Many people today are aware of the fact that history is not an exact science–either because they actually learned about positivism/postpositivism in historiography, or (more likely) because at some point they reasoned out that if one person generally can’t remember all the details of what they did yesterday, it’s unlikely that multiple, often-conflicting parties will be able to arrive at a consensus on something that happened decades or centuries ago. Or maybe I just think that to comfort myself, because I’m living in a country with a tradition of editing “historical truth” with each regime change. Not that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S., but as a general rule, Americans don’t have to worry about the government updating school curricula and then removing, renaming, erecting, dismantling, detonating, or relocating major historical monuments after each presidential election.
The Caucasus is a well-known battlefield of narratives and conflicting interpretations of past events and symbols–as a result, analyzing the politics of memory in contemporary Georgia is a little too ambitious for me, so I’ll stick to what I know: monuments and museums. Anyone who has taken a few taxi rides in Tbilisi will know that street names change constantly. Perceptions of the Soviet past are channeled through the Museum of Soviet Occupation and the accompanying website of the KGB archive administered by the Interior Ministry. It’s also important to note the school curricula reform and regional initiatives aimed at recognizing the “genocide” of the Circassian people in the 19th century. Historian Shota Khinchagashvili points out, “All these different aspects of politics of memory and commemoration have one thing in common: they are all constructed on an anti-Soviet, if not also anti-Russian narrative, where Georgia and Caucasus is constantly victimized vis-a-vis the grand oppressor (Russia).”
While some say this helps Georgians feel united in their suffering (a really non-intuitive way of increasing national pride) I doubt that removing Stalin’s statue in Gori, and blowing up Kutaisi’s WWII Memorial of Glory contributes much towards a rational and informed perspective on the Soviet past. Instead it suggests that “official policy is oriented towards externalizing the Soviet past, representing it as something totally alien to Georgian political thought and social life, endemic to and imported from the historical oppressor–Russia. Equally, one might suggest that to claim an ability and authority to possess the exclusively ‘correct’ version of recent history is not only an anti-intellectual step, but a continuation of ‘securitized’ policy on social memory” (Khinchagashvili).
Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this official policy is the Museum of Soviet Occupation, part of the Georgian National Museum, which stands across Rustaveli Avenue from the Tbilisi Parliament building. Opened in 2006, it was the pet project of Nikoloz Rurua, member of parliamentary defense committee and Minister of Culture and Monument Protection from 2008 up to the recent 2012 elections (his qualifications for this job include a commercial law degree and leadership of Vera district’s mkhedrioni gang, a paramilitary/organized crime group outlawed in 1995). It was financed entirely out of the presidential fund, “an extra-budgetary source of revenue controlled by the presidential administration.” According to the presidential press service, over 1 million lari (about $548,700 at the 2006 exchange rate) was allocated to the museum.
Although Georgian politicians and museum workers insisted that the museum is simply meant to commemorate the estimated 880,000 Georgians killed or exiled under Soviet rule, many Russian politicians viewed the one-room exhibit as a jab at the Kremlin. Not long after the museum opened, then-President Vladimir Putin complained about it directly to Mikheil Saakashvili, the young and exuberantly pro-Western Georgian leader, protesting what he considered to be its anti-Russian tone. After all, he pointed out, some of the most ruthless figures in the Soviet hierarchy–including Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria–were themselves Georgian. Saakashvili responded sarcastically that Russia was free to open a museum to memorialize Georgian oppression of Russians, and that he would even donate the funds. In a more professional statement, Professor Levan Urushadze, a historian and the museum’s curator, curtly rejected any suggestion of political overtones, asserting that the museum represents years of research into the repression Georgia suffered as a Soviet republic. He stressed that the museum’s goal is simply to educate young Georgians about the past.
But what the politicians say and how the museum is actually presented are quite different, and the driving motive behind its activities might well be the very converse of that envisioned by UNESCO—rather than serve as an institution that contributes to the mutual understanding of peoples, some museums might deliberately seek to obscure historical details, or foster a profound misunderstanding by one people of another. What objects a museum chooses to collect and exhibit, and how it does so, invariably reflect a point of view. So while it claims to examine the Soviet past critically, the entire Soviet era is represented merely in terms of anti-Bolshevik resistance: the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, subsequent arrests and murders of the Georgian political and cultural leadership, and repressions of political protests leading up to Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1991. The daily lived experience of average Soviet Georgians (who were widely thought to have the highest quality of life in the USSR) is virtually ignored, which I see as the real tragedy because most foreign visitors to Georgia are deeply curious to learn about it.
The occupation museum is not just about documenting the past either–it also seeks to address the present. The attribute “Soviets,” according to the externalizing narrative informing the exhibit design, is equated with Russian. Since the 2008 conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a new section was installed in the exhibit, which includes a map marking the Russian-occupied areas and a video projector showing images of Vladimir Putin interspersed with footage of Russian airstrikes and tanks. If the museum was really about unbiased Soviet history instead of anti-Russian propaganda, wouldn’t this addition be irrelevant?
The exhibit also implies that the independent Georgian Republic of 1918 to 1921 is the immediate predecessor of the pro-Western Saakashvili regime. The following quote (from journalist Noe Zhordania, who led the Georgian government in exile until his death in 1953), “Soviet Russia offered us [a] military alliance, which we rejected. We have taken different paths, they are heading for the East and we, for the West,” is embossed prominently on the wall. The museum itself opened on May 26, the day marking Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Russian Empire in 1918.
At the official opening ceremony, President Saakashvili referred to the museum as an example of the progress made by Georgia since the Red Army invaded: “[W]e have evaded lots of obstacles and we have become a state. This means that no one will ever force Georgia to kneel as in 1921,” he said. In what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to Moscow, he went on to warn Georgians to prepare for a new “Ordzhonikidze,” a reference to Sergo Ordzhonikidze, an ethnic Georgian Bolshevik who played a leading role in establishing Soviet rule in the Caucasus state.
This week, many Georgians seem to fear that Ordzhonikidze has arrived, in the form of billionaire and new prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, around whom many Russian-plant conspiracy theories already circulate. Ivanishvili, who opposes Saakashvili’s aggressive anti-Russian stance, recently announced that the Museum of Soviet Occupation may be shut down in an act of neighborly good will. In spite of the dreary weather, Tbilisians actually formed a long line (!) outside the Georgian National Museum to show their support and visit the exhibit.
In my opinion, I don’t think the museum should be shut down. It is indeed important for future generations of Georgians to commemorate their countrymen and confront tragic events in their nation’s history. But I think it is also the responsibility of a cultural institution to be a place of dialogue for its citizens, and for international visitors. The Occupation Museum will never accomplish this, however, if it continues to promote the culture of victimization and denial it currently does–unable to critically examine both the positive and negative elements of the past it claims the authority to represent. Unless improvements are made, the Museum of Soviet Occupation is ironically following in the footsteps of Soviet oppressors, doing its visitors a grave disservice by denying them enough information to draw their own conclusions, and thus actually learn from the past.
Corso, Molly. “Georgia Opens Museum of Soviet Oppression.” Eurasianet, 2006.
Khinchagashvili, Shota. “A Georgian Perspective on Memory Conflicts.” University of Cambridge Department of Slavonic Studies Blog, 2011.
Kirchick, James. “Letter from Tbilisi: Georgia Between Two Powers.” Foreign Affairs Online, 2010.
Shatirishvili, Zaza. “National Narratives, Realms of Memory and Tbilisi Culture.” City Culture and City Planning in Tbilisi: Where Europe and Asia Meet. Edwin Mellen Press, 2009.