A few weeks after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in the spring of 2022, Georgian-born journalist and scholar Tinatin Japaridze published “Stalin‘s Millennials. Nostalgia, Trauma, and Nationalism”. The book tackles a complex theme: the Soviet dictator’s legacy for those, including herself, who grew up in the ashes of the communist empire.
Inspired by historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s theory of there being “two Stalins” – the “Koba” of his Georgian youth and the larger-than-life Soviet dictator – Japaridze defines a third Stalin, a fluid figure existing in the minds of post-Soviet generations, viewed through the prism of nostalgia. This third iteration of Stalin continues to hinder efforts by those living in the post-Soviet space to reckon with the dictator’s record of repression, in particular his use of terror to advance his policy priorities.
Applying these insights to the unfolding war in Ukraine, Japaridze spoke with Eurasianet about the present-day effects of unaddressed historical trauma and why generations still need to come to terms with the excesses and crimes of their forebears. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eurasianet: Where were you when the Ukraine war started and how did that make you feel after you had gone through the whole process of researching and writing your book?
TJ: The war started just as I had sent in the final proofs for the book. I did not really believe it until I heard it with my own ears. It was extremely sad because while I was writing the book, I thought that I was writing about the past. I wrote this book because of what my family had gone through under Stalin and the trauma I inherited from them. I thought, “once I’ve gotten everything on paper, I can really forget about it.”
Unfortunately, the war made me realize that the distance that I thought I had achieved was an illusion. The Russian playbook, whether we call it Russian or Soviet, is still very much there, and it has not really been updated. One of the reasons why I thought that Russia was not going to invade was that I thought Russian authorities had learned from [past] mistakes. And I was very, very wrong. That was absolutely not the case.
Eurasianet: One of the things you write in your book is that there has been no de-Stalinization process. Not only that, there has not been a reckoning with the Soviet past.
TJ: We tend to view Russia as a direct inheritor of all of the Soviet legacies, good and bad. They did not deal with the repercussions, the implications, the guilt, the trauma, just like the Georgians and Ukrainians and other post-Soviet countries did not necessarily deal with the trauma, the victimhood. The attitude was “if we don’t talk about it, it’ll go away.” It is very true for my native Georgia to a point where, if you brought up the Soviet period, a lot of people would say, “I just don’t want to talk about it.” Not because it is still painful, but people just did not want to acknowledge that those 70 years actually happened.
I think that was somewhat true for Ukraine too until they no longer could ignore what had happened. We saw very recently images of Ukrainians taking down the Soviet insignia from various monuments. I see it as one of the ways that the country is starting to come to terms with what has happened. In Russia’s case, they have not reckoned with that period because someone would have had to take responsibility.
Georgia differs from Ukraine in terms of talking about Stalin because, for better or worse, Stalin was Georgian. Russians love to say that; whatever bad happened under Stalin, he was Georgian. So deal with that yourselves. If it was anything good, then suddenly he was theirs [Russian]. It always makes me smile because it is really how we Georgians treat Stalin ourselves, but in reverse. All parties concerned have to take responsibility, and that is extremely uncomfortable. The main reason why I became interested in this topic was that in my household, it was forbidden to talk about anything Soviet, let alone the purges, because of the fear of being reported. Even in the 1990s that [fear] had not gone away. It is, to this day, a very unfortunate legacy that we continue to wrestle with. I tried to rebel, I wanted to talk about everything. But the older I got, the more I caught myself stopping when I was on the phone, not wanting to talk about certain things. And then I think, my God, I remind myself of my grandparents. I used to laugh at them for doing this, but now I am doing it myself.
I was not old enough to have experienced the wounds myself. But the blisters were still very much there. And I wanted to force myself to go to uncomfortable places because I felt that, we all, whether directly or indirectly, may have been complicit in what our ancestors did, because we tend to talk about their positive achievements, but very few of us want to actually talk about the uncomfortable things.
Eurasianet: Coming back to the idea of guilt. Do you think all Russians bear some responsibility? Where do you think we stand in terms of collective guilt?
TJ: Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the legacies continued to live on unaddressed and some continued to take pride in certain aspects that are extremely problematic. …
I think it was very easy for many in the Soviet era to position themselves as victims, because they did not want to deal with the notion of guilt and what their role had been, even as bystanders. And I think we are seeing that in Russia today, where many people continue to be quiet because they say, “I’m going to end up in jail and my family is going to end up in trouble.” I genuinely wonder if 30 years from now, those arguments are going to stand the test of time.
I feel more empathy for those who were silent (during the Soviet Union) because they also did not have the same platforms that exist today. I have struggled to maintain some friendships in Russia with people that I know are wonderful people, and I do understand to a degree why they are silent. But it is very difficult for me to understand when I see their social media feeds. They were partying it up in the weeks and months following the start of the war.
How are those relationships we once had going to survive the war? What about those (Ukrainian) civilians who went to bed at night and never woke up? And meanwhile, we are talking about the hottest restaurant in Moscow. I am not trying to say that I am a better person, but I think there is just a certain level of morality that is completely out of whack. And yes, we can put the blame on the Russian authorities. But this is not just Putin’s war. It is also about many of the Russian people who continue to be silent.
When all is said and done on the battlefield, Ukrainians and Russians will have to coexist, to live with that trauma, for decades to come. It is been over 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we still have not even touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of repairing the damage that was done. So, if we do not start addressing the current issues soon, I do not know if we will be able to engage with each other.
The Russians’ trauma is going to pale next to what Ukrainians are going through. Their children will have to deal with what their parents did or did not do. Russia is going to wake up to a very difficult reality one day.
EN: At some point in the future, Western countries will have to re-engage with Russia. How will that be possible? Have too many bridges been burnt?
TJ: We will have to re-engage with them probably sooner than many would like to think. If nothing else, because of the sheer size of the country, its natural resources. … I think numbers will eventually speak louder than words. It is difficult to ignore Russia, the Russian authorities know it and have taken advantage of it. But the timeline for Russian isolation turned out to be a lot longer than the Russian authorities thought. And we can wean Western countries off Russian commodities to a certain degree, but at some point, those conversations will need to happen. It will take decades.
EN: What is your personal bond with Russia today?
TJ: The realization that I might not be able to go back to Russia anytime soon is quite upsetting to me. I look at Russia in movies or old photos as a country that does not exist anymore. It is a little bit like losing a loved one; a very problematic one, but a loved one nonetheless. It is very difficult for me to put a cross on the Russian people altogether and to say that all Russians are bad. I still refuse to do it for fear of burning a future bridge. I want to hope that something can be saved. I am against, for example, canceling Russian culture and language. For example, in Georgia. It is extremely uncomfortable to teach and use Russian. But we have to. This will not last forever. When my children grow up, they will run into a Russian kid someday in kindergarten, and I do not want them to carry on hating each other. We have to think decades ahead.
EN: How would you describe the effect of the war on Georgia as a nation?
TJ: The majority of Georgians are siding with Ukrainians and condemning Russia, because they remember what it was like being invaded by Russia in 2008. But even back then, there was a certain polarization among the people that has persisted. As for the Georgian government, it has been sending very mixed signals. I admire the Ukrainians for having come together. One of the goals of the Putin regime was to break the Ukrainian identity and weaken the nation at its core. I think the Georgian people have been weakened much more than the Ukrainians over the years by disinformation, polarization. Russia can then take advantage of it. We are still in this process of trying to unify as a nation. I was very glad to see how the country came together [to oppose] the Russian [-style] foreign agent law in March. Fortunately, people stood up, young people stood up. I hope that we will be able to learn from our Ukrainian friends.
EN: What about the tens of thousands of Russians who have arrived since the onset of the war?
TJ: I was one of the Georgians that initially said, “We cannot turn the Russians away. They escaped the Putin regime.” I am, by the way, a Georgian that went to Russia in 1993 as a kid with my family during the Civil War in Georgia, and Russians welcomed me. So, yes, on the one hand, I am grateful and I have not forgotten the good and the kindness and the warmth that I got from Russians when I moved there and escaped the war in Georgia. But on the other hand, I think it is the behavior that many Georgians find very problematic. Many Russians act like Georgia is still one of their provinces and Georgians should make them feel at home because at the end of the day, they are kind of still at home. And that is very, very difficult for Georgians to deal with. They do not act as guests. And I think that will change Georgia as a country that was often applauded for being a fantastic host. Hospitality has been one of our national sources of pride. … I think a host nation should be treated as a host, and guests should remember, even if they are there for a long time, that they are guests and not occupiers.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by Andrea Palasciano, who has worked as a correspondent for AFP for a decade, most recently in Moscow. She is currently in the Knight Bagehot Fellowship in Business Journalism at Columbia University and is completing her MBA. Tinatin Japaridze is presently an analyst on the Eurasia team at Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis firm. Tinatin Japaridze received a Master’s Degree in Russian Regional Studies with focus on cybersecurity and digital diplomacy from Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Eurasianet is housed at the Harriman Institute.