23.12.2018 - 24.12.2018
Getting to Gori is easier than expected: I had been told it involved a change of trains, with a short time between the two. Not knowing that Georgian Rail is actually very good about being on time, and knowing there is only one train a day out of Kutaisi, I had been worried. There was no need. The ticket office sells me a ticket to Gori for the equivalent of 50 cents (1 lari) and, about half an hour before the train is due to leave, I am taken to the train.
It is an old Soviet sleeper train with four bed compartments: I find a couple from Quebec, another couple from Italy plus infant, and an older woman who is obviously a local. The couples can talk to each other, obviously, but otherwise there is no shared language. The only people communicating are the old woman and the infant, plus a guy out in the corridor from Valencia has a long chat with the Italian guy - despite an obvious lack of comprehension. They get all excited when they work out what the other is saying. The train pauses in the next town down the line and then continues to Gori: no need to change after all.
The main avenue of Gori is lined with Soviet style housing: the hotel I have booked is in these buildings but when I arrive, the place is all locked up with no sign of life. I carry on down the avenue and am tempted to stay in the Intourist Hotel, but it does not appear to be functional. The door opens to reveal a lobby with no furniture and curtains closing off access upstairs.
There is a bloke on the phone but I leave him to it: there are rumours of a wonderful guesthouse (Nukri) the other side of the railway station. The young fellow who greets me there could not have been more welcoming: he takes me to my room, works out what I want for breakfast, asks about dinner and whether his dad can drive me anywhere. They make their own wine and chacha - a clear brandy: he makes sure I try it (it actually has the feel of drinking whisky). The buildings in my street are a bit nicer than on the main street, and after a while I realise that almost everyone is growing grapes in the street.
There is a reason for coming to Gori: it is the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili - a former editor of the state newspaper, Pravda, and an activist who supported Lenin by carrying out various robberies, kidnappings, and protection rackets. At some stage, he changed his name, to Joseph Stalin, so I probably don't need to describe his activities any further. The odd thing is that he is celebrated in Gori as any other poor boy who has made good might be - the main street is actually Stalin Avenue, one of the few remaining statues of him stands here and there is a museum which honours his memory. The house in which he was born is at the end of Stalin Avenue - it is quite humble but has been given special treatment:
The museum is directly behind it, and is rather large and imposing.
Tours are not so much available as not optional: a group of us is rushed around by a stout woman who might not actually speak English. She has a script which she follows to the letter - no questions are asked and she does not invite any. Many people I see later say that they felt rushed but unable to do anything except carry on with her. I don't do this: we go through the several rooms on the upper floor but instead of descending the staircase with the group, I start at the beginning again and take a leisurely look at things.
Many of the exhibits are documents in Russian, portraits, photos and the like - including a glass case with a family tree showing who has survived him and where they are. There is no mention anywhere of anything even unsavoury about Stalin, let alone indications of the terrible things he did while he ruled [in the interests of balance, there is a museum in Tbilisi which does do that]. The whole point of the museum is to celebrate his great achievements, such as meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta Conference - a meeting ostensibly at least designed to work out how to manage German recovery from the war.
There are a few exhibits I like, such as some small books, a brass tank and a reconstruction of his office in the Kremlin:
When Stalin died, a death mask was made of his face, and then several copies were made, each 10% smaller than the one before it. The original is in Moscow: Gori got the fourth mask, so is 60% of the size of the original. It is given a very prominent place, in a room all by itself.
I am particularly interested in Stalin's carriage - I have already seen it in Michael Portillo's TV show but want my own experience. It was part of the tour I abandoned, but luckily there is a private tour for a family from India just starting, so I follow them in. There is actually very little to see, but it is possible to imagine the kind of decisions Stalin may have made in his private compartment or around the table in the (surprisingly small) stateroom.
After all this, I need a bit of a break - there is a wee cafe nearby where I can have a coffee and one of these:
I have more to say about Gori but will say it in another post: in the meantime, here is a picture taken from above, and what is either a drama theatre (Tripadvisor) or, more likely, City Hall - in any event, it is a very impressive building.