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Remembering Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Zugdidi: stories of dissidents, oppression, and proud Megrelians

About the author:Wietse Zwart is a Dutch student at Leiden University, the Netherlands, of the Russian and Eurasian Studies master programme. Part of this programme is an internship abroad, which he is doing at MCERC. Within this programme, he has opted to specialise in Georgian cultural memory, researching such things as the Georgian memory of Stalin, the Georgian memory of the Democratic Republic of Georgia and the Georgian memory of Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

For this article, I travelled (twice) to Zugdidi, the capital of Mingrelia. Georgia’s first post-independence president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was Mingrelian, and in this relaxed, regional city in the shade of the Caucasus his memory is still very much alive. Not only is it alive, the Mingrelians are proud of their president, defending him from the many accusations he faced in the early nineties. I spoke to them, curious about how they perceived him. And when I say I spoke to them, this means that I spoke to Tsitsino Shengelia, who in turn translated to and from Georgian. My thanks go out to her, for this article would not have been possible without her.

The Gamsakhurdia Museum

When you imagine a museum, you think of a grand, regal building, a building befitting the treasures it houses. Or at the very least a building with the name of the museum on the front. This was neither. Instead, when I asked the Zugdidi tourist information where I might find the museum to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, we went up several floors within the same building, down a corridor, and into what seemed like an apartment. Yet instead of the regular furniture you’d expect in an apartment, there were only lots of pictures of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his friends and family, several old flags of the Georgian Republic, and various other artefacts. And, in the corner, a compact desk at which the owner of the museum was seated.

The owner was an elderly lady, my guess would be she was in her late 60’s. Her dress and hat matched the colours of the first Georgian flag, and in her hand, she was holding a ruler, which caused me some distress: not out of fear for being hit on the hand, but rather because I have had Soviet style museum tours before, where an elderly lady monotonously rattles on about all the important facts. Luckily, this was not at all the case here: enthusiastically, if a bit chaotically, she told me about Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Dali Lataria and myself

Dali Lataria, as she is called, first told me about Gamsakhurdia’s flight: after being ousted in late 1991, Gamsakhurdia fled to Armenia, then to Chechnya on the invitation of Chechen leader Dudayev. Gamsakhurdia and Dudayev would become good friends, despite their religious differences: both national leaders witnessed firsthand the wrath of the Soviet, later Russian forces. After some pictures of Gamsakhurdia and Dudayev, she showed some pictures of those who had not been able to escape: first, a woman who had been Gamsakhurdia’s spokesperson – Lali Maisuradze. She had refused to tell where Gamsakhurdia was hiding and was killed. Then, a picture with about a dozen of young men, who had apparently been avid supporters of Gamsakhurdia, and had all died under mysterious circumstances.