Foreign Correspondence: Adventures in the Other Georgia (or, I went to the Stalin Museum so you don’t have to)

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Elijah Garrard
Elijah Garrard

When did I first realize there was a country called Georgia? I remember reading about the Russian invasion in 2008. Unlike an embarrassing number of Americans, I didn’t jump to the conclusion that Putin’s forces were advancing on Atlanta. My first introduction to Georgia was probably a year earlier, as a precocious teen aboard the social media bandwagon. One site let you map the states and countries where you’d visited, and where you’d lived. But when I snooped through my friends’ profiles, three or four appeared to have been in a small, out-of-the-way country in Eastern Europe. Looked up its name, I quickly figured out their mix-up: swapping Georgia the country for Georgia the state.

From Edmonds, the Other Georgia is a long hike for relatively little payoff. But these days I’m based in Eastern Turkey, so it’s in my neck of the woods. I had a standing offer of a friend’s couch to stay on in Tbilisi. So in early October, when a four-day weekend rolled around, I ditched Turkey for a much-needed break from hot weather and food made of eggplants.

Georgian food, by the way, is just excellent. On my first night in town, my friend and I met up with a crowd of resident ex-pats—mainly English teachers—at a beloved local hole-in-the-wall. “Don’t lean back against the wall,” I was informed moments before we went inside. “There are things… growing there.”

I sat ramrod-straight through the whole meal. But when the food came, sanitation concerns were thrown to the winds. We ate hearty bean stew and fried cornbread patties, tender spiced chicken with pomegranate, a typical salad of chopped tomatoes and parsley, peppery soup dumplings, and probably the best bread I have ever tasted. When it came time to pay the bill, I thought about the sheer quantity of food we’d scarfed down and braced myself to empty my wallet. The grand total came to 10 lari per person—about $5.70.

As we strolled home through the chilly evening, my friend expounded on all the other bread-based foods I should eat during my stay. Seventy cents gets you an oven-fresh loaf of flatbread the size of a toddler. For 90 cents you can get a circular, flat item of unbelievably soft bread with a thin filling of beans or meat. A dollar or so gets you the world’s best cheese bread, warm and flaky and probably just better (objectively speaking) than anything else you’ve ever eaten. And if luck is on your side, you might even stumble into a free wine-tasting event with a dozen different booths and staff who don’t appear to judge you if you make the rounds more than once.

Speaking of wine, it seems anything in Tbilisi that stands still long enough ends up covered in grape vines. The Old Town is a glorious Eurasian jumble of wooden balconies, tin roofing, bare walls and crumbling plaster facades. Vines creep along decaying balustrades, curling along the beams of old caved-in roofs. In a single building you’ll find architecture stacked like the layers of a listing, perilous cake: age-darkened timbers, slap-dash bricks, big floor-to-ceiling sheets of modern glass. The city is honeycombed with narrow, ancient streets that wind below balconies, past shuttered windows and under laundry lines. An average pedestrian in Tbilisi will spend far more time navigating alleyways than thoroughfares. The skyline is marked by the conical church roofs, ancient and robust in comparison to the Western-style steeples back home.

At the city’s heart is a pleasant, unimpressive river whose unpronounceable Georgian name is “Mtkvari.” Tbilisi slopes up from both banks to the encircling hills, which are topped by trees, an ancient fortress, a pointless yet well-lit decorative spire, and, improbably, an amusement park. Atop one ridge a silver statue, the Mother of Georgia, keeps vigil. In one hand she bears a sword to guard against enemies. In the other, she carries wine to welcome friends. (I, for instance, was made to feel quite welcome).

I spent two days traipsing all around the city, eating bread products, loitering in cafes, and sketching picturesque old buildings. Also, I may have accidentally bought a second-hand Soviet-era electric samovar. Miraculously, it: a) still plugs in; and b) heated water without electrocuting anyone in the process. Samovars aside, an active and enthusiastic tourist can probably exhaust Tbilisi in a couple of days. So on my last day in Georgia, I paid about two dollars to cram into a marshrutka—a hazardous old minivan—with a mixed crowd of tourists, policemen and old ladies in sweaters. The 50-mile trip took a little over an hour, not counting the 45 minutes waiting around in the parking lot while the marshrutka drivers smoked and ate sunflower seeds. We were dropped off near the center of Gori, a small city whose exclusive claim to fame is being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Now it’s home to the Stalin Museum, as well.

Indeed, I didn’t learn about Georgia from the Russian invasion, or from Facebook, or even from internet geography trivia games. My first introduction to this odd little country was as a footnote in connection with the man who is—for better or for worse—its most notorious son.

Unsurprisingly, Georgians’ relationship with Stalin is complicated. On the one hand, Soviet repression took a brutal toll on Georgia’s people. Many of their best and brightest from all areas of public life were lost to KGB prisons and firing squads. The communists targeted artists and museum curators, playwrights, intellectuals, religious leaders and anyone who had the misfortune to be descended from nobility.

On the other hand, Stalin’s rise is remarkable due to the sheer improbability that a Georgian shoemaker’s son would become one of the most fearsome and powerful figures of the 20th Century.

From the outside, the museum is large and palatial, with a white stone arcades and vaguely floral-looking crenellations. The inside, judging from its smell, was last renovated at some point when Stalin was actually alive. The museum is a dank, musty, sprawling collection of every artifact and relic linked (however tenuously) to Stalin’s life. This includes a picture of his elementary school math teacher, his mother’s samovar, his monogrammed slide rule, a pack of his favored cigarettes, and inscribed birthday gifts from around the world, the best of which was, without doubt, a diamond-studded accordion.

The walls are cluttered with artists’ renderings of various tableaux from Stalin’s life. As a boy, he gazes off into the middle distance, a pint-sized visionary; as a young man in exile, he pens treatises by the light of a single candle, or teaches Marxist doctrine to eager peasants beside a country road. The classic, mustachioed, middle-aged Stalin is well-represented in every conceivable medium, from mosaics to carpets. His bronze death mask is also on display, but that’s honestly too creepy to talk about at length.

And… that’s really about it for the museum. Outside you can see his personalized train carriage, as well as the humble cottage where he was born. The front of the museum used to feature a large bronze Stalin statue—one of the last standing in the former USSR. The subject of some controversy, it was removed by the city under cover of night to avoid public outcry. This happened a few years ago. There’s ongoing discussion about whether to put it back. In the meantime, a small marble statue has gone up in its place. It’s a modest reminder that the man who was born here in this forgotten corner grew up and out of Gori and went on to rule a good sixth of the world’s land mass.

Leaving the museum, I wandered around Gori for a while. I found it depressing, dingy and grim. After an hour or so, I wound up back on the museum grounds. It’s an odd, sad place of pilgrimage for anyone seeking new truths about Joseph Stalin. Even worse, there was a complete lack of tacky Soviet-themed souvenirs with which to commemorate my visit. I can’t say whether I enjoyed it; I was eating really excessive amounts of bread at the time, which may have impaired my judgment. But I did it, I went, I have bragging rights, and I’ve probably seen more Stalin-themed carpets than anyone else you know.

As for the Edmonds connection—sure, I’d take some variant on the Stalin Museum. Why not? All we need is someone sufficiently noteworthy. (No, Rick Steves doesn’t count—sorry, Mr. Steves. I’m a fan of your stuff.)

Could Edmonds produce a bloodthirsty dictator of our very own someday? …dare one hope? Judging from some of the people I went to high school with, we may not have long to wait. And when that suburban, three-bedroom childhood home has been fitted out with weird memorabilia and a large bronze statue, I’ll be the first to pay a visit.

– By Elijah Garrard

Elijah Garrard was born and raised in Edmonds. He is a graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and Bowdoin College, and is now based in Eastern Turkey. He writes about travel, people, and curious goings-on in his monthly column.

 

5 Replies to “Foreign Correspondence: Adventures in the Other Georgia (or, I went to the Stalin Museum so you don’t have to)”

  1. Interesting report, Elija. You’re right, now I don’t have to go to see the Stalin Museum in Georgia, thanks to you. And, when you are back in the area and get nostalgic for a Russian statue, you could always check out Lenin in Fremont. I think you’re on to something with the statue idea. Maybe some seafarer at the waterfront welcoming the ships coming in…or a logger? Ballard has one at their Marina, why not Edmonds? Keep your travel articles coming, they are informative and humorous reading! Thank you!

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  2. Thank you! I think the best statues are dignified public figures you can dress up for holidays (e.g. good old Lenin at Christmas time–much more fun than a tree).

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  3. Wonderful history, Elija and yes, many post-Soviet European Countries have “soviet graveyards”. The one in Lithuania – Grutas Village has more Soviet statues than I care to remember, as well as the literature, drawings, woven rugs, stained glass replicas, etc., and so it was good to hear, Georgia didn’t disappoint. Tacky souvenirs are probably not a commodity as everyone wants to forget that era of oppression. Keep the stories coming.

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  4. Elijah, how long do you expect to be in that part of the world?

    i visited eastern Turkey (and Tehran) about this time of year . . . in 1975 🙂

    i made it to a small village, my notes are here somewhere… , i seem to recall the village was called Yusefeli, though i can’t locate it on google maps – it’s outside of savsat, outside of artvin

    if you’re interested, i’ll continue looking for my notes and find some pics for you; i also have a video of village dancing.

    just ask Teresa for my email

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    1. Hi Victor,
      I’d love to see any notes or pictures you might have! I’m based much farther southeast than the region you’re describing–had to go to Georgia by plane. I hope to see more of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. I think I’ll be here for a couple years, though it depends on a number of factors.
      Best,
      Elijah

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