Essay from Meg Freer

Finding Traces of Stalin

A potentially friendly cab driver suddenly turned silent when I showed him the address: 7 Kaspi St. He drove to the neighborhood, gestured brusquely down the street, and left. My companion and I had trouble determining if we were even on the right street, as street names are sometimes printed on the sides of buildings in Cyrillic or on hard-to-find street signs. We asked directions of several people, including a neighborhood delivery truck driver, but everyone shrugged and appeared not to know the place.

Fifty kilometres from Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, is Gori, a picturesque city at the
confluence of rivers, surrounded by mountains. Gori’s claim to fame is that Joseph Stalin was born and went to school here. Many people don’t realize that Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili (იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი in Georgian), otherwise known as Josef Stalin, was born in Georgia and began revolutionary activities here after abandoning theological studies. Ironically, Stalin enjoyed neither the process of remembering his childhood nor coming back to visit Gori in later years. Busloads of summer tourists visit, though. Although Georgians, understandably, have an uneasy tolerance of Stalin’s fame, the desire to preserve his memory is strong here.

At the centre of town: Stalin Square, Stalin Avenue, the Stalin Museum and a huge poster of his head dominating the upstairs window of a storefront.

Past the peddler selling Stalin novelties on the museum grounds are two interesting things.

One is Stalin’s personal, armored railroad carriage, unrestored, complete with Venetian glass mirrors, carved wooden furniture, a bathtub and toilet, and an office with a phone, table and sofa.

The other is his family’s original house, with intricate woodwork, where Stalin was born into a shoemaker’s family and lived until age four. The family lived above the ground-floor cobbler’s shop. It is now protected by a columned structure with golden yellow stained glass in the roof accented by a hammer-and-sickle design in the corners.

Stalin Family Home, Stalin Museum, Gori

The truly fascinating artifacts are not in Gori, however, but back in Tbilisi. Stalin’s samizdat (underground) printing press is literally underground, 15 metres beneath an old house in the Avlabari district of Tbilisi, a somewhat decrepit neighborhood of bleak apartment blocks and car repair garages.

No. 7 Kaspi St. is now an unofficial museum of early Communism. A few of us attending the 2017 Summer Literary Seminars in Tbilisi agreed to meet at this house one morning. We all got lost on the dusty streets before finally finding each other and the house, whose iron door has a hammer and sickle on it, and were treated to a full tour by none other than the 78 yearold chairman of the Georgian Communist Party, Zhiuli Sikhmashvili.

Energetic and lively, he was happy to show us around the donation-funded museum and talk to us in broken English. Luckily, three people from Poland who spoke both Russian and English showed up soon after we did and were able to translate Sikhmashvili’s Russian so that we got a much more informative tour than we would have otherwise.

The office, crowded with memorabilia and books, had a desk with a pale yellow rotary phone balanced on a stack of papers.

Portraits of revolutionaries working at the printing press, newspapers such as Pravda with Lenin on the front cover, flags, photos and documents occupied several rooms.

In the yard is a replica of the house Stalin was born in, its rooms reconstructed with original furnishings, including a small platen press for handbills and small posters.

But the main purpose and focus of this site is the existence of the large, underground printing press. Between 1903 and 1906 thousands of flyers, pamphlets and newspapers were printed at this location, in Russian, Georgian, Azeri and Armenian.

A large printing press made in Germany in 1893 had been imported from Baku, then
disassembled and its parts lowered fifteen metres down a well shaft hidden by a small shed in the yard. At the bottom, a side tunnel of about four metres was dug to connect to another shaft with a ladder up to the underground cellar where the printing press would be. There, the press was reassembled. Not a job for those with claustrophobia!

The house had to look “normal”, so two women lived on the first floor and kept a few chickens in the yard. In case of potential danger, a hidden electric alarm bell would alert those underground. The young Bolsheviks worked in shifts, sending completed material in a bucket up the shaft to the house. Flyers would be hidden in street sellers’ carts, taken to the railway station, and from there would travel to the Caucasus region and beyond.

Down a rusty spiral staircase (constructed for the museum) is a dank cellar lit only by a few lightbulbs, making photography tricky. The press itself is quite rusted, because the cellar flooded a few years ago. The bucket, rope and ladder are still there in their shafts.

Visitors have left coins on the flat surfaces of the press. Leaving coins there seems more like a show of respect for historical objects than the equivalent of tossing a coin into a fountain. In 1906 the police raided the house, but in 1937 Stalin and Beria—the brutal Georgian chief of the USSR Secret Police—reopened the house as a museum. An official, government-funded museum until 2012, it apparently also contains the offices of the current Georgian Communist Party. The day we visited, other people were just sitting outside, reading or writing.

We were careful to remain neutral in our comments so as not to offend our host, while
managing to convey appreciation for the history displayed there. We left a donation in thanks for receiving a history lesson and a tour of Communism seen through Georgian eyes.

2 thoughts on “Essay from Meg Freer

  1. Extremely interesting travelogue. Local boy makes it big — REALLY big. The hidden printing press is fascinating. This made me look up Stalin whom I had not been made so intrigued by before this article. Surprisingly to me, he was a poet while in Seminary and believed words could transform the world, which is also probably why he became such an incredible censor once in absolute power.

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