GORI, Georgia -- Residents of the hometown of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin are divided over the controversial removal of his statue from the city's main square, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reports.
The 6-meter bronze statue was removed after midnight on June 25 using a large crane. The statue was one of the few remaining public statues in former Soviet republics of Stalin, who was born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori in 1878.
Culture Minister Nikoloz Rurua told RFE/RL that Georgia should not celebrate Soviet dictators who victimized the Georgian people.
"If we really want to be an independent, modern, and free nation, such ugly idols have no place in free Georgia," he said.
But the city of Gori has a love-hate relationship with the former dictator, who died in Moscow in 1953. Crowds of university students protested the statue's presence in Gori last year. But elderly demonstrators counterprotested in support of Stalin.
One woman mourned the loss of the monument, telling RFE/RL, "The whole world respects him. What did [the government] have against him?"
But other Gori residents didn't understand how the monument had stood for so long.
"He was a leftover of communism and dictatorship," said one man. "In addition, Stalin was the man who destroyed Georgia, causing it to lose large parts of its territory."
Fearing angry protests by Stalin-admirers, the police blocked off the square and prevented most journalists from filming the event. Some journalists reported being beaten by plainclothes policemen when they tried to film the statue's removal.
Lado Bichashvili, newsroom director at TV station Trialeti, told RFE/RL "their aim was not to hurt us badly. They were just hitting us in such a way that we would fall down and then they would take away our cameras. There were eight of them and they managed to take the camera from me and my cameraman."
Regional administrator Shida Karli Vardzelashvili told RFE/RL that the statue will be transferred to the Stalin Museum that is near Gori's main square. Vardzelashvili said several people gathered and applauded as the monument was taken down.
The city plans to construct a monument to the Gori residents who were killed on August 11, 2008, when the Georgian government says a Russian cluster bomb exploded in a residential area during the Russian-Georgian war in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The Russian government denies the report.