‘Stalin is not dead‘ is a poem by the Russian poet Boris Chichibabin(1959)
“It’s early still to celebrate—Let some other oracle shout out
That our old wounds will hurt no more . . .
That the dead foe’s body won’t be our banner . . .
Let him shout, but I know well—Stalin is not dead.“
We know the man Joseph Stalin through books, articles, essays, films and so forth. His name is synonymous with Communism, Gulags, Famine, dicatorship and a whole lot of mostly unappealing, obnoxious terms, ones that we would wish to consign to the dustbin of history. But, burying Stalinism and his cult of personality hasn’t been that easy as burying the body of Stalin, who had died of a stroke in his Volynskoe dacha on 5-th March, 1953, aged 74. Even his body was removed from Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square by stealth at night by Nikita Krushchev in 1961. His successors, Krushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev were equally worried about the problems engendered by his legacy. The American historian Martin Malia in his book, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 quotes, ” Although Stalin no longer lived physically, he still lived, and would continue to live…. The remaining four decades of Soviet history would be dominated by one overriding problem: How to bury Stalin.“
My Georgian experience
This essay is not about Stalin and his deeds, but a short reflection on how, why and to what extent his legacy had taken root and been cemented among the social and political landscapes of Russia and three other post- Soviet Union States, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. I became interested in his persisting legacy, albeit in different forms and shades,after a visit to Georgia and Armenia two years back. The references include some articles, essays and books on the subject, the links of which I have appended. This is not an all-encompassing essay on the topic, but subsumes a few notable points relevant to the contemporary political and social landscape in these countries, Russia and Georgia in particular.
It all started with a plan to visit Georgia in 2018. I try to read about places that I plan to visit, as much as possible, and suggest to my husband of my choice of places. Stalins Museum in Gori, his birthplace was top on my list. I had read that many people there, the old generation particularly, revere him still. I thought I would be able to hear something good about a cult figure loathed by many and revered by some. No reading would do justice as seeing with one’s own eyes and hearing with own ears. We got a personal guide, Gaby, a short, stout Georgian man, ex- military, in his fifities who moonlighted as a freelance guide, his main job being a military contractor coordinating supply of military personnel to the US led NATO forces stationed at the border. A well-read man, and a treasure trove of information on history, geography and politics, with an eidetic memory and an excellent command of English.( I remember him telling the exact day, date and year of events that I had randomly asked him, rather impromptu ones that he never would have expected). And he knew a handful about my place, Kerala, as a Communist state, about the 100% literacy, female literacy etc.. etc…( possibly from the many Keralites who visit Georgia especially from the ME countries. There is visa on arrival option for many ME resident visa holders).
Since Stalins Museum had state appointed guides, Gaby didn’t come inside with us, mentioning that two guides couldn’t talk at the same time and about the ensuing ‘clash of information’ (stressing the phrase with a seriousness evoking Huntington’s ‘clash of civilization’). For the past two days Gaby had been eloquent in doling out polemics against Georgian politics, economy, constantly swearing against Stalin and Communism all the while eulogizing America, the NATO forces and the US military personnel stationed in Georgia. He was more an American than a Georgian and brusquely confessed his untainted faith in the US military head stationed there( he was working for this ‘head’ whose name he did not divulge). He had been promised ‘a special visa for those military personnel who work for the NATO’, green card later on and subsequently citizenship. I didn’t intend to warn him, but did so seeing the shine in his eyes and sensing his blind belief despite his worldly knowledge. ( I had in my mind a freshly read article about how the US defence department promised visas to some of the Afghan military personnel for risky espionage operations against the Taliban. Later, after the US had had the required data, most of those Afghanis were left out and the Taliban killed many of those volunteers).
Inside the museum, a young Georgian guide started explaining about the exhibits that included among Stalin’s personal items, his death mask. Our group was a disparate one, there were Americans, Russians, Georgians, other Europeans and Indians. We moved as a mass from room to room, the guide delivering lengthy tirades against Stalin and his tyrannies,all of them cliched details available in history books, like an actor repeating the script. Almost one hour passed, no one was asking any questions. It’s not often that we visit these countries. I expected to hear at least some unique, different facts/ stories about Stalin, a balanced account of his deeds and career from his birthplace. I am no fan of Stalin, but he was not born a tyrant. Like the artist and architect inside Hitler, he might have had something good, positive, creative. So I asked the guide to mention something engaging about Stalin, afterall he was Georgia’s son. To which he tersely replied ‘nothing good about him’ .
What I had observed was the sript-like enumeration of the state appointed guide, and the hatred for Stalin among the young Gerogians in our group, and the pro-western esp. pro American and anti- Russian sentiments that Gaby and a lot of others( according to him) harbor. In the capital, Tblisi, Stalin’s footprints are hard to find, but in his birthplace, Gori, you can still find his busts, streets named after him, his pictures hanging on the walls of restaurants and shops, his handsome face etched as wall murals and graffiti, his images in the flea markets.
Post- Soviet legacy of Stalin
A poll conducted by the Carnegie Endowment in 2012, the first ever comparative opinion polls on Stalin in the post- Soviet countries of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azeraijan suggests a worryingly high level of admiration for him. In Georgia it is 45% and 68% called him a wise leader. He rests in a tomb in Red Square in a prominent site in Moscow. Political rallies carry his portraits still, buses carried his image in Russia during the 2013 anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad and in a poll conducted on great figures of Russian history in 2012, Stalin came first. While, Azerbaijan showed the greatest antipathy towards him, 22% of the population( 39% of young people) didn’t know who Stalin was.
The alarming level of Stalin worship in these countries prompted the pollsters to parse the reasons. It is illogical to think that people want to go back to gulags. Alfred J Reiber, the famous American historian, in his renowned essay, ‘Stalin , Man of Borderlands‘, explains how Stalin as a Marxist revolutionary in the South Caucasus, a borderland of the Russian empire projected himself as an eclectic mix of identities, an ethno-cultural Georgian, dominant class proletariat and a Russian with Great Russia as the center of political power.
The reasons cited for Stalin worship are many in these countries and analysing them are not made easy by concurrent discrepancies. Though 45% of Georgians approved of Stalin, a much higher percentage supported democracy. Those who approved him equally disapprove his brutalities. Thus the worship there assumes a personal touch than a political one. Among the old generation in the Caucasus, Stalin veneration is higher than in Russia, as they tend to evoke the Great Patriotic War when Stalin won over Hitler, though the brunt of the damage was suffered by Russia during the war. While, the main reasons for Stalin worship in Russia are the perceived failure of democracy, Soviet- era nostalgia and love for strongmen who singlehandedly run the country. Putin has strategically revived Stalin worship projecting his image a strong man, reviving Stalin through television and other propogandas highlighting the bright and heroic aspects of the Soviet past and pushing aside the repression and genocide to the margins of the collective consciousness. In effect, an unambigous condemnation of Stalin is almost impossible in the Russian psyche attaching the significance of a great nation to the victory in the Great War, Stalin being the architect of that victory. So the ramping up of victory celebrations of May 9 in Russia, reminiscing the once superpower and compensating for the collapse of USSR.
De- Stalinization or Krushchev’s Thaw begun by Nikita Krushchev following Stalin’s death, involving discrediting Stalin, reforming Russia, dismantling the gulag system and a thaw in the cold war, was not succesful after Krushchev’s removal from power. Gorbachev‘s perestroika to restructure the Soviet state was the second attempt, but that too failed and eventually led to fall of communism and collapse of USSR. Putin too made an effort at de-Stalinization in 2010. The Russian parliament issued a formal statement that the Katyn crime (a series of mass executions of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia carried out by the Soviet security police in 1940) was committed by Stalin and other Soviet leaders. Kremlin quashed a plan by Moscow city authorities to adorn Moscow with Stalin’s images at the time of the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, in May 2010. An adapted version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was published at what was reported to be Putin’s personal initiative, following his meeting with Solzhenitsyn’s widow to discuss how best to teach her husband’s four-volume epic about communist repression. Putin had approved the book for Russian Secondary Schools.
In October 2007, during his second presidential term, Putin visited Butovo, the site of mass executions at the height of Stalin’s terror in 1937–1938. Putin was visibly shaken. “Insanity,” he said. “It is incredible. Why [were they killed]? . . . Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people. . . . We need to do a great deal to ensure that this [tragedy] is never forgotten. Contradictorily, less than two months after the visit, Putin celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of FSB, the successor of KGB and NKVD the perpetrators of these massacres. The main aim of Putin’s de- Stalinization was rapproachment with the West. Not long after the initiation Putin reinstated and revived Stalin. Though Gulag Archipelago and other fiction and nonfiction works of Stalin’s repressions are easily available in bookstores and online, surpassing them are the publications and TV shows glorifying Stalin. Books defending Stalin are displayed side by side with those condemning him, some of these Stalin-supporting books published by Russia’s largest publishing house, Eksmo. Academic research on Stalinism is unrestricted, though access to archives has been increasingly limited. Memorial, a well known NGO conducting archival reasearch documenting Stalin’s crime has been increasingly targetted according to the Carnegie report. Putins Russia was always the Soviet version of centralised, uncontested state power with the help of security forces.
For a new generation in Russia, who do not beleve in symbolism or hero worship, what the state delivers is ultimately the most important query. A significant proportion of young people do not care about the legacy of Stalin according to the Carnege poll. They were the ones in front of the 2011 protests and the recent protests exhorted by Navalny, the opposition leader.
De Stalinization in Georgia is characterized by the contradictory attitudes of Georgians to Stalin and his legacy. For some Georgians the Stalin museum itself is wrong. It was initially called History Museum. But Stalin was prescient to choose it’s location near his birthhouse in Gori. The Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze( Communist party leader) in 1995 planned to transform the Stalin Museum a study center of the phenomenon of Stalin. In 2004, when President Mikhail Saakaashvili‘s pro- Western government came to power, he made some attempts at de Stalinization. A banner was strung in front of the museum declaring it a falsification of history, plans were made to convert it to ‘Stalinism museum’ by including the exhibits of Stalin’s victims but opposed by the museum employees at the time, government cranes removed the six meter Stalian memorial in front of the Gori town hall overnight which was reinstated after an angry mob of 5000 people signed a petition supported by the regional parliament. Stalin statues kept popping up after it’s removal. These illustrate the national schizophrenia of Georgians towards it’s famous son. A Museum of Soviet Occupation was opened in Tblisi in 2006, showcasing the history of Soviet rule in Georgia, but excluding the Soviet era and Stalin in particular. School text books do not teach the Soviet era in depth and it is practically absent in universities. One thing was certain, with change in Presidents and government, though the attitude to Stalin changed, for many of the Georgians he is an object of devotion, his samll house in the museum, a shrine. A picture of the powerful cobbler’s son, portrayed as a saint and patron of cobblers, still hangs in a Georgian shoe mender’s workshop next to the icon of the Virgin Mary.