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Stalin Icon in Sameba Church: Georgia's Controversial Debate and Political Ramifications

By Malkhaz Matsaberidze
Monday, February 12, 2024
Last month, together with the Orthodox Christmas, a strange discussion about Stalin depicted on the icon took place in Georgia. In the end, the Patriarchate sent the icon to be copied and Stalin will no longer be depicted on it. Some considered the incident to be a coincidence, while many believe that it is a deliberate provocation planned in Moscow, which not only will not end there, but is only the beginning of a new direction of the anti-Western campaign.

During the heated discussion, it was revealed that the icon of the Holy Matrona of Moscow was painted in Russia by order of the leaders of the pro-Russian party Patriots Alliance Irma Inashvili and Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi and was brought to the Trinity Cathedral a few months ago. Archimandrite Ioane Mchedlishvili then asked for forgiveness for placing the icon with Stalin's image in the church in such a way that it was not known to the Patriarchate.

According to this version, the icon remained unnoticed until on January 7, deacon Ilia Chigladze spread the information on the social network that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was depicted on the icon of the Holy Matrona in the Trinity Cathedral. This information has already attracted the attention of non-governmental organisations and journalists, the icon and its 'Stalin fragment' appeared in the media, and a wave of criticism quickly arose, which was caused by the image of Stalin on the icon.

On January 9, the icon was splashed with paint. Activist Nata Peradze shared the video that showed the splashed icon and she was quickly accused of damaging the church property. This was followed by threats against Peradze, and on January 10, pro-Russian Altinfo members gathered outside Peradze's house with violent and threatening calls. Peradze was protected by the police. The leaders of the Georgian Dream announced that the Parliament of Georgia will pass a law in the near future that will impose punishment for damage to church objects.

On January 11, the Georgian Patriarchate issued a statement that changes would be made to the icon and Stalin's figure would disappear from the icon. On January 17, an announcement was made that the icon was moved to make changes to it, and another icon of St. Matrona was placed in the church. This probably ended the 'hot phase' of the discussion. But the issues surrounding the dispute were not completely exhausted.

It has been predicted for a long time that Georgia's approach to the West and every step taken in this direction would be followed by a reaction from Moscow, and the appearance of the icon of Matrona of Moscow in the Church of Trinity in its current form can be considered as such a step. Russia has two main levers to influence some part of Georgian society - Orthodoxy and Stalin. Both were depicted together on the icon of the Holy Matrona.

One part of the critical remarks concerned the icon of Matrona Muscovelli herself. It was mentioned that this is a saint of local importance and questioned whether it was appropriate to include her icon in the main cathedral of Georgia. However, such discussion around the topic seems to be unacceptable for the Georgian Church, and the strong pro-Russian sentiments in the church among clergymen of various ranks are clearly visible in this case. Even an icon of Stalin appeared in Russia, but the Russian Orthodox Church, despite its positive attitude towards Stalin, did not come this far.

The main dispute was about the image of Stalin on the icon of Matrona. In Russia, the version that the communist dictator Stalin was actually a believer and that Trotsky and other Bolsheviks of Jewish origin prevented him from protecting the church is spreading more and more intensively. The version of Stalin's belief found supporters in Georgia as well, citing various facts, including the fact that Stalin recognized the autocephaly of the Georgian Church to the Russian Church.

During the discussion, others did not claim that Stalin was a believer. They simply noted that Diocletian, the dragon and other forces embodying evil are depicted next to the saints on Christian icons. The image of Stalin should have been perceived in this way. Opponents of this version pointed out that the figures embodying evil are depicted knocked down while Stalin in the icon fragment is a larger and more upright figure than Matrona, and has come to her for advice as a believer.

This discussion was brought to an end by the Patriarchate, who first offered to make changes to the icon to its donors, and then took it upon themselves to change the relevant fragment of the icon. Stalin will disappear from the icon but what happened is thought-provoking for pro-Western political forces and the non-governmental sector.

According to some experts, splashing the icon was a wrong move and represented an insult to the religious feelings of believers, and the government was given an excuse to act as a defender of the church. It is likely that the Georgian Dream will actively use the status of the defender of the Orthodox Church during the election campaign.

As for the pro-Western opposition, they will have to clearly show that the West is not against Orthodoxy. It will not be possible to defeat the Stalinist propaganda by increasing the demands to close the Stalin Museum and take down Stalin's monuments, especially since the Georgian Dream will not do it.

Not only the official power, but also some opposition parties shy away from open and active criticism of Stalin based on 'electoral considerations'. Overcoming the abundantly created historical myths about Stalin requires long work, first of all in youth. It is necessary to show more impressively what damage the communist regime brought to Georgia.