As the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war tore the Tsarist Russian Empire to pieces, countries that found themselves outside of Bolshevik control declared their independence. Finland, Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all won their freedom. Georgia, on the other hand, declared independence in 1918 only to elect a Communist, but not a Bolshevik, government. Georgia and its new government were recognised as independent by France and Britain, but this didn’t last long
In 1921, the Soviet Red Army invaded, with local boy Joseph Stalin responsible for the subjugation of his former homeland. Georgia was Sovietised, systematically and forcibly. This became known as the Georgian Affair, and led to a rift between Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and People’s Commissar, Joseph Stalin. Lenin urged a softer approach, Stalin did not. Tragically for Georgia, Lenin suffered a serious illness in 1922, allowing Stalin to rise to the top of the Soviet political machinery.
Georgia is a fiercely proud nation. Independence is a matter of intense national pride, so the fact that this brief glimpse of national self determination was crushed by one of their own raises many tricky questions. Not that you’d get that impression from the bizarre museum dedicated to Uncle Joe and occupying a grand building in the centre of his birthplace, Gori. This is an unabashedly upbeat interpretation of Stalin the man and leader of the Soviet world from 1927 to 1953.
The concept of ‘dark tourism’, visiting places associated with tragedy and death, should probably apply to the Stalin Museum but, since it makes little or no effort to address the horrors that Stalin was responsible for, it’s hard to categorise that way. There are pleasant photos and paintings of Joseph, victim of Tsarist oppression; Joseph, proud compatriot of Lenin and other Soviet leaders; Joseph, strong leader of Soviet Russia; Joseph, victor over Nazi Germany; and Joseph, the loving father and family man.
If you’d never bothered to become even vaguely acquainted with 20th century history, you might be convinced that here was a man who pulled himself up from a childhood of abject poverty to rule benevolently over half of Europe. There is more than a whiff of personality cult, the room decorated in red velvet and dedicated to Stalin’s death mask is just the most obvious sign of this tendency. Coupled with a feeling that the museum was last renovated when Stalin was alive, it made for an uncomfortable experience.
Although there are few English signs in the museum, Georgian friends assure me that almost no mention is made of small inconveniences such as the Ukrainian Famine (up to 7 million deaths); the disaster of dekulakisation and collectivisation (millions more dead); the Great Terror; the pact with Nazi Germany; the Gulags and prison camps to which millions more Soviet citizens were sent; the crushing of Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain … I could go on, but you get the point.
I wandered around in a state of mild bemusement, not really sure what to make of the museum. There were only a handful of other visitors, most seemed to be Russian or Chinese, and they seemed to be taking the exhibits of old newspaper clippings, faded photos and statues of Stalin seriously. I was quite glad to get outside again and visit the train carriage Stalin used when travelling, not to mention his childhood home, removed stone by stone to occupy pride of place outside the museum.
What, if anything, does the Stalin Museum tell us about modern Georgia’s relationship with a man conservatively estimated to be responsible for 20 million deaths? Not much I’d say. There’s no doubt that for some Georgians there is a lingering sense of national pride in a local boy made good. For the majority Stalin is, at best, the man who inflicted decades of Soviet Russian persecution on the nation. There’s a reason that Gori is the only town in the country to maintain a Stalin statue in its main square.