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Mourning Joe

Stalin gets an image makeover in his former home country

It takes about half an hour to drive from the airport to downtown Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. You’ll likely land in the middle of the night—the few regional flights that service the city mysteriously favor 11 p.m. departures—and on the way you’ll pass new condos, the blocky remnants of Stalinist structures, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a rippling Frank Gehry knockoff with a green-glass façade. Like many of the newer police stations around Tbilisi, the ministry is transparent—a bold symbolic gesture meant to signal that the corruption once housed therein is now a thing of the past.

Approaching downtown, you’ll turn onto President George W. Bush Street, so named after the American chief executive who survived an assassination attempt by grenade during a 2005 visit. Reagan, W., and the Republican Cold Warriors are held in high regard here. After all, they were the only thing standing between the tiny country’s autonomy and Russian invasion. I arrived in Tbilisi the day after Mike Pence showed up to reassure Georgia about U.S. commitment to its joining NATO, but people were still uneasy about his boss’s recent comments indicating otherwise. Turning onto a derelict road off George W. Bush, the cab driver remarked that they would soon be naming it “Trump Street.”

Unless there’s a war, what happens in Georgia doesn’t tend to make international news. And while the country has produced many notable exports over the centuries—orange wines; polyphonic singing; a renowned, cheese-heavy food culture—it still tends to be associated with its most famous son, the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin. In many ways, Stalin is key to understanding the country’s political climate. He was born in 1878 in the eastern city of Gori and lived in Georgia until he was in his late twenties, when revolutionary obligations drove him abroad. Stalin remained in and around Moscow until his death in 1953, and for about eight years his remains were interred alongside Lenin’s.

After Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous denunciation of Stalin’s brutal legacy in 1956, Stalin was banished to the outer reaches of the Soviet pantheon. But in recent years, Stalin’s image has undergone a striking makeover. Polls show that because of his leadership in the Great Patriotic War, Russians increasingly consider him to be the “most outstanding” figure in world history. Putin has defended the dictator’s legacy as a way of justifying his own strongman excesses; and in Red Square, Stalin impersonators wander around inviting young children to sit on their laps.

But Georgians have a more complicated relationship with the former Iosif Dzhugashvili. Apart from an outdoor flea market on the Tbilisi Dry Bridge, where Soviet wares and Stalin busts are sold for a song, the dictator’s image is a rare sight in his homeland. Under the EU-friendly government of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, Stalin-era streets were renamed, Soviet monuments were removed, and the Georgian National Museum added a permanent exhibition about the Soviet occupation (which, curiously, barely mentions Stalin). On Rustavelli Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, the former Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin is now an Emirati-owned Biltmore Hotel. Asking a young Tbilisian today about Stalin is akin to asking a Brooklynite about Trump. When I did so anyway, several lamented that the national media make it seem as if Stalin is more popular than they believe he actually is. “Individually, you’ll find people all over Georgia who like him, but mostly they’re over forty,” a hipster bartender told me. “Or rebellious teenagers.”

Local Boy Breaks Bad

One reason that the Stalin Question remains so fraught here is that it doubles as a way of gauging the citizenry’s feelings about Russia—a singularly fraught topic in today’s Georgia. The country gained its independence just before the USSR collapsed in 1991, and the opposing forces of Moscow and Brussels have been buffeting it ever since. In 2003, Saakashvili, a sworn enemy of Putin, won the presidency and peacefully ousted his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, by storming the parliament with rose-bearing protesters. Backed by the American government, Saakashvili implemented a host of reforms focused on cleaning up corruption—hence the transparent police stations—and his approval ratings climbed alongside Georgia’s ranking in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” index.

Saakashvili’s presidency came to an end in 2013, after his party lost seats in a parliamentary election, and after the public was shocked by the release of brutal prison rape videos filmed during his tenure. The scandal exacerbated a national mood that had already turned against his increasingly autocratic government, and shortly after losing, Saakashvili decamped to Williamsburg, where, per a New York Times style piece, he luxuriated “in the neighborhood’s time-honored tradition of mysteriously sourced wealth.” The country’s subsequent most high-profile politician, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is, like many Putin-aligned Russian oligarchs, something of a minor-league Bond villain: an eccentric billionaire who keeps his home stocked with penguins and zebras. Many observers of Georgian politics believe that he received an assist from Putin in the sudden appearance of the tapes.

As it happens, at the same time that Saakashvili was fleeing Georgia in anticipation of criminal charges, the Carnegie Endowment released a study documenting the citizenry’s robust support for Stalin. Carnegie researchers found that 45 percent of all Georgians had positive feelings about Stalin, with 68 percent of respondents describing him as a “wise leader.” The grand dream of a de-Sovietized and de-Stalinized Georgia under Saakashvili clearly had not come to pass. “Post-Soviet citizens are confused,” the authors announced.

The centerpiece of the Gori museum is the tiny, one-room shack where Stalin was born.

Still, the good thing about confusion is that it’s a fluid state. In the absence of a shared consensus on the Stalinist legacy in Georgia, the Carnegie researchers argued that Stalin’s resurgent vogue stemmed from “feelings of dependency [more] than genuine support for a dictatorial government.” In Georgia, it seems that Stalin is seen primarily as a national icon, a local boy made good, rather than as a model leader. “Whereas in Russia,” the report says, “Stalin is a symbol of order and autocracy, in Georgia, he is regarded more as a rebel, who came from a colonized nation, fought against the existing order, and broke the rules by rising to the top of a system led by Russians.” Recent history, in other words, is still very much up for grabs, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Gori, home of the Joseph Stalin Museum.

True Believers

The Stalin Museum is a little less than an hour’s drive from Tbilisi. To get there, you must travel on the main economic artery of the country—the highway that connects eastern and western Georgia, which, when completed, will form part of the “New Silk Road,” linking the westernmost tip of France to the eastern edge of China. Between Tbilisi and Gori the East-West highway runs along the border of South Ossetia, a rural breakaway region that has been occupied by Russia since the five-day war in 2008. The region’s population was formerly around seventy thousand, but the area near the border has been mostly depopulated—now it houses thousands of Russian soldiers, together with a dwindling number of elderly Ossetians. At the point nearest Georgia, the border fence is about a hundred yards from the highway, marked by hyperbolic signage in both English and a local dialect about the dangers of crossing. If, one day, the Russians decided to march five minutes south and annex part of the highway, the maneuver would paralyze Georgia and force it back into Moscow’s orbit. So far, nothing so dramatic has happened, but every week the border seems to creep closer and closer.

Georgians are largely in favor of the EU and NATO, but a growing contingent of conservative nationalists there believe that Russia should have continued to Tbilisi after invading that long August weekend in 2008. The main rationale is religion. The nations are “brothers in faith,” a young Georgian told me, explaining that the vast majority of his countrymen are Georgian Orthodox, a sect similar to Russian Orthodoxy. This affinity is of particular interest to the Kremlin, which has donated millions to the Georgian church since the early nineties. Perhaps as a result, “people are much more demonstrably pious than they were ten years ago,” Georgia specialist Mark Mullen told me. Meanwhile, as Putin and Ivanishvili continue to fill church coffers, Georgian Orthodox leaders have participated in vitriolic protests against the LGBTQ community and appeared with some regularity in the news over corruption scandals. (I was told to take note of priests’ luxury cars and watches.) If one were to illustrate Georgia’s political demographics with a Venn diagram, the far right would generally overlap with the most fervently religious part of the population.

While Georgia’s extreme right is relatively small, it creates an outsized imprint on national life—much like its U.S. counterpart. Last July, a nationalist, anti-immigration march drew around two thousand people to downtown Tbilisi. Its organizers included the former deputy minister of diaspora issues and an aging singer who threatened opponents of the march with gang rape. And in another affinity shared with nativists in the West, Islamophobia has proven a potent rallying cry for Georgia’s true-believing far right. Nationalists have agitated against “Muslim immigrants” arriving from neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan, and the steady uptick in tourism from the Middle East. In recent years, these reactionary factions have found themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with the old pro-Stalin nationalists. There continue to be official celebrations every year in Gori to commemorate the USSR’s victory in the Second World War. And several years ago, a book launch for the Georgian translation of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin was interrupted by protesters objecting to the titular comparison. About two dozen people walked out, and an array of YouTube videos showed Georgian protesters burning the book—a direct if perhaps unwitting homage to Stalin’s legacy.


Lindsay Ballant

Squeak, Memory

On a sweltering day in August, my travel companions and I left Tbilisi and headed to Gori to look around. Apart from the heat, August is a month when locals are especially edgy: many believe Russians are more likely to invade when diplomats and international aid workers are on vacation. Of course, not everybody lives in fear of this possibility. Our driver, Vitaly, was a barrel-shaped man in his mid-fifties who bore a strong resemblance to Tony Soprano and suffered an acute case of Soviet nostalgia. He referred to Stalin and Lenin as “Mr. Stalin” and “Mr. Lenin” and complained that the end of full employment had produced more unemployed engineers than available construction workers. At one point, he gestured toward a dilapidated Soviet supermarket, remarking that it was a relic “from better times.”

You might say the same about Gori. The town had been a major industrial center during the Soviet era, but its main attractions are now the museum and the central square, which used to feature a bronze statue of Stalin. In 2010, the square became a flashpoint when officials removed the statue—an operation carried out in the middle of the night to avoid enraging locals. When pro-Soviet locals got wind of the plan, protesters immediately launched a campaign to restore the statue. Things remained in limbo until 2014, when under the more Russia-friendly government, Stalin’s likeness assumed a place of pride in his museum.

Even so, the act of commemorating Stalin is itself a divisive political statement. The display of Soviet iconography is illegal in Georgia; Gori, which defiantly resisted Saakashvili-era reforms, is the chief outlier to the official ban. During Saakashvili’s tenure, plans were announced to transform the Stalin Museum into a museum of Soviet crimes, but when Saakashvili was ousted, that idea went along with him.¹ As a result, the museum remains a kind of aging temple to the dictator, a place that would be dull if it weren’t for the sheer perversity of the notion that Stalin’s legacy could be smoothed over into a curated study in Soviet national greatness. According to some estimates, more than fifty thousand foreign tourists visit each year—the equivalent of Gori’s population. One wonders about the extent to which they’re willing to accept a narrative that conveniently whitewashes the gulags and omits the Katyn massacre, ethnic cleansings, the suicides of Stalin’s second wife and son, the defection of his daughter to the United States, and the state-orchestrated killing of some twenty million people under his rule.

The sense of profound social amnesia attached to the museum may grow in part out of its own twisted history. It opened in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, and one year after Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Party Congress calling for de-Stalinization across the Soviet Union. Though Georgia suffered significantly under Stalin—more than thirty thousand citizens, including almost all the country’s intellectuals, were killed—the full breadth of Stalin’s crimes had yet to be revealed. As a result, news of the Khrushchev speech came as a crushing blow to Georgian national pride. (Not least because Khrushchev had previously taken a few swings at Stalin’s Georgian accent.) Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tbilisi for nearly a week, demanding that Khrushchev resign and that Stalin’s birthday become a national holiday. Perversely, the memory of these nationalist marches helped inspire the generation of activists who would later fight for Georgian independence from the USSR. In the short term, though, they resulted in the first iteration of the Gori museum, which Khrushchev granted as a concession to Georgian nationalists.

Strongman Kitsch

The centerpiece of the Gori museum is the tiny, one-room shack where Stalin was born. In the first of many eloquent contrasts that suffuse the museum, the house is set inside a knock-off Parthenon with a yellowing stained-glass ceiling. As I circled the structure, a quartet of Spanish tourists sat on the front steps flashing peace signs and taking photos of one another.

Another contrast emerges as you pan back a bit: the house is located in a courtyard at the end of Stalin Boulevard, the only grand imperial avenue in Gori. Stalin’s personal train is parked behind the house (he hated to fly), and next to that is the two-story museum. As you enter, the interior is bisected by a red velvet staircase leading up to the main exhibition halls. Here the sense of inapposite commemorative display descends into kitsch: a statue of the dictator overlooks the ground-floor gift shop, where Stalin-themed T-shirts and magnets are available for purchase. As I surveyed a series of plates stamped with the image of a disarmingly attractive young Stalin, a woman in a burqa had her photo taken with the statue of the Soviet tyrant.

The collection proper features artifacts from Stalin’s various careers as a Romantic poet, seminarian, bank robber, Marxist revolutionary, and (eventually) head of the USSR. Everything is in Georgian and Russian. Alongside tapestries and naïve Socialist Realism paintings of Stalin—shown by himself, in consultation with Lenin, and with giddy blond Soviet children crawling all over him—are reproductions of his early party pamphlets, dioramas of his underground publishing lair, a life-size facsimile of his office, and, in an especially creepy room, his death mask. There are also maps detailing his seven trips to, and six escapes from, Siberian prison camps. During one of these escapes, our guide told us solemnly, Stalin found himself three days from civilization, traveling with two fellow prisoners who planned to eat him. Anticipating their plans, the future great leader overpowered the duo and ate them instead.

Devil Went Down from Georgia

Clearly, facts are not high on the Stalin museum’s list of priorities. Visitors are fed apocryphal accounts of Stalin’s early career as a resourceful cannibal, yet hear nothing about the millions who died during his regime. Instead there remains, preserved in amber, an array of propagandistic talking points about the country’s amazing productivity during collectivization and its wartime success under his leadership. (To the extent that such numbers can be credited, the per capita increases in worker output likely had a good deal to do with the slaughter of underperforming, dissenting, or injured workers.)

There are black-and-white photos of Stalin with party leaders, but no mention of how key party members were strategically airbrushed out of the official Soviet photographic record once Stalin had them killed. The story of how Stalin refused to exchange a Nazi field marshal for his son—an artillery commander captured by the SS who later died in a German POW camp—is recalled here as an example of the dictator’s loyalty to the Russian military. Among other virtues loosely attributed to the Great Leader: he was a prolific reader and annotated more than ten thousand books; he owned only three suits, having no time for indulgences such as fashion; and he single-handedly rewrote the music and lyrics to the Soviet national anthem, the basis for Russia’s current national anthem. Among his foibles: he was vain about having a deformed hand, and he gravely disappointed his mother by never becoming a priest.

The question of how Stalin felt about his fellow Georgians had always been quite sensitive, and Georgians remain divided on it today. “It’s complicated,” our guide told us, before theorizing that Stalin’s abusive father may have contributed to the future dictator’s violent tendencies. Sergo Beria offers a slightly different theory in Beria, My Father: Inside Stalin’s Kremlin, his 2001 memoir about living with his dad, who’d served as the head of Stalin’s secret police. Beria recounts that his father “would often say that Stalin must have Persian blood [because his] perfidy was not Georgian.” As for Stalin’s view of his Georgian heritage, the younger Beria notes that Stalin’s children did not speak any Georgian, were not introduced to their grandmother for more than a decade, though they regularly vacationed in Georgia. He also relates how Stalin once forbade a researcher from publishing evidence that Peter the Great’s father was a Georgian king, and even ordered Lavrentiy Beria to confiscate the archives documenting the claim.

But perhaps the most insightful first-hand observation comes from Beria’s mother, who once publicly scolded Stalin after he failed to defend her honor at a cocktail party. She said of him, “he will be even more pitiless towards the Georgians than towards other peoples, because he is furious that his own people should oppose his policy. Resistance would irritate him less when it came from Russians.” History suggests that Beria’s mother was on to something. In 1922, during the so-called Georgian Affair, Stalin broke with Lenin by ordering Russian troops to invade his homeland and crush a scattering of popular uprisings. The incident led to a permanent rift between Stalin and Lenin, who accused him of propagating Russian chauvinism and grew increasingly appalled at his hardline determination to demolish the autonomy of the republics. Lenin died before he could remove Stalin as Secretary General, and Uncle Joe assumed power soon after.

Museum Piece

It takes about ninety minutes to go through the Stalin Museum, and another several hours to rid yourself of the sense of complicity that follows from having gone in the first place. The museum is considered an embarrassment among the nation’s intellectuals and political elite—a kind of convalescent home for intransigent elderly nationalists. And yet it continues to operate, and occasionally bursts into the news as a flashpoint for political battles.

The biggest threat to this quasi-parodic version of Soviet history is the remorseless passage of time itself. Attitudes toward the Stalinist past have changed over the decades, and the Georgian population is less inclined to embrace a strongman. This sense of resistance comes across most vividly in the shambolic condition of the museum’s display spaces. The red velvet carpets are getting a little ratty, and the giant murals of workers standing triumphantly by wheat harvests are starting to fray around the edges.

The biggest threat to this quasi-parodic version of Soviet history is the remorseless passage of time itself.

But the present political moment also finds many Georgians succumbing to a mood of weary resignation in the face of Russian designs. Georgia is tiny, with only around four million people—what could they do against an international superpower?

You hear the same fatalist refrain in other former Soviet republics. It’s especially strong in the Baltics, where countries fastidiously pay their NATO dues on time and tiny infantry units train in the forests in case the Russian planes that buzz overhead from time to time ever get a little too close. Georgia has no such luxuries—only what had been a long tradition of American support to rely on. And now, with a Russia-appeasing Trump regime in power, Georgian leaders can’t take that for granted, either. With Georgia and the other former republics emerging haltingly out of a long history of colonial rule, it makes some dismal sense that some may return, in desperation, to Stalin and Putin. As the notion of an independent future grows precarious, eager demagogues can step into the breach—and make both strongmen seem like rule-breaking rebels attuned to the exasperating, perennially back-switching course of history.