One of the most beautiful subway systems in the world is the Moscow Metro. The system was originally built under direct orders from Stalin to create gorgeous stations that the people of Moscow would admire for its depictions of a “radiant future.” Mariusz Kluzniak took this fantastic panorama of the absolutely beautiful Novoslobodskaya Station. The station’s architect, Alexey Dushkin, spent well over a decade on the design, eventually commissioning designs for 32 stained glass panels from famed Russian artist Pavel Korin. The result is fantastic and unlike any other public transportation station in the world.
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?
As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.
Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.
Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.
Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.
Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.
Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.
Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.
Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.
Well-done in Warsaw
Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”
Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.
Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.
Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.
A lot of visitors to Russia like seeing some Soviet-era nostalgia, but old monuments and ugly apartment blocs now have to compete with the latest kitsch–a bus painted with the likeness of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
The bus is the initiative of Stalinist blogger Viktor Loginov, who raised money for the project in order to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. The 65th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi forces is on May 9.
The bus may not make it to the celebration, however, as it has already been vandalized once.
Loginov says he only wants to celebrate Stalin’s role in defeating Hitler, but human rights activists are appalled at seeing the Soviet leader’s face on the streets of St. Petersburg. Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union during World War Two and was instrumental in destroying the German army. American war propaganda fondly referred to him as “Uncle Joe”. Stalin killed millions of his own people by sending them to gulags, torture chambers, or, in the case of a rebellious Ukraine, starving an entire province into submission. While the exact number of his victims will never be known, some historians say he killed more people than Hitler. The Stalin bus highlights how today’s Russia is of two minds about its tumultuous past.
A new exhibition at the Marat Guelman gallery in Moscow features a series of drawings of male nude models that the Soviet leader defaced with rude comments.
The comments include such philosophical gems as “Don’t sit with a bare ass on stones.” and “One thinking fool is worse than 10 enemies.”
Other images bear chatty, mocking comments to ex-comrades of the Communist Party. One drawing of a slim, older man says, “Why are you so thin, Mikhail Ivanovich? Do some work. Masturbation is not work. Try Marxisim!”
This may have been a reference to Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, a member of Stalin’s inner circle who had died in 1946 and who actually looks a bit like the guy in the drawing.
The prints come from a series issued in the late 1940s, when Stalin was aged about 70. They were preserved by members of the KGB who worked with Stalin and the handwriting has been authenticated by the Russian Interior Ministry. Many of the images bear Stalin’s signature.
Just why Stalin felt compelled to write these sayings and chat with his dead comrades on pictures of nude men is a but of a mystery. Perhaps it was his way of relieving the strain after helping to defeat Hitler and killing millions of his own people.
The exhibition is only on for one week, so if you’re not passing through Moscow at the moment check out this series of photos.