The Stalin Museum is one of Georgia’s most popular dark tourism destinations. Here’s what to expect when visiting Stalin’s hometown, plus practical tips for planning your trip to Gori.
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‘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. In Gori in Western Georgia, there are still more than a few dotted around town.
This particular effigy in Stalin Park is kept in good nick – staff diligently scour the black and grey mould from his upper half every now and then. A leader must look his best, lest his legacy be tainted.
Visiting Stalin’s birthplace, Gori
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 beautiful little town in Georgia’s Imereti region, about an hour-and-a-half west of Tbilisi.
Essential reading: 15 excellent things to do in Gori that have nothing to do with Stalin.
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.
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 avenue and city park both bear his name. At the railway station, another Stalin statue stands watch over one of the waiting rooms.
Visiting the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori
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 inside this Stalin temple is like stepping back into Soviet times.
Read next: Unusual things to do in Tbilisi, including Stalin and Soviet-themed sites.
Established in 1957, five years after Stalin’s death, the museum exhibit spans Stalin’s life, from his difficult childhood in Gori to his participation in the Yalta Conference at the end of WWII.
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 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 (The Brave Dame) broke ranks 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.
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.
Stalin Museum opening hours & visitors’ info
The Joseph Stalin Museum is open daily from 10am until 6pm (note that the museum closes an hour earlier at 5pm in winter, November through March).
Admission costs 10 GEL for adults, including the guided tour, which lasts for approximately 45 minutes. If you want to go inside Stalin’s private train carriage, it costs an extra 5 GEL.
The museum building can be quite cold inside, so it’s a good idea to bring a jacket or scarf with you. Photography is allowed inside.
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. On our first visit, 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 actually a very charming city. There’s an old town brimming with historic facades, a wonderful local market, and a fortress with panoramic views – among other attractions.
On our third visit to Georgia, we spend a full three days in Gori. My guide to Gori, covers all the best things to do, Gori restaurants, and transport instructions for getting there from Tbilisi.
Where to stay in Gori
If you decide to spend a night or two in Gori, there are plenty of homely, family run guesthouses set up in local homes to accommodate travellers.
Nitsa Guest House
My top choice in Gori is Nitsa Guest House. The location close to the Stalin Museum and centre of town is perfect. Rooms are cosy, shared bathrooms, kitchen and laundry are all spick and span, and there’s plenty of comfy common spaces to relax.
Most importantly, host Lia is a wonderful person who will absolutely overwhelm you with her generous hospitality and helpfulness. We stayed with Lia for 3 nights on our most recent visit and loved getting to know her (especially when she plied us with homemade wine and taught us a series of traditional Georgian dances!).
In the cooler months, ask for a room at the back of the house – these ones catch the afternoon sunlight. And definitely opt in for the traditional breakfast.
Nukri Guest House
The first time we visited Gori, we stayed at Nukri Guest House. It’s another solid choice, but the location across the river (near the Railway Station) is less desirable and requires a bit more walking to get into town.
The hosts, Nukri and his wife, speak Russian and Georgian – even if you can’t communicate, they are warm people who will go out of their way to ensure you have a good time. During our stay, Nukri gave us the grand tour of Gori in his Lada!
If you’re looking for something with a bit more privacy, Hotel Continental offers tidy self-contained apartments with kitchenettes and washing machines. The location 800m from the Stalin Museum is ideal.
I haven’t stayed here personally, but the hotel has high reviews from other guests (9.7 out of 10 on Booking.com).
Here are some of the websites and services I use when I’m planning a trip to Georgia and the Caucasus. Remember to check out my full list of travel resources for more tips.
– Find affordable flights to Tbilisi, Batumi or Kutaisi on Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Georgia and apply for an expedited visa online.
– Pre-book a private transfer from Tbilisi Airport to your hotel or from Kutaisi Airport to Tbilisi with my preferred partners at Friendly.ge.
– Get a great deal on a rental car in Georgia by using MyRentACar to find a local agent.
– Buy your tickets for the Tbilisi to Baku or Yerevan sleeper train online in advance through my partners at Geotrend (get a discount when you use the code in this post).
– Find the best Georgia hotel deals on Booking.com, book a Georgia hostel, or find a unique Airbnb.
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Georgia.
– Compare mobile providers and pick up a local Georgian sim card.
– Order a copy of the new Lonely Planet Caucasus guidebook (published July 2020).