How is memory about Stalin kept in contemporary Georgia?
On May 12, 2019, the Joseph Stalin museum hosted a public lecture in his hometown, Gori, dedicated to the “Day of Georgia’s Allotment to the Virgin Mary”, a holiday that the parliament of Georgia minted into the calendar a week prior in special session. Rather than a scene from a postmodern farce or satire, this is Georgian reality. In that reality, memory is bifurcated. As Nutsa Batiashvili has argued, this bifurcation in collective memory presents Georgia as glorious or heroic and wrong or inadequate at the same time. Memory of the legacy of Joseph Stalin in Georgia is no exception to this broader pattern, and the Stalin Museum in Gori is a clear manifestation of this.
The fact that a Georgian became one of the most powerful people in the world awoke national pride in Soviet Georgia. In the peak of his power, in 1937, the house where Stalin was born was turned into a memorial museum. Later, but still during Stalin’s lifetime, next to the memorial house, construction started on a new building, which would become the museum. The building was finished in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death.
Today, the two-floor building is considered a monument of cultural heritage. The museum has kept its Soviet aesthetic. The first thing a visitor sees in the gigantic hall of the building, built in the best practises of Stalinist architecture, is a white statue of Stalin. The size of the hall gives the impression that you are visiting a Soviet bureaucracy with red carpets and old wallpaper. Inside are artefacts related to Stalin’s life, including childhood and family photos, materials from his school days and the revolution, his works and his poems.
As one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century and a leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin is considered a national hero and saviour of the country from Nazism. At the same time, he is perceived as a bloody dictator. A survey that CRRC Georgia conducted in 2012 showed that nearly 45% of Georgians had positive attitudes (respect, sympathy, or admiration) towards Stalin, while 20% reported having negative feelings (antipathy, irritation, fear, disgust, or hatred). The same study showed that while half of Georgians (53%) agree that Stalin was a cruel tyrant, responsible for the deaths of millions, a significantly higher percentage (68%) perceive Stalin as a wise leader who brought power and prosperity to the Soviet Union.
The Stalin Museum, as a storehouse of memory of Stalin, is a vivid manifestation of the bifurcation of memory in Georgia. In it, the official soviet iconography of Stalin and contemporary attempts to show the horrors of Stalin’s rule co-exist in one space. When entering the museum, a wise and powerful portrayal of Stalin in Soviet style greets the entrant. Though, not many things have changed in the permanent exhibitions to reflect recent Georgian history, the museum added two small exhibits dedicated to victims of the Great Purge of the 1930s and the 2008 Russian-Georgian military conflict, during which Gori was largely affected. These small exhibits are meant to emphasize the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s destructive side. However, the image of Stalin overshadows these minor updates.
The subject matter of the museum is sometimes challenging. During field visits within the CHIEF project, one of the museum’s staff noted that visitors are divided in their assessment of Stalin’s legacy and arguments and debates occur regularly among visitors. Guides try to remain neutral to avoid arguments with visitors. However, they find it difficult to talk objectively about Stalin’s deeds in a quasi-temple of the “Father of Nations”.
Today, as a local hero in his hometown, many schools organise field trips to the Stalin Museum. Interviews conducted with school children near the Stalin Museum indicate that young people frequently visit the Museum with their school. These young people noted that they respect Stalin, as he was a strong man and a local, who remains a source of pride in the community.
The notion of Stalin as a sort of local hero is clearly illustrated in a study Alexi Gugushvili and a number of collaborators published in 2016. It shows that there are clear links between people’s attitudes and where they live in Georgia. In settlements around his birthplace and locations in Georgia where he usually spent his holidays attitudes are more positive.
Another 2016 study Peter Kabachnik and colleagues published argues that positive attitudes toward Stalin among young people relates to the process of socialization in schools and families. They argue that “while parents in families cannot be prevented from transmitting positive attitudes toward Stalin to their offspring, schools and universities are public spaces in which positive indoctrination about Stalin can be prevented by way of governmental policy and the crafting of national curricula.
What efforts there have been to erase Stalin from Georgian public life have achieved limited success. A study Carnegie Endowment published in 2013 suggests that the de-Stalinization process in Georgia was superficial and that attitudes toward the leader remained positive. More recently, in 2008, Georgian authorities tried to revise Stalin’s place in the public discourse through removing a bronze statue of Stalin from the central square in Gori. The move angered the Gori public as, the government removed the statue without consulting them. Since 2012, following the loss of power of the government that removed the Gori statue, new Stalin monuments were raised in other villages, towns, and cities.
Politicians and civil society groups have proposed different policies on the Stalin museum since independence. In the book The Stalin Puzzle, Lasha Bakradze, the director of the Georgian State Museum of Literature, together with Maria Lipman and Lev Gudkov, discuss two proposals. In 1995, then Georgian president (and former Communist Party leader), Eduard Shevardnadze proposed transforming the museum into a “centre to study the ‘phenomenon’ of Stalin.” Civil society groups in the mid-2010s advocated for it to be renamed the “Museum of Stalinism”. However, neither of these proposals gained traction.
Efforts to erase Stalin are unlikely to work. Therefore, rather than making Stalin “disappear”, it would likely be more effective to start addressing the issue by providing more information about the consequences of Stalin’s legacy in schools and educational centres. The Stalin museum as an education oriented institution could play a role in this process, given its status as a storehouse of memory about Stalin and his legacy.
Interview by Dustin Gilbreath
By: Dustin Gilbreath
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[Note: Social Science in the Caucasus is publishing the work of six young researchers who entered CRRC-Georgia’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) in February 2015. This is the third blog post in the series. Click here to see the first and second blog posts in the series.]
[Note: Social Science in the Caucasus is publishing the work of six young researchers who entered CRRC-Georgia’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) in February 2015. This is the second blog post in the series. Click here to see the first blog post.]
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