Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (3)--At the Stalin Museum

     An unexpected highlight of our visit to Georgia came on our last night in the country. Through someone who knew someone who knew someone else, we received an invitation to a short audience with Patriarch Ilia II (of which more in a later post.) The Patriarchate is hidden behind high stone walls in the old city, very near the Mtkvari River.  The enclosure conceals a  narrow, lush garden--almost tropical in appearance--wedged between the administrative building, the convent and the back wall.  The Church of the Annunciation--a small gem of a chapel--is the focal point of the complex. 

     As would be expected, the iconography here  was exceptional, and quite moving, with much of the space devoted particularly to Georgian saints.  The north wall of the nave contained a row of the sainted monarchs--Vahktang Gorgosali, Archil and Luarsab, Mirian and Nana, Tamar, Demetre, David the Builder and Ketevan, among others.  This is uniquely Georgian.  No other Orthodox nations (not even Russia and Serbia) have canonized so many of their kings and queens.  Nor is this just hagiographic excess.  For many--including Archil, Luarsab, Demetre and Ketevan--were true martyrs, in every sense of the word. 

     Even so, the Georgian rulers were often a fractious lot, and were fully capable of producing monsters as well as saints.  The Khakhetian king Giorgi the Bad comes to mind, as well as his great-grandson, Constantine Khan, the apostate--each a practitioner of both fratricide and patricide.  Thus considered, perhaps the emergence and rise to power of Joseph Dzhugashvili is not such an anomaly.  We know him better as Joseph Stalin.

     A visit to the Stalin Museum does not immediately leap to mind when considering a "monastery tour" of Georgia.  Some expressed interest, however, and our wise leader worked it into our flexible itinerary.  My initial instincts failed me on this, as I was not at all curious to stop here.  I was mistaken.  The museum proved fascinating, though--as is often the case with me--in a perverse sort of way.

     Gori is a struggling town, suffering a good deal of shelling prior to its capture by the Russians during the 2008 war.  The city seems to have little going for it beyond the Stalin Museum.  Certainly, the institution dominates the municipality.  The Soviets erected the museum in the 1930s, with many blocks  being leveled to make room for the structure and the esplanade approaching it.  The attractive building predates the worst of Soviet architecture, having perhaps a bit of a Moorish feel to it.  A statue of Stalin once towered over the grounds, though in 2012 the Georgian government surreptitiously removed it in the middle of the night.  (Some Georgians tried to pay the Russians to blow it up during the 2008 occupation, but the soldiers were offended and refused to do so.)  A more modest statue remains.  In the park fronting the museum, Stalin's birthplace is preserved, though the neighborhood that once surrounded it is completely demolished.  The Soviets erected a temple-like structure, complete with inlaid hammer and sickles, over the cottage.  For all the attention Gori lavishes on Stalin, he seems to have not given his birthplace much thought one way or the other after his departure.

Stalin Museum in background, Stalin birthplace in foreground

     The inside of the museum is built on a grand scale, and would have been well-suited to showcase impressive galleries and exhibits.  Unfortunately, the interior received the classic Soviet treatment.  The walls were covered in a drab gray felt or flannel-board type material.  The exhibits consisted primarily of grainy black-and-white enlargements of old photographs, newspapers and correspondence, telling a very sanitized version of the life of Stalin.  If you were expecting any reference to purges, show-trials, gulags, the invasion of Poland, or that sort of thing, then you would be disappointed, and would need to look elsewhere.  Thankfully, many of the offerings contained English subtitles.  I would have enjoyed just wandering through the museum, taking it in at my own stride.  But in something of a holdover from the old days, we were forced to submit to an official tour, with a guide reciting a memorized speech in front of every exhibit.   As much as was possible, I pealed-off from the official narration.  The museum contained remarkably few actual artifacts of Stalin's, primarily just diplomatic gifts he received.  A bizarre lamp, with frilly lace on the top, and a homemade model of a Soviet tank for the base, was the showcased item in one gallery.  Tellingly, the museum did contain Stalin's copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

     Outside of perhaps Gori itself, Georgians seem ambivalent at best about Stalin.  And Stalin-worship is certainly anachronistic to the image of the "new" Georgia that is being vigorously promoted.  Young people probably do not consider him at all.  Older Georgians may look back with a bit of longing for the security and favored status they enjoyed in the Soviet system, no doubt a legacy of Stalin.  But that is all.

     I was able to view the exhibits dispassionately, strictly on an intellectual level.  Others in our group may have interacted on a more visceral level.  One of our members is the daughter of a Russian father and a Greek mother.  Her grandfather worked in a factory in Soviet Russia during the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1937 (I believe) the authorities arrested him and declared him an enemy of the state.  In short order, her grandfather was executed and buried in a mass grave.  Her grandmother was dispatched to the Gulag.  Their two youngest children ended-up in orphanages, while the oldest was conscripted into the army.  He survived the Second World War, being captured by the Germans and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp.  At war's end, he instinctively knew that his future lay in jumping a boxcar that was headed west, rather than east.  He made his way to the U.S. and became a typical American success story.  Fairly late in life, he took an Old World wife (from Greece) and brought her to the U.S. as well.  Of course, none of this would have happened had not his father been murdered and the family broken up by the Soviets.  Still, I expect that his daughter's thoughts were bittersweet and she toured the museum and listened to the tributes to Joseph Stalin. 

     Anyone who visits the Stalin Museum should couple that with a visit to the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, on the third floor of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.  The exhibit is extremely well done and quite compelling.  The very name of the museum itself clearly announces the particular narrative  that is to be promoted, i.e that the Georgian nation was under the heavy Soviet thumb for seventy years.  Even so, the exhibits were reinforced by hard statistics and data, and the tone was less overtly propagandistic than its counterpart in Gori.  A boxcar, riddled with bullet-holes (from each direction) greets visitors in the ante-room of the gallery.  A number of Georgian nationalists met their death here in 1923, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their control over the country. 

     As Tsarist Russia disintegrated in 1917, the peoples of the Caucasus quickly reasserted their independence.  Georgian nationalism had never disappeared after being subsumed into Russia in 1803, and the leaders were ready when the opportunity presented itself.  At first, a loose Trans-caucasus confederation emerged under the Menshiviks, but soon separated into its component parts of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  On May 26, 1918, Georgia declared independence from Russia.  For two and one half years, an independent Georgian state survived.  But as the Soviets consolidated their hold on Russia, they began to address regaining their recently-lost territories.  First Azerbaijan fell, then Armenia, and finally Georgia in February of 1921.  The tactic was always the same.  A small uprising or disturbance would be funded, allowing the Soviets to move in and "restore order."  (A cynic might note that we have employed similar tactics through the years in Latin America and the Middle East.)

     The brief period of independence, a little over two and a half years, is pivotal in the Georgian self-perception.  Their Independence Day is May 26th, referencing not the events of 1991, but rather the declaration of 1918.  At the renewal of Georgian statehood upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian leaders specifically sought to restore the framework of the 1918 republic.  The museum contains rare newsreel footage of the events surrounding the early period of independence.     

     Between 1922 and 1952, the Soviets executed 101,000 Georgians and deported 330,000 out of a total population of only around 4,000,000.  When you do the math on that you realize that the odds were not all that good during the Stalinist era.  If you were middle class, or if you were considered part of the intelligentsia, or if you were a member of the old nobility (and in Georgia this did not necessarily imply wealth at all), or if you were a bishop, priest or monk, then you were marked.  The pictures of the executed--poets, authors, bishops among others--are especially poignant.  One picture records the demolishing of the Kutaisi Cathedral in 1924 by a crowd of Bolsheviks.  Bishop Nazar of Kutaisi (executed in 1924) stated, My soul belongs to God, my heart belongs to Georgia, do whatever you will with my body.   A unique feature of Georgian iconography is the depiction of St. George killing (symbolically) the Emperor Diocletian.  In a like manner, the sentiments of the New Martyr Nazar can be said to have slain the Emperor Stalin.                   


Ryan said...

"Tellingly, the museum did contain Stalin's copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species." What do you mean, "tellingly"? What does this tell of?

John said...

Simply this: Militant atheists use Darwin's work in a way that others do not. Only one book was on display in the Stalin Museum. I thought of the incredibly rich Russian literary and intellectual history. There could have been any number of books put there. And yet, the one book displayed was Darwin's. My attitude was "but of course." That is all I meant.