Sixty Years After His Death, Stalin Still A National Hero To Some In Georgia

A visit to the dictator's birthplace in the former Soviet republic of Georgia where a complicated relationship with the notorious native son plays into current tensions with Russia.

Mosaic in Gori's Stalin Museum
Mosaic in Gori's Stalin Museum
Alan Posener

GORI - Sixty years ago, on March 5, 1953, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died. But in the city of his birth, Gori in Georgia, time seems to have stood still.

“They” (the unpopular regime of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili) may have taken the sleepy provincial city’s big, grey statue of Stalin down, but there’s still the grand boulevard known as Stalin Prospect where a small marble Egyptian-style temple has been built to enclose the modest house where Stalin was born. Behind the temple is a Venetian-style palace with a tower that houses the Stalin Museum.

Inside, grand marble steps lead up to exhibition rooms where photos of Stalin’s life are on display – not photos of the Communist revolutionary’s real, blood-drenched life, but the textbook stuff: Stalin with this and that committee, Stalin with Lenin, Stalin in the Council of People’s Commissars, and so on.

The photos are retouched, and no effort has been made to fill in the empty spaces left by the people who’ve been blanked out of the images. At the end of the exhibition one reaches a round, black-velvet-hung meditation space where Stalin’s death mask lies lit in red.

The museum not only glorifies Stalin, it celebrates the insanity of Stalinist bureaucracy. One buys an entry ticket downstairs – next to the museum shop that sells “gold” busts of the man in several sizes, Stalin mugs, Stalin key rings. But it’s only after one gets upstairs that an attendant stamps the ticket. Next to her is another attendant whose job it is to tear up the ticket.

I am led through the rooms by a young museum guide who can’t be much older than this Post-Soviet republic in the Caucasus which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The guide uses a pointer to single out this or that long-forgotten revolutionary in the photos. Nowhere is there any criticism of Stalin. The only naysayer in the lot is Trotsky. The guide points her stick at a small image of him and says: "His real name was Lev Bronstein. He was a Jew."

In this marble-floored museum, it’s as cold as a morgue, so it’s a relief to get outside into a mild early spring sun. In the rose garden, Stalin’s armored railway car is on display: inside, Stalin’s desk, Stalin’s bed, Stalin’s toilet.

Gori’s railroad station dates back to the dictator’s day, and the first-class waiting room (which is kept locked, but you can look in through the glass door) resembles a little Gothic chapel, only instead of an altar in the middle there’s a larger-than-life white marble statue of Stalin.

Sixty-three kilometers separate Gori from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, where I visited the National Museum of Georgia for further elucidation on the country’s attitude toward its notorious native son. The museum’s permanent exhibition entitled "The Occupation 1920-1991" is less of an exhibition than a propaganda show reminiscent of the best Communist style.

The dimly lit exhibition space is oppressive, featuring one list of executed regime opponents and patriots, after another. Screens show the Red Army marching into Georgia, show trials, firing squads. The exhibition’s high point is a reconstructed execution cell.

The message here is that Georgians are an oppressed people – oppressed by Russia. That may be part of the truth, but it’s certainly not the whole truth since Stalin himself and many of his henchmen, like chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus Lavrentiy Beria and Sergo Orjonikidze who established the Socialist Republic of Georgia, were Georgian. By some estimates 70% of Georgians joined the party. The Soviet Union made Georgia its prize vacation spot and Tbilisi into a model socialist city. But none of that comes through in this self-serving narrative of victimhood.

How do Georgians deal with the cognitive dissonance of – on the one hand – glorifying Stalin, and on the other despising the Soviet occupation? I met with publicist Nestan "Neka" Charkviani, also a Stalin-era historian, and asked her to explain these contradictions in the Georgian mentality to me. Charkviani is better qualified than virtually anybody else to tell the story: her grandfather Candide Charkviani is considered to be the man who “discovered” Stalin. A politician, he was also a writer and journalist who “liked the way Stalin wrote,” she explains. Later, Stalin protected his early supporter from Beria's bloodlust.

When the dictator was older, he invited Candide Charkviani and some other friends from the days of his youth to his Georgian vacation home by the sea. In his unpublished memoirs, which Neka Charkviani intends to publish, her grandfather records that Stalin spoke openly about people who had been unjustly killed at his orders. He spoke "with the quiet distance of an historian, without grief or anger,” indeed “even with a certain humor.”

The only time during this occasion that the dictator got angry was at the sight of a pack of cigarettes with a lightly-clad woman in a come-hither pose printed on it. "What decent woman would pose that way?" he fulminated while Charkviani and the others promised to have different cigarette packs designed at once.

According to Neka Charkviani, Georgians don’t see Stalin as a representative of an oppressive system, but rather in the light of "the national inferiority complex" with regard to Russia. "This is a small country of less than six million inhabitants and here was this little man, one of them, who became the head of the whole empire."

Officially, the government condemns the restoration of Stalin monuments and the continuation of the cult of Stalin -- but since these things also serve the cult of Georgia and anti-Russian sentiment, the opposing energies cancel each out.

"When party head Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 as a brutal despot there was a big anti- Khrushchev demonstration in Tbilisi," Charkviani recalls. "People said: This Russian is attacking Stalin because he’s Georgian."

But then, lowering her voice, she notes that there were also other people who said: "But look what he did to them. It serves them right."

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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