You may or may not know that Joseph Stalin originated from Georgia and that Stalin wasn’t his original name. Born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (and more commonly called Iosif Jughashvili) into a poor family, the man who would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the 20th century, suffered a lifelong disability to his left arm as a child due to an accident with a horse drawn carriage. This may have had some bearing on his desire to be portrayed as a hard man when rising through the Soviet ranks, which resulted in him changing his name to Stalin, meaning “Man of Steel” in Russian.
We’re in Gori, the town where Stalin was born and where he is still regarded as something of a hero, with statues erected in his honour and the main thoroughfare through town bearing his name.
The ultimate homage, however, is the museum that is dedicated to the murderous dictator said to be responsible for killing 23 million people during his reign as leader of the Soviet Union. Originally opened four years after his death in 1957, the fall of communism resulted in the museum temporarily being closed, but there’s no keeping a good tyrant down and it is very much open for business again, costing us each 15 GEL to visit. Oh, the irony of Stalin having a capitalist venture cashing in on his name.
The Museum has been designed as a lasting memorial to Stalin, with a range of personal effects, memorabilia and gifts he received, as well as a good number of historic photos, paintings, tapestries and sculptures of the man himself.
There’s six of so halls of displays, but disappointingly little in the way of instruction in English. Being fluent in neither Georgian or Russian, it was mildly interesting to look at the various artefacts and exhibits but unfortunately if we wanted to learn more about Stalin we would need to seek other sources to do so.
There’s even a slightly macabre death mask taken of Stalin shortly after he died - one of only twelve in the world. I’m thinking that selfies here would probably be in poor taste.
Having spent barely 30 minutes inside, the Museum, we ventured outside to see another two sights of interest relating to Stalin. The first was his personal railway carriage which was armour plated and weighed 83 tons. This was used for when he met with Roosevelt and Churchill at both the Tehran Conference during World War II and the Yalta Conference at the War’s conclusion.
The second Stalin-related sight is the small wooden hut in which Jughashvili was born in 1878. This is now encased within a pavilion directly outside the Museum, with a replica scale model contained inside.
Unquestionably, the main attraction in Gori is the Museum, however, there are quite a lot of other things to see and do that make the town a great place to visit. Primary among these is the medieval citadel, Gori Fortress, which is located in the middle of the town and has been standing since at least the 13th century.
At the bottom of the castle near Iakob Gogebashvili Garden, is a monument with warriors sitting in a circle, called the Monument to the Defenders of the Fortress. Interestingly, each of these seemed to be purposely missing a part of their body. The significance of this was completely lost of me, not least because there was nothing explaining what it is about.
There is a pretty church behind the Defenders called წმინდა მთავარანგელოზთა ტაძარი (good luck with that one), which is across the road from the better known Virgin Mary Church on Niko Lomouri Street/Garsevanishvili Street. This is a nice, green, quiet place to sit and enjoy the sunshine while thinking about what next to do.
One of those things to do could be the Great Patriotic War Museum, which has mixed reviews and unfortunately, was something we didn’t get round to visiting. In addition to photographs and exhibits from the Second World War, there are also some from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Gori initially came under aerial attack by the Russian Air Force which resulted in at least twenty people being killed and many more wounded. Situated close to 10 kilometres from the current South Ossetia “border”, the city was then occupied by the Russians for ten days as they continued to move through the country eventually coming to within 40km of Tbilisi before withdrawing. The lesson that needs to be learnt here is not to poke the bear. The entrance fee to the museum is only 3 GEL.
If you’re super keen you can also head up to 18th century Saint George’s Church which is out of town on the other side of the train tracks and Mtkvari River. You’ll have to go up the steep Gorjvari hill to get there but there are some good views back to Gori as a small reward (the views are nice, but not outstanding).
We were pleasantly surprised with Gori, especially since I’d seen it described as having all the architectural warmth of a Soviet town from the 1970’s. The town was clean with plenty of good eateries and cafes, similar to everywhere else we’ve been in Georgia. It’s definitely worth staying a couple of days if you’ve got the time and we made good use of that time by also visiting the “Lord’s Fortress” barely 10 kilometres up the road. More on that in our next post.