Monday, August 19, 2019

What Gulag? At the Stalin museum, he’s a hometown hero

  • >>David Segal, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-07-01 15:10:23 BdST

Here are just a few of the fun facts that visitors learn during a guided tour of the Stalin Museum in Gori, the small Georgian town where the former Soviet leader was born.

Josef Stalin was a good singer. He wrote poems. During his reign, 9,000 state enterprises were started. One of his granddaughters now runs a shop in Portland, Oregon. Among the gifts offered to Stalin by adoring citizens was a luxurious fur coat, which now hangs inside a glass case in a room filled with tributes.

“That fur coat was presented to Stalin by a Moscow clothing company,” said the tour guide, an elderly woman with a thick Georgian accent and hair dyed with purple highlights. “But Stalin did not wear it. Not his style.”

Dedicated in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, the museum has an austere exterior in the Socialist Classical style and an interior stuffed with paintings, photographs and personal mementos. To the left of the entrance sits a rail car, the one Stalin rode to the Potsdam Conference in Germany in the summer of 1945, its curtains intact, its bulletproof glass long ago replaced.

The tone throughout the museum is admiring, a stirring narrative about a poor kid who, against long odds and despite numerous stints in czarist prisons, soared to the heights of power. The floors have red carpets. Stalin’s death mask rests on a marble stand, like a beloved leader, lying in state.

Sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, Georgia is a small country with celebrated cuisine, gorgeous landscapes — and a scarcity of world-renowned tourist attractions. One of the few it does have, unfortunately, is the man born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, the son of a cobbler who became one of humanity’s greatest criminals.

This has presented a quandary for Georgian officials. How, if at all, does a country market a homegrown monster to the rest of the world?

Part of the answer may lie in what is missing from the tour. There is no reference to the gulag, the system of slave camps and prisons that claimed more than 1 million lives. Nor is there a peep about the Great Terror, Stalin’s campaign of purges and executions in the 1930s.

A fleeting reference is made to the collectivisation of Soviet farms, which led to the starvation of an estimated 4 million Ukrainians, but if you’d never heard of this atrocity, you might think it was a hard-won success marred by slip-ups.

“Many mistakes were made in the Soviet Union during the collectivisation,” the guide said, striding briskly from one display to another. “But nevertheless, collective farms were created.”

Georgia’s struggle about what to do with Stalin and his legacy has occasionally produced wince-inducing solutions. In 2013, the chief of the National Tourism Administration, Giorgi Sigua, suggested that the country could appeal to the Chinese “just like” Israel has long catered to Christians.

“We can sell Stalin as a tourist product to the Chinese market,” Sigua said in a public statement. “Just like the Jews are selling Jesus Christ.” Sigua was fired in 2014.

Although Georgia abandoned its state-backed pitch for Stalin-based tourism, he remains a major draw, particularly among Chinese and Russians. Roughly 162,000 people visited the Stalin Museum last year, according to Taia Chubinidze, who sat behind a counter at the tourist center in Gori one recent afternoon.

“That’s more than any museum in the country,” she said, beaming. It was not possible to check this assertion because officials with the tourism administration refused to answer a single question about Stalin-related tourism.

The sensitivity is understandable. Stalin inspires deep emotions in the country where he spent his earliest years, and one of them is reverence. This is especially true in Gori, where many people, especially older ones, regard him as a epochal figure who built an empire and beat the Nazis in World War II.

“He was a simple man who grew up and became the leader of a great country,” said Mera B’chatadze, a 70-year-old retired construction worker, who was sitting on a park bench adjacent to the Stalin Museum. “He was a genius,” added a friend, Givi Lursmanashivi.

To many younger Georgians, pro-Stalin views like these are both blinkered and disturbing. Never very sentimental about his native land, Stalin victimised this country for decades. More than 400,000 Georgians were deported, a majority of them shot.

“It seems likely that in the terrors of the ’30s, more Georgians were executed, in proportion to the country’s size, than in any other republic,” said historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of “Young Stalin.” “Probably due to Stalin’s intimacy with Georgian leaders.”

Decades after Soviet rule was shaken off, Russia retains an ominous presence here. In 2008, Gori was one of the towns Russia bombed and occupied during a short and disastrous war that left 20% of the country — though not Gori — in Russia’s hands.

Many of the locals here don’t seem to care. It helps that Stalin brings in plenty of lari, the Georgian currency.

Across the street from the entrance to the museum is a collection of souvenir shops, selling a wide assortment of Stalin-themed tchotchkes — decorative plates, coffee mugs, miniature busts, tote bags, paperweights, pens, shot glasses, pipes, lighters, flasks and the list goes on.

More important than the financial upside, there is also a widespread sense here that, all evidence to the contrary, Stalin was only pretending to be a communist. Secretly, he was a Georgian nationalist.

“A lot of people we talk to say that he kept a cross in his apartment, which meant that he was a Christian,” said Nutsa Batiashvili, an associate professor at the Free University of Tbilisi, who has written about the role of Stalin in Georgian memory.

“They say he made Georgian cuisine very important in the Kremlin, and made Georgian toasting part of the etiquette there,” she added. “I know how weird all this sounds because no one can pinpoint anything that Stalin did which actually benefited Georgia.”

Unless one counts the international notoriety Stalin has brought to Gori. The town’s fondness for him has occasionally made headlines.

In 2010, the government removed an imposing statue of Stalin that had long stood at the center of town, on Stalin Avenue. This past May, as the country marked the 74th anniversary of victory in World War II, a group of activists demanded the statue’s return to its place of pride. That demand was ignored.

Likewise, Gori has essentially ignored government demands to tone down the hagiographic glow emitted by the museum. In 2012, the minister of culture announced that the exhibits would be transformed in ways that honored the tyrant’s victims. Once completed, the minister said, the changes would provide the “objective truth” about Stalinism.

The overhaul never occurred. Instead, the museum added a room containing a table where confessions were wrung from arrestees, along with a reproduction of a prison cell. It’s a modest, halfhearted add-on and, more to the point, the tour skips it.

A group of European tourists missed the room entirely, and after the purple-haired guide ended her patter (“Thank you for your visit. I wish you luck”), all of them seemed stupefied and faintly amused.

“He’s a hero here!” said an exasperated Jochen Dieckmann, a German who was shaking his head in disbelief. “They have very famous writers in Georgia, that everyone is very proud of. They don’t seem to understand that Stalin sent them to the gulag and killed them all.”

 

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