Gori: Stalin Reimagined

Some of the abandoned cave dwellings at Uplistsikhe, one of Georgia’s three ancient rock cities.

GORI, Georgia — This is the kind of small city in the back of beyond that North American travelers wouldn’t generally hear about but for the fact that Joseph Jughashvili, aka Joseph Stalin, was born here.

Gori is 42 miles northwest of Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, a former Soviet republic located in the Caucasian Mountains just south of Russia.

The roughly 900-year-old city boasts a number of sites of some touristic interest — a citadel, churches, outdoor works of art, a museum to the Great Patriotic War (World War II), a market — but my group dropped in specifically because of Stalin.

Three relevant points of interest — a museum, the birthplace and a railcar — are clustered together, which made a focused visit easier.

The Stalin Museum, perversely, looked like a Tuscan villa, but it wasn’t that heartwarming inside.

The facility set out to tell Stalin’s life story — with serious omissions, such as the number of people whose deaths he was responsible for — and his face was all over the place, in photos, paintings, sculptures, even a death mask and an image

Joseph Stalin’s likeness appears throughout the Stalin Museum, even woven as for a carpet as seen here.

The exterior of the Stalin Museum, which resembles Tuscan architectural styles, in Gori.

woven in the manner of a carpet.

The museum, first created to honor revolutionaries, was recast as

the Stalin Museum four years after the dictator’s 1953 death. The adulatory treatment of Stalin is offensive to many tourists because of Stalin’s murderous policies.

Things are not so simple for older Georgians, especially those from Gori. One trip host explained that many Georgians admire Stalin for “keeping prices down” and blame others for Stalin’s purges and other repressions.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but Stalin’s statue wasn’t removed from downtown Gori until 2010, 19 years later.

Office space once used by Joseph Stalin, inside the building that later became the Stalin Museum.

In addition, the museum only recently added two small rooms with displays related to the Stalin-era repressions. This was in response to visitor complaints, our on-site guide said.

However, our group of travel writers and travel agents missed one of the museum’s more fascinating displays, a banner in four languages that says, in part, ““This museum is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and fabrication of history. … The objective of this museum [was] to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.”

The banner says the museum, still a Soviet-era creation, will be converted into the Museum of Stalinism.

The banner would have been a useful counterpoint to the Soviet-era exhibits except that staffers — reflecting their loyalty to Stalin — generally place it in a dark corner where most visitors won’t see it. I learned of it later.

A meeting space inside the railcar Joseph Stalin used for traveling in style around the Soviet Union.

A few steps from the museum, we walked through the railcar that Stalin used to travel around the country. Four people slept on that car when traveling, and there was a small meeting space on board, as well.

Our last stop here was the simple brick-and-wood house where Stalin was born in 1879. It

The house where Joseph Stalin was born.

has a small porch, from which we entered one room with rustic furnishings.

We were told the house is in its original location, which means the villa-like museum was intentionally constructed next to it, in the center of town. The house is now protected with an open-sided shelter.

Our local guide, a twenty-something woman, seemed to evaporate as soon as we had reached our final point, and I had no idea what she thought about the subject of her tours. She seemed to recite her material by rote, like a robot. I suppose if she despised Stalin, it wouldn’t be a good idea to say as much in Gori.

Gori’s neighborhood

The city is just south of South Ossetia, one of two Georgian breakaway regions that have fought for independence with support from Russia. (The other region is Abkhazia on the Black Sea.)

In a 2008 war, Russian troops entered Gori, burning forests en route, then exploding apartment houses in town, our trip host said. The troops later withdrew to South Ossetia, but remain there.

A Georgian refugee camp, seen outside of Gori.

Damage from the 2008 conflagration was not obvious to us, but as we drove to Gori, we passed a huge refugee camp, comprising row upon row of small white houses with red roofs. The CIA says the country has 265,000 refugees as a result of warring with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s and in 2008.

On exiting Gori, we headed to a nearby abandoned cave city, with numerous caves dug at several levels into a rocky hillside.

Although the site is much older, the majority of the caves were cut

A wine label featuring Joseph Stalin’s visage, seen in a wine store near the Stalin Museum in Gori.

out during the Greek and Roman eras, when the city flourished.

Here, we had a considerably more enthusiastic on-site narrator. She said Uplistsikhe, one of the country’s three rock cities, was occupied until the 18th century. It was a site of agriculture and winemaking, as well as a stopping point on the Silk Road. It was “strong” in ninth to 11th centuries, she said.

Mongol raids in the 13th and 14th centuries largely destroyed the city, and east-west trade collapsed with discovery of sea

The hilltop Uplistsikhe Church, overlooking some of the cave dwellings that typify this abandoned rock city in Georgia.

routes between Europe and Asia.

A religious icon, seen inside the Uplistsikhe Church in the rock city of the same name.

A church was first cut out of the rocks, but a newer church, which we also visited, is a brick hilltop affair that dates from the 10th century.

We walked up and down the rough-hewn rock paths to see this place. The sun was bright, which made it quite hot during our late-September visit.

There were great views over a river, green countryside and on to the mountains, which seem ubiquitous in Georgia.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.