In Georgia, controversy over a Stalin icon makes headlines at home and abroad

Stalin is pictured alongside the Russian Saint Matrona of Moscow. Screenshot from RFE/RL video report.

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

An icon dedicated to Saint Matrona of Moscow in Tbilisi’s Sameba Holy Trinity Cathedral depicting the saint in the company of a man resembling Joseph Stalin has stirred controversy in Georgia.

Footage of the icon in Sameba was first shared by Ilia Chigladze, a Georgian archpriest, via Facebook. The presence of the icon at the cathedral was later confirmed by Giorgi Kandelaki, a member of the opposition European Georgia party and a researcher at the Soviet Past Research Laboratory, who visited the cathedral and took pictures of the icon, which he then shared on his social media.

The icon depicts Saint Matrona of Moscow, a 20th-century Russian Orthodox Church saint. A man whom both Chigladze and Kandelaki claimed to be Joseph Stalin, the Georgian-born dictator and leader of the Soviet Union, appears in one of the smaller icons surrounding the central depiction of Matrona.

In an interview with a local paper, Tabula, Andria Jagmaidze, the head of the Patriarchate’s public relations department, did not deny that Stalin was depicted in the icon but stated that the icon was dedicated to Matrona and not the Soviet leader.

“If somewhere on the fresco of St. George, [the Roman Emperor] Diocletian is depicted, this does not make it an icon of Diocletian,” he said, adding that the controversy surrounding the Matrona icon overshadowed the celebration of Orthodox Christmas on January 7.

“Why did they save this topic for today? What did they achieve? People were robbed of their joy, and this is a greater evil than the depiction of Stalin on the icon,” Jagmaidze reportedly told Radio Liberty Georgian Service in an interview.

The following day, Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, the leader of the conservative Alliance of Patriots party, announced that he had donated the icon to the cathedral. He said that Stalin had met Matrona for counsel during World War II.

While Tarkhan-Mouravi cited Matrona’s official biographer in his statement, the Georgia-based St. Paul’s Orthodox Christian Theology Centre stated that no other historical sources confirm that Stalin and Matrona had met.

A priest from Trinity Cathedral, Ioane Mchedlishvili, told journalists the icon had been in the cathedral “for several months.”

Gocha Barnov, a theologian, told TV channel Mtavari Arkhi that the icon’s presence in the cathedral was “blasphemous” and that it should be removed immediately.

Lasha Bughadze, a popular playwright and commentator, said the icon was “an insult and a mockery,” adding, “Behind this image are hundreds of thousands of martyred Georgians and millions of deaths.”

According to the Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SovLab), a Tbilisi-based organization documenting the Soviet totalitarian past, including  Stalin’s purges in Georgia, hundreds of thousands of Georgians became victims of Stalin's terror: “Researchers estimate, that from 1921–1953, twenty thousand were executed. Hundreds of thousands were deported, and tens of thousands were sent to infamous camps. The number of those who died in preliminary detention facilities during brutal interrogations remains unknown.” Just in one year, during the period known as Great Terror, between 1937–1938, by some estimates, eleven thousand people were executed in Georgia.

In a 2021 publication commissioned by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy titled 13 Myths about Stalin, the Eastern European Centre for Multiparty Democracy found that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has actively been trying to portray Stalin as a “religious man” — despite the Soviet authorities’ mass arrest of worshippers and demolition of churches and other religious buildings during Stalin’s time in power.

Another survey released the same year by the Caucasus Research Resource Center found that 66 percent of Georgians partially and fully agreed with the statement that “a patriotic Georgian must be proud that Stalin was Georgian,” according to reporting by The rest of the survey respondents were either neutral (16 percent) or disagreed (28 percent).

The presence of the icon continued making headlines both in Georgia and internationally when activist Nata Peradze threw blue paint over the icon on January 9. Peradze filmed herself and later shared the video on social media. She was then questioned and pressed with vandalism charges. The next day, an angry mob of far-right group Alt Info surrounded Peradze's home.

Compilation created by Arzu Geybullayeva via screengrabs from Peradze's and RFE/RL's videos

Among the mob was Zurab Makharadze, one of the leaders of the Conservative Movement and far-right Alt Info, who reportedly appealed to the authorities, demanding that Peradze be punished on charges of “unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites.”

But for Peradze, it was more than just an act of civil disobedience. In an interview with Politico, the activist said Stalin killed her whole family and “instilled terror and fear.” This was not her first action against Stalin either, explained Peradze in another interview with Radio Liberty. And that the scale of the response around this episode was not something she expected to see.

The same day, it was reported the icon was cleaned and moved to a more prominent position at the Cathedral.

After this event, the ruling Georgian Dream Party vowed to introduce stricter fines and punishment against insulting religious buildings and objects and inciting hatred on religious grounds.

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