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Georgians' War Anger Vented at Stalin Monument

But reluctance to remove figure from town damaged in August war reflects nation’s ambivalence towards dictator.
By Natia Kuprashvili
A wave of protest driven by anger over last August's war is threatening to sweep away the monument to Stalin that marks his birthplace in the Georgian town of Gori.



The local administration has already had to clean red paint from the fifteen-metre monument several times this summer, and protesting students pledge they will not rest until it is gone.



They say Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and prime minister, Vladimir Putin, are the heirs of Stalin, who led the Soviet Union to victory over Germany but also presided over millions of deaths in the terror of the 1930s and 1940s.



Gori, where Stalin – real name Joseph Jugashvili – was born in 1879, suffered more than any other Georgian-controlled city in the war with Russia last August. A bomb even landed on the central square, killing several local residents and a Dutch cameraman, but did not harm the monument.



“I think that Putin and Medvedev, who bombed Gori last year, are the political successors of Stalin. Therefore this monument should not stand here. Let them take it to a museum, since it is part of our history, although a shameful part,” said Dato, a 21-year-old student.



“On this place should be a monument to the Georgian heroes who died in last year's war.”



Dato, who was holding a sign stating “A monument to Stalin in Gori is like a monument to Hitler in Jerusalem”, was part of a group of activists who have erected an improvised wall around the base of the statue. Hand-written signs on the wall say “The removal of the statue is a new step to freedom”, “Take away Stalin” and “Take this national shame from the centre of Gori”.



But they are not the only protesters on the square. A group of activists from the Georgian Communist Party regularly accompanies Dato and his friends. They represent Georgia's split opinion over its most famous son, since they are ardently opposed to Stalin's statue being removed from where it has stood since 1952.



“Stalin was a genius. He defeated the greatest enemy, which was fascism. Sadly, our youth knows only a little history, therefore from the beginning of the next academic year we are planning a series of public lectures on Stalin,” said Jemal Nikabadze, a representative of the party.



Opinion polls show a majority of Georgians – between 60 and 70 per cent – are in favour of removing the statue, but a significant minority opposes it. Gia Nodia, a former education minister and a philosopher, said Georgian society was still torn over what to think about the dictator.



“In short, the monument to Stalin in the centre of Gori… is a sign of national schizophrenia. If we preserve it, then we need to set up a proper dictatorship and stop bleating about how there aren't enough political television shows criticising the government,” he wrote in a recent blog entry.



“And why do we complain about Russia, which is continuing Stalin's business better than anyone?”



Students and staff at Gori University appealed to the local government to conduct a mini-referendum on the future of the statue, but officials said they were not currently intending to discuss its fate.



Zaza Tsotniashvili, the rector of the university, said he was regularly asked by foreign visitors about the statue.



“We have to explain to our guests that Stalin for us is just a part of our history, and not an object of admiration, but many people struggle to understand this,” he said.



The windows of the local administration look down onto the central square and its giant occupant, but a spokesman declined to answer whether the administration was embarrassed by Stalin's presence on the Central Square – a position that Nodia called “political expediency”, driven by the fear of losing support from those Georgians who still admire Stalin. He said the opposition parties had declined to join the campaign against the statue for the same reason.



But the communists do not agree. They say the government is being lax in its duty to protect the monument.



“If the officials respected Stalin, then those who throw red paint at the monument would have been detained long ago,” said Nikabadze.



Dato said he would welcome arrest for his actions, however.



“I don't understand why they are not taking this away. The statue to David the Builder, the most successful ruler in the history of Georgia, was taken from the centre of Tbilisi, and they did not ask anyone's opinion, so why are they scared to disturb Stalin,” he asked.



“But a new academic year has started, the students have returned and now you will see how many of us there are! We will take Stalin away from here whatever happens!”



Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.