TBILISI, Georgia—Imagine what would happen if tomorrow someone erected a statue of Adolf Hitler in Austria. No doubt the Austrian people, and millions of others around the globe, would demand the monument be torn down. But Austrian authorities would never be crazy enough to allow the construction of such a statue in the first place. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of leaders in my country.
Like Austria, Georgia is also the birthplace of a genocidal 20th century dictator: Joseph Stalin. Unlike Austria, Georgia is increasingly embracing its homegrown despot. Eleven new statues of Stalin have been erected in the country in recent years, according to Irakli Khvadagiani of the Soviet Past Research Laboratory. These aren’t the result of a few eccentric people with outsize influence: Credible polling shows a dramatic improvement in the dictator’s image across Georgia.
How did this happen? Like any sociological phenomenon, it’s complicated. But the Russian government, using disinformation, successfully utilized Stalin’s Georgian origins to boost its long term project of constructing an anti-Western, nativist strait of Georgian nationalism to halt the country’s westward move.
For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made “protecting” the Soviet Union’s legacy a priority. While he has criticized the empire’s failings, he also has made an effort to sanitize some of the darker points in its history. Weaponized history has become an important tool in Putin’s foreign-policy—recall that the pretext for his invasion of Ukraine is based on a faulty historical account that rejects Ukrainian sovereignty—yet the West hasn’t been able to effectively counter the problem.