A Toast to the Ancestors

BY Wojciech Górecki

The Icon

“Stalin is a figure who played a unique role in the history of mankind,” Professor Gegeshidze told us. “History is aware of many people of this kind. There’s Christ. There’s Mohammed. There’s Confucius. There’s Alexander the Great. There’s Napoleon. And among them, in top place, there is Stalin.”

It was 1998. We had come to Georgia to make a film about the cult of Stalin. President Edward Shevardnadze had just opened the institute, the aim of which was to study the life and works of the dictator. David Gegeshidze, a philosopher, was head of the institute’s academic board.

Gegeshidze: “We gather and disseminate information about Stalin, and research sources that can cast new light on his personality. We try to keep our emotions in check. Our aim is not to make political capital, but an academic synthesis of the phenomenon that is Stalin.”

Professor Ivane Shengeliya, historian: “We want to understand who he was. Having a psychologist and a graphologist take part in our work is important, because even a single one of Stalin’s signatures can have great significance for research into his way of life, habits and attitude to the world around him.”

Dr Mziya Naochashvili, historian: “The Georgian nation has many heroes, but research on the Stalin phenomenon transcends the national aspect. He is not just a national hero. The figure of Stalin is the achievement of all mankind.”

We asked at the institute about Stalin’s crimes, including the famine in Ukraine and Katyń.

We were told that the prison camps were economically justified: without armies of prisoners Stalin would never have succeeded in creating such vast industry from nothing in such a short time.

Someone commented that in Ukraine there was famine before the revolution too: “Famine is an event brought about by harvest failure and does not occur exclusively under a communist regime. There were victims, but the number cited by the Ukrainians is inflated.”

Someone else expressed doubt about Stalin’s responsibility for Katyń: “He never gave the order ‘Shoot people!’ He never did that. He ruled the country and had more important things to worry about than killing. There were relevant organs for that.” We were also told that at Katyń everything happened in keeping with the law: “Whether or not the right decisions were made in this case is quite another matter,” explained the next speaker.

Businessman Otar Chigladze, who sponsors the institute (“in Georgia lots of businessmen are Stalinists; their companies enjoy order, all problems are resolved beautifully and their people live well”), commented that the children and grandchildren of those who were repressed do not want the world to discover the truth about Stalin. “Could a child who was only a few years old when his father was arrested really know if Stalin was good, or if his father was all right?”

“In Stalin’s lifetime they said one thing, and now they say another. Maybe some third idea will come up now, too?” said Professor Shengeliya, shrugging off our questions.

President Shevardnadze regarded establishing the institute (the full name of which is the Academic Research Centre for Studies on the Phenomenon of J.V. Stalin) as one of his greatest achievements. In interviews he explained that Stalin had been presented in “a vulgarised light” and that this should be changed. He gave these interviews in Georgian, for the Georgian media. He rarely spoke about Stalin to journalists outside Georgia. In his autobiography, The Future Belongs to Freedom, which was published in Russian, he wrote that destalinisation was a blow for Georgian amour propre; Khrushchev presented Stalin as not just a tyrant and a criminal, but also as an ignoramus and dunce, almost a halfwit – yet this man inspired millions to follow him, won the war and built an empire! Could a halfwit have beaten Hitler? asked Shevardnadze.

In a Georgian history textbook for the ninth year, published in 2003, it said in bold type that criticism of Stalin in the era of Khrushchev’s thaw turned into abuse of the Georgian nation: “It was emphasised that Stalin was a Georgian, which in this case was irrelevant.”

Towards the end of the 1980s, as the nations populating the Soviet Union were awakening from their torpor, raising their heads and beginning to demand recognition for their identity, the Georgians insisted on justice for Stalin. They founded the Society for the Ideological Heirs of Stalin and the International Stalin Association; another organisation demanded that Stalin’s ashes be brought home from Moscow. The Ossetians, who live in central Caucausus, also laid claim to Stalin (supposedly the dictator had Ossetian roots). In the mid 1990s readers of the newspaper Youth of Ossetia concluded that Stalin and Christ were the most influential personalities in the history of the world. “On the one hand,” the editors commented on the results of their poll, “Stalin’s victory can be explained by boundless love for a compatriot, on the other, this popularity might worry some people, as in recent years various wretched historians have shamelessly thrown mud at Him. Yet let us not forget that the voice of the nation is objective, and therefore true.”

The Stalinist Communist Party took part in the Georgian elections held on 5 November 1995 (it was number 27 on the list) , promoting itself with the aid of posters depicting Stalin, and also a large portrait of the dictator that toured Tbilisi on the roof of a microbus. The portrait was illuminated by Christmas tree lights, and at night this entire twinkling convoy – several more vehicles came after the microbus, all with their sirens on, which must have come from ambulances or maybe fire engines – was like a crazy procession, a parade by followers of some Christian-pagan saint. In those years the nights in Tbilisi were almost black, the street lamps weren’t working and there were no neon lights. The pale glow of candles and oil lamps shone from the windows, and the burning tip of a late-night pedestrian’s cigarette left a trail behind it like a jet stream…

Three-and-a-half percent of the electorate voted for the Stalinist Party. Most of the Stalinists supported President Shevardnadze’s Union of Citizens of Georgia.

The excerpt was originally published on the Book Institute's website