Thursday, 5 January 2012

Georgia – The first Stalin museum

December 27

Hello everyone!

In my previous blog I mentioned that we had been based in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, for the best part of a week. In reality, there isn’t really enough in the city to occupy and stimulate you for that period of time, so we decided to research potential day trips in the surrounding region.  After learning that the Kakheti wine region is as yet not set up for tourism in the way that many other wine regions are in the world, we learned of a museum that was a 90-minute bus ride away. We thus travelled to the small town of Gori, where one of Georgia’s most famous – or infamous – exports grew up.

Other famous people born in Georgia include Katie Melua, the British singer-songwriter, and Temuri Ketsbaia, the slightly crazy footballer. But one name jumps out from the list. For those of you who don’t know, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was actually born in Georgia. Who, you ask? Well, he’s more commonly known to us as Joseph Stalin – leader of the USSR, a key figure in the instigation of the Cold War, and murderer of millions. One of the most despised men of the 20th century.

Except here, in Gori, he’s not. He’s actually…revered. Well, to an extent. Though a statue was removed in 2010, he has a street and a square named after him, and there is also an entire museum dedicated to his life. The Cold War, the beginning of which heavily involved Stalin, is one of my favourite periods of history, so I was particularly keen on seeing this strangest of dedications.

The drive to Gori was eventful enough, mainly because the taxi driver decided to try breaking all speed records on our journey. Highlights – or the peaks of my heart rate – included weaving inbetween two cars and an industrial digger within what can’t have been more than 100 metres, and overtaking a police car. Which had its lights on chasing someone else. Brilliant.

The museum was wonderful for its eccentricity. All signs and captions inside are in Russian, so unless you are a proficient reader of the language you need to have an English-speaking guide. Tania thought we were rather funny with our quirkiness, and my inquisitive nature – for example, when looking at gifts given to Stalin by world leaders, where the British gift was (clearly there wasn’t going to be one forthcoming, not after Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech) – must have a rare occurrence for her. Other presents include a pen and an image made entirely of tobacco leaves. Good job on being creative, Romania.

Being a museum, it’s pretty educational, but some of the things we learnt were fascinating. For example, Stalin was exiled to Siberia seven – SEVEN – times before rising up to the forefront of the Communist Party. I was more concerned that he managed to escape five – FIVE – times, and pardoned for the others. Security not exactly watertight in Siberia, though it is a rather large area.

Another intriguing one, which isn’t noticeable until you know, is that Stalin’s left arm is shorter than his right – the product of an accident during his childhood. The majority of the museum, however, is more what you would expect – plenty of paintings and busts portraying an important figure, and materials from his childhood.

Some of the items from his childhood are larger than others, and you won’t find a bigger example than the house that Stalin grew up in. It’s safe to say that he lived in grander estates in his later years. Another fascinating item that is confined within the grounds of the museum is Stalin’s personal train. It is the one that took him to the Yalta Conference in 1945, and is apparently bulletproof. Whilst the chassis could be, I would be willing to bet an AK47 round or two could crack a few of the windows.

Contrary to the adoration suggested thus far, the museum is willing to accept that Stalin sent millions of people to their deaths. I’m not sure that the fact that they accept this but still appreciate him is actually scarier than an outright denial of his heinous crimes. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians lost their lives under Stalin’s leadership of the USSR – not just through fighting to save them from the Nazi invasion, but also through numerous purges and murders. The museum also briefly touches on more recent attacks directed by Moscow, when Russian tanks rolled into Georgia during the South Ossetian War of 2008. The town of Gori was affected, and our guide had to flee to Tbilisi for 20 days.

Gori is not just about Stalin – it also has a crumbling and very windy fortress – but the only reason that this remote Georgian town is on the map is because of a man who was voted as TIME magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1943. Did it change my opinion of Stalin? Not at all. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating experience to learn more about the life of someone so infamous by visiting his hometown.

Love you all


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