Inside the Stalin Museum: Welcome to the ‘Museum within a Museum’

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Erekle Koplatadze explores Gori’s controversial Stalin Museum and asks what its place is in modern-day Georgia.

Erekle Koplatadze explores Gori’s controversial Stalin Museum and asks what its place is in modern-day Georgia.

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Exhibition hall in the Soviet-style Stalin Museum. Photo: Erekle Koplatadze.

 “Small town of Gori is big. Stalin was born here!” This Georgian phrase sums up how people in Gori regard Stalin. With a population of just over 50,000, Gori would otherwise just be another town in another small and newly independent state in the Caucasus. Although there is an impressive castle on a hill in the city, there would not be many reasons to pay a visit to Gori when traveling in Georgia. But what makes Gori special and pinpoints its location on the (travel) maps is its most (in)famous son, Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jughashvili, better known as Stalin.

The Stalin Museum, which is the most visited museum in Georgia with around 15,000 visitors per year, opened in 1957. Soviet politician and chief of the secret police Lavrenti Beria initiated the building of the museum in 1937, but Stalin, refusing to have a museum dedicated to him, ordered it to be a city museum. Stalin died in 1953, before the project was completed, and in 1957 it was opened as initially planned, as a museum dedicated to the ‘great’ leader. Not only was the museum built, but the city was also planned around it. A new avenue was constructed, houses were torn down to make way for a city hall, and a huge statue of Stalin was erected, giving Gori a new face. At the end of the ‘Stalini avenue’ is the small two-room house where Stalin was born, which is still preserved in its original state. A protective pavilion was built over the house in 1936 by Soviet architect Mikhail Neprintsev. Behind the house stands the two-storey museum. Even Stalin’s train carriage, which he used to travel to Tehran and Yalta, still sits in the yard.

One of the thirteen death masks of Stalin. Photo: Erekle Koplatadze.
One of the thirteen death masks of Stalin. Photo: Erekle Koplatadze.

The communist times are now long gone, but upon entering the museum you feel as if time has frozen and you have been thrown back into the Soviet Union. Long halls, red carpets and grey walls decorated with Soviet memorabilia create an atmosphere that visitors would have experienced when the museum first opened. The tour guides, who tend to view Stalin and the Soviet period in a more positive light than the rest of the world, further add to this impression. You hear them explain how life used to be, that no one was unemployed or homeless; and how smart Stalin was. The museum has become not only a museum dedicated to Stalin but also a museum depicting life in the Soviet Union. Nothing modern has been added and the museum has preserved its authenticity. Even though the tour guide told us that the halls used to be fuller, with more plants, sofas and exhibits, it still feels like very little has changed. However, preserving it has not been easy. The tour guides told us how they protected the museum in the 90’s on their own initiative, when no one cared about it; how they guarded the exhibits and tracked items down when they were stolen. All of these factors create a very unique visitor experience. As one of visitor wrote in the guestbook: “This museum is itself a museum”.

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On the far right: An attempt to erase Lavrenty Beria from history. Photo: Erekle Koplatadze.

The lack of refurbishment has created harsh working conditions. When talking with the tour guides, they mentioned that they would like their museum to be modernized and become more interactive to match European standards. The director of the museum, Mrs Lia Oqropiridze, clearly expressed her desire to preserve the atmosphere that reigns there; but she was also excited to share her ideas on how to further develop the museum, by using the vacant tower to do create extra space for temporary exhibitions. However, not everyone shares her enthusiasm of preserving what has been preserved and modernizing the rest. In 2010, there were plans to refurbish the museum and re-open it as an Occupation Museum. This was seen as an attempt by the government to signal that Georgia has moved away from its Communist past and is ready to become a full member of the European family. Concurrently, in 2010 the statue of Stalin was taken down, despite protests by local people.

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A gift from Italy to Stalin. Photo: Leo Wigger.

On the one hand, the government is reluctant to promote Stalin and have people idolizing the dictator. On the other hand, Stalin brings tourists and money to Gori; many people are interested in visiting the museum and his birthplace. They pose for photos and used to gasp when they saw the huge statue of Stalin at the centre of the city. As the whole city was built around the Stalin Museum, the complete removal of his presence is not an easy task and Georgia lacks the resources to create something new that would overshadow Stalin in this city. People still drive, walk and live on the avenue and streets built for Stalin; tourists visit Gori, spend money and buy souvenirs depicting Soviet symbols and Stalin. Stalin has defined Gori and makes Gori’s already rich history even more fascinating. Today, some local people are still proud of the fact that one of their own, a son of a shoe maker, became a leader of the Soviet Union and defeated Hitler. Many have fought wars, or known relatives who fought for Stalin; they died or killed believing that fascism had to be stopped. And they believe that Stalin was the one who saved the world from Fascism.

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Modern trilingual labels cover the original ones in Russian. Photo: Erekle Koplatadze.

But what do those think whose families have been directly affected by Stalin’s repression? A young artist from Tbilisi tells us that she would not choose to visit the museum as her family had suffered greatly under Stalin, but that she thinks it should still be preserved as it is ‘part of history’. Asking a young Meskhetian, whose grandparents were deported from Georgia to Central Asia under Stalin, her reaction is ambivalent too. “I would definitely go and visit the museum, even if it is kept in its present form, as I would be curious to understand how and why people cherish Stalin”. However, in her opinion, a contemporary Stalin museum requires the presentation of a fuller account of the era’s events and developments that is based on facts and figures. “I think that it is important to have museums devoted to the history of dictators and dictatorships. They serve as a reminder of the double-edged character of such regimes – that they are based not only on sufferings of some people, but also on the privileged status of others as well as the uncompromising faithfulness of masses, who might wholeheartedly believe in the ‘best intentions’ and character of the regimes in question. And, hopefully, in that way we all learn that there are many more realities to the one that we hold to and truly believe in.”

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About the author: Erekle Koplatadze is a postgraduate student in Politics and Sociology at the School of Slavonic and East European, University College London.
1 Comment
  1. […] To find out more about the legacy of totalitarian leaders across regions, take a look at our article on Gori, the hometown of Stalin, and its famously bizarre Stalin Museum. […]

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