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.”