Virtual Platform – Rethinking the Soviet Past

by Irakli Khvadagiani, Anna Margvelashvili  - Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB)

Photo by Temur Bardzimashvili

Georgians don’t seem quite sure yet what to make of their Soviet past.

Some see it as a taboo subject, preferring to erase it from their memories; while others turn that period into an idyll or myth of a golden time. The difficult process of thoroughly re-examining the past has not yet begun in the country, at least not in any systematic way.

For the past 20 years, the government’s approach to the issue has also been inconsistent.

The West, towards which Georgia aspires, is founded on fundamental principles of freedom, democracy and human rights. To truly develop in this direction, it is important for Georgia – which has been perceived as a young and immature democracy for those 20 years – to grapple with what happened in Georgia during Soviet time, and discuss what that means for the future.

Since 2010, the Soviet Past Research Laboratory has been examining this past and creating educational and informational resources that make historical material available to as many people as possible. The organization works in several directions: a research program; an educational program; and a public archive program (for more information please visit www.sovlab.ge).

One recent example of our work is a powerful documentary – “The Great Soviet Terror – Human Stories”. The movie depicts the lives of people who fell victim to Stalin-era repressions and chronicles the developments taking place in Georgia between 1921 and 1956, showing what happened to various families and people.

But the Laboratory staff believes it is not enough to create comprehensive and fully accessible educational resources, or even to carry out intensive research in the regions and provide information on Soviet Union’s totalitarian past to the public, important as these efforts are. We must also discuss the role and responsibility of society in totalitarian regimes.

This list of goals and activities represents the main areas of cooperation between the Laboratory and the OSGF since 2011.

Our first goal was to create a discussion space – a kind of virtual  laboratory – to assess what attitudes, questions and evaluations exist in our society towards the Soviet past. We also wanted to encourage old people to talk to the young, and vice versa, with the aim of developing an appreciation of history in the younger generation.    

We hosted 12 public discussions in Tbilisi on the Soviet past on a number of crucial issues, including:  Soviet writing, cinema, architecture, post-Soviet nationalism, Stalin's repressions, deportations, banned literature, dissidents' activities, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the policy of disclosure of personal files. These difficult topics, that still define Georgian culture, policy and everyday life, were discussed and reviewed.

More than 100 participants, most of whom were students, attended each seminar. We were delighted to see student participation grow throughout the process. We agreed with the OSGF that another legacy of the Soviet period was the separation of the center from the regions, with the result that the center tends to dominate intellectual life. That’s why, in 2012, we traveled to Kakheti to recreate the projects we had successfully implemented in Tbilisi in 2011.

We published the outcome of the Tbilisi talks in “Rethinking the Soviet Past; Discussions 2011” and used the documentary “The Great Soviet Terror – Human Stories” as study guides.

But the discussions held in Kakheti produced a very different outcome from those in Tbilisi, making clear the need for more effort to involve the regional population on the topic of the Soviet Union’s legacy in their area.

There was a clear split in how Kakhetians reacted to the topics discussed. They either responded strongly to the emotionally intensive documentary and later went on remembering and sharing similar stories -- or remained distant and didn’t have anything to say.

This may have been caused by different reasons, including a lack of prior discussions in the regions; indifference towards the subject or considering it irrelevant; or a belief that a single person’s opinion cannot change anything and, therefore, is not important.

In our opinion, the role of informal public education in coming to understand the Soviet past is particularly important. We would like to create additional educational resources, which can be later employed in teaching at different levels.

Our existing research programs, including tours, publications, exhibitions and blogs, represent information from oral histories, discussions and archives. They enjoy quite a high level of interest among readers and are also useful to educational institutions.

The Soviet Past Research Laboratory should try additional approaches in the future, with a special focus on the regions. Meanwhile, our three-year experience has convinced us that we must continue to collect oral histories, make documentaries, and seek support of our work in the regions by educational institutions. We must also develop networks, educational and informational programs, and promote our information and materials to society.

 

It is very important to involve young people and local NGOs in this process, and we  plan to continue working this direction. 

 


JULY 2018

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