Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Day 220 – Revolutionary Ideas. (Georgia)

From Sighnaghi we drove West towards Gori, planning to spend an afternoon there before heading into Tblisi, the capital city. The main attraction in Gori city is the Stalin Museum in Stalin Square. Very proud of being the birth place of the great dictator, the city has been somewhat built around the square which houses not only the museum, but also his family house preserved under an open-sided brick building, and his personal bullet-proof, air-conditioned train carriage. The museum itself offered an interestingly narrow perspective on his life, referring to his policies as “revolutionary ideas” and focusing more on his exile and his personal life than the world wide trauma and devastation that he caused. Gifts from other world leaders, and photographs of Stalin in meetings with Lenin, Roosevelt, Churchill and Mao amongst others portrayed an image of a reasonable and fair leader. The only hint at the fact that perhaps everything had not been so lovely and clean was the reconstruction of the “Room of Repression”. A flick through the visitors’ book, despite only being able to read the messages in English, displayed some very vocal and controversial ideas; many of the museum’s viewers more than outraged at the silver-lined portrayal of Stalin’s life.

We were just about to head out of town when we decided to quickly check Couch Surfing (free wi-fi on the streets) and found that we had a positive reply from a guy in Gori. A quick phone call later we had a host, so decided to stay in town. Our host was fantastic, working around us at the last minute, providing us with a three bedroom house all to ourselves, treating us to beer, cheese and sausages, and sharing stories and jokes with us. He presented some intriguing sounding activities, so we decided to stay another day and see what Gori really had to offer.

Our first stop on the backstreets tour of Gori was the closed border between Georgia and the Russian-occupied, independent nation, recognised by the rest of the world as part of Georgia, South Ossetia. Only 26km away from the city centre, we saw remnants of buildings that were demolished and villages bombed to the ground in the 2008 war. Communities of small, cloned houses built by the EU have popped up all over the place, housing many refugees displaced by the war. As we drove, our guide pointed out a narrow road zigzagging up a steep hillside. The village that the road leads to is in Georgia, but the road to access it from the rest of the country, now goes through the Russian-occupied area, so in order to remain accessible from the rest of the country a new road had to be built. On the bright side, this village is still in the democratic and free country of Georgia, a country that built a new road to them in order for them not to be cut off.

The border itself, the first truly closed border any of us have ever actually seen, is marked by a khaki coloured wall following the line dividing Georgia. Armed guards manned the section at the road, warning us not to drive on any of the tracks running parallel to the border and ensuring we didn’t take any photos or wander off to explore anything we shouldn’t. From a few hundred metres away on the road, a gap between the trees and shells of buildings provided a clear view of Tskhinvali, the capital city of the area. Even from a distance on a sunny day, the bleakness and drabness of the city was all too apparent. Yet so close to Gori, how different life would be on the other side of that wall.

We asked our new friend whether there was anything else in or around the city that had to do with Stalin, other than the obvious which we had already ticked off. After a minute of thinking, he mentioned that there used to be a statue in the centre of town, but it was removed a couple of years ago. It’s far from public knowledge, but somehow he had an idea that it was now resting in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town. This sounded like a very unique experience!

Our host directed us off the main road, past a military base, into a complex of bombed out, dilapidated houses. Having never actually looked for it before, he asked for directions from a family who we can only assume were squatting in one of the buildings. The man pointed us behind the overgrown home to what I suppose would have been the back garden. We picked our way through brambles and nettles, climbed over some rubble, and realised the statue wasn’t there. We waited in the jungle of prickles while our guide climbed a concrete wall, returning a little while later, claiming to have uncovered the location of the statue. We followed him back through the brambles, nettles and rubble, and along a slightly more manageable track to a group of construction/demolition (it’s often hard to tell the difference) workers who pointed us to another bombed out shell.

Climbing in single file through more prickles and rubble, we emerged into the small room one at a time, each of us gasping in shock as our eyes fell upon the 3m tall statue of Stalin. In such a non-descript room, probably only 4m x 2m and completely open to the elements given the lack of windows or roof, the statue lay face-down in the weeds, taking up the majority of the space; a bizarrely humble position for the all too imposing monument. Considering how seemingly proud the city seems to be of this dictator, how peculiar that this statue just be left completely open to the elements, theft or vandalism. We heard that there is talk of the statue being reinstated in Stalin Square, but in the mean time, we are four of the very few people, possibly the only tourists, that will witness the magnificent monument in its current degrading position.

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