A holy icon depicting Stalin is causing major controversy in

A holy icon depicting Stalin is causing major controversy in Georgia

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The Georgian Orthodox Church has asked to change a holy icon on display in the cathedral of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, depicting Josip Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953. In the icon, Stalin is blessed by Saint Matrona Moscow, a Russian mystic and healer who lived in the 20th century: According to the Orthodox Church, there is not enough evidence to support an encounter between the two and therefore the image should changed to better reflect historical reality.

Stalin's political and historical legacy is much debated in Georgia, the country where the dictator was born, and in the rest of the former Soviet Union, of which Georgia was a part from 1921 to 1991. In the West, Stalin is remembered almost only as a brutal dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the persecution of his political opponents, but in the former Soviet Union he is sometimes remembered as the architect of the great power that dominated the country in the 20th century became supporters of progress, which for a time transformed the Soviet Union from a backward state into the second world economy.

The icon was donated to Tbilisi Cathedral several months ago by a pro-Russian political party, the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, and Stalin appears on a side panel, along with other stories about Saint Matrona's life. Its presence was largely ignored until last week, when opposition politician Giorgi Kandelaki drew attention to it, criticizing it as an attempt to portray positively “one of the largest mass murders in history.” According to Kandelaki, elevating Stalin's figure would be a weapon for the Russian government to advance its interests through “information warfare.”

On January 9, a Georgian activist, Nata Peradze, destroyed the symbol by throwing blue paint on it and posted the video on her Facebook profile (the symbol appeared to be protected by a transparent film and was subsequently cleaned). Peradze said Stalin killed his entire family and ruled with terror. After the video was released, a crowd of right-wing protesters surrounded the activist's home, threatened her and repeatedly attempted to break into the building.

Georgian police said they had opened an investigation into minor vandalism following Peradze's gesture. In Georgia, throwing colors was seen by many as an act against the church and against Christianity, rather than against Russia: members of the ruling party Georgian Dream (centrist and pro-European) defined the gesture as “anti-Christian and anti-Christian.” anti-clerical” and said they wanted to adopt stricter penalties for offensive acts against religious buildings and objects.

The Georgian Orthodox Church (followed by around 80 percent of the 3.7 million population) said that it is common for icons to also depict negative figures, such as heretics and persecutors of Christians, but in these cases they should not be glorified. The church said that the icon in question was not “of Stalin” but “with Stalin.” Although he criticized Peradze's gesture, viewing it as an attack on the church in general, he still called on donors to modify the icon, adding that if they had not done so, the church itself would have taken care of it.

In the Orthodox religion, icons are much more relevant than similar images in Catholic churches and are in fact among the most significant and distinctive elements. They depict saints, angels and biblical stories according to precise and recurring rules with deep symbolic meaning and are an instrument of prayer and devotion. Typically, in Orthodox churches, the part where believers stay is separated from the part where priests stay by a wall covered with icons, called the iconostasis.

The icon in question depicts Saint Matrona of Moscow, also known as Matrona the Blind, a mystic and seer who lived between 1885 and 1952 and was recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1999. According to a popular legend that has not been confirmed by historical evidence, sources say the mystic received a visit from Stalin during the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. The dictator received the saint's blessing and assurances that the Soviet army would be able to repel the invasion.

It is not the first time that an icon depicting Stalin together with the saint has caused controversy. In 2008, a similar story in St. Petersburg led to the dismissal of the priest who installed the icon in the church after protests from parishioners.

Although the Soviet regime was officially atheist and suppressed religious freedom, Stalin is sometimes viewed as a religious person. In the difficult moments of the Nazi invasion, he also resorted to religious themes to mobilize people to fight and resist. In addition, religious organizations in the Soviet Union were partially legalized in the 1940s after violent repression in the 1920s and 1930s.

Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia in 1876 into a family of humble origins. His real name was Josip Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (Stalin was a nickname: in Russian it means “Man of Steel”). He was one of the most famous leaders of the 20th century, but also one of the most criticized due to the very violent suppression of dissent during the 29 years of his reign. According to a poll conducted in Georgia in 2021, 66 percent of respondents were convinced that “a patriotic Georgian should be proud that Stalin was a Georgian.” About half believed that “Stalin was a tyrant who was responsible for millions of deaths,” but 66 percent also believed that “Stalin was a wise leader who led the Soviet Union to power and prosperity.” Since 2012, twelve new statues dedicated to him have been erected in Georgia.

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