Back to the Future: Developing a Topography of the Terror

November 17, 2009

Which places show the developments of the 1930s? Which places are particularly valuable? Where were the orders signed? Where were they carried out? Where did the hidden history of the city happen?

Debating the totalitarian part of a country’s history is a precondition to shape the transition process dedicated to democratic values. To help overcome these legacies of the past, dvv international and the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus initiated a joint project to create guided city tours in Tbilisi on the issue “Topography of the Stalin Terror,” and to train interpreters to give not only facts about this era in the city’s history, but also to give important context. This endeavour requires first of all a deep and comprehensive academic analysis of Tbilisi’s history during the Stalin period.

Supported by experts from the Baltic capitals, “Memorial” Russia and the University of Bochum (Germany), the organizers selected a two-pronged approach. First, debating aspects such as access to historic archives, the state and validity of the files, the focus of the analyses and potential results. Second, transferring the academic results into practical and educational approaches. The experiences of Baltic states in particular demonstrate the potential for a useful means of coming to terms with a country’s past.

The first action in the project, an international workshop to identify interested and experienced potential partners for the project, was held 9–10 November 2009 in Tbilisi. Participants began by visiting the Museum of the Occupation, where they assessed its approach to the relevant issues. The Museum is in a fixed location, while the tours would be mobile, so the two address similar material from different perspectives. There is a tremendous number of historical places (camps, burial places, etc.) and buildings (NKVD headquarters, Communist Party offices, buildings built by prisoners, prisons, cultural institutions, houses from which most people where taken, churches, etc.) that could be incorporated in a tour and commemorated on a map for both guides and participants. Such a map of Tbilisi would be an important basis for further work.

A significant practical problem concerns access to materials, documents needed to reconstruct events of the Soviet time. The state archives of Georgia contain four types of documents: investigative matters, protocols of “Troikas” (judicial authorities) in 1937–38, protocols of the judicial sessions of Georgian CheKa collegiums, and orders of execution. The execution orders generally note where the sentence was carried out and where the bodies were buried. Nevertheless, many documents are also believed missing from the state archives. One representative of the archives said that a large share of the documents was destroyed during fighting in Tbilisi in the 1990s. The Communist Party archives would be another major source of documentary evidence.

The combination of academic rigor and hands-on experience should produce a useful educational tool for shedding light on a dark chapter of local history.

Among the participants are organizations addressing similar questions in other countries:

Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania
The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania
International Memorial (Russia