Gori, Georgia—In the city of Gori, 50 miles north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, there are few tourists attractions to satiate the curious traveller, so the occasional non-Georgian that passes through this grim post-Soviet city invariably finds himself at the large, white marble museum dedicated to its most famous son, the former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The museum, constructed in 1957, four years after Stalin's death, was commissioned by the Kremlin, who then lorded over the Caucasuses. At the moment, more than 6,000 Russian troops occupy neighboring South Ossetia (and the breakaway province of Abkhazia), in the northern part of this prospective NATO country.
Two days into a trip to Georgia, sponsored by the Georgian government, a group of American and British journalists visited Gori's monument to tyranny. When it was all over—after the 20 minutes of droning and unenthusiastic eulogy, the sleep-inducing celebration of patriotic wars and five year plans—I asked our museum guide the obvious question: “If someone asks about the purges or the Ukrainian famine, or the brutality of his rule, can you answer honestly?”
“Well, no.” This was said with a bit of a scoff, a slight are you kidding me?
“So, are you a fan? Posters on the bedroom wall and all that?”
She pursed her lips and lowered her brow, in an honest expression of surprise.
“It’s just a job.”
No two government officials in Georgia can agree on current unemployment figures, but all identify joblessness as the biggest problem facing the country—bigger than those Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—so I can’t muster any moral outrage at her decision to plump for one of history’s greatest monsters. In tough economic times, perhaps we all discover our inner Walter Duranty.
The Stalin Museum is an unsubtle celebration of Georgia’s most famous son, funded, curiously enough, by the otherwise wonderfully anti-communist Ministry of Culture in Tbilisi. Every government official I spoke with expressed embarrassment at this state-funded shrine to Uncle Joe (“Seriously, why did you go there?”), though all were cagey about why it continues to receive operational funds. “It’s a complicated issue,” one said, while denying that the people of Gori are fond of the Dictator Formerly Known as Dzhugashvil.
I thought of offering advice to the ministry, suggesting they bypass the most famous Georgian, and instead build a mausoleum celebrating, say, the achievements of the second most famous Georgian. After a bit of consideration, though, it became clear that this too was unsatisfactory, as it would require the people of occupied Abkhazia to erect a monument honoring Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s brutal chief of the NKVD.
It seemed unintentional, but our I-do-it-for-the-money guide—an elfin young women outfitted, oddly, in what appeared to be shiny black riding pants—captured the Soviet mood perfectly, reciting fabricated history by rote. While we hurried through the exhibits, it was initially unclear if she spoke English, or had merely learned some key phrases phonetically: "Stalin, he grrr-ate scientist." "Stalin, he grrr-ate military leader." And so on. The high school yearbook-style photos of Stalin and Trotsky, displayed throughout the museum, are pointed out, though no mention is made of Lev’s rather unfortunate incident with the ice axe.
The problem of the Stalin Museum, though, is not just one of selective historical memory—no gulags or show trials; many mentions of Stalin’s son, but none of his father’s willingness to abandon him to a short life in a German concentration camp—but the utter boredom of hagiography. Who killed Kirov? Why were all of those Jewish doctors plotting against Comrade Stalin? Were there any production problems on the White Sea-Baltic Canal? Don’t expect answers here. Instead, many of the exhibits look like flea market stalls in 1950s Leningrad. Mawkish paintings of Stalin being kind to children and old women hang on the walls, tea cups with his repulsive visage sit behind glass. In the gift shop, it is much the same. Stalin bottle openers, ash trays, paper weights, mugs, and postcards of the dictator being chummy with various party officials he would later send to the gallows.
In the center of Gori, in front of the city hall, stands a hulking gray statue of Stalin, who appears, from a distance, to be wrapped in an ill-fitting winter coat. According to one government official, during the August 2008 war, the Georgian military suggested to their Russian counterparts that, in their shelling of the city, they might train artillery on the Stalin statue, thus solving a contentious political issue. The Russians declined, he sighed, and instead hordes of drunk soldiers made pilgrimages to the statue during the brief occupation of Gori.
Recent events in Moscow make the stories of soldiers gathering at Uncle Joe’s feet, drunk and begging locals for cigarettes while cheering the savior of the Motherland, sound plausible, but one is advised to be skeptical of such tales of the Russian military’s Stalinophilia. Russian teaching guides, under the malign influence of President Vladimir Putin, nudge teachers into apologetics, advising them "to show that Stalin acted in a concrete historical situation" and acted "entirely rationally—as the guardian of a system, as a consistent supporter of reshaping the country into an industrialized state."
To further underscore Georgian skepticism of Russia, our minders take us to the line of occupation, just outside of Gori and south of the Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. On the terrifying bus ride to this artificial border—a sort of Caucasus version of The Cannonball Run, with our psychopathic driver dispensing irritated grunts rather than hilarious quips—one fast understands that, since the war, the local pastime (for men, anyway) has become standing by the road, smoking. If you aren’t military age out here in these border towns (that, only two years ago, were towns plopped in the middle of the country), there isn’t much to do.
As the bus roars down the street, being waved through checkpoints, it is easy to find houses with roofs blown off, with smashed windows, walls missing, and flame-licked exteriors. Across the verdant and beautiful plains sit thousands of identical houses, hastily constructed in 2009 to accommodate the tens of thousands of “internally displaced people”—those Georgians ethnically cleansed from their homes in South Ossetia. Our guide explains that this is good territory on which to engage the awesome might of Russian armor—an eventuality, I can’t help thinking, that would mark the end of independent Georgia.
The average Georgian is obsessively concerned about Russian power and influence in the region (which helps explain the overwhelming victory for President Mikhail Saakashvili’s party in recent municipal elections). When I asked an American pollster associated with the National Democratic Institute if there was a single issue upon which the people of Georgia were united, he responded, without a moment’s hesitation, the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
As every politician and intellectual in Tbilisi is quick to point out, “many problems remain”—this is repeated like a mantra—with this nascent Georgian democracy and, as one of Saakashvili’s confidants admitted, civil society is not “fully formed” here, but is on the right track. “The war with Russia didn’t help, but it couldn’t be avoided.”
When I asked the Georgian writer and intellectual Alexander Rondeli about the government’s mistakes—in the concentration of presidential power, regarding the war with Russia—he nods in agreement and chuckles, “We came from the Soviet Union. What do you expect of us?” The Georgians have done a lot in a little time, he says. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant, and the country was—and this is also repeated like a mantra—on the verge of being a failed state in 2003, before the Rose Revolution. But Georgians need more time, Rondeli says, explaining that the Soviet occupation turned the country into a race of “mutant, lobotomized people.”
The type of people that still allows government funding of a museum adulating Josef Stalin?
“Insane, isn’t it?”
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.