The Battle over Stalin’s Statues and the Ascent of the Georgian Dream Coalition

The ascent of the Georgian Dream coalition over Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro-Western United National Movement in the country’s October 1 parliamentary elections has reignited the battle in Georgia over public monuments bearing the image of Josef Stalin, “the great son of the Georgian people.” These developments have inspired a fresh slew of panic-inducing headlines in western media, blending alarm over the ‘revival of the cult of Stalin’ with disappointment over the country’s ‘turn toward Russia.’ What recent research reveals, however, is that this sort of reverence for Stalin among Georgians is nothing new, and that the rebuilding of Stalin statues does not signify a shift in Georgian consciousness, political aspirations, or geopolitical orientation, but perhaps, rather, a new opportunity for democracy in the country.

Ushangi Davitashvili kisses a bust of Stalin that stands in the courtyard of his apartment building in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo from AP; originally published in WSJ.com.
Ushangi Davitashvili kisses a bust of Stalin that stands in the courtyard of his apartment building in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo from AP; originally published in WSJ.com.

To understand how the image of Stalin is at work in Georgia today, one must distinguish between the different actors involved in its propagation or demolition, what it signifies for them, and how this affects their specific interests or agendas.  Until recently, the official meaning ascribed to the symbol of Stalin by institutionalized power was one at odds with the vernacular understanding of everyday Georgians.  First-of-their-kind poll results recently released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Caucasus Research Resource Centers reveal that 45 percent of Georgians express a positive attitude toward Stalin. In an attempt to qualify this data, Lasha Bakradze, Director of the Georgian State Museum of Literature, explains that Stalin is regarded among Georgians as a rebel who broke the rules by rising to the top of the Empire despite his minority status.  At the same time, poll results reveal that Georgian veneration of Stalin cannot be equated with a political desire for more authoritarian rule, as most respondents also stated that they approved of democracy as a governing model.

This equation seems paradoxical to a non-Georgian observer, but in her study of the Georgian reaction to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech,” Claire Kaiser of the University of Pennsylvania has uncovered that, even then, admiration for Stalin lacked the political charge for everyday Georgians that it held for other Soviet citizens.  In March of 1956, thousands gathered at the Stalin monument in Tbilisi to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of the leader, in blatant defiance of the bounds permitted by the new, anti-Stalinist campaign. From the vantage point of Moscow, this dissent was interpreted as “nationalist” and “anti-Soviet.”  Archival material which recorded local Georgian opinions at the time, however, demonstrates that the Georgian reaction was at once national without being nationalist, and opposed to a particular Kremlin policy rather than to the Soviet system itself.  As molders of the official narrative tried make sense of the pro-Stalin sentiments by locating them within pre-existing enemy categories, Georgians themselves understood their actions to be a defense of their own honor in the face of Khrushchev’s insult against their most prominent national representative.

Under the presidency of Saakashvili, public images of Stalin again came under fire, this time, ironically, for being pro-Soviet, and thus, according to the official paradigm, pro-Russian.  The campaign against Stalin statues as “pro-Soviet” promoted an official narrative which, according to Shota Khinchagashvili of Ilia State University, inextricably links notions of trauma, injustice, and victimhood to a concretely applicable and explicitly pro-Western, anti-Russian, nationalist political discourse.  The government’s disregard for the public outcry over the removal of Stalin statues as a part of its ‘de-Sovietization’ campaign suggests that these particular cosmetic measures were in fact intended less for any substantive or lasting change in collective domestic memory and more for foreign consumption.  Ignoring the vernacular Georgian understanding of Stalin’s image, Saakashvili and his government adopted the Western code in which Stalin statues signify an aggressive Russia with Great Power aspirations, or fealty there-to.  Even if his practices demonstrated a slide toward autocracy, Saakashvili learned very well how to ‘speak democrat,’ a common phenomenon among political and intellectual elites in Georgia according to a recent brief from Orysia Lutsevych of Chatham House.

Stalin's likeness can be found spray-painted on walls around Tbilisi. Photo courtesy of Claire Pogue Kaiser.
Stalin’s likeness can be found spray-painted on walls around Tbilisi. Photo courtesy of Claire Pogue Kaiser.

It seems that the October parliamentary elections have now created space for public debate and renewed social trust in the form of the rebuilding of Stalin memorials previously removed under Saakashvili.  Initiatives like that of the restoration of the memorial in Zemo Alvani remain largely local, though the new government has stated that it does not oppose such actions.  Some sources report that it also plans to help finance the reconstruction of the Stalin monument in Gori, but in front of the city’s Stalin museum rather than in its original place in the main square.  These reactions suggest that the official narrative under the Georgian Dream Coalition will likely co-opt the vernacular meaning of Stalin.  While the new government no doubt benefits domestically from a perceived association with the statues, Western observers’ leap to interpreting them as pro-Russian is unfounded. It is true that the government has already made efforts to engage in dialogue with Russia, but thus far, Stalin statues have originated at a local, grass-roots level, with everyday Georgians outside of politics who do not understand Stalin’s image in this way.  Popular support for the rebuilding of Stalin statues at this time has more to do with projecting national pride, and perhaps deriding Saakashvili, than with articulating particular geopolitical alignments.  Still, concern regarding the rebuilding of Stalin statues remains legitimate, for how the Georgian Dream coalition will actively deploy the image of Stalin for its own agenda remains to be seen.