In a way, it is fitting that a statue of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, architect of the Great Terror, disappeared in the middle of the night.Local officials in Gori, the dictator’s birthplace, decided recently that the statue, one of the last such likenesses of Stalin still standing in the former Soviet sphere, should be replaced by a memorial to the victims of Soviet-era repression and to those who perished in the 2008 war with Russia. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has long supported such a move.The actual removal of the 20-foot-tall statue was carried out under the cover of darkness during the early hours of June 25, a largely secret action completed before most media cameras could arrive at the scene. Government-released footage showed the monument crashing down headlong from its pedestal, with a large Sports Utility Vehicle tire serving as a pillow for Stalin’s bronze forehead.The government issued little advance notice of the demolition in an apparent attempt to avoid a media scrum and potential protests from those Gori residents who retain a soft spot in their hearts for the hometown-boy-turned-Great-Leader. Regional broadcaster Trialeti, the only television outlet that arrived in time to witness the removal, was prohibited from filming the historic moment.At a June 25 news conference in Tbilisi held after the demolition, Minister of Culture, Monument Protection and Sports Niloloz Rurua announced an international competition for a replacement monument that would honor victims of Stalin’s purges and the 2008 Georgian-Russian War, which Tbilisi views as a vestige of Soviet imperialism. [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive].“Instead of the Soviet idol, here will be raised a monument to his victims,” declared Rurua. “We want many artists and sculptors from the free world to participate in this competition.” He expressed hope that the new work would help bury the remnants of Soviet nostalgia.In comments to Maestro Television, Rurua attributed the nocturnal timing of the demolition to safety considerations. [The 2009 destruction of another Soviet-era monument, in Kutaisi, led to the deaths of two people]. He dismissed criticism that officials had chosen the time to conceal their actions; Vladimir Lenin’s statue was also removed from downtown Tbilisi at night, he added.Referring to the 1921 Bolshevik annexation of Georgia, President Saakashvili told a news briefing that there was no room in his country for the people “who led the Soviet invasion of Georgia.” He said his intention was not “to rewrite history,” and he stressed that the statue would be given a new home at Gori’s Stalin museum. Located a short distance from when Stalin’s statue once stood, the museum contains a treasure trove of the dictator’s memorabilia, including his armored railway car and the shack in which he grew up.No major political party came to the rescue of the dictator, who is still held in high esteem by World War II veterans and older Georgians.A surge of desire to demolish the Stalin monument occurred in the wake of the Georgian-Russian War. The governing United National Movement’s solid sweep of Georgia’s May 30 local elections likely paved the way for the demolition. The party won 78 percent of the municipal voting in Gori.Only the opposition Labor Party so far has openly denounced the demolition, calling it “vandalism” and likening the Georgian government to the “Taliban,” known for their destruction of Buddhist relics in Afghanistan. “Georgia’s destructive government has finally made its dream come true and demolished the monument of World War II-winning, Fascism-defeating Stalin,” declared Labor Party Secretary Kakha Dzagania.The government dismissed the criticism and potential opposition from some Gori residents. “This is not a matter of some parochial sentimentalities. It is about national respect for Stalin’s victims,” Culture Minister Rurua told EurasiaNet.org.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.