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Georgia’s Long Farewell To Stalin

  • Ghia Nodia

The empty pedestal in Gori where the statue of Josef Stalin once stood.

The empty pedestal in Gori where the statue of Josef Stalin once stood.

On the night of June 25, the monument to Josef Stalin in the city of Gori was removed. It will be moved some 100 meters to the museum that was built around the house where he was born. And on the place in the city’s main square where the statue previously stood, the authorities will erect a memorial to the victims of Russian aggression and Soviet repression.

The symbolism of these actions is completely obvious. On the spot where the dictator and occupier once stood there will be a memorial to his victims – and to the victims of those who continue to follow his line today. But if this is all there is to it, then why has the statue not been taken down earlier? Why was the operation carried out at night amid heightened security?

The symbolism of changing monuments is an important part of any radical political change. In Georgia, this change has been characterized, on one hand, by the rejection of the communist regime and, on the other, by the assertion of its national independence. And the second factor is more important emotionally.

The first victim, more than 20 years ago, was the monument to Sergo Ordzhonikidze, an early Soviet Politburo member and close comrade of Stalin’s who was born in Georgia and played a role in the Sovietization of the country in 1921. For most Georgians, Ordzhonikidze is a traitor who helped the enemy conquer his own homeland.

Soon after, the monuments to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin were swept from their pedestals. This marked the symbolic end of Soviet power.

But Stalin continued to stand in Gori, although his sins against Georgia were certainly no less than Ordzhonikidze’s. Why?

National Pride

The lingering cult of Stalin in Georgia does not symbolize adherence to the communist system but rather national pride. He was the most powerful Georgian in history, the main victor of the main war of the 20th century. The whole world trembled before him, particularly the nation that had ruled Georgia for the previous two centuries. In the absence of Georgian statehood, his power was psychological compensation for the country’s weakness.

The statue was removed in the dead of night.
As paradoxical as it may seem, the history of the mass national-liberation movement in Georgia dates back to March 9, 1956, when the people spontaneously protested against the policy of de-Stalinization that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced at the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress. The demonstration was violently put down, but Stalin – rejected in Russia – became a symbol of the rejection of the official Soviet line. In the late Soviet period, his portrait could be found decorating the shops of Georgian cobblers and barbers; it became the sign of mass dissent.

But as soon as it became possible to be a genuine nationalist – that is, someone devoted to the idea of an independent Georgia – Stalin began to fade as a national symbol. More and more people came to understand that Stalin was a hero of the communist system and of Russian imperialism, not of Georgia.

But symbolic connections are living things. For many people, particularly the older generation, Stalin remained a revered figure. What’s more, when he ceased being a symbol of Georgian nationalism, Stalin became a symbol of local patriotism in Gori. At least, the loyalty of locals to their idol was the main justification for why even the new revolutionary reformist government of President Mikheil Saakashvili declined to touch the statue. What is the point in upsetting people for nothing, they said.

Of course, there was another opinion as well. Some wondered whether Georgia could really become a European democracy while at the same time continuing to glorify Stalin – even if only in one particular city. Could anyone imagine a democratic Germany that was home to even one monument to Adolf Hitler? The monument could not be reconciled with the image of a country that was trying to become part of the democratic West.

But the struggle against stone idols was not a priority for the Saakashvili government. It was too busy arresting corrupt officials and trying to build an army. So local guides on the state payroll continued to explain to astonished Western tourists what a great democrat Stalin was.

Game-Changer

The August 2008 war with Russia changed everything. For the occupying army from the north, the statue of Stalin was a symbol of something important. If the Leader is still standing here, they thought, that means all is not lost. That means Georgia can still be saved from the NATO-Judeo-Masonic disaster. The monument became a sort of fifth column of the enemy.

Despite growing calls to tear it down, the government moved slowly. After all, there were people on the streets calling for Saakashvili’s resignation and the authorities did not want to see them joined by legions from Gori. Then, in late May, there were local elections and the authorities did not want to lose them in this strategically important region. After the ruling party’s convincing victory in those elections, the excuses started to dry up. Summer, the heat, the World Cup…It was time.

And it turned out that the fears were exaggerated. Almost no one protested against the statue’s removal. The opposition didn’t even try to get the people to rise up. Georgia is now without Stalin and all is calm.

So what does this mean?

Two things, at least. First, Saakashvili’s government made what it thought was a risky move. That means it has recovered its self-confidence and, perhaps, is again capable of doing unpopular but necessary things. And second, now that Georgia knows it doesn’t have to love Stalin anymore, maybe it will develop some respect for itself as a state.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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