GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Authorities removed a towering statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from the central square of his hometown in the dead of the night on Friday, carting away the monument to Georgia’s most famous native.
The 6-meter-high bronze statue will be moved to the courtyard of a museum dedicated to Stalin in his native Gori and replaced on the main square by a monument to victims of Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia, a local official said.
In an unannounced operation that began after midnight and was over before dawn, municipal workers and police took the statue down from its stone pedestal in the small city 80 km (50 miles) west of the capital, Tbilisi.
“It was very unexpected,” Lado Bichashvili, a journalist with local television company Trialeti, told Reuters. “I think many people will be very angry.”
He said police tried to prevent journalists from filming the process, in some cases beating them.
“This monument will be moved to the courtyard of the Stalin museum,” Zviad Khmaladze, a city council leader, said later in televised comments. “A new monument dedicated to victims of the Russian aggression will be erected at this place.”
Outward signs of Stalin’s pervasive personality cult were removed after his death in 1953 across Georgia and the rest of the Soviet Union, but he is revered by many in his hometown, where the monument was erected year before his death.
It was one of the few monuments to Stalin still standing anywhere.
“People from around the world used to visit Gori to see this statue and to pay their respects to Stalin,” said Nugzar Lamazov, who lives in a nearby village.
Widely reviled as a dictator responsible for millions of deaths in political purges, labor camps and forced agricultural collectivization, Stalin is held up as a hero by supporters who say the Soviet Union would not have defeated Nazi Germany or industrialized without him.
For many Georgians including pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, the monument was a symbol of Moscow’s lingering influence two decades after the small nation gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Gori was the hardest-hit Georgian city in the five-day war with Russia in August 2008. Bombs hit the main square near the statue and buildings nearby.
Gori was occupied by Russian troops for weeks after the conflict, which erupted when Georgia sought to recapture the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia, just north of the city.
After the conflict, some officials and prominent Georgians called for the monument’s removal, saying its presence in Gori was immoral after the Russian bombardment and occupation.
The government will hold a competition for the design of the monument to the war victims, Culture Ministry spokeswoman Salome Macharashvili told Reuters.
Russia recognized South Ossetia’s independence after the war and has strengthened its grip on the rebel region.
Gori also hosts some smaller statues and busts of Stalin as well as the museum dedicated to the late leader, who was born on December 21, 1879.
Mainly elderly supporters traditionally gather outside the colonnaded museum twice a year, on his birthday and the day of his death.
Stalin, whose real name was Dzhugashvili, ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death.
Editing by Myra MacDonald