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The late communist dictator Josef Stalin is arguably the most controversial native son of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Mixed feelings about Stalin, who defeated the Nazis, turned the Soviet Union into a world power, but also oversaw an iron-fisted regime that persecuted tens of millions of people, were on display recently, for example, when an environmental activist cum vandal threw paint on an icon that features Stalin in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, the capital of the Black Sea nation that 60 Minutes claimed was the birthplace of wine.
“A side panel of the icon includes a depiction of the Georgian-born Stalin – an avowed atheist who violently repressed religion across the Soviet Union – being blessed by Saint Matrona of Moscow, a Russian Orthodox (mystic and) saint, during World War Two,” wrote Reuters.
A national furor broke out over the incident. “What an insult and a mockery,” said popular playwright and commentator Lasha Bughadze, as reported by Eurasianet. “Behind this image are hundreds of thousands of martyred Georgians and millions of deaths.”
The church said the image was just representing a period of the saint’s life and Stalin was a bit player in the scene. Meanwhile, the group that donated the panel, the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, a right-wing populist party, said the image has been misinterpreted. Others remain nostalgic for the times when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.
But critics dispute that, saying that Stalin is represented – unlike other villains in the panes such as Satan – in a positive light, wrote the Netgazeti news website of Georgia.
Meanwhile, the vandal, Nata Peradze, became an instant hero for Georgian liberals but a target of attacks and threats from ultra-conservatives and the faithful, wrote Eurasianet. Facing criminal charges, her house was also surrounded by protestors whom she said wanted to harm her and the police officers trying to hold them back.
Besides setting off a debate over the past and the Church, the incident also reflects Georgia’s deep ambivalence today towards Russia, say analysts: It invaded Georgia in 2008 and established the Russian-allied breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the country’s territory, an episode that now looks like a dry run for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. CNN showed how even a recent fire in Abkhazia’s national art gallery could stoke political arguments over Russia.
These issues have become especially important as the Georgian parliament is set to schedule a general election this year.
Candidates have fallen into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps, reported Euractiv. The former welcomed the European Union’s decision late last year to grant Georgia membership-candidate status, a move that Atlantic Council researchers welcomed as crucial to fostering political independence, democracy, and human rights, in the small country. The pro-Russian camp wants to undermine that process even though, as World Politics Review noted, a poll last year put support for EU membership among Georgians at 89 percent.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire and former prime minister who is widely acknowledged as the power behind Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili of the Georgian Dream political party, for example, has been espousing “Kremlin disinformation narratives” – like claiming that EU membership could make Georgia too hospitable for LGBTQ communities – as Putin has sought to expand his country’s influence on its neighbor.
Russians who fled their country and settled in Georgia after the war in Ukraine started, whether to escape conscription or Putin’s police state, can feel the enmity of locals, explained Radio Free Liberty. Many of those migrants are now leaving. Some have moved to Serbia, where folks are more welcoming to Russians. The Russians, incidentally, injected much-needed foreign cash into the Georgian economy but also helped spur inflation that annoyed locals who saw spikes in living costs, added researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Georgia is in flux, caught up in forces it can’t control, says Le Monde. That is dividing not only how its population sees the past, but also how it views its future.