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In the Land of Stalin

In the Land of Stalin

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Published by Christopher Watt

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Published by: Christopher Watt on Mar 09, 2013
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the J. Stalin State Museum—built during his lifetime—located on Stalin Avenue in the heart of Gori. Inside, you will find oil paintings of Stalin the young seminarian thinking deep thoughts; Stalin the young organizer with his pals in the hills above Gori; Stalin the burgeoning revolutionary, plotting with the oil workers of Baku, Azerbaijan; and a miniature of the

Siberian house where Stalin, during his exile years, churned out agitprop in an underground chamber, plotting his return. You will read about how Stalin’s son died a hero’s death in a Nazi POW camp. You can also read the inscription on the Mustache’s shaving kit: To our leader J. Stalin for his 70th birthday from the staff of integrated plant of October District

Soviet in Leningrad 21.12.1949. But you won’t learn about how Stalin made a special project of the Georgians, sending 300,000 (10 percent of the population) to their deaths during World War II. Or that Stalin once called his native land “that small part of Russia that calls itself Georgia.” Instead, considerable affection remains here, as elsewhere


Before Russian tanks rolled south into Georgia, C H R I S T O P H E R W AT T visited the tiny nation in the centre of the Caucasus.


arly last August, the Russian army shelled and occupied Gori, an industrial town 80 kilometres northwest of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The 30-foot statue of native son Iosif Dzhugashvili, known to the world as Stalin, survived the fighting unscathed in its spot in front of Gori’s city hall. This, the last-standing statue of the former leader of the Soviet Union, has enjoyed some very good luck. It survived the de-Stalinization policies of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s, who declared the cult of personality that surrounded his predecessor an unhealthy aberration. It also survived the end of Communism in the 1990s, when Soviet icons were enthusiastically destroyed—only to be collected a few years later in special tourist-kitsch zones like Budapest’s Statue Park and Lithuania’s Stalin World. Proletariat art in its original state (still up because the local government had been too poor to tear it down) is on display in a park in Sofia, Bulgaria, where, beside a skate ramp and hoods drinking beer, statues show peasants and soldiers congratulating each other on glorious military campaigns and record-smashing harvests. Soviet realism at its best. Georgia has something better: Stalin’s birthplace and childhood home. The one-storey, two-room wooden house is now enclosed within a marble pavilion, part of
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Opposite page: The huge statue of a Stalin that stands in Gori’s Stalin square is one of the last of its kind in the former Soviet Union. Above (clockwise, from top left): A corridor in the Stalin museum. The museum, which shut down during the Georgia-Russia conflict, had two of its front windows shattered by a Russian bomb • Tea cup for sale in the Stalin Museum. Other souvenirs include a Stalin wine, an Uncle Joe pipe and a Stalin souvenir badge • Front porch of Stalin’s childhood home. The house is protected by a colonnaded stone covering and sits opposite the Stalin State Museum.
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in the eastern Bloc, for the old tyrant and mass-murderer. Yes, Georgians will tell you, Stalin killed 20 million people with his policies and purges, but he also helped to turn the old Soviet Union, which couldn’t build a tractor, into a nuclear superpower, and that kind of person doesn’t come along every day! The final room in the museum holds Stalin’s death mask. My tour guide’s halogen lamp cast it in a spooky glow. Is Stalin popular in Gori? I asked. “Yes,” came the reply, “especially with young people.” Stalin: still the native son who made it big.


n late 2006, I was in Istanbul with a lot of time on my hands. I heard that Georgia had recently declared Canadians eligible for free visas at the Turkey-Georgia border. So I decided to travel eastward, along the shores of the Black Sea, then north into Georgia and onward into Russia. To get a sense of the political status of miniscule Georgia, you have to see it for what it is: the waist of an hourglass, caught between the Black and Caspian Seas; a passage for the massive shifting interests of Russia to the north, and Turkey, Iraq and Iran to the south. Whenever the region’s politics change, the hourglass turns over, and Georgians—like their neighbours in Armenia and Azerbaijan—are once again caught in the middle. When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia earlier this summer, the US presidential campaign was in
A small room inside the 12th century Gelati monastery near Kutaisi, in western Georgia • A nearly intact “Mother of God” mosaic fresco from inside the Gelati monastery • Street performers in Zugdidi, Georgia.

Ukraine! Similarly, the Georgian army (which had been shelling South Ossetia and Abkhazia, proRussian ethnic enclaves inside its own territory) was trying to lure the Russian Bear into a fight that would strengthen Georgia’s long-standing appeal to join NATO, the Western military alliance originally designed to stave off the old Soviet menace. But the notion that NATO might admit Georgia into its ranks is, quite simply, absurd. The US and its allies will never go to war on Georgia’s behalf, not against Russia or any other nation. It would be like Russia rallying its allies to stop the US from annexing Greater Niagara Falls. Georgia has few decent roads. One, the Georgian Military Highway, was built by the conquest-minded Russians in the early nineteenth century and improved during World War II to move Georgian troops and supplies northward to the eastern European front to fight the Germans. A tense history has existed between Georgia and its huge northern neighbour since at least 1801, when Russia annexed Georgia and ruled the region more or less uninterrupted until 1991. Fresher ingredients of this summer’s fighting were gathering in early 2006, however, when Russia banned Georgian wine imports. The official reason was that Russian labs had found pesticides in certain brands of Georgian wine, thus striking a blow at Georgia’s balance sheet, not to mention its national pride. And so Georgia struck back. Speaking to the press, a Georgian minister

acknowledged that some Georgian exporters had been sending fake wine to Russia, pointing out that Russia is normally happy to import any old shit. The Russians extended the wine ban to Georgian mineral water, the country’s number one export, sullying the regionally famous Borjomi brand with similar charges of contamination. Georgia would go on to arrest four Russians on espionage charges. Russia returned the favour by deporting one hundred and thirty Georgian illegals on a cargo plane. Georgia got some global profile from the spat. Much of it was thanks to President Mikheil Saakashvili, a Columbia Law School graduate with an attractive Dutch wife. In a region of blood feuds and an incomprehensible matrix of separatist states within separatist states, Saakashvili was a national leader the West could understand. More importantly, Saakashvili showed that he understood the West, and especially the press. He came to power in late 2003 when his followers carried roses to parliament and interrupted the opening speech of then-president Eduard Shevardnadze, to protest what was widely agreed to be the rigging of recent elections in favour of Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, had helped administer glasnost in the Soviet Union before leading his native republic to independence in 1991 and through a decade of painful transition. Saakashvili’s movement became known as the Rose Revolution, and he easily and peacefully took Scheverdnadze’s job—though only

after the Georgian military refused to enforce the state of emergency declared by Shevardnadze. This summer, five years on, Saakashvili was clearly suffering from the burdens of leadership: The BBC caught him on camera during a tense phone call, literally chewing on his tie.


eorgians speak Kartuli. Some linguists say it doesn’t belong to any known family tree. Like the jarring angles of the Caucasus mountains, which separate Georgia from Russia (and look like the product of a single calamity rather than eons of tectonic shifts), Kartuli appears to have been born in isolation. But, as I learned after crossing into the country, Georgians don’t live in isolation anymore. In Tbilisi, I dropped my bags at the guesthouse of Nasi Gvetadze, an elderly Georgian matron semi-famous amongst travellers for her star turn in the pages of Lonely Planet’s Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. A couch in her dining room costs about $5 a night, almost the same as a shower. I wandered over to the Mtkvari River and up into the city proper, where Rustaveli Avenue offers plenty of grandeur and shabbiness for connoisseurs seeking easy contrast. On a bluff, an old Intourist hotel (part of the empire-wide, stateowned tourism franchise founded by Stalin) seemed to combine the two. In the 1990s, it became a refugee shelter for people from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, displaced along with almost two million others during
One of Kazbegi’s many food stalls • A bus stop in Tbilisi.

full swing. The invasion prompted John McCain—trying to appeal to the world’s better instincts while simultaneously looking tough on defence—to declare “today we are all Georgians.” McCain had a simple theory for why Russia invaded Georgia: emboldened by record oil prices and still stinging from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia wanted to reestablish the Evil Empire. Next stop,
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the ethnic fighting that followed the fall of Communism. The refugees stayed for years. It is now called the Radisson SAS Iveria Hotel, according to a billboard out front, but the place was not open yet when I happened by. Western standards aren’t created overnight. The next day I witnessed another scene that seemed to speak to Georgia’s increasing westernization and its peoples’ constant fight for any small advantage. At a weekend flea market, local vendors presided over towels covered with carefully arranged junk gears, gaskets, electronics, old fashion magazines, technical manuals and militaria from the long campaign of everyday Soviet life. A man wearing a plain green military uniform stood at attention over his own spread of medals and pins, stone-faced, while a photography team set up a tripod and cleared a perimeter on the path. “Where are you from?” I asked one of the photographers, a woman with lean features and hair in a bun. “New York,” she said. “Look at this guy,” she said, and gestured in the direction of the military man. Then she tossed
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me a breezy “Okay! Happy travels!” over her shoulder as she turned back to lining up the shot. After the fl ea market, I drank a beer in the refurbished part of Tbilisi’s Old Town before stopping in at the McDonald’s for dinner. Local activists protested when it was built in 1999, but judging from the constant traffic, Georgians seem to like Big Macs just fine. Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, outlined in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, proposes that no two countries that both have McDonald’s restaurants will go to war against the other. Russia got its first McDonald’s restaurant in 1990. So much for the beneficial effects of globalization.

Russian tanks rolling into Georgia. Opposite page: Burial of Georgian soldiers.



eaving Tblisi, I moved north through the mountains to Kazbegi, named after the Georgian author Alexander Kazbegi. The last stop in Georgia before the Russian border, Kazbegi is officially two towns, Gergeti and Stepantsminda, divided by the Thergi River, but which share a single town square. Stalin took

Koba, his early nom de guerre, from the violent champion of Kazbegi’s novel The Patricide (1883). A statue of the famous writer stands in the square. The Russia-Georgia border, I learned, had already been closed for months. Hiking up the Gergeti hillside, I met local Vano Sujashvili, 34. He wore Puma shoes, an Adidas jacket and a Nike hat, under which appeared a wispy hairline that made him look like a younger Donnie Wahlberg gone to seed. Vano runs a guesthouse with his mom, and is also mentioned in Lonely Planet’s guide. Vano tells me that while some locals favour an independent Georgia and support President Saakashvili because he seems to operate in good faith, most Kazbegi locals think the town should join Russia because that’s where the jobs are right now. As I talked to him, I looked down on rusty sheds and a field of train car skeletons. And very few people. “Kazbegi people,” as Vano calls them, live between the two

countries, and have interests in each. He speculates that 90 percent of Kazbegi’s residents have second homes in Russia, and that 70 percent of them support Russia’s aggressive stance toward Saakashvili and Georgia’s westward push. But he also believes that a Russian invasion of Georgia around Kazbegi would likely fail, because of geography. There is only one way in and out of Kazbegi, the Georgian Military Road, and the surrounding mountains have a long tradition of guerrilla warfare. Vano himself spent some of his childhood in Stavropol Krai, the region across the border. Mikhail Gorbachev also lived in Stavropol, the central town from which the Russians have traditionally governed the Caucasus. As a child, Vano played basketball and “cat and mouse games” with Gorbachev’s daughter, among other neighbourhood children, he says. She talked a lot—“blah blah blah”—but was also “a good leader,” though Vano says he was only dimly aware at the time of who her father was. Vano’s idyllic cross-border youth came to an end in the early 1990s. The Georgian civil war forced him to drop out of university, and in the overall chaos of the region, the road from Stavropol Krai to Kazbegi turned dangerous. At a roadblock, Muslim separatists took Vano prisoner, along with his father, who had served in the Soviet air force. Despite their essential Georgian identities, father and son were held for three days, until Vano found himself speaking to a white-bearded man in Kartuli, the Georgian language, correctly answering questions that only a Georgian could handle. Before they were sent on their way, father and son were shown a bog pit where several young recruits were learning how to breathe through straws. Vano’s father died a few years later. On my last day in Kazbegi, we drove to the Russian border with Koba, an out-of-work friend of Vano’s with a car, listening to plaintive Russian pop music all the way. The homes grew sparse and rougher off the road; some were made of stones. Deep slashes in the rock face around us bore ice melt to the river by the road. I asked Koba about politics. “He

is one of the 70 percent in Kazbegi who wants Russia,” Vano explained in translation. We rolled to a stop near a booth on a bridge spanning a large gorge. A kid in a camouflage snowsuit stepped onto the road, looking puzzled. Vano went over for a quick word, and returned to say I could look around, but that leaving Georgia by land would be impossible. Traders, armies and travellers have been using this pass, known as the Darial Gorge, since at least the 1st century AD, when Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder mentioned the place in writing. But I couldn’t cross it today.

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foot, rock to rock. Across the gorge, where rope bridges must have joined mountain to mountain, carved into the mountainside, was a footpath that likely predates our concept of the state. Below, a graveyard of abandoned objects: stripped train cars; a loading dock; half a chalky limestone boulder, precision cut. “This was like a free zone. Koba worked here,” Vano said, gesturing to

So I wandered around, considering the notion of borders: political borders (the end of Georgia, the start of Russia), religious borders (Orthodox Christians here, Muslim Ingushetia over the next mountain range). The border between South Ossetia in Georgia and North Ossetia in Russia, dividing multinational ethnic kin. And—looking at a ruined castle overlooking the gorge—the fl uid borders between the past and the present. The castle once belonged to Queen Tamar, a Georgian who ruled these parts in the 12th-13th century, who probably chose its location on a grassy mountain ledge for the view: the same reason the Romans wanted the land, and why tourists come here today. We returned to the car and climbed up a winding trail, moving higher on

his friend. “You went to that booth and got a ticket. Three days later, when you made $1,000, you leave. Business activation, mafia activation. Russians and Georgians together, making money.” Back toward Kazbegi, however, I saw signs of life: an outdoor brick factory and an illustrated master plan hailing the construction of what is supposed to end up being Georgia’s second largest church, and a row of houses down the street, where three workers took blowtorches to a roadside ditch full of rebar and steel beams. As we stood there at the end of the free world, Vano pulled out his cell phone and took a picture of himself, just like any other hero of our time. Stalin, I suddenly realized, would have loved Facebook. 
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