Joseph Stalin, the ruthless and long-reigning head of the Soviet Union, was not Russian—he was Georgian. He died more than 60 years ago, and he is arguably the most famous Georgian ever. A couple days ago, I visited his home town of Gori, Georgia, where he lived for the first 16 years of his life.
I hadn’t heard many good things about the city of Gori itself, but I liked it. It felt very Soviet—wide roads, lots of trees, and uninspiring buildings. I thought it was a pleasant place overall. It reminded me of places I’ve lived in and visited in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. After heading to nearby Uplistsikhe, I came back to Gori and headed to the Stalin Museum.
The museum consists of three parts: 1) the museum proper, 2) Stalin’s childhood home, and 3) Stalin’s private train car. The museum is large, dark, and mostly dedicated to glorifying Stalin. There’s a room that is a recreation of his first office at the Kremlin in Moscow. There are rooms full of gifts he was given over the years. And there are several rooms containing a number of his own personal artifacts. On the walls of these rooms are hundreds of photos of Stalin, each with a description. A tour in Russian had just started when I arrived, and I stayed with it through a couple of the rooms before going off to look at the things on my own. It was very odd to look at Stalin’s sword, coat, pipe, hat, etc. and think that this infamous man touched and used these exact things that are six inches away from me.
And then there is one room that is essentially the focal point of the museum. It was dark and silent, the way you’d expect a holy shrine of some kind to be. There’s only one thing in it—a bronze copy of Stalin’s death mask. Creepy.
Stalin’s childhood home, the second piece of the museum, sits protected under a temple-like structure in front of the museum proper. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook for Georgia, “The rest of the poor neighbourhood in which [the home] stood was demolished in the 1930s as Gori was redesigned to glorify its famous son.” The inside is a bit sparse but also a bit cleaner and nicer than I think it probably looked in the late 1800s. There wasn’t much to see inside.
The third part of the museum is Stalin’s personal train car. Stalin apparently didn’t like to fly, and this bulletproof carriage was the one in which he traveled to Yalta in 1945. While it certainly was nice inside, I was expecting Versailles levels of opulence. Nope.
The Georgians I’ve talked to have varying views of Stalin. Some love him, some hate him, and many are ambivalent. From what I’ve seen and heard, many people in Georgia (as well as other places in the former Soviet Union that I’ve been to) at least respect him for what he did. He kicked Hitler out of Russia and won World War II (called the Great Patriotic War in Russian). He single-handedly made the Soviet Union a world power by modernizing its army and industries. And yes, he also killed and imprisoned millions of people (see Holodomor, Gulag, The Great Purge, and calculating the number of his victims for a primer).
By the way, Stalin is not his real last name. His real last name was Jugashvili. “Stal” (сталь) means steel in Russian, so his name essentially means man of steel.
After the Stalin Museum, I wandered over to Gori Fortress, which is perched pretty spectacularly on a hill right in the middle of town. Here’s a blurb about it from Wikipedia:
The fortress first appears in the 13th century records but archaeological evidence shows that the area had already been fortified in the last centuries BC. The fortress controlled major strategic and economic routes and accommodated a large garrison. In the 16th century the Ottomans captured it to overawe Tbilisi, and then it continually changed hands between the Turks, the Georgians, and the Persians.
These days, the walls are pretty much the only thing left. The views from the top are spectacular, though. At the foot of one end of the hill the fortress is on, the city built a “circle of mutilated metal warriors [that] forms an eerie memorial to those lost in the 2008 war” [from the LP guidebook]. That’s another interesting and very recent episode in Georgian history—the city was shelled and subsequently occupied by Russian troops during the 2008 South Ossetian War between the two countries.
Between Uplistsikhe, the Stalin Museum, Gori Fortress, and the other interesting things in the city, I thought that Gori made for a fantastic day trip from Tbilisi. I loved it.
If you want to see and hear what Stalin looked and sounded like, check out this video on YouTube.