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Sixty years after his death, Stalin still provokes profound ambivalence in Georgia, as across much of the former Soviet Union (Mark Mackinnon/The Globe and Mail)
Sixty years after his death, Stalin still provokes profound ambivalence in Georgia, as across much of the former Soviet Union (Mark Mackinnon/The Globe and Mail)

Mark MacKinnon

Welcome back, Stalin: Dictator, ruthless killer, small-town hero Add to ...

Standing on the main square of this town in the mountains of northern Georgia, you can watch as time slides backward.

Locals looked on approvingly last week as a work crew from the municipal government built a large metal plinth. Soon, if all goes according to plan, the centre of Gori will again host a giant statue of one of history’s greatest murderers, Joseph Stalin.

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The same six-metre-high bronze statue of Stalin – history’s most infamous Georgian – had stood for decades in Gori, the town where he was born to a family of cobblers (his real name was Iosif Dzhugashvili) and spent the first four years of his life.

It was torn down three years ago by a Georgia that wanted to take on a more European identity while burying the uglier bits of its time as part of the Soviet Union.

“A memorial to Stalin has no place in the Georgia of the 21st century,” President Mikhail Saakashvili said at the time, after the monument was taken away in an overnight operation that surprised and angered many residents.

Sixty years after his death, Stalin still provokes profound ambivalence in Georgia, as across much of the former Soviet Union. He was a murderous dictator, but one who presided over an era many remember for its idealism and stability – things their country has lacked during its chaotic first two decades of independence. In the eyes of many, Stalin remains the hero who defeated Nazi Germany in the Second World War – not to mention a man whose presence, even in statue form, will help lure tourists.

“Stalin was a great leader. Saakashvili is a fascist, a new Hitler,” said an elderly Gori resident, leaning on a cane and watching the workers preparing for the statue’s return on a sunny afternoon last week. “It’s good that they are putting it back.”

The statue is scheduled to be re-erected in time for Dec. 21, which would have been the dictator’s 134th birthday. It will be the sixth Stalin monument restored this year by a Georgian municipality.

“Every village must have its Stalin,” Shota Lazarashvili, head of the pro-Stalin organization Stalinets, told the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

But the dictator’s rehabilitation is not going unopposed. Two of the newly returned statues were defaced with red paint almost as soon as they went up. And one day after a group of foreign journalists visited Gori and asked about the future of the statue, the central government in Tbilisi – which had previously supported the statue’s return – declared the Gori government had no authority to re-erect it.

The mayor of Gori belongs to Georgian Dream, a broadly pro-Russian party that ousted Mr. Saakashvili’s pro-European government in parliamentary elections last year. Mr. Saakashvili remains President until elections next month that he is barred from contesting because he has already served the maximum two terms in office.

Mr. Saakashvili is highly unpopular in Gori, where he is seen as having damaged the town’s crucial tourism industry with his destalinization campaign. He is also blamed for starting a 2008 war with Russia, which saw Russian troops briefly occupy Gori before a ceasefire was reached.

Besides the statue and an adjacent Josef Stalin Museum (which features the green railway car Stalin used to travel around the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), there’s little other economic activity in this town of 55,000. The museum is surrounded by shops peddling Stalin souvenirs and Georgian wines to the trickle of tour buses that comes through each day.

“[Stalin] is the shame of our nation … but he’s the most important touristic icon for Gori,” said Alexander Rondeli, a Tbilisi-based political analyst whose family – except his mother – was killed in Stalin’s purges. “Without Stalin, Gori is nothing.”

Stalin’s humble childhood home was left intact by Mr. Saakashvili, but a banner was hung at the entrance to the museum – which was built amid the mass mourning that followed his death in 1953 – proclaiming: “This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.” The banner was gone when The Globe and Mail visited last week.

“I’m happy they’re putting [the statue] back up, because it will bring in more tourists,” said Olga Topchishvili, a 58-year-old guide at the Stalin Museum.

The English-language tour she gives visitors spends most of its time showcasing Stalin the young rebel, Stalin the adviser to Lenin, Stalin the war leader who defeated Hitler, and Stalin the always-smiling father and grandfather.

The details of the murderous purges he ordered during his three decades in power, and the horrific system of gulag prison camps he established, are breezed past in the passive voice before visitors are ushered onward into another room dedicated to Stalin’s victorious role in the Second World War. “About 800,000 were shot, and the rest were sent to prisons, called prison camps. Unfortunately a lot of them died in these camps because of bad living conditions and hard working,” Ms. Topchishvili said.

Most historians would call that a massive understatement. While 800,000 is the official number of recorded executions during the Soviet era, independent researchers say about 1.5 million were executed, while five million more died in the gulags. Unmentioned in the Gori museum are six million to eight million others killed by famines caused by the forced collectivization campaigns launched under Stalin’s rule.

The museum receives about 30,000 to 35,000 visitors a year, Ms. Topchishvili said. “Many people think he was a great Soviet leader, that he was a hero.”

And her? “I’ve been working here for more than 30 years. I don’t think anything about Stalin any more.”

Gregory Shvedov, a member of the board for Memorial, a Russian human-rights organization dedicated to exposing Stalin’s crimes, said that despite increasing knowledge of them, the debate over the dictator’s legacy still lingers across the entire former Soviet Union.

“People say, ‘Maybe he was evil – but [look] how much he developed us. Everyone respected us. Everyone was afraid of our country,” Mr. Shvedov said. “This post-Soviet mentality will only leave after some generations, I’m afraid.”

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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