A Monster to History, Stalin Is a Tourist Magnet in His Hometown

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tags: Soviet Union, Stalin, Cold War history

Here are just a few of the fun facts that visitors learn during a guided tour of the Stalin Museum in Gori, the small Georgian town where the former Soviet leader was born.

Joseph Stalin was a good singer. He wrote poems. During his reign, 9,000 state enterprises were started. One of his granddaughters now runs a shop in Portland, Ore. Among the gifts offered to Stalin by adoring citizens was a luxurious fur coat, which now hangs inside a glass case in a room filled with tributes.

“That fur coat was presented to Stalin by a Moscow clothing company,” said the tour guide, an elderly woman with a thick Georgian accent and hair dyed with purple highlights. “But Stalin did not wear it. Not his style.”

Dedicated in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, the museum has an austere exterior in the Socialist Classical style and an interior stuffed with paintings, photographs and personal mementos. To the left of the entrance sits a rail car, the one Stalin rode to the Potsdam Conference in Germany in the summer of 1945, its curtains intact, its bulletproof glass long ago replaced.

The tone throughout the museum is admiring, a stirring narrative about a poor kid who, against long odds and despite numerous stints in czarist prisons, soared to the heights of power. The floors have red carpets. Stalin’s death mask rests on a marble stand, like a beloved leader, lying in state.

Sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, Georgia is a small country with celebrated cuisine, gorgeous landscapes — and a scarcity of world-renowned tourist attractions. One of the few it does have, unfortunately, is the man born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, the son of a cobbler who became one of humanity’s greatest criminals.

This has presented a quandary for Georgian officials. How, if at all, does a country market a homegrown monster to the rest of the world?

Part of the answer may lie in what is missing from the tour. There is no reference to the gulag, the system of slave camps and prisons that claimed more than one million lives. Nor is there a peep about the Great Terror, Stalin’s campaign of purges and executions in the 1930s.

A fleeting reference is made to the collectivization of Soviet farms, which led to the starvation of an estimated four million Ukrainians, but if you’d never heard of this atrocity, you might think it was a hard-won success marred by slip-ups.

“Many mistakes were made in the Soviet Union during the collectivization,” the guide said, striding briskly from one display to another. “But nevertheless, collective farms were created.”

Georgia’s struggle about what to do with Stalin and his legacy has occasionally produced wince-inducing solutions. In 2013, the chief of the National Tourism Administration, Giorgi Sigua, suggested that the country could appeal to the Chinese “just like” Israel has long catered to Christians.

“We can sell Stalin as a tourist product to the Chinese market,” Mr. Sigua said in a public statement. “Just like the Jews are selling Jesus Christ.”

Mr. Sigua was fired in 2014.

Although Georgia abandoned its state-backed pitch for Stalin-based tourism, he remains a major draw, particularly among Chinese and Russians. Roughly 162,000 people visited the Stalin Museum last year, according to Taia Chubinidze, who sat behind a counter at the tourist center in Gori one recent afternoon.

“That’s more than any museum in the country,” she said, beaming.

It was not possible to check this assertion because officials with the tourism administration refused to answer a single question about Stalin-related tourism.

Read entire article at New York Times