37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Friday 12 July 2019
It isn’t every day you stumble across a free-range Stalin monument. I can only think of one place, in fact, where I’ve seen a statue of the Soviet premier still left untouched on its podium – and that’s in Joseph Stalin’s own hometown of Gori, Georgia.
Stalin (baptised as Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili) was born in 1878, the son of a shoemaker, and the house where he grew up still stands; even though the rest of that street has since been demolished. In place of a street there now exists just one single, simple home, its surrounding neighbourhood bulldozed to make room for an austere memorial plaza. A modern superstructure has been built to encase the Jughashvili family home, marble pillars rising around it to support a ceiling of stained glass with hammer-and-sickle motifs. Much has been written (some of it, by me) about the pseudo-religious quality of many memorial sites built in the Soviet Union; but Stalin’s birthplace takes it to another level.
The Stalin Museum, located behind the house, is a newer building – built from 1951 and opened in 1957, shortly after the big man’s death. Parked along one side of the building, Stalin’s armoured train – the famous green Pullman carriage – is also open to guests.
The museum itself is a curious affair. It is genuinely difficult to determine the intended tone: the historical figure of Joseph Stalin is perhaps more divisive in Georgia than anywhere else, given, on the one hand, the awful way in which the Soviet Union would go on to treat Georgia over the decades (which is then conflated by many today with the subsequent conflict between Georgia and post-Soviet Russia); yet on the other hand, amongst the working class communities and socialist voters of rural Georgian provinces, it feels like there’s still a strong sentiment of Local boy made good.
We arrived at the precise same time as a tour bus full of Iranians. Inside, on the grand marble staircase, they clustered for photos around a bust of Joseph Stalin. Iranian children ran and dodged between the crowds filling wood panelled exhibition spaces. Georgian staff watched on, from behind ticket desks, or seated on hard chairs in the corner of each museum hall. The old Georgian women supervising these exhibitions hushed and shushed at noisy visitors, as if they were in church.
Some likenesses of the leader were more convincing than others. I had to hold in a laugh, when I turned one corner to come face-to-saggy-face with a badly-drawn Stalin woven into a wall-hanging carpet. His favourite desk clock, meanwhile, was a magnificent exercise in kitsch: a miniature WWII diorama, with a ticking clock set in the rock beneath a bronze-cast T-34 tank. Finally, the museum experience culminates in what feels like a very real shrine: Stalin’s death mask cast in wax, presented on a white marble plinth in a red-and-black sanctum sanctorum.
It’s funny… the Wikipedia page about the museum has a line that reads: “The Museum retains its Soviet-era characteristics.” By which they mean, the whole thing feels like a totally unironic love letter to Joseph Stalin. But the visitors inside the museum did not behave like fans (pulling silly selfies at every Stalin-face rug), and only the most senior members of staff seemed to mind. It’s a difficult place to read, and, right now, feels like an anachronism. After the ugliness between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia in 2008, the Georgian Minister of Culture declared his plan to adapt the Gori Stalin Museum into a “Museum of Russian Aggression.” But that never happened. For a brief time after that a banner was hung over the entrance, saying: “This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history.” The banner had been removed by the time I visited though.
Local support for the museum is strong, it seems – but it can’t survive forever, not in this state, not in this political climate. For the time being at least, this town of 50,000, just an hour from the Georgian capital, gets to keep its free-range, unironic Stalin statue.
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