Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, age 17 (later known as Joseph Stalin)
One of the most unnerving things I learned while in Russia last summer was that Joseph Stalin’s reputation isn’t all that bad. I expected that the propaganda, purges, and mass murders during Stalin’s reign would weigh heavily on the collective memory of Russians. But that didn’t seem to be the case.
Just two months ago, The New York Times reported on the apparent revival of Stalin’s popularity when the city of Volgograd decided to change its name back to Stalingrad for six days each year, purportedly in honor of the Soviet soldiers who died during the Great Patriotic War (World War II):
“Polls have shown rising popularity for the former Soviet dictator, despite his responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions of his countrymen. Data from the Levada Center, a Moscow-based polling agency, showed that in 2012 only 22 percent of Russians said Stalin played a ‘negative role’ in the country’s development, down from 60 percent in 1998.”
Now that I live in “Uncle Joe’s” home country, I was curious to hear what Georgians had to say about him. And, naturally, to go to his hometown and take pictures of his toilet.
Most responses to questions about Stalin here are accompanied with a wry smile. “Yea, yea, we know… But he did take good care of Georgia while he was in power.” A coworker explained to me that the older generations tend to perceive Stalin as a “victim of the system,” a Georgian boy who wrote poetry and sang in the church choir until he was corrupted by the “monster” Lenin. Friends in my generation explained that in their grade schools, Stalin was presented dryly as a past leader of the Soviet Union, neither a hero nor a villain. He is referred to as a strong and skilled leader.
On yet another workday excursion, I stepped out of our branch office in Gori to visit the Stalin Museum. I was fascinated by this “museum of a museum,” a relic of the Soviet Era intentionally unchanged since 1979. Nearby, visitors can visit Stalin’s childhood home, and tour his private train car. A veritable Stalinpalooza.
Gori isn’t only a Stalin theme park. This small city was battered by the war with Russia in 2008, and is still surrounded by rows upon rows of “temporary” IDP housing, where displaced Georgians have been living for five years with little hope of relocation. When hardship is so ingrained in people’s live, I can understand the nostalgia for Soviet times. Putin is a much more relevant villain these days.