What do we think about Stalin?
29 November, 2012
There used to be a statue of Stalin at a school in the village of Zemo Alvani. On the night of 17 June 2011 it disappeared, officials claiming they didn't know anything about it. One recent morning, it came back to where it once was but now wrapped up. The new officials are pleading ignorance, but locals say it will be unwrapped on Stalin's birthday, 22 December 2012. Putting up or in this case the re-putting up a statue of
Stalin will become international news, particularly in this period of trying to figure out the likely direction of the new Georgian Dream government.

What people in Georgia think about Stalin is important and there is no agreement. Asking somebody from Georgia what they think about Stalin will tell you a great deal about how they view Georgian history and to some degree their own identity. The sad thing is that the discussion seems not to be about Stalin and the role he played in history but about statues. That may also say something about Georgia and the importance of symbols and how the conversation about the different interpretations of history is actually avoided. There is a reason that these Stalin statues seem to always be moved at night, because those in power are afraid to have to defend their views about history.

My personal view is that Stalin was a cruel murderer. A terrible figure in the twentieth century, but for that reason one very much worth understanding. Particularly in recent years, there have been many well-researched books in English, some bestsellers, that try to understand who he was, what he did and why. By any definition, he was a terrorist; he and Orjonikidze, against Lenin's wishes, ended Georgia's Social Democratic Republic, the world's first, and an amazing period in history of great international importance. The collectivization of farms, the Holodomor, the purges in Georgia and elsewhere all killed millions. I know several people whose grandparents where murdered or sent to the Gulag under Stalin. Of course he was a key figure in beating Germany in WWII, in part by commanding an army that had the highest mortality rate of any country in the war, unusual for a country on the winning side. This debate had been going on in March 1956 when it boiled over. Were those young demonstrators uninformed about what Stalin had actually done because everybody was afraid to talk about it? Were they defending Georgian honor from Khrushchev's crack about "the great son of the Georgian nation"? Or were they defending Stalin with full knowledge of him because they respected him? Or perhaps simply because he's one of us.

But I am not Georgian, so my view has less relevance here. Historical disagreements are not unique to Georgia. Andrew Jackson the seventh president, oversaw the largest single ethnic cleansing effort in US history by moving Native Americans throughout the South East. Today, he is on the twenty dollar bill and the park across from the White House is named after him. The FBI headquarters in Washington is named after him. Christopher Columbus was clearly an imperialist who also has a sad record of oppression of Native Americans. J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI for many years, illegally spying on many human rights advocates. When I was in school in Texas, American history stopped in about 1966 because the teachers and parents could not agree on what to say about America's war in Vietnam. I was taught that the American Civil War was about states rights because that was less painful than admitting that the southern state I am from supported slavery, which was the real reason for the war. I am from Dallas and one of the nicest parks in the city is called Lee park, named after the commanding general of the losing side of the Civil War, with a large statue of him.

That can happen because it is a very decentralized place. In Georgia, it is not clear who gets to make these decisions. Is this a question for Zemo Alvani? Or for Akhmeta? Or for Georgia? Can the rest of the world participate in that discussion even if they don't have any right to decide? Particularly because it is on the property of a school, these questions are quite important. My impression is that most residents have no problem with the statue but in the end who does and who should have the right to say it stays or goes.

If it is unwrapped on 22 December, who will go there? Will history students? Will the grandchildren of those killed in 1937 go in order to have a discussion about Stalin? Almost everybody in Georgia believes strongly that Abkhazia is a part of Georgia. So how do the Abkhaz feel about this, because it will certainly be reported there. What about those in the North Caucasus? The international consensus is that Stalin was a very destructive figure. Certainly if a village in Germany tried to put up a statue of Hitler and the authorities allowed it, it would be international news. But that won't happen because the German consensus is that Hitler was a hateful figure and German law, which is both obeyed and supported, forbids it.

Those international media outlets who try to portray Georgia in a negative light, mainly channels affiliated with the Kremlin, will say that this shows that Georgia is a backwards place that will defend even a monster as long as the monster is Georgian. It will be used to show that Georgia is biased. Western media outlets will view this from the point of view of trying to understand Bidzina Ivanishvili. In fact this may be a local story but it won't be viewed that way. The perhaps unfair portrayal will be Saakashvili took down a statue of Stalin and Ivanishvili put it back up.

Practically everything covered by Georgia's media is viewed from the narrow confines of today's partisan politics and from that perspective the discussion of the statue of Stalin in Zemo Alvani misses the point. Much more interesting is how we feel about Stalin. Was he the man who conquered Fascism or was he a murderer? And what does he mean for Georgia? Because in the end, like all history, Stalin is a mirror. What we believe about him is really just a way to talk about ourselves, who we think we are and how we see our nation.

One small request. From now on, when people move sculptures or monuments or put them up or re-put them up, please do it in the day time. And let people know in writing when it is happening and why it is happening. Don't be afraid, it's only history.