Two years ago, Georgian officials carried out a secret, dead of night operation to dismantle a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. But on Thursday, a municipal assembly in Gori voted to restore the monument. According to press reports, some 6,000 people signed a petition in support of the move. The fact that officials in this impoverished corner of the world have pledged $15,000 toward venerating one of history’s greatest mass murderers is a scandal, but the news was given just a one-paragraph treatment under the New York Times’s World Briefing section on Friday.
I visited the Stalin sites in Gori’s main square 12 years ago and can’t help but wonder if this recent move is an ill-conceived scheme to attract tourists, an effort to embarrass President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose party was defeated by a coalition that, according to the Times, “promised to restore monuments to Stalin in Gori and other cities,” or simply a move to honor Stalin.
“There is nothing in Gori, nothing!” she said.
But I wanted to see the Stalin birthplace and museum, so off I went, early one morning in a battered minivan with a shattered windshield and about three or four too many passengers. Walking around the forlorn town, I felt like I’d stepped back in time about 100 years. Peasants in heavy, homemade-looking woolen outfits lined the streets, selling produce and household items, like Barf brand detergent, made in Iran and other developing world backwaters, on top of cardboard boxes and from the trunks of dilapidated old cars.
The sidewalks were so deeply cracked that one could easily break a leg if they weren’t paying close attention. The stench of poverty and despair filled the dark streets and I couldn’t help but conclude that Stalin, born Joseph Vissarionovich, the son of a cobbler, couldn’t be blamed for abandoning the place as a young revolutionary.
All I had to do was say “Stalin?” and people knew to direct me toward his humble boyhood home, which was venerated with a huge, columned building around it to make it look more grand after his death. There were five women huddled in the cold around an inadequate little space heater at the adjacent Stalin museum. One of them walked me around the pitch-dark place, turning on and off the lights above each exhibit as we strolled through. There was little of interest, save for an old pair of Stalin’s boots and other memorabilia, especially for an English speaker.
After the impromptu tour, one of her colleagues offered me a selection of souvenirs – a book of Stalin’s awful poetry, a Stalin keychain and some postcards.
“Now you will visit Stalin’s private train car,” said my guide, who spoke some English.
As we walked out to check out his elaborate train car, I asked her what she thought of Stalin and an unpleasant expression, half-disgusted, half-exhausted came over her face.
“I don’t have to tell you that,” she said.
“Yes, of course you don’t,” I said. “I was just curious.”
“My opinion about Stalin is private,” she said, cutting me off.
I couldn’t decide if she hated Stalin but felt that she shouldn’t admit it because of her duties as Stalin Museum and birthplace tour guide or if she respected him but didn’t want to admit it to an American, knowing that I’d have a rather low opinion of Stalin. Who knows, perhaps she’s one of the 6,000 people who signed a petition to bring back the statue?