Russians and Georgians agree: Stalin was one great guy

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 26, 2009 

WORLD NEWS STALINMUSEUM MCT

A worker at the gift shop in the Stalin museum in Gori, Georgia, wears a Soviet era military uniform, January 11, 2009.

TOM LASSTER — Tom Lasseter / MCT

GORI, Georgia — After their short, brutal war last summer, Russians and Georgians bitterly disagree about a lot of things. When it comes to the legacy of the blood-soaked Soviet tyrant who was born here, however, some of them see eye to eye.

At the J. Stalin State Museum erected in his hometown, the tour guide didn't hesitate for a moment when she was asked recently: What do you think about Joseph Stalin?

"He was a hero," said Tamuna, a young woman with dark hair, who didn't give her last name.

She directed a visitor's attention to a picture of Georgian soldiers on their way to fight in World War II. They'd dropped to their knees, as though to genuflect, in front of Stalin's house. Tamuna, in a voice as measured as a metronome, recounted a stream of Stalin quotes about motherland and sacrifice. Then she summed up: "He is a hero. He did everything. He won the war."

Before he was the ruthless strongman whose paranoid reign led to the deaths of millions, Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili in this Georgian town not far from the white snows of the Caucasus mountains.

Despite the fact that Russia's military bombed Gori and then occupied its streets last August, some in Gori have kept a soft spot for Stalin, a name he took meaning "man of steel."

The affection, ironically, mirrors the resurgence of Stalin's popularity in Russia, a country that's battered Georgia not only with tanks but also trade and visa sanctions.

During a poll of millions of Russians conducted by a state TV channel last year, Stalin was in first place in early voting for the country's greatest historical figure before finishing third. He bested names such as Dostoyevsky and Lenin.

Tina Khakhriashvili, who was walking past the Gori museum earlier this month with her daughter, would vote for him.

"We haven't changed our opinion of Stalin. He was a great person," Khakhriashvili said. "Because of him, everyone knows about Georgia."

Khakhriashvili's family used to live in the separatist province of South Ossetia, but they fled after Russia's invasion and the torching of ethnic Georgian villages by local militias that followed. She waved off the suggestion that such an experience would sour her on the memory of Stalin and his rule from Moscow. "This was another time," she said.

A McClatchy reporter who chatted with a handful of people in Gori one afternoon couldn't find a single person who disagreed.

"Of course, people have bad feelings about Russia," said Bichiko Chechelashvili, a security guard. "But for me, he was a good man."

Chechelashvili was standing close to a giant statue of Stalin that still looms over Stalin Square in downtown Gori.

The museum celebrating Stalin was dedicated in 1957, about four years after his death.

Befitting a man whose government frequently removed people's images from photographs after they'd been purged, effectively denying that they'd ever existed, the museum makes little deviation from the narrative of Stalin's life that he preferred.

Museum officials said it was only last year that they allowed a picture of Leon Trotsky, a rival for power who was stabbed in the skull with an ice pick on Stalin's order. The photograph is a small one.

There's no mention of Stalin's mother beating him as a child or of his drunken cobbler father screaming that the young boy was a bastard. A local merchant, policeman and priest were mentioned as possibly being his real father, according to a recent biography.

Nothing is said, either, about the countless people who later died by firing squads, starvation, savage beatings in dim interrogation rooms or just crumpling to the ground for the last time after years of forced labor in gulags.

There is a souvenir shop, where a woman dressed in a Soviet-era military uniform will sell you a bottle of sparkling Stalin wine — with the old man himself on the label — for 30 Georgian laris, about $18. Or a thin volume of the poetry Stalin wrote as a young man for three laris.

Sitting in his office, with a piece of shrapnel from a Russian bomb resting on the desk, museum director Robert Maglakelidze tried to avoid discussion about Stalin's legacy.

"He was an important figure, and of course we are proud that he is from Georgia and went on to rule such a big country," Maglakelidze said. "But I can't say he's the greatest person in Georgian history."

Maglakelidze offered a stoic's take: "If it wasn't Stalin, it would have been some other person."

It was cold in the director's office. The building is outdated, and there are problems getting gas. The museum needs about $650,000 in work and has an annual budget of only $87,500, Maglakelidze said.

That's where local nostalgia finds its limit.

"We can't find a sponsor who loves Stalin enough, who will give us money to help with the building," he said.

ON THE WEB

Stalin museum Web site

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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