Hero and horror: Stalin rebranded

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What do you do when your city's most famous son is the notorious Soviet dictator? At a museum in the Georgian city of Gori they are trying to present a realistic, post-Soviet picture

Gori

It is an unusual way to begin a trip to a museum. "This museum is a falsification of history," reads a makeshift shiny banner placed at the grand entrance to the Stalin Museum in the Georgian city of Gori. "It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history."

Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who would later go down in history as Joseph Stalin, was born into a simple Georgian family in Gori in 1878, and although the regime he led has long since collapsed, the city still has a complex relationship with its most notorious son.

Until two years ago, a huge statue of the dictator stood in Gori's central square, long after similar monuments had been demolished in other cities across the former Soviet Union, and many of the city's inhabitants still think fondly of the leader that most of the world views as a bloody dictator.

The large museum, first opened in Gori during the Soviet leader's lifetime, resembles a shrine to Stalin, and the new banners about the horrors of his regime at the entrance are placed incongruously alongside a shop selling Stalin T-shirts, cigarette lighters and novelty crockery.

The pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili, which came to power after the Rose Revolution of 2003, has tried to wipe out everything Soviet from the small country, which spent 70 years as part of the Soviet Union. Its plan for the Stalin Museum is to turn it into a Stalinism Museum. The government intends to raise funding for a complete renovation of the building, keeping the existing exhibits about the dictator's personal life and rise to power, but adding information about the consequences of his regime, including the victims of collectivisation, famine in Ukraine, the purges, and the Gulag, the organisation that ran the many Soviet forced labour camps.

"There are many museums about the occupation of countries by the Soviet Union, in Estonia, Latvia and elsewhere," says Georgy Kandelaki, an MP from Mr Saakashvili's party who is one of the initiators of the project. "But there is no single museum that tells the whole story of Stalin's horrors, in the same way as for example the Holocaust Museum does."

Those who work in the museum are less than impressed. "Apparently there are going to be big changes, though nobody has asked us for our opinion," says Olga Topchishvili, a guide wearing pink lipstick and eyeshadow to match her pink shirt, who has worked at the museum for 29 years. She gives a tour of the museum, pointing at the pictures of Stalin's gradual rise with a pink chopstick, and while she acknowledges the darker side of Stalin's rule, it warrants only a few lines in the tour. "Personally I think that he was a great statesman, and he really cared about the fate of his country and his people," she says. "But of course things didn't all work out as planned. And they were scary, terrible times. Of course nobody should try to hide that."

Modern estimates of the number of people killed during Stalin's rule range from around four million to as high as 20 million. At present the only part of the museum to cover anything negative about the Stalin years is a small section opened two years ago, dedicated to the purges in which millions were shot or sent to labour camps, but Ms Topchishvili denies that the museum is pure propaganda. "Those banners they have put downstairs, saying this is all lies, I don't like that. They should not try to make us forget about our history. I never tell any lies."

The museum charts Stalin's rise from a dashingly handsome bank robber in his early years through to exile in Siberia, the 1917 revolution and ultimately leadership of the Soviet Union and world socialism. One hall features the death mask of the dictator, while another has a selection of the gifts sent to him, including carpets embroidered with his portrait, assorted ceramics and even a jewel-encrusted accordion.

Outside is the Soviet leader's personal armoured train carriage, which he used to travel to the Yalta Conference at the end of the Second World War, and also for visits to his summer houses on the Black Sea in the years before his death in 1953. The simple furnishings, carpets and layout are original, and all remain as they were when the leader himself would use them.

"He lived very simply and austerely. He only ever wore simple clothes, only ever had simple furniture," says Ms Topchishvili. "When you look at the excesses and corruption of some of the political leaders today, the people remember that. They value that."

The museum was opened in 1937, at the height of Stalin's purges, and the current imposing building was built in the 1950s. It has undergone several incarnations during its existence, based on the political exigencies of the time. In the late 1980s, during the perestroika era, there first appeared exhibits where Vladimir Lenin's doubts over Stalin's character late on in his life were discussed. A few years ago, the first mention was made of Leon Trotsky, the key military thinker who was later wiped from the face of Soviet history books.

Among the population at large in Georgia, especially in Gori itself, attitudes to the leader are still mixed. While among the country's urban elite there is anger at anything Soviet, many in the rural population regard the later Soviet years with a hint of nostalgia. There is also a nuanced position towards Stalin, combining anger at the fact that he led a regime that many see as occupiers, with a pride in the fact that he was an ethnic Georgian as well as his role in victory in the Second World War.

A pair of police officers, wearing the smart new navy blue uniforms that Mr Saakashvili's government has introduced as part of the drive to move beyond the Soviet legacy and reduce corruption in the police, voiced their approval for the dictator after visiting the museum over the weekend. "Stalin was a genius, no doubt," said one officer, who refused to give her name. "I'm proud he came from my city." Her colleague nodded in agreement.

Soon, the museum will look very different. "No democratic and free country should have a museum like this," says Mr Kandelaki, who says he expects the renovations to be completed within two years and a new, modern and interactive museum dedicated to the horrors of Stalinism to be opened on the same spot. "We will have a real museum that will tell the truth about this horrible regime."

But some of the museum's own employees will take some persuading. "It's like in the Soviet times," grumbles Ms Topchishvili. "Back then, they wouldn't let us say anything bad about Stalin. Now, we're not allowed to say anything good about him."

Rewriting wrongs of Soviet history

The Stalin Museum in Gori is not the first time that Mikheil Saakashvili's government has used museums to change views of the country's past.

One of his first acts after coming to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003 was to establish a Museum of the Soviet Occupation in the central street of Tbilisi.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin was incensed by the decision, and told Mr Saakashvili that he did not understand how it could have been a Soviet occupation given that so many leading Bolsheviks were ethnically Georgian.

To which, Mr Saakashvili replied that in that case, perhaps the Russians should open a Museum of Georgian Occupation in Moscow. It is unlikely that Mr Putin was amused.

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