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Festina Lente

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“How can you expect the world to support you in your just struggle against the Russians, if you have no courage to judge Stalin and his crimes against humanity?” The presenter of a BBC documentary read out this comment left by a tourist from New York City in the visitors’ book of the Stalin museum in the city of Gori. He then turned to camera and claimed he was in outright agreement with that tourist’s sentiment.

We may criticize the BBC film crew for being one-dimensional. We may recall the history behind the Gori museum, we may say that Stalinism is no less popular in Russia and that not every Georgian thinks like that, but that will not change the perception of an average tourist or observer.

The fact is clear: as the BBC documentary stated, the museum does not represent “an objective history of his [Stalin’s] life and his birthplace”; it is “a shrine to Stalin.”

Stalinism, in general, is a serious problem that we have ignored for many years now. In this context, the aspiration of people “towards Euro-Atlantic integration” is superficial. Society supports Georgia’s integration into NATO, but is increasingly permeated with opinions that directly contradict this aspiration.

It is impossible to believe those ideas propagated by a segment of society, including the clergy, that, aside from Russia, the world is inhabited with villains, Satanists and “anti-orthodox Christians,” who try to pervert us, uproot our traditions and annihilate our identity, and yet, at the same time, make a deliberate choice to be Western-oriented. These two attitudes are absolute opposites.

To an extent, NATO membership remains like the quest for the Holy Grail. However, the quest for the Holy Grail was maintained for generations because it was an inseparable part of the perception and ideas of the Christian narrative. In the case of NATO, the situation is different: the only thing that links a large segment of the Georgian population to the North Atlantic Alliance is the interest in recovering lost territory – not any broader values or religious sentiment. However, it may take quite a long time for us to be granted membership to the Alliance. The theoretical reasons for this are many: the lack of boldness among Western leaders, Russia’s rigid position and our own mistakes.

The fight for values must be won inside the country. The idea of Georgia’s development along the Western path should not only hinge upon the desire to join one geopolitical organization that political rhetoric has made appear increasingly utopian. Should our NATO aspirations fail to be met, Georgia needs to have a consistent and solid ideological base if we do not want to find ourselves in the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Eurasian Union. The mere repetition of the Alliance’s name by our politicians like a mantra does not help us to build such a foundation.

Who will win the fight for values? The intellectual elite – those who communicate their reasoning to citizens via the mass media – can be subdivided into three groups, none of which has yet shown any sign of having achieved qualitative progress in winning this battle. The past two decades have proved insufficient for us to achieve a revolutionary transformation of values. These three groups can easily be distinguished by their attitudes towards de-Stalinization.

Representatives of the first and perhaps most numerous group are enthusiastic about the greatness of Stalin. This group includes both Soviet-vintage scientists and artists and typical representatives of post-Soviet elite – the clergy, astrologers, parapsychologists and people of their ilk. We surely cannot expect any move from them towards de-Stalinization.

The second group – the clearly “pro-Western” elite – mainly inhabits the virtual space. They are fond of implementing their ideas briskly, radically and without giving much thought to the opinions of others – an approach that has shades of Atatürkism. They seem to be aware that they live in a digital epoch, where everyone can have his/her say and in which that information spreads quickly. But, at the same time, they find it difficult to erase from their consciousness the outdated idea that a small group of individuals can modernize people without seeking their consent or involving them in broad discussions.

One can often hear from members of this pro-Western group that the typical problems are not widespread – that the majority of the population is not at all Stalinist, that this is a problem solely confined to the Soviet-vintage intelligentsia; or that the majority is not religious fanatics, who are only found in marginal groups. Such a stance resembles wishful thinking – an inclination to confuse dreams with reality. Such overly “optimistic” opinions are often not borne out by statistics and may even prove to be quite the opposite in reality.

The period after the October parliamentary elections has shown more vividly that public opinion in many regions of Georgia was not prepared for de-Stalinization and, more importantly, that nothing was done towards that. Statues to Stalin were dismantled only on the initiative and from the orders of above. Taking such actions in the conditions of democracy (even in a defective democracy), however, does not guarantee irreversibility – proof of which can be seen in the fact that some of those statues of the infamous leader have already been resurrected.

The third group of the intellectual elite comprises post-Soviet leftists with a somewhat “sadomasochistic” understanding of democracy. These are a sort of the spiritual successors of the traditions of Narodnichestvo (“peopleism” or “populism”) – an ideology that developed in Imperial Russia in the 19th century. These people purportedly realize, quite correctly, that the opinion of the “masses” counts, however, they have arrived at rather strange conclusions.

Some of the more radical representatives of this third group believe that they have to bluntly agree with any stereotype of the majority. To put it simply, they “confuse” democracy with extreme conformism, which leads to totalitarianism. Such persons may themselves be atheists, but they repeat the slogans of religious extremists, such as “the government smashes churches.”

Another, more measured, segment of this third group does not openly deny personal attitudes. However, rather than oppose the wrong opinions of the majority, this group constantly seeks reasons to actively oppose the opinions of the minority who are, one way or another, trying to make public opinion healthier. Some examples of such attitudes are: “Who cares about Stalin when people are starving?”; “Why Stalin specifically? Let’s dismantle others’ statues too”; or “Why should we dismantle Stalin’s statues when we still have a Stalinist government?”

The reasoning of some of these people can, however, become very arrogant when it comes to discussing those issues that personally affect them (for example, over the priorities for financing the cultural sphere), and the methods and means they employ can go against the “starving democratic majority”.

At first blush, these people are dissatisfied not with the idea of de-Stalinization, but with the form it takes. However, they rarely try to get involved in this process or bring their methods to bear. None of them has ever been seen visiting a village (which tend to have more favorable impressions on Stalin than urban centers) to constructively argue with local residents over the problem of Stalin. Instead, they often do not regard this issue as problematic, or merely view it as a secondary problem that does not require much effort.

Because the first group praises Stalin, the second fails to communicate their ideas to the masses, and the third sees no problem in Stalinism, Georgians are increasingly perceived as either lovers of a bloody dictator or madcaps. In such a climate, striving for NATO membership increasingly looks like Georgia is chasing a mirage – if this vanishes the country will return to being a backwater and can forget the West for good.

 

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