Amidst the ongoing acrimony over South Ossetia, wine and mineral water, Russia and Georgia now have a potential fresh cause for dispute: the opening of a Museum of Soviet Repression in downtown Tbilisi. Although Georgians insist that the museum is simply meant to commemorate the estimated 880,000 Georgians killed or exiled under Soviet rule, some Russian politicians see the one-room exhibit as a barb aimed straight at the Kremlin.
The museum, a large room on the third floor of the Georgian National Museum in downtown Tbilisi, opened on May 26, the day marking Georgia's declaration of independence from the Russian Empire in 1918. At an official ceremony, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili referred to the museum as an example of the progress made by Georgia since the Red Army invaded in 1921, ending the country's brief, conflict-ridden period of independence, and paving the way for it to eventually become part of the Soviet Union. "[W]e have evaded lots of obstacles and we have become a state. This means that no one will ever force Georgia to kneel as in 1921," he said.
In what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to Moscow, Saakashvili went on to warn Georgians to prepare for a new "Ordzhonikidze," a reference to Sergo Ordzhonikidze, an ethnic Georgian Bolshevik who played a leading role in establishing Soviet rule in the Caucasus state. "Georgia is facing an all-out campaign of slander, pressure and blackmail," Saakashvili said. "However, they have not taken into account the most important thing - Georgia is not like it was in 1921."
The museum's displays attempt to make that distinction clear. Columns with the names of dozens of repression victims, written in red, greet visitors. A photo-rich timeline follows the events leading up to Georgia's defeat by the Red Army in 1921, and ends with Soviet troops' April, 9 1989 crackdown against Tbilisi demonstrators calling for Georgian independence and the end of Abkhaz separatism.
Some members of the Russian State Duma, or parliament, have charged that the exhibit is purely nationalist propaganda. "There was no Soviet occupation [the repression] was something that still unites our people. Official Tbilisi needs to aggravate its relationship with Russia to gain international prestige," Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian parliament's international relations committee, said on May 27, the Georgian private television station Rustavi-2 reported.
Relations between Georgia and Russia have nose-dived in recent months over a Russian embargo against Georgian wine and mineral water, and allegations by Tbilisi that Moscow has exceeded its peacekeeper quota in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, among other issues. Four days after the museum's opening, Russian State Duma Deputy Chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky added to the acrimony with a prediction that Russia plans to oust Saakashvili in favor of Igor Giorgadze, a former Georgian security chief, now in exile, who was accused of trying to assassinate ex-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995, the German newspaper Die Welt reported.
Professor Levan Urushadze, the museum's curator, however, curtly rejected any suggestion that the museum is intended as a tit-for-tat retaliation against the Kremlin. For Urushadze, an historian, the museum represents years of research into the repression Georgia suffered as a Soviet republic. "No, of course [this is not political]," he said. "[The repression] is a fact, an historic fact."
Nevertheless, connections between the museum and the government do exist. Urushadze credited President Saakashvili and parliamentarian Nikoloz Rurua, a member of the ruling National Movement Party and deputy chairman of the parliamentary defense committee, with coming up with the idea for the exhibit three months ago. "Prior to this, there was no idea to create a museum," Urushadze said, stressing that the museum's goal is to educate young Georgians about the past.
The presidential fund, an extra-budgetary source of revenue controlled by the presidential administration, provided the necessary financing, he said. According to the presidential press service, over 1 million lari, or some $548,712, was allocated to the museum.
One former Georgian foreign minister, however, argued that the museum could be seen as a commemoration of ills shared equally by both Russia and Georgia. "No one is blaming the Russians for what happened under the communists," said Irakli Menagharishvili, director of Tbilisi's Strategic Research Center. "They also suffered."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.