Temuri Kunelauri has spent the past 27 years turning
his backyard into a tribute to Stalin. Why? "Because I love him."
Joseph Stalin is alive and well in the former Soviet
republic of Georgia
You couldn’t meet a
kinder woman than Venera Sujashvili. The owner of a simple homestay high in
the Caucasus Mountains, she fusses about her guests from first light until
late at night, making sure they are warm, well-fed and instructed in
backgammon. So what’s a portrait of one of the world’s greatest
mass-murderers doing on her dining room wall?
"Da, he was bad," she answers in Russian. "But he was part of my
life, and I want my children to understand."
Like many people in the
former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a chronically unstable country of five
million sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, Venera has a complicated
relationship with Stalin. Few deny his brutality – his victims are said to
number in the tens of millions – but many Georgians still take an odd pride
in their most famous son.
"Sure, he was an evil brute," their reasoning seems to go, "but he was
our evil brute, a Georgian who changed the world."
Stalin was born Iosif
Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in 1879, in the central Georgian town of Gori.
He adopted the name Stalin – "man of steel" – only in his thirties.
His mother was a pious
woman who took in washing to pay his way through the orthodox seminary in
Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Years later, when her son wielded more power
than any other human being, she still scolded him for being expelled and
failing to become a priest.
His cobbler father, on
the other hand, was a violent drunk who beat his family and died in an
alcohol-fuelled brawl. As a child Stalin’s face was ravaged by smallpox, and
an accident with a horse-drawn cart left one arm shorter than the other.
None of these obstacles –
not even Lenin’s warnings about the "brutish bully" – stopped Stalin taking
complete control of the Soviet Union. Historians are still arguing about how
many millions of people died as a result.
An estimated ten million
peasant farmers starved to death, including five million in the Ukraine
alone, during his forced collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s.
Millions served long sentences in Siberian labour camps and entire nations
were deported from their homelands.
However, he transformed a
backward, feudal state into a superpower and - despite a spectacularly
incompetent start - turned the tide of World War Two against the Nazis.
Stalin’s personality cult
was quietly dismantled after his death in 1953, but the party waited until
the 1960s to go public with his crimes. Monuments to the Great Leader
vanished by the thousands – including the world’s largest, a 17,000-tonne
statue in Prague which took a month and 800kg of explosives to demolish.
Each jacket button measured half a metre across.
But there are still a few
places where Stalin never went out of fashion. His birthplace is one of
them, perhaps because Gori without Stalin would amount to just a crumbling
fortress, abandoned Soviet-era factories and unemployed young men reeking of
chacha, the local spirit.
The bus to Gori –
helpfully identified by a portrait of Stalin on the destination board –
dropped me in the centre of town, where a 17-metre Stalin statue looms over
grand stone buildings and a deserted Stalin Square. In the distance, at the
far end of Stalin Avenue, a scaled-down classical temple appears to shelter
a precious relic.
On closer inspection, the
relic turns out to be a two-room hovel. An entire district was razed and
rebuilt to make this shack, Stalin’s birthplace, the town’s centrepiece. And
the building behind it, with carved stone ornaments and an Italian-style
bell tower, is Gori’s premier tourist attraction: The Stalin Museum.
The museum was eerily
quiet. I headed upstairs, past dozing security guards and a life-size marble
Stalin. Light filtered through church-like coloured glass onto a parquet
The school groups and
hectoring guides have gone, but otherwise little seems to have changed since
Brezhnev. Glass cases hold rows of documents, grainy photos and clippings
from Pravda; maps of Stalin’s exiles in Siberia and subsequent
escapes, his disguises and police mug shots, and an exaggerated account of
his role in the October Revolution.
Then a guide appeared and
ushered me into a room crowded with gifts from foreign dignitaries: Red
clogs from the Dutch communist party, a faded peace dove dedicated to
"Giuseppe Stalin", and a vase bearing one of the young Joseph’s execrable
poems: "Bloom, my nice country/Be glad Georgians homeland". At least that’s
what the translation said.
She also pointed out
Stalin’s desk and a piano on which his children played at the family’s Black
Sea dacha. She opened the lid to stroke the yellowed keys, then suddenly
buckled at the knees and sighed heavily. At first I thought she had been
overcome by emotion. But no.
"To speak English makes me very tired," she said.
But the creepiest room of
the museum is empty except for Stalin’s bronze death mask, resting on a
marble pillow and illuminated by a single dim spotlight. I was surprised the
head of a man who had terrorised millions could be so small and wizened. And
I'd had enough of the whole surreal experience.
Fortunately, an antidote
to the museum's one-eyed take on history is close at hand. When the guards
aren’t looking, you can sneak into the train carriage displayed outside and
plant your buttocks on Stalin’s private toilet. Take that, Uncle Joe.
At the nearby Museum of
Military Glory I asked the curator what the citizens of Gori make of Stalin
"They love him, but only the old people," she answered. "I don’t know why…
maybe he had many mistakes, but he was strong."
And after the bloodshed
and economic freefall since the demise of the Soviet Union, you could
forgive Georgians for admiring a leader who brought stability, kept a lid on
ethnic tensions and made them feel they were part of a superpower.
When Georgia regained its
independence in 1991, it spiralled into a series of chaotic civil wars
involving nationalists, separatists, Mafiosi, paramilitary groups, ethnic
minorities and a good dose of machismo.
Most disastrous of all
was the war in Abkhazia, a breakaway region on the country’s northern Black
Sea coast. Apart from the human cost – 10,000 dead and 200,000 refugees –
Georgia lost its best beaches, its tourist industry, its only rail link to
Russia and most of its exports. The result was a drop in living standards
that was drastic even by post-Soviet standards. Once the richest republic in
the Soviet Union, in the mid-1990s Georgia ranked as one of the poorest
countries on Earth.
Perhaps the most bizarre
stop on Georgia’s Stalin trail is a back yard in the bucolic village of
Akhal Sopeli, where one man has spent the past 27 years creating a garden
worthy of the Generalissimo.
Now 50, Temuri Kunelauri
is a quiet-spoken, self-effacing man with dark hair tied back in a ponytail,
streaks of silver in his beard and a fondness for loud shirts. His garden is
an odd place, a Stalinworld amusement park complete with swings, fairytale
characters and a rusting Ferris wheel. But the atmosphere as I tagged along
with a group of visiting pensioners was one of reverence. I felt I was
entering a holy site.
The group shuffled
through a maze of courtyards, with Soviet busts scowling from the
vegetation, tinkling fountains and red stars planted in the flowerbeds. A
missile had all but disappeared under ivy, and a sheepskin portrait of
Stalin was rotting away. Dampness and decay hung in the air.
I ran into Temuri in a
large, corrugated-iron hall, where he was showing a stream of elderly
visitors his collection of paintings, photographs and news clippings. We saw
Stalin in oils at the Kremlin, Stalin posing with Lenin, Stalin’s likeness
drawn entirely with words in the curling Georgian script. There were photos
with Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin pensive in the library, Stalin lighting
his pipe. Between a stuffed deer and an electric guitar, a bookshelf was
sagging under Stalin’s complete works.
Then Temuri led me
outside and flicked a switch on a control panel. With a grinding of gears
and clanking of metal, a golden statue rose from the greenery. It was –
surprise, surprise – Stalin, one hand tucked under his jacket, a beatific
smile under his moustache and a halo of light bulbs around his head.
One of the admirers
turned to me and said, "He was a very great man. There was no one else like
"Stalin took us from this," said another, miming a peasant digging a field,
"and left us with atomic weapons," pointing to the overgrown missile.
The final stop on our
tour was a vine-covered shed where, behind a black curtain in a velvet-lined
room, a wax model of Stalin lay in a coffin, half buried in red plastic
roses. An elderly gent whispered, "It took him eight months to make this. He
even sewed the uniform himself."
When I asked Temuri why
he had spent half his life turning his garden into a Stalin shrine, he
answered without a second’s hesitation: "Because I love him."
I waited for the smile, the crinkling of the eyes, some sign of irony. There
"I love him for the same reason you are here," Kunelauri continued. "Because
he was a genius."
The other visitors were pensioners, but I was heavily outnumbered. I opted
for a diplomatic response.
"Sure, he was a genius. But an evil genius."
Temuri smiled and turned back to the faithful gathered around the coffin.
"An amateur from New Zealand," he said.
Down at Tbilisi’s weekend
flea market, a stallholder who goes by the name of Tarzan – a reference to
the trees overhanging his stall rather than his physique – has the city’s
best selection of socialist memorabilia. Soviet uniforms, badges, banners
and, of course, mementoes of Joseph Stalin. A plaster bust, only slightly
chipped, for five lari (NZ$3). Or how about a bronze relief of the
Generalissimo on an imitation marble plaque for 50 lari? Instead, I bought
several packets of cigarettes sporting a wartime portrait of Stalin studying
a map, at 25 tetri (15 cents) each.
As Tarzan counted out my
change, I asked his opinion of the world’s most infamous Georgian.
"Every era has its heroes and villains," he shrugged, pointing to the
branches shedding autumn leaves around his stall.
"The leaves come and go, but they are always the same. And so it is with
First published in The New Zealand Listener in 2006. In mid-2010 the
statue of Stalin was removed from Gori's Stalin Square. Town authorities
were planning to replace it with a memorial to the disastrous 2008 war with
Russia, in which Gori was especially hard hit.
Where in the world?
The Republic of Georgia is located at the eastern end of the Black
Sea, sandwiched between Turkey, Russia and Azerbaijan.
It has an area of 70,000sq km - making it a quarter the size of New
Zealand, or roughly the size of Ireland - and a population close to 5 million.
Its people speak Georgian, which has a unique 2500-year-old
alphabet, and trace their ancestry back to Noah. It is one of the
world's oldest Christian countries, and its most famous - or
infamous - son is Joseph Stalin.
Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and
plunged almost immediately into civil war. Once the most prosperous
part of the USSR, state wages fell as low as US$5 a month in the
nation's post-independence chaos.
If this has story has you hungry for more about this intriguing
country, you can also read about Georgia's
extraordinary cemeteries, learn about a surprising
link between Georgia and New Zealand, or
see a few of my photos from Georgia.
A 17-metre statue of Georgia’s most
infamous son towers over Gori's Stalin Square
A marble-columned temple, like a shrine protecting
a holy relic, encloses the two-room hovel where Stalin was born
Inside Gori’s slightly surreal Stalin Museum
Georgia’s unique, 2500-year-old alphabet can make
identifying buses tricky - so it's lucky a picture of Stalin identifies
the bus to Gori
Vegetation reclaims a Stalin statue in Temuri
Kunelauri’s backyard theme park
A friendly stallholder known as Tarzan has the
best selection of socialist memorabilia at Tbilisi’s weekend fleamarket
– including this
plaque of Stalin for a mere 50 lari (NZ$30)