Stalin Statues and Us

For those already wary of Georgia’s new government, events over the past couple of months read like a litany of errors. From an optically-troubling (if justifiable) spate of arrests to the now-governing Georgian Dream coalition’s bizarre legislative priorities, the early days of billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili have at least failed to leverage its surprise election victory into a positive, coherent message that its Western partners understand. Now, with reports that a statue of Georgia’s most famous son Josef Stalin is to be restored in his hometown of Gori, the new government isn’t looking any better.

But the West’s almost certain concern will be misplaced. As it’s being reported, the Stalin statue is not going to be returned to its old perch in the town’s central square, but is being renovated and repaired to Stalin’s birthplace home on the grounds of the nearby Stalin Museum. Un-mentioned is that this happens to be entirely consistent with the original plans for the statue when it was surreptitiously torn down in 2010. Whisked off in the middle of the night to avoid the ire of the locals — during which a couple of local journalists were beaten and hauled off — the statue’s eventual return in some form is no great surprise. And in reality, the person of Josef Stalin (nee Ioseb Jugashvili) still retains a privileged and even idolized position in some parts of Georgia. The issue was so sensitive, in fact, that the previous government even implied that it had tried to bribe Russian occupation troops to tear down Stalin statues across the country (I can confirm that this happened in at least one regional town). 

But perhaps most importantly, concerns about Georgians’ love affair with Stalin may be overblown. Not that Stalin himself wasn’t a brutal killer, unworthy of remembrance as anything other than such. But the truth is that Stalin’s reputation still remains relatively sanitized, as far as genocide-perpetrating dictators go. Even here in the West, the enormity of Stalin’s crimes are rarely considered in the same league as original Holocaustician Adolf Hitler. From Walter Duranty to Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin to Oliver Stone’s interpretation of history, Stalin apologia in the West remains all too alive and well. And in Russia, Stalin propaganda adorns the Moscow metro as changing back Volgograd’s name to Stalingrad is being seriously considered.  This widespread, even customary tolerance for Stalin’s evils — and especially that of the Soviet Union in general — is hardly the pulpit from which to be castigating Georgians for engaging in misinformed deference to their country’s most recognized name. For Georgians, many of whom grew up with little or no knowledge of Stalin’s criminal reigns of terror, Stalin is simply a part of the Georgian identity.

Ultimately, the misplaced affections of those in Georgian villages may be uncomfortable, but they pale in significance to the far more insidious restoration of Stalin’s reputation being perpetrated in our own countries. Far more worrying should be the lionizing or ‘nuanced’ depictions of Stalin in the media or academy and the casualness by which Stalin is often considered compared to fellow travelers like Hitler. This, and not statues in central Georgia, is what will revitalize Stalin’s legacy. Certainly, the Georgian government should take great pains to educate its people of Stalin’s dark sins, but the West’s obligation to do the same is no less real and no less necessary.

It doesn’t seem like the Stalin statue’s renovation is anything more than the carrying out of long-held plans. While that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth reporting or keeping an eye on, our greater concern should be the much more noxious effects of whitewashing history and the lessons it wrought. And that’s something happening right here in the West.

Michael Cecire is an associate scholar at FPRI, where he contributes to the Project on Democratic Transitions.