Gori's Stalin Monument (Martijn Munneke)
Article Words : Nick Easen | 01 April

Georgia: the country everyone thinks is a US state

Wanderlust uncovers Stalin's roots in the lesser known Georgian town of Gori, and discovers how anonymity can be a blessing and a curse for tourist destinations

Once you get over the assertion that Joseph Stalin probably helped butcher up to 60 million people, the museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia, is still worth visiting – if only for the kitsch factor. Even plastic Mao wristwatches and Ho Chi Minh T-shirts can’t match the tacky display of red star lighters and plaster busts modelled on the don of dictators himself.

Gori’s most famous son still struts in Bolshevik bronze in the town square. Defiantly, it’s probably the only place in the former Soviet Union that hasn’t torn down the edifice of his controversial moustachioed face. 

It’s a little-known fact that Stalin, born Josef Dzhugashvili, was Georgian. This Caucasian toughie adopted the surname Stalin, from the Russian word stal (steel), later in his career. 

However, his roots are alive in Gori. Today, proud elderly folk still toast the son of an illiterate peasant and a drunken cobbler with a glass of chacha (a fiery, grape vodka). The admiration here is summed up well by the words of Winston Churchill: “When Stalin assumed power… Russia had the plough; when he died...it had nuclear weapons.”

It is Stalin’s unknown past that keeps Gori and its museum off the tourist trail. Its dusty halls full of Communist-era memorabilia rarely echo with the sound of schoolchildren or international travellers. And gone are the sentimental Russians who once flooded the country: following disputes, the northern borders are closed to their tourist roubles.

In the travel business, obscurity is the worst fate a destination can suffer. It may be good for those of us who seek virgin territory, but for those whose livelihoods depend on tourism it’s the pits.

The fact is, anonymity is a killer for many developing destinations around the globe which have paltry sums of money to market themselves – just ask the guide at Stalin’s museum. On a bigger scale Georgia as a whole suffers the same fate. “People don’t know much about us,” says Saba Kiknadze, ex-chairman of Georgia’s tourism board. “Do a search on the internet and the US state comes up every time.” 

I did a quick check. He was right; Google brought up nothing about the stunning Caucasus mountain range being bigger than the European Alps or that the very first cultivation of vine and wine took place here 7,000 years ago. 

This anonymity is not lost on the country’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili: “Georgia is Europe’s best-kept secret,” he told me. “But we suffer from geography; many people have no idea where we are. Westerners think we are too far east.”

With the flag of St George waving at every street corner and with a multitude of churches overlooking Tbilisi’s growing legion of coffee shops, Georgia has a decidedly Western European feel. The vineyards in the Alazani Valley even cite references to their wine in the works of Homer and Apollonius. 

This is why the young, Columbia University-educated president has decided to act, pledging fervently to undo Stalin’s legacy in Georgia – he sees it as a way of alleviating poverty in his country. 

Georgia has now scrapped visa requirements for European tourists. The potholed roads are being upgraded with aid money, while the street and metro signs are being translated into English from the ancient kartuli script.

Whether you agree with it or not, tourism is still the well-trodden path out of obscurity for many destinations. The debate rages over which countries lose and gain in this route to development, but Saakashvili is level-headed about where the country is destined: “Things should move and evolve… the atmosphere here matters more than the monuments. And what matters most is to have human contact beyond Georgia.”

Nick Easen is a freelance journalist and former correspondent for CNN.