Georgia: 'Uncle Joe' lives on in his home town

Stalin is seen through the eyes of his supporters in a museum of his life, says Mark McCrum

In the central square of the scrappy little Georgian town of Gori, an hour-and-a-half west of the capital Tbilisi, stands one of the strangest tourist attractions I have ever visited – the Stalin Museum, devoted to the Soviet dictator who died 60 years ago this Tuesday.

From the outside, this colonnaded Italianate palazzo looks like an art gallery or seminary. But step into the marble-floored front hall, see ahead of you the grand flight of red-carpeted stairs, the blue stained-glass windows, the white marble statue on the landing, and you sense something very different.

Even as you queue for tickets, there's an odd, reverential hush about the place – almost as if the great leader himself might at any moment appear. Viewing the exhibition by yourself is not permitted, the stern-faced woman in the booth informed me: I must wait for the English guide.

Some minutes after the Russian guide had taken her party on up the red carpet, I and three other English-speakers were joined by a sweet, toothy young woman in a neat black suit. Upstairs, in the first of three large parquet-floored rooms, I was glad of her commentary (even if it was a little brisk); for though the exhibition is laid out chronologically, the captions are in Georgian and Russian.

It was clear from the start that this was not to be a critical account. Here was Stalin as only his supporters would have seen him: the local boy whose washerwoman mother fervently wanted him to be a priest; the star pupil of the church school who won a scholarship to the theological seminary in Tbilisi; the teenage poet whose work was good enough to be published in the magazine Iveria. Like Hitler the watercolourist, Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili once had his sensitive side.

And as he moved into revolutionary politics in his early twenties, what a dashing-looking fellow he was: thick, flowing hair, dark, thoughtful eyes, beneath the fashionable beard, a mouth both firm and amused.

Neatly organised walls of photographs, framed documents, letters and maps take you on through his early life: seven jail terms under the tsarist regime (six in Siberia); editorship of Pravda; revolution of 1917; civil war; Lenin's death in 1924. The only negative note on display is the text of Lenin's 1922 warning to the Communist Party, describing Stalin as "a coarse, brutish bully" and advising members to remove him as general secretary.

In the second room, the account of events leading up to the Second World War remains almost comically selective: there's no mention of the 1936 show trials of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Hitler in 1939; only one photo shows Leon Trotsky. Away from the walls, the memorabilia is innocuous: a tasselled desk lamp given by a tank factory, an accordion donated by the workers of Gori, busts of our hero on plinths – now looking more recognisable, with bushy moustache and thick hair.

After a third room of photos and maps of what the Russians called the Great Patriotic War, and an adjoining Victory Room, with a fine semicircular photo montage, you turn right into a very spooky chamber. On a cushion-like plinth at the centre of a circle of red carpet, surrounded by thin, square white pillars, lies a shiny black death mask of the dictator, lit by a single shaft of light from the ceiling. Beyond that, another darkened room was full of cabinets displaying gifts from leaders around the world.

But now, as if to counter any accusation that this building was the weirdest time-warp display of Soviet propaganda, our guide led us downstairs to the "Room of Repression", featuring a bare desk and an ancient phone, and beyond a little barred cell, complete with narrow bunk. Though there had been no mention upstairs of the gulag, forced collectivisations, show trials, fabricated confessions, deportations or labour camps, here, it seemed, was a realistic mock-up of the kind of place a dissident might end up. But our sweet-faced guide was saying nothing more. She almost looked embarrassed that the upbeat tone of the rest of the place was a trifle marred.

This recent, below-stairs addition was opened after the 2008 South Ossetia war, when Russia bombed Gori, in scenes also documented here. At that time the Georgian Ministry of Culture announced that the Stalin Museum would be turned into a Museum of Russian Aggression. It would be reorganised, said one MP, to tell "the whole story of Stalin's horrors, in the same way the Holocaust Museum does". For a while, a banner was hung at the entrance which read: "This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history."

But recent history notwithstanding, local support for their famous son remains, it seems, strong in Gori. On 20 December 2012, the municipal assembly voted to put an end to all plans to change the museum's content. And a 17m statue of Stalin, removed by central government at dead of night in June 2010, is to be reinstated in the central square.

Outside, beyond twin rows of sunlit stone columns, the glorification continued. Under its very own glass-roofed Doric temple stands the tiny wood and mud-bricked house where Josef was born and spent his first four years with his alcoholic cobbler father and washerwoman mother. In this single room, they slept on this 5ft double bed and ate on this sturdy cloth-covered table. Their landlord lived right next door.

As if to track our hero's extraordinary progress, just around the corner is the final exhibit, the armour-plated private railway carriage which Stalin used to travel to the Yalta conference in 1945. (I was amused to see that he favoured a wooden loo seat.)

To round off your visit, you can stop at the shop and buy Stalin T-shirts, cigarette lighters, bottle openers, mugs and even a bottle of the dictator's favourite local wine (semi-sweet Kindzmarauli) with his face on the label. Just perfect for a suitably Georgian toast to the remarkable power of local pride.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Tbilisi, but only until the end of March. After that you can connect in Istanbul, Vienna or Rome.

Visiting there

The Stalin Museum is at 32 Stalinis gamziri, Gori, served by train from Tbilisi. Admission with guide is 10 lari (£4) or 15 lari (£6) including Stalin's railway carriage.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence