The devotion some elderly people feel for Joseph Stalin never really surprised me. My grandfather praised him and kept photos of the Soviet leader next to his bed. I was never brave enough to challenge him about his reverence, and many others of his age, for his former comrade. Then, last December, I travelled to Gori, the city where Stalin was born on December 18, 1878, and discovered that even people my generation, who are 20-something, share the same admiration. Now, that came as a surprise — I could not understand how people my age could gather and celebrate the birthday of a person whose ideology could not be more distant from the principles of freedom and human rights I believe in.
Joseph Stalin was born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili in Gori, a town of 48,000 people in central, Georgia. There, admiration for the (in)famous fellow citizen has outlived the man, and the Communist empire he helped to build one hundred years ago with the 1917 revolution.
Stalin himself listed his birthday as 18 December 1878 in his curriculum vitae, with his own handwriting. However, after his coming to power in 1922, Stalin changed the date to 21 December 1879, making himself look a year younger. Today, on every December 21, locals celebrate Stalin’s birthday by gathering in the courtyard of the Stalin Museum.
They light up candles, bring flowers, and make speeches dedicated to comrade Koba, Stalin’s nickname, and his heroism. Later they march with bouquets, photos, and portraits towards the city’s main square, where a 20ft bronze statue of his stood until 2010.
According to a 2012 survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, 27% of the Georgian population agrees with the statement: “Our people will always have need of a leader like Stalin, who will come and restore order.” Moreover, 45% of respondents have positive attitudes towards Stalin; while 21% have, negative. Indeed, young Georgians are more critical than elder ones are — 42% of the respondents above 56 years of age want to live and work in the country ruled by a person like Stalin; while only 11% of the interviewees between 18 and 35 would provide the same answer.
Yet, 19 year-old Keto Lazarishvili thinks that history has been unfair to Stalin. “His actions are scrutinized through a magnifying glass, those times, and lots of unexplained facts are perceived negatively.”
“The idea of the Soviet Union had a lot of drawbacks and, of course, I don’t like many things about it, but I will always have a positive opinion about Stalin and respect him. He is a fellow citizen of Gori. He went through the same path in life as many others but he was the one who managed to seize power and realize his childhood dreams. Who knows, he probably dreamt about a united world, in which everyone is free, equal and employed, the TV always broadcasts positive news, everyone wears similar clothes and everyone is happy,” added Keto.
Jaba Giunashvili notes that even Stalin’s enemies recognized his intelligence, calling him an “evil genius.” The 33-year-old economist says, “Stalin was a big believer, especially at the end of his life. He was the best strategist of all time. I inherited a love of Stalin from my father and grandfather. I listened to their stories and read books. I’m not saying that he’s the best, but I love him, because he was very talented. He deserves my respect, and today, on his birthday, I will dedicate special toasts to him.”
“He was the greatest person in the history of humanity as a politician and as a person with a phenomenal mind and talent that was gifted from God. He was from Gori and we’re proud of him” — said 31-year-old Dato Khachidze.
Once the birthday celebration in the streets of Gori finished, I headed to a place I was recommended to visit by those very supporters.
In 2009 42-year-old Giorgi Kandelaki, a well-known Georgian boxer who won the world championship in 1996, opened the “Sport Cafe.” It is a very popular hangout in the city which is nothing special really except for one detail — the Stalin room.
The room showcases memorabilia of the Soviet leader and is a big hit among locals and tourists alike, especially foreigners.
Kandelaki also owns a Stalin-themed souvenir shop.