Teona Phankvelashvili, 34-years-old, Gori
I was brought up in a kind of family where, you know, they told me at the age of 5 that all I was told about Stalin and Lenin in the nursery was a lie and we didn’t speak of them in our family since these two had never done anything good for Georgia. They also told me that we, Georgian, had much better historical figures which I could be proud of. And my grandfather, participant in the WWII having received a fair amount of awards, didn’t use to be proud of having fought in the war and had never worn those medals. Everyone around me reckoned so, so it seemed to me that all the others thought the same way. In those days, people used to avoid speaking about these things so openly because of the political views of the government at that time. It was after political changes when discussions about restoring Stalin statue resumed, and eventually, photographs of Stalin also appeared in kiosks and hotels.
Unluckily, it seems the destiny of the town (Gori) has been shaped by the fact of Stalin being born here. This is why Stalinists from all around the country come here in Gori every year, where, they say, their love to Stalin flourishes most. May 9, 2015, was, however, shocking and depressing to me and it woke some of us up. Imagine, lots of people from different regions of Georgia waving flags of SSSR and Russia. Meanwhile, an American flag was burning with the cries in the background demanding to restore Stalin’s statue. Now it was a burning question if there is anybody left in the town who’s going to raise voice against it in protest?! I remember, there were two weeks left until May 9, 2016. We knew they were going to hold annual march again. So, we started our arrangements having agreed on the most important thing: to avoid entering into conflict with them at all costs.
We decided not to hold a counter rally but to celebrate Europe Days starting from May 8. We’ve been already campaigning for three years now under a major slogan “We decide on progress”. On the first day, we bring schoolchildren from different schools throughout the occupation line who attend the discussion on totalitarianism, liberty and democracy. We try to provide them with actual knowledge of what the Soviet past really was. We also arrange their meetings with EU mission representatives giving them talk about what European Union has been doing for this country and why they are patrolling where these young people live. We believe that willing to win this battle, we should start with children education as children are only ones who can bring this knowledge to their families.
On the second day, that is, May 9th, when Stalinists get marching, we hold a lecture on totalitarianism at Gori University. While they are marching, we together with students discuss the importance of liberty and what the Soviet Union has brought to our country.
The same day, in the evening, we hold a rally-concert at the main town square inviting our supporter bands to play. We, of course, have nothing against veterans who feel nostalgic and admire Stalin. Victory over fascism is unquestionably the great historical event; however, we reckon 21st century is more the era of progress and development. Therefore, waving red and Russian flags on the town square which Russian planes were bombing merely 10 years ago, and when more than 20 percent of your country is occupied by Russia, is very humiliating. This country has been punished for striving for freedom and progress. We must understand that.
Debates about putting back Stalin statue began in 2015; it’s been lobbied by Gorelebi (People of Gori) – the group of local businessmen and influential people. They appealed to the city council and demanded to restore the monument where it originally stood. Meeting at the city council was appointed on October 2, so we started writing letters and informing various organisations. And on the previous day, we had a meeting with the deputies. We tried to explain that the decision of the kind was going to harm the country’s reputation, which was striving for democratic values. I remember, at the session, one of the businessmen jogging the mayor’s memory that they’ve supported him because he promised to restore the monument. They made it clear that he’s going to lose their support unless he keeps his promise. It was shocking to hear some businessman talking to your town mayor in that tone of voice telling him why they’ve supported his arrival to the power. The scene at the session was also curious; There were five of us – all girls – sitting at one side of the table protesting against restoring Stalin statue, and telling them this decision will be considered a crime in the 21st century and that it’s unacceptable erecting dictators’ statues.
And at the other side of the table, there were big, influential men sitting and throwing insults at us like “Be you a boy, I’d take you out and beat the pants off you”, or “What on earth you look like”, “Couldn’t dye your hair better?”, “Go, wash your face” etc. They got also irritated by the fact that we confronted them. Their attitude was “Who are you and what have you done so far?!”. While debating, we were relying on Charter of Liberty approved by the parliament in 2011. Charter says unambiguously that there mustn’t be totalitarian and fascist symbols in the country and left ones must be removed. At that meeting, the question of returning the monument failed.
“One of the main streets in Gori still bears the name of Stalin. And it may be the most disgraceful and cynical that Stalin street crosses the one of Ilia Chavchavadze’s.
We started writing letters to the prime minister, parliament and other institutions with the request to rename the main street in Gori. Charter of Liberty should come into force, yet the Charter council haven’t assembled to date, so the issue remains open. But we’re not going to give up and every now and then remind them of it.
We tried guerrilla activism too. For instance, one night we went to Stalin street and covered every house number sign with ones with Maro Maqashvili name on them. We wanted people living here to wake up on Maro Maqashvili street next morning. The following day, news spread in media that activists renamed Stalin street although nobody knew there were those 5 activist girls behind it, who had left anonymous inscriptions “This street was bombed by RUSSIA” on pavements on 7th August too. Afterwards, there were loads of negative and insulting comments in social media such as “Who the hell are you”, “Stalin was a great man and who are you, little squirts?” etc. In real life, we haven’t faced more serious attacks. I guess they reckon we are nothing – too unimportant for them to pay attention. Therefore, the main street in Gori will always bear Stalin’s name, and 5 girls couldn’t do a thing against wealthy and influential men.
Our major aim is to start a discussion about the street name. Of course, we do like the idea of Maro Maqashvili street, but the main thing is it shouldn’t bear Stalin’s name, but some other Georgian’s, be it Machabeli, Vazha-Pshavela, Rustaveli or Iakob Gogebashvili. We can think it over and make a decision together. Although we already call it Maro Maqashvili street and often say we are on Makashvili street. In fact, we try people to accept that it isn’t Stalin street, and in a near future, it can be given Maro’s or some another Georgian’s name.
Apart from changing the street name, we want Stalin museum conception to transform. Now, they describe Stalin as a hero in the museum. I remember traveling with two Slovak girls some two months ago. They told me they weren’t going to visit Stalin museum as they’ve heard from their friends that Stalin is referred to as a hero there. As they were against it, the girls weren’t going there. It was very unpleasant to hear that.
All activities I’ve mentioned above are planned and executed by our group of 5 girls. We work entirely on a voluntary basis having no profit of it. Of course, organizing those activities requires certain expenses, so we appeal to different organisations, and ask if they can help us. Some of them give us flags, some print rally T-shirts and the others give concert equipment.
I can’t tell we’re witnessing fundamental changes so far, but the anti-Russian and anti-Soviet movement has started, so I believe we’ll eventually get the results.
I live next to the military base in Gori. I remember, I was 7 and my mother asked me to take a jacket to my brother, who was at his friend’s in the neighbourhood. I took shortcut walking along the military base wall. Suddenly, I heard shooting and saw some boys running towards me. One of them was a neighbour of mine – Zaza Kakashvili. He was 16 back then. As he was running, a sneaker slipped off from his foot. Having returned to collect it, he was shot dead by a Russian soldier. 7-year-old girl, I was witnessing all these. Later, when they were telling I survived miraculously after red bullets had been flying right above my head, I wished them to shut up. But in my heart, I was answering the bullets were yellow, not red. I don’t know why, but I felt somewhat ashamed. Desperately wishing to forget, I actually could hide all these in the depth of my memory and recalled only when Otkhozoria was killed. Perhaps, my protest to Russia flows from that too. That is why I get distressed and angry every time when Georgians talk about Russia and SSSR with affection – Soviet Union, which made us lose our identity and wiped our history off. I want everyone to know that there is no value important than independence. My PhD thesis, which I’m working on now, is also dedicated to this issue – Borderization and Creeping Occupation in 21st Century.
Author: Ida Bakhturidze
Photo credit: Sopho Aphtsiauri