Georgia of two minds
Gela Charkviani saw Josef Stalin in person only once. He was 11 at the time, but remembers every detail. It was 1950, and Charkviani's father Kandid had already served for 12 years as the first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party. On that extraordinary day, his father took him to Toshino, near Moscow, for the dedication ceremony of the first Soviet-made helicopters.
Young Gela remembers exactly where he was standing, overcome with excitement, to Stalin's left, as the helicopters hovered overhead. Suddenly, he recalls, Stalin looked up at the sky, leaned over toward his father, and commented, as if taken aback: "They look like big flies!" Charkviani understood every word, as Stalin used to speak with his father in Georgian, unless there were Russian-speakers in the room. He also remembers being amused by the great man's comparison.
Our conversation took place last week at the presidential offices in Tbilisi, the home of pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili, who entered office after the Rose Revolution in November 2003. There's a slightly ironic twist of history here: The son of the then-first secretary now happens to be the adviser and spokesman of the Georgian president, who is a favorite of the West.
Previous to its most recent incarnation as the president's offices, the large, somewhat gloomy building was the headquarters of the Communist Party in Tbilisi. Even before that, Gela Charkviani was born and had been raised in a small house that was on the same exact spot.
"Every day when I come to work I see through the windows the same trees I saw when I was a child. Trees, after all, do not die and are not replaced - like people," he says in a tone that makes it difficult to decipher the blend of irony and nostalgia. His immense personal knowledge about Stalin begins with the oral testimony he heard from his father, who was very close to the leader. On the basis of this personal knowledge, he is incensed by statements, including those of various biographers, that Stalin had distanced himself from his Georgian identity and from the land of his birth.
"It's nonsense," notes Charkviani. "Stalin never stopped meddling in Georgia's affairs, and not always to its benefit."
He then launches into another story. His father, Kandid, was an educated man of letters, who translated Heine into Georgian. Stalin thought very highly of the translation. One day, Kandid said in passing to Stalin that the Georgian poet Vazha Tchavela was a genius. Stalin said he hadn't read anything of his in a long time, and asked the first secretary to send him a few of his books.
A month or so later, Stalin phoned Kandid. "I'm sorry to disappoint you," he said. "He's a good poet, but not a genius. At a time when great Georgians are calling for national unity, he employs an incomprehensible language that does not help to foster social cohesion."
Yet this was not the last phone call on the matter. A month later, Stalin phoned again. "What have you done about Tchavela?" he asked. Kandid sprang into action. The phone call was the signal for the start of an organized crusade against the important poet, which culminated in his total denunciation.
"My father had no choice," says the son, 60 years on. "Had he refused, even my life would have changed."
A few years later, his father's life did change. His status plummeted and Stalin sacked him in 1952. Gela asked his father before his death in 1994 if Georgia had any special privileges under Stalin. "No," his father replied. "Unless you think in terms of connections. I had connections with him that other secretaries did not have."
Charkviani says that he himself was never an out-and-out Stalinist. He joined the Communist Party late in life, as the party did not want him when he was younger because he was a jazz musician a blatantly bourgeois profession. Already then, he knew a thing or two about what is now widely known about Stalin, and this generated in him the same sort of ambivalence that now characterizes the attitude of many Georgians to a man who was one of their own.
'Even worse' The campaign against Stalin, which began with the revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev, is seen as having been directed against Georgians in general. "I have no doubt that even if Stalin were an ethnic Russian he would have been criticized, but differently," charges Charkviani.
"There was an overt anti-Georgian tone to the criticism. The campaign against Stalin was not only personal; it was against Georgia in general. All of a sudden, Georgians were denied access to academic study, to the diplomatic service and to the centers of the elite in Moscow."
Once, when they were still living in Moscow, Charkviani went with his mother to the local market. "Jews," the vegetable seller yelled at them. When they explained that they were Georgians, not Jews, she responded: "Even worse."
In March 1956, nationalist emotions unleashed by the campaign against Stalin gave rise to turbulent demonstrations in Georgia. The young people in the streets were not necessarily pro-Stalin, but they were most certainly pro-Georgian. Many were killed. Charkviani, an architect and a diplomat, is to this day convinced that the seeds of the Georgian liberation movement 33 years later were sown in those demonstrations.
This duality in the attitude to Stalin is still salient in Georgia. Some are mortified that the man who is described as a monster was one of them; others feel a sense of pride that such a great man was one of them. Georgia does not have a Stalinist movement of the sort that now exists in Russia, but there is a small Stalinist association that is comprised largely of senior citizens, who are occasionally joined by peculiar youngsters.
Nevertheless, when the idea was raised to rebury Stalin in the land of his birth, a majority opposed the move. As did Charkviani. "He belongs to Russian history," he argued.
Denied a grave, some Georgians sustain his memory in other ways. In a village not far from the capital city of Tbilisi, one person has created a shrine of sorts. At the touch of a button, a statue of Stalin rises out of a pit in the ground; a wax likeness of his body lies in a small room, with chairs placed alongside it for the use of mourners. Someone else in the same village built a complicated mechanism that makes a life-size image of Stalin walk to and from on a porch, waving his hand in the familiar movement.
"Georgian society does not consider him a hero, but rather a person who left an enormous imprint on the world," says Irakli Alasania, 31, a young politician who was born on December 21, Stalin's birthday. "I have to admit that sometimes that is helpful, for example, for people who don't exactly know where Georgia is. That is the only benefit that I can think of for a man who caused the deaths of over 20 million people and created a system that destroyed Georgia, as well."
Wild landscape Without doubt, Maria - who asked to be identified solely by her given name - would not have appreciated this synopsis. Maria, 45, is a guide at the Stalin Museum, which is on Stalin Street in Gory, the town where he was born, which is set in a wild landscape.
Maria is a hard woman, practically the stereotype of a party member, who wears a necklace with a cross around her neck. Only when she begins to talk about her personal feelings for the Comrade Stalin does her face soften. The tone of the conversation is set at the start: "In 1936, the party's central council in Moscow decided to build a museum here. They wanted it to be a museum to Stalin, but he refused.
He said that there were still a lot of heroes in the Caucasus," Maria explains. It is known that Stalin recoiled at the idea of a personality cult, and he would presumably be infuriated if he knew that in 1957 the dilapidated building nevertheless became the Stalin Museum.
Maria is angered by the reporter's comment that already then a great deal was known about his deeds: "There were only a few isolated opponents, like Khrushchev," protests the guide, who studied history at university. "The people and the party were with him, and they loved him. Today, too. Without repression he would have been unable to build a state and a society in which people breathed like human beings. Everyone makes mistakes.
Even Stalin. But in the big picture, he was right. I lived in the society that he built, and emotionally speaking, I am for him. Now there is no justice, no equality, and no one from whom you could even ask for justice. Look at the difference: In his time, people were put in prison when they did not work; today, people are begging for work, and there is none."
Moving from photo to picture, from a document to a poem he wrote and published, she spins a version of the wondrous life of a revered leader, who was, by her account, also a loving son and devoted father. And even God-fearing. He was simply perfect. With extreme reverence she leads us to the round mourning room, at the center of which is a likeness of Stalin's head made of steel.
Afterward, she walks us out to the rickety wooden house where the boy Soso Dzhugashvili was born and raised. The building consists of a little room furnished with a bed and a wooden table. Nothing more. Off to the side is a bunch of flowers decorated with a ribbon. A fresh red rose is on the table. A marble structure was built around the wooden structure to protect it.
Maria is certain that history will yet prove that Stalin was right. She claims that most residents of Gory share this feeling, as do some of the foreign visitors who have begun to come to the museum. But even Maria is against moving Stalin's grave to Georgia. "Some people disagree with me," she says, "but Georgia is too small for his personality and his life's work."
Stalin's gift to Churchill On the outskirts of the capital city of Tbilisi is a brandy distillery founded by David Saradjishvili in 1884. Over the years, success has made the private enterprise into what is practically a national site. Standing in the large garden alongside the distillery, next to statues of the founders, is a likeness of Stalin. Locals explain that the statue has always been here, and that statues are not taken down.
Except that Stalin also did his part in promoting sales of the local brandy, of which he was so fond that he had bottles of it shipped to the Yalta conference during World War II. Churchill had a deep appreciation for the brandy, which he at first thought to be French. Later on, to mark Churchill's birthday, Stalin sent him as a gift 60 more bottles of what the great connoisseur had enjoyed so much.
In his thank-you note, Churchill wrote that he was very grateful, but was only sorry that he was not 100 years old, because then he would surely have received more.