There are many reasons that more people should visit Georgia (republic of, not state of — although, dear readers from the Peach State, there are many reasons to visit the state of Georgia also); there is the fresh fruit and the fantastic food, the beautiful scenery and the friendly people. And, of course, there is the Stalin Museum: the shrine in the city of Gori to Gori’s, and Georgia’s most famous son.
I first visited the Stalin Museum in 1990; the museum at that time, I was brusquely told, was closed. For ‘repairs.’ Still, I was able to wander through the grounds and see the humble house where great Koba was born (above, from my recent trip), carefully preserved under a pavilion set in a once-lush but then neglected garden near the city’s great square.
Returning to Gori in 2010, I found a city that had had a tough twenty years. Most recently, the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was largely fought in and around Gori; the military barracks and the main bridge had been bombed, and the Russians occupied the town before pulling back to the current cease-fire line.
But it was a relief to see that through all the troubles the Stalin Museum had survived was now open, and is doing very nicely. Although the massive, super-sized statue of the Great One has been removed from the town’s central square, statues of Stalin still dot the museum grounds. He meditates imposingly in the garden, and dominates the ceremonial entrance hall from the landing on the red carpeted stairs.
Statue of Joseph Stalin in the garden of the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia (Credit: Walter Mead).
Kids still come to the museum; several groups came in while I was touring it. It’s nice to know that the younger generation won’t grow up ignorant of Stalin’s accomplishments. And fortunately they won’t be disturbed by too many jarring reflections. While the museum does not entirely ignore what might be called the dark side of this world-historical figure, in deference to local sensibilities most of the museum’s exhibits are less critical of Stalin than, say, Premier Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956. Some of the figures airbrushed out of pictures of Soviet leadership during the good old days are edging back into view; the museum has at least one picture of Leon Trotsky. Lenin’s critical appraisal of Stalin is prominently mentioned. There are photos of Stalin showing his withered arm and his smallpox scars. Still, overall the Stalin presented here is Stalin the dutiful son, Stalin the young romantic poet, Stalin the idealistic and courageous revolutionary, Stalin the builder, Stalin the war-winner, Stalin the world statesman. There is precious little about Stalin the mass-murderer, Stalin the genocidaire, Stalin the ethnic cleanser, Stalin the scourge of culture and art, Stalin the paranoid, and Stalin the sociopath.
(One picture of Stalin as a teenager does capture something of Stalin the sociopath: this looks like the kind of kid who does horrible things to cats when he’s sure he won’t be caught.)
For an extra five lari (about $2.50) you could also get a tour of Stalin’s wartime train. (It had once served Nicholas II and his family; Stalin had it refitted for his use in the 1940s.) The telecommunications room with its clunky 1940s radio-telephone technology, the conference room, a bunk bedroom for Stalin’s aides and a single bed for the Leader can all be seen.
As a special added attraction, you can go into Stalin’s private washroom; here, perhaps for the first time on the internet, is an actual photo of Uncle Joe’s john:
The souvenir shop was another trip down memory lane, reminding me of life in the Soviet Union where nothing was ever available. There just weren’t very many things to buy: no Stalin t-shirts, no copies of his youthful poetry, no J. Stalin coffee mugs or action figures. The very nice attendant (shown below in uniform) explained that, unfortunately, there was a shortage of Stalin souvenirs at the moment. It reminded me of the old joke about what would happen if the Soviet Union conquered the Sahara Desert: nothing for fifty years, then a shortage of sand.
Stalin was, without a doubt, one of the two or three greatest, most destructive figures of the twentieth century. Mao might have been responsible for more deaths, and Hitler is in his league, but Stalin did more than any other person to make the twentieth century the darkest, bloodiest and most tyrannical era in the blood-drenched annals of our race.
When Stalin seized power from the paralytic hands of a dying Lenin, the Bolshevik disaster was confined to one poor, weak and exhausted country. The Soviet Union, built on the ruins of the backward and ramshackle Russian Empire, had suffered brutally from Russia’s defeat in World War One and the bitter civil war between the Reds and the Whites.
When Stalin died thirty years later, the Soviet Union was one of two superpowers and communism looked to many sober observers like the inevitable wave of the future. Soviet troops were in Vienna and Berlin; Soviet satellite states were busy destroying the liberty and prosperity of central and eastern Europe; Soviet slaves toiled across the endless Siberian steppe. Soviet spies and scientists were matching US achievements in atomic weaponry; captured Nazi scientists and their Soviet counterparts were well ahead of the American space effort. Two years after Stalin’s death the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the world’s first orbital satellite.
Stalin’s political philosophy and theory of development was broadly popular in the developing world. Mao (despite Stalin’s treachery at several crucial points along the way) had taken power in the world’s most populous country with a promise to follow Stalin’s lead and turn China into a modern industrial state. Revolutionary youth on every continent in the world looked to Stalin’s Kremlin as the city of the future, an infallible guide to power, and the source of ‘scientific’ revolutionary thought that could end poverty and injustice forever.
None of Stalin’s fellow mass murderers and tyrants ended so well. When Mao died the Cultural Revolution had exhausted China and discredited him even among some of his closest acolytes. Hitler’s world came crashing down about his ears and he committed suicide in the ruins of Berlin. The fascists of Italy and Japan also saw the destruction of all their hopes. When Stalin died, his system was at the peak of its power and prestige.
That someone so evil and destructive, someone whose methods were so brutal and whose theories of life were so fundamentally misguided, could die in bed (though there are rumors he was poisoned by longtime henchman and fellow Georgian Lavrenti Beria), and that his revolutionary movement could still inspire cults of personality like the Che Guevara idiocy to this day, is a remarkable story, one of the most remarkable stories in the history of mankind.
Such a career must be studied, remembered, and can never be forgotten; equally, the monstrous social system that he brought to world power deserves a museum and an archival center where the whole ghastly story can be told. There’s no reason that Gori (a modest provincial town in central Georgia with few other claims to fame) shouldn’t host it. The Stalin Museum that currently exists, while it is a must-see for anybody visiting Georgia, isn’t up to the job. With one foot in the old-Soviet celebration of the great proletarian hero and another in a cautious, Khrushchevian reassessment, the museum doesn’t do justice to its real subject: the Great Darkness of the twentieth century and the man who did so much to shape it.
In a later post I’ll write about the museum of world communism that Georgia could build around the Stalin Museum; for now, I’m going to enjoy the few souvenirs that I was able to buy: the commemorative plate, the autographed hip flask I’ve given to my research associate, the bottle opener–I only wish I had more.