‘Some People Get Sacrificed, Others Obey’: Inside the Cult of Stalin Roiling His Georgian Hometown
Stalin died 66 years ago this month, but his personality cult still looms large in the Republic of Georgia.
GORI, GEORGIA—The specter of Joseph Stalin haunts every inch of the room. Sculptures, portraits, and framed newspaper clippings of the moustached dictator populate the hallways. Stalin’s wood tobacco pipes, army caps, and military tunics collect dust under display cases.
People from every corner of the Earth scurry about, chattering in a torrent of languages. Some observe a painting of Stalin tenderly embracing a little girl. Others wield selfie-sticks. One woman poses for a photo beside a towering statue of the Soviet leader.
“[Stalin] was an excellent choir singer,” flatly announced one guide, as she led a cluster of tourists through the room.
In the gift shop, sightseers can buy Stalin coffee mugs, Stalin refrigerator magnets, Stalin T-shirts, Stalin pins, and Stalin figurines. And outside, they frolic about the home where Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili—as Stalin was known—was born 140 years ago this year.
This is the city of Gori, a city of 47,000 people about 60 miles northwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. It is the dictator’s birthplace, home to the world’s largest Stalin museum, and one of the hottest tourist destination in the post-Soviet Republic of Georgia. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people travel here to visit this dystopian shrine.
“The Stalin museum is an interesting place, especially to learn the Soviet side of the story,” Peter Hofman, a 34-year-old travel agent from the Netherlands, told The Daily Beast outside the museum.
“In the West, we tend to idealize the victory over Nazi Germany,” Hofman said.
But this rosy rags to riches Soviet fairytale is heavily redacted. There’s no mention of purges, Siberian death camps, forced collectivization, mass starvation, or any suggestion that Stalin was the cutthroat dictator who, historians assert, slaughtered millions.
“I couldn’t find any information about the gulags [or] repression,” Hofman added. “It definitely glorifies—it’s the life of Stalin, told by locals.”
“He did some very terrible things, atrocious things,” echoed Madeline Ryan, 24, visiting from Australia.
Yet, tourists from everywhere are enchanted by “this version” of history.
“It’s a propaganda museum [at] heart,” said Carl Michel, 55, visiting from England.
“The museum was very much celebratory,” said Adolfo Rivera, a 31-year-old history buff from the Bronx, New York. “Nowhere did they make an effort to show an objective look at his history, or the horrifying crimes against humanity that [Stalin] is responsible for.”
In 2018 alone, more than 162,000 people visited the Stalin museum, according to tourism officials.
Neither death nor time has chased away Stalin’s shadow here. And today he still looms large, not only in the minds of Gori’s visitors, but in the collective psyche of its residents—both young and old.
There are even those who sing Stalin’s praises.
“[Stalin] was an amazing person,” gushed Aleko Lursmanashvili, 65, a lifelong Gori resident, communist, and co-founder of the Society of Stalin’s Ideal Legacy, a local club that gathers regularly to celebrate Stalin’s life.
“Georgia has never had anyone equal to him as a political and a public figure in its 3,000 years of history. We should be proud that Stalin was born and raised in our city.”
Lursmanashvili is unapologetically obsessed with Stalin. His group, and its roughly 100 members, parade the streets on Stalin’s birthday each year. They throw red roses at artificial gold busts of Stalin, wave hammer and sickle flags, and chant into megaphones. He’s already planning an enormous birthday bash for Stalin’s 140th this December.
“He was a Georgian person, a great lover of my home country,” said Lursmanashvili, who credits Stalin with industrializing Georgia. “This is why he’s so special to me.”
Lursmanashvili is not alone. Stalin may be dead, but his cult of personality is alive and well in Gori.
Here, elderly men tattoo Stalin’s face on their chest, others dress like him, and this woman plastered her car with bumper stickers of his face. People are even named after Gori’s most infamous native.
“‘[My grandfather] and Stalin came from the same district,” said Gigutsa Tatrishvili, whose birth name is “Stalberi,” a combination of “Stalin” and Lavrentiy “Beria,” Stalin’s former secret police director—and chief butcher.
“[My grandfather] respected Stalin and he gave me this name,” Tatrishvili added.
During the USSR’s de-Stalinization period of the 1950s, Tatrishvili, 70, legally changed his name, but his family and friends still call him “Stalberi.”
“I respect Stalin,” said Gori university student, Tazo Taruashvili, 21. “Everyone knows he won World War II.”
Even Gori’s mayor, Konstantine Tavzarashvili, adores “Uncle Joe.”
“[Stalin] came from a cobbler’s poor family and reached fame on the whole planet,” Tavzarashvili, 61, who was elected in 2017, told The Daily Beast.
“He’s a historic figure who is respected by many people in Gori. The whole world recognizes him as a phenomenon.”
Stalin tourism, he said, drives Gori’s economy. The museum alone rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, which is allocated to the federal government.
“Stalin’s museum is the main touristic destination in Gori and one of the first in Georgia.”
But not everyone in Gori is a Stalinist. Since the Soviet leader’s death nearly 70 years ago, the town has become bitterly divided over his legacy.
“A tyrant is worshipped in [Gori],” explained Ekaterine Kotolashvili, a 33-year-old activist born and raised here, and who says Stalin—and his worshippers—have bastardized her home.
“Gori is known as a Stalin-loving city—wherever I go, this is following me,” Kotolashvili added. “[Stalin] created an empire of cruelty. His regime was based on the blood of millions.”
As for the Stalin museum, it’s a “falsification of history,” she said.
Kotolashvili is an anti-Stalin activist who belongs to a couple of local anti-Stalin groups.
“The main idea of [these] group[s] isn’t only spreading information about Stalinism but also making people aware of [the] dangers [and] aggression from Russia,” Kotolashvili said.
Kotolashvili’s activism has incited Gori’s Stalinists, who have targeted and trolled her on social media. Kotolashvili even alleged that a group of men once went to her family’s home to warn her to stop smearing Stalin.
For some older Georgians like Lursmanashvili, who came of age during the Soviet era, Stalin is a figure who commands respect. Gori’s millennials, on the other hand, such as Kotolashvili, who are educated, tech savvy, activist-oriented—and vocally anti-Russia—equate Stalin with Russian imperialism.
These young Georgians vividly recall the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. They remember Russian aircraft bombing their city and killing dozens. The five-day conflict between Georgian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists rewrote post-Soviet geopolitics, resulting in Russian-recognized independence—and the attempted ethnic cleansing—of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.
“I saw the bombs falling,” recalled Salome Lapachi, a 20-year-old university student and another local activist.
“Russia isn’t Georgia’s friend and never was,” added Lapachi, who has also protested Gori’s Stalinists.
“Today, that terrible country is continuing misappropriation of our territories. Without joke, Joseph Stalin was a dictator—if somebody is pro-Stalinist, it’s not a big surprise to [also] be pro-Russia.”
In this tug of war over Stalin’s legacy, Gori’s town infrastructure has become a particularly volatile battleground. In 2010, Georgia’s pro-Western government dismantled an enormous Stalin statue in the center of the city.
“[Police] made a circle around the statue and removed it at night so Gori’s citizens wouldn’t go against them,” explained Tavzarashvili, Gori’s mayor, not then in-office.
The statue, which the mayor said had stood there since 1952, was relocated to a municipal storage facility in a nearby village. A year later, Georgia passed a law banning public displays of Soviet symbolism.
“When people woke up next morning...the statue wasn’t there anymore,” Tavzarashvili added. “[The] government was still afraid of Stalin and that’s why they removed it quietly.”
Still, the statue’s toppling triggered a scandal that’s still simmering.
“I felt insulted,” said Lursmanashvili, the Stalinist who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2017 on a campaign promise of re-erecting the statue in Gori.
Meanwhile, Gori’s anti-Stalinists have been agitating for one of the city’s main roads—Stalin Avenue—to be renamed in memory of Maro Makashvili, a 19-year-old Georgian nurse killed by the Red Army in 1921.
Georgia’s flirtations with the European Union, Hopp pointed out, has sparked Soviet nostalgia in older Georgians.
“[They] are just dissatisfied, they feel kind of lost,” he added. “They used to live under strong [rulership]. The young generation is more oriented to the West. Most of them are embarrassed when their grandparents speak about Stalin.”
Nicknamed the “balcony of Europe,” Georgia is a largely agrarian nation of roughly four million people that’s sandwiched between Russia and Asia. And it’s still reeling from the socio-economic fallout of the Soviet Union’s collapse nearly 30 years ago. Corruption, political instability, and revolution gripped Georgia in the early 2000s. Today one-fifth of its people live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Such conditions, some historians think, might have also helped revitalize Stalinism here.
“A figure like [Stalin]—it’s perfectly understandable—would be attractive,” said Norman Naimark, a historian at Stanford University.
Stalin, whose name literally translates from Russian as “[man of] steel,” Naimark explained, represents everything Georgia is lacking today: “strength, power, sense of place in the world, [and] order.”
Despite the infatuation Stalin commands in Gori, some scholars believe he despised his roots. He was abused by his drunken father and sent to seminary school at a young age. And once in-power, Stalin purged Georgian Bolsheviks and intellectuals, rarely visited Gori, and didn’t even attend his mother’s funeral in 1937.
“Stalin believed that Georgia’s future lay only in union with Russia and didn’t believe his home nation deserved independence or even high autonomy,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.
Yet, Stalinism thrives not only Gori, but throughout Georgia. In 2013, a Carnegie Endowment of International Peace survey found that 42 percent of Georgians are fond of the autocrat.
“There was never a proper de-Stalinization in Georgia,” said Giorgi Gogia, the associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.
“There’s little awareness of Stalin as a creator and leader of one of the most inhumane regimes in 20th century,” he added.
Beyond World War II, Naimark said Stalin is also idolized as an industrialist and “great modernizer” by many Georgians. Naimark referred to Stalin’s reputation in Gori as “famous son syndrome.”
“He’s one of theirs,” Naimark explained. “He made it to the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union and the world. Some will even justify the purges and the death toll from collectivization in the 1930s in terms of the fact that [the] Soviets won the war under his leadership.”
Naimark, who compared Stalin to Hitler, estimated the Soviet dictator killed between 10 to 12 million people. He argued that Stalin’s purges of political and ideological classes, particularly of Ukraine’s “kulak” farmers, should constitute genocide.
Even so, Naimark said, many Georgians are willing to turn the other cheek.
“You can say all you want, ‘He killed a lot of people,’” he said. “And they’ll just say, ‘You gotta break a lot of eggs to make an omelette.’”
You don't have to look far in Gori to find exactly that sentiment being expressed.
“They say that [Stalin] killed 20 million people but I don’t believe so,” said Lursmanashvili, whimsically brushing off his hero’s atrocities.
“He defeated fascism—tell me, would it be good if fascism won?” he said. “This is life—some people get sacrificed, others obey.”
Dorian Geiger is a Canadian journalist of German-Russian descent. Some of his family were killed during Stalin’s “kulak” purges of present-day Ukraine’s Odessa region. He’s based in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Omar Tsotsoria is a freelance Georgian journalist based in Tbilisi, who contributed reporting from Gori. Follow him on Twitter.