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3 October, 2011  ▪  Archil Bezhanishvili

Mshvidobit*, USSR!

The Museum of Soviet Occupation in Georgia is a monument to the nation's critical reappraisal and rejection of is Soviet past

Hosted by the National Museum on Rustaveli Ave., the Museum of Soviet Occupation has been a tourist attraction in Tbilisi for five years now. While memories of a harrowing totalitarian past are alive in all former Soviet republics, only the Baltic states and recently Georgia have set up exhibits that recount the atrocities and crimes of that era. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili opened the museum on May 26, 2006. After visiting the museum in March 2007 and inspired by the example of his Georgian counterpart, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is said to have ordered a small exhibit entitled “Chronicles of Communist Inquisition” in the Memorial Society be renamed the “Museum of Soviet Occupation.” (Kyiv City Administration officials and SBU officers recently started subjecting this modest part of the collection to one check after another. – Ed.)

Some Russian politicians condemned the museum in Tbilisi, saying that it was a tool of Georgia’s nationalist propaganda. At a meeting with Saakashvili in June 2006, Vladimir Putin reminded the Georgian president that many Soviet leaders – Joseph Stalin, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Lavrentiy Beria and others – were Georgian. In response, Saakashvili suggested that Putin open a museum of Georgian occupation in Moscow. He later explained: “This is a museum of Soviet, not Russian, occupation of Georgia… If that offends anyone, that's their problem, not ours.”

GLARING SYMBOLS OF THE EPOCH

Before a massive door leading to the Museum of Soviet Occupation on the third floor in Georgia’s National Museum I meet, as agreed, consultant Villi Asatiani. A seasoned historian, he leads me into a dimly lit room and begins to calmly comment on the items on display. The exhibition can be divided into two parts. The first is a small information hall with (incomplete) lists of Georgians who were shot and repressed from the 1920s through the 1940s. Another wall is used as a screen onto which video is constantly projected, showing documentary glimpses of the Soviet period. This hall also features an undeniable symbol of this tragic epoch – a freight car, one of those in which many participants of the 1924 national uprising were summarily executed near the village of Shorapani.

The other part is the main hall which has a mezzanine floor where official Soviet documents and periodicals are kept. These business-as-usual documents sharply contrast with the vividly personal and emotional core section of the exhibit below. There are indeed many interesting artefacts here: photos and personal belongings of repressed Georgian public figures, communist propaganda posters, furniture from party activists’ studies, personal weapons of NKVD officers and the real door of the Kutaisi prison cell where Stalin was kept in 1903. This last item, even though it actually falls out of the museum’s scope, attracts special attention. Another “glaring” symbol is the incompletely reconstructed “shooting cell” of the Ortachala Prison in Tbilisi where hundreds of political and criminal prisoners met their death — the butchers here were so zealous about their dirty work that death row inmates were brought to them from neighboring Armenia whose prisons had no such cell.

PRESIDENT AND LOBBYIST

I was in the museum on an ordinary working day and was surprised at the impressive number of visitors, both Georgian and foreign. The reason it is so popular is, I believe, not so much interest in the Soviet past as the convenient location – the National Museum is located in downtown Tbilisi. My hunch was confirmed by a couple from Kyiv, Olesia and Viktor: “After a walk down Rustaveli Avenue, we came here to see the Golden Fund and taking the opportunity, were interested to explore the Museum of Occupation.”

The Georgian president is the museum’s chief lobbyist. On his initiative, nearly all government and international delegations that come to Georgia are taken to this museum for a tour. Saakashvili himself often acts as a guide for high-profile guests. Asatiani “confided” to me that he does so in an inspired and artistic way, while demonstrating good knowledge of the subject. Saakashvili tells visitors about his great grandfather, Nikusha Tsereteli, who was repressed and spent several difficult years in a Siberian camp.

The Museum of Soviet Occupation has an educational program to tell about individual landmark events in the national liberation movement and outstanding champions of Georgia’s independence. In 2007, the museum published, in Georgian and English, a special report prepared by the U.S. Congress back in 1954 – The Communist Coup and Occupation of Georgia. Other thematic collections are in the pipeline.

The museum also hosts conferences and various academic meetings. In its main hall, a popular public TV program, Red Zone, is recorded in which scholars and journalists discuss the Soviet era and assess its impact on the present. This is also where documentary and fiction films about the Soviet rule are shown.

CRITICAL EVALUATION

The museum is just one of the components of the critical assessment and rejection of the Soviet past in Georgia. With enviable persistence, the Georgian authorities did even more than Estonia and Lithuania. February 25 was set as Soviet Occupation Day in the official calendar in 2010. On this day in 1921, the Red Army entered Tiflis and thus essentially put an end to the Georgian Democratic Republic proclaimed in 1918. In early June 2011, the Georgian parliament adopted the Freedom Charter which prohibits former high-ranking Communist Party and Komsomol functionaries and former employees of Soviet special services from holding official offices. These people will not be able to work in representative and executive bodies, the Security Council, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Presidential Administration, the parliament’s apparatus and the government’s chancellery. Nor will they be allowed to be employed as judges and rectors, vice-rectors or deans in higher education institutions. The charter also bans fascist and communist symbols from public places.

A lot has been done to free Georgia of its burden of Soviet heritage. An increasingly smaller number of people have nostalgia for the communist past and, as pompous as it may sound, more and more embrace the ideas of freedom and democracy and join the construction of a new country based on Western, European values.

The Ukrainian Week is launching a series of articles on how former socialist camp countries and Soviet republics said goodbye to their communist past. One way to do so was to set up educational exhibits such as the Museum of Communism in Prague, the Museum of Genocide in Vilnius and the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi. Georgia was an example to Ukraine in taking advantage of historical chances, and so it is that we open our series with Georgia.

POINT OF VIEW

Giorgi Gvakharia, film critic, journalist and director of the Red Zone program:

The museum has been operating for five years now. The items exhibited here are still interesting to visitors, but it became clear at some point that these displays, photos and posters fail to convey the tragedy of the occupation in its entirety. Apart from Stalin, Beria and Ordzhonikidze, a great number of our countrymen were involved in the process, and many more people were victims. However, space constraints make it impossible to represent everything and everyone. So additional space needs to be sought or the exposition has to change periodically. In the time that has passed since the museum was opened, we have made TV programs about similar museums in Budapest and Riga. Remarkably, both are called “Museum of Terror” and most of their items reflect not only the Russian occupation of their countries but terror in general. I think we need to change the concept of the Tbilisi museum in this direction.

QUOTE Villa Asatiani, museum consultant:

This is a historical museum dedicated to the Soviet period in Georgia (1921-91), victims of Soviet political repressions and the national liberation and anti-occupation movements in the country. The museum houses over 3,000 items, and eight monitors are installed in the museum halls to produce visual and video effects. Not surprisingly, the exposition cost over USD 200,000. The money came from the presidential fund. Our museum remained open in years when other exhibits hosted by the National Museum were closed for reconstruction.

 

*Mshvidobit is Georgian for “goodbye”


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