Even mass murderers have their fans.
Josef Stalin is back in his home country of Georgia, 60 years after his death, thanks to his admirers.
The former Soviet leader’s stern features are once again staring out across town squares as statues are resurrected. Visitors are flocking to the collection of Ushangi Davitashvili, who says Stalin should be remembered, if not worshipped, as a strong statesman and Georgian hero.
Opponents of the tyrant have toppled the sculptures and covered them in paint, only to see them promptly restored. The conflict mirrors the Black Sea country’s political divisions, disagreement on how to attract visitors and its relations with neighboring Russia, which is also divided on Stalin’s legacy.
“Stalin was among the most bloodthirsty dictators in history,” Giorgi Kandelaki, a lawmaker for the United National Movement of Georgia, says in an interview in Tbilisi. “The problem is that many people in the Georgian Dream coalition sincerely think he was a good guy.”
Meanwhile, at Davitashvili’s home in Tbilisi, Stalin is always looking down on the veteran museum owner as he sleeps: a huge portrait of a benign general secretary hangs over his bed.
“Sorry, you have to see my collection without me,” says the frail 83-year-old, wearing a white vest and stripy pajama pants, as he lifts his injured left foot onto the mattress.
Davitashvili, who once drove an official yellow Gaz-24 taxi, has gray hair and mustache. He has a kind smile and seems an unlikely champion for a tyrant.
Stalin was born as Josef Jughashvili in Georgia. His mother was religious and he won a scholarship to the Tiflis Seminary. He was later expelled and discovered the ideas of Karl Marx. Davitashvili’s family is also religious; his son is a priest.
Davitashvili’s outdoor exhibition, which at first glance looks like a botanical garden, contains 40 displays of Stalin’s life. There are items from Stalingrad and all over the former Soviet Union including life-size statues and a replica of the modest wooden house where the future leader was born.
Stalin played a key role in the invasion and occupation of independent and democratic Georgia in 1921, Kandelaki says. This resulted in extermination of hundreds of thousands of Georgians.
Davitashvili’s admiration of Stalin is so intense that he doesn’t accept the criticism of even the 1930s Great Purge in which “saboteurs” were imprisoned, tortured and jailed.
“He defeated fascism, this is what matters the most,” says Davitashvili, touching Stalin’s huge portrait by his pillow. “And life was cheap and affordable too.”
Nikita Khrushchev, who won a power battle after Stalin died, told a 1956 party congress that the last leader ordered the execution of thousands of loyal communists.
The idea for Davitashvili’s 100 square meter (1,076 square feet) memorabilia garden started at this time.
“Khrushchev wasn’t fair to Stalin,” he says. “I absolutely had to start my collection to prove them all wrong!”
Georgia followed Russia in trying to erase Stalin’s image. Stalingrad and smaller cities renamed, his ashes were taken from the Kremlin Wall and portraits removed.
The countries fought a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008. Relations remain tense.
A bronze Stalin statue was secretly dismantled overnight in his home town of Gori in June 2010. Georgia’s parliament voted to ban Soviet symbols in 2011, 20 years after the country declared independence.
U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is still in office, called the statues a reminder of Soviet control.
Saakashvili’s party was unexpectedly defeated by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition in October 2012 parliamentary elections. While Stalin was hardly an issue, Prime Minister Ivanishvili wants to improve ties with Russia and also has a strong pro-western instinct.
The new government wants nothing to do with this issue, even with Stalin’s well-wishers in its coalition. Maya Fanjikidze, Georgia’s foreign minister, commented on restoring Stalin’s monuments in a televised speech.
“I do not welcome this action, quite contrary I condemn it,” she said. “I consider this a private initiative only.”
Georgia’s tourism industry’s share of economic output has grown to 7 percent in 2012 from 5 percent in 2011. There are mixed views on whether Stalin will attract or scare away visitors.
Thousands of tourists have walked through Davitashvili’s little Statin oasis, which has free admission. There is a stack of 18 thick blue visitor books.
“There are just way too many memories to read.” Davitashvili says. The one that he is mostly proud of is the visit from some KGB agents. “They were not demanding anything, they just wanted to look,” he says.
The museum was also seen by Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva (Lana Peters), who had heard about it in the U.S.
“It isn’t true that she hated her dad,” Davitashvili says. “It’s just Stalin was not giving her the privileges. Stalin was tough and his toughness got him where he was.”
Meanwhile the city council in Gori is considering plans to rebuild the monument if it can get funds.
Statues were reinstated in the eastern Tbilisi suburb of Akura and also in Alvani, where villagers made speeches, recited poems and talked of “happier times” during Stalin’s reign. The village governor Otar Khatiashvili said that only money from private donations had been spent.
Both figures were toppled and sprayed with pink paint within a few days of each other and quickly restored again.
“The mere fact of talk, let alone reinstatement, of these statues is a disgrace for Georgia,” lawmaker Kandelaki says.
Even so, 45 percent of Georgians approve of Stalin, according to one poll.
“Throughout history, dictators have this certain kind of “charm” and people believe in their absolute powers,” says Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. “After World War II, there was Denazification in Germany, while there was no Desovietization here.”
(Helena Bedwell writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The views expressed are her own.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Helena Bedwell in Tbilisi at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.