THE LAST OF THE DEPARTED

He who loses his country loses all.

Abkhasian proverb

FOREWORD

Early this winter on a Saturday night Karbei Barchan stopped by for a visit. We had been students together at hr teachers’ training college, but he left Sukhumi a long time ago and was now the principal of a country school; e had not seen each other for several years. I was looking forward to spending some time with him talking about what had happened to us in the interval, but Karbei was in a hurry. In half an hour he had to be off on some urgent business. Without losing a second, he opened up an old briefcase, took out a thick folder, and put it on the table.

“Here’s a manuscript I want you to read, and the sooner the better. It’s been lying around in an old trunk for 31years already, just two doors away from me at my Aunt Tatal’s house. After her funeral last week we opened the trunk that no one remembers her ever opening herself. Here’s what we found. It’s a manuscript written by her dead son, Sharakh Kvadzba. He wrote it just before the war, but in my opinion it’s still relevant. Read it and tell me if you think it can be published. It’s not just because he was my relative. Anyway, read it and you’ll see for yourself.”

Karbei departed, entrusting to me the fate of that manuscript which had spent thirty-one years in a trunk kept shut by a woman who had lost her son so many years ago. Before I even opened up the folder there was something about it that gave me a keen sense of responsibility, and not just to one dead person, but to two.

I read the manuscript the first time quickly, from be ginning to end, but then I went back over it a few times tin re to get a better grasp of parts that were incomplete or ‘reined improbable. It was not a simple manuscript, nor for that matter was the fate of its author.

I did not know Sharakh Kvadzba personally, but I had heard much about him before the war. He was five years older than most of us in our class, and after being graduated from the teachers’ training college in Sukhumi* Capita1 of the Abkhasian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. — Tr. he went to Leningrad. There he majored in the Caucasian languages at the Institute of Oriental Studies, one of his professors being Academician Marr*. Eminent Soviet linguist. —Tr. Then he went on to graduate school and specialized in the northwestern group of the Caucasian languages, including the Ubykh language which is important in establishing the historical relationships between other Caucasian languages.

I had also heard that Kvadzba, according to his professors in Leningrad, was an extremely talented linguist, and that is probably why he was sent to Turkey and the Middle East for research work, a rare opportunity in those days. He was supposed to find people who still spoke Ubykh, which was especially important since there was no written Ubykh language.

During the war few of us knew each other’s whereabouts. I did not know anything about Kvadzba. I had heard from someone, probably from Karbei, that Kvadzba was in Leningrad when he was drafted, was seriously wounded soon afterwards, went back into action and was reported missing in 1942. Sixteen years later, in 1958, we got word in Sukhumi that far away in Italy, outside the small town of Chermenate near Lake Como there was a tombstone over the grave of Italian partisans killed the very last days of the war in April 1945; among the names was that of Sharakh Kvadzba written in the Latin alphabet with only one letter incorrectly spelled. We could only speculate on how Kvadzba had ended up in Italy—probably the same way as most others like him, he had fled there from somewhere in Austria from a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp near the Italian border. Because his surname is so rare, there was no doubt in my mind that it was his name on that tombstone. The date of his death, April 24, 1945, was evidence that he had fought until nearly the end of the war, and was killed just about two weeks before Victory Day.* May 9, 1945. —Tr.

That is the life story of Sharakh Kvadzba, or at least what I know about it.

As for the history of his manuscript, some of the details were explained by Karbei when he came to visit me several times those six months I was getting it ready for publication.

Sharakh Kvadzba had written the nearly 500 pages in one sitting, as it were. After returning from abroad in the summer of 1940 he spent his whole vacation, all six weeks of it, at his mother’s home in Abkhasia. He did not go any where, but sat and wrote from morning till night.

Before he left he put the folder into his briefcase, which he locked in the trunk, and probably asked his mother to keep his notes there until he returned. He must have given these instructions in such a way that she honored them the rest of her life. How was he to know then that he was leaving home for the last time and that he would never again see his mother, or his native Abkhasia. But something in his voice must have made his mother sure she should keep the folder her son had put into the trunk until the end of her days, not only keep it there, but not tell a soul about it. She had never told anyone about it either when she was informed her son was missing, or when she learned that somewhere far away, farther than she could imagine, her son’s name had been discovered on the tombstone of a common grave.

When she heard this she asked Sharakh’s relatives and friends to sell everything of theirs and hers and use the money to send her to his grave site. Later, after it became clear the relatives were unwilling to cooperate, she never brought up the subject again. She was silent. Perhaps because she never saw her son’s grave she continued to question his death. At any rate, she never did take her son’s brief case out of the trunk: after all, he had asked her to take care of the papers until he returned. Maybe she kept on waiting for him. She had been born a long time ago and could not read or write, but neither Karbei, nor I believe she could have simply forgotten about her son’s folder.

As I already mentioned, Sharakh Kvadzba’s manuscript consisted of nearly 500, or more precisely, 482 pages in small clear handwriting that sometimes, especially toward the end, showed haste, yet was legible. Inserted in the middle of the manuscript were two typewritten pages dated August 1940—Kvadzba’s prewar resume—and a hand written outline of the report that he apparently made to his institute about the trip. There was also a receipt in the manuscript made out to Kvadzba for a brass horn and a Caucasian dagger he had brought back with him from abroad for the Abkhasian State Museum.

I don’t know what happened to the dagger, but I have seen the Ubykh horn, a truly rare artifact, in our museum several times. However, I had no idea it had been donated by Sharakh Kvadzba.

In his report Kvadzba said the information he had obtained could shed light on missing facts about the tragic story of the Ubykh people, a story, as he said, that was obscured by too little data.

Kvadzba explained in the report that he had failed to learn many toponymical names and find out more about some historical figures he knew of from his research. And he was not ready to give a complete scientific analysis of much of what he had written. He added, however, that the next part of his undertaking would not be a scholar’s commentary, but a careful account of all the information he had gathered, which would form the groundwork for his future efforts.

Obviously, the manuscript in the trunk was that account which he had stopped writing in the middle of a sentence. He was apparently somewhere near the end.

Before presenting Sharakh Kvadzba’s manuscript, which has undergone minimal editing only whenever absolutely necessary, I would like to say a few words about the subject which is certainly pertinent today.

Kvadzba’s manuscript gives us a vivid picture of the history of the Ubykh people, a people that lived long ago in the mountains of the Western Caucasus approximately in the area bordered north and south by the Shakhe and Khosta rivers. At the end of the campaigns in the Caucasus the czarist government offered the uncompromising Ubykh leaders either to move down from the mountains into the plains of the Northern Caucasus, or emigrate to Turkey. The choice the leaders of the Ubykhs made between these two unappealing alternatives would later turn out to be the most shortsighted: in 1864, following their feudal lords, the Ubykh people opted for Turkey. Soon afterwards fate scattered them like birds in a hurricane to many countries in the Middle East.

Just one century later a people with a rich and valiant past had disappeared from the face of the earth.

The Ubykh language increasingly became a memory and although the knowledge of the language and history of the Ubykhs is important to studies of the Caucasus, there are many unanswered questions.

About fifteen years ago I happened to see a report by a prominent European scholar of the Caucasus. According to his information, there were two small neighboring villages where there were still sixteen people who could speak Ubykh, perhaps, the only ones left in all the Middle East where the Ubykhs had emigrated. That report of fifteen years ago was the last one I read on the subject. I have not seen any later information in academic studies about people who still speak Ubykh.

Therefore, I would like to call attention to Sharakh Kvadzba’s manuscript which is mostly based on the detailed notes he took in 1940 of conversations he had with a man who still remembered the migration of his people to Turkey, a 100-year-old Ubykh with whom Sharakh lived for a little over a month. Judging by the manuscript, this centenarian, Zaurkan Zolak, was a man who not only had rare vitality, but an excellent memory. He spent the month recounting to his guest nearly all the events in his life, and Sharakh listened and wrote, apparently, not omitting even those incidents the old man confused chronologically, or that seemed to be fantasy. Obviously, the linguist tried at first to record everything he heard with the intent of investigating it later, sifting what was more probable from the less probable.

In my opinion the manuscript thankfully was preserved just that way. It is not too late now to analyze it from a strictly scientific point of view. It is not too late to give a critical analysis of the information it contains—both historical and cultural. Despite all its defects academically speaking, the manuscript in its original form is an interesting human document revealing, of course, particularly the personality of the storyteller, arid to some degree that of the listener who was much too moved by all that he heard to be just a stenographer.

And so, let us open the manuscript. I want to warn that I had to deal with 482 pages of small handwriting, a text not only devoid of titles, but of chapters, and even paragraphs, a text written by a man who was not considering its publication, but only how he could finish the job in the time allotted. The name of the manuscript, the titles of the chapters and divisions into books, were intended to make the manuscript easier to read. I bear full responsibility for all that, not Sharakh Kvadzba.