A TOURIST IN TIME: HOW CAN GEORGIANS TURN THEIR SOVIET PAST AND LOVE OF STALIN INTO A BENEFIT?
Several years ago, my friend told me that he found portions of his grandfather's sentencing files from the Stalin-era purges on the tables in the decor of the popular KGB cafe in Tbilisi.
His grandfather was one of the tens of millions of victims of Soviet repression and mass killings, those who were called "enemies of the people." These people, with their families or without, were killed in mass executions, performed by Chekists (from Cheka, secret service). Relatives were sent to Gulags, where hunger and death awaited them.
My friend's family went to the KGB-themed cafe and demanded that the papers be removed from the table display. Their wish was granted, but the question of how to treat Georgia's Soviet past remains.
How many more files like those are misplaced, lost or simply lying somewhere covered in dust?
Thoughts on Stalin in Georgia are decidedly mixed: people seem to be split between ignoring and being ashamed of their past, in an attempt to make it go away, or, on the other side, are overwhelmingly proud of the fact that Stalin was born here.
The Path of Poland
Why can't Georgia do the same as Poland, Romania, the Baltic countries and Germany? Why are we Georgians not facing our Soviet past in an orderly and constructive manner?
Nikoloz Rurua, a Georgian politician, and a former member of the Cabinet of Georgia, thinks that there is simply no readiness or "will" in Georgian society to do deal with its Soviet past.
He argues that even movies and documentaries are not made to enlighten the public. One exception is the famous film "Repentance," but critics argue the movie was too fake, sad and disturbing—too far from reality to make an impact.
Rurua, who established the Museum of Soviet Occupation in 2005, tells a fascinating story of how Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted with he learned about Tbilisi's plans to open the museum during then-President Mikheil Saakashvili's visit to Moscow.
While Putin considers Russia as a full and rightful heir of the Soviet Union legacy, the former Georgian government took drastic steps to awaken the wounds of Soviet repressions by creating the information-packed occupation museum inside the National Museum in the capital, Tbilisi.
The Georgian government also renovated the museum in Stalin's home town, removing his statue from the city center.
Putin was reportedly outraged at the name of the Museum of Soviet Occupation, which Rurua took as a compliment.
He says the conversation between Putin and Saakashvili— two fierce opponents— neatly summed up Georgia's decade-long attempt to break away from its Soviet past.
"Why call it a Soviet occupation museum? Georgians were among them, too," Putin reportedly said.
"Then why don't you open a museum of Kremlin occupation by Georgians?," Saakashvili replied.
A Vast Potential
There is vast potential to conduct countrywide tours around Georgia, where history lies deep in the ground in the form of mass graves and in the former NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) buildings and cellars that are falling apart—or being torn down— without any attention from the government.
In addition, the Gulag system existed not just in the cold, harsh Russian climate but also in Georgia— slave labor and camps all had their own history here.
While the current government has been criticized for appearing too concerned about Russia's feelings to dig up the past, other former Eastern Bloc countries have turned similarly painful legacies into a learning tool, and a draw for tourists.
Tourists want to see such places. At the moment, there are only the Occupation Museum and Stalin Museum to visit; they are not satisfying demand. On the same note, there is a desperate need for in-depth education, for students and schoolchildren to visit such places, as the school curriculum provides little information about Georgia's tragic past.
It's not surprising that, until now, only foreign writers, such as Simon Sedbag Montefiore, Robert Lafonte, Lawrence Scott Sheets, and others, have carried out detailed research work on Stalin.
Are Georgians unable to judge their own past the way other post-Soviet, Eastern European and Baltic peers have done? Do we need to wait for the next generation, those who have no memory of a Soviet childhood or connections, for an objective policy?
The archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs are certainly the first stop for any person interested in the details of the Soviet terror.
I have visited several rooms at the Ministry, which are packed with very informative materials, but are sadly not open to the public without special notice or permission from the authorities. While Russia descends into amnesia over Stalin and the Soviet past, Georgia's KGB archive from 1921-1990 is online in a searchable database as a vital act of memory. Cheka orders and files of those persecuted are available on website, but those who wish to look further and scan documents need to apply for permission.
The display documents date from the reign of Georgian royalty and the so-called Amirspasalaris—the royal servants who managed military forces— and continue up to the modern police force of today.
Georgia was occupied by the Soviet army in 1921— a small, happy republic terminated and overrun without a chance to defend itself.
The Ministry's displays include archival footage and black-and-white pictures of the Soviet army entering Tbilisi, already foreshadowing the dark future ahead as they marched through the city's streets, posing with the dead—those who perished in the unbalanced fight just outside the capital, Tbilisi—a sign that the cleansing of the so-called "enemies of the state" had begun.
The archives document the transformation of the Georgian police as well: in one room there is a tall mannequin wearing a sharp-cut leather jacket, a familiar look for the Chekist, who brought terror to the streets and minds of the newly created Soviet republics.
On the table of Lavrenti Beria, the notorious head of the NKVD, killer and sex predator of those times, his ink blotter still bears the marks of those he sentenced to death. His large table is topped with green marble, a sign of his power and wealth. Everything, from the table to the typewriter of the secretary who typed his murderous decrees, smells of blood and fear.
The key to could be Beria's boss, Stalin himself: sadly, even mass murderers have their fans, and there are plenty of such fans in Georgia.
Statues erected to the former leader and local son are scattered around the country, and there are personal collections and mini-museums, which could be open to public if arranged.
Some groups are already trying to use what remains in the public domain to educate tourists and locals alike about Georgia's tragic past.
Irakli Khvadagiani, who joined this effort, has worked on a Soviet Past Research Laboratory project entitled "Red Terror Topography," information about which can be found at sovlab.ge. The project "develops routes of repressions and terror in the center of Tbilisi (Sololaki-Mtatsminda district) and prepares educational programs, based on archive and library materials, memories and oral histories," according to the website.
I was told that the history of one of my favorite old streets in Tbilisi, Machabeli and Ingorokva, provides a real sense of how terror spread in those days, as the purges seem to have touched nearly every building.
Khvadagiani worries, however, that the group's six years of work has failed to make a major local impact because their support mostly comes from the West and their work is largely based on Western experiences. But the work of Sovlab, even with its regular tours of sites in Tbilisi, is too little to cover the entire history of the Soviet terror.
Government participation and help is crucial, especially when it comes to the main evidence, such as houses, cellars and routes, used by the repression machine, which now require protection from possible destruction due to age or investors wanting to "renovate" the historic areas.
"There is one such amazing house, in a terrible state, where the cellars were used as prison cells, which includes isolation chambers still bearing the writings on the walls of those prisoners, untouched," Khvadagiani said. "No one thinks to preserve those places for the future," he added.
The slowing building boom in Tbilisi's historic quarters has provided the organizers of those tours time to raise awareness. They have reached out to President Giorgi Margvelashvili to help save his own childhood home, as the building once housed a NKVD detention cell, and holds invaluable history of the people who were held there.