August 14, 2013
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Georgia’s most famous - or infamous - son, Josef Stalin. A missing bronze Stalin statue has become a lightning rod for controversy.
For 30 years, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist, killing as many as 20 million people through executions, exile and man-made famines.
But here in Gori, Iosif Dzhugashvili, or Stalin, is a hometown boy. On Stalin Avenue, Gori’s Stalin Museum preserves the humble brick cottage where baby Stalin spent his first four years.
Stalin is Gori’s number-one tourist attraction. But Gori’s love affair with Stalin took a jolt three years ago. Under the cover of darkness, the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili removed a massive bronze Stalin statue from Gori’s main square.
Face down in shed
VOA tracked down the statue to an abandoned industrial site, finding the six-meter Stalin lying face down in a roofless shed.
Jugi Xidasheli, a Stalin fan, said, “Stalin’s personality is very dear to us - for everyone in Gori. Everyone has their own opinions, but Stalin was born here, this is his city and his motherland. There absolutely should be a statue of Stalin in Gori.”
After protests and a petition drive, Gori’s city council said Stalin will rise again. By Stalin’s birthday, December 21, the exiled statue will be erected in the gardens of the Stalin Museum.
Ketino Akhobadze has worked at the museum since 1978. “People from all over the world come to visit - from Poland, America, [the former] Yugoslavia, and Colombia, Brazil, Japan and China. They come from every country, absolutely every country.”
But other Georgians see more than commerce. Historians say 700,000 Georgians died under Stalin’s rule - shot, exiled or killed in fighting during World War II.
Alexander Rondeli said most of his mother’s family was killed under Stalin. "If you ask me I would just destroy everything there. But many people say Stalin was a historical figure.”
In a poll this year, two-thirds of Georgians called Stalin “a wise leader.”
Georgians will elect a new president in October. Opposition supporters say Stalin statues are popping up across the country.
With or without the big statue, foreign visitors say the musty, Soviet-era exhibits at the Stalin Museum here seem frozen in time.
Jorge Martin said he is turned off by the museum’s "idolatry." "He beat the fascism in Europe, but he also killed millions of people. So there should be more balance, and present the materials in another way, not as if he were an old superhero,” said Martin.
After the election, the challenge will be for Georgia’s government to modernize the Stalin Museum - to give equal time to his victims.