Before the pandemic started, I was invited to give a series of talks at the University of Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia. Taking advantage of my day off, I went to visit the Stalin Museum in Gori. The road runs parallel to the Caucasus with its imposing, snow-covered peaks. And it runs close past South Ossetia, a territory which Russia seized from Georgia in 2008 and which now consists of a de facto enclave watched over by the Russian military, thus breaching Georgia’s territorial unity.
Gori, where Stalin was born in 1878, is now a dreary small town with a population of 50,000, whose houses have blackened walls and in whose empty streets the wind blows rubbish to and fro. Only when I got to a building reminiscent of a Greco-Roman temple with a visibly Soviet veneer to it, did I start to see the occasional visitor. In front of it, I looked at a wooden cabin. This is the house where Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, later known as Stalin, was born; his father was a cobbler who during his frequent bouts of drunkenness used to beat his wife and son, until the two of them decided to flee. Next to the entrance of the museum, which was built in 1957, four years after the dictator’s death, there stands the train coach in which he travelled, and on blankets stretched out on the ground someone is offering pictures of him, as if they were religious prints.
Once inside the museum, I went up the steep red-carpeted staircase, presided over by a four metre high statue of Stalin, crowned by a stained-glass window. The staircase certainly fulfils its function: that of giving the visitor the feeling that he is in a temple, walking towards God.
Much of the museum is dedicated to the young rebel that Stalin was when he became a Marxist revolutionary and helped finance Lenin’s Bolshevik Party with robberies and kidnappings. The bandit called himself Koba, after a legendary Georgian hero. The rest of the rooms show well-known events. It surprised me that among the hundreds of portraits of Stalin there is not one in which he is shown smiling; at most he occasionally gives a disdainful grimace. Tyrants don’t smile, I thought, as if a smile were a sign of weakness. Despite the initial feeling of being in a temple built to venerate a god, the fact is that the material in the museum – photos, personal objects and letters – gives an impartial display of Stalin’s life: it neither praises nor criticizes him, but rather invites the visitor to draw his or her own opinion.
Back in Tbilisi, I found a few people who believed that despite the almost thirty million deaths for which Stalin was responsible, he had helped to defeat Hitler and to modernize the USSR. A few of them were proud of having such a famous Georgian. Most of them wouldn’t put a foot in a place that reminded them of the tyrant.
However, I think that the Stalin Museum is an example of how to deal with historical memory. When talking to the director, he told me that after the fall of the USSR and when Georgia regained its independence, the authorities had to decide what to do with the museum. Destroy it, as Berlin had done with the old East German parliament? Keep the building and dedicate it to something else? Or keep it, in order to show historical facts in an objective fashion, including the vision that the erstwhile Soviet Union had had of its leader? This last option was the one that was finally agreed upon. At the same time, another museum was opened in Tbilisi, dedicated to the repression suffered by the victims of Stalinism.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.