‘Out, damned spot’, is all I could think of as I saw the scene unfold. Standing in the shade of the sandstone cloister, I watched as a man in worker’s garb approached the statue, removed his jacket, and traipsed it over the concrete plinth. He unfolded the step ladder he was carrying and once atop, splashed the stony face with clear fluid from a recycled Coke bottle. A small crowd of bystanders gathered around as the man rigorously scrubbed Uncle Jo’s shoulders and cuffs with what looked like an old shoe brush.
Most cities ceremoniously toppled their Stalin statues—but Gori in western Georgia keeps its effigy in good nick, lovingly scouring the black and grey mould from his upper half every now and then. A leader must look his best lest his legacy be tainted. For better or worse, Gori is a town that certainly doesn’t shy away from its history.
Visiting Stalin’s birthplace
In preparation for our first trip to post-Soviet Europe, I read a short Stalin biography. I had always assumed that he was Russian and never realised that Stalin was actually born in Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire. Gori, his birthplace, is a quaint little town in Georgia’s Imereti region, about an hour west of Tbilisi. It was here that Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili was born and schooled before he went off to become Joseph Stalin and join the ranks of the 20th century’s most loathsome figures.
Like the other Soviet Republics, Georgia suffered under Stalin’s reign (cultural and linguistic oppression, for starters), but Stalin and Stalinism aren’t uniformly hated in Georgia, as you might expect. Georgia’s relationship with Stalin is complicated. In Gori, he still has his fair share of devotees. Here, Stalin’s name and legacy is a source of fame (or infamy), pride, and dark tourism dollars. Gori’s main street and city park both bear his name, and the grocery store behind the museum is decorated with an eye-catching colour photo of a mustached Stalin.
The Joseph Stalin Museum
The personality cult centres on the Stalin Museum in the middle of town—an elegant stone building with well-kept courtyards. Inside, it’s all red velvet, chandeliers and parquet floors. A grand staircase leads visitors from the ticket desk to the first floor exhibit; one of many stone Stalin busts sits on the landing. Setting foot in this Stalin temple is like stepping back into the Soviet Empire.
The exhibit spans Stalin’s life, from his difficult childhood in Gori to his death in 1953. As you might expect, the museum conveniently omits almost all details of his reign of terror, focusing instead on the revolutionary spirit and Stalin’s leadership qualities (soft skills, if you will). The museum guides offer a similarly one-sided, heavily scripted commentary. I didn’t take to our hard-nosed Russian guide, with a her sharp black bob and permanent grimace—but I wish I had talked to her more. (Here’s what happened when Rose of The Brave Dame broke from the script and tried to strike up a conversation with her guide.)
Inside the museum, small groups of tourists huddle fervently before reams of yellowed newspaper clippings and granulated black and white photos, squinting as they try to place the face of a young Joseph Stalin in the back row of a faded school photo. It’s hard to glean the thought process behind the exhibition, which blatantly ignores some of the most basic curatorial principles. At times it feels less like a museum and more like a shrine, where people come to pay homage to decades’ worth of ephemera that has been gradually collected and nailed to the walls at random.
Necks craned to take in the exhibits mounted where the walls meet the ceiling—far too high for anyone to properly appreciate—the group shuffles along the perimeter of the room. Most didactics are in Russian and Georgian, so an English-speaking guide is essential.
While the first part of the museum traces Stalin‘s journey from a wayward schoolboy to a revolutionary, the second rooms focuses on Stalin the politician. Glass cabinets house a mix of Stalin’s personal effects (stationary, his favourite tobacco pipe), and hundreds of personalised gifts he received from foreign governments and dignitaries during his tenure. There is, quite literally, a Stalin-everything—and you can find replicas of some items downstairs in the museum gift shop. Naturally, I gravitated to the Stalin carpets and needlework from Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The climax of the indoor exhibit is a macabre display of Stalin’s death mask, which rests on a velvet cushion, encased in an aptly Soviet-style concrete chamber. The tour concludes in the museum courtyard, where you can visit the modest wooden house where Stalin was apparently born (it was relocated here from elsewhere in Gori), and walk though the bullet-proof train carriage Stalin travelled in up until his death.
Good to know
Gori is easily reached from Tbilisi by marshrutka. Vans regularly depart from Didube Station (at least every half hour), and a one-way ticket costs just 3 GEL. Gori’s marshrutka station is located close to the river, but vans stop right outside the museum to let tourists out on the way through.
Admission to the Joseph Stalin Museum costs 10 GEL for adults. An English-speaking guide will set you back a few GEL more, but it’s essential (we tried to go without a guide at first and quickly gave up). The museum is open daily.
There is a decent restaurant serving Georgian fare directly opposite the museum, and this is probably the best place in town to eat. Further down Stalin Avenue towards the river you’ll find a collection of cafes and ice cream shops. If you plan to stay in Gori overnight, I highly recommend Nukri Guest House. Nukri and his wife are wonderful hosts!
Other things to do in Gori
The Stalin Museum is the reason most tourists come to Gori, and it can easily be done as a day trip from Tbilisi. We decided to spend a bit more time in Gori than most and overnighted there before taking the train to Kutaisi.
Beyond the museum, Gori is a mid-sized town like any other—it’s actually quite charming, if not a little rough. Grape trellises and rusted water pipes line the streets. Western Georgia is a dramatic contrast to the semi-desert of the east, and this was our first look at the magical Imereti landscape.
I recommend you spend a few hours exploring the countryside surrounding Gori. A good way to take it in is by visiting the nearby Uplistsikhe cave complex. If you have a car, it’s possible to see everything in a day.
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