Stalin Back in Style In His Hometown of Gori

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.

Gori is a place that looks just like it sounds: pretty gruesome. When I told the woman whom I was staying with in Tbilisi that I was taking a day trip to Gori, she practically pleaded with me not to go.

“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?

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara, Giladr and Rapidtravelchai on Flickr]

Amazing Photos Of Uzbekistan’s Desert Ship Graveyard

A relentless sun bakes down upon the desert sands near the Uzbekistan city of Mo’ynaq, sending shimmering waves of heat and swirling dust clouds floating skywards. As the scarce few travelers who have traversed this most barren and isolated of landscapes will tell you, it’s probably the last place on earth you’d expect to find a flotilla of abandoned ships. Except this isn’t a mirage – you’ve reached the Graveyard Ships of Mo’ynaq, a surreal collection of rusting fishing vessels in Uzbekistan, stranded nearly 100 miles from the nearest shoreline.

How on earth did this strange sight come to pass? The story starts back in the 1980s, when Mo’ynaq was a thriving fishing village situated on an inland lake connected to the Aral Sea. As the USSR diverted the water for use in irrigating massive cotton fields, the lake dried up, leaving Mo’ynaq’s boats high and dry (and the villagers with no way to make a living). The strange collection of boats left behind is both a ghostly beautiful scene and a chilling reminder of the damage too-easily wreaked by careless use of water.

Check out a gallery of photos from the graveyard below to take a closer look.


[Photos by Flickr user Martijn.Munneke]

First woman in space turns 75

Last week, Russia marked the 75th birthday of Russian space pioneer Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. In 1963, Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times in three days, logging more flight time than all the previous American astronauts combined, and becoming the first and only woman to travel solo in space. Before launching into space, Tereshkova exclaimed, “Hey, sky, take your hat off!” The US space program would not send a woman into space for another 20 years, when Sally Ride flew as a crew member on the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Tereshkova later married another cosmonaut, held several of the highest offices in the Soviet Union, and is revered as a hero among women and Russians. Inspired by Ms. Tereshkova? You can go inside the Russian space program this fall for a cool $14,000.

[Photo courtesy Martin Addison via Wikimedia Commons]

Museum of Socialist Art to open in Bulgaria

A Museum of Socialist Art is opening next month in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The museum exhibits statues of Lenin, paintings of Bulgarian Communist Party leaders, and other artwork from Soviet times.

The former Eastern Bloc country is the last such nation to open a museum to its totalitarian past. The socialist government fell in 1989 and Bulgaria had its first free elections the following year.

Not all vestiges of the past are sitting in museums. Many of Bulgaria’s current ruling elite were members of the old regime, and the last-minute name change from “Museum of Totalitarian Art” to “Museum of Socialist Art” is making some Bulgarians question just what the purpose of the museum is.

I worked in Bulgaria as an archaeologist in 1994, and the country was full of Soviet art. With the economy bottoming out, grannies set up stalls in the streets to sell old medals, uniforms, and busts of Marx for next to nothing. If only I had bought more than a few mementos, I could make a bundle on eBay! Most people were glad the old regime was gone, but the dire state of the economy had many people questioning the value of a free market system. I haven’t been back in more than a decade. Can anybody out there tell me how the majority of Bulgarians feel about the transition more than a decade on?

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This Soviet stamp from 1969 commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria. The text says, “The friendship between the Soviet and the Bulgarian people- indestructible for eternity.”]

Fifty years ago today: youngest person in space throws up

Fifty years ago today, Gherman Titov became the second man to go into orbit. The first was Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on 12 April 1961. Titov was also Soviet, and flew aboard the Vostok-2 mission.

While Gagarin launched into enduring fame and became one of my personal heroes, Titov has been largely forgotten. That’s a shame, because his flight included a number of records and advanced our knowledge of conditions in zero gravity.

Unlike Gagarin’s single-orbit flight, which was largely to see whether the Soviet Union could get a man into space, Vostok-2 on 6 August 1961 was intended to test how well someone could deal with zero gravity for 24 hours. Major Titov was chosen for the task. He was only 25 years old and is still the youngest person ever to have gone into space.

It didn’t all go well. Early in the flight Titov became space sick and while trying to eat lunch on his sixth orbit around the Earth he threw up. The effects of this in a small capsule in zero gravity must have been unpleasant to say the least. Titov was made of tough stuff, though, and took the manual control of the capsule for a time and also snapped a picture of the Earth from space, the first human being to do so. Ten-and-a-half hours into the flight he felt good enough to fall asleep.

That’s probably the most amazing part of the story. I can’t imagine actually falling asleep when Earth is shining outside my window. Perhaps the adreneline rush finally wore off and Titov conked out due to sheer exhaustion. He slept for eight hours. When he woke up he still didn’t feel a hundred percent but was able to keep his breakfast down. After 17 orbits he reentered the atmosphere and safely landed.

One interesting footnote to the flight is that the Soviets made all the radio frequencies between Vostok-2 and ground control public, so that the whole world could listen in as the capsule passed overhead and could track it using directional antennae. This kept anyone from claiming the flight was faked. Conspiracy theorists have been saying ignorant things about the space program for a long time now.

For more information and some cool images, check out the great website Space History Notes and their article on Vostok-2.

Image of Maj. Titov and Vostok 2 patch courtesy Wikimedia Commons.