Stalin statue taken down in his Georgian hometown

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Authorities in Georgia have taken down a statue of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that stood in the central square of Gori, his hometown.

The six-metre (20ft) bronze statue was removed unannounced from its plinth in the middle of the night.

The statue will be moved to a museum in Gori dedicated to Stalin, said the head of the city council, Zviad Khmaladze.

It will be replaced by a monument for the victims of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia.

Gori was bombed by Russian forces during the brief conflict in August 2008.

A journalist told Reuters news agency that police had tried to prevent reporters from filming the removal of the statue.

"A new monument dedicated to victims of the Russian aggression will be erected" in the central square, said Mr Khmaladze.

Subject of debate

The statue of Stalin had stood in central Gori since the early 1950s, and many of the town's residents have remained proud of the former Soviet leader.

It is thought to have been the sole large-scale statue of Stalin still standing in its original position in the former Soviet Union.

But there are several smaller busts on display, some unveiled as recently as May amid celebrations for the 65th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany.

After Georgia gained independence in 1991, crowds tore down statues of Stalin and Lenin across the country, but hundreds of people gathered in Gori and refused to let the statue there be touched.

Recently, the fate of the statue has been a subject of debate in Georgia, with supporters of the pro-Western "Rose Revolution" that brought President Mikheil Saakashvili to power in 2004 arguing for its removal.

Georgia's Culture Minister Nika Rurua defended the authorities' action on Friday, saying "I believe Stalin was a political criminal, who led the Russian Bolshevik army into Georgia in 1921, which eventually carried out Georgia's occupation".

"Stalin was a man who created hideous autonomies based on ethnic division, which to this day continue to create great problems for Georgia's freedom, democracy and consolidation. Stalin was a man who simply destroyed the best parts of Georgia."

Joseph Stalin was born to a modest family in Gori in 1879.

Though he was not a decisive figure in the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Communist Party after the revolution, securing his position as undisputed leader in the years after Lenin's death in 1924.

His forced collectivisation of agriculture cost millions of lives, while thousands were executed and millions sent into exile during purges in the 1930s.

Soviet authorities moved to dismantle the cult around Stalin in the period of "de-Stalinisation" that followed his death.

There are still many statues of Lenin across the former Soviet Union, as well as a mausoleum to the former leader in Moscow.

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