It has been a tradition in the making in Georgia to meet every new year by plunging deeper into the past. Two days before 2023 arrived, the ruling majority unveiled the infamous “foreign agent” laws, which brought back the memories of the worst Soviet-era persecution. And a year later, as we were just about to greet 2024, the ruling party patron himself announced yet another return to formal politics. The country had seen Mr. Ivanishvili coming back before. Still, this time stands out: for almost a year before the announcement, his party has been ceaselessly arguing that the West was applying pressure on the billionaire to return to official politics to open the “second front” against Russia.
Well, it’s been two weeks since the big announcement, and our troops are yet to reach Moscow. But fear not, Georgians found many other fronts to wage their wars. One of these battles grew so intense that it stole the spotlight from the reclusive party boss, who – turns out – wasn’t the only ghost to plot a comeback on holidays.
Here is Dispatch and Nini, back from holidays, to update and reflect on the new year’s old battles.
It all started in the future
In his Christmas epistle, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II spoke about the future. And the churches aren’t usually big fans of the future. The Patriarch warned about the perils of artificial intelligence, fearing the AI might push us further away from God. Ruling party officials rushed to agree. The role of an individual as the center of Christian and European cultures is under threat, Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili warned wisely as he weighed in on the Patriarch’s remarks. “Technologies must help humans and not replace them so that they lose their value,” the speaker added. And it’s true: AI already seems to be replacing humans, and the first popular Georgian job it’s claiming appears to be the position of the “enemy of the church” – which is perfectly fine by us, by the way.
Yet, Georgia’s religious leader failed to foresee that the biggest threats – at least to his power – lie not in the future, but in the past. As more people flocked to churches around Christmas, someone spotted and was dismayed by the image of the wrong person gracing the walls of Tbilisi’s famous Trinity Cathedral. Turns out, Joseph Stalin, the Georgian-born Soviet leader, featured in a small section of an otherwise giant icon of Russian Saint Matrona, donated to the church by Moscow-friendly Georgian politicians. The fragment shows Stalin leaving the scene in triumph after receiving a blessing from the Saint to defend Moscow from the Nazi onslaught. The cameo of Uncle Joe refers to a myth produced by those willing to reconcile the legacy of the Soviet despot with the Orthodox Christian faith in a heady Byzantine mix fitting the imperial ambitions of the “Third Rome”.
The icon’s presence in the church soon erupted into a nationwide scandal. Religious autonomy aside, as long as the Church feels free to meddle in Georgian politics, whatever happens inside the Church is also everyone’s business, the critics argued. A similar depiction of Stalin with St. Matrona had once stirred controversy in Russia, and it is no wonder that it met a massive backlash from anti-Soviet Georgians who saw it as an insult to victims of Stalin’s repressions. After all, weren’t clergy among the millions who suffered from Soviet purges? It was probably for this latter reason that the Church officials didn’t go the extra mile to defend the indefensible. Instead, the Patriarchate sought excuses by arguing that evil figures also get portrayed in the icons, which in no way means their “adulation.” Critics didn’t buy into the excuse, however, arguing that the despot, unlike other antagonists who can be seen slain and pierced in icons, appears to be doing fine.
- Read Civil.ge’s full explainer about the controversy here.
The storm didn’t end there, and the war of words soon turned into a war of swords. Nata Peradze, a fiercely anti-Soviet activist, decided to show her protest by defacing the icon with blue paint. And while Georgians debated whether her form of protest was the right strategy for deciding the matter, the far-right groups took the act as a war declaration they were desperately hoping to hear. Those looking for a villain but refusing to see him in the Soviet dictator quickly found one in the activist.
Soon, members of the violent pro-Moscow Alt-Info group showed up under Peradze’s windows. The activist observed the scene from above as violent crowds confronted police who cordoned off the area. Being protected from Alt-Info by police doesn’t evoke a sense of safety in Georgia. One never knows when the cordon miraculously parts like the biblical Red Sea and lets violent crowds pass to their sacred destination. That miracle, gracefully, didn’t happen this time (even if Peradze had to temporarily move out for her safety). But a different miracle took place: just as passions ran high, the Patriarchate suddenly saw the light and went to embrace its long overdue peacemaker role.
In an unexpected statement, the Church called on the donors to amend the icon, citing “insufficient evidence” about Stalin’s encounter with the Saint. GoC backing off like this appears to be a rational move. The Church, whose parish unites the majority of Georgians across the political divides, wouldn’t risk alienating more moderate, Soviet-wary believers. And clergy was probably aware that the most devout would still forgive a moment of weakness as a tactical retreat.
The forgiveness might take some time, though: on social media, one can still find the most vocal conservative voices fuming and ranting about the Patriarchate succumbing to “NGO” pressure. One enraged Stalin fanboy even asked why the Church won’t also fact-check whether St. George’s encounter with the dragon actually took place. The right groups rallied in Tbilisi to have their voice heard and their anger felt. But ultimately, it is hard to see how they may afford sustained confrontation with the country’s most powerful institution and their erstwhile best ally.
Disruption we needed?
One can see Stalin’s church appearance as an unpleasant moment in Georgia’s neverending struggle toward self-determination. And it indeed was: trauma scholars can’t stress enough how much the continuous denial of collective traumatic experiences can obstruct social progress. But for the same reasons, the controversy could also be a necessary disruption for those who’ve managed to reconcile Christian values and glorification of Stalin in a single belief system. How’s that possible? Many attribute it to Russian propaganda, which has been more or less successful in reconciling the irreconcilable. A look at the backstory of the controversial icon, its donors, and the overall demographics of Georgian Stalin admirers only helps back this argument.
But it’s hard to say that if, one lovely day, Moscow has a change of heart and condemns the Soviet leader for good, the same Georgians won’t use it as a pretext for even stronger veneration of the despot. And that’s because unsatisfied identity cravings may interfere with one’s ability to build a coherent worldview. Imagine being born in a small country stuck between the worlds, not Western enough to get the privilege of attention, not Eastern enough to be appreciated as spiritual or exotic. What more do you need than a man who’ll put you on the “global map”? And who is a better candidate for the mission than the one Georgian who used to “shake the world with terror”?
So, we will always have Stalin. At least, until Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia fully recovers from scandals, or Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia learns to find the net again, or recurring controversies push us to face our contradictions… or until Georgia finally comes up with a way of life that allows us to feel better about ourselves without justifying crimes against humanity.