Otto Lakoba – The Lives of Others

My childhood unfolded on the shores of the Black Sea, in Abkhazia, among subtropical palms and cypress trees.  At that time, the dismantling of the Soviet Union was proceeding at full throttle, and, in the summer heat, war was already in the air, a war that nobody believed in.  My childhood ended suddenly in August of ’92, when we were hastily evacuated from the military airfield.  

Several years ago, I returned to my motherland, having decided that I needed to search out my identity, to take stock of what had been taken away from me and to use photographs to tell the story.  

In today’s world, Abkhazia is a white spot on the map, yet another flashpoint.  But the war ended more than twenty years ago, and today it is a small, sovereign country.  It’s strange to feel that you’re a photographer of the here and now when the whole country is living in the past.  In the Abkhazian language, there are five past tenses.  It seems that Abkhazians, giving precedence to the past, have never taken the present seriously, although they have always had a lingering hope for the future.  / Оtto Lakoba


Otto Lakoba is 32 years old and is a documentary photographer.  He was born in Leningrad in the USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia), and he graduated from St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation.  In 2009, he moved to his ancestral homeland, Abkhazia, so that he could devote more time to photography.  He has taken part in expositions in Abkhazia and Turkey, and his photographs have been published in Russia Beyond the Headlines (an international project of Rossiyskaya Gazeta), Bird in FlightEl Pais and other magazines.  He is currently a student at the Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov School of Documentary Film and Theater.

Essay «Empire, if you happened to be born to…»

Some trees bloom early, others later, the vast are the last to bloom.

Everything is good on time.

So do the nations.

Some passed through blossoming and faded away long ago, the others flourish now.

Once there was powerful Kingdom of Abkhazia, but stone petals of its fortress fell off. Only ancient temple in Lyhny village surrounded by snowy mountain peaks continues to emanate warmth freshness of the flower. Look inside and see the liturgy is officiated as thousand years ago, the candles are burning, the icons are mysteriously silent.

In Abkhazian language there are five pasts, one present and two future tenses. Apparently Abkhazians, preferring the past, have never seriously regarded the present, but always hoped for the future. The history, the spirit and the possibilities of the nation reflected in its language. In 1930 Osip Mandelstam noticed: “The Abkhazian language is powerful and pleophonic… We can say that it escapes the throat, which is overgrown with hair.

First past tense.

At different times Abkhazia, wedged in between Black Sea and Caucasian ridge, attracted Roman, Byzantine, Iranian, Arabian, Hazarian, Turkish and Russian Empires or became their part. The country was influenced not only by Ancient Oriental culture, but also by Ancient Greek and Roman, Byzantium and Genoa. In the first century Christian sermon was preached by apostles Andrew the First-called and Simon Kananaios.

Second past tense.

The Abkhazian world view sharply differs even from the neighboring nations. In Abkhazia, for example, there was no feudal land property, no serfdom, no beggars; the children of knyazes were given for education in the families of “pure” peasants, which didn’t cause any social contradictions. Feudal lord didn’t have any right to take away peasant’s land, to insult or especially to lift his hand against the countryman.

Third past tense.

In the XIX century, after Abkhazia’s accession to Russia, the government immediately started to disseminate the culture. In Lyhny village, which has been the medieval capital of Abkhazia, the school for Abkhazian children was opened. Once Russian teacher in European suit and glasses entered the classroom, all kids fled away. The second day was the same. Only afterwards they understood why children were frightened. Finally, the teacher went into the classroom in сhokha, with the dagger on his belt, in papakha and all the kids started to study with pleasure.

Fourth past tense.

In the XX century Abkhazia went through a number of revolutions and wars. In year 1918 it was a part of The Mountainous Republic, then it was occupied by Georgia (1918 – 1921). From March 1921 to Februrary 1922, until the Creation of the USSR, it was independent SSR Abkhazia. Then it transformed into the autonomous republic as a part of Georgian SSR (1931 – 1991). In the 20s on Sukhumi’s embankment was cafe called “The high”. The commission, which consisted of Moscow party bonzes, enjoyed the coffee, but didn’t like the anti-soviet name of the cafe. They went to Nestor Lakoba, the head of the government of Abkhazia. He listened to them and ordered to rename the caffe to “Proletarian is being high”!

Fifth past tense.

On 14 August 1992, as a result of dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgia, which just joined the United Nations, started a war against Abkhazia. Thousands of young men died, the monuments of history and culture of Abkhazian nation, museums, archives, libraries, theaters, universities were destroyed. The Abkhazian land became independent on 30 September 1993 and on 26 August 2008 Russia recognized the Republic of Abkhazia as an independent state.

You can unwittingly see some passionate periods of our nation in the past: the Kingdom of Abkhazia, The Mountainous Republic, the Republic of Abkhazia… Today Abkhazia is small, sovereign multinational country (about 300 thousands people). Besides Abkhazians there are Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, Estonians, Turks, Poles, Jews, Germans and others. Many people of various religions get along with each other peacefully: Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants. Imperial periods last for centuries in the history of Abkhazia, but people managed to keep their identity, originality and national character alive, despite some ugly sides of life, inherited from the war, devastation, blockades.

The wonderful words of Joseph Brodsky from “Letters to a Roman Friend” can be mentioned here:

Empire, if you happened to be born to, 

better live in distant province, by the ocean. 

Far away from Caesar, and away from tempests 

No need to cringe, to rush or to be fearful, 

You are saying procurators are all looters, 

But I’d rather choose a looter than a slayer