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A Visit to Stalin's Birthplace - 2003-01-31

The small town of Gori would most likely be an unremarkable outpost along Georgia's east-west highway, if it were not for Josef Stalin. Gori is where the Soviet dictator was born and where he returned to die 50 years ago this March. Born Joseph Dzhugashvili, he later changed his name to Stalin, which means steel in Russian. In the late 1930s, years before his death, a museum was built to honor the so-called "Man of Steel." After the collapse of Communism, there was talk of tearing the museum down. The museum is still open and the people of Gori are still proud of their native son.

It is not unusual for the first toast of an evening's drinking in Gori to be to Stalin, a man many here consider a hometown hero.

This young man hails Stalin as a great person who lived here and made Georgia famous.

Nick, who is 19, does not mind that Stalin left Georgia as a young man and went to Moscow. He says a lot of people in Gori believe he would never have become known if he had stayed in Georgia. Sure, he might have been somewhat important, Nick says, but certainly not the Joseph Stalin the whole world now knows.

For many Georgians, Stalin is a native son they would prefer to forget, but that is not so in Gori, where he is still revered, as is immediately apparent in a visit to the city's Stalin museum.

Room after room is filled with Stalin's personal effects and memorabilia, including his early report cards, his ashtray and pipes, and his first wooden desk. There are also scores of photographs detailing his rise from the lower levels of the Bolshevik Party in the early 1900s to party leader after Lenin's death in 1924. A tour guide explains that, from an early age, Stalin was attracted to Communism. "Since the age of 15, Stalin began to take part in revolutionary movement under the influence of a Russian Marxist who lived in Georgia then," explains the guide. "At the age of 18, he became a member of the party. You can see photos of the most active members of Tiflis [Tbilisi] Social Democratic Organization, young Stalin among them."

Perhaps the most chilling of the exhibits on hand is the ornate white rotunda where visitors can see Stalin's bronze death mask. The mask was made in 1953, six days after he died at the age of 73.

Adjacent to the museum is the tiny one-room house where Stalin was born. Courtesy of Stalin's mother, the house even has the original furniture. Also outside sits the bright green private rail car Stalin used to travel to Potsdam, Germany in 1945 for the conference at which Soviet, British and American leaders agreed on the division of Germany.

Apart from the memorabilia, the museum is educational in other ways. The tour illustrates the present-day problems Georgia faces, like shortages of heating and electricity.

Despite a coat check, the handful of tourists moving about the museum all chose to keep their warm, outdoor clothing on. And it was impossible to miss the frosty breath coming from the tour guide as she recited tales of Joseph Stalin's life and times. Lighting in the upper part of the museum was intermittent to non-existent and, at times, the tour guide brushed past exhibits languishing in total darkness.

But in many ways, what is most interesting about the museum is what it fails to address. There is no mention of the millions killed in Stalin's purges in the 1930s, of the millions killed in the Gulag, of the millions of Ukrainians who died in what has been called the Great Hunger, Stalin's policy of forced collectivization of agriculture.

The omissions are what struck Frans Werner, a German visitor to the museum. "I think it's a good idea to have such a museum but it's a little bit too glorifying to Stalin himself," he said. "If they would balance it a little bit better, then I think they are doing it in the right way."

We raised the criticism with Stalin's great grandson, Jacob Jugashvili, who was born in Gori but now lives in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. He doesn't make a vigorous defense of the museum, but says that the 60 or 70-year-old pensioners who have dedicated their lives to the upkeep of the museum would find it hard to include information damaging to Stalin's memory.

Jacob did say, however, that Stalin's legacy has overshadowed his life. But as bad as it may be now, he says it is not as bad it was in the final years of Communism, when information began appearing about Stalin's atrocities. "Reading the papers, and especially the papers that used to be in the mid 80s when Perestroika actually started and the Gorbachev era began, that was much harder because the newspaper used to say Dzhugashvili is a murderer," he said.

Jacob says he is still learning things about his great grandfather and his legacy every day. Now in his thirties, he says he feels he has reached a certain level of acceptance at this stage in his life. He says he also feels hope for future generations of Jugashvili. "The future generation will not experience that heavy pressure as I did, or my father did," said Mr. Jugashvili. "My father had it from the Khrushchev period. Then I had pressure on me when I was at school. But I think my kids won't have that much pressure because Stalin will become more and more an idealistic figure. You know, history cleans up."

Whether or not history portrays Stalin more favorably remains to be seen. But nearly 50 years after his death, the Man of Steel is still a sensitive subject in Georgia.