One cannot travel to Georgia without encountering evidence of a still present Stalin worship among some Georgians. Perhaps one shouldn’t write texts about Georgia without at least cautiously touching on this subject. The following statements represent my attempt to do so. I would not have dared to write about this issue without the reflections of others, quoted below.
The article series "Georgian Perspectives" provides insights and analyses of contemporary Georgian social life from a geographical viewpoint. This means that all articles examine the social space and the practices taking place within it. This includes both the built space and the non-built space and all communications about places and spaces. It is important to underline that the insights given here must always include views from the outside, as the author is neither a native speaker nor permanently living in Georgia.
„So I, for myself, I must point out that Georgia, just like Russia, does not need such heroes. But the people here, the citizens, are not so well informed about Stalin’s role, not even about his role in the Soviet Union. Besides, there is also this quite primitively understood patriotism. And that is perhaps the trauma for Georgia. Russians colonized us. And then, so to speak, a Georgian managed to get to the top of this Russian empire, under the communist rule of the Soviet Union. And that was a kind of revenge on Russia. This is, of course, a very rudimentary understanding of history. But I think that also plays a role.“Dr Lasha Bakradze, Ilia State University, Museum of Literature Tbilisi, quoted after Constanze John (2018). 40 Days in Georgia, p. 104.
In Stalin’s birth town Gori this worship is present in the Stalin-museum. And, if there were not so many tourists from all over the world who travel to Gori precisely because of this museum, there would probably be little reason to visit the city.
It is quite evident that for many Georgians, the perspective that a German ideally has on dealing with mass murderers of world history does not work.
One must of course immediately add that in Germany too many people are, as we say here, ‚blind on the right eye‘. The fight against nationalist and right-wing movements is a never-ending challenge for democratic societies.
However, a Hitler museum in Germany is just as unthinkable as statues of Hitler in public or private spaces. A Stalin-museum, then – this does remain a mystery to many foreigners.
‚That wouldn’t be possible in our country!‘ – If you are satisfied with this statement, you are again taking it too easy because a comparison of this kind is only coherent at first glance. It ignores the fact that the Second World War started in Hitler’s Germany. It also overlooks the fact that if the Soviet Union under Stalin had not existed, we might be living in a fascist Europe today. Of course, this is something that cannot be said with certainty, but the thought alone is terrible enough. The people of the Soviet Union paid for the victory over the German army with an estimated 24 million lives.
For, according to the common consensus today, the war was primarily won in the East against the Third Reich and not in the West. Of course, this is not meant to relativize the victims of the other European nations in the fight against Hitler’s Germany. That would, of course, be completely inappropriate.
The German travel writer Constanze John precedes one of the texts from her book „40 Days in Georgia“ with a statement by Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev and later Georgian president. Maybe you can’t say anything more intelligent about this bare fact than Eduard Shevardnadze.
Now, unfortunately, there are good and bad geniuses. Stalin was an evil demon. He erected a huge building; he shaped an entire era, a cruel era. … I am tempted to say that such a monstrous phenomenon as fascism could only have been defeated by an evil force like Stalin, by an all-powerful dictatorship. I don’t know if this is a positive thing. It is simply a fact.Eduard Shevardnadze, former foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev and later president of Georgia
In her book, Constanze John gives voice to people who are trying to come to terms with the monstrosity of this museum in Gori. The monstrous thing is, first of all, that nowhere in the main exhibition is any mention made of the millions of people from all over the Soviet Union who fell victim to the great purges and terror under Stalin.
In her novel „The Eighth Life (For Brilka)“, the Georgian theatre director and writer Nino Haratischvili, who lives in Germany, tells of this time in Georgia along the intergenerational line of the women in a family. One of these women has the misfortune to attract the attention of Lawrenti Berija, one of the worst henchmen of Stalin and his governor in Georgia. In her book, Nino Haratischvili narrates such terrible events from the time of Soviet-era Georgia that it is almost impossible to read her book without repeatedly putting it away for a while.
It is my firm conviction that one is never free from one’s time and milieu and social circumstances. This is particularly true of totalitarian systems, where there is no freedom of choice. Only the chosen ones have a choice; any revolt ends in prison or is paid for with life. So it is understandable that many people have learned to come to terms with the circumstances.Nino Haratishvili, Faustkultur (2011), interview with Nino Haratishvili
And it is this same Berija who set the main lines of Stalin’s interpretation in this museum that still exist today. The scientists and employees of the non-governmental organization SovLab interviewed by Constanze John argue that the museum should be preserved as it was designed. And, it should itself become the object of critical museum observation – i.e. to make visible, for example through digital media, what the museum deliberately conceals.
In my opinion, and also according to my interpretation, this is not a Stalin museum in Gori. It is a museum of Stalin cult that reflects the Stalin cult. And so it should be considered a historical monument.Dr Oliver Reisner, Ilia State University, European & Caucasus Studies, SovLab, quoted after Constanze John (2018). 40 Days in Georgia, p. 103.
In this way, these scientists also want to give an informed view of Stalin to those Georgians who do still compensate the eternal trauma of occupation and colonization by Russia with the fact that one of the most influential leaders of the Soviet Union was a Georgian.
When I visited the museum in Gori myself, I bought a photo ticket and did not take a single picture. I immediately had the feeling that it could not be right to increase the number of pictures of the heroic staging there.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photos: © Stefan Applis (2015, 2019)
Constanze John (2018): 40 Tage Georgien. [40 Days in Georgia]. Dumont Publishing House. Website of the author: www.constanzejohn.de
Giorgi Maisuradze & Franziska Thun-Hohenstein (2015): Sonniges Georgien. Figurationen des Nationalen im Sowjetimperium [Bright Georgia. Figurations of the National in the Soviet Empire.] Cultural Publishing House Kadmos.
Nino Haratischvili (2014): Das achte Leben (Für Brilka). [The Eighth Life]. For Brilka. Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt.
Faustkultur (ed. ) (2011): Interview mit Nino Haratishvili. [Interview with Nino Haratishvili]. https://faustkultur.de/1912-0-Gespraech-mit-Nino-Haratischwili—2014.html
Matthew Janney (2019): Interview with Nino Haratishvili: ‚I never understood how Georgians could be proud of Stalin‘. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/21/nino-haratischvili-georgians-proud-of-stalin-the-eighth-life
Website of the non-governmental organization Soviet Past Research Laboratory SovLab: https://kommunismusgeschichte.de/forschen/wissenschaft/article/detail/soviet-past-research-laboratory-sovlab-tbilisi-georgien/