ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS the Russian photographer Ksenia Kuleshova heard about Abkhazia when she visited the country was a legend. When god assigned nations their place on earth, the Abkhaz representative was entertaining guests and arrived too late. Recalling that Abkhazians are renowned for their hospitality, god gifted him a place where he had intended to live himself—a small, beautiful region overlooking the Black Sea.
An image of Kuleshova’s, which shows a child playing next to frothy waves on a snow-covered beach in Sukhum—the country’s capital—matches the image conjured up by this myth. With its extensive coastline and the Caucasus Mountains in the north of the country, Abkhazia, a breakaway republic of Georgia, was an idyllic holiday destination frequented largely by Soviet tourists. But the country was ravaged by a 13-month war of secession in the early 1990s and further conflict during the 2008 Russian-Georgian war—events that destroyed a good deal of the country’s infrastructure and buildings.
Kuleshova first visited Abkhazia as an undergraduate in 2015 and has returned four times, meeting the president and other politicians, locals and even members of the mafia. She had heard about the country from her parents, who had visited it on holiday, and was startled by what she observed. “When I arrived, I saw so many ruined buildings just in the city centre. I was shocked and it looked like the war is still there,” she said, adding that she decided eventually to explore the country’s culture and traditions rather than making the destruction the focal point of her photography. “When the country is isolated how do they manage to be so optimistic? That was the question that led me. The Abkhazians call their homeland ‘Apsny,’ which means ‘soul land.’ In my story I tried to find this soul.”
Her images in “Abkhazia” are a collage of daily life in the country, from snowfall and dance performances to national events, such as veteran parades and horse-racing, which take place during annual commemorations of the ends of the Second World War and the Georgian-Abkhazian war of secession. Kuleshova also attended local weddings and explored the cultural work of dancers, groups that screen Italian films in Abkhaz villages and efforts by “Highland Abkhazia,” a group of volunteers that organises restoration efforts on historical buildings.
In January 2016, a friend invited her to document the funeral of Otar Hunzaria, an Abkhazian folk-artist and composer, insisting that it was a historical moment. “The funeral took place behind Hunzaria’s house in Ldzaa. It’s also a tradition to bury the dead behind the house in the villages,” she said. The funeral “was very hard to photograph. The atmosphere was very dramatic and sad and I was also crying while taking the pictures.” A happier memory stands out for her too: a family celebration of the Old New Year—a holiday popular in the former Soviet republics—on her second trip to Abkhazia. Besides the mamaliga—maize porridge—and khachapuri—a cheese-bread casserole—there is a tradition of slaughtering several roosters or an ox on the day. At the meal, a chicken leg was missing. “It was a sign of bad luck,” she said. “The whole family was searching for the lost leg, it was like a serious quest!”
Despite witnessing optimism in Abkhazia, Kuleshova maintained that the country appeared to be stuck in a time warp. It has a small population of approximately 250,000 people, and although it declared its independence in 1999, only Russia, Syria, Nicaragua and a few other countries officially acknowledge this status. Last year, the United States even banned aid to countries that recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian province. Abkhazia remains heavily dependent on Russian subsidies, and four years ago, signed a strategic partnership treaty with the Kremlin that included an agreement to combine the countries’ militaries. This lack of international recognition contributes to scarce opportunities for its residents. For instance, travelling abroad for those with only Abkhaz passports is difficult and despite 25 years having passed since the war, many residents can only visit Russia. “I know so many talented dance collectives from Abkhazia, their dream is to go on tour. But it’s impossible because the state is not recognised and they will not travel as Georgians,” Kuleshova said. “It feels like this region is in a long sleep.”