GORI, GEORGIA — For 30 years, Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist, killing as many as 20 million people through executions, exile and man-made famines.
But here in Gori, Iosif Dzhugashvili, or Stalin, is a hometown boy.
On Stalin Avenue, Gori’s Stalin Museum preserves the humble brick cottage where baby Stalin spent his first four years.
Stalin is Gori’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
Khatia Gogrichiani works at the city tourism office.
“Stalin was a historical man, he was a great leader,” Gogrichiani said from her perch where she watches tour buses roll up daily. “People are interested in Stalin, his personality.”
But 60 years after the death of Georgia’s most famous - or infamous - son, Stalin is once again the center of controversy.
Three years ago, Gori’s love affair with Stalin took a jolt.
Under the cover of darkness, the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili removed a massive bronze Stalin statue from Gori’s main square.
VOA tracked down the statue to an abandoned industrial site. We found the six-meter Stalin lying face down in a roofless shed.
Jugi Xidasheli, a Stalin fan, happened to be visiting at the same time.
“Stalin’s personality is very dear to us - for everyone in Gori,” he said after inspecting the statue’s condition. “Everyone has their own opinions, but Stalin was born here. This is his city and his motherland. There absolutely should be a statue of Stalin in Gori.”
Statue to rise again
After protests and a petition drive, Gori’s city council now says: Stalin will rise again.
By Stalin’s birthday, Dec. 21, the statue will be erected to a place of honor amid the gardens and fountains of the Stalin Museum.
Ketino Akhobadze has worked at the museum since 1978. She says she has never seen such a flow of foreign tourists, many of them day trippers from Tbilisi, a one-hour drive away.
“People from all over the world come to visit from Poland, America, Yugoslavia, and Colombia, Brazil, Japan and China,” she said. “They come from every country, absolutely every country.”
But other Georgians see more than commerce.
Historians say 700,000 Georgians died under Stalin’s rule - half through executions here or exile to Siberia, and half in fighting during World War Two.
Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, says most of his mother’s family was killed under Stalin.
“If you ask me I would just destroy everything there,” Rondeli said, referring to the museum in Gori. “But many people say Stalin was a historical figure.”
In a poll this year, two-thirds of Georgians called Stalin “a wise leader.” On October 27, Georgians are to elect a new president.
Opposition supporters charge that Stalin statues are popping up across the country - while Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili looks the other way.
In response, Ivanishvili told VOA that these attacks are "the false politics of lies."
"The truth is that we are not for restoring the statue of Stalin,” he added.
With or without the big statue, many foreign visitors complain that the musty, Soviet-era exhibits at the Stalin Museum are frozen in time.
Spanish tourist Jorge Martin says he is turned off by the museum’s "idolatry.”
“There should be balance between what he did,” Martin said. “He beat fascism in Europe. But he also killed millions of people. So there should be more balance, and the materials should be presented in another way - not as if he were an old superhero.”
After the election, the challenge will be for Georgia’s new government to modernize the Stalin Museum - to give equal time to his victims.