Georgia's Russian Problem

The awesomely awful Stalin Museum and other Georgian delights.


Gori, Georgia—In the city of Gori, 50 miles north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, there are few tourists attractions to satiate the curious traveller, so the occasional non-Georgian that passes through this grim post-Soviet city invariably finds himself at the large, white marble museum dedicated to its most famous son, the former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The museum, constructed in 1957, four years after Stalin's death, was commissioned by the Kremlin, who then lorded over the Caucasuses. At the moment, more than 6,000 Russian troops occupy neighboring South Ossetia (and the breakaway province of Abkhazia), in the northern part of this prospective NATO country.

Two days into a trip to Georgia, sponsored by the Georgian government, a group of American and British journalists visited Gori's monument to tyranny. When it was all over—after the 20 minutes of droning and unenthusiastic eulogy, the sleep-inducing celebration of patriotic wars and five year plans—I asked our museum guide the obvious question: "If someone asks about the purges or the Ukrainian famine, or the brutality of his rule, can you answer honestly?"

"Well, no." This was said with a bit of a scoff, a slight are you kidding me?

"So, are you a fan? Posters on the bedroom wall and all that?"

She pursed her lips and lowered her brow, in an honest expression of surprise.

"It's just a job."

No two government officials in Georgia can agree on current unemployment figures, but all identify joblessness as the biggest problem facing the country—bigger than those Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—so I can't muster any moral outrage at her decision to plump for one of history's greatest monsters. In tough economic times, perhaps we all discover our inner Walter Duranty.

The Stalin Museum is an unsubtle celebration of Georgia's most famous son, funded, curiously enough, by the otherwise wonderfully anti-communist Ministry of Culture in Tbilisi. Every government official I spoke with expressed embarrassment at this state-funded shrine to Uncle Joe ("Seriously, why did you go there?"), though all were cagey about why it continues to receive operational funds. "It's a complicated issue," one said, while denying that the people of Gori are fond of the Dictator Formerly Known as Dzhugashvil.

I thought of offering advice to the ministry, suggesting they bypass the most famous Georgian, and instead build a mausoleum celebrating, say, the achievements of the second most famous Georgian. After a bit of consideration, though, it became clear that this too was unsatisfactory, as it would require the people of occupied Abkhazia to erect a monument honoring Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's brutal chief of the NKVD.

It seemed unintentional, but our I-do-it-for-the-money guide—an elfin young women outfitted, oddly, in what appeared to be shiny black riding pants—captured the Soviet mood perfectly, reciting fabricated history by rote. While we hurried through the exhibits, it was initially unclear if she spoke English, or had merely learned some key phrases phonetically: "Stalin, he grrr-ate scientist." "Stalin, he grrr-ate military leader." And so on. The high school yearbook-style photos of Stalin and Trotsky, displayed throughout the museum, are pointed out, though no mention is made of Lev's rather unfortunate incident with the ice axe.

The problem of the Stalin Museum, though, is not just one of selective historical memory—no gulags or show trials; many mentions of Stalin's son, but none of his father's willingness to abandon him to a short life in a German concentration camp—but the utter boredom of hagiography. Who killed Kirov? Why were all of those Jewish doctors plotting against Comrade Stalin? Were there any production problems on the White Sea-Baltic Canal? Don't expect answers here. Instead, many of the exhibits look like flea market stalls in 1950s Leningrad. Mawkish paintings of Stalin being kind to children and old women hang on the walls, tea cups with his repulsive visage sit behind glass. In the gift shop, it is much the same. Stalin bottle openers, ash trays, paper weights, mugs, and postcards of the dictator being chummy with various party officials he would later send to the gallows.

In the center of Gori, in front of the city hall, stands a hulking gray statue of Stalin, who appears, from a distance, to be wrapped in an ill-fitting winter coat. According to one government official, during the August 2008 war, the Georgian military suggested to their Russian counterparts that, in their shelling of the city, they might train artillery on the Stalin statue, thus solving a contentious political issue. The Russians declined, he sighed, and instead hordes of drunk soldiers made pilgrimages to the statue during the brief occupation of Gori.

Recent events in Moscow make the stories of soldiers gathering at Uncle Joe's feet, drunk and begging locals for cigarettes while cheering the savior of the Motherland, sound plausible, but one is advised to be skeptical of such tales of the Russian military's Stalinophilia. Russian teaching guides, under the malign influence of President Vladimir Putin, nudge teachers into apologetics, advising them "to show that Stalin acted in a concrete historical situation" and acted "entirely rationally—as the guardian of a system, as a consistent supporter of reshaping the country into an industrialized state."

To further underscore Georgian skepticism of Russia, our minders take us to the line of occupation, just outside of Gori and south of the Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. On the terrifying bus ride to this artificial border—a sort of Caucasus version of The Cannonball Run, with our psychopathic driver dispensing irritated grunts rather than hilarious quips—one fast understands that, since the war, the local pastime (for men, anyway) has become standing by the road, smoking. If you aren't military age out here in these border towns (that, only two years ago, were towns plopped in the middle of the country), there isn't much to do.

As the bus roars down the street, being waved through checkpoints, it is easy to find houses with roofs blown off, with smashed windows, walls missing, and flame-licked exteriors. Across the verdant and beautiful plains sit thousands of identical houses, hastily constructed in 2009 to accommodate the tens of thousands of "internally displaced people"—those Georgians ethnically cleansed from their homes in South Ossetia. Our guide explains that this is good territory on which to engage the awesome might of Russian armor—an eventuality, I can't help thinking, that would mark the end of independent Georgia.

The average Georgian is obsessively concerned about Russian power and influence in the region (which helps explain the overwhelming victory for President Mikhail Saakashvili's party in recent municipal elections). When I asked an American pollster associated with the National Democratic Institute if there was a single issue upon which the people of Georgia were united, he responded, without a moment's hesitation, the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

As every politician and intellectual in Tbilisi is quick to point out, "many problems remain"—this is repeated like a mantra—with this nascent Georgian democracy and, as one of Saakashvili's confidants admitted, civil society is not "fully formed" here, but is on the right track. "The war with Russia didn't help, but it couldn't be avoided."

When I asked the Georgian writer and intellectual Alexander Rondeli about the government's mistakes—in the concentration of presidential power, regarding the war with Russia—he nods in agreement and chuckles, "We came from the Soviet Union. What do you expect of us?" The Georgians have done a lot in a little time, he says. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant, and the country was—and this is also repeated like a mantra—on the verge of being a failed state in 2003, before the Rose Revolution. But Georgians need more time, Rondeli says, explaining that the Soviet occupation turned the country into a race of "mutant, lobotomized people."

The type of people that still allows government funding of a museum adulating Josef Stalin?

"Insane, isn't it?"

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.

NEXT: (Not) Breaking News: "The Obama administration and the health insurance industry have suddenly discovered that they need each other."

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  1. What, the Stalin with a song in his heart?

    1. Springtime for Stalin?

      1. He did not find inspiration in fashion,he said,but fashion can give him anything.Called high-heeled shoes like the dew Discoteka silver,inspired by”a Studio54 girl”and the other high heel sandals,a pair of thick yellow silk upper decorated with feathers,which is Louboutin has just emerged from the farm to see chicken,coating gave him inspiration.Angelina Jolie,Nicole Richie,Victoria Christian lovers.Louboutin saw farms,breaking the shell,Louboutin saw just emerged from the farm chickens,coating his inspiration.Angelina Jolie,Nicole Richie,Victoria high heel shoes lovers.

  2. I bet he got 7 holes-in-one the first time he played golf.

    1. I bet he got 32

  3. I believe Yglesias and Klein wrote the exhibit captions at the museum in addition to writing the programs including the part about the “sweet deals” the Ukrainians got back in the 1930s.

    1. Slow starvation, eating family members, sigh, the good old days.

    2. they all had equal access to health care – examination by an old crone poking you with a bony finger, and treatment by the great patriotic leaches (who worked 24/7 without pay, as should all motherland loving patriots should do also)

  4. Does this article have any actual point?

    1. Russians evil, Georgians who support Stalin museum fear another Stalin and South Ossetia and Abkhazia must be part of Georgia because Stalin ordered it

    2. Not really. It is visible that the Georgian government continues Stalin’s tradition paid money to journalists to come and they accepted.

      Gia from Georgia

  5. All well and good, Moynihan, but what I really want to know: are the women there hot?

    1. Do you like girls with big, dark eyes? If so, there’s a good chance you’ll like Georgian girls.

      1. That was a little cold, they don’t suffer from alcohol fetal syndrome.

    2. I think not, although it’s obviously a matter of taste.

      This is Miss Georgia Gvantsa Darselia (2007 or 2008, not quite sure), and these are some girls in the streets of Tbilisi.

      1. yeah I’d do em.
        Thinking they would be blonder (actually I don’t care for blondes, but I just thought being in the north…)

        1. The north? Georgia is on the same latitude as southern Italy, not gonna find many blondes there.

        2. Georgia’s pretty far south; right near Iran, actually, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

  6. And Romania reveres Vlad the Impaler.

    1. Shallow comparison.

      1. Not really; it’s just difference of time as to how bad they seemed.

  7. I wish Obama could be Stalin for a day.

    1. Meaning? You want Obama to kill off his political rivals or something. If so, you must be a progressive.

      1. Thanks for the midnight laugh.

        please turn on your sock puppetometer. or is that sarcasmometer?

    2. Oh, what this country could accomplish with a few purges!!! Windmill powered flying cars, full employment as artists, and everybody so good looking its painful.

      1. I see you like the motion picture adaptation of Demolition Man.

        Enhance your calm, citizen.

  8. “I bet he got 7 holes-in-one the first time he played golf.”

    To gulag with you! He got 22 holes-in-one, and only played 18 holes! Iz Grrr-ate leader, Stalin!

    Also, right-wing-T-shirt girl was on both sidebars, which made this an enjoyable article even though it was about Stalin and I … don’t actually remember reading the article.

    1. To the gulag with you, Joel. Your name sounds Jewish, and we suspect that your accusation is just a cover for your counterrevolutionary sabotage.

  9. Maybe Austria should consider a museum for their most famous national?

    And I don’t mean Bruno

    1. Josef Fritzl?

    2. Leave Ahnold alone.

  10. The second page is giving me T-shirt chick on one side and “Find your Russian beauty” on the other.

    1. Better than the Muslim singles in every article about terrorism.

      1. All I got was an ad for some sort of man dress.

  11. Unfortunately races of “mutant, lobotomized people” are the product of socialistic political rule. We have our own ever growing segment of the population that willing to fit neatly into that category to worry about. Once they finally get their way they have methods of correcting those who are unwilling.

  12. His daughter apparently loved him.

    1. But I’ll bet his dog didn’t.

    2. The one that emigrated to the US and denounced him?

      1. Who defected, the dog or the girl?


    go about 2/3 of the way in

    1. What is this boring crap? I dont know what was supposed to be funny but I hate you for this.

    2. Starting a post with “LOLOL….” and typing in all caps… yeah, writing like a 6th-grade girl texts is a good way to get someone to follow your link.

  14. Would Russia have had a happier 20th century if Trotsky had murdered the guy first? Somehow I doubt it. And thats if the Soviet hierarchy wouldn’t have overthrown a Jew anyway.

    1. A lot people still believe that sort of thing. One of my son’s high school teachers told his class that sure, Stalin was terrible, but Lenin wasn’t such a bad guy and things would have turned out differently had he lived longer. I quickly disabused him of the notion, but no doubt with some of the kids, the idea stuck.

      1. Just because Lenin was a bad guy, and he was, it does not follow that things would have been as bad under Lenin as they were under Stalin. To say that the leader was irrelevant is, ironically, to take the doctrinaire Communist position that individuals don’t matter – the system matters. Bullshit. Lenin’s USSR would have been evil, but nowhere near as evil as Stalin’s. Lenin/Trotsky probably would have been more aggressive internationally than Stalin was, and might even, with a little luck, have undermined themselves with foreign adventurism and brought the USSR to a chaotic halt by the 1930s.

    2. It could be much worse hadn’t Yakov Sverdlov died in 1919. He was the evil genius behind kombeds which were instrumental in creating famine in Russia.

  15. The Georgians I knew living in St. Petersburg went to great pains to point out to me that Stalin was not Georgian, but Ossetian (not sure about that one?) and that Beria was Abkhazian (true enough, dat!).Not that I care for the convenient deniability, but they did NOT seem eager to claim either one’s heritage.

    1. On the same note, the few people sticking to the weird claim that Stalin was Jewish are anti-Semitic, not Zionists.

    2. Stalin had a Georgian father and Ossetian father. Georgians still hate him for THIS:

      Not to mention during WWII 10% of Georgian population was killed in a war… mostly thanks to Stalin…(The war was not on the Georgian soil but Stalin sent nearly all the men to war)So Georgians had most casualties in that war per capita.

      1. Stalin had a Georgian father and Ossetian father.

        I agree that some of those Slavic women can look kinda manly but I seriously doubt this.

  16. Yes, liberals are utterly shameless.

  17. “If someone asks about the purges or the Ukrainian famine, or the brutality of his rule, can you answer honestly?”

    “Well, no.” This was said with a bit of a scoff, a slight are you kidding me?

    “So, are you a fan? Posters on the bedroom wall and all that?”

    She pursed her lips and lowered her brow, in an honest expression of surprise.

    “It’s just a job.”

    I can appreciate the journalistic zeal to get a government employee to talk. But doing this to someone in any former soviet state, even if they weren’t a government employee, is fucking retarded and shows a complete lack of understanding of the individuals you are writing about. The desire to not make waves, keep your head down, do what you have to in order to get by, and keep your mouth shut is strong. To try and force an open admission was beyond fucking rude. I can only hope you at least picked up on some of these traits and did this in some sort of privacy. If you did it openly then you’re officially a typical American douche for doing so.

    The dynamic surrounding Stalin is a strange one. The same dynamic exists with Putin, although there seems to be a pretty clear and definitive split between Russian Putin supporters and detractors here in the US. It can make an interesting social hand grenade at a party full of Russians.

  18. Funny, Georgians today don’t like Stalin. If so than they should have no problem in ceding Abkhazia and South Ossetia right? Afterall Stalin was the one who gave Georgia both provinces, a little gift to his homeland. The current borders of Georgia were made by Stalin, so if Georgia wan’t to get rid of Stalin than obviously they don’t want Abkhazia or South Ossetia back. Of course that’s wrong, Georgia is being hypocritical. Georgia, just because it had pro-Western leadership, doesn’t mean its a clean democracy. Fear of Russia and intense propaganda from Saakashvili kept the pro-West party in power. The West has a clear bias toward Georgia, and against Russia. The author in particular, everytime referencing Russian soldiers as “drunk”. Apparantly those drunk soldiers had enough power to crush Georgia’s pathetic toy army, and to make that butterball Saakashvili to eat his tie!

    1. Uhhhh…so if you hate a historical figure in your country, you have to give up all the territory he forced upon you, no matter how critical? Logic is not your strong suit.
      Given Russia’s size, and the fact that most of Georgia’s forces retreated to the capital, one would hope that Russia could have its way pretty easy. In reality, its war effort was terrible-no coordination between different branches of the armed forces meant that Russia shot down some of its own planes. In general the Russian air force got its ass kicked by Georgia’s very simple defenses.

    2. See Cytotoxic for logic fail explanation. Besides that, both territories were historically part of Georgia’s territory long before the modern state was established. Not saying that that’s justification for present ownership of those territories, but if you’re going to shill for Russia, at least get the facts straight.

    3. Julian|6.5.10 @ 11:55AM|#
      “Funny, Georgians today don’t like Stalin. If so than they should have no problem in ceding Abkhazia and South Ossetia right? Afterall Stalin was the one who gave Georgia both provinces, a little gift to his homeland.”

      – I’m sorry but that is an utter bullshit. Get your facts straight. BEFORE the wars in 1993 and 1994 in BOTH georgian regions the MAJORITY of population was GEORGIAN.

      40.000 Abkhaz and 250.000 Georgian
      Abkhazia has been part of Georgia more than 2000 years. The Russia wanted to get that region the last 200 years… because of it’s location and climate.

      “The current borders of Georgia were made by Stalin,”

      – In reality the opposite.
      In 1921 –…..of_Georgia (look at the names of Russian generals…)

      After THIS – > in 1924

      As the punishment the region “Samachablo” was RENAMED to “SOUTH OSSETIA” while in the Russian North caucasus “Republic Alaniya” was RENAMED to “North ossetia”

      There are NO geographical crossings between the two, JUST manmade TUNNELS that where built by the Russians in 1980s.

    4. “so if Georgia wan’t to get rid of Stalin than obviously they don’t want Abkhazia or South Ossetia back.”

      – The ABSOLUTE majority of people who lived in those regions where Georgians, so certainly they should be able to get home and live there as they always did.

      “Of course that’s wrong, Georgia is being hypocritical.”

      – Georgia is not hypocritical, you are. get your facts first.

      “Georgia, just because it had pro-Western leadership, doesn’t mean its a clean democracy.”

      – It is a democray, nobody can deny it. it is not flawless and show me a country which can sustain it’s democracy 100% after invasion of PUTINS RUSSIA!

      “Fear of Russia and intense propaganda from Saakashvili kept the pro-West party in power.”

      – People like Saakashvili because of his victories against corruption and bureaucracy and liberalization of economy.

      The anger and mistrust against Russians is justified, if you understand Russia… you will see why ->

      “The West has a clear bias toward Georgia, and against Russia.”

      – You have.

      “The author in particular, everytime referencing Russian soldiers as “drunk”.”

      – Because Russian army is a gang of drunk moron retards -> (scroll down and enjoy)

    5. “Apparantly those drunk soldiers had enough power to crush Georgia’s pathetic toy army”

      – Russian army is HUGE but pathetic, Georgian is just too small, but they did alright.

      “and to make that butterball Saakashvili to eat his tie!”

      – Only morons see a tie, people who have eyes see the successful reforms that that “tieeating bastards” has been doing in his country.

      Want to hear from Russkies themselves?



      There are MANY more from where they came from… read and weep.

      Oh and stop using Russian OMON retards against peaceful demonstrators!

    6. Very Interesting comment. especially about Who gave Georgia Abkhazia and so called South Osetia. and the right answer iiiis: just noone!!! Abkhazia is Georgian province almost for 2600 years and what about South Osetia? There was no Osetia in Georgia till the soviet period. Osetians migrated towards Georgian province “samachablo” from the very end of 18th century. Stalin and other komunists granted to this minority autonomy in 1922. So, grand prix goes to Mr. Julian for his achievements in the soil of Georgian History. To other Idiots here: Please, read something before wtriting!!!

  19. Disappointing. No Russian brides ad? The article mentions Russia and everything.

  20. Why is it so hard to support little Georgia to become united and free member of the world? Virtual Ossetia and Virtual Abkhazia are only Virtual while there is Putin alive.

  21. What’s the big deal with Stalin? Yeah, he was pretty brutal, but he got a lot done.

    Obama is being far too nice, and it took forever to get the health care bill done, is having trouble getting much needed financial reform through, and in unlikely to get cap and trade passed. These things matter more than some, outdated notion of “freedom.” Do we really want so stay in George Bush’s America? Did Russia really want to stay stuck in its Tsarist past?

    1. I’m glad to see my ideas are starting to gather steam. The sooner people recognize the limits to democracy, the better off we will be.

    2. J|6.5.10 @ 3:27PM|#
      “What’s the big deal with Stalin? Yeah, he was pretty brutal, but he got a lot done.”

      Sarcasm detector overload!

      1. He broke eggs and made omelets, or something.

  22. First paragraph: “…it’s most famous son…”

    Not worth commenting on stupid mistakes anymore? Where are the editors when we need ’em?

  23. First paragraph: “…it’s most famous son…”

    Not worth commenting on stupid mistakes anymore? Where are the editors when we need ’em?

  24. great article. Those damn russians. btw guys check out its this awesome political site i think u will like it

  25. 1) I don’t quite understand whats so utterly amazing in the fact that there is a museum of Stalin in the city where he was born…

    Heck US of A has a statue of Stalin, in Virginia state, HERE–>…..-virginia/

    As for Georgians I would not worry about Stalin all too much. Georgians never liked him.

    1) Stalin was arrested and sent to Siberia(under an agreement with Russian empire Georgia was sending the absolutely WORST criminals to work in Russian mines) for crimes he has committed in Georgia… he escaped and the rest is the history.

    2) not to mention, under Stalin Georgians lost 10% of their population in WWII. MORE than any other nation in the world.

    3) oh and a little bit of history……..of_Georgia (look at the list of Russian generals…)


    I’m disappointed that you have visited Georgia and all you cared about was Stalin…

    Rondeli is a well known lobotomized mutant idiot.

  26. When in Tbilisi, it’s recommended one take the tour of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The Josef Stalin Museum is considered a tourist trap.

  27. I wonder people who know nothing about the Caucasus, as Mr. Moynihan, spent only a couple of days over there, could speak about Gori…Anyway, a lot of thanks grand ma?tre…)))))

  28. “museum dedicated to it’s most famous son”

    If you want to be possessive, it’s just its, if you want to be a contraction, it’s “it-apostrophe-s!”

  29. At the risk of godwinning the thread:
    Can you imagine a Hitler Museum anywhere?
    Stalin was not only directly responsible for many millions of peace-time deaths, but his record during WWII makes Hitler a piker by comparison.
    Why in hell is this murderous bastard memorialized anywhere?

  30. Obviously the author doesn’t appreciate the best way to tour the Museum in Gori is with a bottle of wine in hand. 😉

    In all seriousness though, I’ve been to the museum in Gori, can speak and read Georgian (though I’m an American without a drop of Georgian blood in me), and get the feeling Moyihan was seeing things in the museum that he wants to see. The museum is full of kitsch, it’s true; and it’s also true that the exhibits play down or ignore the calamities of collectivization and the purges. And the temple-like covering built around the house where Stalin was born is truly surreal. But that’s for the simple reason that the museum was built in 1947 when the Great Leader was still in power, and after collapse Georgia’s economy collapsed by something lik 65% in the space of five years (compare that with America’s 25% decline during the Depression) the government simply didn’t have the money to do anything about it. To this day, even with an economy growing by 9% a year, they keep the lights off until they have visitors, since they can’t afford to keep them on when no one is around. Moynihan also mischaracterizes Georgians’ attitudes towards Stalin; the people in Gori do consider him one of their own, but almost every other trace of his rule was systematically removed after 1991 elsewhere in Georgia. Lastly, there is an argument to be made that to obliterate the remembrance of every bad thing that ever happened in history is the best way to guarantee that it will happen again. What should be done is not to get rid of the museum (the architecture of the building is better than much late 20th century American and European architecture) but refurbish it and make sure the exhibits accurately and dispassionately explain the significance of one of history’s greatest and worst tyrants.

  31. Ukrainian famine, or the brutality of his rule, can you answer honestly?”

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