Letter From Tbilisi: Georgia Between Two Powers

Russia On Their Mind

Courtesy Reuters

On Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main drag, the Museum of the Soviet Occupation stands right across from Georgia's national parliament. Constructed in 2006, the museum takes visitors through the history of Georgia's encounter with the Soviet Union, from the Red Army's invasion in 1921, through the mass murder of the Georgian political and cultural leadership over the following decades, all the way up to the end of the Cold War and Georgia's declaration of independence in 1991. Not long after the museum opened, then Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about it directly to his Georgian counterpart, the young and exuberantly pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili, protesting what he considered to be its anti-Russian tone. After all, he pointed out, some of the most ruthless figures in the Soviet hierarchy -- including Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria -- were themselves Georgian. Saakashvili responded sarcastically that Russia was free to open a museum to memorialize Georgian oppression of Russians, and that he would even donate the funds.

The occupation museum is not just about documenting the past; it also seeks to address the present. Take the quote embossed on a wall from Noe Zhordania, the journalist who led the Georgian government in exile from the initiation of the Soviet occupation until his death in 1953: "Soviet Russia offered us [a] military alliance, which we rejected. We have taken different paths, they are heading for the East and we, for the West." Hanging on the wall near the exhibit's exit is a map of Georgia with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia marked in dark red, a result of their being occupied by Russia since the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. (In addition to Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are the only countries that recognize the territories as independent.) Tour guides refer visitors to a 1955 report issued by the U.S. Congress' erstwhile Select Committee on Communist Aggression titled "Communist Takeover and Occupation of Georgia," copies of which are distributed at the museum's entrance. The message, as my guide said: "

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