Vake Park in the suburbs of Tbilisi is a lush sea of green. Yesterday, hundreds assembled here as Georgia’s capital celebrated Victory Day. After all, 9 May is the most cherished of all commemorations in the (post)-Soviet calendar. Vake may not be in the heart of the city, but the occasion has always been marked here, in the lengthening shadow of the Glory Monument, one of many mourning, late-Soviet mothers.
The Wehrmacht never made it this far. Yet Georgia lost up to 300,000 of its citizens during the Great Patriotic War, as it’s known in most post-Soviet states. The loss amounted to over eight percent of its 1940 population, and the country’s surviving veterans are few. Only 1,245 still live in Georgia, some 600 of them in Tbilisi. A handful of veterans made it to Vake Park this year, though memories of later conflicts will take their place. Following the wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has veterans in ample supply.
Victory Day commemorates a great victory over fascism, at the unimaginable cost of tens of millions of Soviet lives. The event is also a sacralisation of state power, even if that state dissolved 25 years ago. Victory Day may be a time for mourning, but there’s a sense not only of triumph, but of triumphalism. As I found out, it’s a distinction with depth.
Ribbons and wreaths
As ten o’clock approaches, the crowd funnels towards the central promenade in Vake park. Politicians of all shades, and wreaths of all sizes, are soon expected. Valentin Omelchenko, an 80-year old Soviet air force veteran, smiles gently at passers-by.
Valentin’s found himself in a conversation not entirely of his choosing. He wears the St. George’s ribbon (georgievskaya lenta), the black-and-orange Russian military ribbon commonly worn on 9 May.
The Wehrmacht never made it this far. Yet Georgia lost up to 300,000 of its citizens during the Great Patriotic War
The lapel of his companion, a representative of the Ukrainian community in Georgia, bears the tryzub, the Ukrainian national symbol. For many Russian nationalists, the St. George’s ribbon has come to mean victory over more or less anybody. For the separatists in Ukraine’s southeast — who wear it with pride — that means the government in Kyiv.
The "argument" over veteran Valentin Omelchenko's St. George's ribbon.“You know who else wore these into battle?” Tryzub hisses, tugging at Valentin’s ribbon. “The Vlasovites (Russian collaborationists), in 1943, fighting alongside the SS.”
Tryzub tells the veteran to study his history, to which Valentin doesn’t take kindly. The two men shuffle off in opposite directions at similar speeds — all wounded pride, age and outrage.
Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia — or rather, the Russian-speaking world — was presented as its epicentre
Georgia’s prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, soon arrives. The itinerant sellers of ice-cream and St. George’s ribbons make way, and the cameras advance. A few handshakes later, Kvirikashvili’s sauntered up the stairs, past the honour guard, and reached the eternal flame, bursting from a carved metal Soviet star set into the paving. The prime minister lays a wreath as Tavisupleba, the Georgian anthem, plays from a bandstand. (The music today has been inoffensively instrumental, none of the Soviet-era crooners whose tunes so often accompany 9 May.)
As Kvirikashvili leaves, his retinue follows. Manana Kobakhidze, deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, passes by. I notice Mikhail Aydinov, director of the union of Russian-speaking journalists, holding forth as two of his teenage students and a sage-looking veteran listen in, equally enraptured.
Nobody from Mikheil Saakashvili’s former party UNM has shown up, says Aydinov.
“And what else would you expect?” he asks.
Everybody nods knowingly. It was that kind of question.
When the wreaths have been laid, veterans take turns — holding the arms of sons and daughters — to light candles and lay roses at the monument behind the eternal flame. Somebody’s placed a grainy photo of the Generalissimo there, too. Photographs of Stalin seem innocuous here — a few carried by pensioners, aware they provoke, and eager to be photographed. Attendees and journalists mill around, underwhelmed.
Flag-bearers wearing chokha, the traditional Georgian male costume, watch the scene from concrete plinths. At the base of one of them sits 52-year old Lia Khilava. A refugee from Abkhazia, Lia adores the ceremony, but it’s bittersweet. “I was born in September,” Lia begins, “but I may as well have been born on 9 May for all the war I’ve seen.”
As the figure of Stalin remains strongly connected to the Soviet victory over fascism, de-Sovietising the memory of the Second World War is doubly delicate
Lia knows that she’ll never return to Sukhumi, the de-facto capital and largest city of Abkhazia which she once called home. Her children don’t care about Victory Day: the true defeat is that her grandchildren don’t know what or where Abkhazia is.
After the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia lost one-fifth of its territory, and nearly 300,000 internally displaced people live in the country today. Russia recognised both regions’ independence in 2008 and has supported them economically and politically ever since.
Naval veteran Levan Savuladze, Vake Park.There are veterans here from the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The refugees are here too; the distinction seems tougher than we suppose.
Lia is unequivocal. She holds no grudges against Russians, though adds that Abkhazia is “Putin’s fault”. Above all, she misses the diversity of pre-war Sukhumi, a city where you could hear the balalaika, bouzouki and chonguri.
Her family was a similar example: Lia’s mother was Georgian, her father - Greek. It’s a fact I remember when she shares her views on Stalin, under whom tens of thousands of Greeks were deported from Abkhazia in 1949-50. “I know,” replies Lia. “Many of my father’s family ended up in Kazakhstan.”
Other leading Georgian Soviet figures were fair game for Saakashvili, but one was beyond the pale. Stalin still commands some respect in Georgia
Nevertheless, Lia feels that Stalin’s role in the triumph over fascism eclipses these dark times. “We shouldn’t pretend that he didn’t exist,” she stresses.
“After all, he was a historic figure.”
Misha and memory
For former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, who governed Georgia from 2004 to 2012, the watchword was “de-Sovietisation”. Inspired by similar initiatives in the Baltic states and eastern Europe, the leader of the staunchly pro-western United National Movement (UNM) government enthusiastically supported highly critical approaches to the state’s long Soviet past. Georgia was to become a “Normal European Country”. Soviet rule was a dark age to be expunged from the national story.
Visitors to Tbilisi’s Soviet Occupation Museum, founded in 2006, soon get the point. After a monument to the murdered Georgian aristocracy, two maps hang on either side of the doorway to the permanent exhibition. The right shows the Bolshevik invasion of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1921; the left shows the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. The message is clear — Russia (in all its guises) has proven the major obstacle to Georgia’s natural onward march toward Europe.
Attitudes to Stalin in Georgia remain varied, though positive. In 2011, Saakashvili’s government passed laws banning Soviet symbolism, and even dynamited an immense Soviet war memorial in Kutaisi in 2009 (the falling debris killed two residents). Yet while two other leading Georgian Soviet figures, Sergo Ordzhonikidze and Lavrenti Beria, were fair game for Saakashvili, one was beyond the pale. Josef Stalin still commands some respect in Georgia.
Statues to the latter still grace numerous Georgian villages, while a poll in 2013 found that 45% of Georgians had positive attitudes to this “great son of the nation”, and 68% believed him to be a “wise leader”. In 1956, blood was even spilt for him on the streets of Tbilisi, when the Red Army opened fire on Georgian demonstrators protesting Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation.
As the figure of Stalin remains strongly connected to the Soviet victory over fascism, de-Sovietising the memory of the Second World War is doubly delicate. The UNM took some efforts: in 2009, foreign affairs minister Grigol Vashadze proposed celebrating Victory Day on 8 May, so as to avoid sharing the occasion with Moscow. The following year, Georgia’s parliament instituted a new national holiday, on 25 February, to commemorate the Red Army invasion of Georgia in 1921.
A handful of veterans made it to Vake Park this year, though memories of later conflicts will take their place
When Saakashvili left office in 2013, rumours circulated that the incoming Georgian Dream coalition would close the Occupation Museum. They proved unfounded, although the attitude of the incumbent government, which faces elections this October, could better be described as “preserving momentum”, however grudgingly. While the ruling Georgian Dream coalition may not have opened a museum to Soviet Occupation, it has little interest in settling scores over the issue.
In any case, de-Sovietisation still has its devotees. Academic initiatives such as the SovLab project have continued. Yesterday, civil society activists even held a public lecture in Gori, birthplace of Stalin, calling for opposition to totalitarian regimes and presenting a new book by professor Bondo Kupatadze, 13 myths of Stalinism. Their slogan was simply: “Gori is not red”.
Commemorating the Soviet dead, Vake Park. Another figure from Georgia’s past was resurrected in these memory disputes. Meliton Kantaria was one of the first soldiers to raise the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in May 1945. Life took him to Abkhazia, from which, like most ethnic Georgians, Kantaria was expelled in the vicious separatist conflict of 1993.
Upon visiting Kantaria’s birthplace of Jvari in 2011, Saakashvili noted that his fate was a “perfect example” of Soviet spite — a decorated Soviet hero, expelled by Russian soldiers armed with Soviet rifles. The president’s retelling was liberal to say the least — while Kantaria had been forced out of his home by Abkhaz militias (with significant Russian support), he had actually found refuge in Russia. Kantaria died in Moscow in December 1993.
The one thing we do know is probably the most important: Kantaria died penniless.
Whose victory day?
Kantaria’s name was mentioned several times in Vake Park. To the veterans here, his actions at the Reichstag prove that their ceremony still has a place in post-Soviet Georgia.
The Red Army was, indeed, a multi-ethnic force: Yezidi Kurds from the Caucasus were among its ranks. In 1944, general Basan Gorodovikov fought on in East Prussia as his fellow Kalmyks were deported en masse by the Soviet regime to Siberia, on charges of collaboration. But appeals to the shared victory of the Soviet peoples can sit uncomfortably with the language of “little brotherhood”. It reflects a “Soviet internationalism” which, in the eyes of many non-Russians, came to mean Russification and Russocentrism. At a famous — or infamous — speech to Red Army commanders after the victory in May 1945, Josef Stalin proposed a toast to the “most outstanding” Russian nation “before all other peoples”. An honour guard wearing chokha, the traditional Georgian male costume.Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia — or rather, the Russian-speaking world — was presented as its epicentre. Accordingly, the Russian state’s enthusiastic embrace of victory day complicates Georgian nationalist approaches to its remembrance.
In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, local ethnic groups saw Moscow as a guarantor of their rights against the claims of Georgian elites in Tbilisi. Victory day parades are held in both of the breakaway states’ capitals, where their soldiers bear St. George’s ribbons on their lapels.
Much like Lia, the veterans of Vake Park had complex attitudes to what had happened in 1993, and then in 2008. Everybody knew whose was the defeat, but the victory — even the culpability — was more mysterious. The loss of the two territories remains a deep scar for Georgia, and it was one inflicted with more than a little help from Russia. As it follows, there’s trauma behind the triumphalism.
The loss of the two territories remains a deep scar for Georgia, one inflicted with more than a little help from Russia
Some had seemed defensive. “If you’re looking for Russian influence here,” declared Mikhail Aydinov, “you won’t find it. You’ll find ordinary people like us, who miss a country with free housing and free medical care, many of whom have lived in poverty for 25 years.”
Another veteran, Levan Saluvadze, served with the Soviet navy during the Cold War. He’s come to pay respects to his father, killed in Kerch in 1944.
Saluvadze condenses all the evils of the Soviet collapse into the loss of Abkhazia. When the Berlin Wall came down, he says, Georgia’s second president Eduard Shevardnadze just picked it up and unrolled it between Abkhazia and Georgia.
For Levan, Ioseliani and Kitovani, the two leading Georgian militia commanders during the civil war, were “mere bandits”. So, for that matter, were their Abkhaz opponents. It was, he continued, an “artificial war”, “not a real war”. These are uncannily common words in the South Caucasus, where the casualties of these phantom conflicts are all too real.
The "eternal battalion" march arrives at Vake Park.As I leave Vake Park, the bessmertny polk, or "eternal battalion" arrives — a column of people bearing photos of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed on the front. Their banners read chemi samshoblo, “my country”.
Further on, I see a familiar face on a bench. David Amiranovich Giorgadze wears camouflage uniform and holds a crutch. Around his neck hangs a sign in English and Georgian, reading “I was in Abkhazia war. If you can help me please. God bless you”.
The 55-year old, one-eyed man can often be seen begging on Rustaveli street in central Tbilisi. David says that he receives a 330 lari (£103) allowance from the government per month, though the Georgian government sometimes provides one-off payments to veterans for on 9 May, as well as discounts on utility bills.
In conversation, David talks of the blyadskaya voina, the “bitch of a war”. I assume he’s referring to Abkhazia, but at times he mentions the Second World War. A fellow veteran salutes David playfully as he walks past.
Any visitor to the Dry Bridge, Tbilisi’s flea market on the River Kura, can find the medals of Soviet veterans, from a whole spectrum of conflicts and fronts. They can sell for a few tens of lari — usually, they’re sold off when the soldier who earns them dies in old age. It’s not unknown for those same soldiers to pawn their medals from month to month, to pay the bills.
I noticed that David wasn’t wearing a St. George’s Ribbon, and asked why. Grudgingly, he produced one from his pocket and sighed “I’ve got one, but I’ve nothing to pin it on with.”
“Blyadskaya voina,” David says.
All photos courtesy of the author.