Nestor Apollonovich Lakoba (Russian: Не́стор Аполло́нович Лако́ба; Abkhaz: Нестор Аполлонович Лакоба; 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 incorporation into the Soviet Union 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 Georgia 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. This also ensured that during the era of collectivization, Abkhazia was largely spared, though in return Lakoba was forced to accept a downgrade of Abkhazia's status to that of an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR.
Due to his close relationship with Stalin, who would frequently holiday in Abkhazia during the 1920s and 1930s, Lakoba became rivals with one of Stalin's other confidents, Lavrenti Beria, who was in charge of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. 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.
Nestor Lakoba was born in the village of Lykhny in Abkhazia and like many Caucasian Bolsheviks, began as a bandit persecuted by the Tsarist police, and he became a personal friend of Stalin's during their time together in the revolutionary underground.
In the years after the October Revolution, Lakoba greatly helped his career by first being a devoted follower of Lenin and then of Stalin, to whom he pledged unconditional allegiance and whose cult of personality he initiated in Abkhazia in the 1930s. Lakoba was the lead Bolshevik when the Revolution began in 1917, based in Gudauta in the north of Abkhazia, and opposed the Mensheviks, who were centered on Sokhumi. Together with Efrem Eshba, Lakoba overthrew the provisional Abkhaz People's Council that controlled revolutionary Abkhazia in April, 1918. The Bolsheviks managed to seize power for 42 days before the forces of the Georgian Democratic Republic, with the help of Abkhaz anti-Bolsheviks, restored control over Abkhazia, which they regarded as an integral part of Georgia. Both Lakoba and Eshba would flee to Russia, and not return to Abkhazia until 1921.
Lakoba returned to Abkhazia after it had been occupied by Bolshevist Russia, as part of its conquest of Georgia. Named the Communist Party chief (Chairman of the Central Executive Committee) in Abkhazia, Lakoba had such control over Abkhazia that it was jokingly referred to as "Lakobistan." For the next decade Abkhazia was a Union Republic, associated with the Georgian SSR, but in 1931 Stalin made it an Autonomous Republic more firmly under Georgian control. This compelled Lakoba to make regular visits to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, in order to intercede on behalf of his homeland.
Lakoba was a short, slightly reserved, and almost entirely deaf man, and he established good relationships with many Kremlin power-brokers, drawn as they were to holidays in his beautiful sub-tropical province. He regularly sent crates of tangerines to Moscow for Stalin and other Caucasians there. He also welcomed those no longer in the leadership's good graces; for instance, he and his brother Mikhail, People's Commissar of internal affairs and later of agriculture in Abkhazia, welcomed the seriously ill Leon Trotsky and his wife for several months in 1925.
Lakoba managed to stave off collectivization during his leadership of Abkhazia, persuading Stalin to deal gradually with particularly backward peoples. The situation changed after his death, when the process began with a vengeance and landless peasants from central and western Georgia were brought in.
In 1932 Lakoba had made a deadly mistake. He told his friend, high-ranking Georgian Communist Sergo Ordzhonikidze, that his main rival, Transcaucasian Party chief Lavrentiy Beria, an acquaintance of both men, had been making some extremely derogatory remarks about Ordzhonikidze, such as "In 1924 Sergo would have shot all Georgians if it hadn't been for me". Ordzhonikidze was enraged, as was Beria when he found out what had occurred. Beria felt compelled to send a series of letters apologizing to Ordzhonikidze, his patron. One of these, dated 18 December 1932, read, in part: "I admire you too much to say those things. I ask you only one thing–don't believe anyone." Beria and Lakoba had despised each other for years, their feud deliberately fuelled by Stalin. Another source of tension may have been the longstanding animosity between Mingrelians (of whom Beria was one) and Abkhazians; during the Second Five-Year Plan (1933–37) Beria initiated the settlement of large numbers of Mingrelians, Armenians and Russians into Abkhazia.
It appears that Lakoba, who stood up for the Abkhaz when he could, was extremely popular at home, so Beria did not dare arrest him and his revenge came in subtler form than the show trial, which came into use later, during the Great Purge. Instead, four years later, Lakoba and his brother were summoned to Party headquarters in Tbilisi and Nestor was poisoned during dinner with Beria, dying shortly afterwards. His death of a "heart attack" was announced in newspapers a few days later. Beria feigned tremendous grief. His body was transported from Tbilisi to Sukhumi with great ceremony, and Lakoba was given an elaborate state funeral which thousands of Abkhazians attended. 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 was possibly done to hide evidence of poisoning. Others say that after his denunciation his coffin and remains were dug up and reinterred in an unmarked grave elsewhere.
Lakoba features as a character in Fazil Iskander's novel Sandro of Chegem, and in the 1989 Soviet film Belshazzar's Feasts, or A Night with Stalin (Russian: Пиры Валтасара, или Ночь со Сталиным) inspired by it.
Aftermath of Nestor's death
In several months after his death, during the Great Purge Lakoba was declared an "enemy of the people" and denounced for Trotskyism and national deviationism, accused of having fomented an insurrection and having organized a counter-revolutionary plot to kill Lavrentiy Beria and Joseph Stalin himself. The charge of an anti-Stalin plot on his part was especially far-fetched, given that Lakoba in 1934 had written a hagiographic pamphlet, Stalin and Khashim, in which he praised him as "the greatest man of a whole epoch, such as history gives to humanity only once in one or two hundred years". In October 1937, his brother Mikhail was convicted in a show trial of participating in the conspiracy and shot.
Nestor Lakoba was survived by his wife, Sariya, who came from a wealthy Adjarian noble family, and their son. She was arrested soon after his death and imprisoned in Tbilisi. The NKVD took her away every evening, beat her severely in order to have her sign a statement on "How Lakoba sold Abkhazia to Turkey", and dragged her back to her cell, bloody and unconscious, in the morning. Her reply each time was "I will not defame the memory of my husband". Their son Rauf, aged 14, was arrested, brought to the jail where his mother was held, threatened with death if she did not testify, and beaten in front of her. His wife's repeated refusal to confess angered the NKVD agents and she finally died in her cell after a night of torture.
Rauf Lakoba was sent to a labor camp for children whose parents had been convicted of political crimes. He and two friends there wrote to Beria asking to be sent home and continue with school. Beria summoned them and had them taken to the courtyard of an NKVD jail in Tbilisi, where they were shot, having been accused of taking part in a "counterrevolutionary group" engaged in "systematic agitation aimed at discrediting measures taken by the party and government".