October 19, 2019

Celebrating a Local Hero, Josef Stalin. Gori

Josef Vissarionovich Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia, in December 1878. His birth put the city on the map and was one of the first places to erect a statue to the Soviet leader. And it may well be the last city in the world to still have a statue of him in place. Despite his many atrocities and the destruction of any reminders of him elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, Gori still remembers its local hero.

Arriving in Gori by train, a short one hour journey from Tbilisi, you are immediately confronted with 'Uncle Joe' as you exit the railway station and walk down Stalin Avenue.

You would be hard pressed to find any memories of the once great leader in most countries, but here his name lives on everywhere.

The entrance to Stalin Park

Gori itself though is not flourishing. The main park, yep, also named after its famous son, is in a bad way, with ruined gates and long, weed infested grass.

Some of the housing on Stalin Avenue has been abandoned, and many businesses seem to have closed, and out of the ones that are still open, car washing garages seem to be booming.

Twenty minutes walking brings you to, wait for it, Stalin Square. And here things get serious. A statue of the man himself dominates one corner of the square.

A large protective structure, with colonnades more resembling a marble mausoleum, encloses a small wooden house in which Stalin was born. A guard stops tourists getting too close, or wanting a peek inside.

Behind the preserved house is the museum. Built in 1951 under Stalin's orders, two years before he died, this is perhaps the most controversial reminder of the cities famous son, a museum jam-packed with Stalin memorabilia.

Stalin's cigars.

Inside it is very solemn, reminding me of the atmosphere of the mausoleum containing Lenin in Moscow. No body was here, that was taken for embalming to the Russian capital, and was to be placed next to Lenin for eternity until the policy of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev led to it being buried close to the Kremlin wall. There is a death mask, however, in the final room of the museum.

The only way to visit the museum is to join a tour. A documentary film on Stalin played on an old TV set as I waited for enough people to arrive for a tour to start.

Walking up a marble staircase fit for a palace the tour leader excitedly described the sights we were about to see, "This is the best museum on Stalin in the world!" she proclaimed. I would agree with that, there is not that much competition.

In her late fifties, with steel wire hair arranged in a bun, her time was taken up by herding our small group and making sure the stragglers kept up, as much as by explaining the treasures in the rooms we visited. "These were Stalin's cigars. He actually smoked them!" she cried in wonderment while pointing into a wooden case. Looking a bit wrinkled and dried out he did not appear to have smoked much of them judging by their length.

Stalin explaining the art of leadership to Lenin
Gifts of carpets with his image on, from grateful Central Asian leaders, vied with paintings of Stalin with children, factory workers and luminaries. In one Lenin was shown to be taking down notes of what the great leader was saying.

Possibly a shopping list for his NKVD (forerunners of the KGB) agents; American dollars, guns, oh and an ice-pick for that Mr Trotsky in Mexico City.

Pens, clothes, table lamps, all owned by Stalin are proudly shown off by the guide. The group is decidedly wilting as yet another portrait is admired and we are told less than exciting backstories.

In front of one where he is pictured with a train; "Stalin loved trains. They powered the revolution. This was painted in the years before the Great Patriotic War at a factory making engines."

Inside Stalin's luxurious train carriage
Stalin certainly had a thing about trains. Outside we are given a tour of his own bulletproof carriage. Complete with a luxurious bedroom, a bath and toilet, and comfortable meeting rooms. He certainly knew how to travel.

The final room is where his death mark is solemnly presented. The guide encourages reverence by calling for silence and talking in a whisper, almost tearfully, as she notes that; "He was an impressive man who changed the world and died too soon. Let us not forget he defeated the Nazi tyranny by his brilliant leadership."

The death mask
There is no mention of the areas in which Stalin is not so well remembered for. Although downstairs there is a little makeshift gaol, resembling a gulag, without any English description, which makes for a rather perplexing display. This room is not included in the tour.

We are deposited at the gift shop. Yes, a Stalin gift shop, where the Stalin fan can buy fridge magnets, cigarette lighters, bags, water bottles and coasters all emblazoned with the image of the great man. There are even gold statues so that you can turn your own home into a little shrine to the man who  while revered here in his birthplace in Georgia, is reviled in much of the rest of the world.

The statue in Stalin Square

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