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Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 12:46 GMT
Stalin still revered in Georgia
Lamara Makharadze at the museum in Gori
Stalin's museum remains lovingly tended

On 21 December 1879, the wife of a cobbler from this little provincial town gave birth to one of the world's greatest dictators.

More than 120 years later, here in Gori, Stalin is still a household name, and at the very place where his father mended the shoes of his fellow townspeople stands a domed marble palace dedicated to Gori's - and Georgia's - most famous son.

Stalin's statue
Stalin's statue here is one of the few not torn down after independence
But these days, the tour of the Stalin museum is a lonely, and even somewhat eerie, affair.

Empty, unheated halls no longer host the schoolchildren and tourists who flooded the place in the old days.

Today, visitors are rare and money is scarce. But a handful of dedicated elderly women lovingly look after it.

Selective memories

The old floor boards squeak under our feet as one of them, Lamara Makharadze, takes me on a tour.

The endless corridors lead into ghostly rooms. The man with the moustache gazes sternly down from dozens of portraits.

His legendary life unfolds in front of us. From a poverty-stricken childhood in Gori, to education in a Tbilisi seminary, to his glorious revolutionary career in Moscow.

The only thing missing from the exhibition seems to be what Stalin is most famous for outside his hometown.

There is not one mention of gulags, concentration camps, dissidents, brutal economic policies, or his wartime pact with Hitler. I ask Lamara why.

"Of course he made mistakes," she says.

"Of course. But we can't blame them on one person only, can we?"

Poet

She carries on talking about the achievements of the young Josef, from the high marks he earned at school, to the great deeds he did for his nation, not to mention the poems he wrote in childhood... Lamara becomes a little tearful as she reads one of these.

Stalin museum
There is no mention of Stalin's brutal policies
"This is a poem about his love for Georgia. He wrote it when he was 15... It's very beautiful, and he makes me feel very proud," she says.

Many in Gori share Lamara's pride. When after independence, angry crowds across Georgia tore down all the statues of Stalin and Lenin, hundreds of people gathered in Gori and refused to let theirs be touched.

But while the older generation in Gori still praises Stalin, young people are finding it harder to digest his legacy.

Just around the corner from Stalin's monument is the home of 24-year-old Irina Jabauri.

'Shocked'

Her family is related to Stalin, and Stalin's grandson Yevgeny is a frequent visitor - but Irina says that she will not pass on the Stalin myth to her own children.

Hotel in Gori
Poverty and war prompt many to look back fondly
"You know, for young people it has become rather bad taste to talk about Stalin these days, but to be honest I am still slightly proud of the fact that I am part of the family.

"But at the same time, I don't think my son will grow up same way," she says.

Irina first realised that she had been misled about Stalin at the age of 15, when she saw an American film about him.

"I remember I was shocked," she says. "I realised that the pieces of puzzle did not come together, that he was really not what we were told he was."

'An example'

Irina's father, who still toasts Stalin every time he drinks alcohol, cannot accept the views of the younger generation.

"Stalin should really serve as an example for everyone," he thunders.

"Look how much he did for the Soviet Union, he built such strong nation, it took years and years to destroy it.

"People talk about his 'bloody regime', and it's true that lots of innocent people died, but sometimes I think he simply did not kill enough of them.

"He should have killed more - and he should have started with [Georgia's current president, Eduard] Shevardnadze!"

No more pilgrims

As in the rest of the country, corruption and unemployment are rampant, blackouts are frequent and the hotels which were once filled with pilgrims visiting Stalin's birthplace are now overflowing with refugees from Georgia's conflict zones.

Not even Stalin's marble shrine is immune to Georgia's hardships. When we entered the museum's last chamber, the inevitable power cut plunged us into pitch black darkness.

Lamara pulled a candle out of her pocket and the last exhibit in the museum, Stalin's bronze death mask, stared at us, from its sunken eyes, in the dim candlelight.

See also:

27 Mar 01 | Europe
27 Sep 00 | Media reports
19 Dec 01 | Media reports
01 Sep 02 | Country profiles
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