Georgian Jews' strange Stalin memories

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Schalva Chaimovich Mamistvalov is one of those proud older Soviet men -- and, sometimes, women -- who for big occasions will don the dark blazer upon which they've pinned a chestful of medals for World War II heroics. Mamistvalov is one of a rare breed: a Jew apologetic, even nostalgic, for the iron-fisted ways of Stalin. This sentiment is particularly strong among the Jews of Gori, where worship of the man born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili permeates the entire city.

At 22, Mamistvalov was a tank driver in southern Russia, protecting the northern Caucasus. He earned his medals for bravery in combat and injuries suffered.

He voluntarily rolls up his pant leg to show a deep gash in his left calf courtesy of shrapnel that also tore into his right bicep and landed him in a hospital for a month.

But Mamistvalov got off easier than two older brothers.

The eldest was killed in 1942 during the Soviets' pivotal defense of Stalingrad, while the second-oldest, Ilo, was captured by the Germans and imprisoned.

Ilo later escaped and hid until the war ended; he eventually returned to Gori.

However, prisoner-soldiers like Ilo disgusted Stalin, Gori's most famous native son: He viewed them as traitors and possible spies.

Ilo was sentenced to seven years of hard labor, during which he mostly chopped trees. He wound up serving five years, spared the last two when Stalin died in 1953.

Yet Schalva Mamistvalov doesn't blame Stalin for the madness that engulfed Ilo. Neither does he robustly defend his brother, preferring to offer up Stalin-era propaganda.

"I don't think my brother had a chance to show his bravery," he says. "If I'd been sent to the front, I would have died fighting. But some people prefer life to dying."

Mamistvalov's defense of Stalin is odd, given that Stalin was not exactly "good for the Jews."

His crusades against other ethnic minorities under various pretexts devastated Jewish communities, claiming thousands of Jewish lives.

But perhaps Schalva Mamistvalov can be forgiven for seemingly forsaking Ilo. His youth was spent during the height of Soviet indoctrination, intimidation and persecution of Jews.

Stalin's "cult of personality" was also rampant, especially in Gori. His name was all over: factories, schools, state institutions, farming collectives -- not to mention the ubiquitous Stalin portraits, statues and monuments.

In 1937, during the Great Terror, Stalin took time out to bulldoze the entire Gori neighborhood surrounding his family homestead, to encase and spotlight the modest two-room cabin inside a mammoth marble mausoleum that stands today.

But for loyalists like Mamistvalov, a retired taxi driver, proof is in the pudding: the 14 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union has stirred disgust with "freedom" and "democracy."

For Mamistvalov and many others, the calls only reaffirmed their belief that the Stalinist-era status quo was superior.

Indeed, independent Georgia has been traumatized by two separatist wars that left at least 10,000 people dead and caused hundreds of thousands of refugees in a country of some 5.6 million. Georgia simultaneously experienced a civil war; entrenched mafia activity and government corruption; and an economic slide that has left pensioners like Mamistvalov struggling to live on a handful of dollars a month.

"For his generation, this ideology was very strong, and he can't change it," says Tamaz Magalashvili, a Gori native and director of the local branch of Hesed, the Jewish welfare agency funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that provides Mamistvalov with extra food and other assistance.

"He can't say anything bad about Stalin," says Magalashvili.

Others, however, have plenty bad to say about how the ruler who renamed himself Stalin -- "Man of Steel" -- would treat a Jewish population of more than 5 million.

In 1952, nine top Kremlin doctors -- six of whom had Jewish names -- were arrested for allegedly having medically murdered two of Stalin's associates in 1945 and 1948, and for planning to poison other leaders in the future, including Stalin himself.

The blood libel that would become known as the "Doctor's Plot" was painted as a Zionist-Jewish conspiracy conducted from the United States.

It sparked a frenzy of anti-Jewish hatred, from articles in the state-controlled media to Jewish doctors purged from their jobs, which only died when Stalin did.

In 1956, three years later, Nikita Khrushchev uttered his historic denunciation of Stalin's "cult of personality" and mass repression, ushering in a period of de-Stalinization. But in Gori, they bucked the trend.

Stalin's death reportedly sparked rioting in the city, then a police crackdown. In 1957, just behind the Stalin mausoleum, local authorities unveiled an even more imposing shrine to him: the Stalin Museum, replete with Roman columns outside and an impressive marble stairwell inside. Officials also converted the street leading up to it into a grand promenade, with the Stalin home and museum its centerpiece.

Today, it's a charming area in an otherwise charmless city.

The museum's docent, for one, expresses pride in Gori's favorite son.

"It's quite an honor for me to be working here," says the 50-something woman who only wants to be identified by her nickname -- "NeNe."

But what about the deaths of tens of millions for which Western historians blame him? From state-orchestrated famine in Ukraine, to internal deportations of entire populations, to the millions sent to the gulags?

"Yes, he made some mistakes," says NeNe, echoing the official version of the man, "but we can't judge people because of this. Mistakes are a part of life."

"We can't blame all these faults on Stalin. There will come a time when history will see that such actions were needed at the time."

Asked if she thinks Jewish doctors poisoned Stalin, NeNe responds: "We have no facts in Georgia about this. But we heard the rumors that he was poisoned."

Gori Jews, especially the elderly, share the admiration, says Magalashvili. "If you were to go out into the street and ask people older than 60, they'd say they love Stalin, he was a god, because he won the war and because of this and that," he says, now working toward a punch line. "But if you ask the younger, they'll say 'Screw Stalin. What did he do for us? If he'd lost the war; we'd be living in Germany' " -- a desired destination -- " 'and drinking Bavarian beer.' "

Because of the generational split, and the peculiarity of being associated with such a notorious figure, he says, the Stalin-worship has toned down a bit.

While Stalin statues have been torn down across the former empire, and throughout its satellites in Eastern Europe, downtown Gori sports what is said to be the last such statue -- an enormous figure planted in the main square that fronts City Hall.

Slicing through the square is Stalin boulevard, the city's largest artery. However, a sign of the times is that the city's second-largest square, which also bears Stalin's name, will soon be changed to the "Park of Culture, Rest and Relaxation."

Nevertheless, the locals still honor Stalin's Dec. 21 birthday with great fanfare. And when Georgian public officials visit Gori, says Magalashvili, they are obliged to respect Gorian sensitivities.

"Many would say that Stalin was a dictator," he says. "But if they were in Gori, they would drink a toast to him."

Mito Georgevisch Davaraschvili would join the toast, if he could.

Davaraschvili, 76, and his wife, Marza, 78, live in a home not much different than the Dzhugashvili dwelling more than a century ago: two shabby rooms, wood planks for floors, a wood-burning stove for heat, no running water or indoor plumbing. The water tap and outhouse are in the courtyard, shared by an equally impoverished neighbor.

The front door's window is cracked, and two of the overhead light's six small bulbs are burnt-out, causing the stove pipe to cast creepy shadows across the walls. The room is dank; a huge water stain consumes the walls.

Mito Davaraschvili is sitting on a chair, his stretched-out brown tank top hanging loosely on his bony frame, revealing a faded tattoo in Georgian script -- a verse that Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli wrote in the 12th century.

Davaraschvili says he was a simple farmer, cultivating corn, beans, cucumbers -- all sorts of produce. Marza Davaraschvili was housewife and primary care-giver to their three sons, but now suffers varicose veins and walks with a cane.

"During Stalin's time, it wasn't as difficult to live," says Mito Davaraschvili. "We were satisfied. We had our own land, we had a job, selling our fruits and vegetables in the local market. If not for my blood pressure, I could still work."

Those who minded their own business had nothing to fear, says Mito, echoing the sentiments of Schalva Mamistvalov.

"We never thought about government pressure, or what it was doing," he says. "We were simple workers, building our lives, and the government never disturbed us."

Today, Marza Davaraschvili receives a pension of 28 lari, about $15, per month, but he receives nothing -- a new law requires a pension recipient to have worked five years in the formal sector.

For relief, the couple turns to Hesed for food, clothes, wood and other items. "Without their help, we'd be hungry," says Marza Davaraschvili.

The couple is so poor, their ancient television sits broken and unused, a loser in the competition with the remaining light bulbs overhead. "If the television worked, we'd shut off the two bulbs and watch TV," she says. Enjoying lights and television simultaneously is not an option: "If we use so much electricity, what would we eat?"

Meanwhile, street crime in Gori has flourished where once there was none, highlighted by a recent string of kidnappings for ransom and rash of bombings.

"In Stalin's day, you could leave your doors unlocked, without fear someone would rob us," says Marza. "You could walk freely around town, and there was no swearing in the streets."

Only when pressed does Mamistvalov discuss less-savory aspects of the regime.

"Yes, it was a dictatorship and the police were watching us secretly," he says. "But we lived without police pressure because this pressure was against higher-level officials, not a simple taxi driver like me." He fails to mention that it was also aimed at any and all opponents -- real or imagined -- plus assorted minorities, including Jews.

But older Jews in his hometown, at least, claim to know nothing.

"I'm a Jew, and I never experienced any harm," Mamistvalov says. "It's strange, but I never heard even from my fellow Jews about these things."

And the Doctor's Plot? "I never heard about this."

He continues: "No one says anything bad about Stalin. Nowadays, mainly the older people still make toasts to Stalin, not the younger. Because we remember Stalin in a good way, for our good salary and good living conditions. I loved Stalin."

It's difficult to know if Gori's Jews are truly in the dark, or in deep denial. Does it indicate they don't read historical or political material, or don't read much at all? Or does it reveal the indelible marks left by decades of indoctrination and censorship? "In the long run, the worst legacy of Stalinism is not the tendency to throw someone in prison first and ask questions later," writes Adam Hochschild, author of "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin."

"It is the habits of mind, among those not directly affected, that make such acts even thinkable," he wrote. "After such an experience, the message such survivors have always given their children is Keep your head down. Over time, stark fear turned into passivity." Regardless of why they say what they say today about Stalin and his era, the older generation has come to link democracy with heartless capitalism, endemic crime, and a daily struggle for survival and dignity.

The simple fact is that Western concepts like "human rights" and "freedom" sound like a luxury to those denied a more essential right to food and security.

Instead, the Davaraschvilis say they yearn for the iron rule and rigid controls of Stalin -- warts and all; it's not unlike those Italians who once waxed nostalgic about fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's ability to "keep the trains running on time."

"Democracy has no power to rule and control people, so we prefer no democracy," says Marza Davaraschvili.

Recalling his toasts of yore, Mito Davaraschvili grows animated.

"For years after he died, we would also toast: 'Salute for the leader,'" he says. "I haven't had a drink in recent years, because of my health. But the last time I did, I toasted him: 'Salute for Stalin! Salute for our leader! You are dead, but you are much better than those of us who are alive today.'"

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