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Georgia: Debating the Fate of Stalin's Statue

The iconic statue of Joseph Stalin in the main square of Gori is reflected in a bullet-riddled window. (Photo: Temo Bardzimashvili)

Amid an ongoing exercise in national self-examination, Georgians are confronting the legacy of the country's most famous, and notorious, native son -- Joseph Stalin. A significant number of Georgians now blame Stalin's legacy for the country's present-day woes. This trend, in turn, is fueling a debate over what to do with the most tangible symbol of that legacy -- the Stalin statue in the city of Gori.

Situated in his hometown's central square, the bronze Stalin statue has survived changes ranging from de-Stalinization in the 1950s to the collapse of the Soviet Union and, most recently, Russia's bombing of Gori in 2008. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

But now as Georgians struggle to move forward following the disastrous 2008 conflict, and the subsequent economic downturn, some commentators and experts now feel that it's finally time to consign the dictator's statue, and everything it stands for, to the ash heap of history. The question for these intellectuals is how best to do it.

"The monument must be completely destroyed," argued Levan Ramishvili, director of Tbilisi's Liberty Institute, a think-tank that provided intellectual heft for the 2003 Rose Revolution. "Since the Georgian government is being careful, this should be a civil initiative ? I would not rule out that somebody blows up the monument in the night."

The debate does not end with the Stalin statue. The daily Rezonansi reported that President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement Party is also considering removing the remains of Stalin's mother from a hilltop Tbilisi cemetery where she is buried alongside famous Georgian writers, actors and other cultural figures.

Not all Georgians want to forget. Many in Gori, a gritty, ramshackle town, still take pride that hometown boy Stalin -- born Ioseb Jughashvili -- made it to the top.

"Winston Churchill once said: 'Stalin came to Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of nuclear weapons,'" said Malkaz Gugushvili, as he pulled his cab up in front of Gori's Stalin Museum. "Like him or not, there was order then. If he was alive today, Georgia would not be such a mess."

The museum, a short walk from the monument, features Stalin's personal railway car and the shack in which he was born. Escorting some German backpackers through the museum recently, a guide focused on Stalin's defeat of Nazi Germany and glossed over the atrocities of his regime. "Stalin liberated the world from Nazi Germans, who were the plague of the 20th century," the woman instructed her audience.

In Tbilisi, a tiny Stalinist fan club and small Communist Party, comprised mostly of World War II veterans, are now seen as anachronistic. But loyalists are still ready to stand up for the vozhd, or great leader.

"Now they want to destroy him, destroy a statue! ? [These are] the same people, who would not dare to make a sound when he was alive," fumed Vasil Modebadze, a fragile octogenarian who wore a Soviet army uniform with a cascade of medals as he played a game of backgammon with a fellow World War II veteran.

Modebadze was reduced to tears as he spoke about the campaign to destroy Stalin's statue. "I have shed my blood to protect my people, my homeland from the aggressors and Stalin led and inspired us though the horrors that I will not forget while I am alive," he said. "Now they tell me that I fought and lived for nothing."

Some intellectuals have also weighed in to defend the leader's monument, but for very different reasons. Historian Lasha Bakradze believes that Georgians need to come to terms with the history of the Stalin era -- unpleasant as it may be -- rather than to try to erase the past.

"Instead of selectively blurring history, we must explore and preserve it," Bakradze said. "Since the monument did not come down when it had to come down, we must preserve it and the adjacent museum complex just the way they are, so we can take students there to show what the cult of personality was like."

In a long streak of comments on the Facebook campaign "Move Stalin to the Museum!," one commentator argued that Stalin should be kept in Gori's center "just as the Romanians keep the Dracula castle, just as [a] tourist attraction."

But others say the monument is both an eyesore for foreign visitors and an insult to the victims of the Stalin-era terror and repressions. "Maintaining the cult of a killer is an insult to his victims," said Ramishvili. "If some people choose to be a Stalinist or a Satanist, it is their call. ? But taxpayer money should not be used for sponsoring public symbols that insult or disturb someone."

Ironically, surviving victims of Stalin's regime are often more tolerant of the statue.

Manana Akhmeteli, the 70-year-old granddaughter of iconic Georgian theater director Sandro Akhmeteli, smiled charitably when she heard about the plans to demolish the statue. Stalin was responsible for her grandfather's death, as well as that of hundreds of other Georgian cultural figures. But she said she holds no grudge against the statue of her family's tormentor. "We should let him slowly become history," Akhmeteli said. "His presence commands nothing but an ironic smile. And do we have nothing else to do but fight with ghosts?"

Demolishing Stalin's statue "is not going to change anything," she continued. "If there are still people who are proud of him because of his Georgian roots, well, it will go away. Generations will change."

Film director Lana Ghoghoberidze, whose father, Levan Ghoghoberidze, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Georgia, was executed in 1937, agrees.

"The Soviet legacy exists not in a monument, but in our mentality, in the way we still cannot tolerate people, who look, act and think differently from us, the attitudes that true democracies have long left behind," Ghoghoberidze said. "As to the symbols ? well, my grandchildren do not even know who Stalin and Lenin were."

Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: Debating the Fate of Stalin's Statue

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