A fire in Abkhazia, a Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia, destroyed thousands of paintings early Sunday morning, devastating a collection that locals had cherished as a national treasure — albeit of a country only recognized as such by Russia and some of its allies, including Syria and Venezuela.
Almost 4,000 paintings belonging to the National Gallery of Abkhazia were destroyed when a fire swept through an exhibition hall in central Sukhumi, the region’s capital, Abkhazia’s acting culture minister said in a statement.
The minister, Dinara Smyr, said that those included 300 works by Aleksandr Chachba-Sharvashidze, a celebrated Abkhazian artist and stage designer, who worked with renowned artists and theaters in Russia and France. “This is an irreparable loss for Abkhazia’s national culture,” she said. The National Gallery is more of a storage space than a museum, however.
Residents rushed to the scene on Sunday to rescue paintings, but only 200 artworks were removed from the burning building. Photos from the scene, released by Apsnypress, a local news agency, showed people carrying framed canvases, some charred and burned.
Local law enforcement officials said they were investigating all possible causes, including arson. The director of the gallery, Suram Sakaniya, blamed a short circuit for the fire, according to the news agency.
Abkhazia, a mountainous region on the Black Sea with a population of about 245,000, is internationally recognized as part of Georgia. Since the late 1980s, its status has been disputed, and the dying Soviet Union stirred up tensions between the ethnic Abkhaz and Georgian people who both populated the area at the time. In 1994, after a bloody war of secession against Georgian forces, Abkhazia enacted a Constitution declaring itself a sovereign state.
This was followed by decades of crisis, underfunding and neglect. Many of the region’s resorts, once famed throughout the Soviet Union, have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Local authorities promised to build a dedicated building for the gallery, so the art could be displayed on a regular basis, but it never materialized. The National Gallery had to store its entire collection crammed together in a few rooms at the top of the exhibition hall used by the local union of artists. The fire destroyed the building’s roof and the entire floor where the works were stored.
In 2008, after a five-day war with Georgia, Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent state. Moscow established a full-fledged military base in the region and has been holding sway over Abkhazia’s politics and finances. Georgia considers Abkhazia to be under Russian occupation.
In 2016, speaking about the gallery’s state in an interview with a local news website, Mr. Sakaniya, the director, characterized his institution’s premises as “not suited for storing paintings, nor exhibiting them in any way.”
In a statement on Monday, President Salome Zourabichvili of Georgia blamed the fire in Abkhazia on “the neglect of cultural identity both by the de facto leadership and the Russian occupants.”
The fire was “a tragedy for us all,” Ms. Zourabichvili said in a statement on X.
Established in 1963 as part of a regional state museum, the National Gallery of Abkhazia collects works by local and Russian artists. Russia’s Culture Minister, Olga Lyubimova, promised to send Russian specialists to help restore the surviving paintings.
But Mr. Sakaniya, the gallery director, told Apsnypress that the damage would hit hard at Abkhazia’s sense of itself. “It is impossible to assess the damage done to the Abkhaz culture,” he said. “I walk around and I cry.”