A Tragical Incident mit ze glorious Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin keeping watch over the people of Gori
Josef Stalin keeping watch over the people of Gori (Photo: B Spender)

It is a part of the journalist’s job that they occasionally get to meet and mix with world leaders. In some cases such as Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, it is a privilege, perhaps even a life-changing experience. The majority, though, are as impressive as a wet tea towel, politicians of seering personal ambition and a thin veneer of charm.

As a sports writer I haven’t come into contact with too many. I was fortunate to spend a few days in the company of Mandela during his 1993 election campaign. And that was certainly a privilege.

Of the other sort, I haven’t suffered overly although I am grateful to a colleague from The Times some years back who stayed my arm at the Cricket Writers’ Dinner as I was lining up the former British Prime Minister John Major with a bread roll who was making some fatuous comment about how we could help get cricket back into schools.

This from a Prime Minister who spent seven years continuing the short-sighted Margaret Thatcher policy of flogging off school playing fields.

Anyway, Major was about as bad as it had got for me – until I met Stalin.

Okay, so I didn’t actually meet Stalin, have a face to face, a natter about the weather in Siberia and so on. But it sure damn felt like it.

The students at GIPA. Judith Prescott is third from the right.
The students at GIPA. Judith Prescott is third from the right.

It happened in April 2010 when I was sent by Radio France International to run a radio journalism course at GIPA, the journalism school in the Georgian capital Tblisi.

It was a blast. Twenty students of which 17 were stunningly beautiful young ladies. No disrespect to Zura, Rashed and Azer but they should take it as a compliment that I can even remember their names.

Outside the classroom, there was an opportunity to learn something about the city and the country, once the garden of the Soviet Empire. I kept thinking Kent although there wasn’t much in common between them.

One quiet Sunday, my colleague Judith Prescott and I decided to take a trip to the city of Gori which is where Stalin was born.

The trip there was an event in itself. We had been told to go to the bus station which was next to the train station – it wasn’t.

It was a bus ride from the train station, a hairy knuckle-grip through the back streets of Tblisi in an overcrowded  minibus. It was just one occasion on that trip to Georgia when I had flashbacks to my times in Durban and Harare.

When we got to the bus station for the 65-kilometre trip to Gori we had to change minibus – and wait. They don’t have set departure times; they just go when they fill up. The minutes ticked by, waiting and chatting and then waiting in silence.

Stalin's statue was removed just after our visit in 2010
Stalin’s statue was removed just after our visit in 2010 (Photo: B Spender)

Half an hour later we were off for knuckle-ride part two, this time at breakneck speed as the rain began to come down.

Judith began to fret as the ladies next to her were crossing themselves from start to finish.

“They think we’re going to crash,” she whispered in her clipped Scouser accent. “He’s driving like a nutter.”

I decided to close my eyes and kip on the basis that it was the best way not to be worried about the way the minibus was slithering on the wet road.

By the time we got there, the rain was still falling lightly. There was little colour in the clothes or in the buildings, just shades of grey. Eldery women shuffled along in widows’ weeds; some looked up at me, suprised perhaps to see a bearded man who was not a priest.

And so we went in search of Stalin.

He was pretty easy to find. A huge statue of him stood in one of the main squares before a stunning classical building which we assumed was the museum. It was in fact the local job centre aka the Town Hall.

Lenin and Stalin - the fathers of the Revolution and the USSR
Lenin and Stalin – the fathers of the Revolution and the USSR

It was odd to see such a statue to Stalin given the long litany of his crimes against humanity. At the time there was a big debate going on as to whether he should be allowed to stand in the square, those against him wanting the statue moved to his museum.

It is odd, though, that although he was no less an evil bastard than Adolf Hitler, he is not reviled in the same way. Maybe because he joined the Allies in WW2 so in a way he was “our” evil bastard.

The British have something similar. They insist on keeping a statue of another mass murderer Oliver Cromwell in front of the Palace of Westminster. “A great Parliamentarian,” they claim, ignoring his penchant for slaughter.

Fuelled perhaps by the anti-Russian feeling churned up by the short but gruesome war in 2008, the statue was, in fact, removed shortly after our visit. But, with President Mikheil Saakashvili now out of power, he is set to be reinstated.

We found the museum, paid our money and, as we were the only people in there – perhaps the only people to visit all week – we were told we would be given a private tour.

Our guide Nina – all the women in Georgia appear to be called Nino – was in the Soviet style of dates and parrot fashion machine gun delivery. Dates, names, more dates, stopping at every picture and artefact. No gentle drift. No discussion or conversation.

Stalin's death mask - in the museum at Gori (Photo: B Spender)
Stalin’s death mask – in the museum at Gori (Photo: B Spender)

At one point, she stopped at a picture of six of Stalin’s lieutenants that he had had murdered in the belief (incorrect as it turned out) that they were plotting against him, swept a grey stand of hair behind her ear and puffed out her considerable chest.

“A very tragical incident in ze glorious history of ze Soviet Republic,” she said, ever so slightly giving away her own feelings about the post-Soviet Georgia.

There wasn’t much in the museum except rooms and rooms of photographs. His desk was there and a half-smoked cigar…and his death mask. Always strange to see a death mask.

Outside, though, were the real treasures. First the house where he was born.  A tiny one-room place, that has been preserved and turned almost into a temple. The family lived in the one room with Josef’s father, a violent drinker, using the basement for his work.  How many shoes did he cobble while the little fellow was playing upstairs on the porch?

This is allegedly the house where Ioseb Yugashvili was born in 1878. Stalin's father was a cobbler who worked in the basement.
This is allegedly the house where Ioseb Yugashvili was born in 1878. Stalin’s father was a cobbler who worked in the basement.

The room had a small sink, little stove and a bed.

“Zis is ze bed vere Stalin vas born,” said Nino.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It was still quite chilling to imagine it might have been.

...and this is THE bed where little Joe was born, so they say. The family only had the one room upstairs - enough to turn anyone into a communist
…and this is THE bed where little Joe was born, so they say. The family only had the one room upstairs – enough to turn anyone into a communist

There was also Stalin’s private railway carriage. It seems he did not like to fly so he travelled around the USSR in his train. It was rather pleasant. Rooms for a couple of his staff and then his own quarters, very humble. A small bedroom with a spartan bathroom en suite – I took a moment to have an imaginary shave in his mirror – and a small board room.

It was here that I got my biggest thrill – if you can call it that.

The guide waved at me. Not at Judith but at me, a man. Nino had barely looked at Judith let alone spoken to her. I am not sure she wanted a woman to experience this moment. Perhaps it wasn’t apporopriate.

“Zis is Stalin’s armchair vere he vould relax… vhy don’t you try it?”

And she ushered me towards it.

Now, I am not entirely sure of protocol in museums around the world but I am pretty certain that the visitors to the Louvre, say, or the V&A are not usually invited to park their backsides on historic pieces of furniture.

Even tyrants need their comfy chair
Even tyrants need their comfy chair

For a moment I thought I should decline in deference to history. Then I thought sod it, how many other chances am I going to get in life to sit in the chair of one of the leading architects of 20th century political history – and a mass murderer to boot?

So I shuffled around the boardroom table and eased myself into the comfy chair; it was firm, not one of those that you sink into, but it was also extremely comfortable.

I leant back and allowed my hands to grip the armrests. I closed my eyes and imagined myself back 60 years, 70 years. Me and my good friend Josef enjoying a glass of vodka and working out how to improve the functionality of the gulags and increase worker productivity on the next five-year agricultural plan.

The Gulags, the tragical incidents…a cold sweat came over me and I leapt up.

A minute was more than enough in that chair.

©Barney Spender 2013

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