Having returned from the Caucasus Mountains in northern Georgia, I had a free day in Tblisi. Mark, the owner of my hostel suggested I visit Gori, which is only 1 hour away by minibus. Gori is known around the world as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, the former leader of the USSR.
So for the 5thtime, I took the metro out to Didube Station and then caught the minibus. The ride cost 4 lari (about $1.30) and it took an hour as promised.
Once in town, I walked to the first obvious landmark I saw, the Gori Fortress- an ancient castle atop a hill in the center of town. While cool from the outside, the fortress was empty on the inside. Grass was growing everywhere. It was not at all what I was expecting.
From there, I walked into the center of town and got a Georgian lunch at a restaurant called Joseph (named for you-know-who).
Next to the restaurant was a World War II museum. Since Georgia was part of the Soviet Union then, the focus was on the Red Army, their struggles and ultimate triumph. It is estimated the 20 million Soviets died during the War. There was also a section on the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia. Gori was on the front lines and got shelled. Unfortunately for me, the exhibits were exclusively in Russian and German so I couldn’t read anything.
A few blocks away was the Stalin Museum. Out front, I saw the house where he was born in and the train car he rode (he hated flying). I was about to walk into the museum until I was approached by a cab driver. He offered to take me to Uplistsikhe, a 3,800 year-old cave city that I had planned to visit later in the day. Seeing that the opportunity had presented itself to me, I decided that Stalin would have to wait.
Uplistsikhe was absolutely incredible. The city rose to prominence around 1,800 BC. The city lost prominence when Christianity came to Georgia in the 300’s. It rose to prominence again in the 800’s but was destroyed by the Mongols in the 1400’s. The Mongols didn’t actually destroy the caves, but sacked all the material goods and destroyed all the non-cave buildings. Because of this, not much information is known about the people who lived in Uplistsikhe.
While the town was interesting to see, the heat was unbearable when it reflected off the rock. I tried my best to stay in the caves.
After the visit, I got some well-deserved water and got a ride back to the Stalin Museum where it somehow was cold and raining.
The two-story museum had some eerie Soviet red carpet everywhere! The first floor was a reception area and offices. The second floor had the exhibits.
Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (as he was known then) was born in Gori (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1878. His father was an alcoholic so his mother eventually left him taking Ioseb with her. His mother then took up a job as a maid and made money to enroll Ioseb in seminary school. She hoped that he would become a priest…quite ironic for a man that would soon outlaw religion and destroy churches.
Jughashvili eventually left the seminary to join Socialist groups which took him far beyond Gori. It was then that he changed his name to Stalin so it would sound more Russian and less Georgian. For 18 years he fought for the Socialist cause until the Russian Revolution. He then became the #2 man in the government behind Vladimir Lenin. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin became the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He would rule with an iron fist until his death in 1953.
As Secretary General, Stalin rarely visited Gori, but always remembered his hometown. He ensured that the town remained wealthy and beautiful. For this reason, the people of Gori continue to adore him.
The museum didn’t tell even this overly-simplified story well. The museum was split between unlabeled Soviet propaganda pieces and pictures with one-line descriptions. Facts were rarely given. This is in similar vein to the other Communist museums such as Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh Museum and Havana’s Museum of the Revolution.
With a guide (which I did not have and was not offered), this museum might have been a lot more better. The pictures would be the slides for a moving presentation given by the guide. Presumably this is how tourists would view this museum during Communist times.
It should also be mentioned that this museum gave a very biased narrative of Stalin’s life. It made him out to be the hometown hero who did no wrong. Clearly, the rest of the world knows better. Through his purges, gulags and mass starvation, he directly led millions of people to their death but this detail was casual left out of the museum. In fact the only negative thing mentioned in the entire museum was the death of his eldest son in a Nazi concentration camp.
It was now about 4pm and time to head back. I walked over to the minibus station and caught a ride back to Tbilisi. I felt that Gori was a perfect day trip. It was a pretty city and had both ancient and modern history. And it was easy to reach.