ISSUE 4, August, 2007

SELLING STALIN

Will Lasky

Locals often don't understand the macabre fascination Soviet history holds for tourists. Meanwhile, the tourists themselves search for sympathetic senses of irony that may not exist in most countries directly impacted by communism.

The museum

The J. Stalin State Museum in Gori is a shrine to the late General Secretary who played a noteworthy role in the deaths of approximately 20 million Soviet citizens. Gela Naskidashvili, newly hired museum director, has taken notable steps to advertise the museum, such as creating a website replete with photographs and information on other tourist sites in and around Gori. Still many long time ex-patriot residents of Tbilisi have never heard of the Stalin Museum, which is only an hour's drive from the capitol.

The museum itself is a solemn affair, lined with arched promenades, vaguely reminiscent of a monastery. Its staff doesn't seem to be aware of the ironies associated with celebrating a cruel Soviet despot in one of the first countries to break from the Soviet Union. Inside, a red carpet leading up a flight of stairs culminates in a pristine, white statue of Stalin greeting incoming tourists. Above the statue, dim light filters through a blue stained glass window. A security guard barks something from the guard room. Nowhere in the museum is there mention of the purges or the Ukrainian starvation or life in the Gulag.


Mementos from Joseph Stalin still remain in Georgia (Steven weinberg)

The museum contains hundreds of artifacts and art works. Stalin's boots, jacket and pipe are all here hunkered between numerous oil paintings and laudatory correspondence from Roosevelt and Churchill. Perhaps the most incredible attraction the museum offers is one of 16 existing Stalin death masks. The mask rests in a circular, dimly lit atrium, and the face itself appears small and thin - serene.

Conversely, one of the Stalin Museum's chief selling points is its total lack of perspective. One experiences the guilty voyeurism of viewing history unexamined, horrors unacknowledged, and the lingering echoes of raw Soviet propaganda transplanted into the 21st Century. Naskedashvili, the museum's director, maintains the museum's neutrality. "A museum isn't for politics. A museum is a museum," he said.

Despite the fact that tour guide Ketino Akhobardze's grandfather died in the Gulag, she hesitates to judge Stalin. "Good, bad, it is difficult to judge. He was very interesting," she said, adding in regards to the purges, "It is history. How can I hate it?"

According to the director, the number of foreign tourists coming to the museum has doubled over the past year. However the vast majority of visitors are still local; approximately 5000 foreign tourists came in 2006 out of an estimated 30,000 tourists that visited the museum last year.

According to Naskidashvili, the net revenue from tourism is barely enough money to fix up the place. While ticket prices for foreigners are 15 lari, native Georgians officially pay three lari a head.

The Stalin museum has a modest assortment of souvenirs, including busts, pipes, and volumes of the dictator's poetry, but in Gori business doesn't commonly utilize the Soviet kitsch theme. Local restaurants offer English signage, but, perhaps for good reason, shy away from selling souvenirs or using Stalin as an overt marketing motif. The loud indifference of locals greets newly arrived tourists. Janet Boddy, an American tourist, was "surprised" when no one from the museum greeted their tour bus. "I was very surprised that when we got off the bus today, there weren't people ready to sign you up for a tour and show you around."

A Love - hate relationship

Dr. Giorgi Nizharadze is a social psychologist working for the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation. He says that Stalin remains for some a subject of pride.

"Georgians loved the Soviet Union because of Stalin. As soon as he died, the belief in the Soviet Union vanished," Nizharadze said, adding that identification with dictators is a common scenario in which hate is converted into love. While Nizharadze believes that the majority of Georgians don't miss the Soviet Union, he says that it is often hard for them to accurately assess a communist past in which everyone participated. "It was considered that 'it was not me' who made the communist choice. It was Russia'sresponsibility," Nizharadze said.


Veterans from the great patriotic war, as wwii
was known in the soviet union, still met on
the soviet holiday may 9 to celebrate victory
over fascism. (Steven weinberg)

 

Richard Delaney and Daniel Multon are local developers from the UK who crave experience of sites associated with Soviet history. They think that such sites could easily market themselves to western audiences. Accordingly, they want to see more old Soviet factories, sanatoriums, and remnants of Soviet military and leisure history. "We found it fascinating that these things still exist," said Richard Delaney, director of First Brokerage in Tbilisi.

The tragic ironies of Soviet history fascinate Daniel Multon, project delivery director at GRDC. When he was in Rustavi, locals spoke proudly of the town's Soviet industrial history in one breath and its famous cancer treatment center in the next. "I think Georgians are ignoring it," said Multon, speaking of the Soviet legacy. "You could market it so well. You could go see the old tank battle ground and be given a tank shell," he said.

Yet while Georgia profits off its Soviet past, it appears to do so accidentally, as if it isn't willing to fully comprehend the multiple avenues of irony Soviet history represents for western tourists. Iago Bibileishvili co-owns the recently opened KGB cafe in the old town. The café, whose slogans are "Still working," and "We're watching you," has made a modest success of selling KGB shirts and mugs. Their novelty menu boasts a variety of Soviet flavors, ranging from "Gulagi" (Buckwheat cutlet) to Religion is the Opium of the People (Beefsteaks with wine sauce) to Comrade Chegevara (steak). Still, Bibileishvili himself considers the style of the cafe more an example of history than tongue-in-cheek marketing. Of the Soviet theme, he said, "we don't use it ironically. We do as it was. With us we show how it was during the Soviet Union." While the café has only been open for nine months, Bibileishvili says that it has so far been a success. When asked about the prospect of Soviet history tours, Bibileishvili, like many working in the tourism industry, stressed the importance of marketing the whole Georgia. "In principle Georgia has a rich tradition. They can be interested in Georgian history, and Stalin is also Georgian," he said.

Meanwhile Delaney and Multon have something very specific in mind of what they want to see next. They anxiously wait for the chance to inspect more old factories, sanatoriums, and perhaps, if they are lucky, the old Soviet anthrax plant that, rumor has it, exists somewhere in Tbilisi. "From a photographer's point of view, I find the old, crumbling factories very post-apocalyptic," said Delaney, adding, "They think tourists want more of what you read in the Lonely Planet guides."

Reverence for the past vs. the catharsis of laughter

From the look of it, Delaney is right: Soviet history is largely ignored as a product in Georgia. But while guide books do advertise the Stalin Museum, it is anything but an ordinary tourist attraction. The glaring question is how to market a product that people conceive of in such varying ways, from an object of hate, to regret, to reverence, to one of irony and humor.

Tamuna Gvaberidze, a local entrepreneur, would never consider using a Soviet Kitsch motif at her Mozart Chocolates shop slated to open in September. Her great grandfather was persecuted as a Kulak during the purges and died in a Siberian labor camp. She voices a commonly held perspective, saying that anyone that could love Stalin must be crazy. "I don't want to talk about Stalin because I don't respect this person," she said.

Meanwhile, other former Soviet republics have cashed in on their communist legacy. In Lithuania, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to a new Soviet theme park. Stalin World is the creation of Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian businessman. The park houses numerous Lenin and Stalin monuments within a perimeter of barbwire. Loudspeakers blasting Soviet slogans and cold borscht for sale compliment the general tongue-in-cheek gulag atmosphere. Irony appears to be the anti-Soviet theme parks main marketing tool. "People can come here and joke about these grim statues. This means that Lithuania is no longer afraid of communism," said Malinauskas in a May 2006 article published by the Associated Press.

Buying a piece of history

In Tbilisi, at the city's unofficial souvenir market, selling hard won Soviet medals isn't a question of marketing - it's a matter of survival. Vladimer Mgebrishvili is a former Red Army captain trying to eek out a living on a pension of 200 lari a month. He says that he is not embarrassed to sell his medals and understands why westerners his age might be interested doing business with him. "They want a piece of the Cold War to bring home with them," he said. When Mgebrishvili remembers the Soviet Union, he doesn't miss Stalin, but rather a time when life was easier. "Everything was free then and in a democracy you have to pay," he said.

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