The N. A. Lakoba papers, one of the most fascinating collections at the Hoover Institution Archives, contain the personal papers of one of Stalin’s closest friends, Nestor Lakoba, the party boss of Abkhazia (now part of Russian-occupied Georgia) and Stalin’s host on his frequent visits to the Black Sea resort of Sukhumi. The crown jewel of the collection is Lakoba’s personal photo album, filled with candid pictures of Stalin and his retinue hunting and fishing; it also contains Lakoba’s personal papers, including his official health certificate, which indicates that he was almost completely deaf. Most documents are in Lakoba’s own hand, including his personal notebook containing his candid musings. Secret correspondence with and reports from his informers reveal his concern about encroachments on his authority by political rivals, including Georgian boss Lavrenty Beria.
Shortly before Christmas 1936, Beria poisoned Lakoba during a dinner in Beria’s home. Lakoba’s body was returned from Tbilisi to Sukhumi by special train; he was buried with full honors in the Sukhumi botanical garden. Beria was among the mourners, somberly carrying a funeral banner in honor of his old friend. In the aftermath of the murder, Lakoba’s extended family was either executed or imprisoned, and those associated with him were accused of being part of his plots to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders. Before their arrest, the family, having learned of Beria’s plan to burn the body to destroy evidence of the poisoning, secretly reburied his body in an undisclosed location, presumably near his home village. Despite torture, Lakoba’s wife took the secret to her grave.
In reading the autobiography of Lakoba’s sister-in-law (more than a quarter-century his junior), I came across the following account of how the Lakoba family saved his archives from Beria’s grasp and certain destruction:
“In this difficult time, Saria [Lakoba’s wife] and Musto [her younger brother] succeeded in saving Nestor’s archive. In the presence of witnesses, they burned in the courtyard letters from Trotsky and other dangerous letters. Other documents they placed in a box, which they packed in thick paper and then hid in a hiding place under the floor of their house. When Musto [one of the few to survive] returned from prison and exile in 1955, he found that their house had been turned into a dormitory of a technical institute. The package was not in the secret hiding place. Workers, who remodeled the floors, had found the box. Musto began a personal investigation of its whereabouts. He learned that it was in the possession of local authorities (who did not understand what it was), and to his astonishment the box was returned to him. To his surprise, the archives was remarkably well preserved. After Musto’s death, the archives went to his son.”
Lakoba’s sister-in-law thus provides us with one link in the chain of events that eventually brought the Lakoba archive to Hoover and tells us that the family burned documents that it felt would be incriminating, such as the correspondence with Trotsky. The candid photos of the vacationing Stalin have been widely reproduced in many books on Stalin. The collection is also a valuable source on the history of Abkhazia, which, even in Lakoba’s time, had separatist tendencies. Abkhazia and its capital city, Sukhumi, today have a government appointed by Putin and are occupied by Russian troops.
When I read through the Lakoba archive in July, it was in the hands of the capable Hoover Archives preservation staff, who were applying preventive care to the eighty-year-old photographs. It is fortunate that the Lakoba archive ended up at Hoover. In a poorly funded Russian state archive, there is no telling what its condition would be today (or if it would even be accessible).