Opened in 1957 in his hometown, the Stalin museum in Gori has barely changed since, retelling the life of the ruthless dictator through a heavily-censored Soviet lens. Elizabeth takes us on a journey through the monument to ‘one of history’s most brutal dictators’.
On a dusty road with little on it other than a litter of stray dogs and a hole-in-the wall cafe selling khachapuri, stands a grand marble pavilion. Placed among agricultural surroundings steeped in poverty, its grandeur is a fitting metaphor that emphasises the humble beginnings of Gori’s most famous native – Josif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – better known as Stalin. The temple-like superstructure, built in Stalinist-gothic style, was opened in 1957 and has barely changed since, retelling the life of the much-feared dictator, through a heavily-censored Soviet lens.
Inside, the museum was as cold as a morgue. Dressed in padded coats, guides and security guards huddled around ancient electric heaters. The foyer was furnished in crimson red marble, and at the top of the sweeping staircase, stood a statue of the man himself surveying the room with an authoritarian glare. A petite woman with pallid skin and jet-black hair led our group through to the exhibition and went on to embark on what was possibly the fastest tour I’d ever had. Hot footing it around six rooms in less than 20 minutes, she whipped out her cane, pointing at various artefacts like a mid-century school teacher, reciting the same heroic description of Stalin in three different languages.
‘An absolute glorification of one of history’s most brutal dictators’, reviews on Tripadvisor bemoan, slating it for being ‘completely one-sided’. And indeed it is. We were told tales about his youth as a romantic poet and spritely young revolutionary while being shown miniature models of his hide-outs and escape plans. There were numerous busts and countless paintings dedicated to the leader, and a room displaying his death mask elevated above a plush red carpet encircled by marble pillars looking like something out of James Bond. The descriptions are few and far between, and no, there are no references to the atrocities that he committed. But even the tankiest of communist nerds would fail to interpret this as convincing propaganda.
Look at the paintings and you see aides that have been expunged from Soviet history unconvincingly washed out with white paint. The ghostly appearance of Berialooks almost comical, and perhaps it is from this perspective that the exhibition should be taken, which is – not seriously.
Those who have managed to avoid being sucked into a Soviet time warp for the past fifty years will most likely be aware that Stalin was no angel. And while it is important to educate people on the ‘truth’ (although huge fluctuations in verifiable facts and statistics make this a difficult task), it is also important to preserve this particular museum in how it is curated, because the museum has become an artefact in itself.
The most worrying thing about it all is not the lack of balance in how it is curated, but rather that this display of historical propaganda is not being maintained, instead falling into dilapidation. The heating situation aside, take a closer look at the carpet and you will see it is frayed. The descriptions, in Russian and Georgian are stuck on board with cheap glue and curling at the edges. The rooms smell of damp and those red clogs from the Dutch communist party are gathering dust among a whole host of other gifts cluttering watermarked glass cabinets.
Owing to the government’s pro-EU Sakashvellian legacy, not much funding is set aside for glowering tributes to murderous Soviet dictators, but it should be. Why? Because having the freedom to see the exhibition in all its absurdity, provides us with a more honest perspective than viewing the sophisticated modern-day propaganda that could replace it.
Outside, we are shown Stalin’s train carriage. Our guide tells us that the leader didn’t like flying, and travelled by train everywhere from Potsdam to Tehran. Our tour group shuffle through the half-a-person wide aisle, poke our noses in at the dining table where he would drink brandy with his contemporaries and the writing desk on which he’d compose letters to the likes of Churchill. Unlike many European museums, we were free to prod around and take photos. I saw a group of teenagers take a selfie with the toilet the revered leader would empty his bowels in.
We walked into the one-roomed shack that he grew up in as a youth. Housed in a Greco-Italian pavilion, we trod on the same carved wooden balcony that his alcoholic father would pass out blind drunk on, and saw the modest, simply furnished room where he spent his first 12 years. Stray dogs slid in through the gates and followed us through, pawing at our sandwich bags and pestering us for attention. It is this natural and unconventional environment that the museum is set in, that is illustrative of the untamed and hospitable nature of Georgia itself. This is what makes the museum special and the thing that continues to draw tourists far and wide. Something tells me that if it was to undergo a great re-haul, with fancy interactive displays and do-not-touch signs, the effects would be self jeopardising.
The visibly poor environment where the museum is located, shows that the town really does rely on it as a source of revenue. It is worth noting that the residents themselves have not drawn up any kind of petition to have the museum changed to highlight the crimes that Stalin committed- rather they seem proud, that a young boy from this modest town went on to be one of history’s most memorable leaders
A woman wearing two jumpers and a cardigan sat rubbing her hands in the freezer-cold gift shop. There were Stalin cups, key rings, and collections of his poetry with Georgian- English translations. The souvenirs were cheap; Stalin t-shirts were on sale for the price of a fridge magnet at the Tate.
Outside the museum, was a large modern building, cubic and awkward, it looked out of place and had Stalin’s face emblazoned across the side of it. It transpired that this was the local supermarket and sold a range of vodka and wines dedicated to the leader.
Many would be outraged and upset at this and rightfully so. Yet, is it anymore ethical to preach and impose Eurocentric views on how history should be told, changing or hiding historical artefacts and potentially damaging touristic revenue for a small town like Gori? Did a bit of cheap wine with a dictator’s face plastered across the side of it ever do anyone any harm? Surely, the greatest way to insult one of the godfathers of totalitarian communism would be to make a commodity out of him, and laugh in the face of this kitschy propaganda—first as tragedy, then as farce.