This Fourth of July, as I was traveling between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and the mountain spa-town of Borjomi, I made a stop in Gori, a small city of about forty-eight thousand in Georgia’s central-most region. It is a nondescript place, the buildings largely Soviet or cheaply built prefabs from the Nineties. It most recently made headlines when it was besieged and held by Russian forces for ten days during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. 

None of this was, of course, why I decided to stop. Gori is the birthplace of Ioseb Jugashvili, the ethnic Georgian better known to the world as the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It is also the location of the Joseph Stalin Museum, built in 1957, four years after his death, the only museum of note dedicated exclusively to the life and “work” of the Soviet leader. It is a shockingly well-preserved relic of Soviet Stalinist ideology and propaganda. Moreover, it is one of the few overt memorials to Stalin to survive the Khruschev-era program of de-Stalinization in the late 1950s. 

The museum is located within Gori’s Stalin Park, situated on Stalin Avenue. A sprawling, two-story Italianate palazzo, the building looks like what would happen if the Soviets tried to construct a consulate on Venice’s Grand Canal. A long colonnade runs along the front of the building, through which one enters a reception hall and ticket office. The exhibition galleries have grand, high ceilings, faded Soviet-era wall paint, and fluorescent light fixtures in various states of repair. It is dim and musty inside, so the windows are left open in the summer. Through them one can view the hot, dusty city of Gori and hear the sounds of traffic and children playing in the park. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but in a time of coronavirus unease I had the run of the place for a good hour or so, only bumping into a small tour group shortly before I left. 

I was offered a personal tour in Russian for free, which I took. I was eager to get a feel for the voice of this strange place and to see how the museum’s own employee would attempt to explain the collection. One of the museum’s small staff of matrons, in a stern Soviet schoolmarm manner, supervised my walk through the museum while giving a well-rehearsed lecture on the “highlights” of Stalin’s life.

A hall of the Stalin Museum. Photo: Isaac Sligh.

The first hall covers Stalin’s impoverished and unhappy childhood in Georgia. On display are photographs of the young Ioseb singing in the local choir, his homework from grade school, and pictures of early teachers and influences. His initial trajectory in life was aimed towards the priesthood, and we see Stalin as a young seminary student along with his professors. But to the great detriment of millions, Stalin abandoned the path to the clergy. We next find documentation of his life as a seminary dropout and Marxist agitator in the Caucasus. During this time, Stalin helped kill some forty people in a successful robbery of a bank shipment and made multiple escapes from prison and exile. Some of the material here was nevertheless clearly embellished to exaggerate Stalin’s promise as a young leader in the nascent Communist Party. 

Subsequent galleries document Stalin’s ascent to power in the Soviet Union and his defense against Nazi Germany during World War II. A dimly lit, soundproof room houses a copy of Stalin’s death mask and a single painting of him lying in state. This is followed by a hall filled with gifts received from various dignitaries and leaders around the world, including paintings from Mao Zedong, a hammer-and-sickle-shaped lamp from Poland, a plate from a women’s communist organization in Italy (“to comrade Giuseppe Stalin”), pipes, silverware, books, and other such ephemera. A final room houses the furniture from Stalin’s first office in the Kremlin. 

Outside the museum is the actual house in which Stalin was born, preserved underneath an ornate limestone and glass roof. It is a mere fifty feet from this cramped single room—in which the entire Jugashvili family lived for four years—to the final resting place of Stalin’s luxurious private train carriage, in which he rode to the Tehran and Yalta conferences to meet with the leaders of the Allies. It is a startling contrast.

In no place throughout the museum is explicit mention made of the Great Terror, the deaths due to collectivization, the Gulag, or the Holodomor. A very small section, recently tacked on as a concession, features a few photos of Georgian intellectuals executed under Stalin’s reign, although his involvement is euphemized away. Quotations and vague allusions to breaking a few eggs in order to make an omelette are made throughout, ominously. Stalin’s arch-rival Leon Trotsky makes a surprising if brief cameo in one or two small photographs, but he is only allowed to contribute a somewhat self-damning epigraph, something along the lines of “in order to wage an effective war, there must be some repressions.” Conveniently and implicitly this serves, rather in the manner of a cut-and-dry Stalinist show trial, both to condemn Trotsky and to justify Stalin’s own repressions. 

A copy of Stalin’s death mask on display at the Stalin Museum. Photo: Isaac Sligh.

Why is this museum still here, today, in an ex-Soviet republic, whose territory has been conquered by Russian and Soviet armies multiple times across the centuries, whose people, after the fall of communism, eagerly tore down every Lenin statue and hammer-and-sickle from their places of honor? It was clear to me that none of the matrons or security guards on staff at the museum were here for any hardline or easily definable ideological reasons. They appeared to be no different from the Georgians I had seen working in cafes, construction sites, or the subway; most of them, likely, just needed a job. It is unclear who, or what organization, actually funds the museum—no website is available, and there are no fliers with a friendly “About Us” section. The museum seems to be trundling slowly on into an uncertain future, some kind of strange and as-yet-unextinguished afterglow of the Soviet state, as if no one was told to pack up and go home when the whole superstructure came crashing down. 

My feeling from the visit was less abject horror or irony, and more pervasive sadness. Looking at this particular presentation of Stalin’s story, one is struck by how far the appalling reality falls from his widely propagated image as the kind, doting father of his country. This is the image on display at the Stalin Museum, driven home by picture after picture of Stalin conferring prizes to workers, holding young children on his lap, and shaking hands with Soviet citizens. In contrast to the rather weary and anxious faces of Stalin’s ever-shifting roster of henchmen, the faces of these common people are pure joy; they believe they are in the presence of sheer benevolence, a savior of the people. It is heartbreaking to view these pictures with knowledge of the truth behind that façade.

How are we to greet a temple to tyranny such as this one? The staff’s manner was defensive and somewhat skeptical towards me. I am sure they were used to visitors giggling, shouting, or otherwise berating them. I understand such reactions—Stalin himself deserves no better. But for the sake of the employees themselves, I had no wish to join the ranks of the hecklers. Neither would I call for the museum’s removal or “correction,” as many have in recent years. It is more valuable in its current, clumsy state. The propaganda itself is obvious to our eyes, and it is valuable as a means of preserving in isolation a former way of thinking about Stalin. This may do more to disabuse visitors from the myth of Stalin the wise and kind leader than if it were bracketed and contextualized by modern hands. 

Although Gori remains an exceptional pocket of Stalinophilia, many Georgians still do hold warm feelings towards him. Even those who acknowledge Stalin’s crimes against humanity will still advance an argument, with a tone of curt respect, that he was the only man who could have turned back the onslaught of Nazism in World War II. This can seem surprising coming from a people so ravaged by invasions and repressions across thousands of years of history, including Stalin’s own Great Terror; we should not forget that Stalin in no way spared his motherland, even going so far as to eliminate his in-laws. Perhaps the region’s millenia-long tradition of perpetual defense—generation after generation rushing to light the hilltop beacons to warn of the Romans, the Mongols, the Turks, the Persians, the Russians, the Soviets—may go some way towards explaining this phenomenon. 

Stalin is seen by some today as a semi-mythological character in the national story of Georgia. He is even, oddly enough, an appealing figure to those who despise Russia, and there are quite a few of them here; unlike today’s leaders, they argue, there was a Georgian fellow who knew how to make Russia do exactly what he wanted. But above all remains the fact that Stalin was, simply put, a Georgian, a man from one of European history’s most oppressed peoples, who rose to become the most powerful leader in the world, perhaps the most powerful the world has ever seen. It is hard for so constantly harried a people to exorcise so tempting a demon from its national epic. 

Georgia has nevertheless come a long way since Stalin, and a long way since the fall of the Soviet Union, as an ally of America and a nation seeking democracy. I ended my Fourth of July at a park in Tbilisi not far from where Stalin maintained a secret underground printing press during his early years. Here I gathered with Georgian friends and neighbors to watch the U.S. embassy’s fireworks show, as the Georgian government lit Tbilisi’s most famous landmark, a Soviet-era television tower perched atop a mountain, in the colors of the American flag.