Zhana’s Soviet Tour of Gori (in a Lada) is her way of counteracting the way Stalin is portrayed in Gori’s Stalin Museum. Our group has already toured the museum with a strict guide who told us in true Soviet style “I am your guide and you must follow me. You have no choice.”
The Stalin Museum
Stalin was born in Gori and the museum focuses on the man, his family, education and personal life. At the end of the tour, the guide pointed out a small room down a dark flight of stairs. Added in 2010, this almost amateurish display (compared to the carefully curated rooms upstairs) is all there is informing visitors of the atrocities Stalin committed.
As one reviewer puts it “It felt strange to visit a shrine to one of the worst mass murderers in history.” We were given only a few minutes to explore this part ourselves.
Why Zhana started her Gori Tours
Zhana, who grew up in Gori, started her tours “because he was a tyrant” and wanted to show a different side to Stalin and Soviet times. She runs the ‘Gori Free Walking Tour’ and a ‘Soviet Tour of Gori’. We’re doing the latter and will be driven in cars from the Soviet era.
As there are nine of us, including Zhana, she has arranged for three soviet cars to take us around.
Our transport: Two Ladas and a Volga
In front of us is a 1986 silver Lada, a 1982 orange Lada and a 1960 blue Volga. The Ladas were cars made for general use while the Volga was a government car, used by officials. It is more spacious, and luxurious. We take turns in each of the cars, excited to notice features from cars of our childhood. There are little triangle windows in front, winding handles to open the windows, a gear stick that needs careful attention and occasionally sticks. It’s a step back in time.
Heading out of Gori
Zhana directs the drivers to a village on the outskirts of Gori. We turn onto a rough dirt road. The Ladas struggle as they negotiate the dips and ruts in the road. I fear for their undercarriages which occasionally scrape the ground beneath my feet.
Our destination is an abandoned yard behind what we’re told is an administrative building. In 2010, unannounced and in the dead of night, a 6m statue of Stalin was removed from Gori’s city centre. The night time removal prevented Stalin supporters from seeing the removal and stopping the statue being taken away.
A Statue of Stalin
We enter the yard through a back entry, crossing an area of knee-high weeds and grass. In a partially paved area, where weeds push up through the concrete joints, lies the statue. Lonely and abandoned, it’s face down on the concrete.
“Even locals don’t know where this statue is”, Zhana tells us. She explains that Georgians have a complicated relationship with Stalin and Soviet times. Some still revere him and will put flowers on statues of Stalin.
One of the drivers becomes emotional when he sees the statue. He says that Stalin was important and doesn’t deserve this. Another adds that while he is not a Stalinist, Stalin was a big figure and doesn’t deserve to be in this position.
Leaving Stalin to contemplate his fate, we drive down a steep dirt track. I’m in the comfortable Volga now, and we rock and bounce down the hill. The silver Lada struggles. It pulls up on the side of the road. We watch as the driver jacks the car up, hoping it’s nothing serious. He leans under the car, clicks the muffler back in place, claps his hands and we drive on.
The Volga driver tends to stay apart from the others who ask about our backgrounds. In turn they tell us a little about themselves. One is an historian and economist with two degrees. He used to work in government. He enjoys driving his car for these tours as he likes meeting people and the cultural exchange. The other driver was an engineer by profession. What goes unsaid, but is assumed is that they both lost their jobs when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The drivers belong to a Facebook Group of owners of old cars. They do their own car maintenance.
Murals with a Message
Two murals by different artists decorate a white wall peppered with bullet holes from the 2008 Russian occupation. The caption of one reads “The Price of Independence.” It depicts a map of Georgia with a plane dropping bombs onto the country.
In the bottom right hand corner of the wall, the other mural shows a man and girl standing behind a barbed wire fence. She holds a pair of scissors. An apple tree grows on the other side of the fence. The artwork highlights a silent invasion as Russia gradually moves the fence line taking more and more land by stealth.
Next, we stop at a colourful wall decorated with 1001 ceramic tiles. Each tile depicts something of Georgian history or culture. Zhana encourages us to pick out our favourites. I like the simple blue and white designs. There are plenty of crosses. Lions which are on the coat of arms of Georgia feature heavily too.
The Memorial of Georgian War Heroes
The Volga gear slips in the middle of an intersection. No one hassles. A car stops to let us pass. We get out to view a statue of man seated on a lion. He holds a sword draped with grapes. Zhana explains this as meaning “Kindness will always defeat cruelty.”
I’m almost moved to tears at the Memorial of Georgian War Heroes. Located in the shadow of Gori’s Fortress, the memorial was moved here in 2009 from a park in Tbilisi where it was installed in the 1980s.
Eight large hollow human figures sit in a circle. What gets me is that the figures are incomplete. They are missing limbs and, in some cases, faces. War is a terrible thing.
Why do the Soviet Tour of Gori?
Our lunch of Gori cutleti, a large sausage shaped rissole awaits, and we bid Zhana and our drivers farewell.
If you find yourself in Gori one day, you’d do well to join a Soviet Tour of Gori. Even if it’s only to go for a drive in a Lada!