GORI, Republic of Georgia — We live in a complicated world.
That’s never been more evident to me than in this country and in this city, where the ruthless Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is still honored as a hometown hero.
The Soviet Union fell 30 years ago this December. Stalin has been dead for 68 years. Georgia, a former Soviet socialist republic, is now a West-leaning country that sent troops to fight alongside the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq and has aspirations to join the European Union.
But the Joseph Stalin State Museum remains very much a shrine to its namesake, from the statue out front to the souvenir shop where you can buy T-shirts, buttons, refrigerator magnets and wine bottles bearing the likeness of the dictator who sent a million or more of his countrymen to their deaths as he turned the Soviet empire into a police state.
Wine bottles bearing the likeness of the dictator whosent a million or more of his countrymen to their deaths are sold in the gift shop at the Joseph Stalin State Museum. Mark Brown / Sun-Times
Stalin was still Joseph Dzughashvili when he was growing up here. Stalin is a pseudonym he adopted. It translates to man of steel.
The museum has a photo of him in the school choir, in case you never thought of Stalin as a choirboy.
Our driver Edgar tells us almost apologetically that older Georgians still revere Stalin as the war hero who beat Hitler and built the Soviet Union into a great power. The tour guide brushes off the Great Terror as 800,000 people Stalin “punished.” She says they were “mostly intellectuals,” as though that might make them count less.
Later, we visit the museum’s newest addition, a mockup of a Siberian prison cell and interrogation room. The tour finishes with a more upbeat walk through Stalin’s air-conditioned private rail car. He was afraid of flying.
I’m here as a tourist, drawn by the food and wine, the rugged beauty of the Caucasus Mountains, the allure of the Black Sea and remnants of an ancient civilization unknown to me before this trip.
It’s a beautiful, friendly, interesting place. Soon after I return home, I’m sure I’ll head to Aragvi Georgian Bakery and Restaurant in Buffalo Grove to compare its versions of the local specialties, khachapuri and khinkali.
If you’d asked six months ago, I might have said Georgia’s main contribution to the people of Chicago was University of Illinois basketball player Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who unfortunately decided to turn pro after the Fighting Illini were prematurely ousted from last season’s NCAA tournament.
Even now, my knowledge of Georgia is only enough to be dangerous, tidbits from reading and conversations with drivers, guides and hosts.
But a person can’t visit a place like this without having larger thoughts about the transitory nature of nations and the endurance of the tribes of man. This is a land that has been overrun by everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan. It’s found itself under the thumb of the Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, Persians and Russians, first the czars and later the communists. Each tried to erase that which came before.
Yet a Georgian national identity and spirit somehow endured, leaving Georgia to begin anew even under the threat of Russia’s Vladimir Putin possibly trying to put the band back together again.
Putin bombed Gori in 2008 during a brief war between Georgia and Russia to which most Americans paid no attention.
There’s a major street in the capital Tbilisi named after former President George W. Bush, part of a mutual courtship that might have soured somewhat when the United States could do nothing to prevent the bombing or stop Russia from occupying two breakaway Georgian territories in the name of defending the local populace.
A cab driver in seaside Batumi proudly told us he was in the Georgian army and worked with American troops in Afghanistan. I asked what he thought about the American pullout, but the language barrier got in the way. An English-language paper worries the U.S. embarrassment in Afghanistan could make Americans less likely to stick up for allies such as Georgia should the need arise.
Just what a complicated world we live in has never been more clear to me than it was when visiting the city where Joseph Stalin grew up. This bust at the Joseph Stalin State Museum in Gori is just one symbol of how revered the ruthless Soviet dictator remains even now, 68 years after his death.Mark Brown / Sun-Times
The most exciting part of the trip was the drive along the Georgian Military Highway through the spectacular Caucasus toward the Russian border.
The twisting, bumpy, two-lane road would be a challenge under any circumstances but doubly so with the miles-long backup of semi-trailer trucks parked at roadside, awaiting their chance to cross into Russia. Most are actually parked on the narrow highway itself, which means drivers must play a high-speed game of chicken with oncoming traffic to get past.
Oh, and cattle roam freely — and unpredictably — on all of Georgia’s roads, grazing alongside and even in the median of the rare four-lane highways.
You’d think Georgia would build a better road to what is perhaps its greatest tourist attraction. Then, you remember the road leads to Russia — and it runs both ways.
The world is already complicated enough for Georgia.