An icon dedicated to Saint Matrona of Moscow in Tbilisi’s Sameba Holy Trinity Cathedral depicting the saint in the company of a man resembling Joseph Stalin has stirred controversy in Georgia.
Footage of the icon in Sameba was first shared on Saturday by Ilia Chigladze, a Georgian archpriest, on Facebook. Soon after, Giorgi Kandelaki, a member of the opposition European Georgia party and a researcher at the Soviet Past Research Laboratory, shot and shared footage of the icon on his social media handles.
The icon depicts Saint Matrona of Moscow, a 20th-century Russian Orthodox Church saint. A man who both Chigladze and Kandelaki claimed to be Joseph Stalin, the Georgian-born dictator and leader of the Soviet Union, appears in one of the smaller icons surrounding the central depiction of Matrona.
In an interview with Tabula on Saturday, Andria Jagmaidze, the head of the Patriarchate’s public relations department, did not deny that Stalin was depicted in the icon but stated that the icon was dedicated to Matrona, and not the Soviet leader.
‘If somewhere on the fresco of St. George, [the Roman Emperor] Diocletian is depicted, this does not make it an icon of Diocletian’, he said, adding that the controversy surrounding the Matrona icon was meant to overshadow the celebration of Orthodox Christmas on 7 January.
The following day, Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, the leader of the conservative Alliance of Patriots party, announced that he had donated the icon to the cathedral. He said that Stalin had met Matrona for counsel during World War II.
While Tarkhan-Mouravi cited Matrona’s official biographer in his statement, the Georgia-based St. Paul’s Orthodox Christian Theology Centre stated that no other historical sources confirm that Stalin and Matrona had met.
Archimandrite Ioane Mchedlishvili of the Holy Trinity Cathedral stated on Sunday that the icon had been in the cathedral ‘for several months’.
On the same day, Gocha Barnov, a theologian, told TV channel Mtavari Arkhi that the icon’s presence in the cathedral was ‘blasphemous’ and that it should be removed immediately.
In a 2021 publication commissioned by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy titled 13 Myths about Stalin, the Eastern European Centre for Multiparty Democracy found that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has actively been trying to portray Stalin as a ‘religious man’ — despite the Soviet authorities’ mass arrest of worshippers and demolition of churches and other religious buildings during Stalin’s time in power.