A visit to the dictator's birthplace in the former Soviet republic of Georgia where a complicated relationship with the notorious native son plays into current tensions with Russia.
GORI - Sixty years ago, on March 5, 1953, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died. But in the city of his birth, Gori in Georgia, time seems to have stood still.
“They” (the unpopular regime of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili) may have taken the sleepy provincial city’s big, grey statue of Stalin down, but there’s still the grand boulevard known as Stalin Prospect where a small marble Egyptian-style temple has been built to enclose the modest house where Stalin was born. Behind the temple is a Venetian-style palace with a tower that houses the Stalin Museum.
Inside, grand marble steps lead up to exhibition rooms where photos of Stalin’s life are on display – not photos of the Communist revolutionary’s real, blood-drenched life, but the textbook stuff: Stalin with this and that committee, Stalin with Lenin, Stalin in the Council of People’s Commissars, and so on.
The photos are retouched, and no effort has been made to fill in the empty spaces left by the people who’ve been blanked out of the images. At the end of the exhibition one reaches a round, black-velvet-hung meditation space where Stalin’s death mask lies lit in red.
The museum not only glorifies Stalin, it celebrates the insanity of Stalinist bureaucracy. One buys an entry ticket downstairs – next to the museum shop that sells “gold” busts of the man in several sizes, Stalin mugs, Stalin key rings. But it’s only after one gets upstairs that an attendant stamps the ticket. Next to her is another attendant whose job it is to tear up the ticket.
I am led through the rooms by a young museum guide who can’t be much older than this Post-Soviet republic in the Caucasus which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The guide uses a pointer to single out this or that long-forgotten revolutionary in the photos. Nowhere is there any criticism of Stalin. The only naysayer in the lot is Trotsky. The guide points her stick at a small image of him and says: "His real name was Lev Bronstein. He was a Jew."
In this marble-floored museum, it’s as cold as a morgue, so it’s a relief to get outside into a mild early spring sun. In the rose garden, Stalin’s armored railway car is on display: inside, Stalin’s desk, Stalin’s bed, Stalin’s toilet.
Gori’s railroad station dates back to the dictator’s day, and the first-class waiting room (which is kept locked, but you can look in through the glass door) resembles a little Gothic chapel, only instead of an altar in the middle there’s a larger-than-life white marble statue of Stalin.
Sixty-three kilometers separate Gori from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, where I visited the National Museum of Georgia for further elucidation on the country’s attitude toward its notorious native son. The museum’s permanent exhibition entitled "The Occupation 1920-1991" is less of an exhibition than a propaganda show reminiscent of the best Communist style.
The dimly lit exhibition space is oppressive, featuring one list of executed regime opponents and patriots, after another. Screens show the Red Army marching into Georgia, show trials, firing squads. The exhibition’s high point is a reconstructed execution cell.
The message here is that Georgians are an oppressed people – oppressed by Russia. That may be part of the truth, but it’s certainly not the whole truth since Stalin himself and many of his henchmen, like chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus Lavrentiy Beria and Sergo Orjonikidze who established the Socialist Republic of Georgia, were Georgian. By some estimates 70% of Georgians joined the party. The Soviet Union made Georgia its prize vacation spot and Tbilisi into a model socialist city. But none of that comes through in this self-serving narrative of victimhood.
How do Georgians deal with the cognitive dissonance of – on the one hand – glorifying Stalin, and on the other despising the Soviet occupation? I met with publicist Nestan "Neka" Charkviani, also a Stalin-era historian, and asked her to explain these contradictions in the Georgian mentality to me. Charkviani is better qualified than virtually anybody else to tell the story: her grandfather Candide Charkviani is considered to be the man who “discovered” Stalin. A politician, he was also a writer and journalist who “liked the way Stalin wrote,” she explains. Later, Stalin protected his early supporter from Beria's bloodlust.
When the dictator was older, he invited Candide Charkviani and some other friends from the days of his youth to his Georgian vacation home by the sea. In his unpublished memoirs, which Neka Charkviani intends to publish, her grandfather records that Stalin spoke openly about people who had been unjustly killed at his orders. He spoke "with the quiet distance of an historian, without grief or anger,” indeed “even with a certain humor.”
The only time during this occasion that the dictator got angry was at the sight of a pack of cigarettes with a lightly-clad woman in a come-hither pose printed on it. "What decent woman would pose that way?" he fulminated while Charkviani and the others promised to have different cigarette packs designed at once.
According to Neka Charkviani, Georgians don’t see Stalin as a representative of an oppressive system, but rather in the light of "the national inferiority complex" with regard to Russia. "This is a small country of less than six million inhabitants and here was this little man, one of them, who became the head of the whole empire."
Officially, the government condemns the restoration of Stalin monuments and the continuation of the cult of Stalin -- but since these things also serve the cult of Georgia and anti-Russian sentiment, the opposing energies cancel each out.
"When party head Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 as a brutal despot there was a big anti- Khrushchev demonstration in Tbilisi," Charkviani recalls. "People said: This Russian is attacking Stalin because he’s Georgian."
But then, lowering her voice, she notes that there were also other people who said: "But look what he did to them. It serves them right."