Understanding Stalin’s Cult of Personality in Today’s Reality

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თინათინ ზურაბიშვილი, CRRC, და ირაკლი ხვადაგიანი, SovLab

Kutaisi, 5 April, 2013

Stalin still evokes sympathy decades and generations later, as more time passes that sets us apart from him. What do schools teach pupils about Stalin, and why does the new generation feel sympathy for Stalin’s image? These are speculations and questions that were discussed during the debates held by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Kutaisi, entitled “Understanding Stalin’s Cult of Personality in Today’s Reality”. The main participants at the meeting were high school and university students.

Before opening the public debates portion of the event, the audience listened to speakers. The first speaker was Irakli Khvadagiani, a historian and the representative of the Soviet Past Research Laboratory. He spoke about Georgian society’s positive attitude towards Stalin, according to an opinion poll. This attitude is especially strong in Gori, where they even said prayers on his birthday. However, as Mr. Khvadagiani noted, Stalin is not an important topic of conversation in everyday life. There are no specific answers to the question, “What do we know about Stalin?”  Georgian society disembodies him and speaks about him as in regard to a cult. Under contemporary circumstances, when values are being reassessed and the young generation generally views this cult of personality from a different standpoint, Stalin’s image becomes meaningless.  However, participants did not agree with Mr. Khvadagiani’s position; on the contrary, they insisted on having a more positive position about Stalin.

The second speaker, Vasil Peradze, was also a historian. He drew parallels between different countries and periods when societies developed the need for having a cult of personality. Mao Zedong, Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese Emperor and Stalin – what do they have in common and how do they differ? Why have they been recognized as cults of personality? Why is German society apologetic about Nazism? These were the issues that Mr. Peradze talked about.

Tamta Turmanidze, an art critic, talked substantially about cult images in cinematography and different spheres of culture, Stalin’s icons and the candles lit for him, Stalin’s phenomenon and an unconscious demand for the iron fist that frequently exists even today. As Tamta Turmanidze said, people still have an expectation that a savior will come, and this is exactly what causes the creation of a cult of personality. “The anticipation of a savior exists only when there is something wrong in the country and the society cannot do anything about it, and that is why they need a savior”. The desire of having a cult of personality around Stalin still exists in the current society, revealed by popular attention towards certain individuals or institutions. The church frequently plays this role, and that is exactly why the people with power become icons and are being worshipped.

The fourth speaker at the debates was Tinatin Zourabishvili, the director of the Caucasus Research Resource Centre. He talked about the CRRC’s research findings. As we learned, the survey of the Research Centre included a few questions about Stalin. It turned out that 27% of the interviewed persons in Georgia feel respect for Stalin. The question whether they wanted to live and work in the country ruled by a person like Stalin, was responded negatively by 63% of the interviewed. As Tinatin Zourabishvili commented, Georgians and Russians gave similar answers to many questions, which creates a certain impression that the Soviet mentality still persists in post-Communist countries.  
There were different opinions expressed during the debates: “The cult must not be associated with the homeland, in this case, with Georgia”; “Stalin saved us from Hitler”; “The problem is that we did not demand that our ancestors answer for   their guilt”; “Schools and universities should devote more time to studying this issue”; “I respect Stalin for his strength”. The debaters were mostly students who expressed varying opinions on the above issue.