Stalin's death mask in Gori. Picture Credit: Scott Peterson/Liaison

Stalin’s last laugh

Joseph Stalin has been recast in Russia not as a bloodsoaked tyrant, but as a strong, effective leader


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The museum dedicated to Joseph Vissarionovic Stalin in Gori, Georgia, has something of a reputation. This tribute to the late Soviet tyrant draws extreme reactions from people — often angry ones. 

There’s nothing obviously wrong with Gori itself, the place of Stalin’s birth in 1878. A low-rise town of 50,000 residents (7,000 in Stalin’s day), it is surrounded by bold green mountains and is pleasantly leafy and quiet. Yet here Stalin — “Wise Leader and Teacher of Peoples” — had his tempestuous childhood and, since 1937, there has been a shrine to him, a tribute massively amplified after his death in 1953 when a palatial museum was built alongside it. 

In front, a statue of the man stares fiercely out at you — taller than the 5’4” Stalin, but no more adamant. It’s slightly shocking to see such a thing at all. Even though there was a time when every town in the Soviet Empire (and many villages) had its Stalin statue, they’re now a rarity. In 2010 the then Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had one of the few remaining statues removed at night from Gori’s central square, his culture minister denouncing Stalin as “a political criminal”. 

But the museum remains. As you enter the marbled and pillared hall, there’s a gift shop selling Stalin souvenirs: Stalin badges, Stalin t-shirts, Stalin fridge magnets and Stalin backgammon sets. Upstairs in the museum, there are Stalin statues everywhere and paintings of him in every (fictitious) situation possible. Stalin is shown studying diligently with schoolfriends against a background of the Caucasian mountains, listening charmingly to the woes of factory girls, or appearing bathed in white, Christ-like, among the kolkhoz (collective farm) workers. 

This is Stalin as hero, Great Man and Political Colossus

You can visit the tiny shoemaker’s house he grew up in, and see all his personal effects: Stalin’s shaving kit, Stalin’s piano, Stalin’s tobacco pipes, Stalin’s double-breasted marshal’s overcoat (red piping) and peaked cap. Artefacts dedicated to the great man are everywhere: Stalin rugs, Stalin china, Stalin mosaics and, above all, Stalin portraits; the man iconic with his grey military tunic, slightly bouffant hair, his drooping moustache (like a pair of cockroaches, one doomed poet said) and piercing, pitiless gaze. In those black Georgian eyes the best of his portraitists manage to capture the man’s two sides: one eye worldly, crafty, capable of humour and engagement. The other is expressionless and scarily scientific: the eye of a Martian studying another species, in which it has no emotional investment and towards which, no ties of kinship or loyalty at all.

Stalin’s humble childhood home

The Stalin museum is enjoyable enough to visit. The grey walls, red carpets, marble pillars and ubiquitous chandeliers make it a time capsule, taking you back to the Communist past of the fifties or sixties. But it is a total fudging of history. 

This is Stalin as hero, Great Man and Political Colossus, no warts or pockmarks at all. Pictures show him with his predecessor, Lenin, before the latter’s death. There’s no mention of how Stalin had “taken care” of Lenin’s treatment after a series of strokes, the furious arguments with Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, or the last will and testament Lenin left to the party, instructing them that Stalin was “too rude” to take over from him. 

We get breathless details of industrial development — dams, power plants, factories — but the millions of innocent prisoners worked to an early death to build them go unsung. In the room about Stalin’s martial victories in the “Great Patriotic War”, not a whisper of the catastrophic failures of the first year, or the fact that Stalin had virtually decapitated the officer class in his army, executing them as rivals in purges before the war. 

The last room of the museum proper is the Hall of Gifts, a room full of tributes from the countries he victimised (and others who should have known better). At the end of it, bedecked in chandeliers, is a portrait of Stalin dissolving in laughter. Perhaps the museum curator was slyer than one thinks: it’s a laugh at our expense. 

But it’s not quite the last laugh. As you make your way out, guides urge you to visit the “Repression Room” before you leave. But anyone gearing up with relief for some final admission of the dictator’s crimes will be disappointed. The “Repression Room”, such as it is, is a shameless exercise in box-ticking. 

Tucked away, barely a passage, at the bottom of the stairs, it’s a literal footnote: a couple of meaningless exhibits, a paragraph about Stalin’s crimes, and another telling you that the repressions had already begun before Lenin’s death. It is an insult to the millions who lost their lives. 

Stalin’s ghost is laughing once again

Georgia has been so much in conflict with Russia over the last two decades that it is strange to find its hagiography of Stalin marching so neatly in step with Russia’s recent rehabilitation of him. Reviled in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, Stalin once again flourishes under Vladimir Putin. He has been praised in school textbooks as an “effective manager”, feted as the “strong man” who got the Soviet Union through the war, and as a renascent symbol of Russian power. 

More palace than museum, the Stalin museum in Gori is like the tomb of a some central Asian Khan

His crimes — the Great Terror of 1937, the millions exiled to the gulags — have been justified as necessary for industrialising the country and seeing off the Nazis. Putin himself has overseen the process, rewriting school curricula and declaring that the days of using Stalin as a stick with which to beat Russian history are gone. 

The fear of Stalin returning to life recurs in Eastern European culture. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote verses in 1962 begging the authorities to “double, treble the guards over [Stalin’s] tomb”. The Soviet director, Tengiz Abuladze, in his film Repentance (1987), showed a Georgian town afflicted by the corpse of a Stalin-style ruler, who refuses to stay buried and whose cadaver pops up inappropriately all over. 

Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s colleague and eventual successor, tried to see the ruler off for good. He denounced Stalin, his atrocities and the “cult of personality” around him in 1956 (the Polish premier, a Stalin acolyte, dropped dead with shock). A few years later, Khrushchev went further, ridding the country of Stalin statues and unceremoniously removing his body from Lenin’s tomb so that crowds could no longer gawp at it. 

In low key fashion Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s replacement, reinstated Stalin and Stalinism in an attempt to row back on Khrushchev’s reforms. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, a few years later, hoped to banish Stalinism for good, allowing a full exposure of his crimes in books, films and television programmes. The late eighties and nineties were a time of opening old wounds and staring candidly at the traumas of the past. 

All of which brings us to the present day. As the critic, Todd H. Nelson, points out in his Bringing Stalin Back In, a huge campaign has taken place to revive the dictator’s reputation — in schools, in the media, in city monuments, foregrounding the glorious victories in the Second World War and, like the Gori Museum, tucking away Stalin’s atrocities almost out of sight. 

Books such as Dmitri Liskov’s Stalinist Repressions: The Great Lie of the Twentieth Century, have been published and are stocked in high street bookshops. Stalin has been re-spun as another in a line of strong, effective Russian rulers, including Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, men who had to take “tough decisions” to keep the country afloat. This has had considerable success. In 2008, Stalin came third in a nationwide poll (in which a third of the population voted) to find Russia’s greatest historical figure. By 2017, he easily topped it, with Putin and Alexander Pushkin coming in joint-second.

A draw full of macabre memorabilia at the museum gift shop 

For Putin can only gain by Stalin’s popularity. Retrospective justifications of his despotism have created leeway for his present-day successor. Defence of Stalin’s “vertical of power” (i.e. dictatorship) has facilitated Putin’s authoritarian rule. Stalin’s 1945 victory over the Nazis has been perverted for Putin’s spurious “denazification” mission in Ukraine. Recent talk from Putin of “traitors” inside Russia, a “fifth column”, a necessary “cleansing” of society are just a return to form. Over the ruins of Mariupol and the dead of Bucha, Stalin’s ghost is laughing once again. 

When viewing a museum like Gori’s or considering how Stalin is remembered — by force — in modern day Russia, perhaps the last word should go to Memorial, the organization set up in the 1980s under Gorbachev to unearth and commemorate the atrocities of the Stalinist past. Inevitably under Putin it’s been harried and undermined, attacked as a “foreign agent” and banned outright in December last year. 

“The reality of history,” its defunct website said, “does not lend comfort … Yet leaving behind the tragic truth means abandoning one’s own memory. A society without memory will obediently play into the hands of any demagogue … However horrible the past may have been, forgetting it would make the future even worse.” 

Words, perhaps, for the next curator of Georgia’s Stalin Museum to ponder. More than ever, it’s time for that Repression Room to move out of its hidey-hole, upstairs and into the daylight.

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