One of my road projects is improving the East-West highway in Georgia which runs from Azerbaijan through Tbilisi to the Black Sea. I had to do a field visit as part of our mid-term review of the project. After finishing our meetings we headed just west of our project to the city of Gori to visit the museum of its most famous son—Joseph Stalin, commemorated below with a statue outside of the City Hall.
Stalin was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953, rising to the country’s leadership following Lenin’s death in 1924. Most westerners think of him as a Russian, but he was a Georgian with the name “Iosef Besarionis dze Jughashvili”. Interestingly, in a 2008 poll he was voted by Russians as the 3rd greatest Russian ever, so his nationality is open to interpretation.
There are two different perspectives on Stalin. To some he is a great man who transformed the Soviet Union into a great power with massive industrial development. To others he is the greatest mass murderer in history. Although he was Georgian, he showed this country no favours, executing many thousands – including my Bank colleague Tamara’s grandfather. Our guide’s view was pragmatic: history is history so let’s not get too personal.
We had a small group for the tour, including an older man from Poland who was definitely not a fan. The Poles suffered tremendously under Stalin. After Hitler invaded in 1939 Stalin waited a few weeks and then took the eastern third of Poland through a secret treaty with the Germans. They then deported and executed many Poles, as well as the post-war horrors. He asked many pointed questions during the tour which were bordering on being rude, but one can understand his strong emotions.
After ascending a sweeping stair case past a huge statue of Stalin, we entered into a room which had endless photographs of Stalin’s life.
He was from a very poor family in Gori and studied at a Georgian Orthodox church seminary. Later, he became a Bolshevik radical and was imprisoned, before rising through the ranks to take control of the Soviet Union.
As would be expected, our guide fairly glibly passed over the “mistakes” that were made under Stalin. Even the numbers – some 3.8 million deported and 700,000 executed (seem on the low side to me) were just that: numbers. Our Polish friend mentioned the 20+ million who died in famines in the Ukraine after the forced collectivisation of farms, as well as other “mistakes”, but the guide never missed a step.
There were endless photographs and paintings of him with smiling children and flowers draped all over him. Lis posed the question why is it that the worst mass murderers are always festooned with
We saw his original furniture in his office, his uniform, his death mask, endless large busts and statues of him, endless gifts to him from tin pot countries all over the world. It all seemed so normal – the box his son made him as a gift was just like anyone’s son would make, although later he refused to ransom his eldest son from the Germans after he was captured so the son was shot. His daughter ended up living in the USA.
The guide showed us his ‘death mask’ that was made just hours after he died of natural causes. I asked her if it were not true that he was poisoned by the head of the secret police (Beria – also a Georgian who was subsequently executed) and she said that “was possible”. She should have been a diplomat.
After exiting the main building we went through his birth home. One room in a rented shack which has been moved on to the site, and a large marble temple has been built over the top of it to protect it. We actually could have sat down at his mother’s dining table if we wished. I wonder what he would have thought with tourists getting their photos in front of the place. In case you are wondering, that is my wife who was with me.
The final stop was his personal train which was moved here some ten years after his death. He did not like to fly and so travelled all over the Soviet Union on this train. It is interesting to think that the most powerful man of his time had such relatively Spartan comforts: reminded me of a second class Indian train.
My colleague Alejandro got a photo reclining on Stalin’s bed, while both him and the Pole got photos sitting in Stalin’s arm chair. In fact, I think that was the highlight of the visit for this fellow as he took out his pipe and posed for everyone.
I had mixed emotions about the visit. While it was interesting from a historical perspective, the focus was wrong. Rather than almost celebrating his life, there should have been more of a focus on his victims – like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or the one about the Khymer Rouge in Phnom Penh. The message would then be that no matter how powerful someone like Stalin was, his actions were so horrible that they should not be allowed to be repeated. I guess it’s clear which of the two Stalin camps I fall into …