Visiting Stalin’s Museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia

Visiting Stalin’s Museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia

What’s Gori’s claim to fame? It’s the birthplace of the Communist leader Joseph Stalin.

On my way from Tbilisi to Kutaisi I visited Gori, Stalin’s hometown and where his museum is located. This small town came into the news in 2008 when it was bombed by the Russians during the Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But other than this, it has remained quiet and relatively unknown.

The main sights to see in Gori are: Stalin Museum, the Fortress and Uplistsikhe (Cave Town, 10km from Gori). This blog post only covers Stalin Museum, Uplistsikhe is in another post. Gori can easily be done in a day trip from Tbilisi or on route from Tbilisi to Kutaisi.

 

Getting to Gori

What to watch out for

Tourist Information

Stalin Museum

Stalin’s early life

Itinerant revolutionary

Purges and Gulags

World War 2

Death Mask

Stalin’s train carriage

Food and drink

Overall

 

Getting to Gori

 

To reach Gori from Tbilisi you can either take a taxi, mini van or marshrutka from Tbilisi bus station, located outside Didube metro station. It’s cheap and easy to get the metro from Tbilisi centre to Didube. The metro is only 0.5 GEL flat fee.

Before you even exit Didube metro station you’ll be accosted by taxi drivers. I found it really overwhelming and I’ve travelled a lot. The bus station has no structure and there are vans, taxis, marshrutkas everywhere with people shouting names of destinations, asking where you’re going, trying to get you into their cars….

The closer you are to the metro station the higher the prices are. Inside the metro station I was told 180 GEL to drive me from Tbilisi to Gori, to Uplistsikhe, and back to Tbilisi. Outside the metro station a taxi for the same journey was 150 GEL. The mini vans are 10 GEL one way to Gori per person. If you can find a marshrutka, it’s only 5 GEL to Gori per person. However, the marshrutka don’t have a fixed timetable for when they leave and usually go when full, so you often have to wait around if you choose this option.

 

Marshrutkas at Tbilisi bus station by Didube
Marshrutkas at Tbilisi bus station by Didube

 

What to watch out for

 

Most of the signs on the front of the mini buses and marshrutkas are in Georgian. Not English. So remember to know your destination’s name in Georgian. With the exception of major tourists destinations, Batumi, Kazbegi and Kutaisi, all other destination will be in Georgian.

Gori in Georgian looks like this – გორი

Also, make sure your mini van or marshrutka’s final destination is Gori. Many travel along the main road to Kutaisi and don’t drop down to Gori’s bus station. Instead they drop you off on the side of the main road 7 Km from Gori and tell you to get a taxi or walk from there. This happened to me – I paid 10 GEL for the mini bus and then had to pay another 7 GEL to get a taxi into the city from the main road.

There aren’t any marshrutkas from Gori bus station to Kutaisi. You can either go to the main road and try and wave one down or get a train from Gori’s train station. I took the train and it took 5 hours, as opposed to the 2.5 hour drive.

 

Tourist Information

 

By Stalin Museum there’s a helpful tourist information centre. This should be your first call if you’re looking for a map or general advice. They speak English.

 

Outside the tourist information centre
Outside the tourist information centre

 

Stalin Museum

 

Stalin statue outside his museum in Gori
Stalin statue outside his museum in Gori

 

The main reason to travel to Gori is to visit the Stalin Museum. It’s located near the centre of town. You can’t miss the huge statue of Joseph Stalin or his bright green train carriage outside. Like most of Georgia there are stray dogs to greet you and taxi drivers offering to take you to Uplistsikhe (Cave Town).

 

Stray dog, seemed friendly
Stray dog, seemed friendly

 

Once inside you’ll see a huge marble staircase and another statue of Stalin. The size, the lighting, the colour of the marble, all adds to the grandeur of the place. But it doesn’t hide the fact that this building is very old and probably hasn’t been updated since it opened in 1957.

 

Stalin museum
Stalin museum

 

Entrance to the museum and Stalin’s train carriage is 15 GEL, the equivalent of £5 – this is expensive for Georgia. There are no signs inside the museum and anything labelled is in Georgian. Which is why you MUST take the guided tour. When I bought my museum entrance ticket, the woman at the counter neglected to tell me there was a tour in English starting in 20 minutes. It was only because I had read a previous article on the museum that I knew they ran one.

Tip for backpackers – there’s no luggage storage at the museum. The people on reception told me to leave my backpack in the foyer entrance, which I did as I had no other option and luckily no one took it.

Due to the lack of signs it helps to be familiar with Stalin before you look around and this is why I’ve briefly covered his life below.

 

Stalin’s early life

 

The museum charts the life of Stalin, from his childhood to his death in 1953. Unfortunately, you have to rely on the guide to explain everything. I had a young lady who seemed knowledgable about Stalin’s childhood. I learnt how his father became an alcoholic and his devout Christian mother pushed Stalin into the priesthood in 1895 (Stalin was an outspoken atheist). While training at Tiflis Seminary he was forced to speak only Russian by the priests. But Stalin rebelled by writing poetry in Georgian and these are exhibited at the museum. The tour guide heavily praised them and I wish I could read Georgian to confirm if it’s deserved.

You could see by the school reports displayed that Stalin, while initially a very bright student, always wanted to rebel and when he discovered Marxism in the late 1890s, it gave him a purpose. There’s a disparity between the reports by people who knew Stalin during his youth and later stories. For example, Stalin claimed he was expelled from school for inciting revolutions, while his reports showed it was because he didn’t turn up to his exams. The museum chooses Stalin’s version of events – probably because it’s more exciting.

 

Portrait of young Stalin 1902
Portrait of young Stalin 1902

 

Itinerant revolutionary

 

After 1900, when Stalin was 21 years old, his connection to Gori weakened. He began to travel around Georgia calling himself Soso. First Tbilisi and then to Batumi, where he tried to start a revolution, before getting exiled to Siberia for 3 years in 1903.

The museum mentions the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery but doesn’t spend too much time on the assassinations, extortions and kidnappings carried out during this period. It instead focuses on his family and short marriage to Kato Svanidze, the love of his life, until her death in 1907. As well as, the other times he was exiled to Siberia (final exile was 1913-1917). Ignoring the fact he fathered a child with a 13-year-old girl while living in outer Siberia. He was in his 30s.

 

Photos and letters to and from Stalin
Photos and letters to and from Stalin

 

Russian Revolutionary

 

Like most people visiting this museum – I wanted to hear about the ruthless mass murdering side of Joseph Stalin and why he was the tyrant he’s famed for.

In 1917 Lenin organised the Russian Revolution and took over Russia. During this time Stalin helped Lenin avoid the opposition forces and became a hero. Lenin promoted Stalin to General Secretary of the Communist Party. I found it interesting that the museum displays the text of Lenin’s 1922 political testament in which Lenin has a change of heart and describes Stalin as too coarse and power-hungry, advising Communist Party members to remove him from role of General Secretary.

In the years following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin exiled his competition Leon Trotsky and became the authoritarian leader of the Soviet Union. He started his “Socialism in One Country” campaign with rapid modernisation operations. He imposed strict targets at coal and steel factories, ruthlessly killing if they weren’t met (this last part isn’t mentioned at the museum). Next he went after the farmers, taking their land as “state owned”. Around five million people died in a series of famines.

This period (1928-1940) is well documented in other museums I’ve visited in Eastern Europe, including the Museum of Terror in Budapest and the Museum of Communism in Prague. These museums paint a different, albeit potentially biased, portrait of Stalin and the millions of deaths due to starvation and execution.

 

Stalin Museum
Stalin Museum

 

Purges and Gulags

 

If someone says Gulags the first thing I think of is Stalin.

From 1934 the Great Purges happened. Stalin purged the Communist party and army of anyone who might, or who his suspected might, oppose him. This included the execution of the “love of his life” Kato Svanidze’s family members. One third of the Communist party were executed or sentenced to work in gulags – a system of labour camps in Siberia. Over 3 million people were sent to the Gulags and an estimated 750,000 people summarily killed.

The purges were underestimated in the museum layout and not well highlighted. Instead the museum covers the suicide of his second wife Nadezhda in 1932 and how he covered up her death – forging the cause of death on the official report as an appendicitis.

 

Cabinets displaying gifts given to Stalin from other leaders
Cabinets displaying gifts given to Stalin from other leaders

World War 2

 

I felt this was barely mentioned. Where were the tales of the huge losses during the Nazi Blitzkrieg attack of June 1941? The infamous Battle of Stalingrad in 1942? The city named after Stalin. Where Stalin declared winning at all cost, no matter how many lives lost. His “Not One Step Back” order – where there weren’t even enough guns for each man fighting. When the man in front fell, the one behind picked up his gun to fight on. This part was all glossed over.

However, the fate of his son Yakov is explained. He became a soldier in the Red Army and was captured early on in WW2. The Germans approached Stalin to have a prisoner exchange but he refused. The museum guide said it was because Stalin believed “Every man in the Soviet Union is my son”. But most reports, including Stalin’s daughter Svetlana’s, claimed he believed Yakov to be a traitor and that’s why he left him to die in a concentration camp.

 

Death Mask

 

There’s no clear answers given here on how many people died under Stalin’s rule. In the death mask room, we were told to take a quiet moment to reflect, but I was unsure what I was meant to be reflecting on.

 

Stalin died of a stroke at his home in Moscow in 1953. The death mask room is a small dark amphitheatre. In the middle sits Stalin's death mask. A bronze mask moulded shortly after his death.
Stalin died of a stroke at his home in Moscow in 1953. The death mask room is a small dark amphitheatre. In the middle sits Stalin’s death mask. A bronze mask moulded shortly after his death.

 

On the way out, off the staircase, is a reconstruction of his first office in the Kremlin.

 

Reconstruction of Stalin's first office in the Kremlin
Reconstruction of Stalin’s first office in the Kremlin

 

Stalin’s train carriage

 

For an extra 5 GEL you can enter Stalin’s personal “bulletproof” railway carriage. Stalin was said to be afraid of flying, perhaps due to the high risk of assassination.

 

Stalin's train carriage
Stalin’s train carriage

 

You can only enter the carriage with a tour guide and they whizz you through. You get to see Stalin’s room with his bed and desk and a primitive heating system. It’s not glamorous in the least, which perhaps provides insight into how Stalin stayed true to his humble beginnings.

 

Inside Stalin's train carriage
Inside Stalin’s train carriage

 

Food and drink

 

After the museum, my friend and I went in search for food. It proved more difficult than expected as Gori isn’t a large or busy town. Eventually we found Berikoni Restaurant which had cosy closed off compartments, mainly for smokers but it still had atmosphere.

Georgian food consists of a few standard dishes – meat, potatoes and more meat. If you’re a vegetarian then I suggest the Khachapuri (cheese filled bread). If you’re vegan then all you can eat is potatoes.

 

Berikoni Restaurant
Berikoni Restaurant
More meat and potatoes
Meat and potatoes
More meat
More meat

 

Overall

 

Before visiting I had seen people refer to this museum as a “shrine to Stalin”. I didn’t feel it was. The exhibitions are mainly just old photos and posters which one could say were propaganda at the time. The emphasis here is on Stalin’s personal life and his family. He is neither portrayed as a national hero or a cold-blooded murderer, but something in-between.

It’s not the most exciting museum, but you must remember that Gori is a small Georgian town with high unemployment and damage due to the 2008 bombings. It can’t be compared to the more edgy and exciting museums in tourist hotspots such as Prague (Museum of Communism) and Budapest (House of Terror).

I questioned the young tour guide, as I wanted know how the people in Gori felt about Stalin. She simply answered – the young don’t remember him much anymore. He is not someone we care about but some of the older people in Gori preferred communism as they were given a job and knew their role in life. Overall, the small town is proud they were able to produce someone who went on to be so successful.

 

Bye Stalin
Bye Stalin – Gori train station

 

3 Replies to “Visiting Stalin’s Museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia”

  1. I think he was unbelievably wicked and a person without whom the world would have been a better place. I don’t think I could visit this town as it would upset me to think of Stalin’s cruelty and ruthlessness. I would never visit a concentration camp for the same reason. But I don’t blame you for wanting to find out about Stalin. He loomed so large in the Communist world of the first half of the 20th Century. You cover the subject very well and it almost takes you there. It rather gives me the shivers.

  2. Stalin was a good person, in europe they have build sponsored museums to show the terror and even travellers like you instend of showing what Gori’s museum shows-believe about Stalin, you write what you have seen in Prague and Budapest. Stalin he implement the laws of the country, which is not willing to share by himself its property or cows he is against the state law so he should be prisoned. In US there are currently much more prisoners than it was in Stalins period, 2% of americans are in peison right now, why? Because they didnt follow the state law.
    Another thing is that for the now you dont blame Trump, Bush, Clinton for the prisoners but you do for the Stalin. Then still you dont know or mention that more than 50% of the ex S.U people has a positive opinion about Stalin even now!! Why this percent is not in western countries? Maybe median brain wash? Stalin was the greatest fear of the capitalist oligarchy, thats why you see all these anti-stalins propaganda. Imagine Rockefellers, Morgans and Bush fear about sharing their wealth. Siberia by the way is a nice place, the western books show it like a prison, the parents of my wife for example has been there to build new cities for more than 5 years they had great time according their descriptions, all these people are described in western propaganda books like prisoners, not at all !!!

    Olease respect my different opinion on the subject. From all other parts its a great blog post with useful travel information.

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