While it is surrounded by picturesque mountain scenery, Gori, Georgia isn’t much to look at. In fact, there isn’t much going for Gori at all. Despite a long history – first being mentioned in the sixth century – Gori is famous for one thing. It is the birthplace of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. You might know him better by the name Stalin.
We hired a guide from Levan Tours to take us to Gori. It’s about a one and a half hour drive, or 80km, from Tbilisi. The scenery of Georgia seems to change every 30 minutes or so, which makes for an enjoyable drive.
Gori doesn’t look like it has changed too much since the Soviet Era. The streets are being torn up for replacement, but that’s the only sign of progress in the city. The local supermarket – with the famed poster of Stalin above it – appears to be shut. The town looks fairly depressed. I imagine life in Gori is hard. In 2008, it was bombed by the Russians in the war over South Ossetia. At least 20 people were killed, and the highway into the city is still lined with small refugee huts.
The only building in Gori that appears remotely grandiose is, appropriately, the Stalin Museum. Originally intended to be a general Soviet Museum, it’s basically a quasi-shrine to Stalin. Our private guide had been through the museum many, many times, so pointed us towards an English tour guide working at the museum. The English tour was included in the ticket.
The tour itself was strange. The guide was at great pains to say that she, and the Georgian people, realised that Stalin did lots of bad things. However, she also made a great effort to point out that there were many other bad men who did terrible things during the Soviet Regime.
“In Georgia, most of the old generation like Stalin. They think he was a great statesman, with his small mistakes. Young people don’t like Stalin, of course. Our young people are not interested in history and they don’t like Stalin.” (quote to the BBC in 2013 from one of the museum guides)
We were rushed through the museum fairly quickly. The majority of exhibitions were in Georgian or Russian. Most of them contained photos and pictures of Stalin, at various stages of his life, and official documentation. The oddest room is the one containing Stalin’s death mask. The room is styled in the nature of Lenin’s tomb. The guides actively promoted photographing the mask, which seemed to make the experience even more surreal – particularly when given the strict no-photography rule at Lenin’s tomb. A quote from this article sums it up nicely:
The death mask room, “a small amphitheater submerged in darkness, at the centre of which a bronze mask of the dictator, moulded shortly after his death, rests atop an altar-like stand bathed in light,” is probably what earns the museum a five out of 10 on the dark tourism meter. Maybe not a place to take the kids along to.
Our guide also pointed out an ‘undoctored’ photo of Stalin showing his smallpox marks. She showed it to us in amazement, so I’m guessing they really were fed all of those touched up photos of Stalin in the USSR years. You can find untouched photos of Stalin fairly easily with an internet search. They’re interesting. We’ve all seen the ‘handsome’ young Stalin photo, which is obviously heavily doctored. Consider the ‘official‘ version of his 1911 mugshot – versus the real one – and you can see his smallpox scars clearly missing. This was the image widely portrayed of Stalin in the USSR – not this.
There are busts of Stalin around every corner, providing an eyes-following-you-around-the-room-effect. You can also see a mock up of Stalin’s desk. I hate to think how many murders he ordered via his batphone. We were shown to a gulag cell that felt like a bit of an afterthought. It turns it was, only being installed in 2010 when Georgians complained that the museum didn’t show both sides to the Stalin story. Replicas of death orders were pointed out as if they were office memos.
After walking through the museum, we were taken to see the house where Stalin was born. We couldn’t actually go in, but its contained in a strange concrete shell, similar to the cabin of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg. It was fairly dilapidated. The son of a shoemaker, Stalin was hardly born into luxury. A small, unimpressive statue of Stalin stands in front of the cabin.
Lastly, we visited Stalin’s bulletproof train. He used this to visit Yalta and the Tehran Conference. This was nowhere near as fancy as I expected. This is partially due to the fact that it actually hasn’t been restored – it’s the same as when Stalin finished with it. It had a few cabins, for guards and for Uncle Joe himself. There was a small kitchen, study, communications room and a lounge area. It was interesting to see, but wasn’t actually used for that long. When air transport become more prevalent, Stalin preferred the speed of flight. The staff were very proud of the train, however. With delight, they showed us a cabinet that ‘most people assumed was for vodka’, which was actually an early air-conditioning unit.
Ironically, Stalin did not have fond memories of Gori. He hated speaking of his childhood. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that he ever returned to Georgia in later life. He certainly distanced himself from his Georgian past. The whole museum had a weird vibe about it. I imagine the people of Gori feel slightly torn, somewhat proud of their famed son, but also ashamed at the havoc he wrought on the world.
The Government of Georgia have certainly indicated strong feelings about Stalin and the museum. In 2010, it erected a banner outside the museum stating that it contained Soviet propaganda. It even went so far as to suggest the museum should be turned into one teaching about the terror regime implemented by Stalin. It was apparently the Government, in 2010, who came and carried away the big, bronze Stalin statue, from the main square in Gori. 5,000 of the 20,000 local residents of Gori signed a petition to bring it back. It wasn’t there when we visited. As described in this article, the Georgian attitude towards Stalin is schizophrenic, at best.
After our visit to the museum, there wasn’t an awful lot else to do in Gori. A search on TripAdvisor stated there was an Ethnographic Museum and a War Museum. We skipped them. It’s useful to note, though, that Georgian handicrafts can be bought in Gori for much cheaper than Tbilisi.
To me, the visit was absolutely fascinating. However, I imagine that it’s the kind of place that would really only interest history buffs. The good news is, there are other sites on the way that you can see. We teamed it up with a trip to several monasteries and churches, and a visit to nearby Uplistsikhe, an ancient Silk Road capital. I’ll write about it in a separate post.
HOW TO GET TO GORI
We hired a private driver for the day from Tbilisi, which was around $150USD. As noted, we visited several other destinations too. However, you can negotiate a taxi to take you to Gori for around 40GEL. We weren’t in the mood for negotiating. Remember to pay them to stay and take you back, too!
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, and have a lot of spare time, you can grab a marshrutkas (the ubiquitous yellow van-buses) for 3GEL.
VISITING THE MUSEUM
It costs 15 GEL to visit the museum, including the train. If you want to hire an English guide, there are a few people hanging around outside. You might get a more in-depth look at the museum then with the ‘official’ guide.
It is located, fittingly, at 32 Stalin Ave.
If you are interested in a good juxtaposition to the Stalin Museum, there is a small Museum of Soviet Occupation within the National Georgian Museum in Tbilisi. It’s still pretty tame, but does cover the Soviet occupation of Georgia in more detail.