During the brief war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, one of the earliest targets was Gori, a nondescript industrial town near the border of South Ossetia, one of the two separatist provinces over which the conflict was fought. Russian jets bombed the city, hitting apartment buildings and a school. A missile thudded onto the grounds of the city’s hospital; cluster bombs exploded in the square. According to the Georgian government, at least 60 people died.
It was curious, therefore, that two local landmarks escaped the bombardment entirely. Gori’s singular claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of one Iosef Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. During the height of the Russian attack, both J. Stalin’s State Museum and a 20-foot-high bronze statue of the Soviet leader, which gazed impassively over Gori’s central square, were left unscathed. To the town’s residents, this was evidence of Russia’s abiding reverence for the former Soviet dictator.
Although the war ended more than two years ago, resentments between Russia and Georgia still run high. And, while Georgia lacks the military strength to regain its lost territories, it has other means of pushing back against its powerful northern neighbor, many of them related to Stalin.
In May, I visited the Stalin museum on a trip sponsored by the Georgian government. The museum’s website describes Stalin as an “outstanding person.” Inside the colonnaded marble building, which was built in 1957, is a shrine to one of the twentieth century’s most prolific murderers. Mawkishly heroic portraits in the socialist realist style line the high walls. One shows Stalin standing with an arm placed awkwardly around the shoulder of his smiling daughter, Svetlana, who defected to the United States in 1967—a fact the museum neglects to note. The sparse, tiny cottage where Stalin grew up has been relocated to the grounds, as has the green, armor-plated personal train carriage, in which Stalin, who had a fear of flying, rode to the Potsdam, Tehran, and Yalta conferences. An eerie, darkly lit chamber contains his death mask, while the lobby gift shop offers an array of kitschy Stalinalia: paperweights, mugs, and ash trays. My tour guide, a young woman with jet-black hair, led me unenthusiastically from one painting to the next, reciting rote phrases about the great leader’s accomplishments. There is no reference in the entire museum to the more than 20 million people who died under Stalin’s rule, and so I asked her about the Great Purge of 1937-1938, when hundreds of thousands of peasants, officials, intellectuals, artists, and other “counterrevolutionaries” were executed or dispatched to the gulags. “There were a lot of people killed and shot,” she ventured.
The museum, however, is about to get a radical makeover. According to Culture Minister Nikoloz Rurua, whose department pays for its upkeep, the renovated version will no longer glorify Stalin but will instead be “a museum about a museum.” He explained, “We are preserving the propaganda part of the original museum, but we are bringing in some of the real information about Stalinism and the Bolshevik regime.”
During his lifetime, Stalin was never really clear as to how he felt about the country of his birth. In public, he styled himself as a Russian leader, dismissing Georgia as “that small area of Russia.” Yet, in private, he “talked Georgian, ate Georgian, sang Georgian, [and] personally ruled Georgia through the local bosses,” writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of two acclaimed biographies about the Soviet leader, in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. His homeland did not benefit from his interest. As a young Bolshevik leader in Moscow, Stalin engineered the Red Army’s 1921 invasion of Georgia, which led to a brutal 70-year occupation. “[The Bolsheviks] exterminated the crème de la crème of this country,” says Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. According to Montefiore, Georgia suffered more from the purges on a per capita basis than any other Soviet republic.
Yet, by the time Stalin died in 1953, he had become an improbable emblem of Georgian pride. For all his crimes, he was by far the most important person to emerge from this tiny country in the Caucasus mountain range. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev gave his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” and launching the era of de-Stalinization. Georgians took it personally. Two weeks later, thousands gathered in Tbilisi to commemorate the third anniversary of Stalin’s death. Soviet troops fired on the demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. Ronald Suny, a historian of the Caucasus at the University of Michigan, has written that the demonstrations were “the first open expression of Georgian nationalism in forty years.” Georgians had grown to revere Stalin as the man who had defeated fascism in World War II. For years, residents of Gori gathered at the museum to commemorate his birth and death.
More recently, however, as Georgia has sought to place Stalin in his proper historical context, Russia has been busy rehabilitating him. In a quasi-reversal of Khrushchev’s secret speech, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, during a national TV appearance in December, that it is “impossible to make a judgment in general” about Stalin. As president, Putin called the downfall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century and pushed for Russian school textbooks to portray Stalin in a more positive light. (A manual issued to teachers states that Stalin behaved “entirely rationally ... as a consistent supporter of reshaping the country into an industrialized state.”) At one of Putin’s first meetings with Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was elected in 2004 following the Rose Revolution that forced former Soviet bureaucrat Eduard Shevardnadze from power, the Russian leader reportedly said, “Thanks for giving us Stalin.”
The Kremlin’s readoption of Stalin has only given Georgia’s Westward-looking leaders even greater incentive to reject him. “In the new Georgia, Stalin is no longer Georgian,” Montefiore says. “He’s a Russian emperor.” In 2006, Saakashvili opened the Museum of Soviet Occupation across the street from the parliament in Tbilisi. Putin was said to have been so incensed that he complained about it to Saakashvili in a face-to-face meeting. Acknowledging that Stalin and his ruthless secret police chief Lavrenti Beria were of Georgian stock, Saakashvili reportedly replied that Putin could build a museum of Georgian oppression in Moscow and that he would donate the funds for it.
Late one night in June, a group of workers began to wrap cables around the Stalin statue in Gori. A police cordon encircled the monument, in order to keep away anyone who might object to what was about to happen. Soon enough, a small crowd gathered and watched as the workers hoisted the statue from its pedestal with a crane, laid it onto a flatbed truck, and drove away. Two days later, government authorities pulled off a similar nocturnal sacking of another Stalin monument, this time in the western town of Tkibuli.
This wasn’t, to be sure, quite as dramatic as the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad. The Georgian government had acted under the cover of darkness for fear of reprisal, perhaps either from Gori’s older residents or from locals who make money from the steady trickle of tourists curious about the dictator’s hometown. But no backlash came. David Bakradze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament and a close Saakashvili ally, says that the removal of the statue was a small act but, nonetheless, an important expression of Georgian principles. “If one thinks of the modern values of Georgia and where Georgia will be tomorrow, Stalin’s statue will not be a part of Georgia’s future.”
The spot in the town square where Stalin stood for 58 years will not be left vacant. In its place will stand, according to Rurua, the culture minister, a new monument “to the victims of this person [Stalin], of the totalitarian regime, and of the August war.” As for the statue itself, the government did not destroy it. It will be moved to the courtyard of the revamped museum, to join Stalin’s train car and childhood cottage, historical artifacts at last.
James Kirchick is a writer at large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the September 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.