At the “Dry Bridge” open-air flea market in downtown Tbilisi, Leri Surmava was laying out knick-knacks on the grimy pavement: USSR passports and pension books, Red Army medals, coins embossed with hammers and sickles.
In the centre of this jumble of Soviet-era nostalgia was a photograph with a stern silhouette and an unmistakable moustache: Joseph Stalin.
“People like him aren’t born any more,” Surmava, 77, said of the Georgian-born dictator whose name is synonymous with gulag labour camps, bloody purges and man-made famines that killed millions across the former Soviet Union – including at least 300,000 in Georgia.
“He was an expert in every area. He was extremely intelligent and read a lot. He knew all the great writers’ works by heart and could quote them all.”
Surmava pointed towards a public garden a stone’s throw from the bridge, where a statue of “Soso” – the Georgian nickname for Stalin – used to stand before it was torn down in 1954 by his successor, Nikita Krushchev, who wanted to snuff out Stalin’s cult of personality.
“They should definitely bring the statue back,” he said, jabbing a finger. “I have his bust at home. Yes, I’m a Stalinist!”
Bringing Stalin’s statue back is no longer a taboo subject in Georgia, where many credit him with standing up to fascism in World War Two and turning the Soviet Union into a nuclear-armed superpower.
Sixty years after his death, one of the 20th century’s most murderous autocrats is enjoying something of a comeback. A handful of Georgian towns and villages have restored Stalin monuments and several others plan to do the same. A recent poll suggests 45 percent of Georgians approve of the dictator.
It’s a revival steeped in ambivalence and paradox.
While some Georgians profess respect for the home-grown strongman who ruled the communist world with an iron fist, others, including pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, say it’s wrong to honour a tyrant with so much blood on his hands.
“My mother’s family were all shot,” Alexander Randoli, a Georgian analyst, told a security seminar organised by Thomson Reuters Foundation in Tbilisi. “Many of my relatives were tortured and sent to Siberia. It’s a shame on our nation, that man.”
Critics also see monuments to Stalin as unwelcome reminders of Moscow’s lingering influence in Georgia two decades after it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Resentment of Russia flared when the two countries fought a brief war in 2008 over Georgia’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And it remains palpable today, not least along the administrative boundary lines of those regions, recognised by Moscow as independent states.
In recent weeks, the Russian military have been putting up barbed wire and fences along the boundary lines – a move Tbilisi calls a land grab.
Stalin statues have been resurrected in the provincial Georgian town of Telavi, in the Tbilisi suburb of Akura and in at least six villages around the country. All were defaced with paint within hours of being unveiled.
But the epicentre of controversy is Stalin’s hometown of Gori. Not far from the South Ossetian border, Gori was badly damaged during Georgia’s disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008.
A six-metre-high bronze statue had stood in the central square since 1952 – the only monument not torn down by Krushchev after Stalin’s death in 1953. Three years ago, Saakashvili had it removed as part of efforts to obliterate Soviet symbols.
The government now plans to restore it.
To visit Gori is to understand the selective way many Georgians remember Stalin’s legacy. At the Joseph Stalin Museum in the centre of town, little has changed since Soviet times. It’s a surreal, kitsch-filled journey into historical omission.
Stalin’s face looms enormous on tapestries, canvasses and marble busts. You can see the room he grew up in and the train carriage he rode in. In the gift shop, he peers out from matchboxes, coffee cups and hip flasks.
Splendid in a pink dress, pink blouse, pink scarf and pink pearls, the museum’s pink-haired tour guide led us through room after room of portraiture and memorabilia.
She told us everything – and nothing. How St Petersburg used to be called Petrograd and then became St Petersburg again. How Stalin was a good singer (though he didn’t play a musical instrument).
Not a peep about the purges or his bloody war on wealthy kulak peasants. No mention of his disastrous collectivisation of farms that led to the death of millions.
One room – apparently added as an afterthought – does contain a nod towards Stalin’s dark side, though few visitors see it since it tends to be locked or “closed for repairs”. A light bulb hanging from the ceiling supposedly represents his trademark political repression.
According to Russian journalist and human rights activist Gregory Shvedov, Stalin remains an important part of “post-Soviet consciousness” thanks to widespread recognition of how much he developed the USSR and got it respect.
Maybe respect is what some Georgians – still smarting from defeat by Russia in 2008 and fearful that Moscow is advancing on their territory – feel is lacking today.
Later at the South Ossetian border, Georgian border police with rifles were standing in a line in a field where the Russian military had been erecting a wire fence a few days earlier. A green sign in the distance proclaimed, in Cyrillic, the “Republic of South Ossetia”.
“It’s the Berlin Wall of our time,” said Georgi Sigauri, a Ministry of Interior Affairs official, a touch hyperbolically.
Asked what the Georgian border guards would do if the Russians came back to continue their fence-building, he said they could only look on helplessly.
One wonders what Stalin would have made of that.