A Georgian Affair, Gori’s Stalin Museum

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.

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s childhood house, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s childhood house, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

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.

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin’s work desk, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Lenin and Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Death Mask ofJoseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

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.

7 thoughts on “A Georgian Affair, Gori’s Stalin Museum

  1. History is always suspect. Written by the victors, or in this case, written with omissions. I am seeing it happen now in my lifetime, shades of Orwell’s 1984 for sure.

  2. Dark tourism indeed. Not sure I would be comfortable visiting. Only recently visited the Trotsky museum here in Mexico city. The fact that Trotsky was savagely murdered by orders of Stalin doesn’t change the reality of his deeds… Hope all is well with you Paul?
    (Just got back to the blogosphere after several weeks in Paris.)
    Cheers.

    • Glad to hear you’re back on the blog, Brian, looking forward to catching up on Paris. They were a gruesome bunch the Stalinists and Trotskyites! I remember visiting Trotsky’s house in 1988, everything left as it had been just after his death. At least it wasn’t a fawning attempt to salvage his reputation, unlike the Stalin museum.

      • Gruesome indeed. ’88? Hmmm. Yes and no. The museum is in fact run and maintained by the family. No public funding whatsoever. As it happens, daughter #2 (the M.D.)’s boss is one of Trotsky’s greatgrandaughters. Fascinating.

  3. Whoa… That’s seriously odd I would say. I’d also say that if you make it to Kiev don’t miss the memorial to the famine victims (though you may have to get past people trrying to tell you it’s not true, even there!). Considering the scale of what pretty much amounted to genocide from what I can tell it’s a very restrained memorial, and I must admit I hadn’t really known much about it before I went there and then had to look it up on my return to the UK. In my defence I studied the Third Reich as a special subject at university and that didn’t concentrate very much on Russia (and neither did I because I don’t read Russian and we had to read the source materials untranslated which meant I had to stick to Latin, French and German-based subjects). I don’t think it’s widely known.

    • The idea of Ukrainians denying the famine is just too weird for words. Yet more reason to go to Kiev, but it should be made compulsory to watch the film, Mr Jones. I think the eponymous hero was a Berlin-based correspondent during the Nazis rise to power. I studied history, but a bit further back in time, I’m still catching up on the 20th century!

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