Even after war, many Georgians revere Stalin
GORI, Georgia: With his signature mustache, medal-encrusted Soviet marshal's uniform and determination to be addressed as "Comrade," the Stalin impersonator Jamil Ziyadaliev should perhaps be out of work in Georgia, a country still reeling from a war with Russia.
But Ziyadaliev, 64, an avuncular father of two who dresses as Stalin even on days off, insists that business has seldom been better. He is a frequent hired guest at weddings, where he dances to Soviet Katyusha music from World War II.
The benefits of looking eerily like the former dictator, he boasts, include free meals, free car repairs ? and free passage through Russian checkpoints.
"Looking like Stalin is like having a visa in Georgia," said Ziyadaliev, a Muslim originally from Azerbaijan, who drove a taxi, peddled vegetables and worked as an accountant before deciding on a career as a modern incarnation of the brutal, diabolically brilliant Soviet tyrant.
"All Georgians respect Stalin, because he was a great leader who created a great empire ? and of course, he was the most famous Georgian who ever lived," Ziyadaliev said.
Not everyone agrees. Nika Jabanashvili, a Georgian construction worker whose grandparents were deported by Stalin from Tbilisi to Central Asia as part of his repression of ethnic minorities, views Stalin as little more than a murderer.
"Stalin was a Satan," he said. "He killed more people than Pharaoh. I don't care if he was Georgian. He was a bad man."
Whatever the range of opinions, an enduring cult of Stalin persists in this small but proud nation of 4.6 million, where the Georgian-cobbler's-son-turned-20th-century-titan remains a towering if contentious figure. A recent survey on Tbilisi Forum, a popular political Web site, asked whether people were proud that Stalin was Georgian; a vocal minority of 37 percent of the several hundred respondents said yes, while 52 percent said no and 11 percent said they did not care.
Vakhtang Guruli, a historian of Georgia who works in the KGB archives in Tbilisi, said that most Georgians regarded Stalin as "higher than man, more than human and less than God."
He said contemporary Georgian history books still lauded Stalin for vanquishing Hitler's fascism and transforming the Soviet Union into an industrial superpower, even as they criticized him for engineering the Red Army invasion that ended Georgia's short-lived independence in 1921.
Stalin's lust for power, Guruli added, was a decidedly Georgian characteristic, the outgrowth of having an outsize ego in a tiny, macho country long consumed by banditry.
"Russians tend to forget that Stalin had a Georgian last name, Dzhugashvili, which was overshadowed when he adopted the nom de guerre of Stalin, meaning man of steel, when he was in his 30s," Guruli said. "But every Georgian knows Stalin came from here. He may have given his execution orders in Russian, but he did so with a heavy Georgian accent" ? a lineage, Guruli said, that Khrushchev seized on after he denounced Stalin's rule in 1956, mocking him and his henchmen as uncouth Georgian peasants.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of "Young Stalin," which chronicles Stalin's violent upbringing as an aspiring priest who became a Marxist revolutionary in Tbilisi, said that even when Stalin became the supreme Soviet leader, he retained a deep attachment to Georgia.
He wrote frequently to his mother here, vacationed in Abkhazian sea resorts and retained an abiding love of Georgian wine, food, poetry and folk music.
"There are two Stalins: the Russian Stalin and the Georgian Stalin," Sebag Montefiore said. "In the Georgian version, Stalin is still the street Marxist, the Georgian boy from Gori. In the Russian version, Stalin is the most important leader of the 20th century and his Georgian identity has been laundered and Russified."
Liana Imanidze, 71, whose grand home in Tbilisi has a sculpture of Stalin in the backyard and is decorated inside with a replica of his death mask perched on a pedestal, lamented that younger Georgians were ignorant about Stalin, including her own grandchildren, who she complained were more interested in Paris Hilton than in World War II.
She regretted that her Stalin-worshiping husband was "more in love with Stalin than with me," but she nevertheless lauded Stalin as a flawed genius.
Sociologists here said the residual appeal resulted from the lack of historical reckoning about Stalin's darker deeds after Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
In Gori, Stalin's birthplace, a dusty provincial town where a marble Stalin statue dominates the central square, toasts to "our great comrade" remain commonplace at births and weddings. Embarrassed Georgians in the Ministry of Interior said privately that they were disappointed a Russian bomb had not landed on the statue during the August war.
On a recent day at the Stalin Museum here, young Georgian staff members in Soviet military uniforms sold Stalin T-shirts, Stalin poetry books and bottles of red wine embossed with Stalin's image, even as cleaners removed mortar left over from the recent Russian shelling.
Olga Topchishvili, the museum's senior tour guide, said she had been extolling Stalin's accomplishments for nearly 30 years, until three months ago, when the museum added a "gulag section." The section consists of a laminated, letter-size piece of paper quoting three sentences from a 1997 issue of Pravda, the Russian newspaper: "About 3.8 million people were prosecuted between 1921 and 1954," the paper says. "About 643,000 people were sentenced to death. And this happened in a country that experienced three revolutions, two world wars, one civil war and several local wars."
Exact figures are unknown, but historians say the reality was far more murderous: that as many as 18 million people were sentenced to the gulag under Stalin, while up to 10 million peasants died or were killed in the collectivization of the early 1930s, and nearly one million people were executed in the purges of 1937-38.
But Topchishvili said the new exhibit was progress: "Until three months ago, no one wanted to talk about this part of history."
Jacob Jugashvili, the dictator's 36-year-old great-grandson, an artist in Tbilisi, said that if Georgians were nostalgic for Stalin, it was because he made a small country part of a great superpower. Jugashvili, who grew up in Moscow, said that when Georgians hear his famous surname, they almost always respond, "Stalin was Georgian; that is why he was great!"
Jugashvili, who favors the Westernized spelling of his name, said that growing up as Stalin's great-grandson in 1980s Russia was emotionally difficult, as Stalin's leadership was attacked under Mikhail Gorbachev. At that time, he said, Georgians were far more respectful of his legacy ? though in Vladimir Putin's Russia, Jugashvili said, Stalin's stature has again risen.
In 1989 he was in high school, "and perestroika had reached its boiling point," he said, adding: "Moscow newspapers were publishing stories with the headline 'Dzhugashvili Is a Killer!' I was 16 years old and I was very upset. I didn't know how to defend myself."
These days, respect for Stalin can unite Georgians and Russians.
Nodari Baliashvili, 72, a Gori native who has a large tattoo of Stalin on his back and another of Stalin and Lenin on his chest, recalled that after war broke out in early August, he was working as a security guard at a bus depot when a Russian colonel burst in and pointed a pistol at him.
Baliashvili recalled that he took off his shirt and the colonel "put his gun down, kissed me on the cheek, gave me a bottle of vodka and chocolates, and said, 'Grandpa, go home.' "
Baliashvili, who got the tattoos as a young soldier in the Soviet Army, said his own grandfather, a poor orphan from Gori, had been adopted by Stalin's father, who made him an apprentice cobbler.
"I'm proud that Stalin comes from Gori," Baliashvili said. "He built the USSR He brought order where there was chaos. Today, everything is for sale."