Stalin’s Legacy Still Divides the Citizens in His Hometown

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Contradictory reality, contrasting values, war of ideas and ignored law in Gori, Georgia

By Tornike Kakalashvili

The last century was infamous for its abundance of brutal regimes and bloody dictators, like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Hitler was born in the small town of Braunau am Inn in present-day Austria, and Stalin in Gori, Georgia. Their actions were assessed as crimes against humanity by the Civilized World. Consequently, in Hitler’s hometown, there is no museum, street, or restaurant named after him – yet, in Gori, there is a completely different reality. Here, the ghost of Stalin wanders to this day. In this town, you will come across several statues of Stalin in front of the Gori University, in the town’s central park, inside a railway station – you are even able to eat out in restaurant “Joseph”, which offers you a meal in a room with Stalin’s portraits hanging on the wall. Still, that’s not everything. The main avenue of Gori is named after Stalin, and at the state-owned Stalin’s Museum – which is the most visited museum in Georgia – tour guides literally glorify the dictator, saying nothing about his cruel policies that cost at least six million lives. What’s perhaps most shocking, is the fact that the cult of Stalin has been banned by Georgian law since 2011. Yet, the law is still not respected nor enforced in daily life.

I have reached the Gori Municipality City Hall to hear their official explanation as to why the main avenue in Gori still bears the name of a Soviet dictator, as well as why the statues of Stalin are still present at various locations across the town – all clearly a violation of the Georgian law – but they declined to comment. 

“The existence of the Stalin Street in Gori proves that the government has no political will to change the name”, says Nino Dalakishvili, member of the initiative group “Maro”, which has been fighting for renaming the avenue since 2016. “The fact that the main avenue is named after Stalin is very offensive to the people that value Georgia’s independence. His rule, the communist establishment, swallowed the independence of our country“, she believes.

The women-led initiative group is planning to start another petition requesting the renaming of the avenue, as the previous one doubtfully “disappeared” from the Gori Municipality City Hall’s official website.

The initiative group Maro is in favor of holding a public debate on the avenue’s renaming. Two years ago, Nino Dalakishvili shared information on the campaign online in a Facebook group for Gori residents and had to face both insults and threats. One of the Facebook users had even revealed the home address of one Maro member, urging others to go there and threaten her.

Nino Dalakishvili supposes that the majority of the Gori residents have a positive perception of Stalin. She claims that this is known to both government and opposition parties, and these are all in the need of the goodwill of people for elections. As a result, the entire political spectrum avoids speaking openly about the issue. “They do not want to lose the votes”, Nino says.

She suggests that the Soviet legacy has not yet been fully explored, or re-evaluated in Georgia, which depends on the myth of Stalin as the most successful politician in the world. She finds the Baltic states and Poland to be good examples of how to deal with the communist legacy. “Raising awareness among young people so that they know the real story – this is the best way to overcome this issue”, she says. 

Nazi Stefanishvili, age 77, is the Acting Chairwoman of the Society of Stalin’s Ideological Heirs established in 1996. “If anyone wants to rename Stalin Avenue, don’t even dare! I can’t imagine the main street of Gori not being named after Stalin. I may have a heart attack and die!“

Communists and Stalinists, mainly elderly, gather each Saturday in their Gori office – a property of the Gori Municipality City Hall – to discuss ways to erect Stalin’s six-meter-high bronze statue in front of the Dictator’s Museum. The statue was previously removed from the central square of Gori back in 2010, by the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili. 

Nazi Stefanishvili strongly believes that freemasons prevent them from erecting a monument. She is so devoted to Joseph Stalin that she even has a memorabilia room at her home, where she keeps souvenirs, paintings, books, busts, posters, and other items dedicated to Stalin. The 77-year-old proudly shows a ring of pure gold depicting the portrait of the Dictator – a ring that she has worn for decades.

“I am from Gori, so how can I not be a communist? All of my family members were communists. I remember my grandma grieving after the death of Stalin, and shortly after she died due to her sorrow. My son is an utterly committed Stalinist, too.”

To Nazi Stefanishvili, Stalin is not a dictator but the greatest statesman, taking care of his people. She categorically rejects solid historical facts, such as the Katyn massacre, Holodomor, ethnic persecutions, and other criminal acts of Stalin’s regime and calls them “great nonsense“.

Each 21 December, Stalin’s Birthday, and 9 May, Victory Day over Nazism, dozens of Stalinists gather in Gori from all over Georgia. Together, they mark these occasions by waving the banned Soviet flags and demanding closer ties to Russia, which has been occupying the two Georgian regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia, or the Tskhinvali region, since 2008 and that way continues its hostile policy towards the Caucasian nation. 

“I would happily support the restoration of the Soviet Union. Unification with Russia is essential”, Nazi says and thereby goes against the will of the vast majority of Georgians who support the Euro-Atlantic integration, the country’s top foreign policy priority, according to various opinion polls.

Currently, on the central square of Gori, instead of the previous massive monument of Stalin, there are three flags flying: The Georgian national one, the Gori city flag, and the flag of the European Union, as a clear demonstration of the country’s Western ambitions. The question is, however, if simply flying the EU flag is enough to tackle the ghost of Stalinism.

By Tornike Kakalashvili

Cover photo: Tornike Kakalashvili

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