Abkhazian Rhapsody

A small nation, fighting for its sovereignty, reclaims an ancient philosophy

| March / April 2003

ONCE A Black Sea resort region known for its balmy climate, Abkhazia has recently become a geopolitical hot spot?even as it rediscovers a philosophical tradition that could provide a key to peace in the region.

As an ?autonomous republic? struggling to claim its sovereignty after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia successfully repelled an invasion by the newly independent Georgian Republic in 1992. Today, it finds itself threatened again by Georgia?s American-trained soldiers and by the continued instability in nearby Chechnya.

?The Caucasus was always a pow-der keg, but now it is a nuclear powderkeg,? says Murat Yagan, an Abkhazian expatriate and Canadian citizen who recently returned to his homeland hoping to promote an ancient Caucasian philosophy called Kebzeh. Yagan, 87, may be the only surviving trainee of Kebzeh, an ancient spiritual tradition (though not a religion itself). As an ethical code embedded in a way of living, Kebzeh is said to build character through a rigorous program ranging from martial arts and horsemanship to etiquette and conflict mediation. ?It is based on . . . universal values,? Abkhazian diplomat Vyacheslav Chirikhba told National Public Radio reporter Alex Van Oss. ?The respect for elders, respect for women. A person is regarded as someone who is a member of society, rather than as a completely isolated individual.?

Smuggled over the Russian border, Yagan last year was awarded Abkhazia?s highest cultural honor, the medal of Honor and Glory, by Vice President Sergei Arshba at an event in the National Theater. This is a sign that Kebzeh philosophy, now embraced by some Westerners, may be making a resurgence as part of Abkhazians? determination to establish their own nation. Yagan?s books, including I Come from Behind Kaf Mountain (Threshold Books) are being translated into the Abkhazian language.

And support for his struggling homeland is growing. The International Documentation and Information Center for Abkhazia, created to help restore priceless historical archives destroyed in the war with Georgia, has opened in The Hague. In many ways, Abkhazia remains in political limbo, but with Yagan?s writings and a little Kebzeh, the country may one day return to its former glory.