnel.
Photographs courtesy of the author