Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgians Finally Topple Stalin

By Natia Kuprashvili

My only brother is called Koba.

This happens to be one of the nicknames of the Soviet dictator Joseph Djugashvili, better known as Stalin, the most famous son of my home country of Georgia.

People older than me all have something connecting them to Stalin, whether their family was repressed, or they learned about him in school, or they received some kind of award named after him, as most awards in Georgia were.

Although there are very few outspoken supporters of Stalin outside his hometown of Gori, the whole country has always had a difficult relationship with him.

The specific spur for why I wanted to write about him, though, was a meeting with some young Georgians who had not even known that Stalin was from our country. I met them in Gori, just after the war of 2008, when they were demanding the statue of him be removed from the centre of a town still damaged by Russian bombs.

By talking to them it was clear they knew little about the dictator, just believed that “Russia is continuing Stalin’s business”.

The old people in Gori tried to tell them their own views of Stalin. For them, he was a hero, the greatest of Georgians and a true leader. But these young folk, born into a different Georgia, who never wore the uniforms of the Soviet youth groups, did not want to forgive Stalin just because of his nationality.

I admired these young people, particularly because they also protested against the naming of streets in Tbilisi for the allies of today: George Bush, or Azerbaijan’s ex-president Heydar Aliev.

“The existence of such streets here is provincialism. The existence of the monument to Stalin in the centre of Gori is not just provincialism, it’s also a crime,” Tamriko, a 21-year-old, told me.

I knew what she meant. During the war itself, I was not in Gori but in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city. But I regularly spoke to colleagues there and would always ask them if the monument to Stalin was still standing. When they told me it was, I would be swept by a feeling of despair.

Other journalists clearly were also fascinated by the statue, because they would feature it in their reports from the bombed city. While in Kutaisi, I found a statue of Stalin there too, and noticed that no one laid flowers in front of it at any point during the war, as would have been normal at other times. That change in feelings persisted after the war, which seemed to alter the people’s relation to Stalin in an important way.

The monument in Gori was defaced, and the local administration was forced to clean the red paint off it many times. But officials were still clearly nervous of the people’s mood, because they avoided any discussion of the monument’s future, even in the days leading up to its removal.

The authorities secretly drew up their plan to remove it from the centre of Gori, but they lacked the nerve of the young anti-Stalin activists who openly debated with the old men and women on the square by the monument. Eventually, the statue was taken away at night, after the elections, behind a police cordon. Looking at the pictures of this hidden, cowardly action, I was swept by that feeling of despair again.

My mother watched the television news in silence. It was then I asked her for the first time who my brother had been named after.

“No one,” she said. “It is just a name that I liked and I decided to name him that. Sooner or later everything must be called by its own name.”

Natia Kuprashvili is a Georgian journalist.


Link to related story: Georgians Finally Topple Stalin by Natia Kuprashvili, CRS Issue 549, 5 Jul 10.

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