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Shadows of Joseph Stalin

September 29, 2013 - Ana Dabrundashvili - Bez kategorii

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This article appeared in the summer 2013 issue of New Eastern Europe Issue 3(VIII)/2013: Why Culture Matters

Georgian sympathies towards Stalin have strong nationalistic roots, but they are not in line with the image Georgia strives to create internationally. De-Sovietisation is part of Georgia’s efforts to join the European Union, but is Georgian society typically European?

In the Eastern Georgian village of Zemo Alvani stands a pink statute of Joseph Stalin. The local authorities demolished the original monument to Stalin in the summer of 2011 as part of a disagreement with some of the local people. The following year, on December 21st 2012, Stalin's birthday, the villagers erected a new statue back in its place. Within a month of its return, a group of unknown vandals, apparently those who opposed its return, painted Joseph Stalin pink, enraging his admirers.

According to a recent survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, more than a quarter of Georgians still respect Stalin, while 15 per cent are sympathetic towards him. Such positive emotions are significantly lower for the population in neighbouring Armenia, Azerbaijan and even Russia. In all four countries, however, 15-25 per cent of the population would have liked to live and work in a country governed by a person “like Stalin”.

A strong and wise leader

According to the survey, Stalin is widely perceived as a strong and wise leader among the Georgian population, who, despite anything else, won the Great Patriotic War and deserves the credit. Some people also see the repressions that were undertaken during the Stalin regime as necessary. The positive attitudes to Stalin are lower among the younger generation residing in Tbilisi, who have a good knowledge of English and access to the internet, although they are not altogether absent.

Georgian historian Lasha Bakradze explains the positive emotions that Georgians feel towards Stalin as a result of Georgia’s small size. Georgia has never had any influence in global politics or world affairs, so it cannot resist idolising perhaps the only Georgian who did. It is hard not to admire Joseph Jughashvili (his Georgian name); a poor boy from the poor town of Gori who not only ruled the Soviet Empire but also defeated Nazi Germany. For the Georgian nation, which has been a political outsider for most of its long history, the glory of a single Georgian person means the glory of the whole nation, and a success story which appeals to national pride. Georgians have never forgotten that the ousted president, Eduard Shevardnadze, when serving as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, negotiated German unification (and some would even say he single-handedly broke down the Berlin Wall). Georgia’s current Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is another example of a village boy who made it big in Russia.

The Kakheti Information Center, a local media outlet, reported on the reconstruction of the Stalin statue in the village. In the media report, elderly villagers reminisced on how much Stalin did for the region, sending doctors and teachers; and mentioned how little, in comparison, the current government does for them. Another man read out loud from an unnamed book that referred to Stalin as a “saint”. Supporters in the village argue that Stalin’s statute doesn't disturb anyone: “It does not ask for food and drink, does it?”

Georgia’s sympathies to Stalin have strong nationalistic roots and are not related to any sort of nostalgia for Soviet rule, nor do they reveal Georgia’s support for a dictatorship. Paradoxically enough, Georgians also agree that Stalin was a tyrant responsible for countless deaths. However, Georgians generally do prefer wise and strong leadership and this might also be one of the reasons why they automatically perceive Stalin as wise.

The Soviet Union is a controversial era for Georgians, who loath it for suppressing the Georgian nationality, although some still remember that it guaranteed a decent life for many of them, something that independent Georgia is still unable to provide. Soviet history is that of both bloodshed and stability. Even if the Georgian people are gradually outgrowing Soviet nostalgia, Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian, is a different case. The Soviet leader is not a forgotten page of history but a peculiar player in the political and public life of the country – a state which is the most passionate aspirer in the whole of the post-Soviet space to join the European Union and NATO.

No place for Stalin in European Georgia

President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeatedly claimed that Europe is a natural habitat for Georgia and detaching the country from its Soviet past and all of its attributes has become part of state policy of bringing Georgia “back into Europe”. In 2010, when legislative and executive powers were under President Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, the Georgian parliament passed legislative proposals under the name of the “Liberty Charter”, aimed at preventing Soviet propaganda and restricting the publicity of Soviet symbols. A statue of Joseph Stalin in the centre of Gori disappeared over night and the five-pointed stars disappeared from some of the buildings in Tbilisi. In their place, EU flags fly next to national Georgian ones.

Before the Rose Revolution in 2003, which brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power, Georgia’s foreign policy oscillated between Russia and the West. The rather impatient government that followed the Rose Revolution not only shifted its policy totally towards the West. In 2006 the Museum of Occupation was opened in Tbilisi depicting the illicit practices of Soviet rule. Museums under the same name are common in Eastern Europe. Georgia, in its attempts to pursue the same path towards European integration, also tried to copy the how to address the Soviet past (in a similar vein to the approach of the Baltic states – the only other post-Soviet states to join the EU and NATO).

At times, governmental efforts have crossed societal will, in spite of representing it. There has been little public concern about the Soviet symbols and some locals were angered at the removal of Stalin's monument in Gori, although the government did address their concerns very seriously. President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government managed to convince large parts of society that the path to Europe is the right path, with more than half of Georgians supporting Georgia’s integration with the EU and NATO. Georgians generally like and trust the EU. However, the indication of trust of the EU among them is somewhat confusing, with 25 per cent of respondents in a recent survey saying that they don’t know whether they trust the EU or not. Georgia’s efforts to integrate with Europe have not brought tangible results for most of the population, and their understanding of Europe remains blurred. Although associated with a higher standard of living, positive emotions towards Europe are more artificially created rather than substantiated by experience.

The Georgian ruling elite pushed the country into the European Union and the Soviet Union has become its antonym, a shameful and fearsome phenomenon, along with Joseph Stalin – the quintessential Soviet symbol. While the political will of the government was an important breaking point in Georgian-EU relations and helped to intensify relations, the policy was too harsh on a national level and some sectors of the public were unprepared for it. This might have created a certain gap between the elite and society.

New government, new approach

The new government, under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, which is slowly stripping Saakashvili of his powers since winning the parliamentary elections in October 2012, takes a softer attitude towards the Europeanisation of Georgia. Although the policy is generally upheld, there are fewer efforts made to enshrine it into the daily lives of Georgian citizens. The new local authorities in the village of Zemo Alvani, for instance, do not see a problem with keeping the statue of Joseph Stalin, although they deny any official involvement in its reconstruction. Despite being a Soviet symbolic, the law is not harsh enough to directly ban it; thus, pink or not, the monument remains.

Stalin’s bust has also returned to Akura, another village in the neighbouring Telavi municipality. But with respect to the statue of Stalin in Gori, the new minister of culture, Guram Odisharia, mentioned that the local citizens have the right to decide what they want and what they do not want in their cities and villages. But as yet, there are no discussion about the return of the monument to Stalin’s birthplace.

The new government has shown that it is reluctant to irritate the public, being much less firm as opposed to the previous government. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is often accused of promoting Russian interests in Georgia by the opposition of the United National Movement (UNM). The topic of Stalin and the Soviet Union was generally only brought up by the previous government as an example of evil. Now it has an additional flavour, as the topic of the Stalin statues have become a political tool and another reason for the mutual mud-throwing between the former and the new governments.

Nevertheless, Georgians did not start liking Joseph Stalin more after the parliamentary elections, so why now? The change in government has permitted more freedom of opinion on Stalin, and as the policy became softer and the Soviet Union less demonised, people rushed to bring back some of their old habits. The outburst of sympathy towards Joseph Stalin is partly the revenge of Georgian society on Saakashvili's government, which, in its efforts to make Georgia a European democracy, at times bordered on autocracy; and people hit him in the most painful place – attacking his most beloved national project – a European Georgia.

Previous governments never made enough effort to bring content into the policy of de-Sovietisation and Europeanisation – public debates about Georgia’s past and future have never been initiated, research into the Soviet past has never been promoted, and people have never been encouraged to speak openly about their feelings and experiences. The few events held by civil society organisations or projects funded by international donors failed to reach people in great numbers.

A real discussion around the topic of Joseph Stalin could unveil an unpleasant dualism in Georgian society and this might be a necessary step to the final resolution of the conflict. Dualistic emotions about the recent past are a heavy burden on the already crowded history of Georgia, and continue to pop up in modern politics and public life in somewhat surprising ways, yet again becoming a headache for the Georgian government and its citizens.

It’s not only about Stalin and the Soviet Union

In a BBC series, The World’s Most Dangerous Roads – Georgia, two British actors visit the Joseph Stalin Museum in his native town of Gori and are enraged by the way the museum seemed to worship the Soviet leader. Perhaps many Georgians would say that positive attitudes towards Stalin are embarrassing for Georgia, but it is unclear how much of a European democracy Georgia appears to the outside world, praising one of the most vicious political figures in the history of humanity.

And here it becomes understandable why no one likes talking about these issues. Georgia’s prospects of EU integration are vague enough the way it is, and the country cannot afford to show that there is such a high demand for monuments to Stalin around the country. During the different periods in its history, Georgia has been the part of the Persian and Ottoman Empires, the Mongolian and Russian Empires, and the Soviet Union; but Europe has hardly ever been involved.

Thus, saying that Europe is a natural habitat for Georgia and that its people aspire to go “back” to Europe, is only loosely related to the actual course of Georgian history. Georgia has made few efforts to reach out to Europe in times of hardship, and couldn't interest any European empire. In its pursuit of European integration, Georgia has tried to pretend it holds all the values promoted by its western partners, hoping it can easily walk along the road already paved by other Eastern European states, although it doesn't have the same traditions of democratic rule and lifestyle.

Stalin is only one case when Georgians have not opted for the same values upheld by most European democracies. Cases of intolerance towards minorities and sharply nationalistic outbursts are not unknown to Georgian society. The Georgian government have preferred to ignore unpopular popular attitudes towards sexual or religious minorities, refusing to admit they constitute a tendency, rather than single acts. Ignoring the embarrassing flaws has hardly made Georgia a better democratic society.

Nevertheless, European integration might be the best policy option Georgia currently has, and the question of whether Georgia belongs to Europe or not might be solved by political will. Apart from the political and military dimensions, however, Georgia’s prospects of EU integration has a social problem: the Georgian people have failed to become the true driving force of its European integration. It seems that the Georgian government and its citizens spend more time and energy on the debate about monumentalising the legacy of its most famous son, Joseph Stalin.

Ana Dabrundashvili is a researcher with Transparency International Georgia focusing on issues related to media freedom. She is a graduate of international relations from Tallinn University and holds a BA degree in journalism from Tbilisi State University. 

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