The Georgian government took down a towering statue of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin Thursday night. Two things that make this story noteworthy are that the statue was located in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, and that Georgian officials for some reason decided to take the statue down in the middle of the night. There is speculation that they removed Stalin under the cover of darkness to avoid any protests, though it’s hard to tell if there would have been protests in the first place. Gori has a strange relationship with Stalin: like in Russia, he remains popular among older people who survived World War II, who tend to remember him as the “strong leader” who saved the Soviet Union from the Nazis; younger people though tend to view Stalin more harshly (focusing instead on the gulags, forced labor, ethnic persecutions, etc.); the fact that their hometown is also his birthplace is something of an embarrassment.
Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili said: “a memorial to Stalin has no place in the Georgia of the 21st Century,” echoing the younger generation’s viewpoint of the Soviet leader. Stalin’s replacement though is likely to provoke further controversy: the statue’s pedestal will be recycled and used as the base for a memorial dedicated to the nearly 400 Georgians killed or still missing from the country’s August 2008 conflict with Russia. The two sides fought a five-day war over Georgia’s two breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Gori is located just a few miles from the border with South Ossetia). Georgia initially framed the conflict as a Russian invasion, though increasingly international analysis has shown Georgia started the fighting when they shelled the Ossetian capital city, Tskhinvali during the night of August 7. Since the conflict, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have both declared their independence, a claim only recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries.