Georgia’s most famous son, alas

A statue of Stalin outside the museum in the Georgian town of Gori where he was born
A statue of Stalin outside the museum in the Georgian town of Gori where he was born

If Stalin could return to his home town in the central plains of Georgia, he would have reason to be gratified. Sixty-two years after his death the modest house where he was born is carefully maintained as a shrine in his honour.

The brick and wood house, now encased within a pavilion, is part of a large museum dedicated to his memory. It pulls in the punters and puts a favourable gloss on the life of one of history’s bloodiest mass murderers. To visit the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori is to witness first-hand the human ability to present a selective truth which is a travesty of reality.

Having decided to take the pulse of the South Caucasus I cannot ignore this monument to Stalin, born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili. He was by any measure a political Colossus of the 20th century and some Georgians still honour him. The violence of his rule is given very little prominence in Gori.

The first thing you notice about the museum is its sheer size. It is housed in a big palazzo with a tower and a series of arches at ground level, conveying the message that this is a place of substance. Inside there are carpeted staircases and chandeliers.

The Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori
The Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori

During my visit an English-speaking guide materialised, a large woman of mature years who looked as if she had come straight from Soviet Central Casting. She carried a short stick to point out objects of interest and, presumably, to emphasise her authority.

What followed was an interesting exercise in finely tuned propaganda. The whole performance was skilful to a degree.

She told us things that were interesting and true – always a sound policy. She related that Stalin was a poet who had verse published in the Georgian language, that he was a most gifted singer. An example of Stalin’s poetry hangs on a museum wall.

But one rather awkward exhibit she ignored totally. She had nothing to say about a famous postscript to a Testament written by Lenin in 1923, a year before his death, describing Stalin as “too rough” and calling for his dismissal as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

The museum’s treatment of this Testament is symbolic of what feels like a real ambivalence over how to deal with the whole subject of Stalin. On the one hand, it is to the museum’s credit that Lenin’s criticism is on display. On the other hand, the text is presented solely in Russian, which limits its usefulness as an exhibit.

The museum has one section on Stalin’s family, a delicate topic. The guide told us in neutral tones that Stalin’s first wife died of typhus and the second committed suicide. That’s the wives dealt with then.

She put the spotlight firmly on his son Yakov, who was a prisoner of war of the Germans in the Second World War. The Germans offered to swap Yakov for Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, captured by Soviet forces after the Battle of Stalingrad. But Stalin refused, saying of Soviet soldiers “All of them are my sons.” Yakov died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943. The point of the story is clear – Stalin was a leader who wasn’t swayed by personal feelings.

It could be argued that a museum dealing with a political leader does not need to focus much on the man’s wives. But for the record, Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina (née Svanidze), died at the age of 22 after he took her to live in the hot, dirty city of Baku, while he led what British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called “a life of banditry, espionage, extortion and agitation”.

His second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, shot herself through the heart with a Mauser pistol at the age of 31, after a public row with her husband, by now Soviet leader, at a Kremlin dinner party. She killed herself on 8 November 1932, the day after the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The official announcement said that she died of appendicitis.

A happy Soviet tractor driver sets the tone at the Stalin museum
A happy Soviet tractor driver sets the tone at the Stalin museum

Against the odds, the museum creates an upbeat mood, with use of classic Soviet propaganda. There on one wall is an iconic poster of an attractive woman tractor driver, beaming ecstatically as she lives the Soviet dream.

Our guide dealt with the whole subject of Soviet collectivisation of farming in a few brisk sentences and said that “mistakes were made”. I saw nothing in the museum chronicling the famines that swept the Soviet Union as a result of Stalin’s policies.

Welsh journalist Gareth Jones did more than anyone else to alert the world to hunger in Ukraine in 1933. Defying a travel ban, he went to Ukraine to see for himself and reported that he found “famine on a colossal scale”.

No one knows how many died. The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than anticipated. U.S. historian Timothy Snyder, in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, wrote of the census: “Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.”

Snyder estimates that about 3.3 million people died of starvation or hunger-related illness in Soviet Ukraine alone in 1932-1933.

A statuette of Stalin, holding his trademark pipe, for sale in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta
A statuette of Stalin, holding his trademark pipe, for sale in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta

Another subject ignored in the Gori museum is Stalin’s treatment of the citizens of other countries.

Many Polish tourists come to Georgia, but I can’t imagine that the museum in Gori is high on their list of priorities. One of Stalin’s crimes that will live in infamy is the Katyn Forest massacre of about 22,000 Poles in 1940. Stalin’s government blamed the Nazis and the Moscow government admitted only in 1990 that it was Soviet bullets that ended so many Polish lives.

It is hard to read about these killings even today without shedding a tear. The victims were mainly Polish officers but also included engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests and journalists. They had fallen into Soviet hands after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 and the motivation for the slaughter seems to have been to weaken any future Polish state.

The chief executioner of the Soviet NKVD secret police, Vasily Blokhin, carried out many of the killings. Wearing a butcher’s leather apron and cap, he personally shot 7000 Poles over 28 nights.

The only part of the museum devoted to the subject of Stalinist violence is two small rooms on the ground floor. One room is a reconstructed secret police interrogation room and the other is a prison cell and ante-chamber adorned with the clothes of Gori citizens arrested and shot under Stalin. This section was added five years ago.

Our guided tour of the museum ended in a railway carriage which Stalin used for the last 12 years of his life – he didn’t like flying. Standing in the carriage’s dining room, I asked our guide what Gori citizens feel about Stalin today.

“I don’t know,” she said, but then added: “I think most of the older generation like Stalin.” Any other answer would have stretched credibility. The guide’s entire demeanour throughout the tour was one of deep respect and admiration.

Back in Tbilisi after my Gori visit, strap-hanging in the city’s metro, I noticed that the man next to me was reading a magazine article which included a photo of Stalin looking every inch the handsome father of the nation. Monster though he was, Stalin is clearly a part of the mental landscape of Georgia still.


Select Bibliography

Applebaum, Anne, GULAG: A History of the Soviet Camps, London 2003

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Young Stalin, London 2007

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, London 2003

Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, London 2010

The website has details on the life of journalist Gareth Jones.

Crossing by footbridge to Transylvania

Young Romanian women in Cluj out and about on May Day
Young Romanian women in Cluj out and about on May Day

There are paradoxes about Romania and as a visitor who stayed just six nights, I cannot resolve them. Romania had the most bloody 20th century, yet the people are friendly, open and a joy to talk to.

I left feeling that the Romanians know a lot about the art of living and I made a promise to myself to return.

Let me get the history out of the way. Romania took part in the two world wars, suffering heavy loss of life both military and civilian. It entered the first because it wanted to wrest Transyslvania from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the Central Powers fought it to a standstill and it sued for peace in 1917.

With the victory of the Allies the following year the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and Romania got Transylvania after all, in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

In the Second World War, under the leadership of Ion Antonescu, Romania sided with Adolf Hitler. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the biggest invasion in history, on 22 June 1941, Romania was a key ally of Nazi Germany in its onslaught on the Soviet Union. By the summer of 1944 more than 1.2 million Romanians were under arms on the Axis side, second only to the number of Germans.

Romanian authorities took an active part in the Holocaust, murdering Jews and Roma people on Romanian-controlled territory.

Two national leaders were overthrown and shot. Antonescu was found guilty of war crimes and faced the firing squad in 1946. He dressed elegantly for the occasion in jacket and tie and with a handkerchief in his jacket pocket. On Christmas Day 1989 deposed Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena also met their end by firing squad, after a one-hour court session.

The country also abolished its monarchy.

So, all in all quite a lot happened to Romania in the 20th century. Visit Romania today and you can discover a country which feels stable and self-confident.

I set off for Romania from Uzhhorod on April 29, on a wheezing, crowded Ukrainian country bus that will take me to a border town.

We pass a succession of Ukrainian villages set back from the road which somehow are neither picturesque nor ugly, all dominated by tall churches often painted a pale yellow. During a journey of 170 kilometres I observe a densely populated rural area, but its way of life is a closed book. The Carpathian Mountains form a backdrop to the villages.

I leave the bus at the border town of Solotvyno, or rather just after it because I had not realised where we were. Solotvyno has been known historically for its salt mines. It was also the birthplace of the late British press baron Robert Maxwell and at that time belonged to Czechoslovakia.

A walk of about 90 minutes takes me to the border post. Now border crossings can be a time-consuming bore, but this one is delightful.

The border is the Tisza river and after completing formalities on the Ukrainian side I simply walk over a short bridge to Romania, to its region of Transylvania. According to Hitchwiki, the hitchhiker’s guide to hitchhiking the world, this is the only border crossing between Ukraine and Romania where travellers are allowed to cross on foot.

After Ukraine I feel I am entering a land of milk and honey. I check into a rather grand-looking hotel, the first that comes into view, and find a comfortable bed.

I am in Sighetu Marmatiei and a bustling town it is too. Waiting at a bus stop the following day, I am reminded that for many Romanians this is not a land of milk and honey. Stickers on buses advertise rides to Belgium (80 euros) and England (£70). The listed destinations include the London suburbs of Wood Green, Neasden and Wembley. I had not expected in Transylvania to find ads enticing me to Neasden.

I ignore the ads and stick to my plan of travelling to Cluj-Napoca, unofficial capital of Transylvania and the second most populous city of Romania.

This wooden gate is the entrance to a Cluj museum, but gate-making in Transylvania is still a living craft

The bus ride to Cluj is enchanting. Unlike the road in Ukraine, this one goes straight through villages. We travel through one settlement after another for hours on end and now I do get a sense of how local people live.

I am travelling, in 21st century Europe, through a region where traditional subsistence farming and local craft appear to be alive and well. We pass literally hundreds of houses with back yards full of hens. Often the houses have intricately carved high wooden gates at the front.

Now while I accept that one yard with hens looks much like another, the overall visual stimulus in a peasant society, if you are not from one yourself, is extraordinary. There is much to see – a woman washing laundry in a river, a man ploughing with a horse, a family filling a mixer with cement, shepherds minding their flocks.

The most memorable sight is of two women chatting and walking side by side in the early evening with hoes slung over their shoulders. For me, it is the visual equivalent of great poetry, something so simple in its essence that it touches the core of my being. It speaks to me of harmony, naturalness and timeless rhythms on the Earth. The strength of my emotions surprises me.

Of course, if the two women ever read this they will shake their heads in bewilderment or crack their sides with laughter. But I know that it is for experiences like this that the traveller leaves home in the first place.

At Cluj I stay three nights, to rest and to absorb Romania by osmosis. Cluj is a handsome city, full of life and character, with a history and architecture that are largely Hungarian.

For the 10-hour journey from Cluj to Bucharest I take the train, partly to follow the example of Prince Yakimov, the character in Olivia Manning’s “The Balkan Trilogy” who travels the self-same route. In his case, the fictional rail journey takes place in wartime and is shot through with menace.

In my case there is no sense of menace, though I do well to stock up with water and a sandwich since there is no buffet car. I also buy a copy of the Transilvania Reporter, a local weekly. I have no Romanian but I can’t resist the title.

At times during the journey, such as near the town of Sinaia, the Carpathians are quite magnificent, their peaks rising sharply and filling much of the view out of the train window.

Finally we draw into Bucharest. The city is clearly a whole world unto itself and I stay only two nights. But I am charmed to find that it has leafy cycle paths. Why am I so surprised by this? Sometimes travel says a lot about our own preconceptions.

Because I am travelling by train and staying in hostels, I meet a lot of young Romanians. One theme comes up again and again in conversation. Students and even youngsters who are now working tell me that their parents regularly send them food parcels.

In Bucharest, Paula Posea talks to me about this phenomenon. She did a food technology course in the capital and every term-time weekend for four years her parents sent her food. It came by bus from her parents’ home town nearly 200 kilometres away.

The food included milk from her own cow, which was still with her parents, eggs from their own hens, home-made fruit preserves, pork fat called slanina and a full soup known as ciorba.

“But the most important thing in every package,” says Paula, “is ‘zacusca’, made from aubergines and some other ingredients like red pepper.” Typically it is eaten spread over bread.

Several students say that without these food parcels it would be hard for them to make ends meet, but this living tradition also says a lot about the importance of both food and family in Romania.

When I ask Paula why the food parcels, she says: “Romanians like to eat, end of story. So the food you grow up with is very important. I can’t stay in Bucharest without ciorba. I am going to die.”

According to Paula, it is very rare that a student does not receive food from home.

In Cluj, I meet one young man who intends to study in the Netherlands. So what will he do about food? “I will ask my mother to put the food on a plane,” he says with a smile.

I am not at all sure that he is joking.