We all know what a city does when a local boy or girl has done good. But what do you do when the local boy turns out to have done very bad indeed? This is the dilemma facing the Georgian authorities in the city of Gori, not far from the boundary line of South Ossetia. For as well as being the first target of Russian forces during Vladimir Putin’s 2008 invasion, Gori is best known for giving birth to Joseph Stalin.
It is now two years since the large statue of its most famous son was taken down from in front of Gori’s town hall. But there remains a dilemma over what to do with his opulently preserved birthplace and the connected museum commemorating his life. The Georgian authorities are eager to look towards Europe and away from their Soviet-occupied past. Having a shrine to Stalin does not help.
The gift shop at the entrance to the museum offers a range of merchandise including busts and bottles, with a grand picture of the man himself on the label. ‘Stalin wine.’ Red, obviously. I settled for a ‘J. Stalin State Museum’ pen and lighter.
The tour is performed in flawless, unhalting English by a large lady with a pink pencil who has been doing this for decades. ‘Here we see Stalin with his family. On the left we see…’ and so on. We are allowed to get close to his suitcase. Then the endless relaying of facts, facts, facts — often quite fantastically tangential — which anyone who has seen socialism at work will recognise. What matters is the imparting of information. We chart Stalin’s rise from his birth in the little shack preserved outside to a man bestriding the globe, seated with other world leaders at Yalta and Tehran. After many rooms of facts (and a table-lamp with a tank on its base which stands out even among this much Soviet-kitsch) there comes a dark, devotional room with only a painting of Stalin’s body and — alone in the centre — his death-mask looming out.
Then rooms of gifts bequeathed to Stalin by admirers — another staple of socialist museums — and finally his boots and overcoat. As a gift visitors are presented with a little book of Stalin’s poetry, written as a young man. ‘The lark sang its tune/ High up in the clouds./ And nightingale joined/ In the jubilating song.’
Inside every totalitarian is a sentimentalist waiting to break out. In this case, perhaps, it would be truer to say that inside every sentimentalist is a totalitarian just waiting to break out. For nothing up to this point would suggest that there was anything particularly questionable about the man’s career: just a shoemaker’s son who did well in his chosen profession. But Georgia’s authorities are trying to sort this out, and as a halfway house there is a temporary compromise: an additional two rooms recently added on underneath the main stairway.
‘Here is a room dedicated to the people in the camps, including people of Gori who disappeared.’ There is a desk to represent the interrogations that went on, a small ante-room recreated as a cell, and that is it. It is like visiting a museum about Adolf Hitler where the concentration camps come as an unconnected downer after a careful case has been built for his abilities as a watercolourist.
Outside, a large mock-Palladian villa covers the tiny, perfectly preserved shack where the Stalins lived. Alongside is the train carriage in which Joseph (scared of flying) travelled across and beyond his vast empire: we walk through his kitchen, bedroom, meeting room and loo.
The government plans to turn the J. Stalin State Museum into a museum of Stalinism. But as this intermediary period shows, it is not straightforward. Acceptance of the past, in Gori as everywhere, is uncomfortable and gradual. The unimaginable enormity of what Stalin did — including the special evils visited against the people of Georgia — here as everywhere else appear to have filtered down slowly and somewhat reluctantly.
In 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Georgia declared independence. Less than three years later, the Red Army rolled in, and first Lenin and then Stalin kept it. Under the leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili since the ‘Rose revolution’ of 2003, the country has seen a remarkable transformation, with extraordinary anti-corruption efforts and a liberalising of the economy that has made it a poster-child for free-marketeers. But many Georgians fear that once again this will be a hiatus rather than the norm. Russian troops made it into the centre of Gori in 2008.
Before heading there I went to the fault-line of South Ossetia and saw a vast new Russian military base which has shot up on the Russian-occupied side. Here, as everywhere, the past is always before us. As Georgia knows, what we do with it and what we learn from it matters.