On 5 March, cities and towns across the former Soviet Union marked the 60th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin. Reactions to the anniversary were as varied as the opinions on Stalin's regime: while aging Communist stalwarts gathered to eulogize their deceased leader, others took the opportunity to quietly remember those killed in Stalin's purges.
But weeks earlier, some in Stalin’s homeland had made their thoughts on the strongman known in a more splashy way.
On 19 January, residents of the northeastern Georgia town of Zemo Alvani awoke to find a recently restored Stalin statue covered in pink paint. Although no evidence was found, most residents blamed supporters of Georgia’s previous government, led by President Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which had removed the statue in 2011. Its restoration in December was hotly contested.
Then on 7 February, a similar fate befell a Stalin statue in a village about 45 kilometers (28 miles) away. That one, too, had been recently restored after being taken down in 2010.
Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia. In a recent poll by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 68 percent of Georgians surveyed agreed that he “was a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity,” though a majority said they would not like to live in a country ruled by such a person. That seeming ambivalence is down to Georgians’ pride that one of their own rode atop the Soviet empire and to a lack of education and honest re-evaluation of Stalin, according to Georgian historian Lasha Bakradze.
“For many Georgians, Stalin thus simply remains a strong personality whom the whole world held in fear. As such, he has turned into an object of local patriotism and popular devotion. In but one example, 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,” Bakradze wrote in the Carnegie report.
More immediately, the statues, like virtually everything else in Georgia, have become part of a struggle between two poles of power: Saakashvili and his allies versus the new government, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition.
In December, the leader of a Georgian political party allied with the new government told TOL, “The younger generation must know that Stalin is an advertisement for the country. We should change the wrong direction that the previous government had so that we can have Stalin monuments in the places where they deserve to be in the history of the country.”
No theories yet as to why the statue-attackers chose pink paint as their weapon. One lawmaker from Saakashvili’s side referred to the culprits as “a pink Zorro.”