Stalin's Vestal Virgins

When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the centuries old tradition of keeping dancing bears 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.”

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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.”

Dissolving: Private code

Many years ago, I drove a car with automatic gear shift for the first time in Tbilisi. To avoid practicing the new technology in urban traffic, first Lloyd came to the wheel. He had long been driving at home, in the States, but never in Europe. At the first intersection, he asked: “What does that red board mean with the white line? Should we stop?” “No, Lloyd. You should not enter.” And then: “And that yellow diamond?” “Highway, we have the precedent to cross.” “How silly. They should rather put a STOP board in the crossing street.” After a couple of questions I asked, suspiciously: “Lloyd, how many pages is your Highway Code Book?” “Well, twenty or so. We do not have such silly boards. Everyone is expected to drive with a sober mind, and in doubtful cases they write it with text.”

In my experience, the drivers in Tbilisi are also led by Lloyd’s wise principles. They do not care much with traffic signs, they rather use private codes: beeps, blinking, hand signals, overshouting. And unique markings on their cars, which are not included in any Code Book, but provide more information about the owner and his intentions than any road sign.

Tbilisi, Jewish quarter. Either he had no money for the last seven, or that perfect license plate is reserved to the Messiah.

The enemy of my enemy

Property protection, Georgian style


Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918): A train from the Kakhetian wine region to Tbilisi

Goran Bregović’s music to Nana Dzhordzhadze’s შეყვარებული კულინარის 1001 რეცეპტი / Shekvarebuli kulinaris ataserti retsepti (A Chef in Love, 1996). The film, showing the cuisine and life of Tbilisi in the 1910s, can be seen with Russian dubbing here.

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The day of victory

In Noratus, next to the medieval Armenian cemetery, a small booth, where a cheerful old woman is selling thin coffee, knitted socks, T-shirts with the letters of the Armenian alphabet. Among the dolls in Armenian national costume, the national flag is stretched, with a T-shirt on it, displaying the photo of Nikol Pashinyan. I kneel down to take a picture of it. The woman smiles. “Dear little Nikol”, she caresses the photo with love.

“What are the expectations?” I ask our host at the Odzun church. “Ninety-nine percent that he’d be elected.” “And is it not possible that then the oligarchs will call on their followers to block the roads?” He just spats. “The oligarchs, they have long since fled with their money.”

After Karahunj, the Armenian Stonehenge, a car wash with a small eating house, a modern caravanserai, where both man and herd are cared for. A television on the wall, Nikol Pashinyan is holding his introductory speech in the parliament. He’s an unusual sight in suit, after the military outfit of the past weeks. “What is he saying?” I ask the barist. “That everything will be good”, he says enthusiastically.

We arrive to the rock monastery of Noravank around two o’clock in the afternoon. At the monastery’s gate, taxi drivers are squatting, families standing, nobody is moving, everyone is listening to the car radio. The applause just blows out when we get out of the bus. “Victory?” I ask them. “Victory”, they say with shining face. “What proportion?” “Fifty-three against forty-two.” We shake hands. From the radio arises the cheering of the crowd in Yerevan’s main square.