At home, Stalin is still a hero

SUN JOURNAL

Museum: Mention of the Soviet dictator's millions of victims has no place at a sprawling memorial dedicated to his life.

September 15, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GORI, Georgia -- For decades, visitors have come here to sleepwalk through the violent and tragic history of the early Soviet Union.

In a gloomy neo-Renaissance palace, the footsteps of a single visitor echo up marble steps and thump across parquet floors. The sun slants through towering windows, cutting through the reverent gloom. Here, in a series of lovingly prepared exhibits, is the story of an extraordinary life -- that of Josef V. Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin.

At Georgia's Stalin Museum, tourists can see some of the poems he wrote as a young man, scribbled in his own hand. Hanging on the walls are some of the scores of front pages of Pravda featuring pictures of the perpetually smiling first Communist Party secretary. In a small room resembling a shrine, his death mask sleeps on a stone pillow.

Every aspect of Stalin's life is depicted here, except one. None of the exhibits refers to the hundreds of thousands of people that Stalin ordered shot. Never do the tour guides mention them, or the tens of millions who died in prison or in exile.

Instead, the museum depicts Stalin as a young idealist, a wise but chastising leader. And that's just how most people here in his hometown see it.

"Of course, those who are rich and have always been rich, they dislike Stalin," says Nuzgar Dunduzashvili, 58, who scrapes out a living selling soap and pens in a market a few blocks from the museum. "And those who are poor, like myself, and have always been poor, they have always liked Stalin. He sacrificed his life for the poor people."

What about Stalin's victims? "Should rich, bad people be patted on their heads?" he asks. Terror guaranteed order, he says, which is in short supply in the post-Soviet world. "There was no stealing under Stalin. Everybody was abiding by the law."

Dunduzashvili's views are echoed by many in Georgia, Russia and other former Soviet states. March 5 will mark the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death of a cerebral hemorrhage in the Kremlin. Millions in the former Soviet bloc will commemorate the day marking the end of that terrible era. Many will mourn.

Historians think distortions of Stalin's legacy do matter. Exalting the dictator, they say, may tempt future leaders to emulate him. "We must remember these awful crimes because the current crimes against mankind are the continuation of the crimes of the past," says Arseny Roginsky, chairman of Memorial, a Moscow-based human rights organization.

Judging by attendance at the museum, Stalin's cult of personality isn't as fervent as it once was. In Soviet times, buses jammed with tourists arrived every day of the week. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, at the height of the vacation season, a journalist was the only person to stop by and pay the admission charge, the equivalent of about 30 cents.

Twenty-three people work in the museum, about the same number employed there during its heyday. Now, they appear to have little to do except remember better times. "Times have changed and there are no proper tourist groups in Georgia anymore," Katya Akhobadze, deputy director of the museum, says with a sigh.

Today, Gori is far off the beaten path. It's a sunny, sleepy town where -- in the old quarter -- grapevines grow over trellises across the sidewalks. They love their shashlik -- kebabs cooked on a skewer -- and their favorite son.

The feeling may not have been mutual. After dropping by his hometown in 1926, Stalin never came back, not even for his mother's funeral in the capital, Tbilisi, in 1937.

Chief Scientific Worker Olga Topchishvili, who serves as curator of the exhibit, thinks he was just excessively modest. "He didn't come because he didn't want too much fuss made about it," she says.

There is another explanation for Stalin's absence: He may just have been too busy. Starting in 1937, the secret police across the Soviet Union went on a killing spree.

Roginsky of Memorial estimates that 1 million people were arrested and executed for political reasons during the 32 years of Stalin's reign. The majority of those -- about 700,000 -- were killed during a two-year rampage in 1937 and 1938.

During Stalin's rule, tens of millions more died of disease, exposure and starvation while living in labor camps, in exile or in transit. Others were slain as Soviet troops quelled peasant uprisings or conducted so-called "punitive operations" against rebellious districts.

Even in these sanitized exhibits, there are hints of Stalin's ruthlessness. In most photographs, a relaxed Stalin is surrounded by nervous people with fixed smiles who are not sure where to look. None has the nerve to gaze directly at the great leader himself. And he seems delighted.

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