The republic of Georgia, located on the Caucasian isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, was founded in the turmoil following the collapse of the Czarist Empire during WWI. Located on the border with Turkey, at that time this region tried to untie from neighbor Russia, and proclaimed a libertarian socialist state.
Following the seizure of power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, producing a devastating civil war which would go on raging all over the former Russian-controlled territory well into the 1920s, Georgia lost its independence, being sucked into the Soviet Union, similar to many other nations sharing a border with Russia – like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Latvia, etc.
A country with a remarkable wealth of history, inhabited since when traces of mankind started to appear on earth, with a deeply rooted Christian culture since centuries, a strong independence movement started to show in Georgia already in the 1980s, when the Soviet system was still destined to last for long in the eyes of many western observers. This independence feeling would culminate in the republic of Georgia leaving the USSR months before its actual end, already in early 1991. Since then, the country is openly hostile to Russia, and the formation in the early 2000s of two de facto Russian-backed independent states – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – over the sovereign territory of Georgia witnesses a mutual state of tension between Tbilisi and Moscow, still lasting today.
Despite this, and almost paradoxically, the Georgian individual possibly best known to the general public and to the world is an eminent communist character, a one-of-a-kind contributor to the history of the USSR and of the world – and someone would say, the most authentic incarnation of a communist leader – Stalin.
While Georgia, most comprehensibly, is striving to delete every tangible trace of the Soviet era – from statues to symbols and pieces of architecture – a few notable exceptions include some of Stalin-related relics in the country. In Gori, Stalin’s hometown, the house where Stalin was born is preserved under a bombastic Soviet-era canopy. Nearby, a unique museum dedicated to the Soviet leader, opened back in the late 1950s with a display of incredible memorabilia, is reportedly the most successful attraction in town, with crowds of visitors still today.
In an old district in Tbilisi you can find another unique point of interest – the so-called Stalin Printing House Museum. It was in this unapparent house that young Stalin operated as a pro-communist clandestine agitator in the early 20th century, well before the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
This post covers these Stalin-related remains in the man’s home country, with photographs taken in summer 2019.
Joseph Stalin Museum – Gori
Stalin’s hometown, where he was born in 1878, is dominated by a scenic ancient fortress, sitting on top of an isolated mound. At the time of Stalin’s birth, that was also the geographic center of the town. When Stalin became… Stalin, his birthplace was turned into a place of pilgrimage, and a new purely-Soviet master plan was implemented in the city, creating a new gravitational center around the modest house of his parents.
The long axis which drives you from the major access road and the railway station south of the city to the house follows an almost north-south direction. A typically Soviet alley – straight, too wide and with mostly sad-looking buildings to the sides – links a bridge over the local river to to the house, going through a square with the town hall, built in a Soviet classicist style. A tall statue of Stalin used to stand on the side of the square, and it was torn down only in the 2000s.
Closer to the house, the alley bifurcates into a ‘Y’. Between the arms of the ‘Y’ you can find a garden with fountains and flowers.
To the far end of the garden, the small half-timbered house where Stalin’s parents used to live is preserved under a Soviet-style canopy.
Stalin’s parents were not well-to-do, and they actually rent the house, where they occupied only one room. Back in the 19th century, it was just one in a row of similar buildings. Following the radical reshaping of the area for celebrating the Soviet leader, the whole neighborhood was completely demolished, and only this block was left.
On the side and front facade of the house are marble signs in Russian and Georgian. The ceiling of the canopy features a stained glass light, with hammer and sickle signs by the corners.
To the back of the birthplace you can find a smaller statue of Stalin. Considering his generally acknowledged status as a bloody communist dictator, similar open air statues have been removed almost everywhere in the world – this is one of the few remaining exceptions (another being in Belarus, but most likely apocryphal – look for Stalin’s line museum here).
The most conspicuous building in this celebratory installation is the actual Joseph Stalin Museum, which occupies a pretty large palace in Stalinist style. The master plan dates back to the final years of Stalin, and its realization was carried out during the 1950s.
The building is interesting from an architectural viewpoint, and features a colonnaded porch giving access to a main entrance hall.
The latter is rather formal, with another colonnade and a perspective leading through a staircase to a mezzanine. In the focus of the perspective you can see another statue of Stalin. Every particular in the architecture here is extremely Soviet – grim, menacing, heavy.
The ticket and toilets can be accessed to the sides of the hall on the ground floor, which acts also as a meeting point for groups – but guided visits are not compulsory, you can tour the museum on your own.
Upon reaching the first floor, you meet two busts of Stalin, and a couple of interesting paintings, portraying the young Josip Vissarionovich Dzugansvili – Stalin’s its real name – as a student talking to his class mates at the seminary of Tbilisi, and later as grown-up, well-established Stalin talking to his collaborators.
The museum is composed of a few big halls. The first rooms retrace Stalin’s personal story, and are based on a mix of documents, original or reproduced, newspapers, paintings and photographs. The latter are often reproductions, often magnified – since when he was not yet famous he mostly appeared in group photographs.
Here you learn about his humble origins, and you can see the photographs of his parents, his early school reports and the first known photographs of Josip as a young boy.
A rather brilliant pupil, he was granted access to the Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi – which back then was called Tiflis – where he moved to attend lectures and to grow to become a priest. Some works of poetry from the time, published on local newspapers in Georgian, are part of the exhibition.
Something went wrong at that time, as he got excessively fascinated with the leftmost socialist theories, spread by several authors including Lenin. A rare naive portrait of his meeting with the principal of the seminary, when he was expelled for his unacceptable and dangerous views, is part of the collection.
This was the beginning of a militancy period, when he became known to the department of internal affairs of the Czar due to open subversive propaganda activities. He worked irregularly, publishing clandestine works in Tbilisi (see about his printing house below), holding open-air meetings in port town Batumi, and so on.
Finally, he was arrested and deported by the Czar to inland Russia. As his fame grew, he was tasked with some role in the apparatus of the clandestine political formations headed by Lenin – the factions against the Czar and even in the socialist area were many, and the intricate civil war that followed the 1917 revolution was also the result of the struggle for power of these opposing forces.
Between internment periods, he started traveling to the capital – St. Petersburg. He also met Lenin in Tampere, Finland, a country politically bound to the Russian empire until 1917. Photographs and documents from the time, a suitcase and models of the houses where Stalin resided can be found in this part. Busts including one of Stalin as a young agitator, pretty rare and likely taken from the few portraits from the time, are also parts of the collection.
Again following a historical timeline, you can find more documents and portraits of a grown-up yet young man of the apparatus. It is well known that Lenin, after the 1917 revolution, saw Stalin as a potential problem for the future of the Party. A copy of Lenin’s ‘testament’, telling his comrades to get rid of Stalin, is on display in the exhibition. As a matter of fact, Lenin’s illness and demise in 1924 started a period of transition.
Stalin, by 1922 general secretary of the communist party of the USSR, fought and won against all other members of the communist party, making his appointment in the government the most powerful. He managed to maintain his role until his death in 1953, reigning as an unopposed tyrant at least since the end of the 1920s, when he prevailed over his most strenuous opponent, Trotzkij.
As he started to gain power, official portraits started to appear, both paintings and photographs. These pieces of the collection are also interesting, for not many portraits of Stalin have survived in official displays, after he was condemned by his political heirs.
Also books from his speeches and prints from his personal history, to be distributed to the general public, are displayed here.
Prominence in the communist party of the USSR gained a special status also to Stalin’s family. His mother had a decent place to live, and his son payed a visit more than once – this is the subject of some portraits. A porcelain set from Stalin’s mother household is on display.
Curious artifacts in this part of the museum include a desk from some communist office of the time of Stalin’s purges.
As a marshal in WWII – the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 as it was known in the USSR – Stalin reached international recognition and world fame. His ability as a general is open to critics, for he managed to kill most of the most experienced staff in the purges of the 1930s, and appointed generals – mostly like Hitler – based on their political attitude. It is questionable whether without substantial help from the then-allies of the Soviet Union (Britain and the US) a victory against Germany could have been reached, despite a disproportionate number of casualties in the rows of the Red Army. However, the final march to Berlin, which gained him control over half of Europe, raised him to the level of a world leader. The exhibition reflects this recognition, with books by Stalin translated in several languages, gifts from generals of the Red Army – including an authentic monstrosity donated to the museum by WWII hero General Zhukov in the 1960s – and many pictures from the war years.
A showcase is dedicated to Stalin’s sons and heirs. He had five sons, from two wives and other women, and his descent is still existent today.
A corner hall hosts a kind of monumental installation, a small Soviet monument not among the best of the kind. Made of lighted reproductions of photographs, it is a kind of recap of Stalin’s triumphs and special moments.
The next hall concludes the climax, and is really unique. It is a circular room padded with black leather panels. At the center of a circular colonnade you can see at the level of the ground one of the few – apparently 12 – original reproductions of Stalin’s head from his death mask.
Thanks to the special installation featuring a strong symmetry and a special lighting, the head is really magnetic.
Stalin died at 75 in March 1953 in undisclosed circumstances, possibly to the hand of somebody in his entourage. Some paintings from his funeral can be seen around the room, together with a model of the mausoleum of Lenin on the Red Square in Moscow, where Stalin was interred for a few years, until removed when finally condemned by his party – note the writing in Cyrillic ‘Lenin – Stalin’ on the mausoleum, later reverted to ‘Lenin’ only.
The next hall is dedicated to international relationships, displayed through photographs, memorabilia and the plenty of gifts Stalin received in his years as a communist dictator.
There are presents from Georgia and other Soviet republics, and from international delegations. The latter were from both the eastern bloc – Eastern Germany, Poland, China – and most strikingly from the West, and even from NATO countries like France and Italy!
Back to the top of the staircase, you get access to one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a final room you find on display the original furniture of Stalin’s office at the Kremlin. There is a desk with an armchair, a sofa, and a set of smaller chairs. Stylistically not very appealing, this furniture is of course of great historical relevance.
Close by, more unique items are on display in two showcases – Stalin’s personal belongings. There are a few cigars – now decomposing to age – some cigarettes, a cigarette box, a ruler, two pipes, a pen, a chessboard, a hand-written message to a friend, and some other trinkets. Finally, there is a military uniform, with boots and coat.
When you have got intoxicated by the Soviet aura of this place, you can finally get out and visit the last item in the park, Stalin’s personal railway car. This was actually used by Stalin, who did not like flying, to travel around the Union and abroad. He went to Teheran and Jalta conferences during WWII in this car.
The car is special in having a bullet-proof armor all around – which produces a weight comparable to that of a Diesel railway engine… – and some special services, like a bathtub, a personal studio and a meeting room.
Stalin’s ‘memorial park’ in Gori is really a one-of-a-kind museum, of exceptional interest for people interested to his period and his historical figure. You may be surprised by the very existence of this place, primarily because of the well-known and heavy responsibility of this man in mass-murders and misconduct as a head of state, and also because it is located in Georgia, a country openly hostile to Russia and its hard political domination, implemented through the institution of the Soviet Union. It is one of the expressions of the contradictory attitude of most peoples touched by the USSR – including Russians – towards that era. It remains a thought-provoking collection of historical value though – gifts from international delegation from the West are a vivid memory of the recognition obtained by this mass-murderer during his lifetime. They are particularly instructive about how propaganda can draw international consensus to the most unthinkable subjects.
Getting there and moving around
Getting to Georgia from the West will be hardly for Gori alone. Despite the nice, well-kept town center, with the castle and several refurbished churches and alleys, and of course the Stalin-related part, there are far more significant places to visit in Georgia, at least if you are coming from far away to this relatively hard-to-reach angle of the world. Yet Gori is located in a convenient position along the major road and railway connecting Tbilisi to Kutaisi and the coast of the Black Sea, which makes for an ideal one-day or even half-day stop.
The town is a good place to sleep, for there are a number of guesthouses and restaurants, and it does not look derelict or unsafe, differently for instance from more prominent Kutaisi. The whole Stalin-themed park, with the birthplace, museum and railway car, is rather compact, and not big, so visiting may take from 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on your level of interest. This is the main attraction in town. Strangely, I could not find an official website – this is strange for most labels are translated also in English, and there is even some merchandise, so the place is run as a modern museum. However, Google or TripAdvisor timetables were correct at least when I visited.
Plenty of public parking space around the museum.
In town there is also a war museum dedicated to the Great Patriotic War (covered here), as well as other non-communist themed attractions.
Joseph Stalin’s Underground Printing House Museum – Tbilisi
This museum was opened in Soviet times in the place of a house where young Stalin spent some time as a political agitator. His main activity related to this place was printing clandestine material.
Access it through modern Soviet buildings, with a hall which unfortunately cannot be visited.
The house is presented inside a small garden. There are two light buildings, a half-timbered house and a smaller hut.
The two are connected by a deep underground passage. This double access to the underground was of great help to evade controls by Czarist authorities. The main underground hall is original.
Possibly intended as a food cellar, it was used to store a 19th century printing machine – made in Augsburg, Germany, as witnessed by the rusty but still readable factory label!
The half-timbered house is apparently a Soviet-era reproduction of the building originally in place. It is a two-rooms house, very similar to Stalin’s birth house in Gori (see above). The two rooms have been furnished with a few berths and tables, to provide an idea of the original look, and with tons of artifacts from Stalin’s and Soviet times.
These include portraits, photographs, books and emblems. There is also a model of a similar clandestine print house in Baku, Azerbaijan.