In Stalin's native Georgia, Soviet dictator still revered by some

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By David and Mdzinarishvili
| GORI, Georgia

GORI, Georgia In Nazi Stefanishvili’s family home in Gori, posters, paintings and books fill a tiny room dedicated to the Georgian city’s most famous son, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Although Stalin’s rule was marked by mass repression, labor camps and famine, Stefanishvili, 73, a retired economist, says she has admired him since her childhood and over the years has filled a room in her daughter’s house with memorabilia.

Among dozens of items on display are paintings, photographs and busts of Stalin, depicted both as a young and older man.

“Every morning I go to the room to say good morning to Stalin … I take part in every occasion marking the anniversary of his birthday or death,” she said. “I have paintings, a lot of books about Stalin, busts, old newspapers, souvenirs. Most I bought, others were gifts; some were even found in the garbage.”

Stalin, who was born in Gori in 1878 and died in 1953, is largely reviled today in Georgia, which regained its independence during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Over the years, his memorials have been dismantled, most recently in 2010 when authorities removed a statue of the dictator from Gori’s central square.

AGEING FAN CLUB

But Stalin is still revered by a small group of mainly elderly supporters who stress his role in the industrialization of the Soviet Union and in defeating Nazi Germany in World War Two.

“Unfortunately, Stalin is not popular nowadays. Our people don’t respect him. Only we, members of the (Communist) Party, respect him,” said retired builder Vasili Sidamonidze, 70, who keeps a huge painting of Stalin at home.

“I always try to attend Stalin’s birthday anniversaries in Gori. Unfortunately many people don’t want to join us even if they live nearby. They look at us from their windows.”

Each Dec. 21, a few dozen people mark his birthday by gathering outside a Gori museum dedicated to Stalin, where they make speeches and walk to the square where a 6-meter-high bronze statue of him once stood, calling for it to be reinstated.

Opponents say it was a symbol of Moscow’s still lingering shadow. In 2008, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia and recognized its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

“I cannot say how many people support us but we have regional offices all around Georgia,” said 77-year-old Jiuli Sikmashvili, a leader of the United Communist Party of Georgia, one of several such small parties in the country of 3.7 million people. “Unfortunately the youth don’t want to join our party, so our members are mostly elderly people.”

The communist parties are not popular in Georgia, which wants to move out of Moscow’s sphere of influence and join NATO and the European Union. Following a 2011 law, dozens of Soviet-era monuments and symbols were removed and street names which referred to Georgia’s communist past changed.

Older Georgians, especially those who had personal and business ties with Russia, resent how much relations have soured. Others say the relationship only brought hardship.

At 40, Natia Babunashvili, an unemployed mother of two in the capital Tbilisi, is among the younger Stalin supporters, teaching her teenage children about Soviet times.

“My father was a party boss in one of the regions of Soviet Georgia and he taught me to love Stalin from childhood,” she said. “I tell my children of my childhood during Soviet times … how good my life was, how happy I was in the USSR. They form their own opinions but they share my views for now.”

Wider Image photo essay: reut.rs/2hzwL50

(Reporting By David Mdzinarishvili; additional reporting by Margarita Antidze; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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