Say the word "Stalin" anywhere else in the world, and the reaction is likely to be abhorrence about the ruthless Soviet leader whose regime killed at least 20 million of its own people.
But nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union is growing in troubled former Soviet republics. And in Georgia, this idealized past often centers on native son, Joseph Stalin. His statues dot towns across the country, including a freshly-painted silver bust erected only two years ago north of the capital, Tbilisi.
For older Georgians especially, memories of the socialist state - when electricity was regular and goods were cheap - outweigh Stalin's history. "I consider Stalin to be the second coming of Jesus," says Omari Mazmishvili, an unshaven retired boxer in Stalin's hometown of Gori. "In his time we ate, but today there is nothing."
Yet even here, near the preserved wood-and-brick village house where Stalin was born in 1879, his name does not go unchallenged. "How can you say that? He was a monster!" retorts Anna Naskidashvili, a student.
"He was a saint," counters Mr. Mazmishvili. "If you are ruler, you must kill the opposition. They were all criminals who were killed."
"Are you sure they were all criminals?" asks Ms. Naskidashvili, who says her great-grandfather was imprisoned for 12 years by Stalin's security police.
"We need Stalin now - we need 10 Stalins," says Tsitsiho Chikhladze, an elderly housewife. "You need to pay for everything that was free. Now there is not even electricity," adds Mazmishvili. "That's why you are sitting here, when you should be in school."
A 1999 poll found that 80 percent of Georgians surveyed consider Stalin the "best and most important political leader of the 20th century." "Stalin is a hero for older people who connect with the Soviet lifestyle and ideology," says George Khutsishvili, head of the Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi. "For many Georgians, he [also] remains an ethnic Georgian who ruled the biggest country in the world."
Shakro Pogosyan is a "true believer." With gray eyebrows and a bristly moustache, he bears an uncanny resemblance to his hero. "[Young Georgians] need Stalin to teach them how to work," says Mr. Pogosyan, who took up a coal-mining shovel at the age of 8. In his tiny pensioner's room, he shows off his prize possession: a four-by-six-foot painting of Stalin and Lenin. "Police were looking for this for years," he says with a sly smile. In his youth, he broke into a collective farm bakery to steal it, a secret he has kept for more than 30 years.
The Stalin museum, maintained by stalwart Gori matrons, may be the loneliest place in the city. Electricity is sporadic, and even on a sunny day the cavernous hallways are so cold you can see your breath. "In Soviet times, this was a tourist route and they had to come," says guide Olga Topchishvili.
Visitor numbers are down, but "it is rare to hear any negative comments," she says. Few relics are as revered as the two sculpted bronze heads formed from Stalin's death mask. One is in Moscow, the other resides here in a pitch-black sanctuary. The guide eerily lights the way with a candle, then holds it gently above the bust for viewing. With a reporter's flashlight to help, she uses a key to scrape away accumulated wax drippings from Stalin's collar.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society