By Felix Light
TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgian authorities are investigating the defacing of a recently-installed icon in Tbilisi’s main cathedral depicting Josef Stalin, a case that has exposed deep divisions in Georgia over the former Soviet dictator’s legacy in his homeland.
An unknown culprit splashed paint on Tuesday on the icon, which has been displayed in Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral for several months, Georgia’s Interpress news agency reported. Footage on social media showed the icon defaced with blue paint.
A side panel of the icon includes a depiction of the Georgian-born Stalin – an avowed atheist who violently repressed religion across the Soviet Union – being blessed by St Matrona of Moscow, a Russian Orthodox saint, during World War Two.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry has launched an investigation into the paint throwing incident, Interpress said, without providing any more details. The icon has since been cleaned and the cathedral placed under police guard.
A Georgian nationalist party called the Alliance of Patriots, which has also expressed pro-Russian views, said it had gifted the icon to the cathedral. President Vladimir Putin has sought to rehabilitate Stalin in Russia in recent years as part of efforts to bolster national pride.
A former member of Georgia’s parliament, Giorgi Kandelaki, first drew public attention last weekend to the presence of the icon in the cathedral, condemning it as a politically motivated move to boost Stalin’s reputation.
“I’m angry because the idea of this icon is to glorify Stalin and to present him in a positive light. One of the biggest mass murderers in history, the creator of the Soviet totalitarian regime,” Kandelaki told Reuters.
Stalin was born Josef Dzugashvili in 1878 in the Georgian town of Gori, where a museum commemorating his life and work continues to attract a steady stream of tourists, though a statue of the dictator in the town square was removed in 2010.
After consolidating his power following the death in 1924 of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand until his death in 1953.
While Stalin’s supporters – in Russia as well as in Georgia – hail him as the man who defeated Nazism in World War Two, his detractors see a bloodthirsty dictator who sent millions to the Gulag labour camps and presided over the Great Terror of 1936-38 in which historians say up to 1.2 million people perished.
Former MP Kandelaki, who now works at Tbilisi’s Soviet Past Research Laboratory, a think-tank, said some Georgians – and not just older people nostalgic for Soviet times – believed Stalin had been a secret Christian trying to preserve ancient culture even as he oversaw the systematic persecution of religion.
“Thirty years after Georgia regained its independence (from Moscow), Georgian society has somehow not really settled the account around this individual,” Kandelaki said.
A 2021 poll by the Caucasus Research Information Centre showed that a majority of Georgians believed both that Stalin was a tyrant responsible for millions of deaths and that he was also a strong leader who brought prosperity to the Soviet Union.
Nearly half of respondents said Georgian patriots should be proud of Stalin, the poll showed.
Outside the cathedral on Wednesday, too, Georgians seemed similarly conflicted over Stalin.
“He was a big, big person,” said grandmother Mariam Babunashvili. “He was a godsend and we need more like that.”
However, Natia Bosler, 29, said she felt “insulted” by the depiction of Stalin in the icon.
“Stalin did many bad things to people. He ruined people’s lives and there is no place for him there,” she said.
(Reporting by Felix Light; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)