Every small town wants to be famous for something. First winery, biggest rubber band ball, neolithic caves, traditional earthenware pots, salmon-flavoured ice cream, Kid Rock, Lego statues… there’s a lot to choose from that can take a town from nondescript provincial city to Lonely Planet highlight with just a few extra signs and a little PR.
But Gori, Georgia has a darker claim to fame. This city is proud of its place in the footnotes of history as the hometown of one of the most famous dictators of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin. So proud, in fact, that they maintain a huge museum dedicated to him at the reported site of his childhood home, the obviously-named Joseph Stalin Museum.
Inside it feels like nothing has really changed since the museum opened in 1957. Same stodgy old gift shop, same stodgy old museum guides, same stodgy old toilets. The building itself is really grand, though, and itself a tribute to the only brand of Stalinism we really like: massive, elegant and kitschy communist style.
The museum curates a really exhaustive catalogue of objects and clippings related to Stalin, from his wee years up until his death in 1953. Starting with little Joseph’s poems and schoolbooks, visitors walk through rooms chronologically detailing the hardships and triumphs of his life until they’re met with the grim and very communisty exhibition of Stalin’s death mask.
It’s in the room with the death mask, when the exhibit ends, where everyone’s suspicions are confirmed. The Stalin museum is a wonderfully (or horribly) one-sided shrine to the dictator, with no mention of gulags, scorched earth, mass executions, secret executions, blockades, rigged elections, sentencing without trial, anti-Semitism, coup d’états, armament of North Korea, or generally ruthless policies of oppression that Stalin is known for in the Western world. Everything is all rosy-cheeked school children and dedicated labourers for the Motherland here in Gori. 100% Soviet nostalgia, 100% negative fact free.
The museum ends in a swanky room full of gifts presented to Stalin from nations both inside and outside of the Communist bloc. Most of them are a bit cheesy and almost all of them are decorated with portraits of the leader at some point during his life. The strangest gifts were the hand-woven carpets, and there were a lot of them. How about a little Oriental Stalin art to decorate your home?
Checking out the museum’s guestbook (a bunch of A4 paper clipped together), you could really get the sense that a lot of foreign visitors thought the museum was lacking…
The next day we spoke with an older German dude who is also interested in Soviet stuff. He had also visited the museum and called it “an interesting view of history”. As ridiculous as we may think it is to maintain an over-the-top, one-sided museum (shrine) dedicated to one of the most ruthless dictators in recent history, the Stalin museum is a great reminder of how successfully people can be blinded by the cult of personality propaganda that the Soviets were so good at.