Georgia Trip (August 2013)

I came back from Georgia assured of two things. First, the rumours are true. Georgia is incredibly beautiful. (Stereotype moment: it also has a fascinating history, great food, and interesting people.) But the main thing is that it is disconcertingly pretty. Second, holidays are great. Not least of all because they can surprise you in a number of ways. As soon as I told a few people I was going to Georgia, they tried to put me in touch with a whole range of friends and acquaintances living there – all of whom sounded lovely and yet none of whom I managed to meet. One contact even tried to put me in touch with one of the cameramen from Tengiz Abuladze’s 1984 (released 1987) film Repentance. The combination of four days up in Tusheti and a growing fondness for being ‘out of touch’, however, meant that, much to my regret, none of these potential meetings happened. That said, a few things related to certain broader interests still managed to crop up. Most of these were in Gori, a medium-sized town northwest of Tbilisi. And while there were other sites in Georgia worth discussing, such as the Museum of Occupation in Tbilisi, I’ve decided for reasons of brevity to write a few words about Gori.

One of these was, of course, the Stalin museum. The museum is situated at the top of Stalin Avenue, which is split down the middle by a newly renovated tree-lined walkway. (A few streets away there is a road named after Merab Kostava, one of the founding members of the Georgian Helsinki Group.) From the outside, it is admittedly a rather pleasant looking neo-classicist building with a tower and a colonnade, and is flanked by a statue of Stalin, the railway carriage that took him to Yalta in 1945, and the house in which he grew up.

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The first room you enter is mocked up as Stalin’s office, with a range of personal effects (including pipes!) dotted around in cabinets. Then you enter the main exhibition, which takes you through a detailed account of Stalin’s early years. This is prefaced by an interesting quote from the man himself: ‘Man is not immortal. I too will die. What will be the judgment of the people and history? A lot of mistakes, but there weren’t there achievements too? Naturally, the mistakes will be ascribed to me. They’ll heap a pile of rubbish on my grave, but the day will come when the wind of history will mercilessly sweep it away.’ Unsurprisingly, this is one of the main themes of the museum: the combination of ‘necessary’ mistakes with great achievements. While Stalin’s years in the Bolshevik underground and the revolution feature prominently alongside propaganda objects and photographs, there was a definite sense of attempting to place Stalin ‘in context’. This amounted to pointing out the role of other prominent Bolsheviks in Soviet crimes, and at the same time, shaping Stalin as a saviour in various fields: industrialisation, the war, church. Indeed, this was particularly true of the latter as the following excerpts presented show.

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Yet it was the final two rooms of the museum that were the most striking. After having been presented with a minor attempt to present Stalin as protector of religion in the Soviet Union, one then enters a strange darkened room. The centre of this room is enclosed with a semi-circle of columns and a death-mask (one of only six, apparently) of Stalin lies in the middle of the floor. In effect, it is a re-staging of Stalin’s lying-in-state.Upon exiting the room, you are met by a selection of gifts given to Stalin as part of his elaborate 70th birthday celebrations in 1949: plates, fur coats, pipes, samovars and so on.

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Afterwards you are taken into the house of Stalin’s childhood, which sits underneath a protective frame, and then the Yalta conference railway carriage. There is a small gift shop that sells books, matches, t-shirts, lighters, mugs, and all the usual paraphernalia you might expect to be emblazoned with Stalin’s face.

There were two more sites of note (at least for this blog) in Gori. The first was the War Museum, which is located further down Stalin Avenue. Tucked away to one side, the exterior is dominated by a mural and a wall of soldiers’ names who died during World War Two. While this is at least superficially familiar to anyone acquainted with the memorialisation of the war, it is striking because of its recent additions. Photographs of Georgian soldiers who died during the 2008 conflict in Gori, which was bombed and occupied during the war, are staked out in front of the mural. (It was also targeted in a cluster bomb attack in which 11 civilians were killed.) This mingling of Soviet war memories and more recent conflict continues inside, as the main part of the museum gives a local history of the Second World War before presenting pictures, uniforms, personal effects and even grenade fragments responsible for the deaths of soldiers in 2008. A few minutes walk away, lying underneath the hill-top fortress in the centre of Gori, is a more formal monument to 2008. A circle of giant Georgian warriors sits under the fortress. The statues, though, are disfigured: arms, legs, heads and hands are missing, as if at random.

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