How do widely reviled leaders become enduring dictators? Hard to find a better teacher for that lesson than Josef Stalin.
Josef Stalin oversaw the death of thousands of Georgians. Of the 38,679 named in Stalin’s lists who were to be shot or imprisoned from 1937-1938, 3,485 were from Georgia. That was more than any other Soviet republic, aside from the Russian and Ukrainian republics (both of which had millions more than the tiny Caucasian nation). And that purge was primarily of political personas; we do not know how many others were killed in Georgia throughout his reign. He destroyed both the Georgian intelligentsia and the traditional Georgian peasantry, replacing the former with elites permitted by the government and the latter with industry. He wanted to bring Georgia—the country in which he was born—to heel. And so he did.
And yet, sixty years ago this week, Georgians took to the street to protest Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of moving away from Stalin’s cult of personality—of disentangling the Soviet Union from the man who was synonymous with it. Sixty years ago today, tanks and troops bloodily dispersed the crowd. To this day, nobody knows exactly how many were killed.
Why would a people that had been crushed by a man risk their lives to defend his memory? There are several theories. Some say that Georgians were (and are) proud that Stalin had been one of them. Others argue that the protest was less for Stalin and more against Soviet rule—who, exactly, was Nikita Khrushchev to tell Georgians in whom to believe?
Here is another: Georgians took to the streets in part because a cult of personality is just that. A cult. And cults are not so easy to leave. They protested for the same reason that people across the Soviet Union wept openly and wondered how they would live without their leader on news of his death.
There is a temptation, when listening for history’s ghosts, to mock them. To point and laugh that people then could have believed what they did, or have done what they did. But Georgians in 1956 weren’t—of course they weren’t—any intrinsically less intelligent or less brave or less good than anyone else, anywhere, including you and your friends. But they saw what was happening around them and couldn’t stop it, and so instead they believed what they heard on the radio, and in the pomp and circumstance that surrounded this man who modernized the country and defeated Nazi Germany (and threw his own people into labor camps). That is the point of having a cult of personality in the first place. If people don’t believe in it, it’s probably not a very good cult.
It is perhaps worth remembering the Georgians of 1956 when looking at people who, knowingly or otherwise, have entered cults of personality around the world today. For example, the Russian economy is currently coming apart at its oily seams. Russian President Vladimir Putin still has an 80 percent approval rating. This is not because Russians are somehow inherently less intelligent than anyone else in the world. It is likely in no small part because they watch state-sponsored television, and because opposition candidates can’t run free, fair campaigns, and because Putin remade their country, in his way, and because what else are they supposed to do? The same can be said for those in countries with more obviously government-run cults of personality (like Kazakhstan or, even more dramatically, North Korea), and those where cults of personality are thought not to exist (Donald Trump is certainly not Josef Stalin, even if the latter was similarly sensitive about hand-related insults, but the image of Trump standing below a glistening chandelier giving a press conference broadcasted in its entirety by major networks even as he calls for a censored media does come to mind).
And it is perhaps also worth remembering that the reverse is true, too: that cults of personality of individuals cannot exist without the support of millions who watch the news uncritically and choose not to think of the people unlike (or, perhaps, like) themselves who are hurt by those in power. That even people who take power do not simply take power. It is always, to some extent, given to them. Or at least left to them.
How did Georgia reverse this cult? Ironically, it may have started during that march sixty years ago this week. Two teenagers in attendance—Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Merab Kostava—grew up to lead Georgia’s national independence movement, helping to prove that there was nothing inherently wrong with Georgians sixty years ago today. In time, some of them developed their own underground press and took to the streets for their language and culture, not Stalin, and found a way to preserve their country, their way, and to separate from the Soviet Union. Independence was not without its problems, but it was not fought for Stalin. And while there is, to this day, a Stalin museum in Georgia, it is in an independent Georgia, one which freed itself, finally, from a very powerful personality’s cult.