|1st Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Socialist Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia|
February 1922 – 28 December 1936
|Preceded by||Post created|
|Succeeded by||Avksenty Rapava|
|Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Abkhaz ASSR|
17 April 1930 – 28 December 1936
|Preceded by||Post created|
|Succeeded by||Alexei Agrba|
|Born||1 May 1893|
Lykhny, Sukhum Okrug, Kutais Governorate, Russian Empire
|Died||28 December 1936 (aged 43)|
Tbilisi, Georgian SSR, Soviet Union
|Political party||Russian Communist Party (1912-1936)|
Nestor Apollonovich Lakoba[a] (1 May 1893 – 28 December 1936) was an Abkhaz Communist leader. Lakoba helped establish Bolshevik power in Abkhazia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and served as the head of Abkhazia after its conquest by the Bolshevik Red Army in 1921. While in power, Lakoba saw that Abkhazia was initially given autonomy within the USSR as the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia. Though nominally a part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic with a special status of "union republic," the Abkhaz SSR was effectively a separate republic, made possible by Lakoba's close relationship with Joseph Stalin. Lakoba successfully opposed the extension of collectivization of Abkhazia, though in return Lakoba was forced to accept a downgrade of Abkhazia's status to that of an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR.
Popular in Abkhazia due to his ability to resonate with the people, Lakoba maintained a close relationship with Stalin, who would frequently holiday in Abkhazia during the 1920s and 1930s. This relationship saw Lakoba become the rival of one of Stalin's other confidants, Lavrentiy Beria, who was in charge of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, which included Georgia. During a visit to Beria in Tbilisi in December 1936, Lakoba was poisoned, allowing Beria to consolidate his control over Abkhazia and all of Georgia, who discredited Lakoba and his family as enemies of the state. Rehabilitated after the death of Stalin in 1953, Lakoba is now revered as a national hero in Abkhazia.
Nestor Lakoba was born in the village of Lykhny, in what was then the Sukhum Okrug of the Kutais Governorate in the Russian Empire (now Abkhazia[b]) to a peasant family. He had two brothers, Vasily and Mikhail. His father Apollo died three months before his birth; Mikhail Bgazhba, who would serve as the First Secretary of Abkhazia, wrote that Apollo Lakoba was shot for opposing the nobles and landowners in the region. Lakoba's mother remarried twice, but both husbands died. From ages 10 to 12 Lakoba attended a parish school in New Athos, followed by a further two years of schooling in Lykhny. He entered the Tiflis Seminary in 1905, but he was not interested in its religious syllabus. He read books banned by the school authorities and was frequently caught doing so by the school authorities. Physically unimpressive, he was nearly totally deaf, and used hearing aids throughout his life. This became a well-known feature of Lakoba, and he would be jokingly referred to as the "Deaf One" by Joseph Stalin.
In 1911 he was expelled from the seminary for revolutionary activity and moved to Batumi, then a major port for exporting oil out of the Caucasus, where he taught privately and studied for the gymnasium exam. It was in Batum that Lakoba first became acquainted with the Bolsheviks, working with them from the autumn of 1911 and officially joining them in September 1912. He became involved with disseminating propaganda amongst the workers and peasants in the city and throughout Adjara, the local region, and began to refine his ability to relate to the masses. Discovered by the police, he was forced to leave Batum in 1914, so moved to Grozny, another major oil-based city in the Caucasus, and continued his efforts to spread Bolshevik propaganda amongst the people. Lakoba continued studying in Grozny, passing his examinations in 1915, and the following year enrolled in law at Kharkov University in what is now Ukraine, but the onset of the First World War and its subsequent effect on Abkhazia led him to quit his studies and return home after only a short time.
Back in Abkhazia, Lakoba took up a position in the Gudauta region helping to build a railway to Russia, while continuing to spread Bolshevik propaganda to the workers. The 1917 February Revolution, which ended the Russian Empire, resulted in the status of Abkhazia becoming contested and unclear. A peasant assembly was created to govern the region, and Lakoba was elected as a representative of Gudauta. Bgazhba wrote that his ability to mingle with the people of the region combined with his speaking abilities made him an ideal choice as representative. Lakoba's reputation was enhanced throughout Abkhazia by helping to establish "Kiaraz" ("Киараз"; "mutual support" in Abkhaz), a peasant brigade that would later help consolidate Bolshevik control.
Lakoba was the leading Bolshevik in Abkhazia when the Revolution began in 1917. Based in Gudauta in the north of Abkhazia, the Bolsheviks opposed the Mensheviks, who were centered on Sukhumi. On 16 February 1918 Lakoba and Efrem Eshba, an Abkhaz Bolshevik, overthrew the Abkhaz People's Council (APC), which had provisionally controlled Abkhazia since November 1917. Aided by Russian sailors from warships docked at Sukhumi, the coup only lasted five days as the warships departed, removing the main support for the Bolsheviks, and the APC was able to re-assert control. Lakoba joined Eshba in April, overthrowing the APC once again. They held power for forty-two days, before Georgian Democratic Republican forces and Abkhaz anti-Bolsheviks regained control over Abkhazia, which they regarded as an integral part of Georgia. Both Lakoba and Eshba fled to Russia, and remained there until 1921. The APC retained control of Abkhazia, and negotiated with the Georgian government for a final status of Abkhazia; ultimately a resolution was not found before the Bolsheviks invaded in 1921.
In the autumn of 1918, Lakoba was ordered to return to Abkhazia, in order to attack the Mensheviks from their rear positions. He was captured during this time and imprisoned in Sukhumi, but released early in 1919 due to public opposition. That April he was offered the post of police commissioner of the Ochamchira District, which he accepted and used as a means to spread Bolshevik propaganda. When the Menshevik-backed central authorities became aware of this, Lakoba again left Abkhazia, staying in Batumi for a few months. While there he was elected the deputy chairman of the Sukhumi district party committee. Lakoba also led several operations near Batumi that hindered the ability of the White movement (opponents of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War) in the Caucasus, further improving his image amongst the Bolshevik leadership.
In 1921 Lakoba married Sariya Dzhikh-Ogly. Born to a wealthy family in Batumi, her father was ethnically Adjaran while her mother was Abkhazian and originally from Ochamchira. They had met a couple years before when Lakoba was hiding from the British occupation forces. The following year they had their only child, a son named Rauf. The family was close, with Lakoba helping his wife get an education, and providing the same to Rauf as well. Sariya came to be regarded as an excellent hostess, and her sister-in-law Adile Abbas-Ogly wrote that she was well known in Moscow for this, and a key reason Stalin would vacation in Abkhazia.
Lakoba returned to Abkhazia in 1921, after it had been occupied by Bolshevik Russia, as part of its conquest of Georgia. Along with Eshba and Nikolai Akirtava, Lakoba was one of the signatories on a telegram to Vladimir Lenin announcing the formation of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia (SSR Abkhazia) which was initially allowed to exist as a full union republic. A Revolutionary Committee (Revkom), formed and led by Eshba and Lakoba in preparation for the Bolshevik occupation, took control of Abkhazia. The Revkom resigned on 17 February 1922, and Lakoba was unanimously elected the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, a body that was formed that day, thus effectively the head of Abkhazia. He would hold this post until 17 April 1930, when the Council was abolished and replaced by a Presidium of the Central Executive Committee, though Lakoba would retain the top position. Though held in high regard by his fellow revolutionaries, Lakoba never held a significant role within the Communist Party and refused to attend any meetings, as the Abkhaz Party was simply a branch of the Georgian Party, instead using his patronage network to establish himself.
Uncontested as the leader of Abkhazia, Lakoba had such control that it was jokingly referred to as 'Lakobistan'. Long a friend of several leading Bolsheviks, including Sergo Orjonikidze, Sergei Kirov, and Lev Kamenev, it was his relationship with Stalin that was most important to Lakoba's rise to power. Stalin was fond of Lakoba as they had much in common with each other: both were from the Caucasus, both grew up fatherless (Stalin's father had moved away for work when Stalin was young), and they both attended the same seminary school. Stalin admired Lakoba's marksmanship, as well as his work during the Civil War. Familiar with Abkhazia from his revolutionary days, Stalin had a dacha built in the region and vacationed there throughout the 1920s. He would joke, "I am Koba, and you are Lakoba" ("Я Коба, а ты Лакоба" in Russian; Koba was one of Stalin's pseudonyms as a revolutionary).
It was the role that Lakoba played in Stalin's own rise to power that cemented his status as Stalin's close confidant. When Lenin died in January 1924, Leon Trotsky, who was Stalin's only serious rival for the leadership, was in Sukhumi for health reasons. Lakoba ensured that Trotsky was isolated during the immediate aftermath of Lenin's death and funeral, an act which helped Stalin to consolidate his own power. Though the two possibly met during the Civil War, Lakoba and Stalin became properly acquainted at the Thirteenth Party Congress in Moscow, held in May 1924.
Lakoba used his relationship with Stalin to benefit both himself and Abkhazia. Aware that the Abkhaz would be marginalized within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (Georgian SSR), he sought to keep Abkhazia as a full union republic. He ultimately had to concede to Abkhazia's status of "treaty republic" within Georgia, a status that was never fully clarified. Abkhazia, as a part of the Georgian SSR, then joined the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (a union of the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijanian SSRs) when it was founded in 1922. Lakoba generally avoided going through Party channels, which would have meant dealing with reluctant officials in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, and instead used his connections to go directly to Moscow. He oversaw the implementation of korenizatsiia, a policy implemented across the Soviet Union throughout the 1920s that was meant to benefit ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, though most of the ethnic Abkhaz promoted were Lakoba's close confidants. In recognition of his leadership, on 15 March 1935 Lakoba and Abkhazia were both awarded the Order of Lenin, though the ceremony was pushed back until the next year in order to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of the Bolsheviks in Abkhazia. In December 1935, whilst in Moscow, Lakoba was given the Order of the Red Banner in recognition of his efforts during the Civil War.
As a leader, Lakoba proved to be very popular with the populace, which contrasted with other ethnic minority leaders across the Soviet Union, who were usually distrusted by the locals and regarded as representatives of the state. He visited the villages of Abkhazia, and as Bgazhba wrote, "Lakoba wanted to be familiar with the living conditions of the peasants". In contrast to other Bolshevik leaders, Lakoba was quiet and elegant and avoided shouting to make his point. He was especially known for his accessibility to the people: a 1924 report by the journalist Zinaida Rikhter said that:
"In Sukhum, only in the reception room of the presidium can we but get an idea of the peasant identity of Abkhazia. To Nestor, as the peasants simply call him one on one, they come with any little thing, bypassing all official channels, in certainty that he will hear them out and make a decision. The head of Abkhazia, Comrade Lakoba, is loved by the peasants and by the entire population."
A proponent of developing Abkhazia, Lakoba oversaw massive industrialization policies like the establishment of a coal mining operation near the town of Tkvarcheli, though they did not have a large impact on the overall economic strength of the region. Other projects included building new roads and railways, the drainage of wetlands as a preventative measure against malaria, and increased forestry. Agriculture was also given prominence, particularly tobacco: by the 1930s Abkhazia supplied up to 52 percent of all tobacco exports from the USSR. Other agricultural products, including tea, wine, and citrus fruits—especially tangerines—were produced in large quantities, making Abkhazia one of the most prosperous regions in the entire Soviet Union, and considerably richer than Georgia. The export of these products turned the region into "an island of prosperity in a war-ravaged Caucasus". Education was also a major issue for Lakoba, who oversaw the formation of many new schools throughout Abkhazia: aided by the korenizatsiia policies that promoted local ethnic groups, many schools teaching in Abkhaz were opened in the 1920s, as well as schools in Georgian, Armenian, and Greek.
Lakoba was determined to maintain ethnic harmony in Abkhazia, a demographically diverse region. The ethnic Abkhaz only constituted roughly 25–30% of the population during the 1920s and 1930s, which included significant numbers of Georgians, Russians, Armenians, and Greeks. Lakoba kept peace in Abkhazia by ignoring Marxian class theory and protecting former landowners and nobles. This led to a 1929 report that called for him to be removed from power. Stalin prevented this, but criticized Lakoba for his mistake of "seeking support in all layers of the population" (which was contrary to Bolshevik policy).
The implementation of collectivization across the Soviet Union, which began in 1928, proved to be a major issue for both Abkhazia and Lakoba. Traditional Abkhaz agricultural practice had seen farming conducted by individual households, though assistance from other families and friends was frequent. The historian Timothy Blauvelt has written that Lakoba deferred collectivization for the first two years of using a variety of excuses. He used the apparent relative "backward" condition of Abkhazia, his concern for the people and thus his support base, and even his relationship with Stalin to delay collectivization. Lakoba's refusal to introduce the policy led to further disputes between him and the Abkhaz Party, which was stopped by Stalin, who rebuked the Party for "not taking into consideration the specific particularities of the Abkhazian situation, imposing sometimes the policy of mechanically transferring Russian forms of socialist construction onto Abkhazian soil".
By January 1931 the Party had forced the issue, sending activists across Abkhazia to coerce peasants into collectives. There were large-scale protests in January and February against the changes. Lakoba proved unable to fully stop collectivization, though he was able to reduce the severity of some of the most extreme measures, and stop mass deportations. The Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lakoba[c] has argued that once Stalin had firm control in Moscow he was no longer interested in leniency towards Lakoba or Abkhazia: in exchange for the relaxed introduction of collectivization, Lakoba had to acquiesce to Abkhazia losing its status as a "treaty republic." On 19 February 1931, Abkhazia was downgraded into an Autonomous Republic, the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and so was placed more firmly under Georgian control. The move was unpopular in Abkhazia and saw large-scale public protests, the first in Abkhazia against the Soviet authorities.[d]
Lakoba was also influential in the rise of Lavrentiy Beria. It was on Lakoba's suggestion that Stalin first met Beria, an ethnic Mingrelian who was born and raised in Abkhazia. Beria had served as the head of the Georgian secret police since 1926, and in November 1931 with Lakoba's support he was named the Second Secretary of Transcaucasia, as well as First Secretary of Georgia, and was promoted to First Secretary of Transcaucasia in October 1932. Lakoba supported Beria's rise because he felt that as a young native of Abkhazia, Beria would be obedient to Lakoba, whereas previous officials had not been. That Beria lacked any direct access to Stalin was also important, as it meant Lakoba could maintain his individually strong relationship with Stalin. Blauvelt has suggested that Lakoba wanted Beria in power to help quash accusations dating back to 1929 that maintained he was abusing his power: a report presented to the Central Committee in 1930 exonerated Lakoba, due in the main to a lack of evidence and the intercession by Stalin. Beria's role as head of the Georgian secret police allowed him to heavily influence any future investigations.
Once in this position, Beria began to undermine Lakoba and to gain closer access to Stalin. Lakoba, who grew to despise Beria, sought to discredit him. At one point Lakoba told fellow Bolshevik Sergo Ordzhonikidze that Beria once said that Ordzhonikidze "would have shot all the Georgians in Georgia if it was not for [Beria]" when he led the invasion of Georgia in 1921, and discussed the rumour that Beria had worked as a double agent against the Bolsheviks in Azerbaijan in 1920. Historian Amy Knight suggests that another source of tension may have been the longstanding animosity between Mingrelians and Abkhazians; during the Second Five-Year Plan, which began in 1933. Beria had tried to initiate the settlement of large numbers of Mingrelians into Abkhazia, though it was ultimately blocked. The relationship between the Beria and Lakoba deteriorated as each tried to become closer to Stalin, and Lakoba retained his close relationship.
In 1933, Beria apparently staged an event to try and win the support of Stalin, who was staying at his dacha in Gagra, in the north of Abkhazia.[e] On 23 September, Stalin went for a short boat ride on the Black Sea, which his dacha overlooked, using the Red Star, a small boat which was not equipped for the open waters. Stalin, Beria, Kliment Voroshilov and a few other passengers intended to go along the shore for a few hours. As they approached their destination for a picnic, near the town of Pitsunda, three rifle shots landed in the water near the boat, coming from either the lighthouse or a border post. None of the shots were close, though Beria later recounted that he covered Stalin's body with his own. Initially Stalin joked about the incident, though he later sent someone to investigate, and received a letter from the border guard who apparently took the shots, asking for forgiveness and explaining he thought it was a foreign vessel. Beria's own investigation blamed Lakoba for the policy to shoot at unknown ships, but the matter was dropped on the orders of Beria's superiors when rumours began to spread that the entire incident was staged to frame Lakoba.
Another source of contention between Beria and Lakoba concerned the publication in 1934 of Stalin and Khashim (Сталин и Хашим in Russian). The book chronicled a period of Stalin's life as a revolutionary, when in 1901–1902 he hid with a villager named Khashim Smyrba near Batumi. This showed Stalin as someone who was close to the people, something that Stalin enjoyed hearing. Ostensibly written by Lakoba, the book was praised by Stalin, who enjoyed the description of Khashim as "simple, naïve, but honest and devoted." In response, Beria began a project to chronicle Stalin's entire time as a revolutionary in the Caucasus. The finished work, On the Question of the History of the Bolshevik Organizations in the Transcaucasus (К вопросу об истории большевистских организаций в Закавказье) falsely enhanced and aggrandized Stalin's role in the region. When it was serialised in Pravda, Beria became well known across the entire Soviet Union.
Beginning in 1935, Stalin made overtures to Lakoba to move to Moscow and replace Genrikh Yagoda as the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Lakoba turned down the offer in December 1935, content to stay in Abkhazia. This outright refusal of such an offer only led to trouble for Lakoba, as it caused Stalin's goodwill to begin to dissipate. After Stalin repeated his offer in August 1936, only to be turned down again, a new law was implemented, "On the Correct Typeface Names of Settlements". This forced toponyms across Abkhazia to change from Abkhaz or Russian language spelling rules to Georgian rules. The capital of Abkhazia, known in Russian as Sukhum, now officially became Sukhumi. Lakoba, who had refused to issue license plates in Abkhazia until they switched the location from "Georgia" to "Abkhazia," recognized that this was a deliberate move by Beria and Stalin to undermine him, and took caution. He began to lobby Stalin to transfer Abkhazia from Georgia into the nearby Krasnodar Krai within Russia, but was rebuffed each time. On Lakoba's final visit to Moscow and Stalin, he brought the topic up one final time, and complained about Beria.
As Lakoba was popular in Abkhazia and well-liked by Stalin, it was difficult for Beria to have him removed. Instead, on 26 December 1936 Beria summoned Lakoba to the Party headquarters in Tbilisi, ostensibly to explain his recent interactions with Stalin. Beria had Lakoba over for dinner the next day, he was served fried trout, a favorite of Lakoba's and a glass of poisoned wine. They attended the opera after the dinner, watching the play Mzetchabuki (მზეჭაბუკი; "Sun-boy" in Georgian). During the performance Lakoba showed the first signs of his poisoning and returned to his hotel room, where he died early the next morning. Officially, Lakoba was said to have died of a heart attack, though a previous medical examination in Moscow had showed he had arteriosclerosis (thickening of the arteries), cardiosclerosis (thickening of the heart), and erysipelas (skin inflammation) in the left auricle that had led to his hearing loss. His body was returned to Sukhumi, though notably all the internal organs (which could have helped identify the cause of death), were removed.
Knight suggests that Stalin must have authorised Lakoba's murder, as Beria would not have dared to kill someone as prominent as Lakoba without his leader's approval. It is notable that though telegrams of condolence came from various leading officials throughout the Soviet Union, Stalin himself did not send one, and did not attempt to look into what role, if any, Beria may have played in Lakoba's death. Lakoba was accused of "nationalist deviationism", of having helped Trotsky, and of trying to kill both Stalin and Beria.
Despite the immediate denunciations, Lakoba was laid in state in Sukhumi for two days, and was given an elaborate state funeral on 31 December, which 13,000 people attended, though not Beria (though he did help take the coffin back to Sukhumi). Initially buried in the Sukhumi Botanical Garden, Lakoba's body was moved the first night to St. Michael's Cemetery in Sukhumi, where it stayed for several years before being returned to its original place. According to Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, Beria had Lakoba's body exhumed and burned on the pretext that an "enemy of the people" did not deserve burial in Abkhazia; this may possibly have been done to hide evidence of poisoning.
In the months that followed Lakoba's death, members of his family were implicated on charges against the state. His two brothers were arrested on 9 April 1937, and his mother and Sariya were arrested on 23 August of that year. A trial of thirteen members of Lakoba's family was conducted between 30 October and 3 November 1937 in Sukhumi, with charges including counter-revolutionary activities, subversion and sabotage, espionage, terrorism, and insurgent organization in Abkhazia. Nine of the defendants, including Lakoba's two brothers, were shot the night of 4 November. Rauf, Lakoba's 15-year-old son, tried to speak to Beria, who visited Sukhumi to view the start of the trial. He was promptly arrested as well. Sariya was taken to Tbilisi and tortured in order to extract a statement implicating Lakoba, but refused, even after Rauf was tortured in front of her. Sariya would die in prison in Tbilisi on 16 May 1939. Rauf was sent to a labour camp, and was eventually shot in a Sukhumi prison on 28 July 1941.
With Lakoba dead, Beria effectively took control of Abkhazia and implemented a policy of Georgianization. Abkhaz officials were purged, ostensibly on charges of trying to assassinate Stalin. The policy's greatest impact involved the settlement of thousands of ethnic Mingrelian farmers across Abkhazia, which displaced the ethnic Abkhaz and reduced their overall proportion of the population within the region. Beria abandoned Lakoba's policy of striving for ethnic harmony. Favouring his fellow Mingrelians, he succeeded in fulfilling the aims of a project first begun in 1933 at the start of the Soviet Union's Second five-year plan, to populate Abkhazia with ethnic Mingrelians who would ideally serve as a counter-balance to the Abkhaz.
During the remainder of the Stalinist era, Lakoba was seen as an "enemy of the people," though after 1953 he was rehabilitated. A statue was built in his honour in the Sukhumi Botanical Gardens in 1959, and he was subsequently honoured in Abkhazia. In 1965 Mikhail Bgazhba, the First Secretary of the Abkhaz Communist Party from 1958 until 1965, wrote a short biography of Lakoba, largely rehabilitating him. In Abkhazia, he is revered as a hero, and associated with its first major success of culture and development.
A museum dedicated to the life of Lakoba was established in Sukhumi, though it burnt down during the 1992–1993 war in Abkhazia. Plans to rebuild a new museum were announced by the de facto Abkhaz government in 2016. After his death Lakoba's collected papers were initially buried to keep them from being destroyed. They were retrieved several years later by his brother-in-law, the only member of his family to survive. The papers were first brought to Batumi, Georgia. Starting in the 1980s they were slowly returned to Abkhazia, with many eventually given to Princeton and Stanford Universities.