Faces of Tehran

The revolution has devoured downtown Tehran. The governmental quarter, built by the old Pahlavi Shah in the 1930s with French and German architects in art déco style, was taken over by the regime of the ayatollahs, but they did not like it, and left it to its fate. The bourgeoisie living here perished, emigrated, or moved to the northern part of the city, to the foot of the mountains, founding there the so-called “Republic of North Tehran”, which markedly differs from the rest of the country. And the old city center was overwhelmed by the millions coming from the countryside in search of luck. In the neighborhood of the National Museum and the Shah Palace, at the ground floor of the ministries, in the lobbies of the former cinemas and theaters, there are spare auto part and hardware shops; the aristocratic-style tea houses work as daytime warming places, and the first floor windows of the palaces of the old bourgeoisie yawn empty, because only their ground floor is used for shops, but nobody lives there any more. The beautiful, colorful, Shiraz-type late 18th and early 19th century tiles are freely drilled and chiseled to serve new functions.

Peyman Hooshamadze, today a classical master of Iranian photography, photographed this world, the new population seeking its place in the old scenery, at the end of the 1990s. In his recent album “100” he publishes a hundred portraits from those years, grouped by scenes. He starts at the old railway station, like the newcomers did, and passes among those who have succeeded as clothiers or retailers, and those who were waiting for their luck or simply killing time in a decaying tea house. But he also notes the remnants of the former civilian world: he whiles a lot of time in Shouka Café, which, exceptionally, was preserved as a haunt for publishers, intellectuals and artists, and also visits the zurkhânân, the traditional gymnasiums.

These faces, photographed by Hooshamadze, are not held at arm’s length, regarding them as “others”, but with a real attention and empathy, are not unknown to us. Similar faces were photographed with similar attention during similar social changes in the 70s and 80s in Hungary by Endre Lábass and Péter Korniss, and by others in other countries of the East. Looking at the Persian faces, we can almost tell their stories, or what they are saying to the photographer.

At the time of these photos, as much time had passed since the revolution as the time of their publication. This means that Hooshamadze was already recording a fragile, but established new world. And also that you can still find this world and these figures in downtown Tehran, in the alleys, eateries and shops. Soon I will write about some such encounters.

Persian tea houses were once the gathering places of wealthy citizens, merchants and officials, and often intellectual workshops. Their former rank is indicated by the surviving furniture, the traditional colored tiles, and the enormous scenes and heroes from the Book of Kings, also modeled in tiles. In the Tehran of the 1990s, however, this is all past. Tea houses are visited by the assistants of the nearby cheap shops and those who have nowhere else to go. At that time, there were still a number of wandering singers with long-necked lutes, the aşiks, who nowadays still sometimes play in the Tehran metro, and who today, in the age of nostalgia for the ancient tea houses, are sometimes hired for night-time performance by one or another revitalized and fashionable tea house.

Morteza Ahmadi: شاطر علی ممد Shater Ali Mammad. The characteristic “rap” of old Tehran from the CD صدای طهرون قدیمی Sedâye Tehrûn-e ghadimi (Sounds of old Tehran, 2012).

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To the north of the railway station unfolded Tehran’s red-light district Shahr-e No – about which Kaveh Golestan made a shattering photo series –, and its gate, the Gomrok quarter, Tehran’s jumble sale, the world of old-clothes-men, pimps and fences. The end of the nineties was the last moment it could be photographed – of course, only after proper integration –, because later both districts were swept away by the city administration.

“I was lifting weight in prison when they razed my house.” Ahmad Soltani, 46, from Qorveh, arrived at Tehran 4 days ago, the 43rd time

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“I have nine children, all of them Tehranis.” Esmail Elhami, 60, from around Ardabil, illiterate

Today Shouka Café has a reputation and a patina as one of the few old cafés which has lived through the “difficult times”. At the end of the 90s, however, they were just living them through. Playwright Yar-Ali Pourmoghaddam found it as a kind of Noah’s Ark, which provided shelter and company for the editors and artists from near and far. Some of the young faces photographed by Hooshamadze at that time are today influential Persian intellectuals at home or abroad.

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Another important community venue to survive the revolution are the zurkhânes, the “strength houses”, the traditional bodybuilding clubs. Their history reaches back to pre-Islamic times, and their rituals and customs evidence Zoroastrian traditions. From the late 19th century on it was particularly fashionable to visit such clubs, either as a wrestler or as a fan of the most prominent athletes. The Islamic regime initially tried to suppress the zurkhânes as a pre-Islamic tradition – it is in this period that these photos were taken in the small strength houses scattered between the railway station and the Shah Park –, but since then they have been incorporated in the official culture, and are again an element of Iranian identity.

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One of the central pieces of the impressive Pieter Bruegel exhibition in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is the Tower of Babel (1563). In the painting, a gigantic, high-rise, half-finished zikkurat rises into the sky. Hundreds of small construction workers bustle around it, and in the foreground, the ambitious king is just visiting the construction site. The king, identified by Josephus Flavius (1.4) with the pagan Nimrod, Noah’s grandson, apparently pays much more attention to humiliating the construction workers than to the construction, to which he turns his back, so he does not see the enormous storm in the sky, which will soon ruin the tower. At the first sight, the picture thus represents that moralizing genre, in which Bruegel created so many pictures and with so much invention, the world of the illustrated proverbs and moral truths: he who flies high falls deep, and he who humiliates others will be humiliated.

The king visiting the construction site. Below: the signature of Bruegel on the stone to the right, and exactly above it, at the base of the tower, a small figure who “shits on it all”.

Another, political interpretation of the image is also widespread in the literature. According to this, in the context of the Catholic-Protestant opposition and Hapsburg expansion in the Netherlands, the tower – whose structure was taken by Bruegel from Hieronymus Cock’s Colosseum engraving of 1551, and from his own drawings of the Colosseum made during his Italian travel – alludes to Rome and the Roman church, while the king humiliating the workers, Philip II and the Spanish repression in the Netherlands. The hidden condemnation of Rome and Spain is not uncommon in Bruegel’s other paintings either. In the Massacre of the Innocents (1565), for example, Spanish mercenaries are doing the executioner’s job in a Flemish village. And after his death (1569), one of his major patrons, Abraham Ortelius, the great cartographer of Antwerp, explicitly advised his widow “to burn his anti-Spanish paintings”.

Hieronymus Cock, The Colosseum, 1551

Pieter Bruegel, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-67

However, the most elaborated line in the picture is what you can hardly on reproductions, only in front of the original picture. This is the multitude of the tiny construction scenes that make the tower rise to the sky. Ships lay the building material on the beach, people carry stones on handbarrow, wagon and ladder, scaffolds are built, strange elevating machines are turned, clothes are dried and lunch cooked. The whole tower is a well-coordinated construction site, apparently before the confusion of the languages.

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All this fits to Bruegel’s two characteristic compositional methods. One is that the actual subject of the picture is represented somewhere in a secondary place, in the side, in the back, almost hidden, like the legs of Ikarus drowning in the water in the Fall of Icarus. The other is encyclopedicism: that he passionately collects all the examples of a subject, such as in Children’s Games or in the Netherlandish Proverbs. In the Tower of Babel, in the background, on the walls of the tower, where only the attentive observer sees it, he creates a veritable catalog of building industry. From this single picture one could reconstruct the methods and logistics of 16th-century Netherlandish construction.

In 1563, Antwerp was the fastest growing city in Europe, enriching and expanding at an incredible speed. Bruegel daily encountered the building procedures represented in the Tower of Babel, and he supposedly collected them in sketches, according to his usual method, in order to assemble them in a great composition. Thus, this hidden dimension of the painting at the same time documents the enrichment of Antwerp – the city in the shadow of the tower –, and, in the context of the moral message of the picture, it warns of the danger of rapid enrichment:

“The merchants who became rich from her, will stand at a distance because of the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning: “Woe, woe, that great city, she who was clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones, and pearls! For in one hour such great wealth has been laid waste!” (Rev 18:15-17)

In Antwerp, this catastrophe occurred on 4 November 1576, in the first act of the Spanish-Dutch Eighty Years’ War. Fortunately, Bruegel did not have to live it.

The exhibition is completely captivating. When coming out, we even see Bruegel in the window of the opposite travel agency.

Holy Thursday in Seven Cities, Azores

The volcano crater of Sete Cidades, with its double lagoon: the Green Lagoon in the foreground, and the Blue Lagoon in the background. Seen from the Cerrado das Freiras.

We are in the almost most westerly parish of Europe. This is due to São José, in the freguesía of Fajã Grande, in the Isla de Flores of the Azores – of course, if we accept beforehand that these islands belong to Europe, despite sitting on the American plate. But where we are now is the westernmost parish of the Island of San Miguel, halfway between the Finis Terrae of the old continent and the coast of Newfoundland. Exactly, in the front of the church of San Nicolás, erected in the nineteenth century, in a particularly beautiful volcanic crater that bears the crowded-sounding name of Sete Cidades. Even though there are no cities here, and even of people there are very few. The name comes from the legendary Isla de las Siete Ciudades, the Island of the Seven Cities, never found, but very much alive in the literature and dreams of the cartographers, sailors and explorers of the Atlantic, described for centures in endless variations.

Any visit to these islands, with the omnipresent sea and harsh geographical conditions, evokes the world of the whales and whale hunters. Among the men and women who gathered on this Holy Thursday in the church of San Nicolás, few would not have had a family member who earned their bread hunting whales. Surely, too, most have had family members who emigrated to America. The two things used to go together. They called it “taking the leap”: to go out at night, clandestinely, on an American whaler, to have a job, and above all, to avoid the obligatory recruitment for military service. Under cover of darkness, when they were aware that an American whaling ship was nearby, the men who wanted a new life would light a bonfire on the rocks of the coast, and at this signal the captain sent a boat to enroll them. The presence of the Azorean whalers (or, as they were known in Nantucket and New Bedford, the men of the Western Islands) is recorded even in Moby Dick.

José Pecheco, Luís Silva: Canção de despedida (Farewell song). From the album Chants des baleiniers portugais de Faial, Açores (Songs of the whalers of Faial, Azores, 1958)

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Whale hunting put roots in the islands from 1756 on, when the first whaling boat from New England circumnavigated the Azores. By 1880, a third of the 3.896 whalers of the New Bedford fleet were Azorean. At that time, the islanders themselves were developing a fleet and a local industry. It was relatively weak, almost artisanal, because they never had enough capital to compete with the American vessels. Only for a few years, beginning with 1951, did local whaling reach a significant industrial level (751 sperm whales and 16,000 barrels of oil in the same year), but it was very ephemeral: In 1957, with the destructive eruption of the Vulcão dos Capelinhos and the subsequent massive emigration, it went into rapid decline until its total cessation on August 21, 1987, when a group of men hunted the last sperm whale, a 15-meter leviathan, and processed it on the Isla de Pico. We’ll talk about it in a future post. Today there are very few old whalers, usually men of few words, testimonies to a way of life that, like so many others, will never come back.

Jueves Santo en Sete Cidades, Azores

Caldera volcánica de Sete Cidades, con su laguna doble: la Laguna Verde, más cerca, y la Laguna Azul al fondo. Vista desde el Cerrado das Freiras.

Por poco no estamos en la parroquia más occidental de Europa. Este título le correspondería a la de São José en la freguesía de Fajã Grande, en la azoriana Isla de Flores  —si aceptamos antes, claro está, que esta isla es Europa a pesar de asentarse sobre la placa americana—. Pero donde sí estamos ahora es en la parroquia más occidental de la Isla de San Miguel, es decir, a medio camino desde el Finis Terrae del viejo continente a las costas de Terranova. Exactamente ante la iglesia de San Nicolás, erigida el siglo XIX en una hoya volcánica especialmente hermosa que ostenta el populoso nombre de Sete Cidades. Aunque ciudades propiamente dichas aquí no hay ninguna; y gente, poca. El nombre le viene de la legendaria Isla de las Siete Ciudades, nunca encontrada pero viva en la literatura y las ensoñaciones de cartógrafos, marineros y exploradores del Atlántico, y contada a lo largo de los siglos con infinitas variantes.

Cualquier visita a estas islas, con el mar omnipresente y la dureza de las condiciones geográficas, pone sin remedio en nuestra imaginación el mundo de las ballenas y de los balleneros. Entre los hombres y mujeres que se congregaban este Jueves Santo en la iglesia de San Nicolás, pocos debía haber que no tuvieran un familiar que hubiera vivido de la caza de ballenas y cachalotes. Seguramente también la mayoría habrán tenido familiares que emigraron a América. Las dos cosas solían ir unidas, y llamaban «dar el salto» a subirse de noche, clandestinamente, a un ballenero norteamericano para tener trabajo y, sobre todo, por evitar el reclutamiento obligatorio para el servicio militar. Ayudados por la oscuridad, cuando sabían que algún barco ballenero americano estaba cerca, los hombres que deseaban una vida nueva encendían una hoguera en las rocas de la costa y a esta señal el capitán del barco botaba una chalupa para enrolarlos. Hasta en Moby Dick se recoge la presencia de balleneros azorianos (o, como se conocían en Nantucket y New Bedford, hombres de las Western Islands).

José Pecheco, Luís Silva: Canção de despedida. Del album Chants des baleiniers portugais de Faial, Açores (Canciones de los balleneros portuguese de Faial, Azores, 1958)

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Fue a partir de 1756, al avistarse la primera embarcación ballenera de Nueva Inglaterra rondando las Azores, cuando la caza se hizo presente en las islas. En 1880, un tercio de los 3.896 balleneros de la flota de New Bedford eran azorianos. También los propios isleños fueron desde entonces desarrollando una flota y una industria local. Relativamente débil, casi artesanal, porque nunca llegó allí capital suficiente como para competir con las embarcaciones de alta mar americanas. Solo durante unos pocos años, a partir de 1951, la caza de ballenas alcanzó un nivel industrial significativo (751 cachalotes y 16.000 barriles de aceite en ese mismo año, por ejemplo) pero fue muy efímero: en 1957, con la erupción destructora del Vulcão dos Capelinhos y la subsiguiente emigración masiva, empezó un rápido declive hasta el cese total el 21 de agosto de 1987. Ese día, un grupo de amigos cazó el último cachalote, un leviatán de 15 metros descuartizado en la Isla de Pico. Hablaremos de ello en una próxima entrada. Quedan ya muy pocos viejos balleneros, normalmente hombres de escasas palabras, testimonios de una forma de vida que, como tantas otras, es imposible que vuelva.

The other city

My notebook’s screen went wrong. In the beginning, when opened to a gap, I still could see on it what the notebook was doing, and when inserting my hand in the gap, like in the mouth of the crocodile, I even could manipulate it. But then the gap was darkened as well, and from then on the machine lived its own inaccessible life. I muffled it and started to go around in Sarajevo to find a place whether it would be plugged to an external screen, so I could save the horribly important data of the past few weeks. The first place was recommended by the hotel, he was an old TV technician, but extremely intelligent, like most Bosnians, and very well versed in the business. He plugged the HDMI output of the notebook to a HDMI screen, but it did not show anything. In fact, this notebook only displays the image on the external screen when instructed to do so; and to instruct it, you should see the screen of the laptop. A vicious circle. The old man offered me to take out the HD and copy my data, but with the opening of the machine I would have also lost the warranty. So I check on the Google map the notebook services in Sarajevo, and begin to roam about the city.

Strange nooks, never-seen neighborhoods, back corridors of department stores open before me. I will arrange the next adventure tour not on horseback and speedy rivers, but I will compile it from such tasks: you will have to take a car radio to repair in St. Petersburg, or buy an external CD drive in Addis Ababa. Labyrinthic shops, unknown machines and spare parts in stalls, strange, coll figures. Elsewhere, on the door of a closed shop, a nicely printed paper: “We are on vacation, look back from time to time.” But the mouth of the notebook remains closed.

I give it up, and start back to the old man to open the notebook. And as it usually happens, only after the last place I discover the great billboard at the corner: Win Com, notebook sale and repair. Hrasno quarter, this is the place of the advertisement: https://goo.gl/maps/1y9wfvP4Xh92. I thought: what could I lose? A well-furnished shop at the bottom of a socialist-style ten-floor building. A cheerful young man is talking on the phone at the table, he nods when I ask him whether he speaks English. I take out the patient, I explain the problem. You can clearly see how his brain is rolling. He also tries some cables, he also arrives where the others had arrived. Then he continues thinking, and the wheel in his mind suddenly goes beyond the deadlock. He does something that no one thought of: links the HDMI outlet of the modern notebook to an old VGA screen. This screen does not offer any option, it does not expect any instruction, it automatically sucks the signal from the machine. The content appears on the screen. I can start the long process of data transfer.

The man orders coffee from the neighboring bar, we talk. I notice the accidental German conjunction words, I ask him. He happily turns the speech to German. During the war of 1992-1995, he lived with his family in Berlin. Where? In Alt-Tegel. And I live in Charlottenburg, I tell him, just six stops from there. We are neighbors. He went to high school in Berlin, then he graduated in Belgrade. Was it not awkward to study in Serbia? Yes, it was, but he had no other choice. Since then, Sarajevo has also recovered, it was worth to come back. This shop is completely his own, he proudly shows around. A new man arrives, a good friend. Sead introduces me, we shake hands. We order another coffee. The newcomer speaks only Bosnian, I reply in Czech, we mutually praise the beauty of the girls in Budapest and Sarajevo.

The data transfer ends in the meantime. I ask for some used cardboard to pack my machine for DHL. Then I go to the next point. I want to buy a cheap second-hand notebook for a month, until Amazon sends me the replacement machine to Berlin. On the shelves there are some types which had been veterans already years ago, but Sead’s eyes brighten up. “There is one, I have not yet put it out. It is the best one, they would have taken it in one day.” An Asus M70S, which recalls to me the flat-sized computers once carried around with a truck. It is a robust device completely filling a standard-size hand luggage, it looks like a German tank. I only measure it in the hotel, it weights four and a half kilos. For a month from now, my companion in the valley of the Neretva and on the ridges of the Caucasus, in bus, in boat and on horseback. It comes with Windows 7 and every necessary program, in Bosnian. A hundred and thirty euros. A deal. In the meantime, another man comes in, with excellent German. He lived in Reinickendorf, halfway between two of us. Sead also invites his brother, and calls on Skype his Bosnian friend in New York, who had lived in Hönow, endlessly far from us, in the far side of Berlin. The closing time is long gone, the five Berlin expats are happily sipping coffee in the small notebook shop in Sarajevo’s outskirts, and recalling the magnificent city.

Danubian clouds

The plane takes off, for one minute it seems to move toward the downtown, but then turns sharply south, it follows the line of the Danube. On both sides of the river’s strip, the colorful chessboards of arable lands, mining lakes and salty backwaters shine in the vaporous afternoon sunshine.

After crossing the Serbian border, the plane soon reaches Vukovar where the Danube, obeying the orders of the old kings, turned to the east, and still outlines the boundaries of a missing country. The plane, before saying goodbye to that country, and continuing its journey south through the long Serbian corridor in front of the crowded rooms of the small Western Balkan peoples, describes an elegant circle above the last river bend, which, along with its three tributaries, draws a complex circuit on the Bačka plain.

The Erdőd (in Croatian, Erdut) Bend, as the Danubian Islands blog writes, was forced to turn to east by the Erdőd loess range, which rises up to sixty meters above the river. The loess range, extending from Almás to Erdőd, is well visible on the map of the First Military Survey (1763-1787). To the east, at Almás the Drava flows into the Danube, from the south the stream, which the map still calls Weis Graben, and from the north the tiny river of Mostunka. If, on the map of Mapire.eu, you click on Options, and then you set the layer of “First Military Survey” to 0%, you will see that the lake under the former Rácz Millidits and today’s Srpski Miletić, which, in the foreground of the photo, repeats the bend in the shape of a half moon, gathered up from the water of the river.

The afternoon vapors have become thicker, and a multitude of tiny clouds rise up from the hot plain, forming a threatening cloud cup. Sometime, when kayaking on the Danube, we used to look up worried, whether it would be poured upon us before we camped. Below, the Danube is the reality, the paddle strikes, the country borders. From below, the clouds floating above the large water belong to it: they are the Danubian clouds. Seen from above, the three-dimensional world of the clouds is realistic and self-contained: they do not belong to anything, least to the tiny strip meandering on the worn cloth of the earth. Nevertheless, they are the same Danubian clouds. This is why I could send this photo to the Danubian clouds photo contest of the Danubian Islands blog, where it won the first prize. The river has been stretched to the sky, “the foundations flew upon high.”

Tamás Sajó: The cloud looks back

Stalin's Vestal Virgins

When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the centuries old tradition of keeping dancing beers was banned in the country. The Austrian Four Paws foundation purchased the animals from their keepers, and carried them to the bear park of Belitsa, where they have been gradually teaching them how to live, move about, copulate and obtain food as free bears do. Yet, when they see a man, these bears stand again on two feet, and start dancing. As if they were calling their former keeper to come back and take their control in his hand again. As if they were telling: “Let him beat me, let him treat me badly, but let him relieve me of this goddamned need to deal with my own life”, writes the Polish star journalist Witold Szabłowski in his 2014 book Tańczące niedźwiedzie (Dancing bears. True stories of people nostalgic for life under tyranny).

Szabłowski devotes the first chapter to his conversations with Gypsy bear keepers and animal rights activists. But, as the subtitle of the book indicates, he also uses the figure of the bears longing for their former life, captive but without responsibilities, as a metaphor. While traveling through Eastern Europe, from Estonia to Grece, he shows in a series of reports how nostalgic these peoples are of the past dictatorships as a period of security in all sorts of ways, and how this nostalgia becomes a fertile soil for new dictatorships.

Chapter Eighth is about Georgia, and one of its emblematic buildings, the Stalin Museum in Gori. This was founded in 1957 by Gori’s council next to the modest birthplace of the Leader, which was surrounded by a stunning Stalin Baroque protective building as a sarcophagus. The foundation was indirectly inspired by Khrushchev’s secret speech on the 20th party congress of 1956, in which he condemned the sins of Stalinism. Although Georgia suffered a great deal from Stalin’s and Beria’s terror, the Georgians considered the speech as the plundering of their national pride, and two weeks later, on March 5, the anniversary of Stalin’s death, they went to the streets to protect Stalin'ş memory, absurdly, against the Soviet government. The demonstration, which lasted for several days, was finally suppressed by the tanks of the Soviet army, leaving dozens – or hundreds – of dead after them. From the on, the Georgian party leadership kept distance from the Soviet one, and one of its first gestures was the founding of the Stalin Museum, the memorial place of “the real Stalin”, in Gori.

In the 1990s, the museum was closed down for a long time, but the exhibition was not suppressed. They planned to reorganize it so it would also display the sins of Stalinism, but nothing came of it. After the reopening in the 2000s, the exhibition remained the same, only a couple of tableaus were added to illustrate the Georgian historical background. And the spirit of the museum and of the museum workers has also remained the same. This spirit has been captured by Szabłowski in his conversations with the museum staff, from which he compiled the following chapter, entitled Stalin’s Vestal Virgins.

“He comes to me at night. He gazes at me, puffs on his pipe, and twirls his mustache. He smiles, and then heads for the door. Then I weep and cry for him to stay. But what guy would be bothered by a woman crying? Georgian men are like that: they have a drink, enter you, come quickly, and fall asleep. I hate men who drink. But here in Gori there’s no other kind. The other kind only exists in American movies.

“Stalin was a different matter. Highly civilized. He knew how to take care of a woman, how to pay her a compliment, how to smell nice. He lived modestly, but he wore smart clothes. And he didn’t drink too much. And if he did, it was only good, foreign alcohol. I hardly need mention the fact that he conquered fascism and Hitler. So I said to myself many years ago, ‘Tanya, why the hell should you have to squabble with drunks? Why the hell, when you can live with Stalin?’”

Anna Sreseli: He’s like family

“We’re standing outside the house where Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was born. His parents lived in poverty. His mother did laundry for the local priests. His father was a cobbler. As you can see, his house has had a structure in the classical style built around it, and the neighboring ones have been demolished. Yes, the entire district. No, I don’t think there’s anything odd about that. Would you be happier if there were hens crapping here, and children playing ball?

“My grandmother lived in one of the houses that was demolished. She was given an apartment in a block. To the end of her life she kept saying, ‘How happy I am to have been born next to Stalin’s house. And that I can still see it from my windows.’

“Grandmother could remember Stalin’s mother. He lived here for more than a decade. She lived here almost to the end of her life. For us, it was a big source of pride. The biggest. Because in our town there’s nothing else going on. If it weren’t for the museum, the town would have ceased to exist long ago.

“A few years ago we had a war. The Ossetia border isn’t far away. A hundred Russian tanks drove into Gori. We fled to Tbilisi. I wasn’t afraid they’d blow up my housing block and my apartment, only that they’d blow up the museum. But they didn’t damage anything. They’re still afraid of Stalin. They didn’t touch the smallest patch of grass. They just took photos of each other by his statue. And that’s how Stalin saved us from beyond the grave.

“When I was at school, some of the girls dreamed of working in a store, others longed to fly into outer space, but I wanted to tell people about our great compatriot. I steered my entire life toward making it come true. I chose to study history. And after college I ran straight to the museum to ask for a job.

“But by then the Soviet Union had collapsed. The museum was closed and had barely survived. They had only recently begun to employ people again. I was the first person to be accepted in the new intake. Meanwhile I’d started to teach history at the high school—so I work part time at the museum.

“When I was at college, we were still taught that Stalin was an outstanding statesman. But the system changed, the curriculum changed, and now I have to teach that he was a tyrant and a criminal. I don’t think that’s true. The resettlements? They were necessary for people to live in peace. The killings? He wasn’t responsible for them—it was Beria. The famine in Ukraine? That was a natural disaster. The Katyn massacre? I knew you’d ask. All the Poles ask about it. But there was a war on—in wartime that sort of action is a normal thing. And before you start ranting, please let me finish. Are you feeling calmer now? All right, I’ll tell you my personal opinion.

“I regard Stalin as a great man, but I can’t say that, either to my students or to the tourists, so I say, ‘Some regard him as a dictator, others as a tyrant, and others see him as a genius. What he really was, you can decide for yourselves.’”

Tatiana Mardzhanishvili: O Christ, take me to dear Stalin

“When I see what they’ve done to our beloved Stalin, my heart bleeds! How could they? How could they make such a good man into a monster, a cannibal, an ogre?

“Once upon a time, bus after bus came to our museum. People stood in lines several hundred yards long. I used to look at those people’s faces, and I could see the goodness emanating from them. But nowadays? One would bite the other. That’s capitalism for you.

“Now I don’t go there anymore. First, because of regret—for my youth, my job, and my friends. And second, because my legs are weak. I can’t even get down the stairs on my own. In March I’ll be eighty-two, and you can’t expect a person to be healthy all their life. In the morning I get up, cut a slice of bread, make the tea, sit down, and say to myself, ‘O Christ, why did you let me live to see times like these? Why do they badmouth our darling Stalin?’

“But later I think, ‘Just remember, Tanya, how much Stalin suffered for the people. It was for you too that he went without enough food and sleep. He fought against fascism so you could finish your education.’ And then I fetch the medal with Stalin’s face on it, which I was given when I retired. I stroke the darling man’s mustache, and somehow I feel better.

“I worked at the museum from 1975. As a nabliudatel, a person responsible for the order and safety of the exhibits. If anyone tried to touch them, we had to go and shout at them.

“It wasn’t easy. Old women used to come from the villages and throw themselves at our Stalin. They had to kiss each picture in the display, like icons in a church. And there are over a thousand of those pictures! If a whole busload of those old crones drove in, and they all wanted to kiss them, what was I to do? If the director was looking, I’d go up and shout. But if he wasn’t, I’d say, ‘Kiss away, ladies. May God grant you good health! But don’t touch the mask! Under no circumstances.’ The mask is the most sacred object in the entire museum, because it’s his death mask.

“Before, I worked at the National Museum in Tbilisi, but my second husband was from Gori, and I managed to arrange a transfer. It wasn’t easy. The Stalin museum wasn’t a place you could just walk into off the street and ask, ‘You don’t have a job opening, do you?’ Public opinion counted. I was a divorcée. My first husband drank and beat me—the less said about him the better. At the time, I was afraid the divorce would be a problem. Luckily, I had a very good reference from the museum in Tbilisi.

“The smartest people from all over the world used to come and admire Stalin’s house. From all over Russia, Asia, and America. Journalists, ambassadors, and artists. And I stood among the exhibits with a small card showing my name, as proud as could be. That job meant everything to me. The museum was like a home to me. “My husband didn’t understand. I had nothing to talk to him about. Although I only guarded the exhibits, I used to read books and got to know new people. But he drank too. He tried to beat me, but this time I wasn’t having it. Later on, he fell sick and went on welfare. He’d spend all day long sitting in the apartment, or at his mother’s. He used to say nasty things about Stalin, just to spite me.

“When the USSR collapsed, he stuck out his tongue at me. It gave him great satisfaction. And then he died.

“It’s a shame he didn’t live to the present times. Now I’d be sticking out my tongue at him. What do we need all this capitalism for, all these American cheeses, juices, and chocolate? You can’t even buy normal milk anymore—it has to be in a carton, because that’s how it is in America. I think, ‘O Christ, take me off to my dear Stalin. Take me away from this world, because I can’t bear it here any longer.’”

Nana Magavariani: Whenever I see him, a shiver goes down my spine

“My job title used to be ‘head of personnel.’ Nowadays it’s ‘manager.’

“The museum has a total of sixty-three employees. I am responsible for their recruitment and employment. There are ten tour guides, eleven custodians, and two cashiers. Since last year, we also have a pioneer—a girl in a uniform and a red scarf who sells postcards and poses for pictures. That was my idea, for which I received a personal commendation from the director. ‘A tourist has to have something to be photographed with, sir. Otherwise he won’t praise our museum, and as a result we’ll have bad PR.’ I know, because we’ve had special training on tourist activity within capitalism.

“In the past, people used to come mainly from the Soviet Union. Russian was enough for us, but we also had two ladies who knew English and French. Nowadays a Russian tourist is a rare occasion for celebration. If one turns up, half the personnel comes to look at him. And we give him the best possible tour. Let them see that politics is politics, but the Georgians are their friends.

“These days most of the tourists are from America and Poland. And that’s a problem, because not all the ladies know English well enough to provide for that sort of tourist—here each tourist has a personal guide. What can we do? It’s not as if I’m going to fire the ladies before their retirement, or teach them English. They can see that in the new times they’re not needed, and that they’re a sort of burden for the museum. But we never talk to one another about it. I know what it means to lose your job in your prime.

“I used to work at a clothing factory. In the personnel department too. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the factory collapsed with it. And everything was looted—even the glass was stolen out of the window frames. In Stalin’s day something like that wouldn’t have been possible. The culprits would have been punished. So these days when I hear the stories they tell about him, I say, ‘People, you’ve lost your minds. Remember the Soviet Union. Everyone had work. The children had a free education. From Tbilisi to Vladivostok.’ If it weren’t for Communism, I, for example, would still be living in the countryside. I would never have thought of occupying a managerial position, because only men had those jobs before then. No system has ever given women as much.

“Since its collapse, everything is worse. In the past, the doctors couldn’t refuse to help a poor person. Now the health service is private, and even if you break a leg you have to pay. It’s the same with education. A retired person used to have the phone for free, and paid less for electricity. But now? You get a pension of twenty dollars, and the prices are like in the West.

“And life gets worse and worse for women. In the USSR men had a good life. There were no wars. And if a man hit you, you could go and complain to the party committee. The committee informed the party cell at the factory, and the abuser could get into big trouble.

“These days the men have no work and they’re frustrated. And when one of them hits you, you’ve no one to defend you.

“But at our museum most of the staff are women. Even in the support services, which I haven’t encountered at any other workplace of this kind. Most of the space here is dedicated to Stalin as a son, a husband, and a father. Less to him as a soldier or as a strategist. Women are much better suited to this.

“I also think Stalin’s magic is at work here. Women were always mad about him. The wives of diplomats wrote in their diaries that he was very attractive.

“Something of his charm remains to this day. Sometimes when I stop at his death mask, I only have to glance at it, and it sends such a shiver down my spine that I have to go outside into the fresh air for a while.”

Larisa Gazashvili: I love his poetry

“My parents were the Romeo and Juliet of the Stalin era.

“My paternal grandfather was a Georgian prince. He rode a white horse, he had a large estate, and in his house he kept a padlocked chest of gold. When Communism came along, they called him a kulak,* they took away his land and his gold, and left him with nothing but the chest. I still have it to this day.

“My maternal grandfather was from a peasant family. Thanks to Stalin, he went to school. Thanks to Stalin, he worked on a collective farm, and later on—also thanks to Stalin—he became its manager.

“The worse life became for my paternal grandfather, the better it was for my maternal one. When my parents fell in love, neither of their fathers would hear of them getting married.

“My grandfather, the manager, shut my mother in the house under lock and key. Later on he sent her to college in Moscow. He sought out suitors for her among the sons of his friends.

“My other grandfather, the prince, sought a wife for my father from the former aristocracy. Later on he shouted at him. And even later he cursed him.

“But as we all know, when young people dig in their heels there’s no one more determined. My parents got married, with neither set of parents present at the wedding. They never went to visit each other, and pretended not to know each other. So it was to the end of their lives. “So when I got a job at the Stalin museum, my grandfather the manager kissed me heartily. And my grandfather the prince was mortally offended.

“At the museum I was responsible for propaganda. It was a very serious role. We used to publish a newspaper, Stalin’s poetry, and other literature. He wrote beautiful poems. Romantic, tugging at the heartstrings. If he hadn’t become a politician, who knows, maybe he’d have won the Nobel Prize?

“The newspaper was called Bulletin. Or rather at one time it was called Bulletin of the Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin Museum. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was reduced to Bulletin. To avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

“When the USSR collapsed, we had awful confusion. First they closed our museum; then they opened it again. They changed the exhibition, then went back to the old one. Nobody had the money to replace the entire display. Nor did anyone have the courage to close the museum down entirely. Too many Georgians still love Stalin.

“Now, unfortunately, there’s no money to publish the Bulletin. And I’m a tour guide.

“I went to college in Kaliningrad. I had a good life there. I worked at a school, but when Mommy fell seriously ill I had to come back to Gori.

“Some people we knew said a woman at the Stalin museum had gone on maternity leave. So I went to the party committee to ask about the job. They said first I had to pass an exam.

“The exam was hard. I had to quote by heart from the history of the Communist Party, Stalin’s biography, and the history of the USSR. But I had studied history. I knew it all by heart. So I passed with flying colors.

“So many bad things are said about Communism, but in the past the director understood that on Sundays I had to have the day off because I’m a churchgoer. Yet now they’ve put me down for Sundays. Out of malice, I’m sure.”

Tatiana Gurgenidze: I’d have been good to him

“I was born in a bad system. Because I have the mentality of a socialist hero of labor. When something needs to be done for society, I go and do it. I’ve produced a wall newspaper for the employees and classes for single mothers bringing up children on their own.

“In the Communist era, everyone would have respected me. But now that we have capitalism, they look at me as if I’m an idiot.

“So when I really can’t manage anymore, I come to the museum to calm down. And I say, ‘Mr. Stalin, I know you’d appreciate it.’ And it helps. And when I dream about Stalin—as I told you, he looks at me, twirls his moustache, and leaves—it’s usually a few days after one of those relaxing museum visits.

“I’m not really in the right era when it comes to my attitude to men either. You see, there wasn’t any sex in the Soviet Union, at least not obviously. There was ‘intercourse between the genders.’ There wasn’t any of what the young people watch on television these days. All those music videos and naked butts, if you’ll pardon the expression. Instead of a kiss, someone just lightly stroked someone else’s arm, and that was enough. A woman had to be a good worker, dress and behave modestly. So whenever I’m shocked by the sight of today’s young girls, I go to the museum too. And I say, ‘Mr. Stalin, you wouldn’t like it either.’ And once again it helps.

“I don’t like drunks. Or drug addicts. Our president upsets me, because why does he have to antagonize Russia? It’s a known fact that you can even come to terms with a bear if you want to. But Saakashvili* is insistent—with Russia just across the border—on making a second America here. We’ve had a war because of him, and we’re sure to have another one too. When the war was on, they closed the museum, so I came to the park, to the statue, and I said, ‘Mr. Stalin, you’d have got a firm grip on it all, and there’d be peace.’

“And sometimes I go and say to him, ‘If you were alive, maybe we’d be together. You’d have a good time with me. I know how to cook, I’m a cheerful person, and I can sing well too.’ And I fantasize about how nice it would be to be Stalin’s wife. But later on I reject those thoughts, because I’m behaving like an idiot. Stalin is dead. Communism has collapsed. It’s over. It’s finished. Been and gone.

“If I dream about him when I’m feeling like that, I’m very cold and official toward him in my dream.”

Natia Joldbori: son, be like Stalin

“My momma told me, ‘Darling, don’t go for that job. Of course Stalin was a great man. But something like that looks bad on your résumé these days. One day you’ll want a different job, and they won’t give it to you. Besides, it’s embarrassing to work there.’

“But I have a small son, and I needed the money. In Gori, if you have any ambitions, there’s no choice. You can teach at a school or work in the local administration. Or at Stalinland—that’s what some people call our museum. Young people especially like to make fun of it. They call the women who work here the Stalinettes or the vestal virgins—because it’s as if they’re doing their best not to let the flame of Communism go out. I keep all that at arm’s length, though I can see that for most people in Gori the world ended when the USSR collapsed. I have one elderly colleague whose grandfathers were both killed in the Stalin era, but even so she’ll never stop defending him and loving him.

“I can hardly remember Communism. I was born when it was in its decline. I remember seeing the tanks in Vilnius on TV. When we regained independence, my dad and I went to the main town square with a Georgian flag. Those are fine memories.

“Dad soon understood the new times. He sent me to learn English when I was just seven years old. Thanks to my English, I got my job at the museum. There are only two of us here who can speak it. As a result, we have the most tour groups, while the ladies who are deeply in love with Stalin sit and make themselves cup after cup of coffee. Afterward, we get the same salary as them. But I’m not complaining. The main thing is that I have a job.

“My son doesn’t know a single word of Russian. He’s had English since preschool. It’ll be a totally different generation. Stalin? A completely abstract concept.

“What do I think about Stalin? Here, in Gori, it’s customary for parents or grandparents to take their kids to the museum and tell them about him. I brought my toddler here too. And I told him, just like it says in those American guides to success, ‘He was much worse off than you are. His father drank, his cottage was falling down, and the other kids were good-for-nothings. But he was hardworking, thanks to which years later he ruled the entire country. If you study, you can achieve a lot too.’”

Anna Tkabladze: we boycott the carve-up of Poland

“Here we have his favorite cigarettes. Here’s the watch he was given by his mother. He was a good son. An affectionate husband. A loving father. He cared for his staff as if they were his own children.

“Nowadays they say he was a bad man. But in the archive we have pictures of him planting apple trees in the summer. I think a bad man would have been beating someone up or killing them, not planting trees. You have your views. That he murdered millions. But there’s no proof of that. All the documents were faked by Beria. Stalin only made one mistake—he was too good. He put too much trust in others.

“I can’t say all that to the tourists. The management writes scripts for the guided tours. What’s in them? Just like I said: he was a good son and an affectionate husband. We can also mention that he defeated fascism. But not much more. Murders? I’ve just about had enough of you. Here we have a sort of unwritten agreement that if a tourist really gets under our skin, we can go outside the museum to argue with him. But right now we are inside the museum, and I have to stick to the script.

“They’ve even posted a sign about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Of course, it was wrong from the start. Because for Poland it certainly wasn’t a good pact at all. But it gave the USSR a few years to arm itself, thanks to which fascism was defeated. But we’re supposed to give the impression that the carve-up of Poland was a myth. So we leave that sign out of our tours. It’s our silent boycott.

“I’ll tell you frankly, I don’t know what to think about the Poles. On the one hand, when we had the war with Russia here, you people helped us a lot. Trucks full of clothes and food kept arriving every day.

“But nobody harps on us as much as you people. Everyone else comes through here and listens with interest, but the Poles shout at me as if I were Stalin himself and had carved up Poland in person. And now they’re saying Poland is going to help rebuild the Stalin Museum as the Museum of the Fight against Communism. If that’s true, all Gori will come to a standstill. Because we have nothing here except for our Stalin.”

stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta stalinvesta

The introductory motto of the exhibition is: “Man does not live forever. I also die. What will be the judgment of the people and of history about me? There were a lot of mistakes, but were there were no achievements as well? The mistakes will of course be attributed to me. A large pile of garbage will be collected on my tomb, but the day will come, when the wind of history will implacably blow it away.”