|Great journeys: Stalin stories|
|June 09, 2009|
In the second part of his journey across Georgia, Maxton Walker visits the hometown of Georgia's most famous son.
After spending some time in Georgia's capital, Tblisi, I feel the need to discover what the rest of the country has to offer. The obvious plan would be to head north into the Caucasus that form the border with Russia, but I've decided instead to go west towards the Black Sea coast.
As our driver swerves the endless streams of cows, pigs and dogs crossing the roads, we pass an incongruous village of identical modern prefab houses with pink roofs, stretching into the distance. My guide, Nini, explains that these are for refugees from the recent war with Russia.
An obligatory stop on the way to the coast is Georgia's bizarre monument to its most famous son: the Stalin Museum in the city of Gori, where he was born. It was occupied by Russian troops during lthe conflict, and some buildings are still pockmarked with fresh bullet holes.
In the hot, dusty town centre the museum is a profoundly strange place; a dark, hulking mausoleum. The gloomy foyer is deathly quiet and empty, with a huge staircase dominated by a statue of the great man. We talk in hushed voices. The main attractions here are a some the Soviet leader's personal effects: his watch, pipes, cigars, books and shaving kit in a plush velvet box.
The real highlights, though, are in the museum grounds: in front of the building is the shack where Stalin was born and grew up. I wait as the guide solemnly unlocks the door and we reverentially enter the tiny, bright one-room dwelling containing the bed the dictator was born in, a table and some chairs. I stand self-consciously as she takes a picture, before she switly locks up, and we walk over to his nearby luxurious personal armoured railway carriage, complete with a kitchen, guest rooms, study and bedroom. I am aloud to sit in his chair in the meeting room at the end of the carriage. I fill it rather well, I feel.
The museum is also my introduction to Georgia's complicated relationship with Stalin. Later that day, in a cafe at the ancient cave town of Uplistsikhe near Gori, I meet Stalber (a name derived from Stalin and Beria, the Georgian chief of the Soviet security and secret police during his premiership - a popular naming convention in Soviet times), who says his grandfather was a childhood friend of Stalin. He recalls being told of times that a young Stalin would go down to the local river and hide people's clothes as they swam. He also says that during Stalin's reign, a secret plane was dispatched from the region every week bound for Moscow, laden with local fish, fruit and wine. I procure a couple of bottles of his favourite tipple, Stalin wine from the museum gift shop, and stuff them into my backpack.
But, I have to ask Stalber, can he justify the havoc the former Soviet leader wreaked on his own people during his reign? He leans forward towards me. "They sent a nice poet from Georgia to Moscow, and Moscow ruined him. Stalin was so big, an average person cannot judge him."
As we walk away, I ask Nini if she believes Stalber's stories, or has he just come up with a nice yarn for the tourists? She shrugs: "I don't know. His stories are credible." And what does she think of Georgia's relationship with Stalin: "It's like when you have a child who does something terrible. You love him but hate the things he does."
Driving west out of Gori, heading for the Black Sea, we come across a group of farmers and their kids sitting out the midday heat playing backgammon under the trees on the shore of the river Mtkvari. It's probably a scene that hasn't changed in centuries and I can't resist stopping for a game to sample the atmosphere, amidst much ebullience, laughter and backslapping. I am quickly learning that this is typical of Georgians everywhere.
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